EXCLUSIVE: Universal Pictures is in negotiations to option rights to an untitled drama about the epic love story between John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and Jean-Marc Vallée has been set to direct and edit. He intends to make this his next film.

The studio acquired a spec package from Michael De Luca Productions and Immersive Pictures, with a script by Anthony McCarten. McCarten wrote the upcoming Freddie Mercury film Bohemian Rhapsody, and the Oscar-nominated scribe’s other recent biographical film scripts are Darkest Hour (which won Best Actor for Gary Oldman), and The Theory of Everything, for which Eddie Redmayne won Best Actor with Felicity Jones nominated for Best Actress.

John Lennon Yoko Ono
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Ono will produce alongside Michael De Luca, Immersive’s Josh Bratman and McCarten. Vallée and his producing partner Nathan Ross will also produce. Deadline revealed that the producers and McCarten had formed an alliance with Ono early last year.

Landing Vallée is a coup for the producers and Universal. After directing such acclaimed films as the Matthew McConaughey-Jared Leto-Oscar winner Dallas Buyers Club and the Reese Witherspoon-Laura Dern-starrer Wild, Vallée took on two consecutive series, directing HBO’s Big Little Lies and Sharp Objects, which he produced with Ross. He was atop the short list for Bond 25 when Danny Boyle exited, but took himself out of the running, mainly because he sparked to telling Ono and Lennon’s story onscreen. Deals still have to be made, but the music composed and performed by Lennon is expected to serve as the soundtrack to their love story.

Ono and Lennon first met in the late ’60s, when she was an up-and-coming artist and he was one of the biggest music stars in the world. She became indelibly linked with Lennon as he transitioned from the Beatles breakup to a soaring solo career. Together they became provocative advocates for peace and activists against the Vietnam War. After a brief separation in the mid-1970s, they again became constant companions until his 1980 murder in New York. She remains the gatekeeper of his music and legacy.

De Luca (whose biographical movies include Captain Phillips and The Social Network), teamed with Bratman to win over Ono, and after McCarten wrote the film script, Vallée came aboard after reading it and meeting with Ono. This process took several years, but has put the film on firm footing. Vallée will rewrite the next draft with McCarten and the hope is to have the picture in production late next year.

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De Luca, Bratman and Ross told Deadline that all of them, and Vallée and McCarten, grew up with Lennon’s music as a formative influence. The filmmaker responded strongly to that, but also that while Lennon and Ono are two of the most recognizable symbols of the politically volatile ‘60s and ‘70s, there was a lot to discover regarding their courtship, and why they bonded together with so much turbulence around them, including the breakup of The Beatles.

“We are all huge Beatles fans, and this is a dream come true,” Ross said. “There were inner and outer struggles John had, and family turmoil as a child, and things she had to endure before John’s tragic death. The thing we loved about the script was its stark honesty. You see so many biopic scripts where you can see that the cooperation of the subject’s family had something to do with the editorial, and that wasn’t the case here.”

Michael De Luca
De Luca
Courtesy photo

The producers said the film will stop short of Lennon’s shocking assassination, making it more a celebration and journey of a couple.

“We’ll have to make a deal for the music, but with Yoko producing with us, we’ll have access to the estate and the library of songs,” De Luca said. “I’ve been listening to John’s songs forever, but as we developed the movie, I became aware of just how profound is the emotional impact of the music and their legacy is on me.”

De Luca and Bratman called Vallée a “dream director” to bring the Lennon & Ono story to the screen.

“Everything Jean-Marc does, he leads with his heart and that was perfect for a love story that showed the acquiring of grace in the face of intolerable emotional pain, and overcoming adversity with love, peace and understanding,” De Luca said. “It is an especially poignant message today.”

Bruce Kaufman, the former ICM Partners agent who formed Wood Hollow Pictures to make music-driven dramas, will be exec producer.

Vallée and Ross are repped by David Weber of Sloan, Offer. Ono is represented by attorney Jonas Herbsman. McCarten is repped by CAA.