EXCLUSIVE: Warner Bros has acquired The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic And Madness At The Fair That Changed America, the 2003 non-fiction book by Erik Larson. The studio has set Graham Moore to script the story of Dr. HH Holmes, one of the most notorioius serial killers in Chicago history. Leonardo DiCaprio is attached to play Holmes. Moore created a stir with his spec script The Imitation Game, which was acquired by Warner Bros in a 7-figure spec deal before it was judged to be the top script on The Black List that was released earlier this week.
Warner Bros acquired the project from Appian Way partners DiCaprio and Jennifer Killoran and Double Features partners Michael Shamberg and Stacey Sher. They will produce, and they acquired the book late last year with DiCaprio attached to play Holmes, the 19th Century equivalent of Hannibal Lecter. A cunning charmer, Holmes preyed on anywhere from 27 to 200 people at a time when the city of Chicago was enthralled with hosting the World’s Fair of 1893. Holmes constructed The World’s Fair Hotel, an inn more lethal than the Bates Motel, especially for young single women. The sociopath used charm and guile to lure guests into what became known as a “murder castle,” a haunt that had a gas chamber, crematorium and a dissecting table where Holmes would murder his victims and strip their skeletons to sell for medical and scientific study.
When Deadline revealed that Warner Bros bought The Imitation Game, DiCaprio was also mentioned as a possible to play Alan Turing, the British WWII cryptographer who cracked the German Enigma code. Instead of being celebrated for his heroism, Turing later poisoned himself after being criminally prosecuted for being a homosexual.
Moore, a transplanted Chicagoan who now works in Los Angeles, told me he has been “obsessed with Devil in the White City for a decade. My high school was 50 yard away from where the Chicago World’s Fair was held, and I played soccer on a field near where Holmes murdered about 200 people. It was a truly horrible crime, but it’s a very Chicago story. Though I moved to LA, I think of myself as fundamentally Mid-Western, and in a weird way, this is a dark and twisted tribute to my hometown.”
Moore said that in some respects, the stories of Turing and Holmes have a similar appeal. “Turing was a great genius and in a twisted evil way, so was Holmes,” Moore told me. “Turing was this British mathematician who on the outside wasn’t likeable at all, who was difficult and a bit rude, but who was a great human being inside. Holmes was a most likable guy who inwardly was a tremendous monster. I’m drawn to stories where the role of villain and hero get murky and I thought it would be different to tell the Holmes story from his perspective, and put a little humanity into him. That’s not easy because it’s like trying to care for a caricature and you read the book and every time he does something horrible, you read 10 pages further and he’s done something even worse. In my head, the most unsettling part of Holmes isn’t what he did, but in what ways we notice bits of him that exist inside us and don’t make us feel very good. I credit Warner Bros with taking a risk on me with both of these projects. It has been a surreal six months for me.”
CAA reps Moore, who’s managed by The Safran Company’s Tom Drumm.