Adventure set in Utah heading to big screen

Environmental novel 'Monkey Wrench Gang' to be filmed

Published: Friday, Jan. 26 2007 12:06 a.m. MST

PARK CITY — After 30 years of various movie options, filming rumors and false starts, one of Utah's most infamous stories may finally come to the big screen.

But the movie won't be filmed in Utah.

Edward Abbey's legendary novel, "The Monkey Wrench Gang," is mere months away from production. The novel is about a group of Utah environmentalists who are fed up with the overdevelopment of the region's canyonlands and who want to destroy the Glen Canyon Dam to drain Lake Powell.

"The characters are very hysterical, they're very funny, very eccentric and just a blast to read," the film's director, Catherine Hardwicke, said. "So it's not preachy. It's a wild rumpus, an anarchist's romp, about people that care passionately about the land."

Hardwicke is a juror at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Her directing credits include "Thirteen," "Lords of Dogtown" and this year's "The Nativity Story."

The novel, published in 1975, is an edgy, comedic story about a four-man gang that attacks trains and bulldozers. It inspired the environmental Earth First! movement, and the term "monkeywrench" now means to ruin something — usually in order to protect the environment.

Over the years, dozens of people have attempted to make the novel into a movie, including Robert Redford, Sean Penn and Dennis Hopper, according to Hardwicke. Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City, says there's a stack of "Monkey Wrench" screenplays sitting at the University of Arizona library.

Sanders, who was a good friend of Abbey and can recount stories of traveling with the author, owns publishing rights to the 1985 R. Crumb-illustrated version of the book. Sanders has helped Hardwicke research the film and even started a line of "girly" "Monkey Wrench" T-shirts at her prompting.

But after seeing so many filmmakers get so far along without a movie materializing, he says, he won't believe it until he sees it.

"It's Hollywood, and anything can happen. I'm really rooting for them, I'm really hoping. But I've heard this so many times," he said. "In part, I think there's been resistance over the years that, I mean with Sept. 11 and Columbine, that it promotes terrorism. But if you read the novel, it's comedic. And the four people that form the Monkey Wrench Gang care deeply about the landscape and the wilderness they live in, and they are outraged at what's happened to the land. Anybody who has those kind of philosophies today, I would call them patriots and not terrorists."

Hardwicke remains confident that she's going to make a movie. Offers are out to actors now, low-ball figures to big-name stars. She expects to hear back in a matter of days. Redford has even talked to her about playing a minor character because he loves the book and Abbey, who was his friend.

Curiously, the movie will not be shot in Utah. The movie is being produced on an "indie-film budget," Hardwicke said, and filmmakers received a better deal in New Mexico, where tax incentives for movie production are much higher than in the Beehive State.

Hardwicke said she originally scouted the Moab area. "But Utah, unfortunately, hasn't caught on to those incentives yet."

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. spoke about increasing financial incentives for filmmakers in his State of the State address this week.

First assistant director Jaime Marshall said storyboards for "The Monkey Wrench Gang" have already been created, and thrill-seekers can expect to see a jeep-hanging sequence and two high-speed chases. Marshall, who's worked on "Mission: Impossible III" and "The Legend of Zorro," was brought on to the film for his action-filming expertise.

Production begins in May, and the film is expected to wrap up by the end of the year, hopefully in time for the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.

"After 'Inconvenient Truth,' we hit a tipping point where almost everybody in America cares about the environment," Hardwicke said of Al Gore's 2006 Sundance hit about the dangers of global warming. "We feel like (Monkey Wrench) is going to be a rallying cry to shake people up to care about the land, the world and do something about this planet."

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E-mail: astowell@desnews.com