Fishburne readies ‘Riff Raff’; Sturges returns

When Laurence Fishburne decides to become more than just an actor in a film, he does it in dramatic fashion. In becoming the latest star to achieve hyphenate status, Fishburne is set to not only star in, but also write, direct and produce “Riff Raff,” based on his critically acclaimed play. The film will be financed by the Shooting Gallery for release in 1999.

The Gotham-based Shooting Gallery, just back from Cannes, where it got a best screenplay nod for its Hal Hartley pic “Henry Fool,” just sealed the deal with Fishburne and will release the film under its TSG banner. Gallery’s Larry Meistrich and David L. Bushnell will produce with Fishburne and Helen Sugland. Fishburne and Sugland co-exec produced “Hoodlum” and HBO’s “Miss Evers’ Boys.”

Fishburne, a stage vet who won a Tony Award for “Two Trains Running,” established himself as a playwright with “Riff Raff,” a searing drama that explores lost brotherhood and friendship in the aftermath of a heist gone sour. The play moved in 1995 from L.A. to Gotham’s Circle Rep Theater, and Fishburne has wanted to turn it into a film ever since.

His original co-stars were Heavy D and Titus Welliver, and the latter is expected to co-star in the film after spending last season as a “Brooklyn South” regular. Fishburne wants Wesley Snipes for the other lead, said sources. Since he fudged his age to make his feature debut at 15 in “Apocalpyse Now,” Fishburne has worked so relentlessly as an actor that he’s had scant time to pursue direct-ing aspirations. But Shooting Gallery chairman Meistrich, who never saw the play but was impressed by Fishburne’s script, said the timing came together for a late summer/early fall shoot.

“I met Fishburne’s manager, Helen Sugland, and she showed me his script over a year ago,” said Meistrich, “and since then we’ve waited for a window to suit him.” Though it’s Fishburne’s first turn behind the camera, Meistrich said he’s reminiscent of the last actor that Shooting Gallery helped turn into a director when it made “Sling Blade.” “Fishburne’s an actor I’ve always admired, and believed he could do a lot more,” said Meistrich. “It’s similar to the feeling I got meeting Billy Bob Thornton. He just gets it, and has been around long enough to know how to put it on the screen.”

Fishburne will start prepping “Riff Raff” as soon as he wraps a co-starring role alongside Keanu Reeves in “Matrix” for Warner Bros. and Silver Pictures. He’ll shoot mostly in New York and will complete the film before returning to the Broadway stage in “The Lion in Winter.” Fishburne’s agented by Paradigm’s Sam Gores.

THE RETURN OF STURGES: While studios rush to remake films by revered directors, MGM president Michael Nathanson hap-pened on a more original idea. He’s discovered there are reams of unproduced scripts by classic writers just rotting on studio shelves. At least one has proved good enough to hook Michael Douglas as star and producer.

It’s no secret that MGM has been working with Douglas to develop the romantic comedy “Mr. Big in Littleville.” What’s most intriguing is that its scripter is Preston Sturges, the director of such ’40s films as “Sullivan’s Travels” and “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.”

“It was just sitting on the shelf here,” said Nathanson. “I have no idea why it never got realized before. But it’s a project that’s even more timely today than when he wrote it in 1948.”

The film’s about a tycoon who has made a fortune, but has no wife or family to enjoy it with. He’s stressed out, and his doctor suggests getting a life, or at least taking a vacation. En route to Florida with his gold clubs, he winds up off course and in a little town in Vermont. Right away, his entrepreneurial instincts take over, and he’s lecturing the ice cream man on how he can improve business just by moving closer to the school. His acumen helps revitalize a dying town, which in turn revitalizes him as he falls in love with the proprietor of the bed and breakfast he stays in.

Marshall Brickman has been hired to polish and contemporize the script, but the tone is trademark Sturges. “Michael Douglas was the key to revitalizing this because he understands the value of a good script, and he knows who Preston Sturges was,” said Nathanson. “His father was a Sturges pal.”

Nathanson said there’s a warehouse of scripts in the MGM vault, and though he wouldn’t say which others are makeable, he hinted there are a few: “There’s a lot that Thalberg and Mayer put under contract that didn’t get made, and Sturges has certainly given us the blueprint for a good movie.”

Brickman’s repped by ICM’s Martha Luttrell; Sturges hasn’t had an agent since dying in 1959.

SEARCHLIGHT ROCS DU CAP: If Lindsay Law or other Fox Searchlight brass get upgraded at the Hotel du Cap next Cannes, there’s good reason. Searchlight has set up “Eden Roc,” a script by Diana Hammond to be directed by Peter Markham (“The Cormorant”). The film’s an epic romance set on the French Riviera, and especially the fabled Hotel du Cap, in 1929 and returning in 1939. Part of the storyline has the characters poised to attend the first Cannes fest in 1939, which gets canceled when Germany invades. Hammond is repped by Jim Stein of Writers & Artists, and Markham by W&A’s Marjorie Skouras. There’s no truth to the rumor that the entire budget will be allocated in cash (as any du Cap regular knows, the hotel doesn’t accept credit cards for anything). Law said he sealed the deal from the hotel during the waning days of the Cannes fest. Asked if he expects to get a better room than Harvey Weinstein, he said, “Yes, but unfortunately, I’ll have to be there out of season.”

DISHINGS: Scratch Courtney Love from the Lakeshore/Paramount Janis Joplin biopic … Robert Downey Jr., who has laid low after exiting a six-month stay at L.A. County jail, will make his first major public appearance this Saturday at the MTV Movie Awards. He’s agreed to present an award with “Two Girls and a Guy” co-star Heather Graham. Downey’s performance in that pic has gotten him no shortage of offers, but he seems content to take his time and continue his rehab, putting his sobriety before his career … Columbia raised a ruckus over recent Dish item that “The Big Hit” writer Ben Ramsey wouldn’t be reimbursed $10,000 he shelled out for pic’s premiere. Col claims Ramsey was cut a check before item ran. While Dish is confident the scribe expected to eat the costs, SPE’s honesty track record with this column has been impeccable. Dish will take their word for it.

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