Stranger than Fiction: Tales from Development Hell

TalesDevHellSquareThere’s a depressing equation which exists for any would-be screenwriter, and it goes like this: for every thousand scripts which are written, only one makes it into the hands of someone with the power to make it. For every thousand that make it into such hands, only one is produced. That makes every movie, like Rocky’s whole life, a million to one shot. So what happens to all the scripts that get finished, make it into the right hands, get announced in the press – and then wind up on the scrapheap?

Occasionally, as in the case of Clerks director Kevin Smith’s unproduced Green Hornet script, they wind up published in another medium, in this case comic books. Occasionally, like William Goldman’s The Ghost and the Darkness, they get dusted off years after the fact, and filmed with stars (in that case Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer) with enough box office clout to get them made. Mostly, however, they wind up in books like Tales from Development Hell (Titan Books, 24 Feb) and my earlier volume, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, which go behind the scenes of film projects which, for a variety of reasons, never saw the light of a film projector.

So why do so many films start out on the fast track to production, only to be derailed and shunted into a siding? The main reason, of course, is money: now more than ever, it’s far more prudent for a cash-strapped Hollywood studio to write a “small” cheque – a million dollars or so – for yet another rewrite of a project on their slate, than to write “the big cheque” required to actually make the film. When legendary screenwriter William Goldman coined the Hollywood adage “Nobody knows anything,” he wasn’t talking about the fact that nobody could call whether Speed Racer (“from the makers of The Matrix!”) or Transformers (“from the maker of, uh, Pearl Harbor) would turn into a billion dollar franchise – but he could easily have been.

It takes courage to write “the big cheque,” and courage – at least, outside of the independent film sector – isn’t exactly Hollywood’s stock-in-trade. Why risk a hundred million dollars on a brand new idea, when you could make a movie based on a popular video game, comic book, or – the latest trend – boardgame? (Ridley Scott’s Monopoly anyone? Anyone??) “Films carry with them a certain amount of fear,” explains Neil Gaiman, whose critically-acclaimed comic book series The Sandman has had umpteen screenwriters and millions of dollars thrown at it, without getting anywhere close to a green light, “because if you say ‘Yes’ to something and you’re wrong, you’re out on your ear, whereas if you say ‘No’ to something, you’re never going to get into trouble, [especially] if everything is always defensible. So you wind up in development with people trying to make things more like things they know, because that is a defensible position: you will probably not get fired for it. Unfortunately,” he adds, “that’s why you wind up with films that look like other films.”

In the last few months alone, Alex Proyas’ adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Universal’s planned multi-film epic based on Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series, and Guillermo del Toro’s H.P. Lovecraft adaptation At the Mountains of Madness – the latter with Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise attached – became the latest victims of Hollywood belt-tightening, adding to the ever-growing list of Movies That Never Were. But at least those projects, on paper at least, seemed to make some kind of sense. But here, drawn from the pages of Tales from Development Hell (Titan Books, out now), are seven unproduced films that rotted in development hell.

The Beatles star in The Lord of the Rings

Although published in 1954, it was not until the hippie era that J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic novel became a publishing sensation, prompting the interest of another ‘60s phemomenon – The Beatles. “We talked about it for a while,” says Paul McCartney, “but then I started to smell a bit of a carve-up, because, immediately, John wanted the lead.” Although John Boorman attempted to get a version off the ground in the early 1970s, adaptation proved virtually impossible. “We used to get the giggles about some of the issues,” the Deliverance director recalls. “There was one I remember clearly when Gandalf is vanquished. The text is, ‘He fell beyond time and memory’, and we puzzled about how you put that on film.”

William Hurt stars in David Cronenberg’s Total Recall

Director David Cronenberg envisaged a very different adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s tricksy tale “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” than the version ultimately made with Arnie and Sharon Stone. “I wanted to cast William Hurt,” says The Fly director, “and the difference between him and Arnie probably tells you everything! Obviously it would have been sci-fi and you would have gone to Mars, but it would have been more like Spider, an examination of memory.” Cronenberg spent a year writing a dozen drafts, none of which producers Ronald D. Shusett. “He said, ‘You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version,’ like I had done something terrible,” Cronenberg recalls. “I said, ‘Well, yeah.’ And he said, ‘No, no, we want Raiders of the Lost Ark Goes to Mars.’”

Ridley Scott’s The Hot Zone

Shortly after a New Yorker article by journalist Richard Preston, recounting a near-outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in America, Fox optioned the story, attracting such A-listers as Robert Redford, Jodie Foster and director Ridley Scott. “We had Redford, Ridley Scott and a script in progress,” says Richard Friedenberg (A River Runs Through It), one of several screenwriters hired to turn Preston’s article into a film. “That’s a lot to have. But instead of making it better, that just made everyone push to do a Hollywood number instead of an intelligent, thoughtful and honest film.” Ultimately, Warner Bros decided to pursue their own version, appropriating the Preston story but fictionalizing it just enough to avoid lawsuits. The resulting film, Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak was a star-studded hit, leaving Ridley Scott’s The Hot Zone in the dead zone.

Smoke and Mirrors

Janet and Scott Batchler’s ‘spec’ script, the subject of one of the fiercest bidding wars in Hollywood history, tells the true-life story of a trip to Algeria which Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, the father of modern stage magic, made to French-occupied Algeria in the 19th century in order to expose an Arabian magician as a charlatan. Sean Connery was attached to play the magician for director John McTiernan (Die Hard), but rewrite after rewrite failed to produce a draft that everybody liked. In the late ‘90s, Joel Douglas reignited the project as a possible vehicle for his brother Michael and sister-in-law Catherine Zeta Jones – but when the events of 9/11 made it difficult to shoot anything in the Middle East, the film magically disappeared.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Crusades

The brainchild of The Wild Bunch screenwriter Walon Green, Crusade was a project which, even at the height of their success, the combined might of Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Basic Instinct) couldn’t get off the ground. Part Spartacus, part Conan the Barbarian, Crusade told the story of Hagen (Arnie), a thief who escapes punishment by faking a miracle, joins and then condemns the bloody First Crusade, is sold into slavery, escapes, leads a Muslim army against a cruel and finally emerges as a hero. “It’s not a happy story,” Verhoeven explains. “It’s cruel and it’s violent — my kind of ultra-violence, that I’ve displayed in many movies — but there is also a lightness and tenderness, and I think with Arnold it would have worked for an audience.”

ISOBAR – “Aliens on a Train”

Sylvester Stallone was fresh from Cliffhanger and Demolition Man when he signed up for the futuristic action movie ISOBAR, in which an plant-like alien escapes and causes havoc on the maiden voyage of the ISOBAR, a super-high-tech, floating transatlantic train. Conceived as a star-studded disaster flick in the Irwin Allen/Poseidon Adventure mould (Kim Basinger, Walter Matthau and Jim Belushi were among the actors on board with Sly), the film was to be scripted by Die Hard and Commando screenwriter Steven de Souza, produced by Lethal Weapon and Die Hard producer Joel Silver, and directed by Roland Independence Day Emmerich. Before anyone could agree on the budget, however, financier Carolco – the company behind ‘90s blockbusters Cliffhanger, Basic Instinct and Terminator 2: Judgment Day – went bust, and ISOBAR never left the station.

Darren Aronofsky’s Batman

Before Christopher Nolan was given the gig of rebooting Batman, almost every hot director in Hollywood was asked what they would do with the franchise. “I told them I’d cast Clint Eastwood as The Dark Knight, and shoot it in Tokyo, doubling for Gotham City,” says Darren Aronofsky, who was approached in 1999, after the success of his first film, π. Ultimately, however, Aronofsky wrote an adaptation of Frank Miller’s ground-breaking Batman origin story Year One – a gritty, R-rated, ‘70s-style ‘take’ on the material. “It was Death Wish or The French Connection meets Batman, with Commissioner Gordon as a kind of Serpico, and Batman as Travis Bickle.” The biggest loss to Batman lore? Aronofsky’s Batmobile – a souped-up Lincoln Continental with a school bus engine and BOSS tyres.

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