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Orson Welles heading back to big screen

THR EXCLUSIVE

The late Orson Welles is back in the movie business. A rare recording only recently discovered of the filmmaker narrating a children's Christmas novel is being used as the basis for a film. It is being produced by Drac Studios, best known as a special effects and makeup shop for movies like "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" but now moving into full-fledged production.

Drac is in development on "Christmas Tails," a 3D live-action/CG hybrid movie to be directed by Todd Tucker and narrated by Welles, who died in 1985.

"It's a movie about how Santa's dog saves Christmas, but on one level, this a story about the discovery of Orson's lost tapes," Drac president Harvey Lowry said. "This is a substantial find. It's something that a filmmaker dreams of."

More than 25 years ago, author Robert X. Leed self-published a book titled "Christmas Tails," and in 1985 got his friend -- who happened to be the legendary Welles -- to narrate it, making five reel-to-reel recordings. The filmmaker passed away a few months later, and apart from Leed making the occasional copy of a reel to pass along with his book, the recordings stayed on a shelf in a closet of his Las Vegas home.

In December 2008, Lowry was discussing a project with a colleague, Karl Fritz, who mentioned in passing a rumor of the "lost tapes," believed to be the Welles' last professional recordings. The remarks went over Lowry's head at the time, but a month later he called Fritz back and wanted specifics.

Lowry contacted Leed, who confirmed the tapes' existence and sent them to Lowry's Burbank offices. Lowry heard the distinct voice and began brainstorming.

"We worked out a deal to option the book, and I got the recordings from him," Lowry said. The tapes were so old, he had to have them go through a chemical bath and baking process at Chemical Records so they could be digitized. He also verified their authenticity.

Lowry then approached Welles' estate to make a deal about getting the film icon back onscreen.

"I had the recording, but that didn't mean I could use them," he said. Deal in hand, Lowry began getting the movie on track.

In "Tails," Santa's reindeer fall ill, forcing him to consider canceling Christmas. Meanwhile, his dog gathers other canines in the North to help save the day. Matt Thompson wrote the screenplay based on Leed's book, and Tucker, who directed "Monster Mutt," an upcoming feature Lowry produced, came on board as helmer.

Drac, using its expertise in animatronic movie animals, will create the dog heroes and create a fantastical North Pole with computer graphics. The creative team -- Lowry, Tucker, Ron Halvas and creative director Greg Cannom -- has won Oscars for "Bram Stoker's Dracula," "Mrs. Doubtfire" and "Benjamin Button" and was nominated for "Titanic" and "The Passion of the Christ" among others.

Welles' voice will be interspersed throughout the movie, much in the same way Boris Karloff's voice was used in the 1966 animated version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

Lowry said he already has fielded interest from talent from word-of-mouth alone. "People see this as their last opportunity to act in a movie with Orson Welles," he said.

Leed will serve as a consultant on the movie, and Fritz will be an executive producer. The plan is to shoot in the summer or fall with an eye toward a Christmas 2011 release.

"We're still hoping to do the project we were talking about, but this one took over as priority, you know what I mean?" Lowry said.