CONVERSATIONS’ WITH STIPE: With its “Being John Malkovich” ready to open after an upbeat reception at the Venice Film Fest, Single Cell Pictures — the film company hatched by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe — is ready to move forward with “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” a project Stipe hopes will take root at USA Films. That’s where Stipe and partner Sandy Stern’s three-year-old Single Cell has a first-look deal.

“Conversations” is an ensemble piece with five intersecting stories, all on the subject of karma. Jill and Karen Sprecher wrote the script, and the former will direct. The sisters last did the film “Clockwatchers.” Gina Resnick, who produced that pic, will join Stipe and Stern on the project.

Stipe and Stern hope “Malkovich” will give their shingle momentum, though Stipe’s next screen move may be to combine his two companies: He also partners with “Girlstown” director Jim McCay in C-00, which they set up long ago to make arthouse films.

Single Cell was set up to do larger films: It exec produced “Velvet Goldmine” and produced the Showtime pic “Freak City.”

Stipe and Stern hope to get “Conversations” in production this fall. They also are talking to writer-directors on a project they optioned at USA based on a newspaper article about a New Jersey priest who skimmed the collection plate to finance a secret life as an Atlantic City casino high-roller, complete with condo, Jaguar and girlfriend.

Single Cell is also shopping a TV series about the inner workings of the music business with actor-turned-director Robby Benson. Stipe, Stern, Benson and Benson’s wife Carla DeVito are meeting with networks and will create and write the series together.

And R.E.M. plays a hand in Universal’s upcoming “Man on the Moon,” the Milos Forman-directed biopic of comic Andy Kaufman that borrows its title from one of the group’s songs.

The band recorded an orchestral version of “Man on the Moon,” scored the entire film for Forman, then wrote and recorded an original tune, “The Great Beyond,” for the end credits.

“The band went off tour last Sunday, I flew from Boston to Toronto for the showing of our films ‘American Movie’ and ‘Spring Forward, Fall Back,’ and then ran back to New York to see ‘Man on the Moon’ with Danny DeVito, Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher,” said Stipe, referring to the Jersey Films partners who produced the film.

“Moviemaking is extremely challenging because there are so many more moving parts involved than writing and recording a song, but I’m really proud to be part of all this.”

GROSS DEALS IN WORKS: Screenwriter Larry Gross has set a trio of new projects. The scribe, whose credits include “48 HRS.” and “True Crime,” has made a deal for an adaptation of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” which is coming together with Janet McTeer starring and Sidney Lumet in talks to direct. McTeer won the 1997 Tony Award for her perf in the play.

At the same time, he’s pacted with WIN partners Larry and Jerry Gershman for “The Invisible City,” a Gross script to star Adrian Paul, who toplined the TV series “Highlander.” Paul’s fans are awaiting the Dimension film based on that series, but the actor will first star in a thriller directed by Michael Oblowitz, who helmed Gross’ script “This World … Then the Fireworks.”

Gross is also in talks with Hearst Entertainment to adapt the new Ed McBain novel “Up in Smoke,” which will air as an A&E telefilm that Hearst Entertainment’s Diana Karew hopes will hatch a series of vidpix. Gross is repped by Ken Gross Management and CAA.

JERSEY’S RESIDENT GUMSHOE: Peter Lucia, a former writer for the Asbury Park Press and a researcher for Jersey Films, has hit paydirt on a project that the production company is determined to make.

Lucia heard about a 1910 murder of a young girl in Asbury Park, the hometown of Jersey principal Danny DeVito. While news accounts were scant and inconsistent, the film prospects were enhanced when the researcher found an industrial archaeologist who’d bought police files. “I found a box full of materials, newspaper articles, a rare book, but most importantly, the day-by-day diary of the main detective who solved the case,” said Lucia.

Jersey bought rights to the documents of Raymond C. Schindler, the detective who cracked the case for the William J. Burns Detective Agency. And Lucia is being amply rewarded: Jersey will let him write the script.

BARK AND BITE: Sue Leibman, former ICM agent, has set up her own Gotham-based management and production shingle, Barking Dog Entertainment. Leibman starts with an eclectic talent stable that includes Gaby Hoffmann, Cary Lowell, Matt King, Michael Mastro, Donna Hanover and others, including the organization Project ALS. ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a debilitating illness that is the focus of a CBS telepic Leibman is co-exec producing about Jenifer Estess. Estess was the producing director of the Naked Angel Theater Co. when she contracted the disease. She’s now prexy of Project ALS.

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