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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Nick Cassavetes sues New Line: What's the real backstory?

September 4, 2009 | 11:23 am

Cassavetes

Sometimes you have to wonder if Variety is in the business of reporting the news or just reporting as little of the news as possible. That would be my take-away from the trade paper's coverage of a nasty little lawsuit filed by director Nick Cassavetes, who accuses New Line Cinema of fraud and breach of contract, saying the studio fired him from directing the elephant orphanage drama, "Peaceable Kingdom." According to Variety's Dave McNary, the director filed suit earlier this week in Los Angeles Superior Court, saying he was never paid for a rewrite he did of the script. He's also seeking damages for other work he says he passed up while working on "Kingdom."

But Variety managed to totally miss -- or willfully ignore -- the real kicker of the story. Isn't Cassavetes, who's now accusing New Line of fraud and breach of contract, the same filmmaker who's made four consecutive movies at New Line, not only this summer's "My Sister's Keeper" (which Variety does mention) but the huge 2004 hit "The Notebook," 2002's "John Q" and 2006's "Alpha Dog," which New Line produced but allowed Cassavetes to take to Universal for its eventual release?

So what gives? How does New Line end up being sued by someone who's essentially been an in-house filmmaker at the studio? As usual, the backstory is far more complicated than the cursory treatment the lawsuit received in Variety. As it turns out, New Line got involved in "Peaceable Kingdom" after "60 Minutes" aired a report in April 2006 by Bob Simon about Dame Daphne Sheldrick, a Kenyan-born woman who has devoted her life to helping raise and rehabilitate orphaned wild animals, in particular elephants. The "60 Minutes" piece -- which featured eye-popping video of Sheldrick's elephants playing soccer -- sparked a studio bidding war, since it was obvious that Sheldrick's elephant-saving efforts, set against the backdrop of wilderness Africa, had the makings of a family movie classic.

New Line ended up with the project and commissioned a script from Jeff Stockwell, who'd written a particularly well-liked script based on the popular Kate DiCamillo kids book "The Miraculous Journey of Edmund Tulane." Hunting for a director, the studio first offered the project to Frank Marshall, but he ended up being too busy to do it. New Line then brought in Cassavetes, but things went sour when Cassavetes, whom the studio had hoped would simply supervise Stockwell's rewrites, ended up taking the project in a very different, much darker direction. Suddenly the project, which the studio envisioned as a warm-hearted PG-rated survival saga, was populated with graphic, potentially R-rated scenes of elephants being maimed and killed.

The studio didn't want to see the movie die, especially since a host of thirtysomething actresses, including Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Drew Barrymore had all expressed interest in playing the part of Dame Daphne. The project is being produced by Peter Guber, who lends an extra air of class to the proceedings, having been a producer on "Gorillas in the Mist," the 1988 Sigourney Weaver film that was based on Dian Fossey's life story.

So when the creative differences began raging out of control, New Line forged ahead without Cassavetes, a move that clearly sparked enough bad feelings for the filmmaker to file a lawsuit. (Stockwell is back at work on the script, with a new draft expected in sometime early next month.) I'm certainly not taking sides in this dispute, since in Hollywood there are always 14 sides to every story. But if Variety expects to be taken seriously as the showbiz paper of record, you'd think it would at least dig a tiny bit deeper the next time it runs such a flimsy account of a filmmaker's dispute with a studio.

 Go here to see the original "60 Minutes" piece on Dame Daphne Sheldrick and her orphaned elephants:

Photo of Nick Cassavetes by Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.

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