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Author Stabenow's Kate Shugak may be headed for television

Debra McKinney

That gutsy, savvy, Aleut private investigator Kate Shugak and her not-so-little dog, Mutt, are closer than ever to sleuthing their way off the pages of the Dana Stabenow mystery novels and onto television screens.

From his state-of-the-art, upper Hillside studio, Mike Devlin of Evergreen Films Inc. announced Tuesday that the film production company has acquired the option to develop the Stabenow series. That means a television show is now in the works. And, if it all eventually works out, the show will be filmed in Alaska.

A deal like this has been a long time coming for the 57-year-old Alaska-born bestselling author.

Stabenow said she's had money waved in her face for years and has turned down six-figure offers. She even had Kate Jackson and Demi Moore interested in playing Kate, the legendary investigator for the district attorney's office who retreats to her wilderness homestead after a life-altering knife fight with a child molester.

She did sign a deal in 2003 with Anchorage-born filmmaker Mike Kelly, with the promise that filming be done in Alaska. But finding a willing producer didn't pan out, and the rights expired a year later. Since then, she's held out.

"I have had a lot of offers," she said by phone upon arriving in Anchorage from her home in Homer for Tuesday's announcement at Evergreen. "I always said I would never sell to anyone who wouldn't put Alaska on the screen next to Kate and Mutt.

"My agent is not very happy with me. Sometimes I think I'm too stubborn to live."

ALASKA'S BARRIERS

Stabenow, who grew up between Seldovia and a 75-foot fish tender in the Gulf of Alaska, is among those frustrated that movies and television shows set in Alaska get filmed just about anywhere but. The list includes "The Guardian" filmed in Louisiana, "Mystery, Alaska" in Alberta, "Insomnia" in British Columbia, "Northern Exposure" in Washington, and "The Proposal" in Massachusetts.

The main reasons: Too remote. Too rustic. Too spendy.

In part the last barrier was lowered recently when Alaska ended its status as one of the few states that didn't offer tax breaks designed to lure filmmakers. With "Kate Shugak: Alaska PI" and other projects in the works, the Anchorage- and Los Angeles-based Evergreen Films is taking advantage of the state's new incentive program. Sponsored by state Sen. Johnny Ellis, the legislation was signed into law last year. Enticing filmmakers to Alaska, backers say, will infuse money into the local economy and create jobs for everyone from the carpenters who build the sets to local acting talent.

While Stabenow was waiting for the right deal, Devlin, committed to building a film industry in Alaska, was looking for the right project, one where Alaska plays a starring role, where he could put Evergreen's cutting-edge digital technology to good use.

Devlin, co-founder of a Silicon Valley software company, sold the business to IBM before moving to Anchorage several years ago and building a $10 million post-production studio high above the city. His film company, Dangerous Passage Productions, later merged with Evergreen Films, which specializes in science and nature documentaries.

LONG WAY TO GO

The deal announced on Tuesday is just the first step in a long and complicated journey to the TV set that includes nailing down financial backing, making a pilot episode, securing distribution rights, and hiring screenwriters and a cast, including finding the perfect Kate -- the moose-hunting, mountain climbing, bullet dodging "alpha female of homicide detectives," who can outsmart everything from the cleverest of criminals to a ticked-off grizzly.

"My dream is that we find an Alaska Native actress," Stabenow said.

Stabenow, who received her master's in fine arts degree in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage, published her first book, a science-fiction novel, in 1991. She's written 24 others since, including a series featuring the trials and tribulations of her Alaska State Trooper character, Liam Campbell.

Her first Kate Shugak mystery, "A Cold Day for Murder," won a prestigious Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America. A thriller, "Blindfold Game," and her latest Kate Shugak mystery, "Whisper to the Blood," made the New York Times Bestseller List. Her 17th in the series, "A Night too Dark," is slated for release early next year.

Although the commitment is there, filming the show in Alaska isn't 100 percent guaranteed. Stabenow has been assured by "many, many, many people" that writing that into a contract is something an entertainment attorney could undo in five minutes. So this is about common goal and faith.

"I have Mike's word," Stabenow said. "And I believe him. If anyone can get it done, he can."

Negotiations for this deal began in May, and Stabenow finally signed the contract on Friday.

"You have no idea how hard it's been to keep this a secret," she said. "There's a clause in the contract that is devoted specifically to me keeping my mouth shut."

Devlin said he expects to start production by summer or fall, and that Stabenow will be heavily involved in the screenwriting end of the project, translating her books into hour-long television episodes.

Least of concerns is shortage of material. Because, as the Kate Shugak would say, "there are a thousand ways to die in Alaska."

Find Debra McKinney online at adn.com/contact/dmckinney or call 257-4465.


By DEBRA MCKINNEY
dmckinney@adn.com