Roach catches ride for ‘Hitchhiker’s’

A correction was made to this article on Oct. 3, 2003.

ROACH COACH HELPS “GALAXY” HITCH RIDE WITH DISNEY: Before he died in 2001, author Douglas Adams spent 18 years with his thumb in the air, waiting to catch a ride on a Hollywood adaptation of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” He just got his wish posthumously, as Disney and Spyglass have greenlit a pic that shoots in London next year.

Adams’ tale of the intergalactic travels of Arthur Dent will be steered by director Garth Jennings and producer Nick Goldsmith, the British blurb duo known as Hammer & Tongs. But the greenlight is due to the producers who wouldn’t let Adams’ dream die with him. Chief among them was Jay Roach, who boarded “Hitchhiker’s Guide” as director six years ago in the pic’s first trip to Disney. Directors routinely fall in and out of love with projects. While Roach couldn’t square the time to direct because of his “Austin Powers” sequel and imminent plan to direct the “Meet the Parents” sequel, he was so active as producer that he was as responsible as longtime financier Spyglass in getting it made.

Roach said he couldn’t let go because he all but promised Adams he’d keep trying. It was an uphill battle, attests CAA’s Bob Bookman, who has a thick file of futile option deals he and Ed Victor made with numerous studios, dating back to 1982.

“I don’t like to cling to projects I know I won’t get to, but I probably put more work into this project than any other,” Roach said. “Six years with Douglas, and his spirit got under my skin. Disney put it in turnaround years ago after a regime change, and we shopped it to every studio and got turned down. Douglas did another draft on spec, but I’d gotten to the point where I told him I wasn’t sure it would happen. He died not long after. I felt an obligation and we were lucky to have Spyglass because they continued funding it and never wavered.”

Spyglass partners Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber said they invested enough extra capital in the orphaned film to make both of them sweat. But their execs Jonathan Glickman and Derek Evans were as bullish as Roach, who turned the tide by drafting “Chicken Run” scribe Karey Kirkpatrick for a rewrite that cured some of the script’s problems. Then they offered it to Spike Jonze, who nixed the job but suggested Jennings and Goldsmith. The duo injected a visual yet economical style that brought Disney back.

Said Roach: “I’d thought the best way was the most expensive, to make it like ‘Wizard of Oz.’ These guys found a playful and irreverent take that made me realize they were better for this than I am. It was like Terry Gilliam meets Pixar. Nina Jacobson and Dick Cook watched their presentation and said to go make the film. When we got in the elevator and the doors closed, all of us hugged and we actually danced in the grass outside the animation building. It was just the most wonderful feeling, in some way a more pure joy than if I was directing it.”

SCRIBE TAKES “HEART”: Lakeshore and Paramount set Anne Meredith to script “Piece of My Heart,” the Janis Joplin biopic that Renee Zellweger will topline next year. The job was irresistible for Meredith: Joplin is a hero, and the assignment showed she’s no longer viewed as the go-to-gal for gloom — a byproduct of the gritty abuse tale “A Bastard Out of Carolina.” Said Meredith: “I was courted for every film with a family in crisis and a child getting hurt. I was flattered and made a nice living, but I was writing such intense, dark stuff that I felt like I had a black cloud hanging over my apartment building. I had to let the sun peek through.” That desire led her to script “Delmore Can’t Dance,” a pic Scott Rudin is producing and Robert Benton will direct at Paramount. Her BWCS reps used the script to hook the Joplin job. “There was a fury and intelligence about her and she was famous for a short time that was so exciting and dangerous,” Meredith said. The Joplin pic competition takes a new turn: “The Gospel According to Janis,” the rival pic being produced by Peter Newman and William Haney, has “Wayne’s World” helmer Penelope Spheeris set to script and direct.

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