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Playwrights take center screen

When 33-year-old Doug Wright sat down to pen “Quills,” his play about the Marquis de Sade, Hollywood was the farthest thing from his mind. His intention was to write the most deranged and perverse show he could create.

Nonetheless, “this became the play that has given me the greatest access to the movie world,” says Wright, cur-rently adapting “Quills,” a meditation on censorship, for Fox Searchlight.

Earlier this year, the East Coast playwright made the rounds in Hollywood — where some studio executives in-quired whether the Marquis was a real person, and producers offered him work like adapting “You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again” for television.

Wright has plenty of company around the pool. Not since the advent of talking pictures, when Broadway mugs like George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind went to work for Paramount, have so many playwrights been romanced by Hollywood. The result is that a slew of talky, contempo stage plays are headed to the big screen.

Six major movie adaptations are hitting theaters over the next six months, including Miramax’s recently released version of Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room” and Dan Sullivan’s take on Jon Robin Baitz’s “The Substance of Fire.” Gramercy is distributing Herb Gardner’s own adaptation of his play “I’m Not Rappaport.”

Later this year, Castle Rock will release Richard Linklater’s version of Eric Bogosian’s “SubUrbia,” and Fine Line Features is opening Sharman Macdonald’s play “The Winter Guest” stateside as well as taking Joe Mantello’s adaptation of Terrence McNally’s “Love! Valour! Compassion!” to the Sundance Film Festival before releasing the film in the spring. That film, made for less than $3 million, retains much of the male nudity in the play.

“After test screenings in Los Angeles and Dallas this fall, what we felt we had was a gay ‘Big Chill,’ ” says Fine Line executive VP Jonathan Weisgal.

The Geffen connection

One catalyst for movie people chasing talky legit fare is L.A.’s new nonprof theater, the Geffen Playhouse. The star-studded opening night in October for “Quills” at the Geffen prompted several movie stars to inquire about the Searchlight movie, even though the central character of de Sade (assayed by Howard Hesseman in L.A.) ap-pears totally naked for much of the play.

“The Geffen definitely helps raise the profile at the studios for a play,” says Fox Searchlight president Lindsay Law, the former New York theater producer who optioned “Quills” before its West Coast legit debut.

“After the Geffen run, actors’ agents knew about our project in a way they didn’t before,” says Law.

“It’s accessible geographically for directors and studio executives, and I think people who might not attend the theater are coming here because of the Geffen imprimatur,” says Gilbert Cates, the producing director of the former Westwood Playhouse, which UCLA renamed in recognition of a $5 million grant from David Geffen.

Spielberg’s moves

Geffen’s DreamWorks partner, Steven Spielberg, entered into a collaboration with Playwrights Horizons — the Off Broadway theater that launched “The Heidi Chronicles” and “Driving Miss Daisy” — in 1994. That partnership has yet to yield a film, but the joint venture did provide funding for Nicky Silver’s play “Fit to Be Tied,” which Spielberg passed on earlier this year.

Long before any new Playwrights Horizon works grace the big screen, though, a batch of legit-film crossovers will determine whether these dialogue-intensive stories make for financially and creatively viable movies — or whether they are merely prestige items meant to tart up a specialized distributor’s release schedule.

McNally’s “Master Class,” Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia,” Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosenzweig” and Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” are all in various stages of pre-production.

Other possibilities

Producers are also sniffing around John Patrick Shanley’s “Psychopathia Sexualis,” which played the Mark Taper Forum in 1994 and is going up this winter at the Manhattan Theater Club with Jon Lovitz in the lead.

Another title sparking a lot of producer interest is Kenneth Lonergan’s account of precocious teenagers on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, “This Is Our Youth,” which the New Group staged at the Intar Theater.

Transferring plays and playwrights to the big screen comes with its own set of creative and financial challenges. Studio execs are seldom interested in greenlighting a movie simply on the basis of Off Broadway notices; cast and playwright must often work for scale — which is not to say the cast can be anonymous.

“No one will make your play unless you can get a star interested, and failing that you have to get a star director,” says Eric Bogosian. Oliver Stone directed the movie version of Bogosian’s play “Talk Radio” in 1988, and Linklater was the key component in getting Castle Rock to greenlight the upcoming adaptation of “SubUrbia.”

Star interest

When producer Edward R. Pressman (who shepherded “Talk Radio,” “Plenty” and “The Pirates of Penzance” to the big screen) and Ken Lipper (“City Hall”) were trying to set up “The Winter Guest,” they were able to gin up a $7 million budget by telling distributors that Alan Rickman would direct and Academy Award winner Emma Thompson was interested in starring opposite her mother, Phyllida Law, in the tale about two women deal-ing with loneliness on the bleak Scottish coast.

Even a star director may not be enough to get a film transfer greenlit because plays tend to be driven by ideas, not arresting images.

Thus reinventing plays for the screen can be a major challenge. Fine Line Features’ adaptation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America” has yet to get off the ground, even though Robert Altman was once attached. Altman wanted to shoot both parts of “Angels” — “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” — concurrently, then release them as two distinct movies.

Fine Line executives pressed for the two plays to be combined into one long film, and Altman walked.

Time dulled the theme

“SubUrbia” was met with a lot of skepticism from Hollywood because between the time Bogosian penned his tale of youthful alienation back in 1987 and its Lincoln Center run in 1994, a new wave of American independent films had rattled through the theaters that made his tale of Gen-Xers outside a 7-11 seem hackneyed.

“It was hard to explain that my play was not just another ‘Reality Bites’ or ‘Clerks,’ ” says Bogosian. “Even the Indian guy behind the counter looked derivative after ‘The Simpsons.’ ”

The male nudity in “Quills” will undoubtedly make for a tricky film adaptation. The film has not been cast. But if the project fails to coalesce, Wright would not be the first playwright with whom Hollywood has merely flirted.

Prickly playwrights

“They think of people who write plays as little boutiques, while Hollywood is in the department store busi-ness,” says Gurney. “They treat me as a prickly outsider who does not understand the movies.”

Gurney loses little sleep over whether his “Love Letters” will ever get made — or whether his screenplay of Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth” will ever get produced. He penned that script for Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler. And Jane Fonda was even mentioned as the lead.

“That was in 1975,” he adds, “And I’m still waiting for the call.”

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