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The Price of 'Freedomland'

In the new film
In the new film "Freedomland," novelist/screenwriter Richard Price explores "why [Susan Smith] had blamed this phantom black guy. People bought into it across the country." (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

"Freedomland" was published in 1998. Critics adored the novel and Price holed up to write the screenplay.

For five years, though, the script languished. In Hollywood, things either languish or get made; sometimes the rhyme eludes the reason.

Years passed. Price, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (for "The Color of Money"), mulled the idiosyncrasies of Hollywood. Of how a movie idea is hot one day, one week, only to vanish the next. "I was a prolific screenwriter in the late '80s and early '90s," says Price. "Hollywood had room for the $25 million movie then. And the movie could be about darker, edgier subjects. It could be about subjects that might not pack 'em in at the movie houses in Iowa."

So "Night and the City" got made, "Clockers" got made.

He stopped hearing anything about "Freedomland" making it to the screen.

Julianne Moore saw the script in 2000, wanted in the worst way to play Brenda Martin, but time passed. "I'd run into Richard at parties and ask, 'Is it gonna happen?' " remembers Moore.

The Brenda Martin character -- pulled from the whisperings of Susan Smith -- was not as coldblooded as Smith, which is what attracted Moore. "Susan Smith is psychotic," says Moore. "Brenda Martin has been ravaged by grief. She's self-punishing. She's loved in the community."

Price's saga, in both novel and script, is told in a zigzag motion. Jumping from the housing project to the white woman to the black detective to the woman whose activist group looks for missing children, the changing perspective is nostalgic for Price. "Everybody knows the '70s were the great day of independent filmmaking. The urban movies then were not beholden to a linear narrative. It was just one vignette after another."

When Price stopped hearing anything from Hollywood about "Freedomland," he turned it into a play. An old-fashioned theatrical drama. Toni Morrison invited him to come to Princeton, where she teaches, and stage it with a roomful of student actors. (One day, Hart, his detective friend, was invited to come have a look-see. Big, tough Hart came in hauling first editions of Morrison's books. Anyone who knows Morrison knows that's a no-no. "You should have seen it," remembers Price, guffawing. "Calvin with those books. Morrison doing a slow burn, half grin and half scowl. She signed them though.")

Then one day the phone rang. It was Joe Roth, head of Revolution Studios. "We're gonna make 'Freedomland,' " he said.

Price was back in the game.

Thinking Small

Price was born in the Bronx in 1949. His dad drove a taxi and his mom had a small hosiery store. His only sibling, a brother, works for Con Edison, the New York power company.


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