PHILADELPHIA - It wasn't the first thought Jennifer Weiner had upon hearing that her second novel, "In Her Shoes," was going to be made into a movie. But it wasn't her last thought, either.
"It's Hollywood," says the Philadelphia author, who reckoned that her best-seller about the knotty relationship between two grown sisters and their estranged grandmother could easily join the list of literary adaptations gone awry.
"There's always a part of you that thinks, what if they make both girls really hot strippers? And instead of the grandmother, it's a long-lost sister, and she's really hot, too?"
Happily for Weiner - and for her legion of fans, and for moviegoers who show up Oct. 7, when "In Her Shoes" opens nationwide - there are no strippers. Instead, there's Cameron Diaz (whose character, Maggie, is a party girl one might actually envision writhing around a strip-club pole); there's Toni Collette, playing Rose, an Ivy League-schooled lawyer at a top Philadelphia firm; and there's Shirley MacLaine, as the troubled sibs' long-lost maternal grandma.
There's also Oscar-nominated writer Susannah Grant (for "Erin Brockovich"), who wrote the screenplay. And there's Oscar-winning director Curtis Hanson (for "L.A. Confidential"), who steered it toward the multiplexes.
"The truth of it is that most novels that go to Hollywood don't get optioned," says Weiner, a former Philadelphia Inquirer writer and current guest columnist. "And most novels that get optioned never get made. And of the ones that do get made, it's not always something that the writer's happy with. And I'm so happy with this movie."
As well she should be. Shot in Philadelphia; Delray Beach, Fla.; and the backlots of 20th Century Fox in early 2004, "In Her Shoes" was A-list all the way. Hanson was sent Grant's screenplay with word that Diaz was already interested in the project. Although the director's curriculum vitae of suspensers ("The Hand That Rocks the Cradle," "The River Wild") and male-centric dramas ("Wonder Boys," "8 Mile") doesn't exactly suggest a penchant for what can (too) easily be tagged a chick flick, he was drawn to the story, and its emotional complexities, from the get-go.
From the time Weiner's then-unpublished galley arrived on the desk of Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler to the day the production wrapped took just two years - light-speed rapidity by studio standards. The whole project seems to be blessed.
"I was moved by it and engaged by it, and then I immediately sat down with Cameron to see if we saw both the character and the movie the same way," says the director, who along with Diaz, took a pay cut to make the film. "On the surface, she's an obvious choice to play Maggie, this character who cruises by on her good looks. But the bigger question was, was she prepared to go behind that image to the dark side of it, because the whole first part of the movie is pretty grim in terms of her behavior - and I felt it needed to be. I didn't want her doing it in a way that was sort of winking at the audience and saying, `Don't be offended by this.'
"It was important, thematically, that her negative self-image, and in fact her self-loathing, be palpable in the beginning. I wanted to know if Cameron was prepared to go there, and as we talked about it she just got more and more excited and we ended up saying, `OK, let's do this together.'"
Diaz wasn't the only one Hanson needed assurances from. MacLaine, the colorful "Terms of Endearment" Oscar winner, was an obvious possibility to play Ella Hirsch, a woman who fled her past and turned to a life of muted comfort, and stifled emotions, in a Florida retirement community.
But there was also the Shirley MacLaine problem, Hanson explains.
"Obviously, as a movie fan, I know Shirley well," he says. "So when her name came up, I was one of many people who thought
Shirley MacLaine, that could be exciting, but' - there was always this bigbut.'"
So after Diaz and Collette had already been cast, Hanson called MacLaine into his office. One on one. On a weekend. Without offering her the part.
"Which, for Shirley, was kind of unusual at this point in her career," Hanson says. "I basically said that on the one hand the idea of working with her was exciting, because I'm a fan, but on the other hand the very thing I'm a fan of could be very wrong for my vision of this part. That is, that Shirley is such a powerful persona and a big talent. She has used that persona and that talent very effectively for a long time, and yet Ella is somebody who is hiding from life, who is afraid, who is in grief, who has basically shut down.
"So, I questioned whether she was the right actor. ... But on the other hand, if she could put everything in service of this character it could be really exciting, because it would be, first of all, something that we hadn't seen from Shirley, at least in a long time, but secondly we would, in terms of this movie, see flashes of what she was hiding, of the liveliness that she had shut down.
"And as I talked about it you could just see her eyes kind of lighting up."
Hanson laughs. "At first, frankly, I don't know if she was thinking, `Am I being complimented or offended in this conversation?' But ultimately I think her eyes lit up because she saw the challenge of it, and first and foremost she's an actor and loves a challenge."
As for Collette, the Australian who came to international acclaim with the title role in the 1994 ugly-ducking romantic comedy "Muriel's Wedding," Hanson felt she needed no such talking-to. And Collette, upon reading the script, knew she wanted the role - the movie's central role, really, and the one closest in many ways to author Weiner.
"I read it in early 2003 and it kind of disappeared and I thought oh well, it must have gone to someone else," the Sydney-based star remembers. "But then, in the fall, I ended up being called in to meet with Curtis and do a test with Cameron."
Everyone hit it off. Diaz even drove Collette back to her hotel afterward.
"I was over the moon," says Collette, who found herself, happily, back in the same burg where she shot M. Night Shyamalan's breakthrough "The Sixth Sense." "I know it's just a job, but it's become one of a handful of filming experiences which has become somehow bigger and more important in my life."
Collette acknowledges certain similar threads between her Rose Feller character and her Muriel Heslop - the fact that she had to gain poundage to play them being one. And there are similar self-image issues, self-esteem issues, issues of shyness and awkwardness around members of the opposite sex.
"Some of it is like Muriel 10 years after," she says. "But then, at the same time, Rose is incredibly smart and she's an overachiever, a workaholic. ... And I think Rose's transformation is slightly more profound, just because she's lived a little bit longer.
"That's one of the things that drew me to wanting to do `In Her Shoes,'" she adds. "That you meet this woman who's the kind of person that you really wouldn't look at twice on the street and then, well - her name is Rose, and you literally watch her blossom."
(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.