Pitt, Norton join cabler, NatGeo for 'Courage'

HBO is teaming with National Geographic, Edward Norton and Brad Pitt for a 10-part miniseries adaptation of the Stephen Ambrose book about explorers Lewis and Clark.

Norton, who will direct at least one of the episodes, will exec produce the mini with Pitt, National Geographic Ventures prexy Tim Kelly and Adam Leipzig, president of National Geographic Feature Films.

Mini will be a co-production among National Geographic, Norton’s Class 5 and Pitt’s Plan B banners.

“Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West” tells the story of how Lewis and William Clark began in 1803 the first overland expedition to the Pacific Ocean. The three-year journey, across the uncharted North American wilderness, realized Thomas Jefferson’s dream of mapping the unknown West and paved the way for Westward expansion.

National Geographic, which is coming off the docu hit “March of the Penguins,” optioned rights to “Undaunted Courage” years ago from Ambrose, who was an explorer-in-residence for the company. Kelly said the project took time because they couldn’t quite figure out how to condense it for a movie, something that will be unnecessary in a 10-hour format.

The miniseries kicked into gear after Kelly had dinner with Norton while the actor was narrating National Geographic’s “Strange Days on Planet Earth” for PBS. When Kelly mentioned “Undaunted Courage,” Norton told Kelly that it was among his favorite books, and that he had just sent along a copy to his “Fight Club” cohort Pitt. The pieces fell together quickly after that.

“Lewis and Clark’s expedition is as great a story as you could ever hope to tell, and like so many people, Brad and I have both been drawn to it for years. We both always agreed that compressing that story into a feature-length film ruined the spirit of it … so we sat down and said, ‘How can we really do this justice?’ ” Norton said. “HBO is really the only company committed to this kind of long-form storytelling, and so we’re ecstatic that they wanted to take it on with us. With National Geographic in the mix, it’s a great team.”

“The fun part was going in with both Edward and Brad. It made the selling process much smoother,” Kelly said.

Both Norton and Pitt will be hands-on, particularly in the development process and in choosing a writer to oversee it.

Pitt is currently focused on the Old West, playing the titular gunslinger in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” for Warner Bros. Norton’s in the Far East, filming “The Painted Veil” in China. As a director, Norton helmed the 2000 comedy “Keeping the Faith.”

HBO is percolating several minis on American historical subjects. With Playtone, HBO is mounting separate minis on the American Revolution, using the David McCullough books “John Adams” and “1776.” Playtone is also teamed with Spielberg on “The Pacific,” a 13-part mini covering the WWII battle against Japan in the Pacific.

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