Jovovich takes lead in French prod'n

EXCLUSIVE
Luc Besson has committed to direct Milla Jovovich in the title role of “Joan of Arc,” an epic about the 16th-century French martyr who led an uprising against the British and was burned at the stake.

Besson, who last directed Jovovich in “The Fifth Element,” will begin production of the film in France and around Europe in June. Like “Fifth Element,” which grossed $270 million worldwide, “Joan of Arc” will be fully financed by Gaumont, which will strike a deal with a domestic distributor yet to be determined.

The declaration by Besson puts Gaumont ahead of several studios that have tried for years to mount movies about Joan of Arc. That includes director Kathryn Bigelow’s unsuccessful quest to direct “Company of Angels” at Fox and then Morgan Creek, and Warner Bros.’ continuing development of the script “In Nomine Dei.” On the TV side, TNT Original Films has been working on a Joan of Arc film for television, with “Gettysburg” director Ron Maxwell at the helm.

According to Patrice Ledoux, who runs Gaumont and has produced such Besson films as “The Fifth Element,” “The Professional” and “La Femme Nikita,” Gaumont has been quietly developing its own project with screenwriter Andrew Birkin, a frequent collaborator of Stanley Kubrick. “Even though Luc normally is secretive about what he will be directing, the development of the script was strong enough for us to submit it to Luc, and for him to decide to make it his next movie,” said Ledoux, who with Gaumont will be the film’s producer. Besson is now finishing a final draft of the script before he begins production.

Perfect fit

Besson chose Jovovich as the embodiment of physical perfection in “The Fifth Element,” and the director has since become romantically involved with the actress. Ledoux said the role of Joan is difficult to cast, because while she was a warrior, she died at the tender age of 22. That leaves out a lot of established actresses who are older. But it is exactly Jovovich’s real age, and Ledoux said she showed the poise and screen presence in “Fifth Element” that is necessary for “Joan of Arc.”

“We were very pleased with the work she did in ‘Fifth Element’ and like Joan, Milla is young enough,” Ledoux said. “It’s not an easy role to cast, but we made some photographic tests with her and she looks incredible in the role.”

In “Joan,” she plays a woman who, feeling she was inspired by God and with the blessing of her king, galvanized an army to drive England out of France in the 1400s. She was burned at the stake two years into that quest, but her death unified the country against England and she became a martyr for its cause.

Parallels

The filmmakers are hoping that “Joan of Arc” will evoke the national fervor for the French that Scotland got from “Braveheart,” Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning film about William Wallace’s quest to drive the Brits out of Scotland. Like Joan, his death galvanized opposition that ultimately won Scotland its freedom. While Ledoux was reluctant to compare the two films because they happened five centuries apart, he felt strongly that the film should be made by Frenchmen.

“We think that to produce and direct a film about Joan of Arc in France, that it’s better with a French company and a French director, even though it will be shot in English,” Ledoux said.

Ingrid Bergman earned an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Joan in 1948’s “Joan of Arc.” Jean Seberg also played the role in Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan” in 1957. There have been numerous other films based on the Maid of Orleans.

Jovovich signed her deal this week, after finishing a co-starring role alongside Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s “He Got Game.” The actress was repped by ICM’s Steve Chasman and Aleen Keshishian, with ICM’s Jeff Berg, Chasman and Robert Newman repping Besson.

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