“Angels in America was always going to be a six- to seven-hour film,” says Home Box Office Films president Colin Callender. “There was never a point where we discussed Angels as a two-hour film.” Though HBO has produced regular miniseries (Band of Brothers) and several episodic series (Sopranos and Six Feet Under), adds Callender, the cable television network “has never had an event like this.”
When Tony Kushner’s epic play takes flight as a Mike Nichols film adaptation on HBO this month, it will enjoy an unprecedented scheduling across HBO’s channels. “It will air in a groundbreaking pattern that takes advantage of our multiplex capacity,” says CaIlender. “This will allow the audience to watch the film in any format-two three-hour parts, six one-hour episodes or stacked as a continuous six-hour event.” Millennium Approaches premieres Sunday, Dec. 7 at 8 p.m., followed by Perestroika on Sunday, Dec. 14 at 8 p.m.
The $60-million-plus miniseries breaks TV rules in another respect. Starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Mary-Louise Parker, Jeffrey Wright, Justin Kirk, Ben Shenkman, Patrick Wilson, James Cromwell, Michael Gambon and Simon Callow, it is quite likely one of the longest, most expensive, most star-studded film adaptations of an American drama that’s ever been made. The only comparable project of this size, budget and magnitude is the nine-hour Emmy-winning 1983 TV version of David Edgar’s adaptation of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which was based on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production. Callender himself produced Nickleby before joining HBO in 1987 and venturing into feature films (Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect, American Splendor and Gus van Sant’s Elephant).
Original dramatic films based on worthy stage plays and starring top actors have been slowly phasing out of the pop culture scene since the 1996 demise of “American Playhouse.” Only KCET Hollywood’s two-year-old series “PBS Hollywood Presents”-which has churned out teleplay versions of The Old Settler, Collected Stories, Copenhagen and The Gin Game-can claim to be even trying to revive the once-popular form, but these televised dramas haven’t quite caught on in the public imagination.
Callender himself contends that Hollywood films of dramatic fare (he cites David Rabe’s Hurlyburly as one example) “traditionally have poor showings” at the box office, or they somehow fall short of becoming definitive versions. Playwrights who may want to cross over into screenwriting are better off producing and directing their own independent films, as Kenneth Lonergan and David Mamet have done-or they can adapt yet another Shakespeare classic, in the mold of Julie Taymor and Kenneth Branagh.
“There is a long history of Broadway plays being adapted into films, but network television has historically never been interested in producing contemporary works or contemporary writing in film, save for something like Death of a Salesman” adds Callender. “As I told Margaret Edson when I approached her for the film of Wit, cable will give her play exposure to a larger audience than she would ever get on Broadway.”
Pay-cable networks like HBO and Showtime, as well as outlets like TNT, A&E, Lifetime and the USA Networks, are filling the vacuum for serious, often mid-priced, drama-based movies that were once the province of independent film studios or the prestige-focused arms of big Hollywood film companies. As subscriber-based services, pay-cable networks can shoulder daring, original, risky or low-budget movies, because they are appendages of the major media conglomerates Time Warner (HBO) and Viacom (Showtime). In a 500-channel universe, these cable networks are intent on defining themselves in the marketplace, and film adaptations of award-winning plays give the networks identity, visibility and a sense of high-minded purpose. In addition to Wit, HBO Films has underwritten and aired film adaptations of the Pulitzer-winning Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies, Jane Andersen’s Normal with Jessica Lange (based on Andersen’s play Looking for Normal), Bob Larbey’s Age-Old friends with Hume Cronyn, Laura Cahill’s Hysterical Blindness, David Feldshuh and Terry Alexander’s Miss Evers’ Boys, and Moises Kaufman’s dramatization of the Tectonic Theatre Project’s The Laramie Project.
Upcoming film projects-several of which are likely to air on HBO in the near future-include Patrick Marber’s Closer with Julia Roberts, Jude Law and Natalie Portman; George C. Wolfe’s Jelly’s Last Jam; Michael Radford’s retelling of The Merchant of Venice with Al Pacino, Joseph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons and Ian McKellen; and Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, directed by Mira Nair.
The latter’s executive producer, Southern California-bred Cary Brokaw, is the other studio honcho responsible for Wit, Normal, Angels in America and, in his earlier career, The Trip to Bountiful. Both Brokaw and Callender have demonstrated a strong affinity for adapting theatrical works into film. “Mainly I look for works that would make a good film,” says the British-born Callender, who began his career in the early 1980s as a stage manager of London’s Royal Court Theatre. “HBO certainly sees itself as filling the role of supporting independent filmmaking in America. Filmmakers who work at HBO don’t have to worry about opening-weekend grosses. We offer a safe haven, a protected environment, in which creative talent can take risks and make movies that would otherwise not be made and released in theatres.”
Certainly, the long-deferred Angels in America film is a good case in point to describe the present migration of dramatic material away from independent film companies, which, like major studios, are reliant on box-office success, and TV networks that are dependent on viewer-based advertising. Brokaw likens the making of Angels in America to “13 years of intense childbirth.” “I’ve been trying to get it made ever since I read Millennium Approaches in 1989 and went to the first workshop reading at the Mark Taper Forum,” Brokaw says. “That was before it had been performed anywhere.”
In 1994, Brokaw, as chairman and CEO of Avenue Pictures (The Player and Short Cuts), brought in Robert Altman to adapt Angels in a film. “Altman flipped for it,” Brokaw recalls. “We set it up for New Line Films and developed several scripts with Tony. But along the way there was tremendous pressure from New Line and other potential film companies to find a way to do it either as one movie or as two 100-minute movies. Tony made an attempt to make Angels a much shorter work. Eventually that was not to be-which is ironical today, given that New Line has made not two but three movies of The Lord of the Rings cycle. But Bob didn’t entirely find a way to make Angels his own.”
After Altman, several brief flirtations with other directors followed, including P.J. Hogan (Muriel’s Wedding) and playwright/director Neil LaBute. “P.J. worked very closely with Tony in trying to sculpt and shape Angels into two two-hour length movies,” Brokaw adds. “As for Neil, the challenges of reconciling Angels with his Mormon background (his family members are practicing Mormons) became very difficult for him.”
In 2001, Angels went on the fast track after Brokaw approached Mike Nichols-who had just transformed Wit into an Emmy-winning HBO film starring Emma Thompson-about Kushner’s play. Nichols leapt into the fray, roped in Al Pacino and Meryl Streep (who are appearing together for the first time) and started pre-production, shooting most of the scenes in New York City and using a villa outside Rome for the fantasy sequences set in heaven.
According to Kushner, the Altman version of Angels “was also six hours long but very, very different from this [the Nichols version], and a really much looser adaptation that both Mr. Altman and I felt, finally, didn’t work as well as the play did. So this was really a fresh start. Mike took a completely different approach to the material. Very different things mattered to him. This version is utterly different than any other attempt to make it into a film.”
And just as Wit would have never gotten off the ground without Emma Thompson in the lead, so would Angels in America not have gone into production without its cavalcade of popular actors. This was one of HBO’s prime provisos.
“This is exactly the way it was supposed to happen,” says Brokaw. “The length of the two parts of Angels in America-the rhythms and juxtapositions of certain scenes and plot lines created through all its theatrical manifestations worldwide-created a living thing. We found out the hard way that when you try to tamper with plays, it’s like pulling a string in the sweater. It all starts to come apart.
“Cable is the ideal format,” he goes on. “Because HBO wants to premiere films on its network exclusively and with great flexibility, epic events such as Angels in America become one of the key attractions to lure new subscribers and sustain existing viewers.”