U drama details doomed jet

Universal is stepping up for a 9/11 movie, the second major studio film about the terrorist events.

Studio and director Paul Greengrass have set an October start date for “Flight 93.”

Working Title Films partners Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner will produce.

Par has already started Oliver Stone’s project, now in pre-production.

U’s $15 million film will be 90 minutes long and cover the flight in real time. It begins with the takeoff and hijacking of United Airlines Flight 93 by terrorists, the discovery by passengers with cell phones that other hijacked planes had been steered into the World Trade Center towers, and the realization that their plane was being steered toward D.C. Pic culminates in the decision by passengers to sacrifice their lives to bring the plane down. Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania.

Greengrass last directed “The Bourne Supremacy,” but “Flight 93″ seems closer in style to his 2002 film “Bloody Sunday,” a drama about an Irish civil-rights protest that ended in a massacre by British troops in 1972.

“Flight 93″ will be partly improvised with an ensemble cast, and Greengrass will use handheld cameras and other stylized techniques to give the film a gritty feel.

Greengrass got the U deal with a 20-page treatment that begins with a stream of consciousness summation of the tragedy he feels “changed our lives forever.”

After noting that media, politicians, historians and religious leaders will try to find a context for the 9/11 tragedy as its fifth anniversary approaches next year, Greengrass makes the case for his film to do the same.

“I … believe that sometimes, if you look clearly and unflinchingly at a single event, you can find in its shape something precious, something much larger than the event itself … the DNA of our times. Hence, a film about Flight 93,” he writes in the treatment.

A 40-day shoot is expected to begin Oct. 1. While there is no timetable for the film’s release, one scenario would be to submit it to the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 and release it shortly after.

“Flight 93″ isn’t the only treatment of that tragedy, as three TV projects are in the works, including an ABC miniseries.

The sudden emergence of the picture creates an unforeseen race with Paramount Pictures, which is mounting a 9/11 feature on an entirely different event. Stone is directing an untitled drama that stars Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as Port Authority cops trapped under the rubble of the Twin Towers. Scripted by Andrea Berloff, the film begins production in October in New York.

Like U, Paramount hasn’t finalized the difficult decision of when to release the film. Treading close to Sept. 11 might seem crass, and audiences might not want to be reminded of the tragedy if the film opens after Sept. 11, 2006. The Paramount and Universal films might well find themselves competing in the same early summer marketplace.

Greengrass’ proposal caught the interest of several studios, but Universal brass stepped up. Studio is also developing “They Marched Into Sunlight” for Greengrass to direct. While rumors had Greengrass responding to the studio’s largesse in bankrolling “Flight 93″ by agreeing to direct “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the studio is flatly denying that.

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