Five years after Columbia bought rights to the novel, Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses” is finally nearing the starting gate, as Billy Bob Thornton is in serious talks to make it his first directing project since “Sling Blade.”

After numerous acting jobs, Thornton hopes to get back in the directing saddle with “Horses” next June.

Key to a deal was the flexibility shown by Miramax co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. Thornton was supposed to direct his next pic for the company that distribbed “Sling Blade,” but sources said Weinstein and Sony prexy-chief operating officer John Calley are in the midst of working something out.

The studios did some horse trading recently when the MPAA deemed Sony the rightful owner of the title “Scream.” Sony could have soaked its rival for huge bucks, but reached an accommodation that allows Miramax to keep using the title for the hit 1996 pic and the planned sequels of its most lucrative franchise.

Once Thornton finishes “Horses,” he’ll go into directing and starring for Miramax in a script he’s writing now.

When “Horses” rights were auctioned in 1992, there was a heated battle, and Mike Nichols eventually saddled up for plans to direct at Columbia, with Calley producing. The project shifted to United Artists when Calley moved to top that studio, but rights reverted back to Col after Calley took over there.

Ted Tally, who won an Oscar adapting Thomas Harris’ “The Silence of the Lambs,” adapted McCarthy’s novel.

Nichols always intended to follow “The Birdcage” by directing the film, but instead he fell for the adaptation of another book, “Primary Colors.” Since then, numerous directors have vied for the “Horses” job.

Thornton — who plays a James Carville-like character in Nichols’ “Primary Colors” — just finished that pic, and started on the Michael Bay-directed “Armageddon” for Touchstone. He’s finalizing a deal to co-star with Bill Paxton for director John Boorman in Paramount’s “A Simple Plan,” and is in talks to star in the Warner Bros. pic “Jack Frost.”

“Horses” is a romance-adventure centering on a teen cowboy from Texas who rides into Mexico in 1949 with a buddy. He gets a job on a ranch and falls in love with the wealthy rancher’s daughter. The rancher has him thrown in a Mexican prison, but the young cowboy exacts a measure of justice before he returns to Texas having grown into manhood.

Thornton is repped by Todd Harris and John Fogelman of William Morris, and managed by Geyer Kosinski of Addis-Wechsler.

RAY AND GRAY ON ‘DAY’: In what Imagine’s Brian Grazer hopes will amount to movie pairing that clicks as well as it rhymes, Billy Ray and F. Gary Gray are set for “The Last Day.”

Gray, the director of “Friday” and “Set It Off,” is about to team with Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey in “The Negotiator,” and hopes to direct “Day” after that.

Ray’s the scribe who penned New Line’s “Legalese” and a TriStar remake of “Camille.” Imagine brought him in to draft “Day,” based on an idea by Gray for a Gotham-based supernatural thriller.

Ray’s repped by Bruce Kaufman of Broder, Kurland, Webb & Uffner, and attorney Peter Nichols. Gray is managed by Rich Silverman of 3 Arts and agented by ICM’s Richard Feldman. Nina Shaw’s his attorney.

MAKING THE FALL BEAR-ABLE: Over the weekend, Fox took to East Hampton to unveil the Lee Tamahori-directed, David Mamet-scripted “The Edge.” Made with little fanfare and a moderate budget in the Canadian mountains, the pic matches Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin as rivals who bond as they’re being stalked by a Kodiak bear.

For the screening, Hopkins flew from the “Meet Joe Black” set to the Sag Pond Winery, joining producer Art Linson and castmates Baldwin and Elle Macpherson.

Producer Linson said over the weekend that he’s prepping two Fox 2000 pics: the Mike Newell-helmed “Pushing Tin” and the David Fincher-directed “The Fight Club.” He wouldn’t comment on rumors the latter might pair Edward Norton and Brad Pitt.

Baldwin, attending with wife Kim Basinger, said he slid into his “Edge” role mainly to fulfill a career goal of working with Hopkins.

Currently co-starring with Bruce Willis in “Simon,” Baldwin was disappointed to be edged by schedule out of the starring role in HBO’s “A Bright Shining Lie” for director Terry George. “I begged them to wait because it’s such a fabulous piece of material and because I wanted to work with Terry, but HBO wanted it to go right away and so it’s not going to work out,” he said.

Macpherson has acted nonstop for two years trying to erase the perpetual prefix “supermodel” from her name, even though she plays, yes, a supermodel married to Hopkins but lusted after by Baldwin.

“But the modeling’s so insignificant” in the plot, she said: “just a reason David Mamet used to get a whole bunch of people into an isolated place.” Macpherson said she completed the comedy “Mom’s Up on the Roof,” and will take time off before the next pic — not, she stressed, to have a baby, despite press reports of an impending stork visit. “I play a pregnant woman in ‘Mom’s Up on the Roof,’ and that created all kinds of speculation,” she said.

DISHINGS:Manager Marc Epstein’s next deal is expected to be an exit from Gallin/Morey & Associates. He’ll branch out on his own, with clients including Nicole Kidman, Rupert Everett, Sam Neill, Janet McTeer and Ben Chaplin. Epstein was unavailable for comment.

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