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Disney’s ‘Civil Action’ Reopens Wounds Movie Prompts Bill That Would Require Permission To Film Life Stories

When filmmakers from Disney come to Massachusetts this fall to make a movie about a toxic waste case, they are expected to spend $20 million for star John Travolta, $1.2 million for writer Jonathan Harr and zero for the families whose children died of leukemia.

In response, legislators have passed a bill requiring producers to obtain permission before making movies about people’s life stories.

Now, however, Hollywood is fighting back, claiming that the bill, if signed into law, would be an unprecedented - and potentially unconstitutional - curb on filmmaking. The proposed law, supporters and opponents say, could become a national test case, pitting citizens’ rights to privacy against moviemakers’ artistic freedom.

Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, declared recently that the bill “seeks to shackle one of the dearest freedoms we possess as a nation, our rights to free expression.”

Acting Governor Paul Cellucci, who has campaigned aggressively to attract film business to Massachusetts, plans to veto the bill, according to press secretary Rob Gray.

Supporters say they want only to protect the Woburn, Mass., families whose children were stricken after allegedly being exposed to toxic wastes. The families’ stories will be the subject of the movie version of Harr’s 1995 legal thriller, “A Civil Action.”

In 1986, eight Woburn families won $8 million and national acclaim after a lengthy legal battle charging two companies with leaking chemicals into drinking-water wells. Six children died of leukemia related to the pollution, they argued, among them Anne Anderson’s son, Jimmy. He was diagnosed with cancer at age 3 and died nine years later.

Anderson says she feels a deep, renewed hurt as Disney prepares to shoot the movie without consulting her or the other families.

“People ask me about the movie because they think I am involved since it is my story, but I tell them I don’t know anything. I am embarrassed by that,” Anderson said last week. “Every time I hear about it, which is every day, it feels like I am being stabbed in the chest.”

It is strange, she said, how the illness and death of these children, the very crux of the lawsuit, have for more than two decades seemed relegated to the shadow of big-business interests and reputations. It bothers Anderson and other Woburn parents that neither they nor the surviving children have been interviewed by the movie’s makers for their perspective on the harrowing experience they went through.

In the 1970s, the crusading mother said she was first ignored, then despised by local officials for bringing up the poisoned water theories and helping to put Woburn in the company of toxic waste disasters like Love Canal. In the mid-1980s, she felt unheard as lawyers and experts argued in and out of court with hardly a mention of the child deaths.

“I feel like I am back in 1972 when I had to deal with local politicians and no one paid attention to me because no one believed me,” Anderson said, a photo of her pale, smiling son staring at her from among the pictures of her two surviving children on her desk.

Just a few miles from Woburn District Court, where Anderson works as an assistant law librarian, Donna Robbins, 47, a nurse in Stoneham, is struggling through her most difficult time of the year, the anniversary of the burial of her 9-year-old son, Robbie, 16 years ago on Aug. 10. He, too, died of leukemia.

Disney officials say “they will use fictitious names, but so what? It is still my story,” Robbins said. “This is opening everything up for me again. I want to see the movie happen, because I want people to know the story. But Disney should have our input.”

Disney officials have said the movie - to be filmed at sites such as Fall River and Hudson - is not about the families at all, but about their young lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann, and the nine-year legal battle that left him bankrupt and demoralized.

“We bought the rights to the book and we are making the movie about Jan Schlichtmann. We are not making the families’ story. Our movie starts when the case is filed,” said Terry Curtin, a spokeswoman for Disney, whose Touchstone Pictures division is making the movie.

Under civil law, people whose lives or images are portrayed in the media can sue only if they are harmed in some way; the makers of “A Civil Action” reportedly do not plan to use the real names of the victims.

“How can they make a movie about a lawyer who represented us, without mentioning us?” demanded Anderson, who said she is not looking for money from Disney. “I feel like we are on an iceberg, floating somewhere alone. They will take our lives from us without considering whether it is fact or fiction. It is so hard to believe.”

The flap over the Woburn families is yet another in a string of embarrassing disputes to strike Disney, the entertainment behemoth, and all of them question the tastefulness of the company’s productions.

In recent months, Disney has come under fire from Southern Baptists for its positive portrayals of gays, Arab Americans for its alleged stereotyping of Arabs in the movie “Operation Condor,” Catholics for a planned TV show about a priest who doubts his faith, and people with poor vision for an upcoming comedy about nearsighted “Mr. Magoo.”

Leaders of the film industry insist that passing a law requiring producers to pay for people’s life stories is the wrong way to seek justice for the Woburn victims.

Rich Taylor, spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America, said the law would tie producers’ hands with potentially limitless lawsuits, stifling artistic freedom. Even famous people like the Kennedys would wield the power to control how their stories get told in movies and TV, he said.

“It shackles the fundamental right of expression,” he said.

One key supporter of the bill, former Rep. Nick Paleologos of Woburn, is a movie producer who once held the rights to the families’ stories. He said the bill simply extends legal protections that already exist for people whose faces are used in advertising to those whose private lives become fodder for filmmakers.

“The reason for the statute is obvious,” Paleologos said in a letter to the acting governor. “If there is something of value that is unique to you as an individual, somebody else should not be able to steal it from you for a commercial use without your consent.”