Kaufman visits ‘Prison’; Van Sant loves ‘Sarah’

Director Philip Kaufman is once again telling tales out of jail.

Having captured the Marquis de Sade’s confinement at a French asylum in “Quills,” Kaufman will direct “Prison Fish” for Phoenix Pictures. Jerry Stahl (“Permanent Midnight”) is in talks to write the script.

“Prison Fish” is based on the forthcoming jailhouse memoir, “You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From A Prison Fish,” by Jimmy A. Lerner.

“Prison” is the true story of a Jewish MBA from Brooklyn who winds up in a Nevada penitentiary after killing a man while on a bender in Las Vegas. Faced with widespread corruption, racial discord and crank-addicted Nazi skinheads, Lerner discovers the corporate survival skills he learned as an exec at Pacific Bell are surprisingly germane to life behind bars.

“It’s a tour of an American hell,” says Broadway Books editorial director Gerald Howard, who’ll publish the book in February.

Kaufman says the film isn’t just a prison story — a good half of the narrative, he says, will take place in the outside world. He also expects the tone of Stahl’s script to be both gritty and funny. “His stuff is really amusing, in the tradition of Lenny Bruce,” says Kaufman. “He’s unafraid of the world and isn’t going to sanitize it.”

Phoenix Pictures topper Mike Medavoy, who has worked with Kaufman on such pics as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and once served as the director’s agent, likened the project to “Cool Hand Luke.”

Bradford Smith, who brought the book to Phoenix, will oversee the pic with Anne Rodman. Peter Kaufman, the director’s son and producing partner at Walrus & Assoc., will produce. Phoenix exec veep Lindsey Baymen brokered the deal for the shingle.

Kaufman says the connection to “Quills” didn’t occur to him. “Now I’ll be the writer-behind-bars guy,” he said. “Before that, I was the sex guy, then the sci-fi guy. Everytime you do a movie, you get classified.”

It wouldn’t be unfair to classify Kaufman, who’s repped by ICM, as a director with a penchant for films based on books – often great books.

He’s developing George Elliot’s “Daniel Deronda” at Fox Searchlight. He’s also developing Saul Bellow’s “Henderson the Rain King.” There’s no studio involved yet, but Jack Nicholson has expressed interest in playing Bellow’s titular eccentric millionaire, who embarks on a spiritual quest to Africa.

Stahl, repped as a screenwriter by UTA, is also a novelist. His next book, “Plainsclothes Naked,” will be out in the fall.

ANOTHER DIRECTOR with an interest in the seamier edges of life is Gus Van Sant, and he’s found a new source of material in the life of 21-year-old phenom J.T. Leroy.

Van Sant has optioned Leroy’s semi-autobiographical first novel, “Sarah.” The book depicts the travels of the cross-dressing son of a “lot lizard” (a truck stop prostitute), allegedly modeled on Leroy.

The author, repped by AMG and Donadio & Olson’s Ira Silverberg, began writing for magazines like Spin and the New York Press at age 16 under the pen name Terminator. But he’s an elusive figure: He refuses to be photographed or give public readings (he appeared in drag in the July issue of Vanity Fair).

That’s only enhanced his cult mystique. It’s a mystique a slightly older, eclectic crowd of writers and artists have helped create by staging elaborate readings of his work drawing hundreds of fans.

Matthew Modine, Mary Karr, Michael Musto and Rufus Wainright are on the bill for the latest such event — a reading from “The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things,” Leroy’s new short story collection from Bloomsbury USA, tonight at Gotham nightclub FEZ.

ONE OF LEROY’S EARLIEST MENTORS, Dennis Cooper, has found a new publisher and a new job.

Cooper’s latest novel, “My Loose Thread,” has been picked up by the new U.S. imprint of the Scottish publisher Canongate. Originally acquired by Rob Weisbach at William Morrow, the book was dropped after Weisbach ankled and the house was merged with HarperCollins.

Cooper has also been named a consulting editor at Canongate.

The “Thread” deal marks the first time Canongate has bought U.S. rights only to a book (U.K. rights are held by Serpent’s Tail), and it comes on the heels of Canongate’s first season as a U.S. imprint under publisher Jaime Byng and Colin McLear.

Cooper’s novels are widely acclaimed, but they’ve never shied away from graphic scenes of sexual violence that make them unlikely candidates for the studio development mills. “My Loose Thread” is no exception. It’s a novel in a Larry Clark vein about teenagers on the social fringes.

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