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The humble beginnings of 'Shutter Island'

February 18, 2010 | 11:54 am

The Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio psychological thriller "Shutter Island," which opens this weekend, may have the look and budget of a splashy Hollywood production.

Shu But the Paramount release, written by frequent James Cameron collaborator Laeta Kalogridis, began life as part of an initiative from production company Phoenix Pictures in which prominent writers are paid a comparatively low fee (the Writers Guild minimum, actually) to work on their passion projects.

It's a program that testifies both to Phoenix's risk-taking and the mindset of big-name writers willing to take less money to work on something they like -- and that they can develop without pesky studio intervention (at least until the studio buys it). "It's a very smart way of giving the writer a certain amount of artistic creative license, because you are in essence writing on spec with only the input of the producers," Kalogridis says. (If the film gets made, the writer gets his or her standard quote plus a bonus.)

After enlisting the writer and developing the script, Phoenix hires the director and draws up a budget and only then approaches a studio with the option to make the film. "We say, ‘Tell us whether you want to make it,' " says Medavoy. "As opposed to getting into an endless process with 20 opinions and getting endless notes. That's what we're trying to minimize."

Kalogridis says producers Brad Fischer and Medavoy approached her by saying that Sony's option on the Dennis Lehane bestseller was about to lapse. "I read it and found it absolutely transporting," says Kalogridis, but "just incredibly challenging because the book is very interior, very psychological." Medavoy ultimately purchased the movie rights and then hired her at a rate lower than her usual quote.

For writers, the plan allows them to avoid the intrusive studio development process.  For Phoenix, it's a way to get challenging fare developed and to the screen, which they did first with "Zodiac" in 2007, also a fruit of this plan, and now with "Shutter Island."

Medavoy, the former studio head who's produced such films as "The Thin Red Line" and "The People vs. Larry Flynt," adds that: "This way, writers work on things they themselves like, and the process doesn't chew them up."

Next under the initiative: the big-screen adaptation of pregnancy bible "What to Expect When You're Expecting," being written by "Freaky Friday" screenwriter Heather Hach.  For all anxious would-be parents, it is, apparently, a romantic comedy.

-- Rachel Abramowitz

Photo: Leonardo DiCaprio, left, and Mark Ruffalo in "Shutter Island." Credit: Andrew Cooper / Paramount Pictures