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From O Brother to O 

by Ray Pride

Evil's the hard part; bad guys are a dime a dozen. Iago, from Shakespeare's Othello, is one of the great bad guys because he's downright evil -- his inexplicable malice toward the title character has fascinated writers for years. There's no good reason for it.

Playwright, director and actor Tim Blake Nelson, whose first film was the virtually unseen, pretentiously severe Eye of God, proves himself once more to be one serious dude, despite his recent role as the second most stunted eedjit (a rung above the more-unsavory-than-usual John Turturro) in O Brother, Where Art Thou. Brad Kaaya, a screenwriter who was best known at the time for writing skits for several seasons of MadTV, wanted notice for other kinds of scripts. So he came up with the idea of resetting Othello in high school. Moodiness. Murder. Madness. Y'know?

But neither the script nor Nelson's notions about its production were exploitative the way most teen movies are today. Nelson was more concerned with making a film from an adult perspective about teenagers and their unexamined rage.

"When I was told about this script, I really didn't want to be a part of it. There have been enough butcherings of Shakespeare's plays by 'teening' them down. But when I read this script, I realized this was the first time that anyone had attempted to reimagine one of Shakespeare's tragedies in a high school setting. It struck me as so unbelievably sad, um, that it was something I was drawn to. I wanted to be the one to do that. And there was this wonderful script that was going to set me on that journey, and many others on that journey, I should add."

That journey, in brief, found the 36-year-old Oklahoma native agreeing to direct in the fall of 1997.

"Columbine happened while I was editing," Nelson recalls. The film gained topicality, but also controversy: after many delays in releasing O, Miramax Films' Dimension division laid off U.S. distribution rights to the smaller, hungrier Lions Gate Films, which is releasing the severe, earnest finished product on 1,500 screens this weekend.

"I think Miramax felt that their association with the film was going to benefit neither them nor the film.

Harvey [Weinstein, who runs Miramax] felt that, given his political affiliations [with the Democratic party], he would be construed or perceived as a hypocrite for releasing a movie, however well intentioned, that had such a bloody ending involving teenagers. A film that I still believe he feels has tremendous merit, would be getting attention because of its association with Miramax rather than because of the film itself."

Nelson continues: "I didn't agree with his predictions about the sort of controversy the film was going to provoke, but I certainly respected his opinion and felt that he really considered the decision quite carefully. I believe that the movie, ironically, could actually make money. While at times I kind of flogged myself, thinking, well, you just didn't make a film that they feel would be commercial, I actually don't believe that anymore. Harvey has a different agenda now in his own life, um, and I don't think he saw releasing O as part of that."

A different irony may resound to the film's success, as the film's trio of young stars have all become highly visible in their succeeding films. Julia Stiles plays Desi, the bright blonde free spirit of the Charleston, S.C., prep school campus, Josh Hartnett is Hugo, son of basketball coach Martin Sheen, jealous of the attentions his father pays to O, or Odin, played by Mekhi Phifer, Desi's love and the only dark face on the scene. The racial element, particularly in the explicitly depicted sexual relationship between Desi and Odin, seems more common than timelessly tragic at moments; Hartnett's callow pique never fully convinces; and the entire enterprise lacks grandeur when stripped of Shakespeare's language. Yet the tone of the film boasts a rare seriousness for films about youth.

"I think if one believes that his or her film is immediately relevant and trenchant, a delay is never a good thing. Tragically -- and I really mean that, because, y'know, you could say, 'Aw, c'mon' -- this film remains relevant because these shootings have not stopped."

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