Benioff a H'w'd tyro; ex-thesp Miller builds 'Velocity'

Novelists working in Hollywood have had a checkered history for sure. F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner hated it, while Michael Crichton might tell you otherwise.

Few successfully adapt their own works, let alone without considerable interference. Many are content to let others do the heavy adaptive lifting, as David Hare did for Michael Cunningham — to both esteemed authors’ benefit — when the former wrote the screenplay for the latter’s lit prize winner “The Hours.”

Two exceptions to such slippery rules found their big-screen efforts last year counted among 2002’s most noted releases.

But the backstories are very different: Director Rebecca Miller (“Personal Velocity”) turned to penning fiction only when her already launched film career seemed stalled. For “25th Hour” author David Benioff, success in Hollywood and the literary world came in one dizzy swoop — with his very first published novel.

A former actress (“Consenting Adults,” “Regarding Henry”), Miller won multiple Sundance awards for her bow as writer-director, 1995’s “Angela.” But that intense, hard-to-classify drama got just paltry theatrical release, and she says she subsequently saw “two funded features evaporate before my eyes for various reasons. I couldn’t wait around any longer to tell the stories I had in my head, so I decided to write fiction. You don’t need funding for that.”

The result, published last year by Grove Press under the same title, was a short story collection intimately investigating moments of great stress and change among seven widely disparate female characters.

While just partway through the writing process, she says, “Gary Winick at InDigEnt asked me if I had any material suitable for one of the mini-DV features he was producing. I suggested the stories, because none of the other screenplays I had already written were right for DV — let alone a 16-day schedule.”

The film version of “Personal Velocity” offers three concise miniatures: Kyra Sedgwick as a working-class mother newly on the run from her abusive spouse, Parker Posey as a Manhattan book editor suddenly flush with bestseller success and Fairuza Balk as a punky young Brooklynite who experiences an epiphany during a trauma-fleeing road trip.

That final segment was the only one put down on paper — after Miller knew she’d be adapting stories for the screen. “I wasn’t certain ‘Paula’ would be part of the film when I wrote it. But I had a feeling it would be. So (in literary form) it has less backstory, fewer locations.”

Given “Personal Velocity’s” warm reception — it’s even freed “Angela” from eight years of limbo in homevid unavailability — Miller is hoping her next feature won’t be nearly so long aborning — or her next published fiction. “I will make a film next summer, and after that I hope to write another book,” she says. “The two media feed each other.”

Hoping to say the same in the future is Benioff, who’s in a whirlwind of activity that commenced before his first novel hit the streets.

“25th Hour,” about a man’s last free day before his seven-year sentence for drug dealing begins, was purchased by Tobey Maguire’s production shingle Industry Entertainment while still in galleys. Critical acclaim and bestsellerdom confirmed the wisdom of that purchase.

Meanwhile, Benioff had moved to L.A., and out of social curiosity more than anything else asked to meet with the project’s producers, Maguire, Julia Chasman and Jon Kilik.

“We had a good meeting, and it was suggested that I write (the screenplay),” he says. “I think a lot of (the appeal) was that they knew they could get me to do it for a (Writers Guild of America) minimum. When the final decision had to be made, I figured that I could protect the material more if I wrote it myself.

“I’d heard all the nightmare stories about dealing with stupid executives,” Benioff recalls. “But I got really great notes from the beginning, and I really needed them. It took some getting used to — writing a novel is such a solitary endeavor, whereas with a screenplay you’re receiving feedback all along. My first draft was too much like a novel in screenplay form. Thanks to (the notes), my second draft was much better.”

Once Spike Lee came onboard as director and a fourth producer, he offered considerable input as Benioff honed the script.

What with the crime-cum-character drama talked up as an Oscar contender, particularly star Edward Norton, Benioff — who not so long ago was scraping along as a club bouncer, occasional magazine contributor and collector of publishers’ rejection letters — is very much Hollywood’s hot writer of the moment.

He’s developing an original thriller called “Stay” for David Fincher, and has been tapped to adapt George Pelecanos’ gritty gumshoe tale “Right as Rain” for the screen. On another plane entirely, he’s turning Homer’s “Iliad” into a Warner Bros. historical epic that’s earmarked for Brad Pitt and helmer Wolfgang Petersen.

As if that weren’t enough already, he’s completed a short-story collection, and has a contract with Viking for another, plus two novels. Can he continue to serve two mistresses, lit and pics?

“It’s been hard, timewise,” he says. “But I’m excited.”

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