Turning John Grisham's book into a movie faced a difficult casting and a controversial plot


By mortal standards, the khakis were fine. But to Joel Schumacher and Matthew McConaughey, the director and star, respectively, of this summer’s epic adaptation of John Grisham’s A Time to Kill, they were a bit on the baggy side.

”Where did you get them?” Schumacher asked during a preproduction costume fitting last summer.

”They’re from the Gap,” said costume designer Ingrid Ferrin. ”Fine,” said the director rather clinically, ”but make sure the seat fits right.” Then he turned to McConaughey, laughed, and made a promise: ”I’m going to make your ass a star.”

The director who made the essential Brat Pack movie, 1985’s St. Elmo’s Fire, kept his word. Months before the movie’s release, A Time to Kill‘s test scores had Hollywood smelling a hit. Studios, also smelling a new star, began vying for McConaughey’s future services. And not since Sharon Stone caught America’s attention in Basic Instinct have the media, which was quite taken with him in press screenings, seemed so eager to bestow stardom on an actor’s nether regions. (Whether McConaughey is the next Marlon Brando or Paul Newman has become so public a debate, it’s a wonder Ross Perot hasn’t weighed in on it yet.)

McConaughey mania, fueled by a cover story in Vanity Fair, a profile in Newsweek, and enough TV interviews to make Netanyahu blush, is indeed noteworthy, given a supporting cast that includes such star wattage as Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, and Samuel L. Jackson. It’s even more remarkable — or silly, depending on how you look at it — considering that the general public hasn’t even seen the film yet; if McConaughey is familiar at all, it’s from blink-and-you-miss-him roles in Dazed and Confused, Boys on the Side, and the current Lone Star.

But in truth, the most remarkable thing about A Time to Kill is not that it has made McConaughey a star — it’s that it was made at all. The obstacles faced in bringing Grisham’s 1989 novel to the screen started with the author’s reluctance to sell his favorite book to Hollywood. Then there was the challenge of crafting a 140-page screenplay from an immensely popular but meandering and racially inflammatory best-seller, which takes more than 500 pages to tell the story of a white Mississippi lawyer named Jake Brigance (McConaughey) who risks his life and career defending a black man (Jackson) on trial for murdering the two rednecks who raped and tortured his little girl. And there was the arduous, 14-month-long search for an actor to play Jake — a series of hollering debates that nearly derailed the movie before shooting started.

Now the next battle begins. Can a $40 million drama about lawyers (albeit impossibly good-looking ones) compete with this summer’s twisters and space invaders — and go head-to-head with the Summer Olympics? Spacey, last year’s Best Supporting Actor for The Usual Suspects (his name was placed above the title of A Time to Kill after the Oscars), offered one optimistically deadpan answer to that question while on location in Canton, Miss., last December. ”It’s about a black man who’s accused of double murder, who’s on trial,” he said, two months after the country paused to listen to the O.J. Simpson verdict. ”Hmm. I wonder if there’ll be an audience for it.”

A Time to Kill
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  • Joel Schumacher