On the eve of the release of Thomas Harris' long-awaited sequel to his bestselling novel "The Silence of the Lambs," the movie version is in trouble.
Informed sources say Universal Pictures, which has first negotiation/last refusal rights to "Hannibal" with mercurial-to-the-max producer Dino De Laurentiis, who paid $10 million for the big-screen rights, is seriously considering passing. Yes. That's right. PASSING.
The reason? Threefold. First, because Jonathan Demme, who won an Academy Award for his direction of "Silence of the Lambs," has pulled out of any deal for "Hannibal." Second, because the above-the-line costs for a big-name screenwriter, big-name director and of course Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, plus De Laurentiis and assorted others, could easily top $80 million before a millimeter of film is even shot. And third, because without Demme's involvement, no one is sure that "Hannibal" won't develop indigestion.
Sources also say that De Laurentiis has been lobbying for weeks to drop Foster from the project. The producer, who insists on calling the double Academy Award best actress winner "Judy," is claiming the movie sequel can't afford her. Yet in "Hannibal," Foster's character, Clarice Starling, has as big a role as Hopkins' Hannibal the Cannibal.
The news is stunning, and not just because the book is being massively published Tuesday by Delacorte, whose first printing of a reported 1.3 million is going to make "Hannibal" this summer's must beach reading. Or that the success of this movie sequel is as sure a sure thing as any in Hollywood. It's been no secret that Universal was as anxiously awaiting Harris' 10-years-in-the-writing delivery of the novel as was Demme, "Silence of the Lambs" screenwriter Ted Tally and co-stars Hopkins and Foster, who all pocketed Oscars.
De Laurentiis arrived in Hollywood last week to start putting together the sequel. It's not clear he even knows that Universal is having second thoughts unless Demme can be talked back into the picture. "The studio hopes Jonathan changes his mind," said an informed source about the behind-the-scenes talks ongoing.
Demme's departure from the project caught almost everyone off guard. For public consumption, the word around Hollywood is that Demme found the new book too violent. The other is that, "upon reflection," he decided that having created a minor masterpiece with the first movie, he didn't feel the need to try to top himself with the sequel. But all that is, frankly, hogwash. The real reason is that, in the middle of all the dealmaking for the movie rights to "Hannibal," Demme was left out in the cold when Harris' literary agent, Mort Janklow, and movie agency, Creative Artists Agency (which, ironically, also represents Demme), sold the sequel to De Laurentiis. At the end of the negotiating, Demme found himself without creative control. "Jonathan didn't like the way the book was sold," said an informed source. "The truth is Jonathan is OK about moving on. If Jonathan weren't OK about it, there'd be hell to pay."
Still another issue unresolved is whether Demme's exit will affect Foster's or Hopkins' enthusiasm for the project -- even though both are expected to ask for $20 million paydays. Rumblings in Hollywood insist that, while Hopkins is still in no matter what, Foster is a definite question mark without Demme's involvement.