Mel Gibson, Sean Penn to Star in 'Professor and the Madman' (Exclusive)

Mel Gibson and Sean Penn -Split-Getty-H 2016
Laurent Viteur/FilmMagic; Samir Hussein/WireImage

Voltage Pictures, the company behind 'The Hurt Locker' and 'Dallas Buyers Club,' is backing the film about the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary.

After nearly two decades, Mel Gibson is ready to bring the best-seller The Professor and the Madman to the big screen and has enlisted Sean Penn in the effort.

Gibson, who acquired the film rights to the Simon Winchester book back in 1998, is poised to star opposite Penn, who is in negotiations, in the true story of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary — a tale that delves into madness, genius and two obsessive men who changed the course of literary history.

Though Gibson had long developed Professor and the Madman as a directing vehicle, he has handed the reins to his Apocalypto writer Farhad Safinia, who is set to direct the film. Gibson will play Professor James Murray, who in 1857 set about compiling the OED, one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken. Penn will play Dr. W.C. Minor, who submitted more than 10,000 entries but also was an inmate at an asylum for the criminally insane. Safinia wrote the screenplay, while Todd Komarnicki and John Boorman penned an earlier draft.

The film brings together two heavyweights, Gibson and two-time best actor Oscar winner Penn, who have never worked together despite coming of age in Hollywood around the same time. Gibson made his film debut in 1979's Mad Max, while Penn appeared on the scene two years later in 1981's Taps. Both men also frequently direct, and Gibson has two Oscars to his credit for directing and producing Braveheart.

Voltage Pictures, the company behind The Hurt Locker, is selling the film in international territories and will be introducing it to buyers at the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival. Gibson's Icon Pictures is producing.

Icon's Bruce Davey will serve as producer.

The filmmakers are eyeing a September start date in Europe.

Gibson directed the upcoming Hacksaw Ridge, which Lionsgate will release on Nov. 4. As an actor, his most recent credits include The Expendables 3 and The Beaver as well as the upcoming Blood Father for Lionsgate Premiere. He is managed by Rick Nicita.

Penn directed the Charlize Theron-Javier Bardem starrer The Last Face, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May. He is attached to direct and star in Flag Day, which centers on a father who lives a double life as a counterfeiter, bank robber and con man in order to provide for his daughter. Penn is handled by CAA and Hirsch Wallerstein.

In addtition to writing Apocalypto, Safinia created the American political drama series Boss, which starred Kelsey Grammer and ran for two seasons on Starz. He is repped by WME and manager Brian Sher.