Frankenstein in toon turn; Regan booking pic

NEW YORK — In its first concerted effort to scare up some green in the burgeoning field of computer animation, Universal is moving forward with “Frankenstein” (working title) its first full-length computer-generated feature, which it hopes to have in theaters in time for Halloween 2000.

The film is being done by Universal’s Animation and Visual Effects division, with a script by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, the scribes behind the upcoming Warner Bros. film “Wild Wild West,” which stars Will Smith and Kevin Kline, with Barry Sonnenfeld directing.

Universal Animation and Visual Effects senior VP of production technology John Swallow and VP of animation production and creative affairs Doug Wood have made a deal with Industrial Light & Magic to make the film that f/x house’s first fully computer-generated feature.

The writers’ credits include “Heart & Soul,” “Tremors” and “Short Circuit,” as well as a remake of the Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz MGM film “The Long, Long Trailer.” They said they took on their first animated film on the condition it not subscribe to the ani family film formula.

“Universal wants something new in animation. They want a fairly dark, edgy cartoon that will be genuinely scary, and that was what attracted us,” said Maddock. “How scary can a cartoon be? We’re going to find out. It must have a real gothic sensibility. We don’t want it to be dismissed as uncool by a 12-year-old boy, but we want an 8-year-old to be able to see it. It’s got to be scary.”

Wilson said the story will pick up where the original 1931 Universal Boris Karloff film ends, as the creature clashes with his creator. Only this time, the big guy doesn’t get hitched, as he did in the U sequel.

“It picks up the original story but goes in a new direction,” Wilson said. That goes double for the technology, which becomes the great challenge of the film. “Technically, depicting human beings and making them look realistic is much more difficult. It’s a leap of faith at this point, kind of like Jim Cameron saying that he was going to put 1,500 people on Titanic and make it look realistic. If you’re doing a movie with monsters in it and want it to be scary, the human beings better look like humans.”

Lucas Digital president Jim Morris said that even though it’s ILM’s first all-digital feature effort, they’ve already begun the pre-production process of designing character artwork. He’s confident they’ll be up to the task.

“I didn’t immediately see how to turn that property into a CG film, but a lot of artists got hold of it and turned in some pretty neat work, and now I’m more excited,” Morris said. The scribes are repped by Nancy Roberts and Lou Malacarne of Roberts Management and attorney Larry Rose.

SHE’S COME UNATTACHED?: The age of conglomeration in publishing has given rise to editors whose ambitions go beyond merely shepherding a manuscript to the bookshelf. Some openly vie to become part of the film adaptation process — whether it’s in the best interest of the author or not. Studio book buyers are buzzing about the new Wally Lamb novel, “I Know This Much Is True.” Aside from its compelling tale of a dysfunctional relationship involving twins, an interesting backstory is emerging about twin submissions to the movie crowd.

The official submission, from the author and his literary agent, Linda Chester, hasn’t happened yet. But Dish hears the town has been covered — and studio coverage on the book is already documented — because of an informal submission by the book’s editor, Judith Regan. In her approach to several studios, Regan sent out the manuscript with a letter outlining her hopes to become the film’s producer. The book is being published by Regan’s HarperCollins-based Regan Books, where Regan set up a shingle that allows her to get involved beyond the book stage.

But the question being asked is whether the submission was done in the best interests of the author or his editor. Regan was undeniably a force behind making Lamb’s last book, “She’s Come Undone,” a publishing phenomenon that sold as a movie to Warner Bros. and David Geffen. But the word around town is that author and agent were caught unaware of the unauthorized submission. Chester, in fact, is on vacation this week as the studios buzz about the book. Calls to Chester reached an answering machine, with calls unreturned.

Regan meanwhile, denied that she either breached protocol or overreached her position as the book’s editor. In a statement, Regan said: “I’m not trying to hide the fact that I would like to produce the movie and secure the property. To do so, you need to attach the right talent. The book was not submitted to the studios with me attached, and the property has not been misrepresented. Someone is providing you with misinformation.”

CASTINGS: Actress Tara Reid’s reps were done a disservice when the last Dish column reported she’d gotten roles in “Urban Legend” and “Cruel Inventions.” She’s repped by Endeavor. Aside from “The Big Lebowski,” Reid also completed a lead in the Kushner-Locke pic “Girl,” which Jonathan Kahn directed and which co-starred “Lolita” Dominique Swain, Sean Patrick Flanery and Summer Phoenix. Jeff Most produced. … Dish hears Madonna has closed the door on “The Red Door,” the indie pic about a sister who bonds with her AIDS-stricken brother, for which Stockard Channing and Rod Steiger also seemed set. Sources say the material’s strong, but that the Material Girl bolted when a co-star didn’t materialize. …

“3rd Rock From the Sun” co-star Kristen Johnson has been cast in a new role — Clairol Girl. She’s signed on to hawk the product, with the first commercials debuting this month. Johnson will play the lead in the Thornton Wilder play “Skin of Our Teeth” to be staged this summer in Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, a one-month run starting June 12. …

Kelly Preston indeed got the offer to join hubby John Travolta on “The General’s Daughter,” but Dish hears she passed. Sources said Preston most likely will team with him in TriStar’s “The Shipping News.”

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