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Helmer scales mountains

Fresh from a $33 million opening weekend gross on “Blade II,” director Guillermo del Toro is negotiating with DreamWorks to direct “At the Mountains of Madness,” an adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft novel. Del Toro will write the script with Matthew Robbins (“Mimic”).

The deal was orchestrated by DreamWorks exec Michael De Luca, who hired Del Toro to direct “Blade II” while production prexy at New Line. Pic will be produced by Scottish filmmaker Susan Montford and Don Murphy of Angryfilms, the duo that recently set the remake of “Hell’s Angels ’69” at Sony. Murphy has also been working with del Toro on the horror pic “Domu” at Touchstone.

Del Toro has that project as well as the Universal actioner “Hellboy” looming as possible next efforts, but “At the Mountains of Madness” may well be his most ambitious effort. Lovecraft, the horror master whose fiction inspired such films as “Re-animator” and “From Beyond,” framed “Madness” around an expedition to an uncharted region of the Arctic, where the explorers discover the ruins of an ancient civilization and then realize that they may have accidentally awakened prehistoric creatures. Del Toro considers the project his “Titanic”– “This will be my epic horror film,” he says.

CHANGING CATEGORIES: Pietro Scalia, who won his second editing Oscar Sunday for “Black Hawk Down,” is ready to take his shot at directing. While he’s not ready to give up his day job, Scalia’s Endeavor reps are sifting through offers, and he’s been meeting with the likes of HBO and Scott Free to find the right project. A deal’s expected soon.

BEST RISK OSCAR? There seemed to be a lot of Oscar goodwill for “Lord of the Rings.” Despite losing the big categories, the first of the trilogy earned New Line four Oscars and, more importantly, reawakened that gambler’s spirit that has been missing from Hollywood of late.

ICM agent Ken Kamins said the first pic has paid for the trilogy, and strong performances by the sequels could make it one of the most profitable film franchises ever. It has given New Line great stature within AOL and quashed rumors the studio may be downsized. “What’s nice is that this was about reward for gut instinct, instead of the usual priority of downside protection,” Kamins said.

The journey to get the film made had more cliffhangers than the entire J.R.R. Tolkien trilogy. “It’s not lost on me that how this movie got made really came down to the last two instinctual people in the movie business, Bob Shaye and Harvey Weinstein, and without either it never would have happened,” said Kamins, who with attorney Peter Nelson navigated Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh through the ordeal.

When Jackson told Weinstein he wanted to follow “Heavenly Creatures” with “The Hobbit,” the Miramax topper began arduous negotiations with Saul Zaentz, who’d owned the rights for 30 years. Talks stalled because UA held rights to distribute and wouldn’t sell assets while Kirk Kerkorian was buying the studio.

By the time Weinstein and Jackson refocused on “Lord of the Rings” as a two-pic franchise, Jackson had gone from red hot to ice cold because he was directing “The Frighteners,” which flopped.

“Harvey had closed the rights deal by then and we were surprised to hear him say, ‘To hell with it, let’s do the movie anyway,” Kamins said. Weinstein then tried to enlist his Disney parents in a partnership. “Harvey was shocked that Michael Eisner and Joe Roth said no, and Harvey told us it would have to be one movie, not to exceed three hours,” Kamins said. “Peter said he just couldn’t be known as the guy who would get globally maligned for making the truncated version of ‘Lord of the Rings.’ Harvey wanted all $12 million that he put up for rights, script development and special effects researchbackwithin 72 hours of a signed agreement, no deferments. He wanted 5% of first dollar gross and executive producer credit for himself and his brother Bob. And Peter had three weeks, or Harvey would excuse Peter and make it as one film.”

Everyone passed, except Polygram and New Line, and the former dropped out because it had agreed to be bought by U. “New Line was the last shot, and Peter had enlisted the help of Mark Ordesky, a friend for 10 years and a big fan of the books. Mark told us Bob Shaye might watch five minutes, turn it off and say no thanks. So Bob watched it all the way through, and then I see Peter hang his head when Bob says he wouldn’t make two films, because Peter figured that was it. We were all numb when Bob said he would make three, which was Peter’s fantasy.”

While Ordesky shephered the pics with unwavering enthusiasm, Kamins said Shaye and Jackson bore a heavy burden for two years because of the high cost of failure. “Bob had moments of complete panic and stress, caused in part by his AOL parents,” Kamins said. “If New Line bet wrong, it would have cost the company great damage, but some of those international family owned distributors would have gone under. At stake for Peter was his personal future, the film future of New Zealand and the fate of New Line as a company.”

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