Indie engine revs up

While studios continue to slumber with few major greenlights slated this year, numerous interesting independently financed films are coming together with name directors and casts.

Alfonso Arau (“Like Water for Chocolate”) has committed to direct “Alexander,” based on the exploits of conqueror Alexander the Great. At the same time, Alfred Molina, Chris Walken and Brenda Blethyn are poised to star in the indie-financed comedy “Plots with a View.”

With little buzz on studio films, dealmakers are talking about casting opportunities in comparatively low-budget affairs like “Kinsey,” the biopic of sexpert Alfred Kinsey written and to be directed by Oscar-winning “Gods and Monsters” scribe William Condon. A-listers from Pierce Brosnan to Julia Roberts are prepping films with entire budgets that are less those stars’ studio paychecks. It seems actors are sparking to the idea of making indies rather than sitting idle.

Arau was brought to “Alexander” by producer Gene Kirkwood after the two teamed on a remake of “The Magnificent Ambersons” as an A&E mini and an overseas theatrical. Arau plans to make the epic-sized story of Alexander on a budget of $15 million, which Kirkwood and George Hasiotis cobbled together through Greek investors and ship builders. Recent terrorist concerns have them rethinking shooting in Morocco and Greece, and Arau has enlisted his home turf in Mexico, saving them millions of bucks. Kirkwood is producing with Millie Toy and Norman Toy Jr., the latter of whom wrote the script. Arau promised “passion, violence, eroticism and beauty, and because it’s Mexico, we will take advantage of a double standard,” he said. “If you come as an American producer, it’ll cost one price, but if you’re a Mexican producer, it’s going to cost much less. I made ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ for $2 million. I’ll go to L.A. shortly for casting, hoping to start in March.”

That film doesn’t have domestic distribution yet, but Miramax has signed on to distribute “Plots with a View,” a film produced by the Spice Factory’s Jason Piette and Michael Cowan along with Snowfall Films’ Suzanne Lyons and Kate Robbins. The plan is to shoot this month in Wales, with Nick Hurran (“Girl’s Night”) directing a script by Frederick Ponzlov. Molina will play a traditional funeral director in a small town who pines for a local woman (Blethyn), even as he’s losing business to an upstart American rival (Walken) who’s wooing customers through glitzy stunts.

Molina (next seen starring with Salma Hayek in the Julie Taymor-directed “Frida”) is already plotting his next indie, an adaptation of the Vladimir Nabokov novel “Laughter in the Dark” to be directed by Gregory Mosher. Pic’s about a man undone by an obsession with a woman, getting caught up in a triangle between her and her boyfriend, a role that James Franco is eyeing.

NO SHARK SIGHTING FOR GIBSON. Mel Gibson, once firmly on the hook for the Barry Levinson-directed USS Indianapolis shark saga “In Harm’s Way,” has quietly stepped away. Gibson had sparked to playing Capt. Charles McVeigh, the skipper who was unjustly court-martialed in WWII after his ship was torpedoed and his crewmen shredded by sharks as they waited five days for rescue. Gibson won’t do the Warner Bros.-based “In Harm’s Way” or a Universal-based rival, “The Good Sailor.”

A LATE SHOW SCRATCH: While the World Trade Center disaster still has Gotham-based casts of shows like “The Sopranos” vacillating on whether to leave the city and head to Los Angeles for the Emmy Awards, there’s one definite cancellation: the annual road trip taken by the entire “Late Show with David Letterman.” Each year, Letterman has rewarded the hard work of the show’s employees, down to interns and secretaries, with an all-expense-paid trip to Hollywood for a big Emmy party. “The usual trip and party is not going to happen this year,” said Steven Rubenstein, spokesman for Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants. “We’re all back to work, we’re just not ready to celebrate.” WW Pants, which also produces “Everybody Loves Raymond” and “Ed,” is up for more than 10 awards, but nobody from the home office is planning to attend.

NORRIS WANTS MOVIE RELEASED: After a long TV run as “Walker, Texas Ranger,” Chuck Norris has signed with Endeavor and is ready to get back to action films and possibly another series. Norris is caught in an awkward bind on a CBS pic shot months ago that has become a hot potato because of similarities to the recent World Trade Center tragedy. In “The President’s Man: Ground Zero,” Norris works for the prexy as a troubleshooter and is pitted against a terrorist who’s a thinly veiled Osama Bin Laden character. The terrorist demands freedom for cohorts behind the 1993 WTC attack, threatening to detonate a smuggled-in nuke if the prexy doesn’t comply. “I basically go to Afghanistan and kidnap Bin Laden, whom we call Rasheed, and bring him to trial,” said Norris, who hatched the film with brother Aaron Norris. While studios and networks are shelving completed projects like the Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer “Collateral Damage” out of sensitivity concerns, Norris wants CBS topper Leslie Moonves to hasten the release of “Ground Zero,” which will surely get a title change. “The film has a positive message,” Norris said. “What’s good about this movie is it doesn’t blame all Arabs for the actions of a few, which is exactly what we’re hearing on TV. I understand that CBS has no idea what to do, but I am trying to get Les to release it right away. It was originally planned for January…. But I’m concerned that if it waits until then or later, people will think that we just made it and that we were trying to capitalize on the tragedy.” Norris also feels that, if anything, this is a time audiences want action heroes. “I think that if they release Arnold’s movie, if they release my movie, audiences would say, yeah, let’s get back at them. These movies are all about retribution. During World War II, people wanted to see John Wayne, winning the war.” According to CBS, no decision has been made on when the pic will air.

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