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Polanski pulls out of ‘Pompeii’

Looming actors strike causes problems

Roman Polanski’s “Pompeii,” the $100 million high-wire act that was levitated early this year and sold in many territories at Cannes before bogging down over location and script problems, lies in ruins now that the director has exited the project.

But the movie is apparently still going forward, with another director being sought.

As for now, all prep work on the indie epic has been indefinitely halted. Producer Robert Benmussa blamed fears of a SAG strike, which intensified as casting dragged on. Others connected to the film said Polanski never succeeded in tailoring the script to the kind of top-tier stars who’d have been key to the unlikely tentpole.

“Polanski has asked for his liberty, and we’ve given it to him,” said Benmussa, who is producing the film with Alain Sarde and Polanski via the helmer’s company RP Prods.

If the union dispute is resolved by February, Polanski could return, Benmussa said, but added that he had “very little hope of that.”

Polanski, 74, has not pulled out so that he could take on an alternative project. The director had been “working nonstop on the project for the past 18 months,” Benmussa said.

The decision to put “Pompeii” on ice was made “in the past 48 hours,” the producer said Tuesday.

Just last week, Summit Intl., which is handling international sales, had expressed wary optimism that the locations would finally be set, paving the way for eventual shooting. Then suddenly, in the middle of the Toronto Film Festival, the sales outfit faced the prospect of meeting not with dealmakers or filmmakers but with angry distribs.

It’s the first festival season for vet sales chief Patrick Wachsberger since Summit added a production and distribution apparatus and $1 billion in Wall Street financing.

“We’ve been meeting agents, and they’ve all said they can’t commit beyond June 30 of 2008 because of the strike,” Benmussa said. “Unfortunately, we are scheduled to shoot in Southern Italy in August 2008.

The weather, the producer said, “is an actor in this film, because the catastrophe happened Aug. 26, during the sweltering heat of summer, when water supplies had run out. It is a part of the story.”

Other, more southern, settings for the five-month shoot were considered but ruled out.

“This isn’t a TV film where sand dunes in Morocco are made to pass for some other part of the world. It’s a question of credibility,” Benmussa said.

Millions have already been spent since the film went into preparation in March, the producer said, and France’s Pathe, Germany’s Constantin and RAI Cinema in Italy are among some 35 distributors from around the world that have pre-bought the pic on the strength of Polanski’s association as helmer, as much as the subject matter.

“I don’t know what we are going to do yet,” Benmussa said. “If Polanski is no longer directing, we’ll have to completely remount the project. Distributors will also have their liberty to pull out of the film.”

He went on: “We still have the book rights, we still have a scenario and a very strong subject that people all over the world are interested in. This is a temporary problem that we have to resolve.”

Pathe and RAI Cinema both confirmed on Tuesday that they were exiting the project. A RAI Cinema rep said: “The contract we had for ‘Pompeii’ is no longer valid, as it was tied to Polanski being attached to direct. If we are offered another director, then we shall see.”

(Nick Vivarelli in Rome, Dave McNary in Hollywood and Sharon Swart in Toronto contributed to this report.)

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