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Murdoch, Winkler trade barbs

OUCH!: In a town where egos are more delicate than Faberge eggs, News Corp. boss Rupert Murdoch broke a cardinal rule: Don’t criticize your own movies and offend major talent if you ever want to do business with them again.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times that appeared in Sunday’s Calendar section, Murdoch was quoted as saying, “I didn’t like our ‘Night and the City’ (a grim urban tale starring Jessica Lange and Robert DeNiro). It had no redeeming qualities. It was a useless picture.”

“From where it’s coming, I think it (what he said) was a compliment,” the picture’s director, veteran filmmaker Irwin Winkler, said yesterday after reading the Times story. “The day I make movies that Rupert Murdoch likes and admires is the day I’ll throw in the towel, because he’s got no taste.”

When asked if he’d ever consider making another movie for the studio, Winkler said: “Believe me, it would be a long, long, cold day before I decide to warm up next to Rupert Murdoch … and I’m not looking forward to making any more pictures at Fox. I’m not particularly enamored by the kind of movies he plans to make over there.”

Winkler said given that Murdoch had taken recent shots in the press at other individuals, including his former movie chief Joe Roth, he was not surprised that he, too, fell victim.

Murdoch, who has been the subject of some negative press lately (i.e., New York magazine), chose not to respond personally to Winkler’s remarks. A Fox spokesman did: “Irwin Winkler is an outstanding producer. It is regrettable that one person’s feelings about a single, particular project has led to this kind of personal response. Rupert Murdoch has great respect for the body of work Mr. Winkler has been associated with during his long career.”

SLEEPLESS EPHRON AWAKENS: As she’s wrapping post-production on “Sleepless in Seattle” for TriStar, Nora Ephron confirmed yesterday that she’s planning to direct another pic for the studio –“The Night Before Christmas,” a comedy about Christmas in L.A. that she scripted with her sister Delia. Loosely based on an old French cult pic “Le Pere Noel est une Ordure,” the story deals with a group of people who work at a struggling Suicide Prevention Center in Venice on Christmas Eve — the busiest night of the year for the hotline.

“It’s a comedy and it’s also a Christmas story, where a lot of things happen on the night before Christmas,” said Ephron, who said she and her sister wrote the first draft two years ago, right before making “This Is My Life.” Noting that she is very excited to work again with TriStar after her “Sleepless” experience, Ephron said “Night Before Christmas” will be an ensemble piece that “I hope to do as my next movie, in the late fall.”

Producer Paul Witt, whose Witt/Thomas Prods. originally developed “Christmas” at Disney four years ago, had to rigorously tie down rights to the French pic after the studio put it into turnaround in the past year. He said the story deals with “a community in desperation, searching for the spirit of Christmas.”

A New York transplant, Witt said the movie will satisfy his long-felt desire to make a movie about California Christmases–which he (like other non-natives) considers a “bizarre” notion. “The most peculiar Yuletide experience I ever had was Christmas in L.A. in 1965 when the Santa Ana winds were blowing and there was a full moon,” Witt recalled. “California Christmases are everything Christmas shouldn’t be — there’s no snow, no leaves falling, so when you still feel those feelings in warm weather, they can be the most wonderful of all, because they’re about triumph of spirit, not about Budweiser horses tromping through the snow.”

Witt also noted that “Night Before Christmas” is “wonderfully timely” since the post-riot L.A. is “a desperate city — desperate for love and peace and for everything peace and love are about.”

INTERVIEW WITH THE RICE: After nearly two decades of on-again, off-again attempts to mount her movie, author-screenwriter Anne Rice is understandably skeptical about whether her “Interview With the Vampire” will actually begin principal photography this April, as was promised in a recent two-page ad in the trades from Geffen Films and Warner Bros.

The scribe claims that if the picture, to be directed by “The Crying Game’s” Neil Jordan, doesn’t go before the cameras before the end of April, the rights to “Interview” and two of her other bloodsucker novels, “The Vampire Lestat” and “Queen of the Damned,” will “revert back to mein the first week of May.”

But producer David Geffen insists that ain’t so. He refused to discuss the matter, other than to dispute that rights revert to Rice in May. Geffen said that while deals are not yet done with Brad Pitt and Daniel Day-Lewis, he expects they will be shortly. “We have the cast we want … We’re going to shoot a week in April with Brad Pitt and pick up with Daniel Day-Lewis, as Lestat, in August.”

Meanwhile, since Jordan is still busy rewriting Rice’s script, the author said in a phone interview from her New Orleans home: “I’ll believe this film is going to be made when the cameras roll. For 17 years, ‘Interview’ has belonged to someone out there and was never made.”

The project was first set up in 1976 at Paramount, where it remained in development hell for 10 years until reverting back to Rice in 1986. “The rights may revert back to me now perhaps for the same reason they reverted back to me then — they didn’t start principal photography.” After Paramount, the movie rights to the books went to Lorimar and producer Julia Phillips, but nothing ever materialized there either, and when WB bought Lorimar, the vampire package landed with Geffen.

In addition to “Interview,” Rice — who’s working on a new horror novel, “A Dark and Secret Grace”– said she also has high hopes that the “Bride of Frankenstein” remake she scripted for Sean Daniel’s Universal-based indie company will make it to the big screen soon. “I’ll do anything to get this made — it’s a project of love,” said Rice, adding, “I’m trying to conserve my energy for novels, but the love of Frankenstein keeps dragging me out of my cave.”

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