Screen: Wednesday, December 15, 2004
Iggy Flop

‘A Confederacy of Dunces’ won the Pulitzer in 1981; a Fort Worthian with ties to the film rights awaits the adaptation.


Tinseltowners have been having a pretty hard time getting A Confederacy of Dunces to the big screen. Corporate wrestling matches, creative clashes among screenwriters, no actors. You name it, it’s probably befallen this adaptation process.

The complications began before the novel was ever published. Author John Kennedy Toole killed himself before the 1980 publication (LSU Press) of his semi-autobiographical fiction about an obese intellectual named Ignatius Reilly and his misadventures in the 1960s French Quarter. Toole never got to see his satire win the Pulitzer Prize, in 1981, or sell its one-millionth copy. Or lead to a stack of meaningless scripts.

There was some hope for the adaptation not too long ago. Producer Scott Kramer (Full Frontal), who had paid $10,000 for a stake in the novel in 1980, last year co-wrote a script with Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Twelve) that caught the attention of Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein. But since the deal didn’t gel quickly enough, the rights reverted to a third party, Scott Rudin at Paramount Pictures. A recent call to Kramer’s Los Angeles office was met by this outgoing message: “If you’re calling about A Confederacy of Dunces, the project is indefinitely on hold.”

Throughout the 20-plus years of power lunches, phone calls, and paper trails about the adaptation, it’s safe to say that not a single soul has made any money off the wheelings and dealings.

Except for Fort Worth’s Johnny Langdon.

By day, Langdon runs an alternative energy and med-tech business (J.E.L. Management) and, by night, dabbles in indie film. His production company, Bumbershoot Productions (with San Franciscan partner Susan O’ Connell), is pretty much made up of a half-dozen scripts. That’s about it. Yet while Bumbershoot has never seen a project through, the company means a lot to Langdon. Bumbershoot, he said, “saved my life.”

It wasn’t too long ago that Langdon was in cahoots with Kramer on the film. The two were partners for 11 years. Slow business in the alt-energy and med-tech fields forced Langdon to sell his share of the Dunces rights 10 years ago to Rudin at Paramount, for a cool mil. “Oil prices were low, and let’s just say I needed the money,” he explained.

Langdon stressed that he never set out to cash in on the book. He really wanted to see its adaptation through. He simply loved the story and characters. “It’s a lot like [One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest],” Langdon said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Who’s crazy, the inmates or Nurse Ratched?’ Contrarians aren’t exactly wrong, only to everyone else.”

The novel also reminded Langdon of a friend named George, who, like Toole, committed suicide and, like Ignatius, was one of a kind. “George was as close to Ignatius as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Langdon said. “All of a sudden this book came up at the right place at the right time. It already had won the Pulitzer Prize, so why not? Literally, some of the dialogue in the book could have come from George’s mouth.”

In 1982, according to The Wall Street Journal, Langdon had bought the rights from Carson Films and Columbia Pictures for $259,000. “I don’t even remember how long the option was for [at the time of purchase],” Langdon said. “But before it expired, we weren’t going to have the film done in time. So a year later I bought the rights outright from LSU Press. That was for another $150,000.”

The rights sat on Langdon’s desk in Fort Worth, while two states away the creative process chased its own tail.

From Langdon and Kramer to screenwriters Stephen Geller and Harold Ramis to playwright Beth Henley, the roundtables made everyone and their dogs seasick. Should we set the book in the present day? Should we tone down the vernacular language? And, the most popular feud to date, who plays Ignatius?

Independent filmmaker Mark Moskowitz (Stone Reader), who can’t even pull his nose out of a book for his wife’s cocktail parties or son’s little league games, has a pretty good idea of what studio execs were thinking. “By the time all the movie deals were struck, [potential Ignatius actors] Zero Mostel and Dom DeLuise were too old,” Moskowitz said. “John Candy and John Belushi were too dead. Chris Farley was too unfunny, and Philip Seymour Hoffman was too smart. Maybe they should have had a young Roseanne do it way back when, with her boobs strapped in.”

Bumbershoot wanted Glenn Shadix (Beetlejuice’s Otho) for the part. “He really wanted to do it,” Langdon said. “We met with him several times. I think he would have been good, but now he’s too old.” Seasick yet? Langdon dealt with that for about a decade. Then he traded the rights for four juicy $250,000 checks from producer Scott Rudin at Paramount.

Langdon’s businesses back home were getting healthier, but the mess out west wasn’t nearly over. Rudin was dragged into court by Kramer and Soderbergh. After litigation, the rights temporarily shifted back to Kramer, putting Langdon back into the soap opera.

“We still have 2 percent of the net, which means absolutely nothing,” Langdon said. “I’ve also got an executive producer credit. In the contract we get around $150,000 for a producer fee.”

Langdon keeps in touch with Kramer on a weekly basis. An amount like $150,000 is nothing to shake a stick at, but what’s more important to Langdon is that the project is seen through — by Kramer.

“There are some things I just can’t get into,” Langdon said. “[The project] hasn’t fallen apart. There’s a lot going on right now, and it’s just not over. Kramer is a hands-on guy, and the movie will be made. I’ll make that bet.”

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