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Hannibal on Webber grill

DeLaurentiises serve up more Lecter

Producers Dino and Martha De Laurentiis have set Peter Webber to direct “Behind the Mask,” the Hannibal Lecter prequel being scripted by author Thomas Harris.

Delacorte announced last week Harris’ novel will bow next fall. The film will begin production in May for release in summer 2006. Universal and MGM, partners on “Hannibal” and “Red Dragon,” will get first crack at domestic rights.

The British helmer of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” signed on just as the producers prepare to sell overseas rights this week at the American Film Market. They will sell that title along with the David Leland-directed “The Decameron” and “The Last Legion.” “Legion” will star Anthony Hopkins, who set the standard for Hannibal Lecter.

The De Laurentiises are still developing but will not be pushing at AFM their Alexander the Great biopic “Alx,” which David Hare and Baz Luhrmann scripted. They are still determined to make the film, but are content to wait for the dust to clear on the Oliver Stone-directed “Alexander,” which bows this month.

The book and film versions of “Behind the Mask” came after the producers courted Harris for more Lecter after “The Red Dragon” showed that public appetite for the cannibal had not been sated by four films.

The De Laurentiis duo zeroed in on a passage from Harris’ book “Hannibal,” in which the author described how young Hannibal watched his young sister get killed and eaten by hungry soldiers in war-ravaged Lithuania during WWII. Harris agreed to expand that storyline, which proved fertile ground for a prequel.

“It is a revenge story that shows why he became a cannibal,” said Dino De Laurentiis. “But he kills people that audiences want to see killed. So while there is a natural revulsion, the sympathy toward Hannibal remains.” Harris surprised the De Laurentiises by asking to write the script as he scribbled the book. That is a first for Harris, who for many years never even watched Oscar winner “The Silence of the Lambs” because he did not want the screen characterizations to color his fiction.

Given the cultural refinement and intelligence of Lecter, the producers saw a match in Webber and hooked the helmer with Harris’ first draft. Harris has served up such an enormous course, they said, that there is enough for two films.

“The first film can finish with his escape from France and then continue in the United States,” Dino De Laurentiis said.

The producers and director will soon begin scouting locations in Lithuania, the Czech Republic and France. They will simultaneously search for young actors to play Lecter at three pivotal moments in his life.

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