Warner Bros. halts production on Depp film

The writers strike claimed two more casualties Monday.

Warner Bros. called off a February production start on “Shantaram,” the Mira Nair-directed adaptation of the Gregory David Roberts novel that was to star Johnny Depp.

The Weinstein Co., meanwhile, postponed “Nine,” the Rob Marshall-directed musical that was slated to start production in March with Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Sophia Loren and Marion Cotillard starring.

Delays were caused because the scripts weren’t ready. Sony previously delayed the Ron Howard-directed “Angels & Demons,” and United Artists halted the Oliver Stone-directed “Pinkville,” citing the same reason.

In all four cases, the sponsoring studios decided they couldn’t overcome logistical and script problems exacerbated by the Writers Guild strike that is preventing rewrites, along with the looming expirations of the Directors Guild and Screen Actors Guild contracts in June. Other films are struggling to avoid the same fate.

Depp, who is producing “Shantaram” with Graham King, planned to spend the winter in India, playing an Australian heroin addict who escapes a maximum-security prison, reinvents himself as a doctor in the slums of India and eventually uses gun-running and counterfeiting skills to fight against the invading Russian troops in Afghanistan. Amitabh Bachchan was also set to star.

Though Eric Roth was rewriting right up to the start of the writers strike in an attempt to bring down the project’s pricetag, problems remained that couldn’t be solved on the page once the strike began. That, the onset of monsoon season in India and a snag over how much time Depp would spend shooting there vs. New Mexico prompted the studio to take a timeout. WB, which paid $2 million for the novel because of Depp’s zeal to play the protag, still plans to make “Shantaram” as soon as possible.

It was not immediately clear whether Depp would take another film in the interim.

“Nine,” the first collaboration between Marshall and Harvey Weinstein since the Oscar-winning “Chicago,” is now skedded to begin production in the second half of 2008. After Michael Tolkin wrote the script, TWC engaged Anthony Minghella to do a polish, but he was able to put in only three days of work before the writers guild went out.

Because of the intricate interaction between the script and the choreography that Marshall and John DeLuca plan, it was decided to wait for the writers to return, so the script can be properly completed.

Bardem will play the director Guido Contini, who experiences a creative and personal crisis as he tries to balance the women in his life, including his wife, mistress, film-star muse, agent and even his mother. The musical was inspired by the Fellini film “8½.” Music and lyrics are by Maury Yeston, composer and lyricist of the original production.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, who had been in talks to play one of the lead roles, dropped out of the movie, but the postponement was unrelated to her exit.

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