Producer/financier FilmEngine has optioned gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s novel “The Rum Diary” as a starring vehicle for Johnny Depp, Nick Nolte and Benicio Del Toro, with “Pearl Harbor” star Josh Hartnett also circling. “Backbeat” scribe Michael Thomas will write the script.

The film will be produced by Greg Shapiro (Nolte’s partner in KingsGate Films), FilmEngine’s Anthony Rhulen and Robert S. Kravis, the latter of whom originated the project at Shooting Gallery. Thompson, Depp, Nolte and Bill Shively will exec produce.

“The Rum Diary” was Thompson’s first work of fiction, based on his early journalistic foray at a newspaper in San Juan in the late 1950s. While it predated the ingestion of hallucinogens that colored his later work, such as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (the film adaptation of which starred Depp and Del Toro), the novel featured plenty of drinking and carousing at the paper, with a love triangle thrown in for good measure.

“It was a gold rush,” Thompson recalled. “There were naked people everywhere, and we all had credit.”

“The Rum Diary” languished at cash-short Shooting Gallery to the point that Thompson penned an infamous letter to its production prexy that began “Okay you lazy bitch,” and went downhill from there. Rhulen, whose FilmEngine made “O” and the upcoming New Line pic “Cheaters,” intends to work fast enough to avoid that kind of Thompson correspondence, as scribe Thomas has already met with the author and should have a script ready to sell at Cannes. Plans are to shoot next winter, financed by split rights that will be brokered by FilmEngine and KMI.

“WAR” SCRIBE FLOURISHES: Though the POW drama “Hart’s War” went MIA at the box office, strong reaction to the script has led to a surge of plum projects for scripter Billy Ray, who rewrote Jeb Stuart and Terry George. Off “Hart’s War,” Ray’s BKWU reps booked him to adapt “The Napoleon of Crime” as a star vehicle for Robert Redford to play 19th century thief Adam Worth who, after robbing every worthwhile bank vault and train, moved on to London with his partner, Piano Charley Bullard. There, the co-conspirators got into a love triangle with an Irish barmaid named Kitty Flynn. Paramount and C-W Prods.’ Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner then hired Ray to adapt the GQ article “Metamorphosis” as a vehicle for Cruise to play chiropractor John Sarkin. Ray was then engaged by Intermedia to rewrite the Zak Penn script “Suspect Zero,” a drama about a serial killer-hunting FBI agent who suspects the villain may be a colleague. Then, producer Jerry Bruckheimer brought Ray in to rewrite “Affirmative Action,” an idea by Ben Affleck about the cultural collision between an African American FBI agent and white New Orleans cop brought together on a case. The plan is for Affleck to star with Will Smith.

“WAR” OF WORDS: Despite the flurry of assignments, Ray, son of longtime lit agent Rick Ray, is crestfallen over the failure of “Hart’s War” to find an audience, and both he and director Gregory Hoblit question the MGM marketing campaign which they saygave up the film’s big plot twist — that the racially charged murder trial in the POW camp was a ruse for a prison escape masterminded by Bruce Willis. “I wish more people had come to see it,” said Ray. “I believe a director should be allowed a voice in the marketing of his film. Greg has been screaming about the posters and trailers for months. They ignored him, and he deserved better.”

Hoblit feels it should have been allowed to sink or swim with a campaign that sold the movie he made. “This movie failed miserably in the marketplace,” said Hoblit. “The first time I looked at the trailer they proposed, I told them the reveal of the prison escape takes place 80% into the movie, comes out of nowhere, so how could they show it in the trailer? The audience was confused, and if they smell a rat, you’ve lost them.” MGM did alter the campaign a week before the film opened, but Hoblit said it was too late.

MGM prexy Michael Nathanson declined to debate the matter at all: “I’m enormously proud of the movie and recognize the extraordinary work by the filmmakers, but disappointed they would publicly criticize the studio that supported them. If you have to make a decision to do the right or wrong thing, the right thing is hardest. The filmmakers have chosen the easy way. It’s a lot easier to say publicly it’s someone else’s fault. As (UCLA basketball coach) John Wooden always said, never criticize your team in public.”

MORTENSEN STRIDES TO CAA: “Lord of the Rings” star Viggo Mortensen has returned to CAA, just as his star is rising off his performance as Aragorn in “Lord of the Rings,” and the promise that his presence will grow in the two sequels which director Peter Jackson has already shot. Mortensen, who had been at WMA, hasn’t committed to a followup, but is being courted hard for the Neil Jordan-directed “Borgia.”

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