Tall Trees rooting deals; Molina in ‘Murder’

TRIO OF COMEDIES: While their prime focus is the Columbia adaptation of “I Spy” that will star Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson, as well as the ABC pilot “Silicon Follies,” Tall Trees partners Betty Thomas and Jenno Topping have rooted three new projects.

Thomas will next direct that pilot as well as “I Spy,” a film she and Topping produce with Mario Kassar and Andy Vajna. The Tall Trees duo have also set deals for the Marty Scott-Toni Kotite comedy “King For A Day” at New Regency; set up the Josh Sternin-Jeff Ventimilia-scripted “Men’s Room Attendant” at Sony, and set the Howard Franklin pitch “99%” at Fox.

“King For A Day” concerns a high school student who, working as a prop master for his school production of Richard III, develops such an affinity for the lead character that he employs his tactics to destroy the school caste system. The project, said Topping, came to them via Jonathan Prince, a longtime Thomas pal who’ll produce the comedy with them, and who was involved in the untitled documentary just shot by Thomas which gives a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a reality show. The docu was financed by Revolution’s Joe Roth, and is eyeing a berth on a cable network.

“Men’s Room Attendant” came to Tall Trees after Sternin and Ventimilia rewrote for the production company “Surviving Christmas,” a comedy Thomas might direct. Though the scribes are now well known for hatching “That 70s Show,” “Men’s Room Attendant” was their first script collaboration, about a commode-dweller who must become a hero when he falls in love with a woman and finds she’s been targetted for permanent flushing by a hitman. The project was originally set at Fox, but languished there and was rescued by Tall Trees exec Lis Peery. The writers will rework it for Tall Trees, which also is developing the Sternin-Ventimilia script “Messiah Complex” at Sony.

The Franklin pitch “99%” resulted from Thomas meeting the frequent Bill Murray collaborator on the set of “Charlie’s Angels,” which Thomas and Topping exec produced, working with producers Drew Barrymore, Nancy Juvonen and Leonard Goldberg. Topping knew Franklin from her days at the Ladd Co., where she developed his script “The Bounty Hunter.” When the scribe came to the set to visit Murray, he pitched the new comedy and made the sale. It centers around a music producer who gets tired of being left behind by the boy bands when the clearasil crowd makes them famous, and sets out to create a fake virtual band that he can control no matter how big it gets. The project was bought by Fox, where production prexy Hutch Parker is shepherding it.

Topping and Thomas, who met while the former was an HBO exec and the latter helmed the comedy “The Late Shift,” are busy on the small screen as well. Through Imagine Television, they are producing for ABC the Sandy Isaacs-scripted sitcom pilot “Silicon Follies,” with Thomas directing a pilot supervised by Tall Trees exec Julie Glucksman, and they are hoping for a prestrike start for “Loose Women,” a Stan Zimmerman and Jim Berg-scripted comedy which Tall Trees originally set as a Thomas directing vehicle at Sony, but reconfigured as an ABC telepic.

MOLINA REVIVES POIROT: Less than a year since the estate of Agatha Christie authorized vet agent Marion Rosenberg to exploit the 101 title library, CBS has wrapped “Murder on the Orient Express” with “Chocolat” star Alfred Molina in the role of Belgian supersleuth Hercule Poirot, with the Kraft-sponsored telepic set to air on the web April 22. If the movie does strong ratings, the clues are there that Molina’s Poirot will topline a series of telepics for the network.

“Murder” has been done only once before on the small screen, when Sidney Lumet directed Albert Finney. The new version is much different. The story has been contemporized, and was shot in Yorkshire, complete with an Orient Express train car shipped there to be used for filming. Molina starred with Meredith Baxter, Leslie Caron and Peter Strauss, and the telepic was exec produced by Dan Blatt. “Since we first met with CBS last summer, none of us could believe how quickly and well this came together,” said Phil Clymer, managing director of Agatha Christie Ltd. “Molina’s Poirot is a Hugo Boss-clad detective who eschews modern methods of detection like DNA, preferring to use his grey cells and brilliant deductive abilities,” said Rosenberg, who is in early talks to set another Christie mystery franchise, Miss Marple, for feature treatment. “The most exciting thing is that, 25 years after Agatha Christie’s death, people are rediscovering the potential of her brilliant stories.” The estate will only allow adaptations of Christie works, and won’t permit newly scripted adventures using her characters.

Molina, meanwhile, has headed to Mexico to play Diego Rivera alongside Salma Hayek in the Julie Taymor-directed Miramax film “Frida.” Partnered with Joan Hyler through a deal at CBS and Col/Tristar, they are developing several other projects, including the recently acquired feature script “Costa’s Last Hand.” Written and to be directed by BBC vet Andrew Kazimia, the script is a romantic comedy about an inveterate gambler, to be played by Molina, who must choose between his passion for gaming, and the love of a woman. Molina is trying to tempt his “Chocolat” costar Lena Olin to join him.

LENNIX A GUY TO WATCH: Harry Lennix, a revelation in “Titus,” has made two deals that’ll up his profile considerably. He’s set to star as the controversial Gotham congressman Adam Clayton Powell in the Doug McHenry-directed Showtime film “Keep the Faith,” starring opposite Vanessa Williams for producer Dennis Johnson.

Once he finishes, Lennix is off to play the villainous role of Lock in the second and third installments of “The Matrix,” which will be shot by Larry and Andy Wachowski, back to back, in Oakland and Australia. His role will pit him against the character played by Laurence Fishburne in the sequels that also star Keanu Reeves and Carrie Anne Moss. Lennix, who’s repped by ICM and Edmonds Mgmt., just wrapped the indie pic “Pumpkin,” opposite Christina Ricci.

“MATRIX” DOWN UNDER: While the producers of “The Matrix” continue to haggle with the Australian government over tax breaks worth tens of millions of dollars, Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures have decided to shoot the back-to-back sequels in Australia anyhow. The commitment to shoot this September at the Fox Studios in Sydney is a big development to the country, since the sequel was the first big international production to shoot in Sydney. The film has become WB’s biggest box office grosser with $450 million worldwide.

ARCHIE A WISEGUY?: As Universal heavily promotes its cartoon-to-live-action transformation “Josie and the Pussycats,” the studio might want to reconsider its mothballed project “The Archies.” Especially since the first two drafts were penned by David Chase, whose HBO creation “The Sopranos” has made him one of the most coveted scribes in town. The drama’s wiseguy format has lent itself to clever dialogue, such as recently, when Tony Soprano gave bad news to a cold-blooded rival, and, upon receiving a cold stare said, “Don’t give me them Manson lamps.” Perhaps an “Archie” with edge is worth another look.

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