Denzel sets helming bow for Fox’s ‘Fish’

AT THE HELM: Denzel Washington will make his directorial debut next May when he steps behind the camera for Fox Searchlight on “Finding Fish,” the autobiographical tale of Antwone Fisher, a former security guard on the Sony lot who turned his life story into a script. Todd Black is the producer with his Black and Blu partner, Jason Blumenthal, co-producing.

Fisher’s scripted story begins when he is a 24-year-old sailor sent to a Navy psychiatrist because of a propensity for violence. The shrink traces that anger to a cruel upbringing as a neglected child who worked for a pimp and drug dealer in his early years before moving into robberies himself. Fisher confronts his past and heals his battered psyche.

The commitment by Washington to start pre-production in January and filming by next summer is the latest positive development in what has been the ultimate Hollywood rags-to-riches story for Fisher.

“I met Antwone while he was working as a guard at Sony and taking a screenwriting class at a church in South Central,” said Black, who is now based at Sony. “My college roommate taught the class, called me and said he wanted to bring this guy because I had to hear his story. It knocked me out, and he said the only catch is he wanted to write it even though he’d written nothing other than poetry.”

Black was aligned at Fox then, and the studio balked at a scribe who not only didn’t have credits, but hadn’t even tried writing a script. Black gave Fisher $5,000 and a computer. One year later, Fisher finished his script, and Fox bought it.

Fisher has long since quit guard duty and found more rewarding work as a scribe. He got $1 million for the Universal James Bond spoof “00-Soul,” which will star Chris Tucker, and he has other projects scattered all over town. He’s writing his next project for Black, who also got his $5,000 back.

“Finding Fish” was brought into Searchlight by production vice president Joe Pichirallo, and the studio is now looking to cast it.

Washington, who won an Oscar for “Glory,” might play a role in the film, but the studio is looking for the right actor to play Fisher. Washington has wanted to get behind the camera for several years and though this will be his feature debut, he got some directing experience recently when he lensed the BeBe Winans musicvideo “In Harm’s Way.” The $12 million-a-picture star has also strung together several starring roles lately so he can afford to devote the necessary time for the project.

He stars this fall alongside Bruce Willis and Annette Bening in “The Siege,” the Fox film directed by Ed Zwick. He’s about to start work as a quadriplegic detective in “The Bone Collector,” directed by Phillip Noyce for Universal. Then he will play Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in “Lazarus and the Hurricane,” a Norman Jewison-directed biopic about the world middleweight champ who was twice wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of three whites in a New Jersey bar. Washington has been training in the ring for the role for several months.

Once Washington wraps the Carter film, he’ll turn to “Fish.” After taking a flier on a writer who’d never written, Black has no trepidations about an Oscar-winning star getting behind the camera for the first time: “Denzel completely understands the story, and he relates to a lot of things that happened to Antwone.” Washington is repped by ICM’s Ed Limato and George Freeman.

DREAMS OF “ASYLUM”: DreamWorks has made a mid-six figure spec buy of Craig Rosenberg’s dramatic script “Asylum,” and has linked Rosenberg to direct it. The film is described as a taut psychological thriller in which a doctor gets trapped in an asylum for the criminally insane. The doc’s mixed up as one of the patients, which might be a good thing when the inmates take over the asylum.

Rosenberg previously wrote and directed “Hotel De Love” for Live Entertainment and Village Roadshow and made a splashy sale of the script “Elliott Loves Gabriella,” which is now being developed by Disney. Neal Moritz’s Original Films will produce. The project was brought in by DW exec Jason Hoffs, and the deal brokered by Jordan Bayer and Matt Leipzig of Original Artists.

SOBIESKI SIGNING: ICM’s Steve Chasman and JoAnne Colonna have signed Leelee Sobieski, who might well be the hottest newcomer to emerge on the scene in some time. Sobieski is about to emerge from anonymity as the star of the Merchant-Ivory film “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries,” and she stars with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” The 16-year old is now starring alongside Drew Barrymore in the high school-set comedy “Never Been Kissed.”

ANOTHER HISTORICAL FIND: Since the success of “Saving Private Ryan” has whetted Hollywood’s appetite for true history, there’s already screen scout interest in a “lost” historical document, recently unearthed, that brings to life aspects of the Civil War and is being shopped for a publishing deal.

The book crowd is buzzing this week over a Julian Bach-agented submission detailing the story of Robert Knox Sneden, a topographical officer with the 40th New York battalion in the Civil War best known for creating 400 watercolor paintings and maps depicting various battles in the conflict.

It turns out Sneden also left behind a voluminous and authenticated diary of his experiences during the war, along with detailed drawings and maps. This includes details of Sneden’s capture and interrogation, and his day-by-day narrative of everything that happened in the dreaded Andersonville prison. The discovery of Sneden’s diaries comes shortly after Viking Penguin bought “In the Heart of the Sea,” a fresh account of the whaleship Essex, which was attacked and sunk by a whale. The basis is a diary written by a first mate on the ship, who survived the ordeal used by Melville as the basis for “Moby Dick.” There’s movie interest in this whale of a tale, but screen rights won’t be shopped until the book’s completed.

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