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Helmer, scribe stoke ‘Smoke’

'Thomas Crown' team reunites for illusionary pic

NEW YORK — John McTiernan is near a deal to next direct “Smoke and Mirrors,” a period drama that will star Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The film is being financed by IEG and is eyeing a mid-fall start date.

A rewrite of the Janet and Lee Batchler script is being undertaken by Leslie Dixon, the “Pay It Forward” scribe who worked with McTiernan on the remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair.”

McTiernan has been interested in the project for months — as have Douglas and Zeta-Jones — but had been concentrating on getting “Basic Instinct 2” off the ground with Sharon Stone in the starring role. After his plan to pair Stone with Benjamin Bratt didn’t fly with the actress, McTiernan quietly departed that film, sources said.

C-2 Prods., Intermedia and MGM are looking for another director, with, among others, original “Basic Instinct” director Paul Verhoeven being courted to return for an encore. Verhoeven, who told Daily Variety recently that he expected to next direct the Phoenix Pictures drama “Official Assassins,” turned down “Basic Instinct 2” earlier. He couldn’t be reached for comment on whether he’d reconsidered.

“Smoke and Mirrors” is a fact-based story about 19th century illusionist Jean Robert Houdin, who was sent with a young female sidekick to Algeria by the French government to expose a sorcerer who was inciting an anti-colonial revolution. The project has been a high-profile affair since it first sold as a spec in 1993, but reported interest from the likes of Mel Gibson and Sean Connery turned out to be its own version of smoke and mirrors.

The dedication of Douglas and Zeta-Jones, who last paired in the IEG-financed “Traffic,” is real. Douglas’ brother Joel and Zeta-Jones’s brother David are producing with Kevin Brodie, and if IEG can pull together the financing for the ambitious film and lock down the A-list principals, the movie will be no illusion.

McTiernan’s repped by AMG.