Shadows, lights, dreams Filmmaker: A Hopkins senior has ambitious plans to create a movie version of a novel by French author Boris Vian.

November 29, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Matt O'Neill wants to tell stories in an age when Americans are more at ease watching pictures than reading words.

To find an audience for his peculiar narratives of hapless suicides, the rise and fall of Trenton, N.J., and black men passing as white men in Eisenhower's America, the Johns Hopkins University senior tells his tales on celluoid.

A month away from graduation, the 24-year-old Mr. O'Neill is searching for a million bucks to film a full-length feature of a novel written more than a generation ago by French author Boris Vian called "I Shall Spit on Your Graves."

He is putting together a plan for potential investors, will travel to the south of France in January to meet with Vian's widow, who has agreed to work with him to get the film made. He hopes to begin filming in Iowa this summer with two collaborators.

Before he died last week of leukemia, the fabled French director and Vian enthusiast Louis Malle had given the project moral support, offering to help Mr. O'Neill make some connections, Mr. O'Neill said.

"It's a big challenge," said Richard Macksey, a Hopkins professor of literature and film who has seen Caleb Deschanel and Walter Murch leave the Homewood campus for success in cinema. "The film industry is controlled by people who can put big deals together. After that, there's the mezzanine level where you try to get venture capital from dentists and real estate developers."

After producing a handful of short, black and white projects, Mr. O'Neill is trying to break into film making's mezzanine level with "I Shall Spit On Your Graves."

"I've been a fan of Vian's since high school when my French teacher had us read him," said Mr. O'Neill, whose love of story was enriched by his grandfather, the late Sun reporter Thomas O'Neill who wrote about politics and war. "I've never understood why Vian wasn't read in the U.S. and wanted to bring his work to America. I asked myself: 'If you wanted to do this in the 1920s, how would you do it?' You'd translate his novels and bring out books. But this is the '90s, and we're in an image-driven culture."

The 1950s images that will dominate Mr. O'Neill's untitled interpretation of Vian are ones some Americans look back on with longing: big, powerful cars and other toys of prosperity, and a white establishment that considered its authority unassailable.

"It's got pretty girls, cool cars and good jazz set in a time we often look back on to feel good about ourselves," said Mr. O'Neill. "[But] this film should feel like a rusty screw being shoved into a cavity."

That screw is the problem of race, the story of a mulatto who tries to pass for white in a small American town. Although Vian never made it to the United States, he got his notions about the way this country treated blacks from his friendships with African-American jazz musicians living in Paris in the 1950s.

"Imagine if Richard Wright was possessed by the soul of Raymond Chandler and you'll get a pretty good idea of the book Vian wrote," said Mr. O'Neill, who wrote the film's script. "He indicts white Americans as monsters."

Between classes and working odd jobs, Mr. O'Neill spends several hours a day working on the script in his Charles Village apartment. One colleague, 1994 Hopkins graduate Brett McCabe, is deep into a detailed study of the 1950s -- all the way down to the types of clothing fabrics used back then. The other partner, a Manhattan actor named Michel Costas, is casting about for investors and helping with the script.

"We're trying to get a complete understanding of the 1950s and merge it with an English translation of a French book and bring it onto film in the '90s," said Mr. O'Neill. "And we need to make it watchable."

Making "I Shall Spit on Your Graves" something that an audience can sit through will be no small feat. It was tried once before, in 1959 by a French film crew. Vian died that year, while he was watching the film.

Says Mr. O'Neill: "The story goes that Vian was so offended he had a heart attack in the theater and died."

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