There was a time – sometime in the mid 1990s, before the superhero boom – that Hollywood wanted to make a “Fantastic Four” movie. It was going to be directed by Chris Columbus, and Gabriel Byrne was in rumored to play Reed Richards. Gwyneth Paltrow was rumored to play Sue Storm. It was going to have a budget even bigger than that of “Titanic.” Including origin story, it would have also been about a well-established Fantastic Four taking on terrorists. The computer effects would have been unprecedented. The film was never made. It never got much further than the “rumor” phase.
Going back to the very beginning of film, the industry is rife with elaborate tales of dream projects and ambitious auteurs being stymied by budgets, the available technology, changing trends, or just pure bad luck. Sure, geeks love to gather and buzz about rumored film projects, often in a desperate attempt to nose out our peers in being the first to have the inside information, but more often talked about are the projects of ambitious, established filmmakers whose promised projects actually entered the planning phase, and then, for one reason or another, fell apart. “So close,” we cineastes quietly and lamentably cluck to ourselves, “so very close.”
Here then is a list of ten great unrealized projects, all from great (or at least established) filmmakers, that actually managed to stick their toes into reality before evaporating into the ether. Here they are in no particular order.
When J.J. Abrams announced his “Star Trek” reboot in 2008, it caused a bit of controversy amongst fans; I, being a dyed-in-the-wool Trekkie (I even refuse to use the term “Trekker”), was especially skeptical. This, I felt, however cool-looking and fast-paced and exciting, couldn’t possibly feel like proper “Star Trek.” It couldn’t be infused with that intellectual thrill or that sense of wonder that marked the best of the franchise’s various TV series. And while I liked the film fine as an exciting sci-fi action film, I was still a detractor when it came to the film’s purity.
But I was not the only naysayer about the 2009 “Star Trek” film. One of the series’ long-time producers, Harve Bennett, who produced films II through V, actually came forward at this time, announcing how close he had once come to his dream “Trek” project, to be made after the upsetting reviews and low earnings of “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” Bennett’s “Star Trek VI” was, it turns out, remarkably similar to the film that Abrams ended up making; it was to be set in the early days of Kirk and Spock, and was to take place at Starfleet Academy when the two characters first met and became friends. The film, though, rather than being about alternate timelines, action, and genocide, was to be largely about racism and academic struggles. It was, essentially, going to be a low-key college student film, right down to the ivy-covered walls of an ancient-looking Starfleet Academy.
Low-key and intellectual is how I’ve always liked my “Star Trek,” so I think this would have been a great addition to the canon. Sadly, the studios weren’t quite ready to turn their backs on the original actors, and there were already talks about a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” feature film, so Bennett’s “Starfleet Academy” became another story. Oh well. I still have my old TV show videos to roll around in.
“At the Mountains of Madness”
The the possible exceptions of John Carpenter’s “In the Mouth of Madness” and Stuart Gordon’s “Re-Animator” (and quite possibly the underrated 1991 TV movie “Cast a Deadly Spell”), there have been few good film adaptations of the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, that reclusive, sickly, racist, atheist wonk quietly writing hugely terrifying horror masterpieces from his attic in Rhode Island. Every geek knows his name, he is often compared to Poe in terms of his strength of prose and ability to unsettle, and his stories have produced an entire fringe industry of card games, spinoff tales, and bad movies.
Another sainted geek icon, Guillermo Del Toro, has no end of genre projects that he wants to work on, but one of his more notable ambitions was to make a feature film based on Lovecraft’s novel At the Mountains of Madness. It was to have an appropriately huge budget, and had even attracted the attention of Tom Cruise (to act) and James Cameron (to produce). One would think with geek media being so much in the center these days that someone like Del Toro adapting a property like Lovecraft would be a no-brainer.
Sadly, Del Toro is also notorious for being something of a geeky ranter, making him come across as unfocused and immature and over-enthusiastic. His budget was evidently way too high (it would have to have been in the hundreds of millions), and, despite the Hollywood heft of Cruise and Cameron, the film was scrapped almost immediately. I’m not sure if Del Toro would have had the somber restraint of most of Lovecraft’s works, but… dang wouldn’t you like to see what he would offer? I sure would.
Kind of a superhero film, kind of an absurd mystery of the strange forces of existence, “Ronnie Rocket,” about a three-foot-tall man with bright red hair, was slated to be David Lynch’s first studio film after the quiet midnight success of “Eraserhead.” David Lynch never really fought for this film (he’s not a fighter in the conventional sense), but he did loudly announce his intentions to make it. He would never openly discuss the details of the script (he never does), but he assured us that it was going to be bigger and creepier and more impressive than “Eraserhead.”
I’m already on board.
Some peers of mine were able to peek at the script to “Ronnie Rocket,” and it contained surreal scenes of men being cut open, their organs replaced with electronic devices, and strange whirring machines emerging from their bodies (which all sounds less like Lynch, and more like “Tetsuo: The Iron Man” to me). I can’t attest to the “meaning” of it (and neither, probably, could Lynch), but giving Lynch carte blanche to make the project of his choice, at that point in his career, would have been even more epically nightmarish than even films like “Lost Highway” and “Inland Empire.” Picture “Eraserhead” with a big budget.
Unfortunately, the script was, natch, too strange for most studio heads, and Lynch put himself out as a director-for-hire. This was no bad thing, as his next film was the excellent “The Elephant Man.”
Everyone has heard of this one, and everyone seems to have heard a different story. Here’s what I have been able to compile as absolutely true: After the failure of “Superman IV: The Quest for Peace,” the studio decided to give Superman a rest for a while. Soon, however, scripts for a new “Superman” feature film, proposing a new actor and a new storyline, began to circulate the system, and rumors began to fly. Despite it all, “Superman” would not stay down, and talked of “Superman Lives” began to pepper the late 1990s. Eventually, the director behind the ultra-successful “Batman,” Tim Burton, was assigned to the project, and Nicolas Cage was signed on as Kal-El, the last son of Krypton.
Nicolas Cage? Indeed. The notoriously edgy actor, with the sad soulful eyes, and bugnuts crazy performing style was going to wear the outfit. The only reason I can figure as to why “Superman Lives” was not eventually made is the machination of one (unnamed) producer, who kept making stranger and stranger requests of the projects’ first celebrity screenwriter Kevin Smith (who talks extensively about this subject on one of this many lecture videos). Evidently, this producer wanted Superman to lose his costume and his superpowers at the film’s outset. He also wanted Superman to have a funny gay sidekick. He also wanted Superman to fight a giant spider (!).
All the hemming and hawing led to a great fizzle-out, and many comic book nerds breathed a sigh of relief. It wouldn’t be until 2006 that another “Superman” feature film would be made. Make your own judgments about Bryan Singer’s film here. _______________________________.
“Napoleon” and “The Aryan Papers”
He is often cited as one of the greatest film directors the medium has ever seen. Most young men become familiar with Stanley Kubrick when they are teenagers, and fall in love with his extremely mannered and deeply affected genre fare like “A Clockwork Orange” and “Dr. Strangelove.” Later in life, they discover “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Full Metal Jacket” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Each one of his films is a masterpiece, and each shot was so carefully planned and shot and re-shot, ad infinitum, that his style could never be replicated. Kubrick was a master of craft, and slowly and carefully obsessed over each one of his projects.
Reportedly, Kubrick once had a filing cabinet full of index cards. Each card detailed a single day in the life of Napoleon. Kubrick sent people all over Europe, toting samples of the dirt from the field of Waterloo, looking for suitable places to film. A script was written. Jack Nicholson was tapped to play the maligned historical general. For years, Kubrick did his reading and his research. Every details was meticulously planned. Yes, Kubrick was obsessed with Napoleon, and his Napoleon feature film was the single most ambitious project he ever attached himself to.
Of course it was rejected for budgetary reasons, and Kubrick channeled his historical epic energies in “Barry Lyndon.” An excellent film to be sure, but compared to what it could have been, it almost seems paltry.
Also worth a mention is Kubrick’s plan to make a definitive WWII drama called “The Aryan Papers.” This was less well-researched, and less time was spent on it, but it was still marked by Kubrick’s calculated and obsessive qualities. A cast was assembled, and a script was written. Kubrick, however, continued to work slowly in an industry that thrives on brevity, and eventually the attached stars drifted away, and other filmmakers began cranking out their own WWII dramas, most notably, Stephen Spielberg with “Schindler’s List.”
Kubrick dropped “The Aryan Papers,” and turned his energies to his quiet urban epic about adult sex-negativity, and a sci-fi film about intelligent robots.
“Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian”
Yes, a script was actually written for this. Tim Burton had achieved a great success with “Batman,” and all of Hollywood started asking for his next projects. Burton, while being an idiosyncratic auteur, is notoriously not much of a go-getter; he has said in interviews that he’ll film whatever he’s assigned to, and rarely approaches studios with his own ideas (“Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” being notable exceptions). So when it was announced that “Beetlejuice” was to have a sequel, Burton said lackadaisically that he was on board.
The script featured the Deetz’s, the family from “Beetlejuice” moving to a small Hawaiian island, and Beetlejuice following, linking up with some ancient Tiki gods along the way. Hm. This sounds like a horrible idea to me, but, if looked at through my filter of what I remember of films from 1990ish, it could have been a gloriously oddball affair along the lines of, say, “Ruben and Ed.” Luckily Burton dropped out, choosing instead to make “Batman Returns.”
You resourceful internet pirates can probably find copies of the script for “Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian” somewhere online. Look it up. Read it. Then swede it in your garage and put it on YouTube. You’ll be a sensation.
“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”
This may be too hasty to mention, as Terry Gilliam is reportedly trying to finish it, but, as was detailed in a very good 2002 documentary film called “Lost in La Mancha,” his take on the Quixote story was one of his most troubled productions in a long history of troubled productions. Every single one of Gilliam’s films (with the possible exception of his toxic “Tideland”) has run into some sort of trouble, and has threatened to shut down. Only one actually did, though. “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” was to feature Johnny Depp as a time-traveling Sancho Panza, and Bernard Chaumeil as Quixote, and the production’s fantasy sequences were to be marked by Gilliam’s usual chaotic fantasy weirdness.
Bad weather, ill health, and the usual studio reluctance brought the entire film to a halt, and it fell apart entirely. His “Brazil” was recut several times. “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” had a script mix-up. The star of his “Dr. Parnassus” died during production. After a while, you begin to wonder if Gilliam has been cursed.
It’s also curious the history Don Quixote has. Orson Welles also notoriously tried to make a film version that was endlessly stymied, despite the director’s best efforts. You would think that a famed comic novel about a goofy knight having fantastical adventures and making an ass of himself would translate to film just fine, and that an American production could be made. The country has yet to see a great Quixote film.
The best film version I’ve seen is, curiously enough, a 1957 version from the Soviet Union, which is well-acted, looks fantastic, and is accurate to the original novel. There are some bootleg VHS copies in the better video stores. If you are in a position to look for it, seek it out.
“The Crow 2037: A New World of Gods and Monsters”
Yes, there is another film based on Alex Proyas’ 1994 film “The Crow” currently in the works, and there have been several straight-to-video sequels along the way. The story, about various men who are killed, and then resurrected by a magical crow to exact revenge, is so versatile that endless films could be made. Indeed, one of the men originally attached to write the third “Crow” feature film (after the failure of “The Crow: City of Angels,” was none other than heavy metal frontman Rob Zombie, before he was known as a filmmaker.
Zombie’s idea was pretty solid: The hero in question was killed and resurrected when he was but a young boy, and doesn’t remember what happened. He grows into adulthood, still in the dark, and curious about his weird seeming immortality. It’s not until he accidentally meets his killer in a bar that the memories come flooding back. He then goes on his wild quest for revenge, but also has to question why revenge may be necessary, given that he’s lived a long life to date.
My guess it that Zombie wrote a treatment, and the executives rejected his dour and gruesome ideas; having seen “House of 1000 Corpses,” I can see what an early script of his might have looked like. My guess is it would have been low-budget, psychedelic, brutally violent, and utterly horrifying. But, y’know, in a good way.
Set in modern time, and with modern dress, this version of “Hamlet,” planned to be released before Olivier’s famous 1948 version, was one of Alfred Hitchcock’s dream projects. Pairing Hitchcock with Hamlet seems like a match made in heaven to me. Who better to tackle the hotbox psychological insecurities of a well-dressed royal figure than the master of suspense himself? Hamlet would have been energetic and dashing and constantly sweating under his own indecision. That he was slated to have been played by Cary Grant only makes the image all the more striking.
I can’t find anywhere if Hitchcock intended to use Shakespeare’s language, or if he intended to use modern language, but either way, it could have matched Kurosawa’ “The Bad Sleep Well” or Branagh’s uncut version of “Hamlet” in terms of cinematic adaptations of the celebrated play.
Hitchcock was attached to many films in his day, and directed quite a few. Here’s one that would have been amazing to see realized.
Frank Herbert’s famed sci-fi novel Dune has been compared to Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings in terms of its scope, and its holistic creation of an entire insular language. It may be hard to believe in this post Peter-Jackson-era, but there was a time when Dune was far more beloved and slavered over than the famed fantasy novels. A “Dune” feature film had to be made. It had to. And, like most enormous projects, finding a director was a dodgy proposition.
One of the first directors attached to make “Dune,” back in the mid 1970s, was none other than famed cult icon Alejandro Jodorowsky, the man behind “El Topo,” the first legitimate midnight movie, and “The Holy Mountain,” one of my favorites. Jodorowsky’s vision of “Dune” was probably one of the most ambitious sci-fi projects in the medium’s history. Forget “Avatar.” “Dune” would have been epic. For one, he wanted the film to be about three hours long, which was unheard of for a sci-fi film. He wanted a legitimate 900-pound actor (whom he knew personally) to play Baron Harkkonen. He tapped a then-obscure Dutch surrealist named H.R. Giger to design the film. He hired a comic book artist named Moebius (Jean Giraud) to draw the storyboards, and come up with some new ways to film fast-moving space ships. He made some deals with Pink Floyd to write a triple album of rock ballads. He even managed to sign Salvador Dalí to play the president of the universe. There was reportedly a conflict over the president’s toilet/throne.
This is all true.
Of course, everyone and their mother began to balk at the budget of such a huge, huge project, and it eventually collapsed under its own weight. Giger drawings ended up being used for “Alien,” and he entered the pop consciousness. A lot of the storyboards of the space ships ended up being used on another ambitious sci-fi film at the time called “Star Wars.”
This is one I wish I could have seen.
Witney Seibold is a film critic living in Los Angeles with his wonderful wife, and his festering stagnant pool of unpopular opinions. In addition to his work for Geekscape, he maintains a ‘blog, which has nearly 800 articles at this point, called Three Cheers for Darkened Years! He is also the co-host (with one William Bibbiani) of The B-Movies Podcast over at Crave Online, where he discusses film news and gives reviews on a weekly basis.