Book takes Col to war

Columbia Pictures will make a movie based on “Spite House: The Last Secret of the Vietnam War,” a non-fiction book by Monica Jensen-Stevenson. The book was optioned for Irwin Winkler, who will produce with Rob Cowan under the Winkler Films banner. Paul Attanasio will write the screenplay.

Considering fees for the book as well as life rights to the subjects and script fees to Attanasio, Columbia’s investment is north of seven figures.

“Spite” is the story of two U.S. Marines, beginning in Vietnam when Pvt. Robert Garwood got captured in a Vietcong ambush. Held prisoner 14 years — including five after the war ended — Garwood finally escaped.

However, he was then deemed a deserter and a traitor and was court-martialed. That’s because he was the personal obsession of Col. Tom McKenney, whose task was to eliminate perceived traitors.”In Vietnam, the American government and the Marines not only sanctioned but recruited men to go into Vietcong camps to kill Americans they deemed deserters,” said Winkler, who might direct. “There was no due process and McKenney was in charge of a group that would infiltrate the POW camps. They killed several prisoners they thought to be Garwood.”

The story’s especially tragic because after years of investigation, Garwood appeared to have done nothing more serious than be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”And when he was court-martialed,” said Winkler, “one of his Vietcong prison torturers actually came to America to testify against him. It’s almost too hard to imagine. … (Garwood and McKenney) were two guys who believed in American democracy, but who through circumstances became hunter and the prey.”

Jensen-Stevenson is an Emmy-winning “60 Minutes” producer known for her work on POW and Vietnam issues. The book was published by Norton this year and is the recipient of the Vietnam Veteran’s National Medal awarded by the Vietnam Veterans Coalition.

Attanasio’s script credits include “Donnie Brasco,” “Disclosure” and “Quiz Show.”

Winkler is also working out plans of what to direct next. The aspirants include the Nick Pileggi-scripted “The Prosecutor,” and the Jay Cocks-scripted adaptation of “Lush Life” about the complicated relationship between musicians Billy Straythorn and Duke Ellington.

FROM KIDS TO DISCO: “Kids” star Chloe Sevigny has landed a lead in “The Last Days of Disco,” the Whit Stillman pic for Castle Rock that will begin filming next month in New York. Stillman’s pic takes place at a Studio 54-like club in the waning days of the disco craze.

Sevigny, who made her debut as the tragic female lead in “Kids,” has been working steadily since. She starred in “Gummo,” the Fine Line pic that will be seen at the Venice Film Festival, and just completed Castle Rock’s “Palmetto” alongside Woody Harrelson and Elisabeth Shue. She’s repped by William Morris’ Frank Frattaroli and Danny Sussman, and is managed by Jill Sobel.

SHERRY’S SURPRISE: Perhaps the most surprised Emmy nominee was the one who wasn’t paying attention to the nominations: Sherry Stringfield. The actress, who shocked Hollywood last year by leaving top-rated “ER” to seek a more normal life, was stunned to see that she’d been nominated for best actress for the third straight season of the show, even though she hung up her stethoscope early in the season.

“Oh man, I could not believe it,” said Stringfield. “On one hand, I was completely flattered, but on the other hand, I thought people have a good sense of humor.”

Stringfield said she’ll likely attend the Emmys, though the whole business is far from her mind now. Firmly rooted in New York, she spends her days doing voiceover work, teaching acting at SUNY Purchase, looking to act in indie films, or just sleeping in.

“Not having to get up at 5 every morning, every day I feel like I’m getting away with something,” said Stringfield. “It was a wonderful experience, but I needed to move on and there’s not much I miss about it. I have good memories and am proud of the work we did.”

The only regret she has about her exit was mentioning she had a boyfriend she wanted to spend time with. It fueled a media obsession to find out his identity, and led to recent reports they’d broken up. “People don’t want to know that as a woman, I made my own decision as a woman to leave,” she said. “It has to be I was so burnt out or in love.”

At least, she notes, people don’t come up to her any more to admonish her for wasting the medical degree she doesn’t really have. “For awhile, it was, ‘how can you let all those patients down?’ ”

AN EXAMPLE OF SYNERGY: Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing flew all the way to Easthampton to join Kel Mitchell and Kenan Thompson Sunday for a premiere of their film “Good Burger,” the second production from Nickelodeon Movies. “Good Burger” grew out of a skit from the Nick sketch comedy “All That,” where the two youths emerged as the biggest stars on the cable web, and now topline the Nick series “Kenan and Kel.”

The film program has proven a good little revenue producer for Viacom. With budgets in the low teens, the pics get massive exposure to its target audience with liberal inhouse plugging on the cable channel. Lansing said the first Nick pic “Harriet the Spy” grossed about $26 million and did high-volume video sell-through business.

“Good Burger,” which took in a fat $7.3 million its opening weekend, is on course to do better than that. Small wonder Mike Tollin, who produced with partner and “Good Burger” director Brian Robbins, was moving to finalize a new film vehicle for Mitchell and Thompson for next summer.

DISHINGS: “Hercules” composer David Zippel, who has moved on to Disney’s animated pic for next summer, “Mulan,” just agreed to work with Cy Coleman writing the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “A Star is Born.” A retrospective of his work, performed by Jason Alexander and others, did so well at the Cinegrill in Hollywood that they’ll do it again this fall as a benefit for the Reprise Theater Co.

Though Zippel’s won two Tonys for his stage work, he seems most at home with the movies. “For a lyricist, this is by far the best job in Hollywood,” he said. “Animation today is what Broadway was in the ’50s and ’60s.”

Zippel’s repped by the Kraft Benjamin Agency.

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