Happy Feet and Master and Commander scribe John Collee is writing a TV show with Mel Gibson based on the book The Barbary Coast by Herbert Asbury, who also wrote The Gangs of New York.

The plan is for Gibson to direct the pilot and have a recurring role on the show.

“It’s about the birth of a city,” Collee tells IF. “There was a period between the Wild West gangsterism and the settlement of America and the birth of these cities. There was a period in San Francisco when a city was just emerging. A lot of stuff had to be worked out from scratch. And it’s all about the rule of law, the stuff we’re wrestling with now in the Middle East. And of course in America they’re readdressing all that stuff.”

The project, first announced last April, has been put together by The Mark Gordon Company, a subsidiary of eOne, which will handle international distribution. eOne also owns Hopscotch Features, where Collee is a creative director.

The plan is for Gibson to star alongside his Tequila Sunrise star Kurt Russell and Kate Hudson.

The three stars will executive produce alongside Rick Nicita, the long-time manager of all three who retired his management shingle earlier this year, and Bruce Davey, Gibson’s producing partner at Icon.

Meeting with Russell was a classic Hollywood experience, says Collee. “I’m sitting in this garden in Beverly Hills with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn is bringing the drinks and we’re talking about American history. I thought, I could live with this (laughs).”

The hope is for the show to be an ongoing series that will incorporate several real historical characters, says the screenwriter, in a manner similar to Deadwood or Boardwalk Empire.

“Part of the trick is finding a point of difference,” says Collee. “For me it’s about that notion of the rule of law and how fragile democratic rule really is, and how liberal-minded people are constantly in extreme situations being pushed to become illiberal, as is happening with Malcolm Turnbull. That happens all the time through history; people with the best intentions are nudged into positions where they become vigilantes.”

“Mel is busy working on other stuff so I think I’ll probably end up doing most of the initial writing and then he will come in when it starts to take shape. One of the virtues of writing historical stuff is that the history of the real people, in this case the history of San Francisco, gives you lots of pointers.”

This Sunday, Collee will run a one-day seminar at AFTRS on ‘Writing for Hollywood’. Enrol here.

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