Broken Dreams # 2: The Films That Never Were

June 10, 2020
Here is another fistful of fascinating films-that-never-were from top-shelf stars and directors who tried – often desperately – to get them made…but ultimately to no avail.


For Russell Crowe, Gladiator is a career cornerstone. Director Ridley Scott’s Roman-era action-adventure scored Crowe a Best Actor Oscar, as well as picking up a fistful of other Academy Awards. A box office triumph, Crowe was deeply attached to the film, and when asked what generally attracted him to a project, he used Gladiator as a template. “I respond to the call that says, ‘It’s 185 A.D. You’re a Roman general. You’re being directed by Ridley Scott.’ That’s something that my imagination can get a hold of.” Not surprisingly, Crowe was desperate to keep the gladiatorial fires burning after the film’s success, and was instrumental in the moves for the mounting of a sequel. There was only one problem: his character – heroic slave/gladiator/Roman general, Maximus – died at the end of the film. Looking for out-of-the-box inspiration in how to make a sequel happen, noted music lover Crowe turned to rock icon, occasional novelist, and screenwriter, Nick Cave (The Proposition, Lawless), and commissioned him to draft a script. What the famously dark and brooding cult figure turned out was highly unconventional, with Maximus first warring with Roman gods in the afterlife, before being reincarnated, and ultimately living forever, waging battle in WW2 and Vietnam, and eventually redefining modern day warfare in The Pentagon. “Luckily, it was so completely unacceptable that they didn’t even ask me to do rewrites,” Nick Cave told The Guardian. “It wasn’t makeable. I wanted to write an anti-war film and use Gladiator’s Maximus as a raging war machine. He comes back as the eternal warrior. It was just this really wacked-out script.” Russell Crowe, however, fought to get it made. “Russell didn’t want to let it go, because it worked very well,” Ridley Scott told UGO. “As storytelling, it worked brilliantly.” For conservative Hollywood, however, Cave’s demented vision was just too dark…and strange.


In his 1974 cult classic, Female Trouble, writer/director John Waters staged a Christmas scene like no other, as his regular star Divine’s selfish, self-absorbed and brutally bitchy Dawn Davenport stomps on a pile of presents before pushing an over decorated Xmas tree onto her elderly mother. “I hate you,” Dawn screams at her parents. “Fuck you! Fuck you both!” Their Christmas sin? Not lavishing the vain Dawn with the pair of cha-cha heels that she had so stridently demanded. If cult hero John Waters (the director of grimy faves like Pink Flamingos, Desperate Living and A Dirty Shame) had his way, however, he would have made an entire film about Christmas. In 2008, the cameras very nearly rolled on Fruitcake, a family film (!) about a young boy who runs away from home during the festive season after he and his parents are caught shoplifting meat, and then meets up with a runaway girl raised by two gay men who is searching for her birth mother. Though Johnny Knoxville and Parker Posey had been cast, the project collapsed due to financial changes in the film world. “I can’t get it made,” the director told FilmInk back in 2010. “I was paid very nice money to write it. They liked it, but the company, like many other independent film companies, is no longer there. In today’s independent film world, they want movies for under a million bucks, and I’ve done that already. I can’t go backwards. That’s why I wrote a book. That’s why I do other things. I have many ways to tell stories. Right now, there’s almost no such thing as a $5-million-dollar independent movie, which used to be the fair price for a low budget film.”


Director Penelope Spheeris knows her way around the world of rock music. Her The Decline Of Western Civilisation documentaries are milestone works in the rock-doc genre, and she’s made a number of feature films (Suburbia, Dudes, Wayne’s World) that pulse with the beat and rhythm of rock’n’roll. Not surprisingly, one of the director’s long cherished dream projects is strongly rooted in rock. Spheeris worked on The Gospel According To Janis – a biopic on soulful, hard drinking sixties rock singer, Janis Joplin – for over twenty years, and watched it tumble several times. Her script focuses on the time from when Joplin was a nineteen-year-old student at the University Of Texas through to her tragic death at age 27. “It’s not about a destructive dope addict,” Spheeris told MTV in 2004. “It’s about a person who is incredibly intelligent, incredibly ambitious, and incredibly gifted, and we focus on the positive things instead of the negative things that happened to her.” After auditioning the late Brittany Murphy and once considering Scarlett Johansson for the role, Spheeris came close to getting the film up in 2004 when she cast pop singer Pink in the title role (“Pink’s got the most awesome voice I’ve heard outside of Janis Joplin,” the director told MTV), but the project stalled. After watching a rival biopic (Piece Of My Heart starring Renee Zellweger) collapse, Spheeris again got close to reciting The Gospel According To Janis, this time with Zooey Deschanel up front. In 2010, however, the singer/actress announced that the project was no longer in development. “I’ve been working on [perfecting] Janis’ scratchy voice with a vocal coach for three years, and now we’ve found out that it just isn’t going to happen,” Deschanel told The Hollywood Reporter. “That’s a lot of time prepping for a movie.” And even longer for Penelope Spheeris…


Writer/director Cameron Crowe began his professional career as a teenage journalist for rock bible, Rolling Stone, and has put music right at the centre of many of his best films, telling the autobiographical tale of an adolescent rock fan who meets his musical heroes in Almost Famous, and wedging the vibrant early-nineties Seattle music scene into his romantic comedy, Singles. Considering this pedigree, it comes as no shock to discover that the writer/director’s drawers are littered with unmade scripts for musically driven films. He was close to pushing hard on My Name Is Marvin – a biopic on late soul singer Marvin Gaye – but “the time just wasn’t right for that movie,” he told IFC about why he chose to make 2011’s We Bought A Zoo instead. Crowe’s biopic about controversial music producer Phil Spector (currently in prison for the murder of actress, Lana Clarkson), however, is never came that close to production. “We were developing it right after Jerry Maguire,” Crowe told FilmInk of the intended film, which would have starred Tom Cruise. “I felt like there was a third act that hadn’t happened yet; Phil’s story wasn’t over. It was long before his trial, and he was living in Pasadena, just reflecting on his life. I did interviews with him, and he was on really good behaviour with me. But there was this feeling in the air that there was destiny coming, and I told Tom that I would wait for the next chapter in his story, whatever that was, that hadn’t happened yet. The irony is that everything that happened with Phil Spector after that is now so notorious that you actually could make the movie that’s about the first two acts because everybody’s so aware of the third act.” That third act, of course, was eventually filmed for HBO, with Al Pacino playing the title role in 2013’s Phil Spector.


Oliver Stone knows a lot about drugs. He wrote the blood stained screenplay for Brian De Palma’s coke addled masterpiece, Scarface; delivered a cautionary warning to all aspiring drug smugglers with his brutal script for Alan Parker’s bone-shaking modern classic, Midnight Express; authentically documented the prevalence of weed and acid in the sixties with Platoon, The Doors, and Born On The Fourth Of July; and in 2012 lit up with Savages, the tale of two young pot dealers who tangle with a Mexican drug cartel. What could have been his biggest film about the world of drugs, however, finally eluded the director in 1994, when Stone admitted that he just couldn’t bring the pieces together on his planned biopic on Manuel Noriega, the former politician and soldier who rose to power as the military dictator of Panama from 1983 to 1989 before being unseated when the US invaded and then tried him on eight counts of drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. Rumoured to have been involved in dirty deals with the CIA, Noriega is a highly complicated figure, and could have provided Stone with ample opportunity for his trademark brand of big storytelling and controversial politicking. Though Al Pacino had committed to playing Manuel Noriega, the film never got off the ground. According to Stone, it was down to a mix of scripting and budgeting issues. “Certain films shouldn’t cost as much as they do,” the director told The Los Angeles Times in 1994 of Noriega, which was budgeted at $40 million. “It’s too risky. The most expensive picture I ever made was JFK, which cost $40 million. I don’t particularly like to make expensive pictures. Noriega is also a man with negative characteristics, who is not easily understood. I know him…I spent three hours with him in prison. The real story is probably too complicated for a movie.”


A truly brilliant Oscar winning actress, Jodie Foster is also a highly accomplished director, with four fine films (Little Man Tate, Home For The Holidays, The Beaver, Money Monster) to her credit. Hardly prolific behind the camera, Foster’s minimal directorial credits may be partly due to the emotional suffering that she has experienced at the hands of her dream project, Flora Plum. Set in the forties, the Steven Rogers-scripted drama tells of the eponymous teenage girl, who becomes part of her uncle and aunt’s ragtag travelling circus, which is peopled with all manner of oddballs and influences, both positive and not-quite-so-positive. Her most meaningful relationship is with The Beast, an acrobat and “freak” whose body is covered with coarse hair, and who serves as the film’s unlikely romantic hero. Foster opted not to reprise her role as FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence Of The Lambs sequel, Hannibal, in order to direct Flora Plum, and cast Claire Danes and Russell Crowe in the lead roles. When Crowe seriously injured his shoulder while training for the role, however, Flora Plum was effectively shut down, but Foster continued to work hard to get it made. She remounted the film with Danes and Ewan McGregor, and then flirted with Evan Rachel Wood for the title role. Though she was still trying to get Flora Plum made when interviewed by FilmInk way back in 2005, the film is now almost certainly a dream unrealised. “You can’t just give up on something that you love so much and have invested so much into,” Foster said. “It’s possible that I won’t make the movie in the next few years, but I can’t imagine walking away from it. It’s a very ambitious film, and that’s why it’s been very difficult. It’s expensive, and it has a quirky European feel to it, which isn’t that popular in the United States.”


A literature fan, an acolyte of drug smeared icons like Hunter S. Thompson and Keith Richards, and a noted free spirit, it’s no surprise that actor Johnny Depp responded so strongly to Gregory David Roberts’ bestselling semiautobiographical novel, Shantaram. Long, detailed and richly layered, the book tells the snaking tale of Lin, an Australian heroin addict who escapes a maximum security prison, reinvents himself as a doctor in the slums of India, and winds up as a gun-runner and counterfeiter who fights against invading Russian troops in Afghanistan. A riveting page turner, Shantaram has captivated readers all around the world, and author Roberts put himself into the cinematic picture early in his novel’s ascension. “I secured a good film agent and he secured an option from four studios,” the author has said. “The one who offered the most money was the same one that I had picked, which was Johnny Depp and Warner Bros.” The actor and author bonded quickly, but this version of Shantaram never materialised. Acclaimed Australian filmmaker Peter Weir was hired but then dropped (“It’s very unfortunate about Peter,” producer Graham King told Screen Daily. “He’s truly one of the best filmmakers that there is, but he just had a vision of the movie which wasn’t mine and Johnny’s”), while Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding) was also briefly attached. “This could be one film that really shows how the East – in this case, India – could challenge a soulless person from the West and help him get transformed,” the director told Rediff. “If you ask me, India is the real hero of this film.” Sadly, the film never happened, though Joel Edgerton was at one time linked to it, before the 900-page-plus Shantaram was eventually and perhaps sensibly refashioned as an upcoming TV series, with Justin Kurzel directing, Apple TV producing, and Charlie Hunnam starring in the lead role of Lin.


With films like Alien and Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott redefined the science fiction genre, dosing it with a rarely seen intensity and seriousness. But with his very mixed Alien prequels, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, the genre has ironically been something of an albatross around the filmmaker’s neck, with the director enduring both a complicated production and post-production process on Blade Runner, and working through a number of collapsed science fiction projects that have sucked up considerable amounts of Scott’s famously abundant energy. He worked on an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s sci-fi novel, I Am Legend, in the nineties, and also came close to getting Joe Haldeman’s anti-war sci-fi epic, The Forever War, up on screen. Ridley Scott’s biggest science fiction dream project, however, is undoubtedly his planned adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s epochal 1932 novel, Brave New World. This dystopian (though ironically serene and divinely calm) vision of the future was brought to Scott by actor/producer Leonardo DiCaprio, who starred for the director on the 2008 political thriller, Body Of Lies. Viewing Brave New World as a work every bit as provocative and influential as George Orwell’s towering classic, 1984, Scott never fooled himself that bringing the book (which had previously been adapted for television in 1980 and 1998) to the screen would be easy. “It’s a big challenge,” he told io9. “It’s a very hard adaptation. We’re still dancing with that one, but it’s a challenge.” In the end, that very adaptation process brought Ridley Scott’s Brave New World to an end, with no mention of the project since 2008. “We’re still struggling with that one,” he told io9. “I have forty things on the go at once, but that’s a very important one. The hardest single thing is getting it on paper.” Perhaps too hard…


With the much publicised collapse of his superhero team-up movie, Justice League (which would have featured Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, amongst others, way before Zack Snyder experienced his own well documented problems with the material), visionary Australian filmmaker, George Miller (Mad Max, Happy Feet), is no stranger to watching a highly anticipated film turn to dust. Though on a far less significant scale than Justice League (which had already gone into production, with a near-complete cast already in place), another proposed project for Miller went under back in 2008. With a big flourish, Hollywood trade paper, Variety, announced that the director would helm a big budget adaptation of Homer’s classic tale, The Odyssey, which tracks the ten-year journey home of Greek general Odysseus following the fall of Troy. George Miller did, however, have a leading man. Fresh from playing Achilles in Wolfgang Petersen’s poorly received Troy (based on Homer’s The Iliad), superstar Brad Pitt surprisingly signed on for another slab of Greek mythology, with his production company, Plan B, also involved. But this was not to be a continuation of the sand-and-sandal melodrama of Troy…far from it. This time, the action would unfold in space. Yes, space. In a move that had many scratching their heads, Miller’s proposed film would be a science fiction reimagining of The Odyssey, complete with cutting edge special effects and an interstellar storyline. In the end, however, it just never took off. “That was something that we talked about a long time ago, and then I got too busy with other things and couldn’t do it,” Miller told FilmInk in 2011. “I’d love to do it, but it was something that Warners and other people wanted to do. I love The Odyssey, and I thought the idea was brilliant, but we just didn’t have the time to do it.”


Big screen adaptations of video games usually, well, suck. Consider just this limited clutch of examples without feeling the sting of vomit at the back of your throat: Super Mario Brothers, Doom, Double Dragon, Wing Commander, Bloodrayne, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. If one of producer/director Peter Jackson’s cinematic dreams had come true, however, this much maligned subgenre may have finally seen the creation of something decent. The man behind The Lord Of The Rings and King Kong – and also a keen gamer – was turned onto the much loved First Person Shooter title, Halo, by his teenage son, and when a possible film adaptation was put to him by producer Mary Parent, Jackson jumped at the chance. The game’s epic narrative (tracing an interstellar war between humanity and a theocratic alliance of aliens known as The Covenant) would have given Jackson ample opportunity to unleash his imagination and once again test the boundaries of modern special effects techniques. While he initially toyed with directing the film himself, Jackson eventually opted to just produce. He handed the reins to South African debut feature director, Neill Blomkamp, whose short, Live In Joburg, had gotten him noticed in all the right circles. But when Fox and Universal – the two studios that owned the rights to the Halo property – were seized by internal politics, the joint venture collapsed, and what could have been a groundbreaking video game adaptation was scuttled. Jackson, however, was so impressed with Neill Blomkamp that he suggested that the young filmmaker expand Live In Joburg into a feature film under his stewardship. The result? The Oscar nominated instant classic, District 9. “That was definitely born out of the Halo film ruins,” Jackson told Joystiq. “We wouldn’t have seen District 9 if Halo had gone ahead. I have always felt that if fate is taking you somewhere, don’t fight it.”

If you liked this story, check out “Broken Dreams # 1: The Films That Never Were.”


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