D-Day for Spielberg: Phoenix grabs ‘Skull’

STEVE’S BIG DECISION: He hasn’t been behind the cameras since “Saving Private Ryan” nearly two years ago, but Steven Spielberg is about to make a decision or two that will keep him busy for a long time. And execs at Fox, DreamWorks and Warner Bros. have bitten their nails to the quick, waiting for the decision.

He’s imminently expected to decide whether to next direct Tom Cruise in the Fox/DreamWorks co-production “Minority Report,” or do “A.I.,” the project Spielberg himself is scripting based on a treatment by Stanley Kubrick, for Warner Bros.

As if that weren’t enough, the Steve Kloves script for “Harry Potter” is due this week, which Spielberg has also had his eye on. The helmer has been meeting with Fox, but has played his cards close to the vest. He could do two pics back-to-back the way he did with “Jurassic Park” and “Schindler’s List,” but he likely won’t decide which comes first until later this month.

PHOENIX PLOTS ‘SKULL’: Chartoff Prods. and Phoenix Pictures will turn Antjie Krog’s South African novel “Country of My Skull” into a feature scripted by Ann Peacock, who won an Emmy for the HBO pic “A Lesson Before Dying.”

Producer Robert Chartoff just closed a deal with Phoenix chairman Mike Medavoy for the novel, which focuses on an interracial romance set against the backdrop of the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings held after apartheid ended in the country.

A married black U.S. journalist has an affair with a white Afrikaner woman while he covers the historic hearings in which citizens confessed crimes of rape, torture and murder to victims and surviving families in exchange for amnesty — a process conceived to help move the country forward. Chartoff optioned the book to work with Peacock, and Medavoy, who worked as studio exec with Chartoff on “Rocky” and “Raging Bull,” signed on. “This was a very dramatic way to cover this system of trials which brought reconciliation to their society,” Chartoff said. The once-prolific producer now spends much of his time in such philanthropic pursuits as the operation of an orphanage in India.

Medavoy said they’re near landing a director for the South African pic, which will be overseen by Phoenix’s Diane Sokolow and Chartoff’s Lynn Hendee.

Meanwhile, Phoenix is in talks with Mike Newell to helm “Shanghai” in China, and Phoenix began production Monday in Toronto on the Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “The Sixth Day.” It is getting strong test scores on “Whatever It Takes,” a pic bowing March 31.

‘THE BODY’ AND THE BODIES: Jonas McCord is directing the Antonio Banderas starrer “The Body” in Israel, where the cast and crew discovered their own bodies.

Banderas plays a priest sent by the Vatican to debunk a claim that bones found in a hidden tomb in Jerusalem are those of Jesus Christ. As they prepared for burial crypt scenes, the crew and archaeologists began finding four real bodies from 300 B.C., with the best preserved discovered by the film’s female star, Olivia Williams.

“I have never been one of those who fancy archaeology in England, where they dig in muddy pits for pottery,” said Williams, the “Sixth Sense” star who plays an archaeologist. “I’ve a newfound respect, and I found the spark I needed as an actress to get into character.

“We picked up a stone and found a skull, which was imprinted on the underside of the stone and was untouched for 2,300 years. To imagine it was 300 years older than the body we deal with in the film is astounding. There were three or four perfume bottles with her, a bronze mirror and earrings. All beautiful.”

On Dec. 23, McCord will finish the film (which, the filmmakers say, isn’t as blasphemous as press reports indicate) in Rome and deliver his cut in May.

KEV CONVERGENCE?: While Kevin Costner is expected to move from Beacon’s “13 Days” to a reteam with “JFK” helmer Oliver Stone in “Without Borders,” the town is buzzing over another reteam he’s mulling.

Costner and Kevin Reynolds long ago planned to work together on the pirate adventure pic “Ocra Coke,” and sources said they are now shopping the $80 million film for financing, with the possibility they’ll be side by side once again.

The pirate pic tells the story of Robert Maynard, a disgraced British naval officer who redeemed himself by capturing notorious pirate Blackbeard in a battle in Ocra Coke, an inlet outside North Carolina.

Reynolds and Costner have had a tangled relationship; Reynolds gave Costner his start in “Fandango,” and they scored a hit in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” But they clashed mightily on “Waterworld,” with Reynolds exiting the troubled pic during post-production. Despite the high-profile falling out, they’ve accomplished more together than apart recently, and the feeling is that time may have healed some wounds.

Others pooh-poohed the prospect of such a reunion, which is contingent on getting a financier and studio to step up and fund the script by Marc Norman (“Shakespeare in Love”).

CASTINGS: “Cinderella Man,” the Cliff Hollingsworth-scripted pic that could turn into a Billy Bob Thornton-directed Ben Affleck starrer, won’t be put into turnaround by Universal. The Depression-era story of a boxer is being produced by Penny Marshall and is being steered by U prexy Kevin Misher. U’s negotiating to make a co-production with Miramax … The teen market has been a film boon partly because the talent was so cheap. But those teen stars are starting to earn handsome salaries. Dish hears that one of the most successful in that genre, Jennifer Love Hewitt, has a $2.5 million offer to join Sigourney Weaver in David Mirkin’s “Breakers,” an MGM comedy about a mother-daughter conwoman team … The latest celeb to take an Internet deal is Patrick Stewart. He’s aligned with San Francisco-based startup Ububu to be a creative partner in the online venture as well as spokesman, and his distinctive voice will provide the guide and voice for the site, which launches next year.

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