EXCLUSIVE: A killer role that Leonardo DiCaprio has wanted to play for a long time finally is coming to the forefront after Paramount just closed a splashy deal to acquire the Erik Larson book The Devil In The White City: Murder, Magic And Madness At The Fair That Changed America. There was a big auction that had five studios chasing and three bidding aggressively — Universal and Fox were the others — before Paramount captured a package that has DiCaprio starring and reteaming with his The Wolf Of Wall Street director Martin Scorsese. Billy Ray will write the script. Appian Way’s DiCaprio and Jennifer Davisson are producing with Stacey Sher, Scorsese and Emma Tillinger Koskoff. This is a big one for recently minted Paramount Film Group President Marc Evans; it’s expected to be the next collaboration for DiCaprio and Scorsese, who’ve made five films together.
Between book option and Ray’s writing fees, this is a solid seven figure commitment, and much more when the picture gets made. Paramount’s Elizabeth Raposo will oversee it with Evans.
DiCaprio will play one of the most prolific serial killers in Chicago history, the 19th century equivalent of Hannibal Lecter. He has wanted this for a long time, but the project’s second wind occurred after Warner Bros let the rights lapse a month ago on the 2003 nonfiction book (Graham Moore was among the writers who did drafts) and came out of conversations with Par’s Brad Grey and Scorsese and Yorn about the studio being at the center of the next DiCaprio-Scorsese teaming; the studio released 2013’s The Wolf Of Wall Street, which got five Oscar nominations. Yorn, DiCaprio and Scorsese went out with a new take on the material from Ray that got everybody excited all over again. The trick with this property has been interlacing the two main characters, the producer/architect of the World’s Fair and the man who works for him and turns out to be a mass murderer. Ray cracked that, and the town flipped for it.
DiCaprio will play Dr. HH Holmes, a cunning serial killer believed to have murdered 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.
It’s a departure for DiCaprio to play an unrepentant bad guy, but it goes well into a career full of risk taking that includes The Wolf Of Wall Street with Scorsese (for which both got Oscar nominations), and the upcoming The Revenant, the Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu-directed film for New Regency and Fox. Ray has been working with DiCaprio and Davisson as he wrote the script for The Ballad Of Richard Jewell, the film that will star Jonah Hill. He’s also writing Twilight Zone for Appian Way at Warner Bros. Ray wrote and directed The Secret In Their Eyes, which STX Entertainment releases November 20.
DiCaprio and Scorsese have made Gangs Of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Shutter Island and The Wolf Of Wall Street together. LBI reps DiCaprio, Appian Way and Scorsese (who’s also with WME), and CAA, Management 36o and attorney Peter Nichols rep Ray. The author is repped by APA.