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Carolco gets Harlin for big bucs

Still riding high on “Cliffhanger’s” box office wave, helmer Renny Harlin will climb down the mountain and hit the high seas on the pirate adventure pic “Cutthroat Island” for Carolco, the director announced Wednesday. Mario Kassar will exec produce.

No casting has been set for the pic, which toplines two major maleleads and one big female role. The pic, which is currently in pre-production, has not yet announced a distributor. It is fully funded by Carolco, Harlin said.

Set in 1659 around the lawless Caribbean enclaves of Tortuga and Hispaniola, the yarn finds a band of pirate captains burying a shared treasure on an island, promising to return years later and split the loot. The plan goes awry when gold-hungry renegades find out about the doubloons and try to beat them to it.

“The female character is actually the key element in the story, and she doesn’t even know it,” Harlin hinted. “You could say she’s like a ‘living map’ for the treasure.”

Harlin, who characterized the project as a “big-budget movie,” also promised lots of physical supporting roles. “Whoever is in this movie has to follow the pirates’ motto: No prey, no pay,” said Harlin. “They must be willing to carry the sword.”

The script was penned by Michael Beckner from a story by Beckner and Jim Gorman. Laurence Mark, Gorman and Harlin will produce with John Baldecchi, and cameras are set to roll at an undetermined Caribbean locale in January. Ironically, Harlin recently was looking to replace “Total Recall” helmer Paul Verhoeven as captain aboard Columbia’s femme buccaneer epic “Mistress of the Seas,” which briefly was to star Harlin’s fiancee, Geena Davis. After some last-minute studio changes that reportedly upped the ante on violence and cut the Davis role in favor of more screen time for a male co-star, Davis exited the pic, along with Harlin.

“After Geena Davis left I lost interest,” Harlin said. “And the (script) changes made it seem like something other than what I read. … I understand (Columbia) was going for a hard R rating. ‘Cutthroat’ is very different.”

After making pix with a higher body count earlier in his career, Harlin promises this Seven Seas outing will primarily target the PG-13 audience.

“My goal now is to make an event movie that will take me away from violence and toward broad-based family movies,” the mellower Harlin said. “It’s much more interesting for a director to create a whole world for the characters instead of just people shooting each other.”

This world will primarily consist of real galleon-sized man-of-war ships used in previous pix or exhibitions. Top special-effects shops Boss Films, Industrial Light & Magic and Digital Domain are being courted to make several detailed models of the large vessels, in addition to matte and digital work.

Finnish helmer Harlin’s climb to the B.O. summit started with the hugely successful teen slasher sequel “A Nightmare on Elm Street IV: The Dream Master.”

But it was his direction of Bruce Willis in “Die Hard 2” that opened up the trail to “Cliffhanger.” The Mario Kassar-produced Sylvester Stallone pic has grossed $ 135 million to date worldwide.

Harlin’s debut as a producer for his company Midnight Sun Pictures was “Rambling Rose,” which starred Robert Duvall, Laura Dern and Diane Ladd.

Mark produced the Melanie Griffith pic “Working Girl,””True Colors,””One Good Cop” and “The Adventures of Huck Finn,” the latter with Baldecchi, development VP at Mark’s production outfit.

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