Russell Crowe, Karl Urban and Sam Neill are on the casting wishlist for Kiwi director Scott Walker's next project.
The film-maker has secured the rights to New Zealand author James T. Guthrie's award-winning book, Bullseye Bella.
The 2019 junior novel follows 12-year-old Wellingtonian darts prodigy, Bella, who wins a spot at the world championship in Las Vegas. She has to survive the macho, male-dominated world in an attempt to bag $2 million in prize money to pay for her autistic younger brother's education.
"It's such a rich world to go into – this crazy, male-dominated world of high-level international darts. The people, personas, arenas and glitz is over the top," says Walker, who directed Nicolas Cage and Vanessa Hudgens in 2013's The Frozen Ground.
"Then you see it through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl and her autistic younger brother, who she's desperate to help; and you have a timeless premise for a film.
"I've always had a deep love of stories about everyday heroes – normal people who strive against the odds to attempt what others say is impossible," the 48-year-old adds.
"New Zealand has a great heritage of people taking their ideas around the world to challenge the best and show what can be achieved with ingenuity, determination and heart. James captures it perfectly in his book."
Walker first read Bullseye Bella with his two young sons, who, like him, remained on the "edge of their seats".
He is writing, producing and directing the film through his production company, Happy Dog Entertainment, and will meet studios in Los Angeles in coming weeks.
The movie will have the tone of Billy Elliot and Little Miss Sunshine, mixed with the pace and excitement of underdog stories like Rocky, he says.
Guthrie was "won over" by Walker's vision for the adaptation, which he hopes will convey the book's messages to a wider audience.
"Tolerance and acceptance are at the core of the story, whether it's a girl trying to make her way in a male-dominated sport, or someone on the autism spectrum being accepted for who they are," Guthrie says. "[And] the importance of perseverance and practice when trying to reach your goals."
While Walker will film exterior shots in Las Vegas, he plans to film predominantly in New Zealand from late 2020 and sees Kiwi actors in lead roles, noting Russell Crowe would be great as Bella's darting nemesis, Goldfinger.
He would also love the likes of Karl Urban, Sam Neill, Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie to be involved. As for Bella's hardworking solo mum, he jokes: "I read that Jacinda Ardern really wanted to be in The Lord of the Rings – maybe she'd be up for it?"
To portray Bella, Walker hopes to find a new actress like Keisha Castle-Hughes at the time of her breakthrough role in Whale Rider.
"There are lots of great actresses who could play Bella – Dafne Keen, Mckenna Grace, Millie Bobby Brown – but if we can find a young Kiwi that would be perfect."
Adds Guthrie: "In my dream world, Bella would be played by Dafne Keen, who starred in His Dark Materials. I think she'd be able to convey the complicated emotions Bella has to deal with and really bring the story to life."
Bullseye Bella is one of several projects Walker has been busy with since The Frozen Ground, based on serial killer Robert Hansen.
He and producer wife Minna recently returned from Miami, where they pitched an animated all-girl, action-fantasy series, which – like Bullseye Bella – promotes young female empowerment, a message he believes will give both projects global appeal.
"At its core, [the series] is about young girls trusting they're unique and that it's okay to be true to who they are," Walker says. "If we don't do more of that [content], we'll never change the world for the better. From overseas, New Zealand's seen as a leader in this area. Bullseye Bella's in the same vein: a fun, uplifting, inspiring story for girls – and boys – with the type of role model we could see a lot more of in the world."