Last year, NASCAR got its silver-screen comedy close-up when Will Ferrell ran screaming through the Talladega night in his underwear and racing helmet.
Next year, coming to a theater near you: competitive bass fishing, with laughs.
"The Bass Master" is still in its pre-natal stages, without so much as a lead actor cast. But the movie can count among its assets a veteran screenwriter and producer, and backing from a major independent studio — a chance at prime exposure for a sport trying to expand beyond its regional base.
"It doesn't feel like a small, marginalized world," says Sean Robins, the senior development executive on the picture. "It feels like a world that a broad part of America doesn't know yet but should."
Not that Hollywood was exactly clamoring for the chance to produce the project. When screenwriters and lifelong fishermen Tab Murphy and Devin Maurer devised the idea of a bass fishing comedy, their research led them to television coverage of spectacle: weigh-ins before thousands of screaming fans filling arenas, garish pyrotechnics, trophies like designer furniture.
"We couldn't believe it," says Murphy, whose writing credits include Disney's "Tarzan," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and "Brother Bear." "We were both a little stunned at the popularity and the extreme nature of how it had grown."
The pair hammered out the story at Murphy's home in the Canadian Rockies and sent the script to a dozen producers.
Piece of cake, they figured. Then every last one passed.
The script was funny, the producers would tell them — but who's going to see it?
"We realized this movie isn't for the New York and L.A. crowd," Murphy says. "The perception was that it was for a very, very small audience."
While Murphy's agent set up another round of meetings, Maurer combed ESPN footage and assembled a two-minute introduction to the sport of bass fishing. In it, boats race, fans clamor, anglers get showered with sparks and streamers for winning Classics, Mike Iaconelli (who, incidentally, has sold the movie rights to his life story) yells at fish, Gerald Swindle talks to himself, Ish Monroe tells the camera to "come and get you some of that," AC/DC plays "Thunderstruck" and generally everyone has a big old time.
Of the five producers who saw the second pitch, four were interested — but likely the only one of them who had already been mulling a bass fishing comedy was Todd Garner, who has produced such movies as the "xXx" franchise of films and the Jack Nicholson-Adam Sandler flick "Anger Management."
"We met with Tab and Devin, and shaped it as an early Adam Sandler movie, a lot of heart and humor," says Robins, who works under Garner. He describes the story in a nutshell as "a guy loses everything and has to win it back."
They got Lionsgate Films on board to distribute the movie and are now recruiting a director and a cast. Optimistically, Robins says, shooting will begin this summer at bass tournaments and the picture will hit theaters sometime in 2008.
A fishing comedy may seem natural enough to anyone who has met more than a couple of anglers, who are often as not inadvertently hilarious people. But somehow Hollywood has consistently botched previous attempts. The 1997 Joe Pesci-Danny Glover bomb "Gone Fishin'," for example, is among the lower-rated movies of any sort on one film web site; one message board poster wrote of the movie: "It doesn't get any worse than this."
It didn't help, even, that "pesci" is Italian for "fish."
The "Bass Master" writers hope to avoid such a fate by making jokes that involve the fishing world, rather than jokes at the expense of fishing (and by obvious extension, at the expense of anglers generally).
"Bass fishermen can expect an ode to the sport that's not mean-spirited," Murphy says. "Yes, we poke a little fun, but we honor the sport as well."
As actors have learned of the script, they've made overtures to the filmmakers. One actor, whom Murphy declines to name, sent the writer a photo of himself holding a bucketmouth bass and a note saying, "I want to be in the movie, not because I want to star in it but because I want free tackle."
"When you figure people are spending upwards of a billion dollars a year on tackle and boats in pursuit of a fish people very rarely eat, you know something's going on," Murphy says.
He and Maurer, Washington state natives both have felt the tug of fishing from early ages. Murphy grew up fishing rivers for trout and steelhead until one day as a teen he and a friend found in a pasture a pond that coughed up big bass. He entered Washington State as a forestry major, but transferred to film school at Southern California, he says, "when I found out that forestry was about biochemistry. I was like, 'Wait a minute, man, I thought it was about cruising the back woods on my horse.'"
Maurer stuck to the woods longer. A fly fisherman as a kid, he actually made it out of the University of California with a degree in forestry and resource management, and went back to Washington managing a tree planting crew.
He spent much of his spare time writing and dabbled in documentary film. It was he who tried filming his buddies fishing during a three-month fishing road trip, and he's long held a fascination for the obsession that overtakes grown men in pursuit of lunkers.
"It's hard to put into words, especially to someone like a girlfriend," Maurer says. "I liken it to the rodeo circuit. These guys leave home with a boat strapped to their backs with a wife and kids at home saying, 'You better make purse, buddy, or don't bother coming back.'"