Helmer comes full 'Circle'

Cronenberg will direct Ludlum tale for MGM

David Cronenberg is about to join the Circle of Distrust. The veteran writer-director — who jumped from ICM to Endeavor last week — is negotiating to helm "The Matarese Circle," a political thriller and potential franchise generator for MGM. Denzel Washington is attached to star in the project, which is derived from a Robert Ludlum conspiracy novel.

In the 1979 book, two rival intelligence agents — one American, one Soviet — find themselves working together to ferret out and vanquish members of a mysterious group of criminals called the Matarese that has infiltrated the highest levels of American government. Ludlum published a sequel to "Circle," "The Matarese Countdown," in 1997, but the studio did not acquire the rights to it.

Michael Brandt and Derek Haas ("Wanted") have adapted the screenplay. Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Nick Wechsler and Ludlum estate executor Jeffrey M. Weiner are producing.

In April, MGM and Relativity Media outbid several other suitors for the Ludlum book, reportedly spending more than $4 million for the book and writer package. Relativity is no longer involved in the project.

As chairman Mary Parent accelerates the Lion's active production department, she has been eager to get another potential franchise into the marketplace to help establish the new MGM's self-produced slate, which should launch throughout 2010.

After "Quantum of Solace," MGM regains sole proprietorship of the James Bond juggernaut, and Guillermo del Toro's two-part "The Hobbit" is in the scripting stage.

The "Bourne" trilogy, also derived from Ludlum novels, grossed $945 million theatrically worldwide. A fourth "Bourne" film is in development at Universal with returning director Paul Greengrass.

Several other Ludlum properties are in development at Paramount ("The Chancellor Manuscript") and Universal ("The Sigma Protocol"). And Summit is developing a remake of Ludlum's early work "The Osterman Weekend," which Sam Peckinpah turned into a film in 1983.

"Circle" would be Cronenberg's first foray into the big-budget action arena and working with the A-list crowd. The Canadian helmer, who also is repped by Artist Talent Management, transmogrified himself as a master of the horror genre in the 1980s to an outre indie auteur in the 1990s. He returned to Hollywood's radar with 2005's Oscar-nominated "A History of Violence" and 2007's well-received "Eastern Promises."

The opera he adapted from his remake of "The Fly" opened in September at the Los Angeles Opera. (partialdiff)