'Ambersons' to show on A&E in U.S., in theaters abroad

NEW YORK — Alfonso Arau has committed to direct the remake of the 1942 Orson Welles film “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

He’ll shoot the redo as a theatrical feature for the international market and as a four-hour miniseries that will debut in the U.S. on A&E. Senior veep of programming Allen Sabinson just completed a deal for the cabler to air the pic.

Arau (“Like Water for Chocolate,” “A Walk in the Clouds”) most recently helmed the Woody Allen/Sharon Stone black comedy “Picking Up the Pieces.”

Daunting task

While the prospect of remaking a Welles film is daunting, the backstory behind the original film made the assignment irresistible to Arau.

“As I came up in Mexico both as an actor and a director, Orson Welles was considered the giant, and both ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ were masterpieces we studied in school,” Arau said. “The idea of a remake is absolutely fascinating and terrifying at the same time, because you risk criticism. But this is different. He didn’t get to finish the movie himself, and the studio made changes he didn’t like and left a work he hardly recognized. There’s this fantasy that doing it the way he wanted it to be done would please him, wherever he is. It’s a romantic thought, anyway.”

“The Magnificent Ambersons” redo was conceived last year by RKO Pictures Television with the DeAngelis Group and producers Gene Kirkwood, Norman Stephens and Jonas Bauer, with Guido DeAngelis and Ted Hartley exec producing with A&E exec Delia Fine.

Welles’ vision

Idea is to take the story — a stubborn man loses his family fortune and social prominence through his unwillingness to change in the age of the automobile — and reinstill it with Welles’ vision by using his original 165-page script. Though Welles was coming off “Citizen Kane” when he shot “Ambersons,” the helmer was rudely surprised upon returning from a vacation to find that RKO execs had cut an hour of the film — and burned the excised footage so that Welles could not fight to have it restored.

Arau will embellish Welles’ script with scenes from the 1918 Pulitzer Prize-winning Booth Tarkington novel from which Welles adapted his script. But the newcomer will put his stylistic stamp on the project, which is expected to cost about $16 million.

“I’m not planning to do a shot by shot reproduction like ‘Psycho,’ I’m planning to take that original script and make a current film, a family drama with some humor, which is right up my alley,” said Arau, who’ll start casting the leads in L.A. next week and begin shooting in August on a turn-of-the-century Minneapolis set that has been constructed in Ireland.

For A&E, the broadcast marks the latest effort by the web to ramp up on the original miniseries front. The network made a splash with the Emmy-winning “Horatio Hornblower” mini; another four hours of the saga is now in production. While “Ambersons” will make its bow on cable, Arau said one reason he committed to the film was a promise that it will be rolled out theatrically in the U.S. several years after A&E airs it sometime in 2001.

Arau is repped by ICM’s Nick Reed and Leora Bloch, managed by Peter Safran and lawyered by John Sloss.

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