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‘Lambs’ in a stew

Foster opts out of 'Hannibal' to direct 'Plum'

With star salaries soaring and production slates tightening, it’s becoming tougher and tougher to get sequels off the ground. The latest example: “Silence of the Lambs.”

Though producer Dino Di Laurentiis has invested $9 million in the basic property and a few million more in screenplays by pricey writers, the project seems stillborn. The latest setback was the decision of Jodie Foster to withdraw from “Hannibal” and instead direct a project of her own starting in late spring.

After seriously considering reprising her role as FBI agent Clarice Starling in the graphic sequel to “The Silence of the Lambs,” Foster has passed on the project, preferring to direct Claire Danes in “Flora Plum.”

Although the two projects, both slated for a spring start, presented a conflict for Foster, Danes’ decision to take a year off from her studies at Yale to topline “Flora” helped influence the actress-helmer to commit to the project.

Foster’s pass on “Hannibal” makes the sequel to “Silence” look less and less like the film that won five Oscars in 1992 and more and more like a Christmas gift for which someone overpaid.

Soon after novelist Thomas Harris delivered “Hannibal” earlier this year, De Laurentiis, who owned the rights to the Lecter character, slapped down north of $9 million for the screen rights — the most ever paid for a silver screen adaptation (Daily Variety, May 7). But in the ensuing months, hopes to reunite the dream team that created “Silence” began to dissolve as the pricetag soared.

Director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally, both Oscar winners for “Silence,” read Harris’ book and passed. David Mamet stepped in to write the screenplay, while Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Thelma & Louise”) committed to helm. Once Mamet turned in his draft, one of the industry’s highest-paid scribes, Steve Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”), was enlisted to pen a rewrite.

It was this draft that reeled in Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins in December, though reps for the actor could not be reached to comment on the status of his deal negotiations.

Foster eyes ‘Flora”

Meanwhile, Foster hopes to put “Flora” into pre-production this spring.

Once set up at October Films, “Flora” is expected to be produced and financed by USA Films. Foster also will claim a producing credit along with Universal-based producer Barry Mendel (“The Sixth Sense”) and Foster’s Paramount-based Egg Prods. partner Meg LeFauve.

Penned by Steven Rogers (“Hope Floats”), “Flora” is described as an “All About Eve” set in a 1930s circus milieu. Story revolves around a “freak” who takes pity on a penniless waif (Danes) and puts her on the road to stardom, only to fall in love with her in the process.

The role of the freak is out to actors.

Foster’s directing credits include “Little Man Tate” and “Home for the Holidays.”

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