The Story of O , Weinstein Style: High-School Othello Is Held Up

Tim Blake Nelson was in Australia acting in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in the summer of 1997 when he got the script for O . An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello , the screenplay was set in a modern private high school and featured a black star basketball player named Odin as its central character.

Mr. Nelson, a playwright, actor and director, didn’t think that the world needed “another Shakespeare adaptation set in high school,” but when he read the O script, he realized he had something special on his hands. “I saw the opportunity to do the anti-high-school film. The high-school film that would really turn the genre on its head,” he said. “It would take a lot of risks. It would have sex and violence, but never in an exploitative way.” He decided to direct it.

In the fall of 1998, Mr. Nelson cast the film with then-unknown Julia Stiles as the Desdemona character, Desi; Mekhi Phifer as Othello/Odin; Josh Hartnett as Iago/Hugo; and Martin Sheen in a supporting role. In early 1999, Dimension Films, a division of Miramax, acquired O for $7 million, three days before filming started in Charleston, S.C. The initial release was set for October of that year.

Two years later, Mr. Nelson has just finished shooting The Grey Zone , a Holocaust film based on one of his plays. He has also wrapped another acting gig, in the new Coen brothers’ musical O Brother, Where Art Thou? Mr. Phifer has appeared in this summer’s much-hyped Shaft update, Ms. Stiles has become a teen “It” girl with lead performances in Ten Things I Hate About You and Down to You , and Mr. Hartnett is a veritable heart-throb thanks to The Faculty and The Virgin Suicides . Mr. Sheen’s career has been revivified by his portrayal of the prime-time President on The West Wing . Even Miramax is one Best Picture Oscar richer than it was in the spring of 1998.

But O is still sitting on a shelf.

Dimension will say only that O will be released early next year, and this mystifies a small group of people who have seen Mr. Nelson’s film. They say O is violent, but ultimately the kind of powerful movie that Miramax’s crack promotions and publicity army could turn into a healthy box-office earner, and possibly even an Oscar winner.

The director suspects his film has fallen victim to what he calls the “facile rhetoric” about violence in the media that has erupted in the wake of the Columbine High School massacre. “It really saddens me that it isn’t out right now,” said Mr. Nelson, who limited his comments to the making of his film and the message he intended it to have. “If they’d put it out now … you’d have a film out there which challenges that rhetoric by being a serious, non-exploitative film addressing sex and violence in high school.”

Still, some industry insiders suspect that O ‘s delayed release is directly linked to the Hollywood-taming campaign of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, a campaign in which Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein has been enthusiastically enmeshed. Indeed, one source close to the film’s production told The Observer that “Eric Gitter, [the film’s] financier and producer, was told about a month and a half ago that no decision would be made on when O was [to be] released until after the election.”

Certainly, Mr. Weinstein’s duties as a studio chief have been complicated this year by his tireless efforts as a Democratic Party cheerleader. Just in the last 40 days or so, Mr. Weinstein has served as co-chairman of a benefit rock concert at Radio City Music Hall for Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman; he has co-hosted a benefit birthday party for New York Senate candidate Hillary Clinton; and barely six hours before the polls opened on Nov. 7, Mr. Weinstein stood on a stage with Mr. Gore, Ben Affleck and Robert De Niro at a late-night rally in Miami.

As for O , Mr. Weinstein denied any involvement with the film’s production or release. “I have nothing to do with that,” he told The Observer on Nov. 6. “That’s Bob, my brother. That’s my brother’s [division of the] company,” he said, referring to Dimension, which Mr. Weinstein’s brother, Bob Weinstein, helms. Then Mr. Weinstein added: “I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t know anything about it, but call Bob.”

Mr. Nelson said that Dimension’s decision to buy the film was based on the cast that he had chosen, the script by first-time screenwriter Brad Kaaya and Mr. Nelson’s own detailed production notes. “These production notes spell out everything I’m going to do. They’re almost like a term paper for the movie before it’s shot. They read those.”

By “they,” Mr. Nelson meant Bob Weinstein, who, on the box-office strength of Scream 3 and Scary Movie , finished in eighth place in Entertainment Weekly ‘s annual show-business power issue while Harvey landed at No. 22.

“They” also included Cary Granat, the recently departed president of Dimension, and Peter Schwerin and Jessie Berdinka, the film’s in-house producers. The foursome kept a steady eye on the film during production, too. “They were watching the dailies and pretty much leaving us alone,” Mr. Nelson said.

Ironically, Mr. Nelson said, Dimension initially wanted to accelerate completion of the film and release O on Oct. 17, 1999–prime time for a film that has Academy Award potential. “During the shoot, when they were seeing the dailies, they were saying, ‘We want this. We’re going to rush it. We want it for the fall of ’99,'” Mr. Nelson said. “There was such an interest in getting it out there quickly that, when I asked to go do the Coen brothers movie, I had to agree that if I didn’t fulfill my responsibilities in a timely manner, somebody else would be able to come in and take over the movie in post-production. That’s how eager they were.”

Mr. Nelson somehow managed to get a completed cut of the film to Dimension in early summer 1999. On June 4, a little more than one month after the Columbine High School shootings, O was screened at the Tribeca Film Center for Bob Weinstein, the film’s other producers, Miramax and Dimension’s marketing and publicity teams, as well as a host of the company’s executives. One source who was at the screening reported that after the film ended, there was silence in the room. “The room was shell-shocked,” said the source. “They thought, ‘What are we going to do with this?'”

O is a very faithful retelling of Othello , though all the language has been updated. Among its most powerful moments is a graphic rape scene involving Mr. Phifer’s Odin and Ms. Stiles’ Desi. There’s also the bloody end of the film, which, like the play, leaves four lead characters dead and one badly wounded.

But, according to Mr. Nelson, these scenes were intended to be brutal and honest out of respect for both young audiences and the adults whom he hopes will also see the movie. “Our guiding principle was that this film must only ever be responsible to these events.… The whole aesthetic [of the movie’s final montage] was based on footage from school shootings. And this was before Columbine.”

After the June 4 screening, Dimension pushed back the release date for O , first to November, then to Christmas. To be fair, the company was not alone in its concerns about releasing violent films in the wake of Columbine. The WB Network famously refused to air two episodes of its hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer teen show: the season finale and an episode about a student opening fire on the students of vampire-rich Sunnydale High School. But the network eventually aired the finale in July of ’99, and the second episode just before the start of the next fall season.

Meanwhile, O is still sitting on a shelf.

The film’s release date had been pushed back a third time, beyond the Oscar consideration deadline, into March 2000. Around that time, sources familiar with the situation said that Mr. Berdinka and Mr. Schwerin began a push inside Dimension to release the film in the fall, when high schoolers would be returning to their classrooms and when it would not be forgotten come Oscar-nomination time.

“Jessie Berdinka and Peter Schwerin … fought like hell to get the movie released this fall. They fought like hell ,” said one source. According to these sources, it was around this time Mr. Gitter was informed that no decisions would be made until the election was over. Mr. Gitter was asked by Miramax not to comment for this story, and was thus unable to confirm or deny the report.

Another young Miramax insider told The Observer that there had been speculation within the company about the film being delayed until the end of the campaign. But the insider said: “Everything these days gets thrown around in relation to [the Weinsteins’ political involvement], so it could be.” The insider, who has not seen the film, said that “everyone wonders what happened to that movie,” and added that the company consensus is that “it’s the Columbine thing. They’re just being careful.”

Through a Dimension spokeswoman, Bob Weinstein released a statement noting that O “is a movie that deals with sensitive issues that are important in our country. Therefore, we felt the responsible thing was to postpone the release … due to the sensitive events occurring at that time. We are presently formulating the proper marketing plan for the film that deals with these social issues and are looking for the proper release date in the calendar year 2001.”

Elizabeth Clark, who heads up Dimension’s publicity team, reiterated that Mr. (Bob) Weinstein “stands behind the film and the film makers, but first and foremost made the decision [to postpone release] from the position of a responsible citizen.” Ms. Clark also emphasized that “the company has released difficult films before. We’re not going to shy away from it.… This is going to be a tricky one because it is based in high school, but if any company can do it, it’s Miramax because it’s the forte of the company.” Ms. Clark then said: “It would be very easy to not release the film. Maybe not easy. But that’s a decision that the company could make, and that’s not the decision. It will be released next year.”

Mr. Nelson maintained that except for his frustration about the film’s delayed release, his relationship with Miramax has been a good one. “The stories about the Weinsteins coming in and re-cutting a film never came true on this movie. Even when I know they were very scared of the movie and probably wanted it to go away, which was around Columbine, nobody ever came in and forced me to do anything. The cut of the movie that will be shown in theaters is very much my own. That’s a great thing to be able to say.”

Mr. Kaaya is also cautiously positive about the Weinsteins. “I do trust Dimension and Miramax,” said the screenwriter. “They’ve done well marketing films in the past, so I’m hoping they will do well with this film.”

Those who have seen the film, mostly on tapes that have been slipped out of production facilities and passed around, report strong reactions. “None of the themes were sugar-coated,” said one 23-year-old film-industry insider who does not work for Miramax, but who saw the film at a friend’s apartment in the summer of 1999. “It shouldn’t be controversial, but it will be if they leave in that scene with Mekhi Phifer raping pretty blond what’s-her-name…. But it was responsible.” A 22-year-old theater administrator, who saw a friend’s copy of the tape while she was still in college, said, “It was really, really powerful.” She said that although she had problems with the film’s handling of race and with the teen-speak dialogue, she believed that the film could be an Oscar contender for its cinematography and lead performances. “I have wondered about it a lot since I saw it,” she said. “I keep thinking ‘When are they going to do it?’, because there are certain scenes that stick with you.”

Mr. Nelson remembered hearing about the Colorado high-school massacre while in the editing room with O . “Eric Gitter called me and said, ‘Have you turned on the news? It feels exactly like our footage.’ This horrible thing that happened. Now to my mind, if the film has succeeded in dealing sensitively and constructively with these issues, the time to put it out is as soon as possible, and the time to put it out was now.”

“What baffles me is that, if it is politics, if it is Hollywood’s relationship with Washington that’s the problem here, why on earth would O be the problem? With the movies that they do put out?”

Mr. Nelson continued: “What I would like is for O to be something they’re proud of in this light: We’re putting out a movie that, however controversial, can never be assailed as anything but a sensitive response to what’s been happening in our country. Because that’s what I truly believe the movie is, and that’s why I made it.”