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Tyro scribe with storied past has full plate

This article was corrected on June 19, 2003.

CLOSING NIGHT of the Cannes Film Festival was a coming out party for an unusual new Hollywood talent, 23-year-old novelist and former truck-stop hustler J.T. Leroy.

Leroy is the extremely reclusive, San Francisco-based boy wonder who wrote the first draft of Gus Van Sant’s Palme d’Or winner, “Elephant.”

Though Van Sant discarded the script before principal photography began, he gave an associate producer credit to Leroy, and vestiges of the script remain in the HBO film, which is a “Rashoman”-style dissection of a high school massacre. There’s a violent videogame sequence and a scene involving a girl tormented by her peers in gym class — both originally from Leroy’s pen.

These are the first traces of Leroy’s gritty, deeply personal and idiosyncratic fictional universe to reach the screen. But there’s more on the way.

“Secretary” director Steven Shainberg is adapting Leroy’s first novel, “Sarah” with writer Jeffrey Hatcher.

And in late August, Muse Prods. will start shooting Asia Argento’s adaptation of Leroy’s pseudo-autobiographical story collection, “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things.” Argento will star in the film, along with Winona Ryder, Tom Sizemore and Jeremy Renner.

Leroy’s fictional alter-ego in the novel is expected to be played by three boys: Jimmy Bennet from “Daddy Day Care” and Cole and Dylan Sprouse, who played Adam Sandler’s surrogate son in “Big Daddy.”

LEROY’S FICTION MAY BE CATCHING ON with filmmakers, but the writer’s relationship with his own celebrity is intensely ambivalent.

Leroy says he suffers from social phobias so paralyzing he doesn’t like to leave his house. At a recent reading in Italy, he said, he was so frightened by the audience, he climbed under a table onstage. When he ventures outdoors, he often wears a wig and enormous sunglasses.

Like Andy Warhol and Thomas Pynchon, Leroy has learned that such disguises and evasions are useful tricks for a popular artist; if nothing else, they’ve fueled a media phenomenon around his work.

Leroy has a Hollywood following most novelists would kill for, and he often corrals stars to read from his books. The readers at an April charity benefit in New York included Ryder, Debbie Harry, Vanessa Carlton, Rosario Dawson, Tatum O’Neal and Garbage singer Shirley Manson. In a half-hour phone conversation with Variety, he dropped the names of other acquaintances — Madonna, Bono, Courtney Love (who connected Leroy with his management firm, Untitled Entertainment), Pedro Almodovar and Dave Eggers.

“People read about me next to all these boldface names,” Leroy said. “I’ve become friends with a lot of them and lovers with some of them. But a personal trainer probably spends more time with them,” he said.

Leroy isn’t shy about courting the press — in his own strange way. After he was mentioned on Page Six, he sent a New York Post reporter, as a token of a gratitude, one of the autographed raccoon penis bone amulets that sell on his Web site for $15.

A SELF-TAUGHT WRITER who began publishing his work as a teenager, Leroy clearly has a natural facility for writing prose fiction.

But Hollywood screenwriting tends to be a highly conventional medium with strict rules.

Diane Keaton’s producing partner, Bill Robinson, who developed Leroy’s “Elephant” script, twice sent him screenplay-formatting software, and worked with him for months to beat the work into shape.

“There was a refreshing simplicity to his screenwriting,” Robinson said. “It was not belabored by paragraph description. It was lean, spare and dialogue-driven. In that sense you felt like you were reading one of his stories. You got a sense of pathos really quickly.”

Leroy’s emotionally raw fiction has earned him a devoted following among other writers. Mary Karr, Dennis Cooper, Mary Gaitskill and Dorothy Allison have been fierce advocates. In the words of “Permanent Midnight” author Jerry Stahl, “LeRoy writes like Flannery O’Connor tied to the bed and plied with angel dust.”

But Leroy is eager to write more screenplays. “I think I write very cinematically,” he said.

Adapting Leroy’s prose to feature form may require some unconventional methods. The producers of “Heart,” he said, want to tape-record his speech for a dialogue coach.

But it wasn’t a hurdle for Van Sant. “The standardization of script writing isn’t really important to me,” the director said.

Van Sant has collaborated with Leroy on other projects and remains a friend. On the final night of the Cannes Film Fest, he even called the writer from the Croisette and told him, “We won.”

“He didn’t have to include me,” Leroy said. “He said this film wouldn’t have happened without me.”

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