Jason Brett and Stuart Oken, producers of the new film "About Last Night . . . ," sound almost giddy as they talk about the picture. The $9.5 million movie (it opens this week in Washington) is based on David Mamet's Obie-winning play, "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," and it's taken six years to get it made.
Asked why Tri-Star Pictures gave this sophisticated love story the go-ahead when action-adventure films by Stallone and Schwarzenegger dominate the box office, Brett jokes, "I think it might have been because we lied to them.We told them that there would be a body count of at least 20 by the third reel."
Actually, besides a cast that includes Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Jim Belushi and film newcomer Elizabeth Perkins, the movie has a strong story line about the life of young singles in urban American. And while the tone and large chunks of its sexually explicit dialogue come directly from Mamet's play, the producers and screen writers have chosen to use that only as a springboard for an intelligent exploration of (gulp!) commitment.
Allin all, things look good for the producers.
But "About Last Night . . . " isn't the only stage-to-film transfer in the offing. The film version of William Mastrosimone's off-Broadway hit "Extremities," starring Farrah Fawcett as a woman who captures her would-be rapist, is scheduled for release in August. Due in October is the film version of Mark Medoff's "Children of a Lesser God," featuring William Hurt and Marlee Matlin.
Also set for distribution this fall is Marsha Norman's " 'night, Mother," featuring Sissy Spacek and Anne Bancroft. Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs" is to be released at Christmas.
The production pipeline holds promise as well. In May, shooting began on Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, "Crimes of the Heart." The film's star power alone is notable: Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, Tess Harper, Sam Shepard and, once again, Sissy Spacek.
If that isn't enough, Barbra Streisand is set to produce and star in Tom Topor's courtroom drama, "Nuts." And Streisand recently announced she has acquired the film rights to Larry Kramer's AIDS drama, "The Normal Heart," and she hopes to produce and direct it.
Is this a trend or a coincidence?
Since the days of silent films, Hollywood has repeatedly turned to the stage for motion picture properties. Now, however, there appears to be increased interest. In the past two years, films from plays have included "Amadeus," "Mass Appeal," "A Soldier's Story," "Agnes of God," "Plenty," "Key Exchange" and "A Chorus Line." Even more esoteric works, like Sam Shepard's "Fool for Love," are getting made.
"It does seem to me there is accelerated interest ," says Tom Moore, stage and film director of " 'night, Mother." Moore is currently ensconced in a Hollywood studio mixing the picture's dialogue, score and sound effects. "I know I'm right in the center of it, having directed one, but it seems to me there are an enormous number of theater properties or else there are an enormous number of theater properties that people are paying attention to," says the director.
Although Jason Brett isn't sure whether Hollywood is paying closer attention to stage works, he thinks the taste of film audiences might soon be more receptive to works originally from the theater.
"We've gone through a decade of special effects as a predominant force in motion-picture making," says Brett. "And Stuart Oken and I are of a mind that emotions might be the special effects of the '80s . . . And maybe the public now would like as part of the menu . . . more pictures that touch them emotionally and compel them intellectually."
One who remains doubtful of an exaggerated swing toward filming plays is Marvin Antonowsky, president of marketing for Universal Pictures. His studio is producing and distributing "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and " 'night, Mother," and he was reportedly instrumental in bringing the latter project into the Universal fold.
"We're always in search of good material and that can come from anyplace," says Antonowsky, who adds, "Look what's going on in the Broadway theater right now. How many plays could you take from this year?"
Playwright Mastrosimone says, "It just doesn't seem to me that this time is any different than it was five years ago or even 10 years ago." Mastrosimone now lives in Seattle, where he is the 1986-87 playwright-in-residence for the Seattle Repertory Theater.
One difference, though, appears to be the large number of good parts for women now. A few such examples are "About Last Night . . . ," "Extremities," " 'night, Mother," "Children of a Lesser God" and "Crimes of the Heart."
"The theater has always provided those great vehicles for women," says Edward Zwick, director of "About Last Night . . . " "In times when film has occasionally gone through a severe drought, theater has always been a wellspring of that kind of material." (Antonowsky, though, points to the absence of central women's roles in "The Dresser" and "A Soldier's Story.")
Still, the impression persists that the theater is supplying more good roles for film actresses than are original screenplays. And not just any actresses, but mature actresses. The average age of the actresses in the films mentioned above would probably skew decidedly toward middle age.
There are advantages in getting a stage work filmed. Oken believes film companies are turning to theater properties because they give executives a reasonable place to test and understand a project.
"When it's literate material, when it's not high-concept material, you need a leap of faith that goes farther than you do when you've got a gremlin to be the central character in your movie," says Oken. "Therefore, when you see it on the stage, it allows you that opportunity for saying, 'It touches me, it moves me. I laughed, I cried. Whatever it is, it's worth it.' "
Zwick agrees: "If a studio executive or a producer or whoever has the opportunity to see something on its feet, that makes enormously easier the process of visualization from just the written word."
And sometimes the physical form of the play can help it get made into a motion picture.
"Now when you're dealing with a novel, very often you're dealing with something that's sprawling and might better fit television with a mini-series format ," says Antonowsky. "With a stage play, it's basically motion-picture length to begin with, so that it's much more easily adaptable to the screen."
Still, a glance at a list of all-time box office hits reveals titles like "Ghostbusters," "Beverly Hills Cop" and just about any feature Steven Spielberg or George Lucas has left his fingerprints on. Most of these record-breaking movies have been based on original screenplays, not theater work. However, a few stage-to-film transfers have sneaked up to those lofty heights: "Grease," "The Sound of Music" and -- surprisingly -- "On Golden Pond," for example. Antonowsky acknowledges that he's not expecting " 'night, Mother," which is said to have cost $3 million, to be a "runaway box office hit." So why is Universal doing the film? "We like to do good material," he says.
Antonowsky says that while most pictures in Hollywood are aimed at the 12-to-24 age group that makes up close to 60 percent of the moviegoers, " 'night, Mother" is appealing to a more sophisticated audience that goes to the theater less often.
"The risk depends on the cost," says Antonowsky. "In this case , ' 'night, Mother' was shot for a very modest budget. If we had to spend . . . $30 to $40 million, we wouldn't do it."
Mastrosimone has his own ideas on why studios turn to theater:
"I think Hollywood has always been interested in playwrights because I think play writing is more difficult than screen writing," he says. "In the theater we are trained to focus on character. Basically . . . plays are about characters who are involved in some actions and films are about actions which are done by characters.
"It sounds like the same thing backwards, but there's more emphasis on the event in film and less on the character. And I think that as time has gone on, people are more interested in the great characters, which playwrights, I think, can write better than most Hollywood screen writers."
Playwrights may have stories and characters to offer Hollywood, but what does Hollywood have to offer in return? A simple answer: Sustenance in a time of crisis.
"Well, it's not a good time for playwrights in New York, so I hope it's a good time for playwrights in Hollywood," says Tom Moore, whose directorial credits include the eight-year run of "Grease" on Broadway. "Playwrights are primarily being done now in regional theater, which is all terrific, too. But . . . it's a wonderful thing when a playwright can do something in film, simply because it pays them so much more. And I think it allows them to go on writing the plays that they want to write, because it's very hard to survive."
Mastrosimone is one of the most successful playwrights working in American regional theater today -- "Extremities" has been performed all over the world. Yet, he finds most of his financial support coming from Hollywood.
"I'm living off my film earnings from 'Extremities,' " says Mastrosimone. "Also, I've just written two other films, one which is an original screenplay and another based on a play that I wrote which was done in Los Angeles in September. So the film world is feeding me and paying my rent."
If Hollywood's fascination with the theater hasn't grown, maybe it seems that way because the subject matter of motion pictures has become so disparate. At one extreme there are the "high-concept" films with plenty of action and hardware. At the other extreme are the more literate films whose only "hardware" is an exceptional story and fine acting. When these literate films are placed against a backdrop of teen comedies, action-adventure yarns and science fiction tales, they might appear even more distinguished.
And during the summer, when teenagers are out of school and in the theater, that schism is going to be more pronounced. But Tom Moore, director of " 'night, Mother," seems unperturbed:
"I think it's gotten so expensive to make anything," Moore says, "that to me it's totally understandable that somebody, for instance, wants to make a 'Top Gun,' because it can be distributed to hundreds or thousands of theaters and make money. I find it only encouraging, in a way, that those can play at the same time as the smaller product . . . I think that may be an encouraging sign rather than something to be dismayed about."
Gib Johnson is a California-based writer.