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Thursday, December 22, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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`Nell' Screenwriter Drew Inspiration From Living In A Cascades Cabin

When writer Mark Handley and his wife Dottie moved to Washington in the 1970s, they settled into a rustic log cabin in the Cascades. It had no running water or electricity, and only a woodstove for heat.

Today Handley, 38, and his family (which now includes Irene, 3) have a much softer life - thanks in part to Jodie Foster. She's co-producer and star of the big-budget Hollywood movie "Nell," which is based on Handley's 1987 play "Idioglossia."

Home is now a spacious, recently purchased old house in Seattle's Greenwood district, filled with Mission-style antique furniture. It's toasty warm on a cold day. And the upstairs study is well-wired to supply Handley's cluster of top-end computer equipment and his collection of electric guitars.

But whenever "Nell" comes up, Handley's thoughts return to his spartan homesteading sojourn.

"That time in the cabin was horrifyingly hard," recalls the gentle-voiced, ponytailed, Chicago-bred writer.

"I didn't enjoy it at all. But the isolation, and my disappointment in not succeeding at that life, made me want to create a character who could succeed at it. I invented Nell so she could teach me."

That powerful desire, and a Newsweek story about a pair of San Diego twins who shared a secret language, catalyzed the writing of "Idioglossia." (The title is Greek for "private language.")

Handley set the story in the sylvan world of Nell, a woman living in the deep backwoods. Isolated from modern society her whole life, Nell is suddenly discovered by a pair of therapists. They are intrigued by her unblemished innocence, remarkable self-sufficiency, and the enigmatic argot she speaks.

Positive reviews

Handley credits the Empty Space Theatre and the Sundance Playwrights Institute with helping him develop and workshop the play. And when the Group Theatre premiered it here in 1987, under Ruben Sierra's direction, "Idioglossia" won positive reviews and standing ovations.

Later, theaters in Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New Jersey presented their own stagings. But all along Handley kept tinkering with the script, trying to mend what he calls "fundamental problems with the piece."

"The story demands a certain naivete from an audience," he amplifies. "It's always been something that crisply divides people. Some go with it all the way, and others resist."

One who did not resist was Foster. She loved the tale and vowed to star as Nell in a film version.

Handley is quick to point out, though, that his big break didn't happen overnight. While his wife, an occupational therapist, supported the family, Handley toiled three long years on a screen adaptation.

"Writing movies," he says wryly, "is a hideously complex thing. It's a different beast entirely from a play."

Yet with encouragement from Hollywood producer Renee Missel, he kept working, churning out six or seven drafts before Foster read and responded favorably to one in 1989. Then Foster pitched in, too, giving her input on further rewrites.

Handley found her advice most helpful: "Jodie is incredibly bright, completely relaxed and very charming, an unusual combination of street-smart and well-educated. And she's wonderfully analytical and intuitive."

Script credit

Co-producers Foster and Missel secured financial backing for the movie, and "Shadowlands" screenwriter William Nicholson was hired to prepare the final script.

That was fine with Handley. "I was very happy to be relieved at that point. And I was pleased with the choice of Nicholson."

What he did object to, though, was the studio's original plan to give Nicholson sole screenwriting credit on "Nell." Not only was Handley's pride of authorship at stake, but also the residuals, potential profits, and possible awards he might lose without the credit.

Handley pressed his case, and he and Nicholson went through an arbitration procedure with the Dramatists Guild. A panel of Guild authors ruled that at least one-third of the script was Handley's material, and that he deserved the co-writing credit.

Though the experience stripped him of illusions about the movie biz, Handley isn't carrying a grudge.

He spent 10 days visiting the set of "Nell" in North Carolina's Great Smoky Mountains National Park, watching director Michael Apted and stars Foster and Liam Neeson shoot scenes on location.

"We had a good vacation," Handley says, "and the actors were great. But seeing a film get shot is deadly dull - like watching paint peel."

Handley also attended the gala Hollywood premiere of "Nell." The glitz and hype struck him as "bizarre." But he's satisfied with the way the movie turned out, and defends most of the changes made from stage to celluloid - such as dropping Nell's romance with the doctor played by Neeson, supplying Nell with an entirely new secret language, and shifting the locale from the Cascades to the Smokies.

As for the movie's mixed reviews, Handley says "it's nothing new. The same criticisms I got for the play are coming up again. It's a romantic movie, but then I'm a very romantic person. And when people object that Nell is more archetypal than real, I don't have a problem with that. I created her as an archetype."

Now Handley is at work on a new screenplay - which, again, sounds romantic and rustic. "It's about Dottie and I living together in the country," he explains. "And it's about how love is built day by day - just like a log cabin."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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