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Hartnett, Weisz hook ‘Whale’

Thesps topline biopic of Asperger's savants

Josh Hartnett is set and Rachel Weisz is negotiating to star in “Mozart and the Whale,” a Ron Bass-scripted love story to be directed by Petter Naess, whose “Elling” was nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar in 2001. Millennium Films will finance the film independently, with shooting to begin March 1.

Inspired by a 1995 article in the Los Angeles Times, “Mozart and the Whale” is based on the story of a young couple who have Asperger’s syndrome, a kind of autism. Hartnett’s character is a math savant who falls in love with a woman who is a music and art savant, played by Weisz. Their talents are offset by an inability to relate to one another, which threatens to undermine their relationship.

Asperger’s is much more subtle than the kind of autism suffered by Dustin Hoffman’s character in “Rain Man,” though there is a tie between the projects.

Pic’s producer, Robert Lawrence, was head of production at United Artists when that movie was made and he’d bought the underlying rights on that project. When Lawrence became a producer, he optioned the L.A. Times piece and collared the life rights of the subjects, Jerry Newport and Mary Meinel, and enlisted Bass.

Initially, the project took root at DreamWorks as a directing vehicle for Steven Spielberg, who once circled “Rain Man.” Spielberg never got to it, and DreamWorks recently put the picture in turnaround.

Lawrence set it up at Millennium, where Frank DeMartini and James Acheson also will produce. Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort, Boaz Davidson, John Thompson and Trevor Short will be exec producers.

The driving force behind the film has been Hartnett, who will do the film before starring with Mark Wahlberg in the Brian De Palma-directed drama “The Black Dahlia.” The project is a passion for Hartnett, who after making “Pearl Harbor” turned down a rich three-picture deal for “Superman” and continues to choose eclectic films like “Black Hawk Down” and “40 Days and 40 Nights.”

Weisz, who has been filming the Keanu Reeves starrer “Constantine” and was last seen in “Runaway Jury,” sparked to Bass’s script and agreed late Thursday to do the film.

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