EXCLUSIVE: Hard to imagine there will be a hotter film package unveiled at Cannes next week than 355, a large-scale espionage film that Simon Kinberg will direct with an all-star international spy cast of Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Fan Bingbing and Lupita Nyong’o. They’ll play international agents in a grounded, edgy action thriller that aims to alter a male-dominated genre with a true female ensemble, in the style of spy franchises The Bourne Identity, Mission: Impossible and James Bond. The script is by Theresa Rebeck. The hope is to launch a franchise.

The actresses will be on hand with Kinberg next week to pitch their vision to international buyers at the Majestic Hotel on the Croisette. FilmNation Entertainment will sell international and CAA Media Finance Group will rep North American and Chinese distribution rights. Freckle Films’ Chastain and Kelly Carmichael are producing with Kinberg and his Kinberg Genre banner.

Courtesy photo/REX/Shutterstock

Kinberg just directed and Chastain starred in X-Men: Dark Phoenix. The idea for 355 came from Chastain, and she pitched it to him while they worked on that superhero film on which Kinberg made his feature directing debut. It didn’t take long for Chastain to get commitments from the filmmaker, and the actresses.

“I had so much fun working on The Help that I always wanted to do another female ensemble film,” Chastain told Deadline. “I love the Bourne movies, the Mission: Impossible films, and wondered why, except for Charlie’s Angels, there hadn’t been a true female ensemble action-thriller spy film. That got my wheels going, along with the idea of casting actresses from all over the world to truly make it an international project. I realized the incredible creative freedom we would have with that. I brought the idea to Simon, told him about the actresses I was thinking of, and he was so sweet. He said, ‘I want to do it with you.’

“Then I called all the women, told them what I was envisioning and that I wanted it to be a collaborative process, and how we would all create this together,” Chastain said. “The one thing that felt important is that we all show up at Cannes, because that would be the beginning of our journey together. Every single actress I called said yes, on the phone call. They committed to Cannes and to everything. So far it has been a very wonderfully easy process.”

Fan Bingbing Lupita Nyong'o
Courtesy photos

Beyond The Help, the project that most helped inform Chastain’s appetite for espionage was Zero Dark Thirty, for which she also was Oscar-nominated. Through that research, Chastain found the film’s title.

“When I was preparing for Zero Dark Thirty, I had incredible resources working in the CIA I got to learn from,” she said. “We have a consultant in our film that has a lot of knowledge in espionage. This title came from one of the conversations I had with him. Agent 355 was the code name of a female spy during the American Revolution. She was one of the very first spies for the United States, and her identity is still unknown. For a lot of women who work in the CIA and other organizations like that, Code 355 is a universal slang term for female spy. It’s the invisible woman who was never named.”

Kinberg said that tonally, the Bourne franchise is the touchstone, only here the agents will be women, and they will share the screen equally.

“It won’t be as hyperbolic as some franchises, and unlike the other films that revolve around one main character, the goal here is the true ensemble, all these characters who have their own distinct traits, histories — fully formed and complex characters with equal weight in the film. That’s unique, as is having all female spies. We are digging into the reality of spy craft today. There are all kinds of things that seem out of a James Bond or even a sci-fi movie, but the technology is so advanced that it’s real. Having someone who knows that reality informing the script has been really helpful.”

The film involves these top agents from organizations around the world uniting to stop a global organization from acquiring a weapon that could plunge an already unstable world into total chaos. They have to overcome cultural and political differences to form a bond and work together.

“What we can say is, they come up against an organization larger than the established spy organizations we’ve known up to this point,” said Kinberg, long the creative spine of the X-Men franchise and who’s separately writing and producing a Star Wars film. “We are hoping to create a franchise with this, and the first film will be the agents coming together.”

While the cast creates the opportunity for glamour to go along with the global locations and action set pieces, this will not be some campy outing. Those Zero Dark Thirty experiences with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal set Chastain’s bar for reality very high.

Sony Pictures

“It’s a film and not a documentary, but our goal is to make this action spy thriller as authentic as we can, with as much trade craft as we can,” she said. “So when people in these organizations, in the CIA or MI6 around the world see the film, my goal is they will say, ‘Wow, this is pretty authentic. They got it.’ That was the thing I loved the most in making Zero Dark Thirty.”

The other thing that was important was to broaden the opportunities and expectations for women in this #MeToo moment, something that means a great deal to Chastain and her co-stars.

“The action genre has long been dominated by male heroes, and it’s so exciting to be part of a film that will allow for not just one female action hero but a whole ensemble of very capable, fierce female characters that reject tired stereotypes,” she said. “Characters that liberate from the confines of stereotypical traits. That is something that excited me about this, the opportunity to create different types of female heroes.”

Kinberg is repped by CAA and attorney Karl Austen; Chastain is CAA, Mosaic and Hansen Jacobson; Cotillard is CAA and Adequat; Cruz is CAA, Untitled and Kuranda Management; Bingbing is CAA and Nyong’o is CAA and Del Shaw; Rebeck is ICM Partners and Manage-Ment.