By Daniel Fierman
Updated August 10, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

Tim Blake Nelson’s collection of watches numbers more than 120. They sit in his bedroom closet, clutter his shelves. The director wears a different one every day and can identify the make and model on your wrist.

”Bulova. 1960s. Maybe ’50s. Right? Right? Can I see? Wow. Wow. Was it your dad’s? Beautiful lines.”

He turns the body over. Studies the band. Follows the sweep of the second hand and records the shape of the numbers. In short, he is a man obsessed with time.

And getting his second feature to the screen required patience of near Sisyphean proportions.

The Story Of O — how the intense teen drama got stuck in a quagmire of political campaigns, studio jitters, and myriad postponements — began in 1997, when TV writer Brad Kaaya (Mad TV) brought his idea for Othello in prep school to the Sundance screenwriters lab. ”I always identified with Othello,” Kaaya says. ”Not that I want to run around killing white women, but having been black in an almost all-white private school, allowed into worlds that other black kids weren’t, I had some sense of the character.”

Kaaya’s screenplay scrapped Shakespeare’s language and contemporized the action. Venetian general Othello became basketball floor general Odin. Demonic lieutenant Iago became sullen wing man Hugo. Desdemona became Desi, the dean’s daughter. Cyprus became Charleston, S.C. But the marrow of the classic remained: Machiavellian manipulation, interracial romance, and brutal violence born of roiling jealousy.

Impressed by Nelson’s feature directorial debut, the moody 1997 Southern gothic Eye of God, Kaaya’s manager sent the script to the sometime actor (who most recently played the dingbat convict Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?) on the Australian set of The Thin Red Line. ”I said, NO WAY!” shouts Nelson, 37, nearly spilling his coffee in a Manhattan cafe. ”When will it end? How many classics murdered in a high school setting do we have to sit through before they just…stop?

”Then, like everyone working with [director] Terry Malick, I had a lot of downtime,” Nelson continues. ”And I read it. And I thought, this story is not only credible, but most appropriate in high school. With all the murders! And I changed my mind.”

By early 1999, $3.5 million in funding had been secured from independent financiers and the filmmakers found their Odin in Mekhi Phifer (Soul Food). ”The role has a great history, especially for African-American actors. And Tim was so passionate and intelligent,” says the 26-year-old actor, reclining shirtless in a Manhattan hotel. ”It seemed important. And I got to play ball.”

The rest of the cast filled out around him. Josh Hartnett, then 20, was tapped to costar as Hugo, and, after first considering Mena Suvari and Natasha Lyonne, Nelson chose Julia Stiles to play the girl who becomes the focus of Odin’s jealous obsession. ”I was 16 when I first read that script,” says the actress, now 20, pausing to consider the time that passed. ”Wow.” With an up-and-coming director and an attractive cast of then relative unknowns, Miramax’s Dimension Films bought the distribution rights. According to Eric Gitter, one of O’s producers, the studio guaranteed a release in 1,000 theaters within one year of the movie’s delivery, supported by $10 million in prints and advertising.


  • Movie
  • R
  • 91 minutes
  • Tim Blake Nelson