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Film: Son of the Blackboard Jungle

Adapting his novel Freedomland for the movies gives author Richard Price a chance to go home again

By Steve Ramos · February 22nd, 2006 · Movies
  Julianne Moore (right) and Edie Falco star in Freedomland
Frank Masi

Julianne Moore (right) and Edie Falco star in Freedomland

Everyone understands that actress Julianne Moore was upset when the release of the crime thriller Freedomland was pushed back from late 2005 to February 2006. Moore saw her performance as Brenda Martin, a single mom and recovering crack addict who loses her infant son during a carjacking, as the type of gritty acting that receives Awards nominations. Corporate decisions about when to release which movies means Moore has to wait until next year for any special recognition. That is, if critical response toward Freedomland is even favorable.

"I reminded Julianne that Jodie Foster won an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs and Julia Roberts won for Erin Brockovich, and both were first quarter films," Freedomland director Joe Roth says, speaking recently. "It doesn't matter for women when a film comes out because there are only four great female roles a year anyway."

The point regarding Freedomland is that actors, filmmakers and writers head to housing projects for different reasons. A celebrity actress like Moore goes to prove her versatility, to show street credibility and a willingness to be dirty and unlikable. Roth, who works as a producer more often than a director, sees a best-selling novel from an acclaimed author and a chance to make an audience-friendly thriller.

But only Freedomland author and screenwriter Richard Price can point to the projects as a return visit. He grew up in the Bronx housing projects Parkside Projects and Co-op City during the 1960s. He wrote about his experiences in the books The Wanderers, Bloodbrothers and The Breaks. And he visited New Jersey projects while researching novels like Clockers.

Grit, cops and street life aren't subjects Price has to learn from scratch. He only has to remember things he's seen before.

A trip back to the housing projects is a refresher course. As far as what he gets from the experience, it's a chance to tell another street-smart epic, the type of story that's made him famous and wealthy.

In Freedomland, violence and racial tension kick into gear after Martin, a white woman, announces she's been carjacked by a black man. Det. Lorenzo Council, a local son of the housing projects, works to solve the crime before riots tear the neighborhood apart. It's set on the same turf as Clockers, with Dempsey, N.J., a stand-in for Jersey City.

"The pink elephant in the room that no one talks about is Susan Smith," Price says. "But I didn't want to write about a sociopath and an act or evil. I didn't want to write about a mill town in North Carolina. What I did bring back was the point that a black man did it. I don't think she was a racist -- I think she was just American. She said it because she was in a corner."

Price began the novel in 1995, and it was published to acclaim in 1998. He wrote the first screenplay draft in 2000, updating it for Roth after he decided to film it last year.

"Adapting your own novel is like doing your root canal," Price says. "Just because you happen to be a dentist doesn't mean you're the dentist who should do it. You have a book of 550 pages. You own every word and every character you give birth to. And you've got to convert that to 125-page singing telegram. You have to get rid of a lot of stuff.

"I like adapting someone else's book because there's no personal stake. You just have to be true to spirit of the book."

Price's first novel, The Wanderers, became a successful movie. His first screenplay, The Color of Money, was nominated for an Academy Award (1986). Other screenplays include Sea of Love (1989) and Night and the City (1992). But it was the success of Clockers that established Price as an acclaimed novelist.

He had auctioned the book via in-person descriptions to various publishers. Universal paid $1.9 million for film rights and a screenplay.

His latest novel, Samaritan, is about random acts of charity by a white TV scriptwriter who returns to the housing projects and a black childhood friend who's now a police officer and works to find out who attacked him.

His novels tell the stories of people steeped in two different identities, something that speaks directly to his own working-class past and current life of Manhattan luxury. Price lives in the upscale neighborhood of Gramercy Park. Speaking at an Upper Eastside hotel syncs perfectly with his current lifestyle.

Yet researching his novels means Price is more than skin deep in crime. He gave money, clothes and books to Jersey City cops, drug dealers and single moms for information on Clockers and other books. His trademark is an eye for detail and pitch-perfect dialogue, and that requires time in the places he's writing about. The extra dose of reality allows Price to write cinematic novels, but it's the filmmaker's prerogative to take it all away.

"You have great dialogue from the novel," he says. "You listen to it in your head, and it's dead-on. Then the actors read from it, and it's amazing. But it does not matter how deft your prose is because a movie is not about the prose." ©



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