Life After Pellicano: John McTiernan’s Secret Travolta/Cage Project (Exclusive)

Pellicano’s in jail in Texas, but the director is still free on bond pending appeals — and is scouting locations in Canada for a shoot that would reunite the “Face/Off” stars

EXCLUSIVE

The film business came through the convulsion that was the Anthony Pellicano wiretapping case in most ways unscathed. The execs went on running their companies, the agents marched on down Wilshire Boulevard, and most of the big-shot lawyers kept working with their big-shot clients.

The conspicuous exception was director John McTiernan. Scrappy as one of his action stars, he's been contesting his guilt in an almost self-destructive series of legal moves.

But now he aims to use his — perhaps temporary — freedom to mount a movie. 

McTiernan's case was always a sideshow alongside the feds' main focus on the central figures in a racketeering enterprise. A volley of sentences came in December 2008, when disgraced but defiant P.I. Pellicano was sentenced to 15 years in prison as ringleader of a conspiracy to wiretap (among others) some notable Hollywood names.

Also read: Pellicano Mess Lands John McTiernan in Jail

It seemed to put a stopper on the industry’s already deflated expectations of a juicy scandal. And then-prosecutor Dan Saunders is just fine with that.

“It’s very easy for media pundits to run a list of names that they think should have been charged — [as in] `Oh, come on, they must have known,' ” said Saunders, who’s since moved from the U.S. Attorney's office to the gentler environs of Santa Monica’s Bingham McCutchen firm. "But we don’t charge people with a criminal offense unless we can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. To do otherwise — despite the desires of various entertainment writers in Hollywood — would be irresponsible.”

Now, three years after the guilty verdicts came down, the last man standing for the town to speculate about is McTiernan.

The feisty and not untalented director, now 62, had been unhorsed while trying to manage his second act. His reputation as an action craftsman had taken a sharp dive with 2002’s "Rollerball," even as he was caught on tape using Pellicano to investigate the film's producer, Charles Roven, over supposed — and never substantiated — misuse of production money.

Then, Pellicano (pictured, right) was linked to an intimidation campaign directed against reporter Anita Busch, who’d incurred the wrath of Mike Ovitz. (Remember the infamous dead fish on the cracked windshield of her car with a note reading “STOP”?)

A FBI investigation turned up a host of Pellicano henchmen and a gaggle of clients — McTiernan prominent among the latter. 

A FBI agent surprised the director one evening with a phone call and a series of questions as to whether he knew of Pellicano’s misdeeds and had triggered and exploited any of them. McTiernan flat-out lied, later claiming he was incapacitated at the time.

Offered a relatively light stretch of four months’ incarceration for lying to a government agency, McTiernan balked and fought the case, his second miscue. In the process of withdrawing his original guilty plea, he ended up perjuring himself. His sentence was tripled to a year.

The appeal created a window for him to potentially shoot the action vehicle, which after numerous slips and turns is said to star Nicolas Cage and John Travolta — an effectively histrionic pairing in 1997’s "Face/Off," which grossed about three times its $80 million budget worldwide.

The script, by heating-up screenwriter Evan Daugherty ("Snow White and the Huntsman"), has seen many changes since it was listed among the gems in the 2008 Black List. The story changed eras but still turns on a mano-a-mano duel between an American soldier and his former Bosnian adversary in the wilds of the Rockies.

(Update: Both of what are apparently two different publicity agencies for Nic Cage –perhaps one specializes in the real estate? –checked in Thursday evening to say he's dropped out of the picture. A person on the financial side said that the production is still aiming to get a start date in time for McTiernan's fall window of opportunity, but "there's still a lot of wood to be chopped" to ensure that.)

Financing is en route from the Belgian film fund Corsan, run by Antwerp financier-turned director Paul Breuls. (The company’s "The Devil’s Double," similarly funded with generous tax breaks in Belgium, is to be released July 29 by Lionsgate. It is already amping up its release plan as it gets strong word of mouth around the performance of Dominic Cooper.)

Everything will be jake, a person with knowledge of the production told TheWrap, as soon as the check from Corsan hits home. Meanwhile, although that person said McTiernan was already scouting locations in Canada, our survey of Corsan, the company’s reps at Paradigm, the director’s agents and lawyer, and the actors’ press reps brought a string of no comments.

For now, spare a thought for ringleader Pellicano, who has served his earlier stretch of 30 months for such peccadilloes as keeping hand grenades in his safe. He has since moved from a federal lockup in Arizona to the steamy locale of Big Spring Federal Correctional Institution somewhere in between Dallas and El Paso.

It’s a dormitory-style, low-security joint where among the 15 personal items permitted are a harmonica and a softball glove — just picture that for a moment — and where the pay for a job in the facility kitchen, for example, starts at 12 cents an hour.

He’ll be in for at least 85 per cent of his sentenced 15 years, which, before a potential deduction for good time, ends in 2019.