By Kate O'Hare
The word "wuthering" refers to turbulent weather and roaring winds.That meaning certainly applies to Emily Bronte's 1847 novel "Wuthering Heights," an intense, violently passionate romantic tragedy set on Britain's blustery moors.
With that in mind, it's no surprise that when MTV chose to do a musical version of the novel -- a staple of high-school and college reading lists -- the songs would come from Jim Steinman, the composer behind Meat Loaf's extravagant
and operatic 1977 rock album "Bat Out of Hell."
"Jim brought it to us," says Maggie Malina, MTV's executive in charge of the production. "He's the one who suggested we have a look at this book for contemporary treatment."
Steinman, who is also executive producer of "Wuthering Heights," which premieres Sunday, Sept. 14, says he only had one musical directive from MTV.
"They were very specific," he says. "They wanted it to be rock 'n' roll. It was said as, 'This is more important symbolically. This has to represent our commitment away from boy-band pop back to raw rock 'n' roll.'"
The movie, directed by Suri Krishnamma, updates the basic story of "Wuthering Heights" (or at least the first half, before the characters' children all start intermarrying) to the present day and relocates it to the Northern California coast.
"Northern California has a mythical resonance for me," Steinman says. "I thought it was cool to be on the far edge of America. Big Sur was in my mind -- the majesty but also the bleakness."
For budgetary reasons, the film was actually shot in tropical Puerto Rico, where location scouts found both the rocky coast and the historic lighthouse they wanted.
"I was stunned to see the shots from the scouting," Steinman says.
"It could double for Northern California."The lighthouse, nicknamed "The Heights," is home to the Earnshaw family: a
counterculture father (played by "Roswell" star and former punk rocker John Doe), daughter Cate (Erika Christensen) and son Hendrix (Johnny Whitworth).
Earnshaw takes in a reclusive homeless boy called Heath (Mike Vogel). Cate becomes attached to the brooding, musically inclined Heath, while Hendrix resents the intruder for replacing him in his father's affections.
Cate falls hard for Heath, but realizes he is wrong for her, so she rushes into a marriage with neighbor Edward Linton (Chris Masterson). At the same time, Edward's sister, Isabel Linton (Katherine Heigl, "Roswell") schemes with best
pal Raquelle (Aimee Osbourne, Ozzy's other daughter) to seduce Heath and help him achieve fame.
As you might expect, the whole situation doesn't turn out well in the end.
"I saw her as really scared of losing herself," Christensen says, "which is the whole risk of Heath. The best things about her are her driving curiosity about this world. As much as she loves him and wants to be with him, he quells that part of her."
It's this internal struggle. 'I love you more than anything. I want you to see the world with me, instead of keeping me from it.'"
Vogel, 25 and already a married man, sympathizes with Heath's desire to hold on to his love.
"Each one of us grows up and is ready to settle down with that love at different times in our lives," he says."I've always been the guy that was looking to settle down, and it's the same thing with Heath. He's so passionate about the one he loves. This is all he's known his entire life, all he ever wanted to know, and he's fine with that."
But Cate doesn't escape unhappiness by choosing the jealous Edward.
"He represents such a nurturing personality," Christensen says. "He seems to say yes to everything she could possibly want. It feels safe. It feels like she's allowed to be who she really is around him -- until she's not anymore."
Christensen, Vogel and Whitworth make their on-screen singing debuts in "Wuthering Heights," but it's not a traditional musical. Characters don't just break into song, but instead sing in performance settings that illustrate moods and feelings in the scene. This applies in particular to budding rock star Heath.
"It just felt like the more organic choice," Malina says, "for Heath to be a character who expresses himself through music, but not every character would. It's what makes Heath unique."
While Vogel says Christensen has the "freaking voice of an angel," she was just as impressed by his vocal abilities. "He's a great singer," Christensen says.
"He'd never tell you that himself. He sings, and you look at his long, blond hair, and you go, "Kurt Cobain?"
'"It was a throwback to a different time for me," Vogel says, "to the Fred Astaires and Sinatras and guys like that. It wasn't just about acting. There had to be other things in the portfolio."
If "Wuthering Heights" is a success, Malina says MTV has a few more movie projects in development.
Among them is a version of "Faust," which would translate the opera into hip-hop -- as MTV did in 2001 with "Carmen: A Hip Hopera" -- and a contemporary version of "The Phantom of the Opera," set in a performing-arts high school.
"So," Malina says, "it's a little 'Fame,' a little 'Phantom.'
While it may seem almost retro for MTV to embrace the musical, Malina says it's just part of the network's history.
"It's something that MTV has been doing for a while with videos. MTV never gave up on the musical, it was just three minutes long."