Director commits to adaptation of Chase play

Steven Spielberg has committed to direct, as his next film, “Harvey,” an adaptation of the Mary Chase Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a man — played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 film version — who befriends a 6½-foot-tall invisible rabbit.

The project will be a co-production of 20th Century Fox and DreamWorks, the first pic under the latter’s new incarnation. DreamWorks will finance 50% of the production through its new funding relationship with Reliance and distribute either domestic or international through its arrangement with Disney.

Spielberg aims to begin production early next year, so the helmer is expected to reach out to a handful of top stars, most notably Tom Hanks and Will Smith, to find someone whose availability meshes with the planned start dates.

Spielberg will produce with Don Gregory, and Elizabeth Gabler and Carla Hacken will oversee it. Their Fox 2000 acquired the rights last year.

It’s notable that Fox is at the center of the Spielberg film that kicks off the new DreamWorks iteration, as the studio had stayed out of the courtship of DreamWorks when it jumped from Universal to Paramount and then negotiated an exit with U before choosing Disney.

Spielberg has been itching to get back behind the camera, and he was willing to do so even with a script developed outside DreamWorks or Par, which retained many plum DreamWorks projects in the divorce settlement between the two studios. While Spielberg is keen to direct both the Tony Kushner-scripted Liam Neeson starrer “Lincoln” and the Jeff Nathanson-scripted “The 39 Clues,” those projects hadn’t yet percolated.

So Fox chairman Tom Rothman was able to pull a rabbit out of the hat for his studio.

He just recently got a draft of the “Harvey” script — the first written by novelist Jonathan Tropper — and sent it to Spielberg, with whom he developed a relationship when they worked on “Minority Report.” Spielberg and his DreamWorks partner Stacey Snider felt that while the source material is 65 years old, its themes are timely, uplifting and relatable.

Spielberg’s new partners, Reliance and Disney, were expected to participate in whatever film the helmer chose as his next project.

While Spielberg was considering the Paul Attanasio-scripted rewrite of “Matt Helm” — which DreamWorks developed but left behind when it exited that studio — there was hesitation among those partners.

But Fox’s Rothman found sharing the picture an acceptable arrangement. Less than a week after passing the script to Spielberg, Rothman, fellow Fox chairman Jim Gianopulos, Spielberg and Snider were partners in the project. Spielberg decided late last week on “Harvey” over a couple of other projects that included “Matt Helm” (on which Spielberg will be a producer).

Fox and DreamWorks are not the first studios to be sweet on Chase’s story of the eccentric and his invisible rabbit friend, a play that won the Pulitzer Prize when it opened in 1944 and remained on Broadway through 1949.

Dimension and MGM partnered on a film update for years and had John Travolta attached to play the eccentric at one time. But the rights lapsed, and Fox 2000’s Gabler and Hacken picked them up in 2008.

Screenwriter Tropper’s latest novel, “This Is Where I Leave You,” will be published this week by Dutton.

Tropper is set to adapt that novel for Warner Bros. and director Greg Berlanti, and his other books are scattered at studios all over town. “Everything Changes” is being developed at Columbia by Tobey Maguire and Wendy Finerman; WB optioned Tropper’s “Bush Falls”; and Paramount bought Tropper’s “After Hailey” for Lorne Michaels and John Goldwyn.

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