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“Leatherheads” takes years to move from writer's idea to screen

Associated Press Writer

RALEIGH, N.C., 4-9-08 (AP): In 1986, Duncan Brantley fell in love with Johnny Blood, mesmerized by the tales of the Duluth Eskimos star from the early days of professional football: ``He was a drunk, a womanizer and a poet.''

It was a love to be tested for more than two decades, as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate's retelling of Blood's tales—written with former Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly—attracted one leading man after another. Alec Baldwin, Michael Keaton, Ray Liotta, and Mel Gibson all took a look after Universal bought the script in 1991. None would commit.

``We had this beautiful relationship and we made this great baby,'' Reilly said. ``And right away, the baby was adopted. And for 16 years, we had no idea what happened to this baby. ... We figured many, many times the baby was dead.

``So we go years without hearing anything about it, only to hear not only the baby is alive, but it's running toward you with a big, fat check. And the baby looks just like George Clooney.''

The baby's name: ``Leatherheads.'' Johnny Blood, whose real name was John McNally, became Dodge Connolly. He plays for the Duluth Bulldogs, instead of the Duluth Eskimos. Set in Minnesota, it was filmed in North Carolina and South Carolina. A film with high expectations, it opened last Friday to mixed reviews and a disappointing $13.5 million in ticket sales.

But it opened.

``He never stopped believing in it,'' Reilly said. ``I stopped believing in it two years after I wrote it.''

Brantley met Reilly in the 1980s when working as a researcher at Sports Illustrated, where Reilly wrote the back page column before leaving recently for ESPN. Brantley stumbled on Blood's story while at the magazine and convinced Reilly they could write a screenplay, even though neither had done it before.

``I just fell in love with this guy,'' Brantley, a native of Rutherfordton, said of Blood. ``I thought, 'Wow, this would be a fun movie.'''

Brantley left SI before the script was done, taking a job as a caretaker at Steven Spielberg's home in East Hampton, N.Y. When he and Reilly finished ``Leatherheads,'' Reilly wanted Brantley to leave the script where Spielberg would happen across it _ on a desk, near a toilet, by the fridge. Much to Reilly's frustration, Brantley refused.

``He would not give the damned picture to Steven Spielberg,'' Reilly said. ``If he had, we'd probably be multibillionaires.''

Eventually, another connection got the script to Hollywood. The pair sold ``Leatherheads'' to Universal through director Steven Soderbergh, who was then married to Brantley's sister. Soderburgh was going to direct it and Gibson was set to star. But he lost interest, and other actors and directors came and went.

In writing the story, set in the 1920s, Reilly and Brantley said they studied the fast-talking movies from the 30s and 40s, including ``The Thin Man'' series and ``His Girl Friday.'' Brantley took another stab at freshening the script about three years ago before Clooney got a hold of ``Leatherheads'' and added his own touch.

That's led to a dispute over who should get the credit. The Writers Guild of America decided only Brantley and Reilly would get it on screen, which Variety reported last week led Clooney to downgrade his membership in the union. Clooney directed the film and told The New Yorker he significantly rewrote the script to make it more of a screwball comedy.

When asked, Brantley coyly said he couldn't tell where one writer's work blended into another's.

``It's such an impossible question to answer because what you're trying do is divvy up a totally subjective document,'' Brantley said. ``It's just an impossible thing to do.''

Reilly said while Clooney added a plot device and changed some of the dialogue, ``most of it was still what we wrote.'' Still, he recalled sitting in an audience with Brantley at the premiere, wondering who wrote which joke.

``That's pretty funny. Did we write that? I don't think we did,'' he said, describing their conversation. ``It's been so long, we don't even recognize the baby.''

But 16 years after giving birth, Reilly said, that's OK: ``If somebody raised your baby, fed it, clothed it and made it rich, you're not going to complain about the underwear.''






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