Two production shut-downs, the sudden deaths of two potential stars, and the passage of 13 years: Stephen King couldn't have fashioned a spookier story if he'd tried. When director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) begins shooting his adaptation of King's novella Apt Pupil in February, it will continue the seemingly endless effort to film the darkly violent talean endeavor that's suffered more crippling blows than James Caan's tortured novelist in Misery.
The story of an American teen who tracks down, befriends, and reawakens the homicidal tendencies of a Nazi war criminal, Apt Pupil was published in 1982's Different Seasons the same collection that spawned the films Stand by Me and The Shawshank Redemption. Soon after, producer Richard Kobritz acquired the rights and met with James Mason about playing the SS officer. But in July 1984, Mason, 75, died of a heart attack, leaving Kobritz scrambling. His next choice, Richard Burton, 58, also died after being approached for the role. ''It was a bad-luck project,'' King concedes.
In 1987, Alan Bridges (The Shooting Party) finally began directing the film with Ricky Schroder, then 17, and Nicol Williamson as the unlikely pals. Shooting proceeded for 10 weeks; then Granat Releasing, the production company financing the film, ran out of money and Pupil shut down. By the time Kobritz was ready to restart production a year later, recalls Ken Wheat (The Fly II), who wrote the first script with his brother Jim, ''it was impossible, because Rick Schroder had aged.'' The nearly 40 minutes of usable footage that Bridges shot was abandoned.
Meanwhile, Singer, who had read the novella at 19, ''kept looking for the movie, but it never came out.'' So after learning that the rights to Pupil had reverted to King last year, he sent the author a print of The Usual Suspects as an audition of sorts. Duly impressed, King gave Singer the go-ahead to undertake his own version. Singer then commissioned a new script from his friend Brandon Boyce, struck a deal with producer Scott Rudin (The First Wives Club) and Spelling Films, and signed actors Ian McKellen and Brad Renfro (Sleepers) to begin shooting in June 1996. It never happened: Disagreements between Singer and Rudin pushed the start date back, and in July Rudin and Spelling suddenly dropped out entirely. Says King, ''I think the budget Bryan Singer was dealing with was a little rich for their blood.''
''The budget I wanted was too much?'' says Singer. ''For Rudin? No, no, no. The budget we wanted was too little. It just didn't work out.'' (Rudin calls the differences ''somewhat financial, somewhat creative, somewhat chemical. To force everybody to do it together seemed pointless.'') Singer, who admits ''we collapsed [at Spelling] and thought, 'This project is just cursed,''' instead joined forces with Mike Medavoy's Phoenix Pictures.
Appropriately, King is pleased with the macabre turn of events. ''I'm real tired of being packaged like lunch meat,'' he complains, citing adaptations like this summer's Thinner ''that cost maybe $12 to $16 million and are gone in three weeks. Bryan is shooting higher than that.'' Though a good match may have been made (''Bryan Singer's got ice water in his blood,'' King says), Singer won't rest easy until TriStar releases Pupil late next year. Says the director: ''Ian McKellen better watch what he eats over the Christmas holiday.''