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Spanish scribe takes ‘Communion’

Franchise-hungry producers hunting for material outside the usual Hollywood channels are turning to foreign fiction.

Among the latest international writers to surface on Hollywood’s development track is Arturo Perez-Reverte, a former Spanish TV journalist whose literary thrillers, including “The Club Dumas” — the basis for Roman Polanski’s “The Ninth Gate” — have made him Spain’s most famous living novelist.

Now thanks to a burgeoning interest in large-scale, Hollywood-style movies among foreign producers, a cluster of high-profile talent is working together to shepherd two international co-productions of Perez-Reverte’s novels to the screen.

Palomar Pictures principal Joni Sighvatsson (“K-19”) and producer Steven Hirsch, through his shingle, SeeMore Films, are working with Spanish broadcaster Telecinco’s production arm Estudios Picasso to produce an English-language version of Perez-Reverte’s contemporary Vatican thriller, “Seville Communion.” Telecinco is talking to Penelope Cruz about toplining the pic, which is currently out to directors.

“Communion” follows a Vatican secret agent investigating a murder in Seville who unearths a wide-ranging conspiracy involving bankers, underworld thugs and forces inside the Church. It will be shot in Seville and Rome. Palomar development head Ragna Nervik brought the project into the shingle.

Additionally, producer Mark Gordon (“Saving Private Ryan”) is collaborating with Hirsch and Telecinco on a production of “Captain Alatrice,” based on a series of Perez-Reverte novels set during the Inquisition.

“Alatrice” is the story of an ex-soldier embroiled in a plot involving international politics, religious radicals and the invention of modern warfare.

Spanish producer Antonio Cardenal will exec produce both Perez-Reverte projects through his shingle Origen Prods.

Screenwriters Jason Kassin and Will Baum have adapted both projects.

RARELY DO FOREIGN LANGUAGE TITLES clear the usual studio roadblocks and become full-scale Hollywood productions.

Such books need to be translated both linguistically and culturally, a difficult feat in a business where hot projects are always top priority. Witness “If Only It Were True” and “Education of a Fairy,” French novels acquired by DreamWorks and Miramax in recent years, both of which have all but vanished into the developmental ether.

There are exceptions. Take Pierre Boulle. The Gallic author of the novels that became “Planet of the Apes” and “The Bridge On the River Kwai,” is enduring proof that in adapting books for the bigscreen, it’s the power of the story that matters, not the country of origin.

A handful of other foreign titles — “The Name of the Rose,” “The Lover,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ” — have made the crossing. Though Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” based on an Arthur Schnitzler novel, was developed in the auteur’s usual cloistered fashion, it, too, may offer a ray of hope to producers grappling with foreign lit.

But Hirsch, who ran New Regency for Arnon Milchan in the late 1980s, has labored for more than a year to develop the Perez-Reverte novels.

Hirsch has a longstanding relationship with Telecinco, but he had to convince Telecinco exec Ghislain Barrois that the pics could be produced on a Hollywood studio scale, not as small foreign pics with unknown talent — even though Telecinco didn’t have the budget to commission a draft from A-list writers.

Perez-Reverte “is an icon in Spain,” Barrois said. “We had to be very creative in putting the pieces of the puzzle together. When we decided to move forward, finding a writer was a key element.”

Hirsch took a chance on Kassin and Baum, writers then known only for a previous spec sale to DreamWorks, “Curtis and Chloe’s Big Blind Date.”

Hirsch asked them to adapt the material and infuse it with a more contempo sensibility. His gamble seems to have paid off. Kassin and Baum, repped by BKWU and the Bohrman Agency, respectively, have since embarked on numerous other projects — including a “North by Northwest” sendup called “South x South Central” (soon to be shopped to studios) — and the drafts proved solid enough for Hirsch to secure Hollywood firepower in the form of Sighvatsson and Gordon.

“Seville Communion” is expected to move forward first. The producers plan to find studio distribution Stateside, financing production, at least in part, through foreign pre-sales (Telecinco has financed development thus far).

But the Spanish and U.S. producers are hoping that all of Perez-Reverte’s novels gain exposure in the process. A number have been translated into English and published in the U.S., including “The Fencing Master,” whose film rights were optioned to Film Four and may soon be up for grabs.

The campaign to bring Perez-Reverte to the screen has succeeded thus far, Hirsch said, by demonstrating that his books work as “high-powered action thrillers,” regardless of their cultural contexts. “They’re just good stories,” he said.

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