Chris Nashawaty
March 09, 2001 AT 05:00 AM EST

— In fall 1998, equity finance company Newmarket Group buys the script from Canadian television actor-turned-screenwriter J.H. Wyman.

— With little hands-on filmmaking experience, Newmarket soon enlists Lawrence Bender (Pulp Fiction) and John Baldecchi (Simon Birch) to produce the $10 million film. ”This is a project,” Baldecchi says, ”that had been read and passed on by every studio in town.”

— The following spring, the producers hook up with director Kevin Reynolds (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), and actors such as Ben Stiller and Meg Ryan express interest.

— With no cast confirmed by August 1999, Reynolds drops out. The producers get a call from Brad Pitt’s manager saying the actor wants in. Baldecchi’s reaction: ”You’ve got to be f — -ing kidding me!”

— Pitt passes script along to director David Fincher, whom he’d teamed up with for Fight Club. Fincher, mired in post-production, doesn’t have a chance to read it right away.

— In September, Bender sends the script to Gore Verbinski (pictured). Verbinski, whose only previous film was DreamWorks’ 1997 Mouse Hunt, had walked off Disney’s Mission to Mars earlier in the year due to budget disagreements. ”I’d known Gore for years,” says Bender, ”and I’d been trying to sign him to my TV commercial company.”

— Meanwhile, Verbinski’s manager calls Fincher, as well as Pitt’s rep, in an effort to land the gig. Fincher finally reads the script and wants to do it himself, but is too wrapped up in Fight Club‘s release and ultimately passes.

— Before Fincher does, DreamWorks exec David Geffen reads that the director and Pitt are interested in a project called The Mexican. Shocked that the film doesn’t yet have a distributor, he tells partner Jeffrey Katzenberg, who reads the script and calls the producers.

— In early January 2000, Pitt’s manager bumps into Julia Roberts’ agent at an event and mentions the project.

— That month, Katzenberg flies with Verbinski to New York City to meet with Roberts and, Baldecchi says, also calls Joe Roth — the head of Disney while Verbinski was on Mission to Mars and a close friend of Roberts’ — asking him to talk up Verbinski to the actress. ”I knew that when I went to meet with Julia it was an audition for me,” recalls Verbinski. ”If she loved the movie and didn’t love me, they’re making the movie with her.”

— As a result of the meeting, Roberts agrees to star and Verbinski gets the job. Pitt cements his deal. The budget, now shared by Newmarket and DreamWorks, is upped to $35 million.

— During her meeting with Verbinski, Roberts, a Sopranos fan, suggests James Gandolfini for the film’s third lead. Gandolfini signs on eight weeks before the 57-day shoot kicks off in Real de Catorce, Mexico, April 17, 2000.

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