Betrayal. Threats. Accusations. The newest John Grisham film? You got it. But these dramatic high points of The Gingerbread Man — a noirish thriller directed by Robert Altman and based on a Grisham screenplay — were played out off screen months before the film’s limited release on Jan. 23. The story began, in fact, long before the troubling test screenings and Altman’s much-publicized rancor over control of the reported $25 million film. It started in 1991, when producer Jeremy Tannenbaum bought Grisham’s screenplay about a Southern attorney whose flirtation with a beautiful woman leads to trouble. Tannenbaum held on to the script for several years, and Grisham continued writing drafts. Meanwhile, with the subsequent success of such Grisham adaptations as The Firm and A Time to Kill, the author’s name turned to gold in Hollywood. Even then, however, the script didn’t have an easy ride.
When The Gingerbread Man, the novelist’s first and only screenplay, began to make the rounds, there was little to no enthusiasm. Until Kenneth Branagh. ”It was generic and had been done before,” the British actor allows. But because of Grisham’s name, he agreed to take the part pending script changes. He also made it clear that if he didn’t agree with PolyGram’s choice of director, he wouldn’t sign on. ”It wasn’t stupid for someone who was about to do a four-hour film of Hamlet to think about being in something that people didn’t have to be sedated to see,” he explains. ”But it needed a director to stir it up.” PolyGram, the international film company that recently launched its own U.S. distribution arm, needed Branagh, and he wanted Altman. With Altman on board, Branagh signed on for a reported $4 million.
Even on paper, Altman and Grisham made for an uneasy pairing: a stubbornly independent, acerbic director with an admitted lack of concern for mass appeal (Altman, 72, hasn’t hit a box office home run since 1975’s Nashville; his biggest success since has been 1992’s The Player, which grossed $22 million domestically) and a best-selling author whose legal thrillers are no more mentally taxing — or unpredictable — than fairy tales.
Altman insists that his decision to take the job had nothing to do with commercialism and everything to do with Branagh. His actions bear this out: Altman’s first decision was to remove the very elements that make Grisham movies so user-friendly; sole screenplay credit now goes to Al Hayes, which Tannenbaum admits is Altman’s pseudonym. And so the handsome, good-ole-boy lawyer became a goodhearted but troubled, and troubling, character; his rather annoyed ex-wife (played by Famke Janssen) became an embittered drunk; and sunny Savannah became rainy, thanks to a storm added by Altman. By this time, Grisham was no longer engaged in the project; his agent, David Gernert, says the author moved on amicably. Altman didn’t miss him. ”I never talked to him or met him,” says the director. ”I wouldn’t know him if he fell in my soup.”