EXCLUSIVE: One of the most compelling movie questions coming into 2014 is, what film will Steven Spielberg direct? I don’t know if this is next or far down the line, but here is a tantalizing possibility: I’m told that he has his sights on Montezuma, an epic tale of the kinship and ultimately the bloody collision between Montezuma and Cortez as the latter led the Spanish infiltration into Mexico. I’ve heard that Javier Bardem has sparked to playing the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez, and that the catalyst here is a nearly 50-year old script by Dalton Trumbo that is being rewritten by Steve Zaillian, who teamed with Spielberg on the Oscar-winning Schindler’s List.
Zaillian is boarding this project as producer, likely alongside Spielberg and his DreamWorks team. The rights are now controlled by DreamWorks, but Zaillian’s first look deal is at Fox and I don’t know if a team-up there is in the works. Zaillian is currently producing the Moses epic Exodus for Fox, with Ridley Scott directing Christian Bale in the lead role.
This project could be retitled Cortez, since the viewpoint will be from the latter character to be played by fellow Spaniard Bardem. The project, considered one of the great unmade scripts in moviedom, has an illustrious history. Trumbo wrote it for actor/producer Kirk Douglas, with whom he did the classics Spartacus and Lonely Are the Brave. Trumbo turned in a 205-page draft in 1965, when Martin Ritt was supposed to direct Douglas in the film. It never happened.
Douglas and Trumbo’s collaboration on Spartacus ended the writer’s pariah status on the Hollywood black list. Trumbo was the most successful of the Hollywood Ten, the group that refused to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee during the witch hunt to root out communists. After spending 11 months in jail for contempt of Congress, Trumbo emerged with just as chilling a future when he was blacklisted from Hollywood. He was a forgotten man until Douglas hired him for Spartacus in 1960. It’s another project with a most interesting history mobilized by Douglas. He also developed Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest as a star vehicle for himself after playing the lead role on Broadway. When he entrusted it to son Michael Douglas and the late Saul Zaentz, they couldn’t get it made with Kirk and the Oscar-winning Milos Forman film got made with Jack Nicholson in the role of Randle Patrick McMurphy. Michael Douglas has told me it took his screen legend father a long time to get over the slight.
Spielberg toyed with several projects last year meant to follow Lincoln. First was the hi-tech science fiction film Robopocalypse which Drew Goddard adapted from the Daniel H. Wilson novel. Spielberg decided to table that for now, but still hopes to direct it. Then, he was going to helm American Sniper, a Warner Bros project that has Bradley Cooper producing and playing Chris Kyle, the highly decorated Navy SEAL with the most confirmed wartime sniper kills and who was tragically shot to death by a fellow vet he was helping through Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After Spielberg and DreamWorks dropped out, Clint Eastwood signed on to direct.
The Montezuma and Cortez story is epic stuff. Cortez led an infiltration into Mexico in 1519 —bringing a lust for gold and silver, religion, and diseases like smallpox–and right away developed a relationship with Aztec ruler Montezuma. Initially held as a guest/prisoner by the Aztec leader, Cortez eventually turned the tables. The Spanish aggression led to outright battles with invading forces and when Montezuma finally succumbed, he was killed by his countryman shortly after. The warring continued, and, Cortez fathered a child with Montezuma’s daughter, following his death. This is all just coming together, maybe too soon for Spielberg to do next. But it should be the first big movie deal of the new year. I’ll tell you more as this firms up.