GOOD MORNING: Ridley Scott made some admissions about “Gladiator” when I called to find out why he wasn’t at Monday’s Acad preem in BevHills. I had to reach him in Florence where he starts filming ‘Hannibal” Friday. He had been at a screening of Dino de Laurentiis’ “U-571,” given for Scott by Dino (who is also producing “Hannibal,” in case you forgot). Scott says Dino is “amazing at 83. “He was shooting ’571′ behind me in Malta while I was shooting ‘Gladiator.’ He came over to see me and asked, ‘How would you like to direct “Hannibal”?’ I said , ‘Can’t you see I’m doing an epic now. I’m not going over the Alps for another one!’ Dino then explained his pic was about Hannibal Lecter. So Scott is in Florence shooting the “middle act” of the pic; he films the first act in D.C. and the final act in Richmond, Va. Not much physical action in “Hannibal,” but Scott laughingly promised “Lecter will show some interesting bad behavior!” Scott admitted he looked at (and praised) “Ben-Hur” as well as “The Fall of the Roman Empire” before starting ‘Gladiator.” When I told him how well his film was received by the SRO crowd at the Academy, he said he hopes it will “resurrect epic movies” — like “Alexander the Great,” which he’s thinking about directing. He wasn’t defeated by the magnitude of “Gladiator.” “No, we had great organization,” he claimed. “Sure, it was pressure, but it was enjoyable pressure.” The biggest “pressure” was the opening sequence, the German front. And the “trickiest” was in the arena with the tigers. “Some don’t do as they are told.” The biggest challenge was shooting in North Africa “with three cultures.” Three thousand tribesmen were brought in from deep in the desert for the stadium sequence. “They were paid in food — it was like a time warp!”

FLASH BACK TO 1961 and Verona where Dino de Laurentiis shot another biblical-Roman epic: “Barabbas.” Dick Fleischer, who directed, recalled they brought in thousands of townspeople for their coliseum scene. “We’d pick up villagers starting at 3 in the morning to be ready to shoot at 9. We had a complete circus with lions, tigers, elephants and 3,000 ‘gladiators’ and stuntmen.” (There were no computer-generated crowds or set expansions in ’61). Ancient Rome was built (and burned!) on Dino’s acreage in Rome, which later became his own studio. The Columbia film cost between $4 million and $5 million, said Fleischer. It was enormous for that time. … I reached Kirk Douglas to reminisce about “Spartacus” (1959). He said his all-star Universal film cost $10 million-$11 million and has to date grossed $65 million theatrically — not counting videos, TV, etc. It too featured staggering battle scenes and the epic arena fight between Douglas and Woody Strode which was filmed on the back lot of Universal and directed by Stanley Kubrick with a script (credited) by Dalton Trumbo. Douglas said he too would like to produce one more epic — about Cortez and Montezuma. And he has a script by Trumbo. … Also missing from the “Gladiator” preem Monday was Oscar-winning composer Hans Zimmer, who musicked this epic with Lisa Gerrard. When I reached Zimmer Tuesday, he explained his absence: He’s on a round-the clock scoring-editing session for “M:I2″ with Tom Cruise on hand for every note. “We have to complete it tomorrow (Wednesday) night!”; invites are out for the preem, May 18. After completing the (spectacular!) opening sequence for “Gladiator,” Zimmer said Ridley Scott said to him, “Let’s do an opera!” Zimmer gives much credit to Gerrard who came in for three days to sing — and stayed six months. “She is my co-creator; let’s show the credit. This town is so proprietary about credits. If there is one moment of magic created, it’s worth 100 hours of mediocrity.” He said Ridley has already phoned him to score “Hannibal.” He’ll also tune “Pearl Harbor”. … DreamWorks triumvirate Steven Spielberg, David Geffen and Jeff Katzenberg were also absent from the preem: Spielberg had a bad cold, Geffen was in N.Y. and Katzenberg’s in Asia checking out elephant lore for the upcoming DreamWorks animated “Tusker.” But exec producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald were on hand. Parkes said “Gladiator” came in at $103 million and he was proud it had only gone up a little from its $98 million budget) On hand for applause was Russell Crowe, who did an amazing transformation from 238 pounds as the Oscar-nominated tobacco company whistle-blower in “The Insider” to the 180-pound and equally convincing heroic Maximus in “Gladiator,” Also there, costars Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Djimon Hounsou, Tomas Arana, Ralf Moeller and Spencer Treata Clark. And filmmakers Douglas Wick and David Franzoni. The Acad audience applauded generously and laughed heartily when (the late) Oliver Reed, playing Proxino the slave trader who booked the gladiators into the arenas, exclaimed, “I’m an entertainer!” Indeed he was.

CONGRATS TO CARL REINER who receives the Kennedy Center’s Mark Twain prize Oct. 24. Coincidentally Reiner had just been asked by New Millennium’s Michael Viner to tape the audio version of Twain’s “Letters from the Earth”. … Sad to note vet praiser Mike Hall’s passing. He “planted” us all — from Winchell, Kilgallen, Wilson, etc. From B’way to Hollywood, Hall repped ‘em all. Today, Liz Smith says some words (from us all) to Hall at his funeral in the Riverside chapel in N.Y.

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