Apr 01, 2011 Russ Tarby Uncategorized
In 1996, Donna Woolfolk Cross stirred a hornet’s nest with the publication of her novel, “Pope Joan.”
The Catholic Church vehemently objected to its premise that a 9th century woman had disguised herself as a man before rising through the church hierarchy to be elected pontiff. Besides drawing the ire of the Vatican, Cross also stupefied academic historians around the world who haughtily dismissed her book as fanciful fiction – and indeed it was labeled a novel and not a biography.
While clerics and scholars scoffed, however, the reading public – especially in Western Europe where the heroine had her roots – heartily embraced “Pope Joan” as a damn good read if not a downright fact.
The book was translated into 36 languages and sold more than 2 million copies worldwide, and “Pope Joan” attracted the attention of German filmmakers.
Things looked rosy for Cross, the first-time novelist who lived on Onondaga Hill and taught writing courses at Onondaga Community College. But she would soon learn that the film business – not unlike the Vatican – also buzzes like a shaken hornet’s nest.
Not long after the novel topped the German best-seller lists, Fine Line Cinema approached Cross’s literary agent to option the rights.
“Little did I know then that this would be the first of many attempts that’d fail,” the author recalled. “It took 10 years, four different production companies, five different directors and seven different scripts, two of which were mine,” Cross sighed. “It can drive you crazy.”
The first screenwriter to produce a script for Fine Line actually changed the novel’s bittersweet climax into a clich d happy ending. Cross objected, and – even though she had no experience with screenplays – she insisted on writing one herself. Eventually, she wrote a second script for yet another producer.
Along the way, Cross not only spent countless hours in front of a computer screen creating dialogue and camera directions, she also found herself in countless courtrooms fighting off vultures who swooped down to suck the life out of her intellectual property.
One of the four lawsuits she filed in Europe was against a plagiaristic production company.
“It was outrageous,” Cross said. “They stole not only characters and scenes from my novel but even dialogue. You’d think they’d try harder to disguise their theft.”
It took her nearly two years and $80,000 to win that suit, and three more legal battles consumed more time and money.
“So, contrary to what most people think,” Cross said, “I not only didn’t make money, I was out of pocket for this film for a long time.”
Even co-star John Goodman felt the sting of litigiousness as a “Pope Joan” producer sued him in 2007 for reneging on his commitment to play Pope Sergius. They settled out of court, but not before the production stalled. Then a director was fired for comments he made to the press. Then star Franka Potente (“The Bourne Identity”) dropped out.
“It was a long, tortuous road I had to travel to bring my novel to the silver screen,” Cross said last week. But that long, tortuous road has clearly taken a turn for the better.
After Potente forsook the title role, Goodman returned to the cast, Potente was replaced, and a bona fide British hunk was hired as Joan’s romantic interest.
Since the movie premiered in Berlin in October 2009, the book is selling well again, buoyed by Cross’s endless lecture tours, book-club phone chats and indefatigable Internet efforts.
The two-and-a-half-hour English-language movie – favorably compared to such historical spectacles as “Quo Vadis” – follows Joan’s struggles through Norse invasions and the sacking of Rome. In modern-day Morocco, Wortmann vividly recreated the Eternal City of the Middle Ages and populated it with bazaar vendors, tooth-pullers, soothsayers, acrobats, pigs, goats and horses.
Costumer Esther Walz clad actors in everything from ragged muslin to magnificent silken robes. The deftly layered orchestral score by Marcel Barsotti evoked the era with liturgical chants and medieval melodies. Tom Fahrman’s lush cinematography depicted both the Dark Ages and the bright nebula of religious awakening.
The movie was made for some $30 million, and “Pope Joan” has nearly broken even, according to imdb.com. But U.S. theatrical distribution would likely bring it well over the top.
“Taking the film out on the film festival circuit last fall was intended to stir up interest [among distributors],” Cross said. “This strategy seems to be working, and we have a couple of small nibbles already.”
Directed by S nke Wortmann (“The Miracle of Bern”), the movie stars Johanna Wokalek (“The Baader Meinhoff Complex”) as Pope Joan.
The supporting cast includes John Goodman, David Wenham (“Lord of the Rings”), Iain Glen (“Resident Evil”) and newcomer Lotte Flack as Young Joan. Flack plans to walk the red carpet at the movie’s Syracuse premiere at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 2, at the Palace Theater in Eastwood.
General admission ($30) and VIP Tickets ($90) are available at popejoan.com. Proceeds will support the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation; 637-9511.
Because of brisk ticket sales, a second screening has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday, April 3. Before Saturday’s screening, Cross will discuss the transformation of her book into a motion picture.
After so many obstacles were faced and overcome, Cross said, “I got lucky” with director S nke Wortmann and screenwriter Heinrich Hadding. “They had the self-confidence, born of talent, to include me in the project at every step along the way,” she said.
They asked Cross to look over an early draft of the script and invited her to visit sets during shooting in both Germany and Morocco.
They even asked her advice about casting. “When they asked me for a suggestion about what actor should play Gerold, the handsome red-headed hero of my novel, I didn’t hesitate. ‘David Wenham,’ I said. When I saw him in the role of Faramir in ‘Lord of the Rings,’ I gasped out loud because there, on the screen before me, was Gerold – exactly as I described him in my novel.”
Cross’s father, the late novelist William Woolfolk, came from a show-business family in New York City, and her father and mother, Dorothy, entertained via the comic book industry where they created popular tales of colorful characters.
Deep in her very veins, Cross knows that only the bumpiest roads lead to Broadway. And that may be where “Pope Joan” herself is bound.
“Hair” producer Michael Butler backed a musical theater version of the novel in Los Angeles and Chicago, and earlier this month Cross toured eight German cities to promote the show.
“Don’t laugh,” she exclaimed. “It’s actually quite good – rather like ‘Les Miserables.'”
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