Shepard pilots way to 'Heaven'

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Sam Shepard is attached to star in "Descending From Heaven: The Strange and Extraordinary Tale of Claude Eatherly, A-Bomb Pilot" for director Sandy Smolan and producer Marcia Nasatir.

The $10 million period biopic will recount the story of the pilot who flew the reconnaissance B-29 that gave the OK to drop the bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. Shepard will play the pilot's father, who eventually had to commit his son to a veteran's psychiatric hospital.

"It's one of the great untold stories," said Smolan, who first read about Eatherly 18 years ago. "He was one of the top pilots in the Air Corps, an all-American Texas hero. It's a dark comedic tale about the bomb and personal responsibility."

Smolan and Nasatir have raised financing for the film from their production partner, the New Mexico Film Commission, which offered a package of rebates and a five-year, interest-free loan. "When the nuclear bomb was used, the world was irrevocably changed in ways that we are just beginning to understand," Smolan said. "That was 60 years ago."

Eatherly carried so much unconscious guilt about his act that he could not accept his role as a war hero. So he acted out by passing bad checks and stealing IDs, but when no one wanted to punish him, his crimes started to escalate. "He was cheerful and full of life," Nasatir added. "But something was seriously wrong."

Eatherly eventually began to speak out against the atomic bomb, which forced the military and his father to have him committed. "They were trying to shut him up," Nasatir said.

Added Smolan: "There's a 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' quality to Claude's life. The film questions the unchecked power of governmental authority, an issue as important today as it was when Claude was trying to get into trouble in 1950s Texas."

Playwright Shepard, who is represented by ICM, also has starred in such films as "Black Hawk Down," "The Notebook" and "Stealth" and appears in the upcoming "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and "The Return." Deborah Aquila is casting the film, which will feature Pamela Reed, Smolan's wife, in a small role.

Smolan originally developed the Eatherly story with his writing partner Gil Reavill ("Dirty") and then brought in playwright-screenwriter Tom Cole ("Smooth Talk"). Smolan is best known as a director of such TV series as "Ally McBeal" and "The O.C." and telefilms like HBO's "The Last Soldier." He directed ABC's "Taking a Stand," which earned Betty Buckley a daytime Emmy.

Smolan and Nasatir met at the Sundance Film Festival in 1987, when Smolan's feature debut, "Rachel River" -- written by novelist Judith Guest and starring his future wife Reed -- won a best cinematography prize and a special jury prize for actress Viveca Lindfors.

Nasatir is an executive producer along with Dan Lupovitz and Kirk D'Amico of Gillian Armstrong's "Death Defying Acts," starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce, which recently wrapped production in England and Scotland. Her other production credits include "Vertical Limit," "Mrs. Cage," "Ironweed" and "The Big Chill."
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