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Disney quest for Camelot

David Franzoni, who hatched “Gladiator” from Roman history, has next set his sights on a demystified take on the oft-told tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The project, which was sold as an outline and is now being written, will form the basis for a big-budget action drama that is set up at Disney to be produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, with “Pearl Harbor” helmer Michael Bay looming as the possible director.

For Bruckheimer, the project marks another in a growing group of films dealing with more serious fare than the high concept, big budget films he’s best known for. Buoyed by the surprising success of “Remember the Titans” and with expectations high for the Bay-directed “Pearl Harbor,” Bruckheimer also just recently got in business with “Gladiator” director Ridley Scott on a fact-based movie about the pirate Captain Kidd with “The Rock” scribes Doug Cook and David Weisberg.

With “Gladiator” now being touted as an Oscar front-runner, including the script on which Franzoni shared credit with John Logan and William Nicholson, the scribe’s latest effort is creating much buzz. Franzoni also mined history to script the Steven Spielberg-directed “Amistad.” The King Arthur project is a closely guarded secret, but sources said it will attempt to be much different than recent Hollywood treatment of the story. The new take is pegged more on history and less on myth and looks at the politics of the period during which Arthur ruled, when the Roman empire collapsed and skirmishes over power broke out in outlying countries. With its lack of polished armor and virtuous knights, the gritty story of Arthur and his clan sounds more “Braveheart” than “First Knight.” Also absent is the mysticism, magic and sword-in-the-stone stuff from “Excalibur.”

FROM “CHUCK” TO MEGABUCKS: For a guy who wrote irreverent movie scripts mainly to keep himself sane while working on the writing staff of “Dawson’s Creek,” things are working out very well for Mike White. One of White’s scripts became the cult indie comedy “Chuck and Buck” (which he starred in along with “American Pie” directors Chris and Paul Weitz), and another was a comedy called “Orange County,” which languished at MTV and Paramount for two years until producer Scott Rudin read it and got it going with MTV.

“Scott read it as a writing sample and said, this should be a movie,” said White. The pic, which will be directed by Jake Kasdan, is one of at least six Rudin will have in production before the strike, and the prolific producer has just made a deal with White for a two-picture blind script commitment that’s worth near seven figures.

The first will be a comedy that will star White’s pal, Jack Black, and the second is for a feature that he will direct. White, who was also a writer on “Freaks and Geeks,” and has an overall tube deal with Basic Entertainment, is suddenly just as hot on the feature side.

Of the script deal, White said he’s most sparked up about getting the chance to work with Rudin, a producer who gets his humor. ” ‘Orange County’ is more commercial than most of my stuff, but it’s also personal, idiosyncratic and weird, and God bless Scott for figuring out how to negotiate my unusual sensibility with Paramount,” said White. “I’d been through the development process before, and I’m the king of not liking people telling me what to do. But Scott’s on a different level, he’s got this zen yoda way of getting you to do what’s needed without using a hard hand.” White might play a small role in “Orange County” and has gotten acting overtures since “Chuck and Buck,” but he’ll settle for being a double threat as a writer and director. “It’s a nice break from sitting in front of a computer all the time, but with all that’s starting to happen, I don’t want to be distracted. Plus, I like telling stories the most.”

CHICKS” UP AND RUNNING: Franchise Pictures topper Elie Samaha and Middle Fork Prods. chairman Verna Harrah are teaming for the pre-strike comedy “Money for Nothing … Chicks for Free,” a film that will mark the directorial debut of play director Andy Fickman.

The comedy is about a high school senior from Ohio who inherits an adult magazine empire. It was originally brought into Middle Fork as a pitch by Maria Veltre and Jack Sekowski, but was written by Fickman, who’s been a longtime creative exec at Middle Fork, the “Anaconda” producer. On his own time, Fickman has become an award-winning theater director whose credits include “Reefer Madness,” which played L.A. and is headed for a Gotham bow, and “The Gift.” Fickman won an L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award for “Reefer,” and will direct his first film beginning in February. The pic will be produced by Harrah and Samaha, with MFP’s Betsy Sullenger and FP’s Dawn Miller and Mark McGarry overseeing the project. … Ian Somerhalder has signed on to play a heavy in the New Line Irwin Winkler-directed “Life as a House,” joining Kevin Kline, Hayden Christiansen and Kristin Scott Thomas. Somerhalder, a regular on the WB drama “Young Americans,” just played a lead in MTV’s “Anatomy of a Hate Crime.”

CASTINGS: Sean Bean, who has turned in memorable villain perfs in “Patriot Games” and “Goldeneye,” will play the heavy again alongside Michael Douglas in the Gary Fleder-directed New Regency action thriller “Don’t Say a Word.” He’ll play the mastermind of a heist gone awry, who can only get the loot if he can get a shrink (Douglas) to unlock the mind of a near-catatonic patient. Bean takes the role after a hero turn in the role of Boromir in New Line’s adaptation of “Lord of the Rings” and a lead in the Dimension thriller “Librium” opposite Christian Bale and Emily Watson. … There’s life after “Law & Order” for Jill Hennessy. The actress, who joins Steven Seagal in the Warner Bros. actioner “Exit Wounds,” just wrapped playing Jackie Kennedy in the NBC mini “Jackie, Ethel and Joan.” She’s also codirecting her first feature, “The Acting Class.”

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