Can a Shlemiel Play The Prince of Providence?

Even while on trial, Buddy Cianci, the now-incarcerated former mayor of Providence, R.I., was proud of his Tony Soprano–like charisma. “Be careful of the toe that you step on today, because it may be connected to an ass that you have to kiss tomorrow,” a witness recalled Mr. Cianci threatening, during testimony at his 2002 trial. Then sitting at the defense table, Mr. Cianci leaned back in his chair, lowered his reading glasses, looked over at director Michael Corrente in the courtroom, winked and mouthed, “Put that in your fucking movie!”

Gladly, thought Mr. Corrente. After 15 years of salivating over the prospect of making a movie about the superstar mayor who went down magnificently, yet tragically, in a blaze of corruption charges, the 46-year-old director is finally getting his chance. David Mamet has already banged out two drafts of a screenplay based on Michael Stanton’s best-selling biography of Mr. Cianci, The Prince of Providence, and Paul Giamatti has all but signed on to play the leading role.

“He is a classic Shakespearean tragedy,” said Mr. Corrente over the phone from his production office in Soho. “He’s part Falstaff. But he’s also a driven man who made a lot of things happen. But the things that made him incredibly successful are also the things that tore him apart-Huey Long to the nth degree.”

The project is being shepherded through development at Mr. Corrente and producer Marisa Polvino’s production company, GTO Pictures-formerly known as Iridium Entertainment. Beyond Mr. Cianci’s character, there are two meaty roles for women: Mr. Cianci’s ex-wife Sheila and his former steady girlfriend, Wendy Materna. And like all ambitious producers, they’ve set their sights high.

“Those two characters are also being written for wonderful actresses,” said Ms. Polivno. “Like Uma Thurman,” said Mr. Corrente, excitedly. “And Renée Zellweger,” Ms. Polvino added. “Renée would probably be great for Sheila. And Uma would be awesome for Wendy.” Mr. Corrente, having his own Cianci moment, said, “Buddy was no stranger to a tall, leggy blonde-or two.”

The film will follow the mayor’s story from boyhood to the big house. While mayor, Mr. Cianci is credited with transforming the once-maligned capital of Rhode Island from an industrial city into a cultural mecca. Mr. Cianci was a talented orator, with an easy sense of humor and impeccable timing. (For a time, he was even lampooned on Saturday Night Live as Jon Lovitz’s “The Pathological Liar.”) He was elected five times, more than any other mayor. To many, he was a flawed visionary. He was convicted of racketeering in the summer of 2002, and is currently serving over five years in a federal penitentiary. His twisted path is now in the capable hands of Mr. Mamet, whom Mr. Corrente has worked with before on American Buffalo. That 1996 film starred Dustin Hoffman-who for a time was interested in playing Mr. Cianci as well.

“You look at films like The Untouchables, The Verdict, Wag the Dog -a lot of politics, a lot of drama, a lot of intrigue-he deals with those characters really well,” said Mr. Corrente of the acclaimed screenwriter. And it bears mentioning that Mr. Mamet’s daughter attended Brown, and for a time went around wearing a “Free Buddy” T-shirt.

Mr. Corrente was born and raised in Rhode Island, and knew Mr. Cianci personally. Currently, he is planning a trip to the federal penitentiary to visit him, perhaps with Mr. Giamatti in tow.

“The story is so important to me, sometimes it’s hard for me to talk about it because I oscillate between thinking it is one of the most important films I will ever make and who really gives a shit,” said Mr. Corrente. “I have to liken it to Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. I guarantee you if you had read the screenplay to Raging Bull in 1979, ’78, you would have said, ‘You’re kidding me? Who the fuck wants to hear about this mean, nasty, abusive boxer who was nothing but a bully?’ Buddy Cianci is far more fascinating than that character, but I think that the characters in the stories are similar in that it is Raging Bull set against the backdrop of politics, where a guy couldn’t control his spleen. What made him great, really, was his downfall.”

The film fits snugly into the nascent production company’s slate of projects. Mr. Corrente will wrap post-production on Brooklyn Rules-formerly known as Nailed Right In-in the next couple of weeks. The film, which takes place in mid-80′s Brooklyn, will be distributed by Lions Gate and stars Alec Baldwin as a mobster and Scott Caan, Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jerry Ferrara (Entourage) as three Catholic friends dealing with temptation. Also in the works is a rather ambitious project: The producing partners hope to shoot 10 horror films in an abandoned armory in Rhode Island-all for the bargain-basement price of around $8 million. Mr. Corrente is slated to direct two of the horror flicks, and says that other well-known directors have expressed interest, including James Toback and Ed Burns. And they’ve also got Berkeley Connection, a drama starring Robert Duvall, Jennifer Connelly and Mr. Hoffman, and a suspense thriller, Full Proof, which they are producing along with Phillip Noyce at Warner Independent Pictures. In the end, they hope to have as much success as Mr. Cianci-without the criminality, of course.

Mr. Corrente said, “In jail, locked up, if [Buddy] could run for mayor of Providence, he would win, hands down, no question.”