Amy Heckerling's production conflicts -- We hear from the writer/director of ''I Could Never Be Your Woman'' about release delays and bitter studio battles

Amy Heckerling’s production conflicts

Amy Heckerling sounds demoralized. She’s up against a deadline on her new movie, and she just can’t ”find” the scene she’s working on. She doesn’t mean that in some airy, artsy way. She’s not trying to locate the scene’s heartbeat or distill its essence. No, when Heckerling says she can’t find the scene, she means it literally: She doesn’t know where it is. More than two years ago, she wrote and directed I Could Never Be Your Woman, a romantic comedy starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd. The movie is finally set for a Feb. 12 release, and Heckerling has spent the past few weeks hunting for a previously deleted sequence that, apparently, no longer exists. ”I had to go through all my old dailies until I found the crappy, unmixed, undigitized version,” she says. ”I don’t even know why I bother. The missing elements? Who the f— knows where they are? The company lost them.”

The company in question is the beleaguered, three-year-old Bauer Martinez Entertainment, and the missing scene is just one of the countless setbacks in the film’s torturous journey to release. It’s a bizarre saga in which salaries were slashed, deals disintegrated, and millions in potential revenue were lost. The one thing all parties agree on is that it’s baffling that a movie with two well-known actors, directed by the woman behind Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, wound up in the home-video refuse pile. That’s right: After coming this close to a theatrical release more times than Heckerling can remember, I Could Never Be Your Woman is going straight to DVD.

We’re all familiar with the story of the $200 million blockbuster that weathers misfortune on its way to the multiplex. Woman, however, is something of a subcultural curio. It’s a modestly budgeted indie that, while far from perfect, never got the chance it deserved, hitting every speed bump and knocking over every traffic cone along the way. The experience has been one of the most frustrating of Heckerling’s 26-year career — and, incidentally, coincided with the illness of both her parents, whom she was nursing through heart ailments and chemotherapy. The director has yet to wrap her head around it all. ”I don’t know what to say because I don’t have all the information. I don’t know what goes on behind my back…. I always feel like, if you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything.” She sighs. ”Bitterness is so ugly. I don’t want to go there.”

Normally, Heckerling is the last person you’d describe as glum. A 53-year-old, Bronx-born spitfire with a biting sense of humor, she’s worked steadily within the studio system since making a name for herself with Fast Times in 1982. But she’s always positioned herself as a rebellious outsider. She refuses to be a mere helmer-for-hire, preferring to write and direct her own material, such as 1989’s $140 million hit Look Who’s Talking. Heckerling dismisses patronizing Hollywood suits with just three words: ”Screw ’em all.” As Rudd puts it, ”She swears, she’s hilarious, and her no-bulls— meter is right in line.”

The inspiration for I Could Never Be Your Woman came to Heckerling in the mid-’90s, when she was exec-producing ABC’s adaptation of Clueless and raising a preteen girl alone. (Her daughter, Mollie, is now 21.) Every day, she felt increasingly ambivalent about working in an industry that promotes unrealistic standards of beauty for young girls and considers women over 40 to be prehistoric beasts. In 1999, Heckerling poured those feelings into a script about a divorced teen-soap producer (Pfeiffer) who falls for a younger man (Rudd) while trying to guide her daughter through adolescence. The producer grapples with idiot executives and pampered young stars with spray-on abs, not to mention the terror of being a fortysomething at a rock club. Then the network cans her — because she’s not hip enough.

The screenplay found a home at Paramount, but in an unfortunate case of life imitating art, the studio put it on hold. ”There was some concern about doing a movie with an older female protagonist — not anybody’s favorite demographic,” says Heckerling. (Paramount had no comment.) It didn’t help that the director’s last effort, 2000’s Jason Biggs comedy Loser, lived up to its title, grossing a tepid $15.6 million. Eventually the script made its way to Pfeiffer, who’d been MIA since 2002’s White Oleander. The three-time Oscar nominee was not the power player she once was, but she managed to revive the project. Heckerling’s then agent at CAA found a guy to foot the bill: a Hollywood newcomer named Philippe Martinez. Terrific news. Right?

A Frenchman who has financed and produced some two dozen movies and directed the Jean-Claude Van Damme flick Wake of Death, Martinez, 39, came to L.A. in 2005 boasting a $200 million line of credit and grand plans to make Bauer Martinez Entertainment the biggest indie studio the States had ever seen. For him, Hollywood represented a fresh start: In 1999, he spent 14 months in a California detention center unsuccessfully fighting extradition to France for a fraud conviction related to his former film company; he later served six months in a French jail. Martinez’s checkered past — combined with his penchant for smoking cigars and tooling around town in a chauffeured Bentley — fascinated the press, which labeled him, as he puts it, ”a wild cat.” ”Every time an article has been written about me,” he says, ”they feel like they have to mention something that happened 12 years ago. ‘Oh, my God, that guy was convicted for fraud!”’ (Touché monsieur.)

With a $25 million budget in place, Heckerling recruited her Clueless leading man Rudd to play Pfeiffer’s beau. She discovered the young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan — now an Oscar nominee for Atonement — and cast her as the precocious daughter who crank-calls Henry Winkler and insists her Ken doll has Alzheimer’s. Shooting began in August 2005 — only not in L.A. To take advantage of tax breaks, Martinez set up production in the U.K. Dressing up London to look like L.A. struck Heckerling as odd, but then so did Martinez. Of one poolside lunch meeting, she offers these surreal memories: ”We were in some tents. I think he was in a bathrobe. Giant cigars all the time.” Next to Martinez’s imposing figure, Heckerling ”felt like the scruffy little Jew.”

By the time Heckerling wrapped Woman in late 2005, Martinez had learned that distributing his own movies was tougher than he’d imagined. ”Philippe didn’t have a real understanding of what he was getting into,” says a source. Fortunately, MGM agreed to distribute three Bauer Martinez movies, the first of which was supposed to be Heckerling’s.

But for every fortunately in Heckerling’s life, an unfortunately was close behind. To keep Woman‘s budget down, Martinez had persuaded Pfeiffer to reduce her salary to $1 million as an advance on 15 percent of the gross. MGM, however, balked at the prospect of waiting for the star to collect her take before it made any profits of its own, especially since the studio was also shouldering marketing costs. So despite positive test screenings, MGM shelved Woman — the same day that Pfeiffer was due to board a plane and kick off the PR campaign.

Desperate to save the MGM agreement, Martinez went to work renegotiating Pfeiffer’s deal. During this time, Heckerling recalls, ”he kept telling me, ‘You have to talk to Michelle. It’s her fault.’ I’m like, how bad do I feel putting her in a movie that she worked so hard on — and now I have to tell her to reduce [her pay]?” By January 2007, this all became moot: The MGM deal was off. The studio declined to comment, but the split came at a dire time for Bauer Martinez. After just a year and a half, the company had racked up a $100 million debt. The would-be super-indie, whose logo depicts a soaring biplane, seemed on the verge of a crash-and-burn landing.

Plenty of studios considered taking Woman off Martinez’s hands — until they learned he had already signed away DVD and non-pay-TV rights to The Weinstein Company. That decision made sense when he was distributing it himself. Now? Not so much. As Heckerling puts it, ”When you’ve already given away DVD, you’re saying, ‘Here, buy my baby. I’ve cut its legs off, but it’s still cute.”’ While her movie hung in limbo, Heckerling and Co. stood by. ”I remember asking Amy, ‘What’s going on?”’ says Rudd. ”And she’d just go, ‘I have no f—ing idea.”’

One final fortunately arrived last summer, when Martinez laid out a deal with indie distributor Freestyle Releasing. He also partnered with Blue Rider Pictures, a financing firm that helped fund Rescue Dawn and would kick in $10-12 million for marketing. Under the new plan, Woman would hit 1,200 theaters in fall of 2007. Unfortunately, Blue Rider insisted that Pfeiffer commit to a full publicity campaign. The company contends that the actress declined to do PR because she was unhappy with the small-scale release. Pfeiffer’s camp, meanwhile, contends that that’s ridiculous. According to her publicist, Pfeiffer was willing to promote the movie, but there wasn’t enough money for advertising and Martinez had already given up on a theatrical release. Says Heckerling: ”You can’t blame Michelle for saying, This is not what I signed up for.” Martinez blames her anyway. ”Money is more important for some people,” he says. ”Maybe movie stars should just make movies with studios.”

For all this finger-pointing, everyone wound up on the same team: the losing one. In May, Martinez will watch another high-profile project, the Richard Gere thriller The Flock, go directly to DVD. Still, Martinez claims he’s reduced his debt to $10 million and will continue to distribute internationally. He even has plans to direct again.

Moving on has been harder for Heckerling. Though her mother’s cancer is in remission, her father has passed away. ”It’s been a crappy year,” she says. She’s ”too bummed” to feel proud of the film and fears it suffered from the delays. The dated references — to Will & Grace, UPN, and The WB — do seem jarring in a movie from a filmmaker synonymous with pop cultural savvy. ”I was always afraid some of the jokes would end up stale,” says Rudd. ”Amy doesn’t make movies every year…. It’s a real shame.”

Heckerling doesn’t know when she’ll direct again. ”I don’t want to work for the hell of it,” she says. ”I get offered: ‘Here’s a girl who’s mad at another girl for having a wedding on the same day.’ That’ll be a big hit, but I don’t want to do that.” Will she eventually come back fighting? ”It would be fun to say, Oh, you can’t keep me down, blah, blah, blah.” She slips into her trademark deadpan. ”But I haven’t had that much coffee yet today.” (additional reporting by Vanessa Juarez and Nicole Sperling)