Fleder scores on ‘Pinball’

NEW YORK — In the first deal for a screen adaptation of writer Jerzy Kosinski’s work since “Being There,” New Line has purchased the rights to Kosinski’s 1982 cult novel “Pinball” for Gary Fleder to direct.

Fleder is coming off the hit Morgan Freeman starrer “Kiss the Girls,” and the “Pinball” deal is his payoff for years of courting Kosinski’s widow, Kiki Kosinski. She had previously spurned other overtures to adapt the novels of her husband, who committed suicide in 1991.

The novel is about a rock superstar named Godard who has managed to become famous while keeping his identity a secret. A beautiful and wealthy woman becomes smitten with the anonymous artist, and sets out to find him, enlisting her aging musician boyfriend to help her. The book has elements of satire as well as eroticism and violence.

“The John Lennon tragedy inspired Jerzy to write this, about what happens when someone famous makes themselves accessible to their fans,” Fleder said. “It makes them vulnerable to those fans.”

College fan

Fleder said he has been fanatical about the book since reading it in his sophomore year at Boston University. “I used to fantasize about being able to get the rights,” he said. Fleder went on to grad school at USC, where he and screenwriting classmate Scott Rosenberg did the short film “Air Time,” which led to their feature debut, “Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead.” Although that film wasn’t a smash, Fleder likened the impact to what “Heathers” did for director Michael Lehman and scripter Daniel Waters.

“Both didn’t make any money, but the industry loved them and it created opportunities for us,” said Fleder, who moved on to “Kiss the Girls” while Rosenberg moved to script big-budget films like “Con Air.” It also put Fleder in position to lasso his passion project through a first-look deal he signed at New Line.

“I had been quietly investigating the rights for years, and it was all smoke and mirrors,” Fleder said. “Nobody knew who had the rights, even before Jerzy killed himself. Finally, Kiki got control of them but was very protective of the material.”

This might seem surprising, because Kosinski scripted the 1979 Peter Sellers starrer “Being There” and by all accounts had a great time in his only Hollywood experience. But Kiki Kosinski said she merely wanted to ensure the next one had the chance to be as good. And that required a filmmaker who understood that her husband’s prose couldn’t easily be transferred to the screen.

“My biggest concern was protecting the integrity of Jerzy’s work,” said Kosinski, who dropped her career as an advertising exec at J. Walter Thompson to type the manuscripts for her husband — 15 to 20 drafts each title.

“A lot of fans have called saying they wanted to turn Jerzy’s novels into films, but his books read very visually, and unless they’re aware that reading visually isn’t the same as being visual, you’d have a disaster on your hands. ‘Being There’ took 10 years, and that character had no inside, everything was on the surface and so it was easier to show him onscreen. Gary didn’t say the same thing as everybody else. He knew all of Jerzy’s work, and he understood what the book was about and how to adapt it. And believe me, I am charming but I can be a nasty cross examiner.”

‘Pinball’ wizards

Among those who’ve gotten the third degree over the years were Frank Sinatra, and every rock star from Mick Jagger to Sting and David Bowie, all of whom she said Kosinski heard from as “Pinball” fans interested in a movie adaptation.

Fleder is now circling the Chris Brancato-scripted Universal film “Thieves,” with Jennifer Lopez reportedly interested in starring, though the director said he has not yet committed to his next project. In the meantime, he’ll work with Kosinski to find the right screenwriter for “Pinball.”

“The most important thing is to find an A-caliber writer who really loves Kosinski’s work,” Fleder said, “someone who knows his voice and will honor his work and not just fulfill an assignment.”

Assisting in the deal were New Line’s Michael De Luca and Donna Langley, and Fleder’s ICM agents, Robert Newman and David Wirtschafter, and attorneys David Colden and Joel McCuin.

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