In Presumed Innocent, the smash new movie based on Scott Turow’s 1987 best-seller, the stupefyingly beautiful actress Greta Scacchi plays a fiery prosecuting attorney with a fatal taste for the bizarre. ”We were thinking about doing it as a movie full of sex and blood,” says screenwriter Frank Pierson (In Country), who wrote three initial drafts for the movie’s producer, Sydney Pollack (Tootsie). ”The first image on screen was going to be two people making love, with it turning imperceptibly into murder.”
But when Pierson began rewriting Presumed Innocent with the man who finally directed it, Alan J. Pakula, things changed. Pakula thought the concept of justice was more central to Turow’s novel than tussling couples were, so he replaced Scacchi’s steamy sex scene with a long, slow, detached shot of an empty courtroom.
Pakula wanted his Presumed Innocent to grapple with ideas, and he wanted to present the story in a visual style that echoed Turow’s original voice. ”Scott dealt with the most grotesque, lurid material — infidelity, kinky sex, murder,” he explains, ensconced in his professorial, book-lined New York office, ”and he conveyed it in this disciplined, rational, one might say lawyerly way. I felt it was the tension between the cold, controlled prose and the heat of the events that made the book such a success.” (It has sold 700,000 hardcover copies and 5 million in paperback.) Pakula’s insistence on a sober approach to the material doesn’t mean the director’s a prude; rather, he’s a man in the grip of a textual obsession. ”I’m looking for a cinematic counterpart to the prose experience,” he says.
So far, Pakula’s honorable intentions toward literature have paid off. At 62, he’s an old hand at turning big books into even bigger movies. After producing To Kill a Mockingbird (which won Gregory Peck the 1962 Oscar for Best Actor), he went on to direct The Sterile Cuckoo (1969); the superb ”paranoia trilogy” of Klute (1971), The Parallax View (1974), and All the President’s Men (1976); as well as Sophie’s Choice (1982), for which star Meryl Streep won a Best Actress Oscar. He’s always been good at getting unprecedented work out of actors: The Sterile Cuckoo launched Liza Minnelli’s film career, and Klute established Jane Fonda as a serious actress. And nobody had ever taken Burt Reynolds or Candice Bergen seriously as comic performers before Pakula’s Starting Over (1979). The talent he was the first to detect and develop took both of those actors to the pinnacles of their careers.
What propelled Pakula to the top was his status as Hollywood’s biggest bookworm — but one with an equal gift for bookkeeping. The son of a Polish immigrant, Pakula grew up in New York reading Variety. After majoring in drama at Yale, he went to Los Angeles, directed a stage production of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, and landed a job reading scripts for Don Hartman, who wrote three of the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road pictures. At 22, he became an MGM production apprentice; at 28, a producer in his own right.
At 40, Pakula optioned the novel The Sterile Cuckoo and made his directing debut. With the exception of Klute, all of his major movies began as books. ”The characters in a book can be deeper than in an original screenplay,” he says. ”I was raised on Dickens. The child in me that dreamt of entering the pages of those books is still alive.”
Presumed Innocent is, according to Pakula’s cowriter Pierson, ”the single most difficult adaptation I’ve ever been involved with, because there’s so much story to tell, and so much that has to be conveyed indirectly — in an actor’s face, a raised eyebrow. The book is terribly complex, and it plays a lot of tricks on readers that are unfair to play on a viewer.” Pierson says he tends to write ”hotter” scenes than Pakula: ”When Rusty (Harrison Ford) confesses his infidelity to his wife, I had her set the house on fire and try to commit suicide. Alan read it, liked it — and set it aside. In the end we came back to the way Turow did it, which was the right way.”
Pakula didn’t eliminate the animal passion of the novel’s characters; he just buried it, like a banked fire with a few coals glowing through the ashes. He utterly transformed Pierson’s planned sex scenes featuring Scacchi. ”The camera looks back with Rusty’s prosecutor’s eye, cold and rational. Until the very last shot, which slams into a close-up of Scacchi’s face, the camera just does not move — it stays on the wall like some ruthless voyeur that refuses to get involved,” says Pakula. The result won’t please everyone — Pierson’s original down-and-dirty sex scene might well have been more popular. But Pakula got what he wanted — the sense of rage rigidly repressed by lawyerly instinct that he found in Turow.
He also got a gratifying box-office response: The movie grossed nearly $12 million in its first weekend. Pakula is entitled to take a moment to gloat over its early success — but he won’t. Instead, he has put Presumed Innocent quite behind him. All traces of the production have been removed from his bulletin boards, except for a photo of Harrison Ford, which Pakula insisted on covering up before our interview. (Maybe it was just distracting. But considering that he once planned a career as a psychiatrist, and that his films reveal a shrink’s subtle insights, maybe he has a shrink’s characteristic neuroses as well.)
Pakula’s forthcoming project is a change of pace, a non-book-based screenplay (reportedly a black comedy about AIDS cowritten by Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau for the Disney Studio). Pakula says that he’s ready for something completely differentntrom the tense, ascetic discipline of Presumed Innocent: ”Now I want to do a film where the camera never stops moving,” he says, chuckling.
But he plans to keep transmuting books into movies. ”I do try to be true to what’s been accomplished in prose using the different techniques of film. It requires,” he says with finality, ”a magician with different tricks.”