Broken Dreams # 1: The Films That Never Were…

May 2, 2020
Nearly every movie star and top-tier director has a potentially great unmade film on their list of career regrets…

Sometimes, not even the most powerful filmmakers can get their dream projects off the ground and into production. Here is a fistful of fascinating films-that-never-were from directors who fought tooth-and-nail to get them made…but ultimately saw their beloved projects dashed on the rocks of ego, financial malfeasance, fading interest, an uncaring industry, and death itself.

TIM BURTON: SUPERMAN LIVES

Reports of director Tim Burton’s efforts to get a Superman film on screen were all over the press in the late nineties. Renowned comic book geek and writer/director Kevin Smith (Clerks, Dogma, Chasing Amy, Zack And Miri Make A Porno) had written a script entitled Superman Lives (which included various ridiculous plot points enforced by producer Jon Peters, which Smith hilariously discusses on his An Evening With Kevin Smith spoken word DVD), and Burton was keen to make it happen. In what could have been the role of a lifetime, renowned comic book nut Nicolas Cage (who later called his son Kal-El, Superman’s Krypton birth name) signed on to play The Man Of Steel, with various other casting rumours (Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor, Chris Rock as Jimmy Olsen, Tim Allen as Brainiac, Courteney Cox as Lois Lane and Michael Keaton as a possibly guest starring Batman) whirling through the media with varying degrees of accuracy. With Burton on board, screenwriter Wesley Strick (Cape Fear) was brought in to rework the script, which sparked off a long-standing feud between the ever-mouthy Kevin Smith and his once-intended director. Construction, meanwhile, was started on the film’s sets and costumes. Tensions between Burton and seemingly unhinged producer Jon Peters (who started in the business as Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser!) started to escalate, however, and the project began to teeter. The film’s skyrocketing budget forced studio Warner Bros. to put the film on hold, and Burton left to direct Sleepy Hollow. $30 million was rumoured to have been spent on the dead-in-the-water film, which would eventually twist and morph into Bryan Singer’s 2006 film Superman Returns. You can see the whole sad story unfold in the 2015 documentary The Death Of Superman Lives: What Happened? Witness: “I basically wasted a year. A year is a long time to be working with somebody that you don’t really want to be working with.” (Tim Burton on Jon Peters)

KIMBERLY PEIRCE: SILENT STAR

Director Kimberly Peirce’s 1999 debut film Boys Don’t Cry was a minor masterpiece of loss, devastation and sexual confusion. It scored an Oscar for leading lady Hilary Swank, and put Peirce on the map. It took her nine long years, however, to make a follow up film, which Peirce finally did in 2008 with the highly underrated Stop-Loss. The reason for the lengthy time lapse? Peirce had been hard at work on a film that sadly never happened. The intended movie was Silent Star, which was to chronicle the controversial life of William Desmond Taylor, an actor and director of the Hollywood silent era whose 1922 unsolved murder remains one of the movie industry’s greatest scandalous mysteries. Suspects included a number of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters, and there were rumours of pay-offs, cover-ups, corruption and lies. The film would have been a major shift in tone, and a huge bump-up in terms of budget, for Kimberly Peirce. The director had assembled an impressive cast (Hugh Jackman, Evan Rachel Wood, Ben Kingsley), but was ultimately let down by a tight-fisted studio. Knowing that Peirce had brought in Boys Don’t Cry on a miniscule budget, the studio put the director over a barrel, reneging on their original stump-up of $30 million, and requesting that she bring it in for $20 million. In a major slap-in-the-face, however, they wanted her to maintain the same cast and what was proposed to be a heightened sense of style. A notorious tough cookie, Kimberly Peirce told the studio to go hang, and the project promptly collapsed. Witness: “I did get involved with something that I loved very much, which was the William Desmond Taylor murder story. But the studio said, ‘Well, we’d love to see the $30 million version, but we’d like to pay for the $20 million version.’” (Kimberly Peirce)

TERRENCE MALICK: JERRY LEE LEWIS BIOPIC

Though now far more prolific (and far less successful), writer/director Terrence Malick was once one of America’s least hard working directors, famously making just five feature films (Badlands, Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, The Tree Of Life) in a period of 38 years. One of the principal reasons for this famed lack of on-screen activity has a lot to do with Malick’s habit of getting involved with projects that never get off the ground. Over the years, he’s been tipped to direct – amongst other things – big screen versions of J.D Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye and Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, as well as cinematic takes on the medieval tale Sir Gawain And The Green Knight, and a biopic on Che Guevara, which he ultimately palmed off to director Steven Soderbergh. One of the most interesting projects-that-never-were for the enigmatic director, however, was a biopic of rowdy rock’n’roller Jerry Lee Lewis, which nearly got kick-started in the eighties. Malick wrote a dark, gloomy script which concentrated on Lewis’ darkest days, when he was pilloried in the international press for marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin, a practice not uncommon in Lewis’ home of The Deep South, but one that horrified the wider world. Eighties superstar Mickey Rourke (who would later have his scenes cut out of Malick’s The Thin Red Line) was the director’s pick to play a brooding, downbeat, and near-suicidal Jerry Lee Lewis. Put off by the film’s depressing vibe, the studio canned Malick’s film, which would eventually become Jim McBride’s far sunnier Great Balls Of Fire, with Dennis Quaid in the lead role. Witness: “Around such a man, the Thomas Pynchon of the modern cinema, rumours inevitably cluster. He was all set to make a movie based on the Jerry Lee Lewis story, which is less surprising than it sounds if you recall that Lewis is said to be possessed.” (Pico Iyer, Walrus Magazine)

RUSSELL CROWE: THE LONG GREEN SHORE

The Long Green Shore was heavily touted as Aussie/Kiwi legend Russell Crowe’s next project – and directorial debut – in 2001, just after he’d become a major star with Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind. The local media was aflame with reports that Rusty was going to use his newly minted status as a film industry heavy hitter to mount a major big screen adaptation of John Hepworth’s epic WW2 novel. Referred to by local writer and social commentator Bob Ellis as “Australia’s All Quiet On The Western Front”, the novel follows a small group of ANZACs fighting a vicious and ultimately futile campaign in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. “Written with vivid intensity, it captures the unholy excitement, the terrors, and the slow, acid-burning monotony of war,” says Ellis. Tough and unsentimental, the book is absolutely ripe for a film adaptation, and for all money, it looked like Russell Crowe was going to make it happen. As we all now well know, however, Crowe is a man with a lot on his plate, and also someone who really burns over making a commitment to a film. Crowe famously dropped out of Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Eucalyptus and Baz Luhrmann’s Australia, and with an NRL team to run and major Hollywood movies to make, The Long Green Shore has seemingly vanished from his “to do” list. Rusty’s desire to direct, meanwhile, was transferred to another war-themed project, with the actor eventually getting behind the camera for the WW1-set 2014 drama The Water Diviner.  Witness: “Directing will be a challenge…the idea petrifies me, but at the same time, I think of myself as a storyteller already. It’s time to try something like this.” (Russell Crowe, 2001)

FRED SCHEPISI: THE LAST MAN

With landmark seventies films like The Devil’s Playground and The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith, Fred Schepisi staked his claim as one of the pioneers of the Australian filmmaking renaissance. Like colleagues such as Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford, Schepisi also found great artistic success in Hollywood, with films such as Roxanne and Six Degrees Of Separation. In 2008, reports stated that Schepisi would finally return to Australia to make his first local film since 1988’s Evil Angels. The touted project was The Last Man, an adaptation of Graham Brammer’s book, Uncertain Fate, which tracked five Australian Special Forces soldiers in the final days of the Vietnam War. After years of conflict with funding bodies, the then Film Finance Corporation (now Screen Australia) approved key support for the war flick, and Schepisi lined up big names Guy Pearce, David Wenham, Simon Baker, Martin Henderson, Vince Colosimo, Aden Young and Sam Worthington to star. The project, however, never eventuated, and the director instead made his return to Australia with The Eye Of The Storm, which stars Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis, and was allegedly knocked back for funding by Screen Australia, which perhaps demonstrates ongoing fracture between Schepisi and the local powers-that-be, and may hint at what ultimately derailed The Last Man. “They tell people like me and Gillian Armstrong and Peter Weir that they’re keen to woo us to make films here, but then they make us jump through hoops where we are badly treated and finally rejected by people with little or no experience,” Schepisi told The Age in 2006. Witness: “I’m ready [for The Last Man]. We’ve been on it for quite a few years now. Way too long. If they all took this long, it would drive me mad.” (Fred Schepisi, 2008)

JAMES CAMERON: SPIDER-MAN

The movement of the popular Marvel Comics character of Spider-Man to the big screen has been one of the most confusing and controversial of all the comic book adaptations. Only three years after director Sam Raimi delivered the third installment in his popular take on the character in 2007, financing studio Sony made the big decision to reboot the franchise, bringing in Marc Webb to direct and young actor Andrew Garfield to star. The character was then rebooted again with Sony teaming with Marvel Studios, and Tom Holland stepping into the web-slinging role with enormous success. Before Sam Raimi helmed his first Spider-Man film in 2001, however, the character had been caught in the middle of a major legal fracas that resulted in one of the world’s biggest filmmakers – Titanic and Avatar helmer James Cameron – jumping ship on a project that he held dear to his heart. For many years, Spider-Man had been the property of production company Cannon, and had undergone several script drafts. When James Cameron wrote a detailed 47-page Spider-Man treatment, however, the project started to pick up speed. In the writer/director’s dark, sex-and-profanity laced take on the character, Cameron shifted certain elements of Spider-Man’s origin story, and had the superhero facing off against the classic villains Electro and Sandman, with a climactic battle raging atop The World Trade Center. But when new production company Carolco became involved, the intended Spider-Man film got caught up in a sticky web of litigation, and Cameron dropped out, eventually scratching his superhero itch with his TV series Dark Angel, starring Jessica Alba as a futuristic, super-human she-warrior. Minor elements of Cameron’s treatment ultimately found their way into Sam Raimi’s finished film, but Cameron has often proclaimed that he would have offered a far more adult take on Spider-Man. Witness: “Would I have done it differently? Yeah, absolutely. It would’ve been a very different film, but that’s the film you’ve never seen. I’ve seen it.” (James Cameron)

BAZ LUHRMANN: ALEXANDER THE GREAT

Before Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann made one of the most successful yet divisive films in this nation’s history with 2008’s sweeping epic Australia, this ever ambitious, impassioned director had another mammoth cinematic undertaking on his slate. It had long been Luhrmann’s dream to create a grand, sumptuous film about the life of conqueror Alexander The Great. It’s a big story, perfectly suited to Luhrmann’s widescreen approach to movie making, and it had the potential to be the director’s most impressive vision to date. With major producers Dino De Laurentiis and Steven Spielberg behind him, a script written in collaboration with acclaimed British playwright and screenwriter David Hare (Plenty, The Hours, The Reader), and his Romeo + Juliet star Leonardo DiCaprio lined up to play the free spirited Alexander (with Nicole Kidman and Mel Gibson rumoured to be playing his parents), Luhrmann had the makings for a film of truly epic proportions. Unfortunately for Baz Luhrmann, there was another filmmaker out there with the same vision as him. Iconoclastic bruiser Oliver Stone was making his own film about Alexander The Great, and he was getting it done a lot quicker than Baz Luhrmann was. When Stone’s Alexander lurched into production, Luhrmann’s dream project quickly collapsed, though the director still holds it close to his heart. “My dream is that one day I will make that film,” he said in 2006. Witness:Alexander The Great was a great journey. We had built a studio in the Northern Sahara and Leonardo DiCaprio was in it. It was a hugely emotionally involving journey that unfortunately never happened. But then Catherine Martin [his wife and Australia co-producer and costume designer] and I had another project in mind, which was to have our children. We did a lot of work on that and had children!” (Baz Luhrmann)

JOEL SCHUMACHER: THE CROWDED ROOM

Daniel Keyes’ non-fiction book The Minds Of Billy Milligan is a rich tapestry of crime, highly involved psychology, and complex human tragedy. It tells the true life story of Billy Milligan, who was arrested and charged with rape, which led doctors to discover that he had 24 multiple personalities, ranging from a young girl and an affection-starved lesbian to a Serb-Croatian immigrant and a drug dealing armed robber. His illness was attributed to a violent childhood and prolonged sexual abuse at the hands of his stepfather. This powerful story offered up a wealth of cinematic possibilities, and served as bait for a number of top-tier directors. After meeting with Billy Milligan, James Cameron intended to cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. When that version of the film never happened, director Todd Field (Little Children) became attached, with John Cusack tipped to star. David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh and Danny De Vito were also briefly involved. The director most consistently linked to The Minds Of Billy Milligan (since retitled The Crowded Room), however, has been Joel Schumacher, a filmmaker more renowned for his slick mainstream works (Batman & Robin, A Time To Kill, The Client) than he is for his far superior smaller scale films (Tigerland, Flawless, Phone Booth). Hanging in there through various casting announcements (Brad Pitt and Billy Crudup were both attached at various stages) and script rewrites, Joel Schumacher was last set to shoot in 2005, with a revised screenplay by Lem Dobbs, and Colin Farrell in line to star. The director has since helmed The Number 23, Blood Creek, Twelve and Trespass, however, with the door on The Crowded Room appearing to have been officially closed. Witness: “It’s like a hot potato. It’s been tossed around, but no one [director] has been hungry enough to take a bite.” (Billy Milligan)

STEVE McQUEEN: YUCATAN

Steve McQueen always had an ironclad hold on his own destiny. He’d worked hard to get his own interests (namely, motor racing) on screen with the gear-head epic Le Mans, and had put his reputation on the line with non-commercial films such as the 1978 Henrik Ibsen adaptation Enemy Of The People. Steve McQueen had another dream project, however, which towered over even these considerable efforts. In 1996, sixteen years after his father’s death, Chad McQueen discovered sixteen leather-bound notebooks full of drawings, photographs from period magazines, and a detailed script continuity (a screenplay without dialogue) for a proposed film called Yucatan. Dating from 1969, these 1,700 pages of hand-typed material tell of an archaeologist who enlists a renegade, motorcycle-riding Navy diver in a plan to explore a complex system of caves and underground lakes in the Yucatan jungle. A millennium before, Mayan priests had sacrificed virgins there covered in gold and precious jewels, and this fortune is rumoured to still adorn their skeletons at the bottom of the sacred waters. McQueen tried to get the film up in the early seventies, but was derailed by the critical and commercial failure of the aforementioned Le Mans. He tried unsuccessfully again in 1979, and had even discussed it with director Sam Peckinpah, with whom he had worked on The Getaway and Junior Bonner. McQueen’s son eventually handed the dormant material over to producer David Heyman, with a number of directors (including McG and Quentin Tarantino) attached to the project. The last rumblings heard around Yucatan occurred in 2014 with the film sitting on the slate of Robert Downey Jr.’s production company. Those rumblings, however, have since died away, and the film remains as another piece of Steve McQueen’s already packed mythology. Witness: “Our story will centre on a guy who takes his cycle into the Mexican wilds on a personal treasure hunt. Naturally, I’ll play the guy on the cycle.” (Steve McQueen)

ROBERT ALTMAN: HANDS ON A HARD BODY

Late director Robert Altman was one of the great rebels of the American film industry, a prodigiously gifted filmmaker with an uncanny knack for pissing off studio executives and money men. This led to a number of failed projects over the years (including sequels to Nashville and Short Cuts; a baseball film called Wild Card; the anti-war piece A Shortage Of Engineers; and a contemporary art world drama set in New York called Paint, amongst others), but it was Altman’s own tragic passing that brought about one of his most fascinating sounding projects-that-never-were. Recalling both his finest ensemble classics (M*A*S*H, The Player) and his most pointed satires on America itself (Brewster McCloud, The Long Goodbye), the proposed film was Hands On A Hard Body, which was based on a 1997 documentary by director S.R Bindler. Broad and scathing in tone, the film was to have recounted a weeks-long Texas endurance contest that offered a new Nissan Hardbody truck as the prize to the last person left standing with a hand on the coveted vehicle. Comparing the film to Sydney Pollack’s battering 1969 drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Altman’s story would have taken in the contestants, their significant others, the people running the contest, and the media frenzy that surrounds it. With a massive cast in place (Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Dwayne Johnson, Chris Rock, The White Stripes’ Jack White, Billy Bob Thornton, John C. Reilly, Jack Black, Salma Hayek, Steve Buscemi, Hilary Swank and Tommy Lee Jones), the great Robert Altman had the makings for another fascinating dissection of The American Dream. When he died, the potentially brilliant Hands On A Hard Body sadly died with him. Interestingly, German filmmaker Bastian Gunther has recently completed a film based on a similar concept, One of These Days, with no credit given to Altman. Witness: “I’m seeing it as sort of my last thing. So now I’m getting to the position where I want it to be really special.” (Robert Altman)

If you liked this story, check out our features about troubled movie sets; films altered in post; and great things that nearly happened in the world of movies.

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