When author Daniel Handler was asked by studio executives if he had an actor in mind to play the delightfully dastardly Count Olaf in the first movie to be made from Handler's popular series of children's books, one name came immediately to mind — James Mason. The executives rolled their eyes, smiled politely and informed the writer that James Mason was dead. Then Handler revealed his second choice for the role — Boris Karloff. Dead. The 34-year-old writer then offered a few more choices. Dead, dead, dead. "This is why the novelist is rarely invited to be part of the moviemaking process," Handler said with a shrug. Later, when notified that Jim Carrey was interested in the plum role in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," Handler was stunned. "I couldn't believe that I hadn't thought of him before," he said. "But I think I forgot about him because he's not a character actor. He's a real movie star, and I couldn't believe that a real movie star would want to be in my movie. "But he really is perfect for the part. You need an actor who can be hilarious and terrifying simultaneously. Some actors can be hilarious. Some can be terrifying. But so few can do both." In the movie, Carrey runs wild with the role of Count Olaf, a balding, pathetic excuse for an actor who plots to murder the three young orphans put in his care so that he can steal their fortune. A light romp of a children's story, no doubt. But that is the dark nature of the 11 books (27 million copies sold) in the "Lemony Snicket" series. Three of the books have been combined to make the first film. "Any book that teaches children that if they behave well, they'll always be rewarded, and that if they behave badly, they'll always be punished, is wrong," Handler said. "By the time a child is 6, he or she has seen on the playground that it is not always true. I don't find the books dark; I find them real." Carrey agrees. "Olaf is not a nice person," he said. "We want people to laugh, but we want the danger to be real, or we have nothing. The movie is meaningless without real danger." In the film, the Count not only puts the three Baudelaire children in constant peril (in one scene, a baby is dangled in a cage high off the ground) but in the most controversial scene in the movie, Count Olaf slaps one of the children. Producer Walter Parkes said the slap was debated endlessly in studio offices and was shown to test audiences and focus groups. "In the end, we decided that the slap was a key moment, a turning point in the movie, and had to stay." Director Brad Silberling said he gathered a group of 13- and 14-year-olds who were avid readers of the books. He told them that the filmmakers were considering cutting many of the harsher scenes, and the young readers protested. "We hit all the hot-button issues, and they didn't want any of them taken out of the movie," the director explained. "During this whole process, it was never children who complained about the darkness; it was always the parents. "And that further validates the message of the books, which is that no one listens to kids." Carrey, who also plays two other roles in the movie, said the books' message is one of the reasons he jumped at the chance to play Count Olaf. "The books tap into something going on with young kids and teenagers," he said. "Even though we have two parents sometimes, they're busy, and we (the kids) are kind of on our own. I put myself in there (with the kids) because I'm so immature. "The books are about (kids) not being believed and having to prove everything they say." In the beginning of "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," a tragic fire kills the parents of the three children. Jude Law plays narrator Lemony Snicket, who tells the story of how the children are placed with the mean Count Olaf, a distant relative, and then a seriously neurotic aunt (Meryl Streep) and a snake-loving uncle (Billy Connolly). Carrey, who is fresh off his Golden Globe-nominated performance in "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and the huge box-office success of last year's comedy, "Bruce Almighty," also plays a very odd sailor and a seriously deranged lab assistant. "I'm attracted to anything offbeat, and Daniel (Handler) is one of the most original thinkers around. He's coming from a different place; he's willing to risk his audience to express what he really feels." The 42-year-old, Canadian-born Carrey said he saw the character Count Olaf as a "predatory bird" that waits for other birds to leave the nest so that he can steal the eggs. "He is completely selfish. If he's nice to you, there's something he wants. He's the most dangerous character in the world — an actor losing his hair. Everybody knows that they are responsible for many of the atrocities in the last century." Getting into character was not as much fun as playing the character, Carrey said. But it could have been worse. The actor had to put up with three hours a day in the makeup chair, but he said it wasn't as bad as the grueling ordeal he had to endure for a previous film, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." "They brutalized me so badly on that film that this one was a cakewalk (in comparison). Actually, I had a childlike fascination with the makeup process. I kept asking myself, "How different could I look? What character is going to come out of this?" "If you go full bore into it with faith, it always ends up surprising you. It's a feeling of giving birth to something. This guy didn't exist before, and then he's suddenly there." Producer Laurie MacDonald (who also runs DreamWorks Pictures with husband Walter Parkes, when they're not working as independent producers, as they are on this film) said Carrey is one of the few actors in Hollywood who actually creates characters while sitting in the makeup chair. "He is so brilliant that he improvises while he's in the makeup chair, and some of those improvisations wind up in the final script. He creates characters in a way I've never seen an actor do. He is making you laugh in that makeup chair, but you're watching a dramatic performance as well." Director Silberling said the filmmakers never considered their script complete until Carrey was finished being made up. "He kept improvising, and we kept writing," the director said. "The character was constantly changing. That's the great thing about working with Jim. He's so inventive; he's an unbelievable character actor. And he's a complete schizophrenic, and I mean that in the best sense of the word." From a producer's standpoint, Parkes said hiring Carrey has one great advantage over hiring any other actor. "There is a whole aspect of the movie that a producer doesn't have to worry about, and that is Jim's performance. If we've done our job right and brought him a good, strong script, he will give you a performance that is bigger and more imaginative than anything you could ever conceive. "Jim Carrey is like getting an extra gift under the Christmas tree." ——— (c) 2004, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Visit the Register on the World Wide Web at http://www.ocregister.com/ Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. ————— PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ENTER LEMONYSNICKETS

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