LOS ANGELES — Depending on how one counts, it was a meeting either six months or almost 20 years in the making. The major participants? Two pop-culture luminaries. One was Angelina Jolie, the Oscar winner who launched 1,000 paparazzi and carried off with swagger such action flicks as "Wanted" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider." The other was Patricia Cornwell, one of the world's most commercial authors.
The topic was Kay Scarpetta, Cornwell's signature character, the medical examiner in 17 mystery novels. For almost two decades, Hollywood has attempted to bring Scarpetta to the big screen. Various studios have spent more than $10 million in development, and talent as disparate as actresses Demi Moore and Kristin Scott Thomas and directors Joel Schumacher and Antonia Bird have attempted to tackle books in the series. "I think she's a bit of the runaway bride," Cornwell says of her literary alter ego's relationship with Hollywood. "She flirts, but won't get married."
But Jolie's desire to play Scarpetta has revived prospects of a movie franchise that could begin shooting as early as next fall. In a surprise, Fox 2000 has decided to jettison the books in favor of an origins story written directly for the screen. Set in the present day (as opposed to the late 1980s, when the series begins), the film will feature a distinctly younger Scarpetta in the years before she becomes the steely, unassailable expert pathologist she is today.
In a recent phone interview, Cornwell said her meeting with Jolie last spring on the set of "Salt," the actress' latest thriller, was crucial to getting the character back on track for a film incarnation. And no, the author doesn't object to the original screenplay approach. The script has been entrusted to little-known Irish screenwriter Kerry Williamson, who won the plum assignment over a slew of better-known scribes with her vision of a Scarpetta who hasn't fully come into her own yet.
"There's almost like this brewing passion in her, and intensity and sexuality that she doesn't feel comfortable unleashing," Williamson says. "In the books, she's further along as a character, at the height of her career. In the screenplay, we bring her back to a time before that, when she's just charting her course, and trying to break the glass ceiling. She sees what society might consider her female traits — intuition, compassion, instinct — as a weakness in the real world. Yet that is where her power lies. Her evolution is into accepting that."
"I can understand why the studio doesn't want to launch her as someone's who's my age," says the 53-year-old Cornwell, who adds that by restarting Scarpetta in 2010, the filmmakers can update all the technology too. Like many authors of her stature, Cornwell has significant approval rights over how Scarpetta is rendered on-screen. Meanwhile, merely hammering out a deal was a long, protracted process.
Cornwell optioned her first book to Hollywood in 1990 for a mere $10,000. Later, she personally tried to persuade Jodie Foster to play Scarpetta. "Poor Jodie. I campaigned heavily for that in 1992," says Cornwell. "But she didn't think it was a good idea because of 'Silence of the Lambs.' "
In the late 1990s, Cornwell attempted to write the screenplay herself, holing up with then-director Milcho Manchevski. "It still didn't work," she said.
In 2000, Sony bought the rights to the series for $5 million, and hired writers such as Robert Rodat ("Saving Private Ryan") and Stephen Schiff ("Lolita"), but still the movie stalled.
Cornwell says she began to get discouraged. "I used to say it's the promised land that I'm not allowed to enter. There are very few people who have been No. 1 on the bestseller list and never had a film made of any kind." Compounding her frustration was the fact that much of Scarpetta's forensic-scientific expertise, which was startlingly original when the series began, had become a staple of television via "CSI" and its knockoffs.
Then, Cornwell's other ICM agent, Ron Bernstein, contacted Geyer Kosinski, Jolie's manager and now a producer on the film with Mark Gordon. Soon after, Fox 2000 and Universal were vying for the project, with Fox 2000 winning. The filmmakers want to make a character-driven thriller, not simply a big-screen procedural. "It's about what it is to be a woman," Williamson says. "The anima and animus reversing."
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Cornwell certainly sounds pleased about the recent turn in Hollywood's quest to bring Scarpetta to the cineplex.
"When Angelina came out of left field last year, I was floored," she says. And then it took months of protracted negotiations to get the two in a room together. "I think meeting the head of the KGB might have been easier," Cornwell says. "It was all hush-hush." Finally, Jolie's "Salt" trailer, then located on Long Island, was deemed the spot. Cornwell suggested that she herself fly her proposed suitors — Gordon, Kosinski and Fox 2000 executive Carla Hacken — out to the set in her helicopter, an option that got derailed by the weather, so instead they all trekked out from Manhattan in a limo.
"(Angelina) had pithy things to say about what she wanted to do. She was direct and goal-oriented," says Cornwell, who adds that she was particularly impressed by Jolie's demeanor. "She waited on everyone, getting them their lunch, while her own staff was seated. She was aware intuitively how other people were feeling and wanted to make them comfortable. It was not typical for people of her stature."
As Cornwell succinctly notes about dealing with celebrities: "Usually, it's all about them."
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