Indie Van Sant cuts deal, will ‘Die’ for Colpix

One of Hollywood’s staunchest independents, Gus Van Sant, has reached an agreement with Columbia Pictures to helm Buck Henry’s adaptation of “To Die For, ” which will likely go into production in the first half of 1994, sources said Thursday.

Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, it’s described by a studio source as “a hip portrait of dysfunctional America, about a woman with a warped sense of getting ahead.” Pic will be produced by Laura Ziskin and Leslie Morgan.

“To Die For” has drawn intense interest from many top young female stars, including Jodie Foster, Bridget Fonda, Nicole Kidman, Meg Ryan, Patricia Arquette, Holly Hunter, Mary Louise Parker and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Several of the actresses read for the project during auditions at the Columbia studio Monday and Tuesday, while others are eithercurrently reading the screenplay on location or have expressed interest in auditioning for the part when their schedules permit.

The project marks a major artistic coup for Columbia Pictures, which has been waylaid of late by the negative momentumcreated by “Last Action Hero” and the switch from Michael Nathanson to Lisa Henson as president of production. The pic underscores Colpix’s effort to get back to concentrating on the business of making movies.

According to sources familiar with the project, Nathanson and executive veepee of production Amy Pascal were key in acquiring the movie rights for “Die” and hiring Henry to adapt the screenplay. Henson has been a major force in giving the production the “blinking greenlight” since taking the reins of Colpix’s production arm two weeks ago.

Studio coverage describes the story this way: “An ambitious but mentally unbalanced (journalist) seduces some high school students and convinces them to kill her husband, who she believes is holding back her career. All parties are arrested, the woman is freed on bail and then killed by a hitman hired by her in-laws.”

Henry’s previous screenplay adaptations include “The Graduate,””Catch-22” and “The Day of the Dolphin.”

“To Die For” reps a major departure for Van Sant, who has carved out a reputation as one of the most intense, provocative and respected indie directors through such pix as “Drugstore Cowboy,””My Own Private Idaho” and Fine Line Features’ “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.”

“It is hard to believe Van Sant would work at a major studio,” said one producer on the Columbia lot. “He’s an extremely independent artist. My guess is that he’s negotiated a filmmaker’s deal structured along the lines of United Artists or Orion, (which would give him) things like the final cut in exchange for a lower budget, no notes and leave him alone.”

Van Sant and Henry are represented by William Morris Agency’s senior veepee and West Coast co-head of motion pictures, John Burnham. Columbia Pictures senior veepee of publicity and promotion Mark Gill declined comment on “To Die For.”

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