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Steers struck by ‘Lightning’

“Lightning on the Sun,” the Robert Bingham novel long coveted by filmmakers but unavailable since the author’s 1999 death just prior to publication, has been optioned by Catch 23 Entertainment and producer Nick Wechsler.

Burr Steers, whose directing debut “Igby Goes Down” opens Friday, has been set to adapt and direct.

Bingham, a member of the prominent Louisville newspaper clan that has been called the Kennedys of Kentucky, was a young reporter-philanthropist who founded a lit magazine called Open City and began making a strong name for himself as the chronicler of a privileged generation lost at sea. He published the short story collection “Pure Slaughter Value” and followed with the novel, which he completed just before he died in what was believed to be an accidental heroin overdose.

Bingham used his two-year tour of duty as a reporter at the Cambodian News to inform his tale a journalist who becomes an unwitting courier of heroin.

Steers comes from a wealthy D.C. family and is the half-nephew of Gore Vidal. He found much in common with Bingham’s characters. “They are my age group, and there was so much that rang true to me, and I saw the potential for it to be ‘The Year of Living Dangerously’ for my generation,” Steers said.

His pursuit of the novel coincided with positive buzz on “Igby,” which touches on Bingham-like themes of silver-spooners lost in their 20s. Steers was best known as the first of the trio of slackers who get killed by Samuel L. Jackson’s scripture spouting hit man in “Pulp Fiction.” “People underestimate what it takes to be a good movie corpse, how hard it is to lay there and appear not to be breathing,” Steers said.

Pre-publication, Bingham had been courted by directors like David O. Russell and Doug Liman, and Brad Pitt sparked to it as well. But the author’s mother, Joan Bingham, and his longtime lit agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, were so shattered by the Bingham’s death that they refused film offers for three years.

“This has been one of the most serious honors and obligations,” said Walsh, who’s now at WMA, which packaged the book for new client Steers along with the director’s Catch 23 manager Shawn Hopkins. “I lived this book for five years with Rob, nine publishers came forward when it was auctioned,” she said. “Rob got married, he drafted a last magnificent version that convinced me he was going to be Robert Stone or this generation’s Scott Fitzgerald. And then he dropped dead. The grief was so great we had to pull back. I’ve had 10 offers over the years, and we said no to everybody.”

Walsh recently decided it was time and enlisted Wechsler, who steered her to Steers. “Joan and I went to see ‘Igby,’ and we realized he was the right person,” Walsh said.

VIGILANCE FOR VIGIANO: In last Sept. 11’s Dish, this columnist had the unfortunate timing to lead with a Dick Wolf discussion on how his concerns about Gotham’s vulnerability led him to mobilize a miniseries about Gotham terrorist attacks that was to utilize the casts of his three “Law & Order” shows. That project was quickly canceled as was another pilot project to mount a reality series based on the NYPD’s Emergency Services Unit. But in the latter case, Wolf Films has been able to use that footage for “Twin Towers,” a 30-minute documentary that is a moving tribute to Joseph Vigiano, who was the focal point of the pilot until he was killed along with his firefighter brother trying to evacuate the WTC. Vigiano was a major part of the ESU, and he was an easy choice to be its star. The son of a highly decorated firefighter, he’d joined the elite force after being shot twice on duty. Hours of docu footage was shot about the unit’s exploits, ranging from apprehension of armed suspects to the rescue of kids who’d fallen through icy waters, to climbing a bridge to rescue a jumper.

The pilot was nearly finished, and Vigiano made several trips to Hollywood to loop dialogue when he perished. “We had become very friendly with all of those guys, and two days went by and we hadn’t heard from John or his brother Joe,” said Wolf Films president Peter Jankowski, who exec produced the docu with Wolf. “It became nightmarish. When it happened, just as was the case with the miniseries, we put our pens down, shut down the machines and walked away. A couple of months later, we decided to assemble a documentary as a tribute to Joe, with no commercial angle in mind. It just seemed a telling personal story of the sacrifices some people make.”

The pic, whose title is a reference to Vigiano and his brother, will be screened this weekend in a Santa Monica theater and again in New York to qualify for the Oscars. Jankowski has been passing cassettes to industry friends, but he and Wolf haven’t decided when and if the film will get a broadcast airing. “We chose not to go to the networks to put it on the air today because there has been so much numbing stuff that it would have gotten lost,” Jankowski said. “It’s not something we’re going out of our way to create excitement about. It was a labor of love for us, for Rob Port, who shot the footage, and Bill Guttentag, who got involved after 9/11 and put it together.”

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