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Atonement

Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner and Paul Webster

When it came to selling the film rights for “Atonement,” novelist Ian McEwan found no shortage of takers nor shortage of the kind of able talent who could conceivably shape the book’s tragic, but delicate, drama into compelling cinematic form. Two teams emerged: One was Christopher Hampton (“Dangerous Liaisons”) to write and Richard Eyre (“Notes on a Scandal”) to direct. The other one was John Madden (“Shakespeare in Love”) to direct and playwright-screenwriter Tom Stoppard to adapt. (Joe Wright was eventually recruited to direct.)

“They sat, they chatted with Ian,” recalls Tim Bevan, who produced with Working Title partner Eric Fellner and Paul Webster. “The Richard Eyre/Christopher Hampton team, through Robert Fox who (exec) produced with Richard Eyre, came to me and said, ‘Will you back this?’ And I said, ‘I love this book, let’s go for it.’ ”

The film, backed by Universal and Canal Plus — which supplies Working Title with a development fund — was made for roughly $30 million. “It was a film you could have made at any level,” says Bevan. “We slightly worked backwards to a number that could give it some decent production value but also it wasn’t sort of too much.”

In a way, the production was largely a family affair. The Working Title team had given “Atonement’s” director Joe Wright his first feature, “Pride & Prejudice,” and worked with Webster for years on and off, including on “Pride & Prejudice,” which provided “Atonement” star Keira Knightly with her first meaty lead. James McAvoy starred in Working Title’s “Inside I’m Dancing” and also played a role in the company’s “Wimbledon.”

As for the film’s market prospects, the producers knew they had a built-in fan base in the U.K., but Stateside presented another challenge. “We looked at the release schedule and thought, ‘Jesus Christ, that’s crowded.’ So we took the decision to go as late as we could (Dec. 7), hoping that a lot of films will have come and maybe gone by then.”

NUTS & BOLTS

Biggest hurdle: “Taking a very literary piece, and through the excellence of Christopher Hampton and the vision of Joe Wright, turning it into a much more coherent movie than anyone ever imagined.”

Lessons learned: “With a lot of directors you end up still kind of working on the script while you’re making the film. We’re involved in the Coen brothers’ movies — they finish a script a year before filming and they don’t really touch it again after that, so they can focus on being film directors. Joe is very disciplined about that.”

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