Pair will raise the USS Indianapolis cover-up

MGM AND TRILOGY ENTERTAINMENT have joined forces on “USS Indianapolis,” based on an actual World War II tragedy about a U.S. warship sunk just after delivering the atom bomb to be dropped on the Japanese. Because of bungling by the Navy, a distress call was ignored, and of the 800 men who waited in the water for rescue, only 316 survived, the rest either drowning or being devoured by sharks.

The story was immortalized in a chilling moment in “Jaws” when Robert Shaw recounted the tale of the ship’s sinking. But Steven Spielberg, who is being hailed for showing the courage and carnage of WWII in “Saving Private Ryan,” might also get an assist for helping to make “USS Indianapolis.” A young man who watched the Spielberg-directed “Jaws” began asking questions about the Indianapolis and exposed a wrongdoing nearly as atrocious as the carnage that resulted in the water off Guam.

The Navy pinned the blame on the ship’s captain, and after interviewing all the survivors and examining material from the court-martial, the teenager has been the catalyst for Newt Gingrich-sponsored legislation to overturn the court-martial. The teen’s research shows that Capt. Charles McVeigh was not only blameless in losing the ship but that he heroically helped keep many of his men alive in the water.

When it bought Orion, MGM inherited “Fatal Voyage,” a John Sayles-scripted adaptation of a Dan Kurzman book about the tragedy. Trilogy’s Richard Barton Lewis and partners Guy McElwaine, John Watson and Pen Densham will produce a film that combines Sayles’ version with the courtmartial trial and the aftermath. MGM’s Yalda Tehranian is the studio exec on the film. Since Sayles is about to direct a film, they’ll hire another scribe shortly, with several major directors circling around a story that would be unbelievable if not true.

“Four hundred people died in the explosion, and the others, covered in oil, floated in the water for five days, getting picked off one by one by the sharks,” Lewis said. “There was cannibalism, men getting delusional and thinking their shipmates were Japanese about to kill them. They were shooting each other, or swimming off to follow hallucinations of rescue ships or loved ones. McVeigh actually kept the men close together and saved many of their lives.”

Lewis said the fact that the highest officers in the Navy were negligent led them to scapegoat the captain, whose lineage would not allow him to speak up for himself. He stoically took the fall, Lewis said.

“He was taught by his family that the Navy was right, so he sat there stonefaced and, in the ultimate indignity, the star witness was the Japanese submarine captain who sank the boat,” he said.

Ultimately, McVeigh became another Indianapolis fatality when he killed himself.

Lewis said the cover-up came unglued largely because of dogged persistence of the now 13-year-old Hunter Scott, whose rights MGM is now negotiating. “The event itself was difficult to believe, and the pressures on McVeigh, how he wouldn’t speak for himself even though his wife urged him to, is the stuff of ‘A Few Good Men,’ ” Lewis said.

TWO MANAGERS, ONE BOOK SALE: How many managers does it take to steer a book sale? In the case of “Never Finished High School,” which just sold to Tom Rosenberg at Lakeshore Entertainment, the answer is two. The novel was co-written by manager Marc Epstein, a partner in InHouse Entertainment, and was represented by Marian Rosenberg of Rosenberg Melamed Management.

Why would the management rivals work together on the sale? Both said it was an exceptional case. “I wrote the book with John Palumbo, who at the time was a member of the cult hit rock band Crack the Sky, while I was running Elliott Kastner’s New York office,” said Epstein. Rosenberg worked for Kastner as well and moved to become an agent under the legendary Robert Lantz when Epstein showed her the treatment.

“I didn’t know I’d be managing actors then; I thought I’d be a producer and handed her a 100-page treatment,” said Epstein, who partners with Brian Swardstrom in InHouse and whose clients include Nicole Kidman and Rupert Everett. “She urged me to turn it into a book and 100 pages became 450.”

Rosenberg sent it to a few publishers, but Epstein got preoccupied, and the manuscript was mothballed for two decades. “I moved to a new house recently and found it in a box, read it and thought it was pretty good,” Epstein said.

Rosenberg, who recently switched from agent to manager in partnering with Bill Melamed, felt the same way. “I liken it to ‘The Graduate,’ with maybe a bit more edge,” said Rosenberg, who renewed efforts to set it up. They sent it to two producers, and Lakeshore responded with a deal that will make Epstein six figures if the film goes into production, plus producing credit.

The story concerns a 17-year-old who is orphaned when his mother dies. She’s left him $300,000. Under the guise of wanting to finish high school, he spurns offers from relatives to take him in, preferring to stay on his own and get into some adventures. As the title indicates, he doesn’t get the sheepskin, but gets into a complicated romantic situation.

ROLLERBRANDON: Though it doesn’t look likely to be headed for series, Wednesday’s Fox telepic “Blade Squad” serves as an homage to the persistence of Brandon Tartikoff, per Peter Iliff, who wrote the script and exec produced with Tartikoff and his wife Lily.

Iliff met Tartikoff at Paramount Pictures when he wrote “Patriot Games” and they stayed in touch. “We both had projects on rollerblading that didn’t happen, and years later he called and we put it together,” said Iliff. The pic came unglued at Paramount and TriStar, but Tartikoff refused to surrender, giving great script notes up to two days before his death.

“He kept telling me I could be the next Chris Carter, to keep trying,” Iliff said. Brandon wasn’t the only persistent family member. After mourning her husband, Lily took the script to Warner Bros. chief Bob Daly, and before Iliff knew it, the $6 million pic was in production. Iliff, who’ll stick to movies after his TV foray, penned Paramount’s “Varsity Blues.”

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