Daniel Fierman
January 14, 2000 AT 05:00 AM EST

Starling was listed as missing…an agent on suspension, whose whereabouts were unknown. — Hannibal, p. 445

It was a nasty little Christmas surprise. Faster than you could say Little Starling, fly, fly, fly, Jodie Foster announced Dec. 28 that she would not reprise her Oscar-winning role as FBI agent Clarice Starling in Hannibal, the sequel to The Silence of the Lambs. The decision has turned the once-guaranteed blockbuster into a bloody mess.

In fact, EW has learned that a frustrated Universal — the movie’s studio — is now considering a number of options, including scrapping the much-anticipated thriller instead of trying to recast Foster’s part. ”In the next two to three weeks we have to make a decision,” says Universal Pictures chairman Stacey Snider.

Universal execs say they still aren’t clear why Foster ditched the Lambs follow-up and are eager to talk to her to see if they can lure her back. ”We’re going to try to figure out if it can work with Jodie under any circumstances,” says Snider. (Translation: more money, a new script, or a different start date.)

For its part, Foster’s camp will say only that she has her heart set on directing Claire Danes in Flora Plum, about a 1930s-era circus freak and his protégée. ”It was simple — her film finally came together, and she chose to do it instead,” says Foster’s spokesperson, Pat Kingsley. ”She’ll be out of commission for the whole year.”

All of which leaves poor Sir Anthony Hopkins without a leg to chew on. When Foster made her announcement, the British actor had all but signed on the dotted line to reprise his role as the flesh-snacking villain Hannibal Lecter (his agents were negotiating a big-ticket deal). Says a rep: ”Tony read the script and liked it very much. If a deal can be worked out, he’d like the role.”

Foster’s decision is just the nastiest bump in what has turned out to be a long, rough road for the sequel, which was supposed to have started filming this spring. To recap: In May 1999, producer Dino De Laurentiis paid a record $9 million for the rights to Thomas Harris‘ novel, which had brisk sales but mixed reviews. Then two key members of the original team — director Jonathan Demme and screenwriter Ted Tally — passed on the project. Neither would publicly comment on why, but a source says Demme was (understandably) wary of attempting to follow the Oscar-winning, $131 million-grossing original.

Next, enter director Ridley Scott (Thelma & Louise) and screenwriter David Mamet (The Spanish Prisoner). Mamet tapped out a draft before leaving to direct his romantic comedy State and Main. According to a source close to the project, Foster’s main concern about the novel was that it primarily focused on the manhunt at the expense of the Lecter-Starling relationship. In came Oscar-winning scripter Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List), whose rewrite attempted to address that concern.

Still, Foster fled. And without the actress, Hannibal‘s fate could be as endangered as a Lecter dinner companion. ”Jodie is synonymous with the part,” says the head of a rival major studio. ”I don’t think I would do it [now]. It’s too much risk on a costly investment.”

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