Benedict Cumberbatch will star in World War II drama “The War Magician” — a project that’s been in development since 2003.
Storyscape Entertainment principals Bob Cooper and Richard Saperstein have attached the British actor to the project with StudioCanal on board to finance and distribute in its territories. The project, based on David Fisher’s fact-based novel, will be be adapted by “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” writer Gary Whitta.
“The War Magician” will be a co-production between Storyscape Entertainment, Tony Eldridge’s Lonetree Entertainment and Cumberbatch’s own production company SunnyMarch, with SunnyMarch partners Adam Ackland and Adam Selves producing.
No director is attached yet.
Tom Cruise and producing partner Paul Wagner originally optioned the book in 2003 and attached Peter Weir to direct. In 2012, Marc Forster was attached to direct, but fell out of the project.
Cumberbatch will play the titular British hero Jasper Maskelyne, the magician whose illusions helped the allied forces fight against the Nazis during World War II. Maskelyne put together a “dirty dozen” of accomplices known as “The Magic Gang,” who were able to make tanks, troops and buildings seem to disappear, along with conjuring phony armies.
Maskelyne and his associates also managed conceal the Alexandria harbor and the Suez Canal, where there were 150,000 men with 1,000 guns and tanks, turning the tide of the war against General Rommel and the Germans in North Africa.
He created a bogus Alexandria harbor that attracted most of the nightly bombing raids and shielded troops in the Suez through anti-aircraft searchlights and mirrors that blinded Nazi pilots. Maskelyne’s techniques resulted in Adolf Hitler adding him to his personal blacklist alongside men like Douglas MacArthur and British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery.
Cumberbatch received a best actor Oscar nomination for his role as codebreaker Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” last year.
Cooper told Variety that discussions with Cumberbatch about the role of Maskelyne began last year while “The Imitation Game” was gathering steam for its awards season campaign.
“The Maskelyne character is so different from the one that Benedict portrayed in ‘The Imitation Game’ in that Maskelyne was very outgoing and confident,” Cooper said. “We think this is a perfect blend of acting talent with material.”
Ron Halpern, StudioCanal’s exec VP of international production, said, “Both ‘Imitation Game’ and ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ were phenomenal successes for StudioCanal, and we are thrilled to be in business with Benedict Cumberbatch on this extraordinary project.”
Producers are planning to shoot in locations throughout Europe and the Middle East. UTA packaged the project and negotiated the financing arrangement along with John Grant of Conway van Gelder Grant.
Whitta co-wrote the upcoming “Star Wars” standalone movie “Rogue One” with Chris Weitz and the TV series “Star Wars Rebels.” He is currently adapting the Mark Millar comic “Starlight” for Fox and producer Simon Kinberg.
Storyscape Entertainment is a new joint venture between Cooper and Saperstein as a film and television production company with a recent first-look feature deal with Broad Green Pictures. Its projects include “FBI Wedding” at Universal with Jason Bateman starring and directing and “Stealing Time” at DreamWorks with Tim Dowling writing and Colin Trevorrow executive producing.
Cooper recently wrapped production on “Maudie,” starring Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins, and Saperstein recently began pre-production on the remake of “The Blob,” starring Samuel L. Jackson.
Eldridge teamed with Escape Artists to produce Sony’s “The Equalizer” with Denzel Washington starring and is attached to produce the sequel.
Besides “The Imitation Game,” StudioCanal’s credits include Tom Hardy’s “Legend,” “Paddington” and “Shaun the Sheep.”