Garner, TNT speaking ‘Legalese’

Budget could reach $8 mil

After nearly three years and numerous changes in director, producer, script and possible star, the New Line Cinema feature project “Legalese” is being salvaged instead as a TNT made-for-TV project with James Garner attached in the lead and a likely May production startup, according to sources.

The legal system satire was at one time skedded to go into production in August 1996 — but obviously never made it — and had been considered by Dustin Hoffman (who dropped out after committing to “Sphere” and due to a reported unfulfilled desire for a major rewrite). Once Hoffman passed, New Line tossed a $9 million offer at Robert De Niro, who also turned it down.

Others approached to star in the film included Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, as well as Sharon Stone and Ashley Judd for the as-yet-uncast female lead.

Meanwhile, the project has gone through three different would-be directors: Philip Kaufman, Jonathan Lynn and then British helmer Peter Chelsom, all of whom fell out due to slowdowns in casting.

The directing chores finally will fall to Glenn Jordan, who previously directed Garner in the HBO film “Barbarians at the Gate.” Jordan’s other TV work has included the 1995 network CBS remake of “A Streetcar Named Desire” as well as the CBS “Hallmark Hall of Fame” project “Sarah, Plain and Tall.”

J. Paul Higgins (“Truth or Consequences, New Mexico”) will exec-produce “Legalese” from Billy Ray’s original screenplay.

Sources speculate that “Legalese” will carry one of the highest-ever budgets for a TNT longform project, perhaps as high as $8 million. New Line is said to already have poured at least $3 million into developing the project and in buying the Ray script, for which it shelled out $1 million against $1.5 million.

Indeed, New Line’s commitment to seeing “Legalese” through to production is tied at least in part to the sizable chunk of cash that the unit had already earmarked.

Pic will feature Garner as a high-profile, shady celebrity attorney who is recruited to take the case of a woman who is accused of shooting and killing her brother-in-law. To avoid the taint that would follow the woman if he represented her, Garner’s character hatches a plan to use a young, inexperienced defense lawyer as a front.

(Chris Petrikin contributed to this report.)

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