Duo turning ‘Page’

HBO, Killer team on biopic of '50s pinup icon

Killer Films and HBO will team on “The Ballad of Bettie Page,” a biopic of the 1950s pinup girl starring Gretchen Mol. Pic marks the second feature collaboration this year for the Gotham indie banner and the cable net.

Film starts shooting Monday in New York, with Mary Harron directing from a script she co-wrote with Guinivere Turner. Lili Taylor and David Strathairn also star, with Jonathan M. Woodward, Cara Seymour, Tara Subkoff and Kevin Carroll.

The most successful pinup model of the 1950s, Page’s kinky bondage pics made her the target of a Senate pornography investigation. The Nashville-born beauty graced hundreds of magazine covers, earning her notoriety as one of America’s first modern-day sex icons.

Executive producers are Killer principals Christine Vachon and Pamela Koffler, with Lori Keith Douglas producing.

Pic is the second Killer feature for Harron, after her 1996 debut “I Shot Andy Warhol,” which also starred Taylor.

Page project originally was taken by Killer to HBO for development seven years ago but went into turnaround at the cabler. It was put on hold while Harron and Turner worked on “American Psycho,” and again while Harron had children.

“I think ‘Bettie Page’ may take the prize as the Killer film that’s been in development the longest,” Vachon said. “It’s been through three offices with us.”

The Killer-HBO pic is the first of a number of projects on the risque pinup star to go into production.

In 2001, producer Mark Wolper optioned life rights for a biopic developed at Warner; Martin Scorsese was involved in several months of talks in 1999 to direct a similar project to star Liv Tyler; and documaker Mark Mori announced plans in 1996 for a study titled “Looking for Bettie Page,” which was never made.

Killer also wraps shooting today in Los Angeles on “Mrs. Harris,” starring Annette Bening, Ben Kingsley, Ellen Burstyn, Frances Fisher, Michael Gross, Philip Baker Hall, Cloris Leachman, Mary McDonnell, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Smitrovich and Frank Whaley.

Fully financed by HBO, like “Bettie Page,” “Mrs. Harris” was produced by Killer and Number 9 Films and is the first feature written and directed by playwright Phyllis Nagy. Elizabeth Karlsen, Koffler, Vachon and John Wells exec produced, with Chrisann Verges producing.

Dark tale of love and obsession explores the true story of boarding-school headmistress Jean Harris, who killed her philandering lover, Dr. Herman Tarnower, developer of the Scarsdale Diet.

“This has been a long courtship for us with Killer Films,” said HBO Films president Colin Callender. “They have a wonderful track record and are very fine producers, so we’ve been looking for something to do together for some time. ”

HBO Films had set up a production deal with Killer two years ago, but nothing came out of that early relationship. Still, the partners have been shopping for joint projects since then.

Callender anticipates that other HBO-Killer collaborations will follow “Mrs. Harris” and “Bettie Page.” He said a decision will be made after the films’ completions about whether to premiere on the network or go out theatrically, which has been the case with “American Splendor,” “Real Women Have Curves,” “Elephant” and the upcoming “Maria Full of Grace.”

While HBO’s theatrical distribution venture with Fine Line and Killer’s first-look deal with Warner could conceivably create a conflict in which the New Line unit and Warner Independent Pictures might vie for rights, that Warner deal does not apply to films financed by HBO.

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