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►  How ‘American Assassin’ took a long, twisting path to film

After twists and turns worthy of the very spy series it sprung from, a movie featuring the indomitable fictional terrorism fighter Mitch Rapp is about to hit movie screens nationwide — four years after his creator, author Vince Flynn, died from prostate cancer.

“American Assassin ,” the first movie based on a Flynn best-seller, premieres September 15, featuring Dylan O’Brien (“The Maze Runner”) as Rapp and Michael Keaton as his weathered mentor, Stan Hurley, on a mission to avert nuclear war in the Middle East.

Getting Rapp to the big screen has been a decade-long odyssey, said “American Assassin” producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a fan of the series who got to know Flynn before his death in 2013.

“When Vince died we redoubled our efforts to get this made. I owed him that,” said di Bonaventura, who produced the Transformers movies.

Flynn, a native of St. Paul, wrote 14 political thrillers, starting with his self-published “Term Limits” in 1997, and featured his CIA counterterrorism operative Rapp in 13. His books have sold nearly 20 million copies in the U.S. and millions more worldwide, and include former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush among fans.

But making a Mitch Rapp movie proved elusive. Originally Flynn’s novel “Consent to Kill” was considered, then put aside. “Training Day” director Antoine Fuqua originally was attached to direct “American Assassin,” but moved on to direct “Olympus Has Fallen.” Chris Hemsworth passed on the lead role because of scheduling issues, and Bruce Willis was interested in playing Hurley but no deal was made.

Producers had to get cameras rolling before the film rights reverted to Flynn’s estate, di Bonaventura said.

“We weren’t at an urgent level but we were approaching them,” he said. Filmmakers also had to wait while O’Brien recovered from an injury suffered during an accident while filming a “Maze Runner” sequel in 2016. Finally the 55-day shoot began last September and jumped from London to Rome and Malta before finishing in Thailand.

Changes were made to the plot of the film. Instead of having Rapp out for vengeance after his girlfriend is killed in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing, the movie moves the action to present day with Rapp’s fiancee slain in a terrorist beach massacre in Spain. That creates an origin story and places Rapp, who is 23 in the story, closer in age to the 26-year-old O’Brien.

“We were not making a period piece,” said co-screenwriter Stephen Schiff, who said he came up with the beach massacre opening. “That seems like no way to launch a franchise.”

Eighteen months after the beach murder, Rapp is recruited by a CIA leader played by Sanaa Lathan for intense training by Hurley and given a mission to stop a former Hurley protege known as Ghost (played by Taylor Kitsch) from starting a world war. (In a nod to Rapp’s creator, a battleship in the film’s thrilling climax was named Flynn).

Director Michael Cuesta, whose credits include the movie “Kill the Messenger” and the Showtime series “Homeland,” was quick to praise his star. “I think Dylan brought an innocence and a boyishness, boy-next-door quality to the character,” he said. “Dylan doesn’t look like your typical assassin.”

O’Brien said he was taken with the story of Rapp’s journey from young man — “a wounded human” — to assassin.

“I thought that was a really fresh concept,” said O’Brien, who is making his own transition from the teen roles of “The Maze Runner” and TV’s “Teen Wolf.” O’Brien did about eight weeks of training, going to a gym with his trainer every day and learning different martial arts.

CBS Films’ “American Assassin,” distributed by Lionsgate, cost about $50 million, modest by action movie standards. Producers hope to carve out their own share of the market when the movie opens the weekend after Stephen King’s killer clown movie “It” and before the sequel to the hit spy satire “Kingsman.”

And the Mitch Rapp series continues after Flynn’s death. Writer Kyle Mills has continued the book series — “Enemy of the State,” his third installment, was released September 5 — and Mills has signed on for another three books.

“These books are very patriotic and they’re violent and they’re ripped from the headlines,” said Emily Bestler, Flynn’s longtime editor at Atria Books. Doubters early on thought there would not be a movie audience for such flag-waving fare, Bestler said, “but we knew there would be.”

“If you read the papers, you’re not sure we’re winning,” Bestler said. “You sit down with one of these books and we win, and it feels really, really good.”

Producers hope “American Assassin” leads to a Mitch Rapp franchise (“Kill Shot,” the next book in the series, is being considered for a sequel), and the publisher has released paperback tie-ins to the movie.

“I would love for this movie to be a part of bringing a whole new generation of Mitch Rapp fans into bookstores and movie theaters,” Bestler said.

Flynn’s widow, Lysa Flynn, said she is glad the producers never gave up.

“This is a happy time. It’s just such an honor to see the movie finally happening,” she said, adding that Vince Flynn will “always live on in his books. It’s like having him back for a time.”


►  The real Truman show: Capote, Warhol chats inspire new play

In the late 1970s, pop artist Andy Warhol and writer Truman Capote recorded dozens of hours of intimate conversations as the basis for a Broadway play. But the two icons moved on to other projects, the tapes were forgotten, and both men died.

On Sunday, a play inspired by their real-life dialogue — “WARHOLCAPOTE” — has its world premiere at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge.

“It’s a lost piece of art that they started,” says Rob Roth, an award-winning New York City director who adapted the play from audiotapes he only realized were in existence after reading a cryptic reference in Warhol’s own diaries.

Directed by Tony Award-winner Michael Mayer, the play stitches together four distinct conversations from themes that Warhol and Capote riffed on and recorded half a century ago.

It’s being written and staged with the support of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Truman Capote Literary Trust.

Capote, an acclaimed novelist, screenwriter, actor and playwright best known for “In Cold Blood” and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” died in Los Angeles in 1984. Warhol, an avant-garde artist who gained a global following for his emblematic paintings of Campbell’s soup cans and scores of other edgy works, died three years later in Manhattan.

Roth, a lifelong Warhol groupie, says he was re-reading the artist’s diaries while relaxing on a cruise when one entry jumped out at him: “Went to Truman’s apartment. Got six good tapes for the play.”

That instantly piqued his curiosity. As he thumbed through the pages, he noticed another entry near the end of Warhol’s journal:

“Truman died and I didn’t go the funeral. But I put on those tapes we made when we were working on the Broadway play and they’re awful. I talked on them so much. I ruined them. I should have just shut up.”

Roth couldn’t believe his eyes.

“That made me go, ’Wait a minute — he talked so much that he ruined them?’” Roth says in a talk posted on the Cambridge theater’s website.

He tracked down the cassettes, taped on a Sony recorder that Warhol jokingly called his “wife,” and an archivist helped sort through and examine them. The play was written using 80 hours of recordings and 8,000 pages of transcripts.

“WARHOLCAPOTE,” starring “Angels in America” Tony winner Stephen Spinella as Warhol and “Frasier” actor Dan Butler as Capote, runs through October 13.


►  Tennis anyone? Toronto serves up Borg-McEnroe biopic

Though seldom a smash on the big screen, tennis movies took center court at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “Borg/McEnroe” opened the annual festival Thursday.

The film, starring Shia LaBeouf as John McEnroe and Sverrir Gudnason as Bjorn Borg, is the opening volley in the ten-day Canadian festival, a premiere launching pad for the fall’s most anticipated films. This year, tennis is getting perhaps its most serious film treatment yet in movies. The Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs showdown “Battle of the Sexes” is also to premiere in Toronto, as is the documentary “Love Means Zero,” about tennis coach Nick Bollettieri.

The movies arrive conveniently as the U.S. Open nears its finally rounds in Flushing, New York. McEnroe, a popular broadcaster, wasn’t in attendance. He has previously been skeptical of the film, complaining that its filmmakers and performers didn’t meet him.

McEnroe has been even more dubious of tennis movies — and their unconvincing gameplay — in general. He last year told Vanity Fair, “They are all terrible.”

But LaBeouf expressed nothing but admiration for McEnroe on Thursday in Toronto, saying he’d love to meet him. “He’s a busy guy,” shrugged LaBeouf.

“Borg/McEnroe” focuses on the rivalry and 1980 Wimbledon finals between the different-tempered tennis legends. It’s a Swedish production, directed by the Danish filmmaker Janus Metz PederSenator The indie distributor Neon is expected to release it this fall, though no date has yet been announced.

The film depicts McEnroe and Borg not so much as opposites but similarly obsessive, driven athletes who channeled their all-consuming intensity in different ways.

“He used rage as a tactic to throw people off,” said LaBeouf of McEnroe. “He manufactured his intensity to hype himself up. In that way, he’s an artist.”

LaBeouf may still not satisfy McEnroe; the actor isn’t left-handed, for one. But LaBeouf has already matched and exceeded McEnroe in tantrum throwing. The Toronto Film Festival was LaBeouf’s first prominent appearance since his videotaped arrest for public drunkenness and other charges in July.

LaBeouf was seen yelling at Savannah, Georgia, police officers and claiming that “a black man arrested me for being white.” LaBeouf later apologized for his behavior and said, “My outright disrespect for authority is problematic to say the least, and completely destructive to say the worst. It is a new low. A low I hope is a bottom.”

LaBeouf didn’t address that incident Thursday. But he acknowledged feeling strong parallels with a combative, once-misunderstood McEnroe who preferred to talk about tennis than about his behavior.

“It’s quite cathartic,” said LaBeouf, adding that if he elaborated, “I’d put my foot in my mouth.” The film, said the actor, “expresses something I feel deeply.”

While other sports (boxing, baseball) have seen countless big-screen tales, Hollywood has typically been reluctant to serve up tennis tales. There was Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train,” which featured a tennis star drafted into a devious murder plot; Woody Allen’s Oscar-nominated “Match Point”; and the 2004 romantic-comedy “Wimbledon.” Most memorable perhaps was Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which included a flashback of Luke Wilson’s tennis pro having a complete meltdown, committing 72 unforced errors and, mid-match, removing his shoes and socks.

But “Borg/McEnroe” and “Battle of the Sexes” are the first major films to try to bring some of tennis’ big personalities to the screen. Hopes are higher for “Battle of the Sexes,” which stars Emma Stone and Steve Carell. That film, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (“Little Miss Sunshine”) has already earned warm reviews and some Oscar buzz ahead of its Toronto debut, having played earlier in the week at the Telluride Film Festival.

Though “Borg/McEnroe” was greeted by mixed reviews, Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the festival, said it captured the sport like it hasn’t been before.

“What impressed me most about this film was how it made that clash (of opposites) cinematic,” said Bailey in remarks before the film. “How it captured the rhythm of tennis and how it showed the interplay between mind and body.”


►  ‘It’ is a waking nightmare, curated from a catalogue of horror-movie tropes

There’s a reason that Stephen King’s 1986 novel about a demonic clown who terrorizes a group of children is called “It” and not “Him.” In King’s tale, which is now a feature film, it’s not the bogeyman, but fear itself – that ephemeral, foglike, ungraspable emotion – that haunts its pages.

Oh, there’s a monster in the new movie – you’d have to be living under a rock not to have caught a glimpse of Pennywise the Dancing Clown in your Twitter feed lately – but he (or, rather, it) is never one thing, taking on the form of whatever scares you the most.

Pennywise’s journey from page to screen came in fits and starts. Originally, Cary Fukunaga (“Beasts of No Nation”) was set to direct a two-movie version of King’s book about a shape-shifting entity that most often appears in the form of a circus clown. But when the budget was cut, Fukunaga stepped aside to let director Andy Muschietti (“Mama”) take over, with writer Gary Dauberman (“Annabelle”) tweaking the script that Fukunaga had put together with Chase Palmer. It’s impossible to know what was lost or gained in the process, but this first chapter of the saga is nothing to be ashamed of. If it doesn’t rewrite the rules of horror, it calls attention to them, in a manner that is not just flamboyant, but also baroque.

Call it a symphony of orchestral meta-horror, an elaborate waking nightmare in which you, as the dreamer, are constantly reminded of what the film is trying to do, and yet are powerless to stop it.

Set in 1989 in the town of Derry, Maine, the story takes place against a backdrop of dismal, blue-collar misery. Although the main protagonists are a group of seven innocent teenagers on summer break, the all-too-grown-up world they bump up against is one of economic decline, hopelessness and moral rot. Chronic, violent bullying, sexual abuse and miscellaneous adult misbehavior ranging from verbal haranguing to neglect are pervasive in a grimy universe of slaughterhouses and decaying ironworks that seems perpetually under-lit, as if it’s hiding something.

If the film is trying to suggest that everyday life is much scarier than the literal monsters that Hollywood likes to dream up – and I’m not sure it isn’t – that would make for one heck of a subtext. As it is, that idea is a mere whiff here: an unsettling, and unanswered, question that lingers in the air like an unpleasant odor. King has described “It” as his most personal novel, which should raise concerns about his own childhood.

The inciting action of the story is the disappearance of Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), a small boy who vanishes, quite gruesomely, down a storm drain in the first 10 minutes after encountering the aforementioned Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard). Why Georgie stops to talk to some creep hiding in the sewer, instead of running home to Mom and Dad, is odd, but no real mystery: Pennywise isn’t there to scare Georgie, but you.

And he – or, rather, it – will.

Georgie’s older brother (Jaeden Lieberher) and six of his pals, known as the Loser Club, go looking for the missing boy in a town that, we soon learn, has a missing-persons rate six times the national average. The members of the search party are, as is often the case in movies about children, initially more easily recognized as shorthand types than as individuals. There’s the fat kid (Jeremy Ray Taylor); the black kid (Chosen Jacobs); the Jewish kid (Wyatt Oleff); the asthmatic weakling (Jack Dylan Grazer); the smart mouth (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”); and the girl, Beverly (Sophia Lillis). To its credit, the screenplay eventually fleshes out these stock characters nicely. By the end, they feel whole, well-rounded, worthy of our sympathy and concern. They’d better be, considering there’s a second movie planned about them as grown-ups.

And concern they get. Not only are they being stalked by a devil in face paint, but they’re also being persecuted by a psychopathic older teenager (Nicholas Hamilton). And Beverly – Lillis is the film’s most delightful discovery – appears to be the victim of paternal incest. A fiend in the waterworks? What else you got?

Over the course of a somewhat overlong 2 hours, 15 minutes, “It” throws the book at them, culling tropes from the catalogue of movie horror, including an abandoned house, a well, a flooded cellar, a possessed bathroom sink, zombies, paintings that come to life, ominous messages written in blood and an antagonist with a telescoping jaw, a la “Alien.” These aren’t just tricks pulled from a director’s toolbox of worn-out cliches, but an arsenal that comes from the clown himself, who tailors his scares to each victim’s deepest fear. If the filmmakers haven’t seen a few too many horror films, Pennywise certainly has. (Inside jokes include a movie marquee advertising “Nightmare on Elm Street 5.”)

Of course, all this may or may not be real, as the kids ultimately have to figure out. The idea of an entity that doesn’t just feed on fear, but that carefully curates it, like the sadistic program director of a Halloween film festival, may not be exactly new. It is, however – like “It” itself – surprisingly effective.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular – and unpopular – culture.

Three stars. Rated R. Contains bloody violence, horror and strong language. 135 minutes.

Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

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