"It would be hard to believe, with the cast they have, that they did not make a great movie," Karl Harter says. The author is talking about the film adaptation of his 1990 true-crime book Winter of Frozen Dreams. Now in post-production, the movie is scheduled for release next year.
"We don't know anything firm about a release date," Harter says over coffee at Ancora on King Street. At one point, he says, there was talk of trying for the Toronto International Film Festival, but that September event has come and gone. The producers have since told Harter that if the film makes it into January's Sundance Film Festival, he would be invited to attend. "I assume I'd have to hitchhike," he jokes. "I wish I knew more about the thing, but they've been very reserved."
Maybe it is enough to know that after a few false starts spanning several years, a movie version of perhaps the best book yet written about Madison circa the late 1970s appears to be on the horizon. Starring Thora Birch as Barbara Hoffman and Keith Carradine as Detective Chuck Lulling, the movie also features Derek Cecil as then-Dane County District Attorney James Doyle and Scott Cohen as powerhouse defense attorney Don Eisenberg.
Budget constraints led director Eric Mandelbaum to film the feature in Schenectady, N.Y. The extent to which one of the most sensational murder trials in Madison history translates to another locale remains to be seen.
But with a cast like that, as Harter says, it's hard to imagine anyone botching such a compelling narrative. Hoffman, who worked at a local massage parlor after dropping out of the UW, was convicted in 1980 of murdering one of two clients she was alleged to have killed for life-insurance jackpots. Harter's book documents the investigation and trial in such exquisite detail that readers see the city as it was almost 30 years ago, when the corner of King and Main streets, where Hoffman worked, was a vice magnet.
Harter says Michael Graf - the award-winning principal of Spot Filmworks,launched here in the mid-1990s - had for several years held the latest in a series of options on the book. Teaming with Michael Caughill, Graf wrote a script that created sufficient buzz to attract the interest of actor James Woods, who at one point was slated to play Lulling.
Harter says Graf had hoped to direct the project. "Michael had a good thing," he notes. "Doyle was gonna play a judge." But time has a way of eroding plans, and Harter says Graf eventually "sold the option to this guy in New York." Graf's name is still on the script. So is Caughill's. So is Mandelbaum's.
Next thing Harter knows, it is March of this year and he is taking a call from Capital Times columnist Doug Moe, alerting him that the cast and crew were halfway through filming. Harter was blindsided by the news. "So I call them and ask what's going on," he remembers. They had 11 days of filming left to go.
They took the script and changed the setting to "a generic college town," says Harter. That's fine, he adds. "I never got involved in any part of it." Among the terms of the option on his book, he allows, was this: "They had to give me a percentage of the budget. Which they did. So I was satisfied financially. I got a new kitchen."
There is also the possibility that a new edition of the book, long out of print, may be published. "The book had a good run in hardcover and paperback," says Harter, noting that the rights have since reverted to him. Both he and his agent are interested in seeing the book back in print, he adds.
Among the elements that attracted him to the story in the first place were the elements themselves. In writing the book, "I wanted the climate to be a character," he says. "You know, the winters are so profound here. I thought you could do terrific things with the cold winter," when the murders took place, "contrasting with the sweltering summer trial."
The most attractive element to writing the book, he remembers, was the opportunity to dig into the darker recesses of human nature. "Any of us are capable of doing anything," he believes. "If given the right set of circumstances, we really don't know what we would or would not do. I think there's a lot about human nature that is very, very difficult to explain."
The complexity of human nature was manifest throughout the investigation and trial, which gripped the city. Even with an unlisted phone number, Harter says he still gets calls all the time from people who say they've got something to tell him about the case. Hoffman's steadfast silence throughout the years she has been in prison has only added to the intrigue surrounding it.
Now, with a movie version of his book in post-production, that interest is bound to spike once again. Harter himself is not immune, he says: "I'm still fascinated by her."