Broken Dreams # 3: The Films That Never Were

July 8, 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.

KATHRYN BIGELOW: COMPANY OF ANGELS

“I never make a decision about a film with feminism as a criterion,” director, Kathryn Bigelow, once said. “I don’t look for feminist messages.” The first woman to win the Best Director gong at The Academy Awards (for her scorching 2008 war drama, The Hurt Locker), Bigelow has ironically chosen to predominantly tell male-driven stories (The Loveless, Near Dark, Point Break, Strange Days, K-19:  The Widowmaker, Detroit), only taking the female viewpoint on Blue Steel, The Weight Of Water, and Zero Dark Thirty. For many years, however, Bigelow slaved to mount an epic biopic on one of the most iconic female figures in history: Joan Of Arc, the teenage French warrior saint infamously burned at the stake in 1431. Scripted by film critic turned screenwriter, Jay Cocks, who had worked on Bigelow’s 1995 sci-fi thriller, Strange Days, the biopic was entitled Company Of Angels (“I was really into it,” Jay Cocks told Backstage of his work on the film), and was being developed under the watchful eye of powerhouse French director and producer, Luc Besson (The Fifth Element). A maestro of on-screen action, and a strong proponent of character-based storytelling, Kathryn Bigelow could possibly have found her ultimate personal project with Company Of Angels. The director envisioned Claire Danes (then hot off Romeo + Juliet) in the lead role, but when Besson pushed for his then wife, Milla Jovovich, to take the part, things got ugly. Besson withdrew his support from the film, and with it the support of his financial backers, which prompted Bigelow to threaten legal action for breach of contract and “stealing her research.” The matter was settled out of court. “All I can tell you is that the parties have settled amicably, and that Ms. Bigelow is satisfied,” said the director’s lawyer, Greg Dovel, in a statement to the press. Besson eventually staged his own Joan Of Arc biopic with the much maligned 1999 epic, The Messenger, with Jovovich in the lead role, effectively ending Bigelow’s intended Company Of Angels, which, according to The LA Times, was “action-packed, but included more of Joan’s internal struggle in dealing with her mission from God.”

MARVEL’S DAZZLER

A rollerskating disco diva with the power to convert sound vibrations into light and energy beams, Marvel’s singing superhero, Dazzler, first appeared in Uncanny X-Men # 130 in 1980, and quickly announced herself as one of the comic book giant’s most unusual properties. Dazzler had in fact been created – by a committee of Marvel staff, including writer/editor, Tom DeFalco, illustrator, John Romita, Jr., and editor-in-chief, Jim Shooter – to serve as bait for a record company, with the idea being that Marvel would produce comics featuring the character, and the record company would produce and market music using studio musicians, as was famously done with The Archies. Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records took the bait, and an animated TV special was planned. When Jim Shooter wrote a treatment, however, it was deemed too dazzling for TV, and the project was re-engineered as a big screen movie. Shooter’s treatment was taken to the market at The Cannes Film Festival, and Bo Derek – a superstar at the time thanks to her sexy turn in 10, opposite Dudley Moore – signed on to play Dazzler. The project started to falter, however, when Marvel – all starry eyed over the possibility of going to Hollywood – hired veteran screenwriter, Leslie Stevens, to pen a script. “Stevens ignored what I had written completely, and wrote a piece of crap that defies description,” Jim Shooter has said. “In those days, despite the reasonable success of 1978’s Superman, comics were still thought of as silly and campy, so that’s what Stevens went for. It was moronic.” The commitment of Bo Derek, however, meant that there was a bidding war going on for the project, with all of Hollywood’s studios keen to, ahem, get into bed with the sexy superstar. But when she demanded that her husband, John Derek, direct the film, the bidding war promptly ended, with his reputation for behind-schedule, over-budget debacles like Fantasies and Tarzan The Ape Man proceeding him. Marvel later tried to reignite the script with Daryl Hannah attached to star, but sadly, Dazzler’s disco dreams were dashed. But with the character now back in Marvel Studios’ grip thanks to Disney’s purchase of Fox (Dazzler was legally part of the X-Men universe), she may yet dance again…

SYLVESTER STALLONE: EDGAR ALLEN POE BIOPIC

Though principally known, of course, as an action hero, writer/actor/director, Sylvester Stallone, has long exhibited a poetic side. His breakout hit, Rocky (which he wrote and starred in), is a rough-hewn paean to the working class underdog; his 1979 directorial debut, Paradise Alley, is an unusual tale of brotherly love; and he’s made detours into more “serious” modes of acting with films like 1997’s Cop Land and 1979’s F.I.S.T. Stallone’s most poetic endeavour, however, has also been one of his greatest career shortfalls. For many years, the multi-hyphenate tried to mount a big screen biopic of Edgar Allan Poe, the American author, poet, editor, and literary critic best known for his tales of mystery and the macabre, such as The Fall Of The House Of Usher and The Pit And The Pendulum. Though rumour had it that Stallone wanted to play Poe himself, he has always stated that he intended for a younger actor to play the role of the brooding author (who had a torturous history with drugs, alcohol, and mental illness), often mentioning Robert Downey Jr., who has publicly referred to Stallone’s Poe script as “great.” But in an on-stage Q&A session in London in 2014, Stallone admitted that the Poe biopic will probably remain an unrealised dream. “I know that it’s not going to work unless it’s a different thing, and unless there’s a hook to it,” he told host, Jonathan Ross. “It would have to be something like they’ve done with Sherlock Holmes, for example. But I can’t do that; there are too many Poe scholars that would go berserk if you tamper with it.” Stallone then revealed his unusual take on the legendary poet. “Actors, artists…they have two faces – the public face and the private face. Poe is a young, goofy artist, so I tried to write him as one of us, who happened to have this amazing ability. I’m still debating about whether I should do it, but I know in my heart of hearts that that ship has sailed.”

SATYAJIT RAY: THE ALIEN

In Indian cinema, Satyajit Ray is a titanic figure, most famous for the groundbreaking 1955 classic, Pather Panchali, but with a highly impressive resume that also includes strong works such as Charulata (1964), The Chess Players (1977), and The Stranger (1991). And though he never made the move to Hollywood, Ray did come very close. In 1967, he penned a script called The Alien (loosely based on Mr. Banku’s Friend, a Bengali science fiction story that Ray had written in 1962 for the magazine, Sandesh), which was put into production by Hollywood studio, Columbia Pictures. Different from most science fiction tales of the time, this optimistic comedy-drama featured a benign, friendly alien who lands his spaceship in a pond in rural Bengal, and is worshipped as a deity by the local villagers, before eventually forming a close bond with a young boy called Haba. The plot also featured an Indian businessman, a journalist from Calcutta, and an American engineer. With Marlon Brando and Peter Sellers cast in lead roles, The Alien hit a snag when Satyajit Ray discovered that shady industry player, Mike Wilson – the director’s representative in Hollywood – had copyrighted the script and taken a fee as co-writer, despite not being involved in any way in its creation. “Beyond suggesting that I use the term ‘broad’ instead of ‘chick’ in the American dialogue, Mike had made no contribution to the screenplay,” Satyajit Ray said. The director eventually became disillusioned with the whole Hollywood process, and returned home to Calcutta, though Columbia attempted to resuscitate the film a number of times. Though he has refuted the claims, The Alien is rumoured to have strongly influenced Steven Spielberg’s hit films, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T – The Extra Terrestrial. The Alien, meanwhile, finally made its way to the screen – fourteen years after Satyajit Ray’s death – in 2006 as an Indian telemovie, directed by Kaushik Sen and produced by Ray’s son, Sandip.

JOE ESZTERHAS: SACRED COWS

“I have only one loyalty – to my writing,” controversy-friendly Hollywood scribe, Joe Eszterhas, once said. “I never wanted to be the head of a studio or a producer. I just wanted to make sure that what I write is what appears on screen, and to not have some idiot change it on its way to the screen. There sure as hell are some idiots in Hollywood, and God, we see a lot of shitty movies these days.” Unfortunately, one film that has been consistently unable to break that chain is Sacred Cows, an eighties-penned script by the bullish writer of Basic Instinct, Jagged Edge, Flashdance, Music Box and Showgirls. Quite possibly (or maybe not) one of the funniest movies never made, Eszterhas’ savage satire is set amidst the media-stoked sound and fury of a US Presidential election campaign, and hits its pivotal point when the incumbent President Of The USA is secretly photographed in his brother’s Nebraska barn getting hot and heavy with a bovine beauty. The opposition candidate, who has possession of the photo, then tries to use it privately to get The President to quit the race. But when a copy of the photo finds its way into a tabloid called The National Snitch, the entire nation explodes. Though MGM had wanted to make the film, with Paul Newman and Lloyd Bridges considered for the lead role, and the likes of Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, David Anspaugh, Michael Lehmann, Blake Edwards, Betty Thomas, Tony Bill, Milos Forman, Jim Abrahams, and Robert Mulligan attached or in consideration to direct at various stages, Sacred Cows never got off the farm, despite the fact that Eszterhas was paid a whopping $500,000 for the script. The screenwriter even had his eye on a certain Hollywood legend for a major role. “There’s a part in Sacred Cows for Jane Fonda,” Eszterhas told Entertainment Weekly in 1994. “It’s The President’s wife. She could be very savvy and sexy and smart. I’d love to see Jane come back.”

RIDLEY SCOTT: THE FOREVER WAR

He might boast an impressive resume that cuts through all kinds of genres, but Ridley Scott has a just reputation as a modern master of science fiction, built on the classic double shot of Alien and Blade Runner. And while Scott is also a master at getting movies made – delivering a flick every one or two years for the past three decades-plus – one title has constantly eluded him. Scott has publicly claimed his love for Joe Haldeman’s classic 1974 sci-fi novel, The Forever War, but his efforts to mount a film adaptation have constantly crumbled. A sprawling tale that bounces across time and space, the book is set in a future when Earth’s scientists have discovered how to travel to the far flung corners of the solar system through stellar worm-holes. The book’s central character is William Mandella, a gifted physicist conscripted and trained to fight the faraway Taurans, an alien race with whom Earth has entered into conflict. Travelling through the worm-holes, however, has a time dilation effect: while Mandella and his military colleagues only age a couple of years while fighting off-world, back on Earth, decades have passed. Continuing to battle the Taurans, Mandella painfully marks the seismic societal changes each time he returns to Earth. Boasting finely drawn characters; staggering battle sequences; a futurist vision rivalling Brave New World and 1984; and daring humour, The Forever War has often been announced by Ridley Scott as his “next project”, though it’s never happened. “It’s written and sitting right here,” Scott told The Playlist back in 2013. “2001: A Space Odyssey was the door that opened up the possibility of science fiction for me. Everything else up to then was fine, but didn’t quite work for me. Then George Lucas did Star Wars, which absolutely blew me away because it was also romantic and a fairy story. The elegance of The Forever War fits in with that. I don’t want it to slip sideways into being a ‘spacey’ movie. I’ll go back to the reality of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and let normality be a part of the story.” Maybe someday…

PHILLIP NOYCE: DIRT MUSIC

“Entertainment, escapism and challenging themes aren’t mutually exclusive,” Australian director, Phillip Noyce, told FilmInk in 2006. “They can feed off each other.” With movies like Dead Calm, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Quiet American, Catch A Fire, Patriot Games, Salt, The Giver, and many more, the bearish, Griffith-born filmmaker has certainly been true to this ethos, which even extends to the films that he has tried but failed to mount. In 2010, Noyce was announced as being in development on a still-unseen remake of Charles Chauvel’s WW2 adventure, The Rats Of Tobruk, while a tempting-sounding Hollywood thriller, Above Suspicion (about an FBI agent convicted of murder after an affair with an informant goes horribly wrong), collapsed too. The director also walked out on a proposed sequel to Salt, and remakes of the Jean Claude Van-Damme action belter, Bloodsport, and the pirate movie, Captain Blood. By far Noyce’s biggest miss, however, has been his much-discussed adaptation of Tim Winton’s acclaimed 2001 novel, Dirt Music, which tracks a doomed love triangle, and shifts from a WA fishing village to the farthest reaches of the Australian outback. The director had even assembled a cast. “We were all set to go with Heath Ledger and Rachel Weisz,” Noyce told News Ltd. in 2010. “We had the money at that point, and then Heath decided to play The Joker [in The Dark Knight], which you couldn’t argue with.” Russell Crowe then stepped into the lead role, which had also been earmarked for Colin Farrell at one stage. “Russell has been preparing for Dirt Music for a number of years,” Noyce told The Treatment in 2010. “He’s written and recorded a number of songs that’ll be in the movie.” Dirt Music, however, never got off the ground. “I could never get a script that captured the poetry of the novel, and there’s the problem,” Noyce told Coming Soon. “A poetic novel is just difficult to translate into a movie. It’s a project that I’ll come back to in the future, I’m sure.” Hmmm, no actually. Gregor Jordan (Two Hands) was the director to finally bring Dirt Music to the big screen, with a release set for later this year.

CHRISTOPHER NOLAN: HOWARD HUGHES BIOPIC

Howard Hughes – the American business tycoon, movie producer, and aviation pioneer who ended up an enigmatic, drug-addicted recluse – has been a source of great fascination for filmmakers. He has been played on-screen by Tommy Lee Jones (1977’s The Amazing Howard Hughes), Jason Robards (1980’s Melvin And Howard), Dean Stockwell (1988’s Tucker), Terry O’Quinn (1991’s The Rocketeer), and Leonardo DiCaprio (2004’s The Aviator), and has also served as inspiration for fictional characters in 1964’s The Carpetbaggers and 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. Warren Beatty famously struggled for many years to mount a Howard Hughes biopic, and so did Interstellar director, Christopher Nolan. Following his impressive 2002 thriller, Insomnia, the director’s next project was set to be a film about the early years of Howard Hughes starring Jim Carrey. Nolan had the screenplay written (calling it “one of the best things I’ve ever written”), but when it was announced that Martin Scorsese was making his own Hughes biopic with The Aviator, Nolan reluctantly folded up his script and took the reins on Batman Begins instead. Interestingly, his work on the Hughes film ended up seeping into his Batman trilogy, with the superhero’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, also a tortured, reclusive billionaire. “There are a lot of similarities,” The Dark Knight Rises editor, Lee Smith, told The Playlist. “He did work on a script at the same time as the one with Leonardo came out.” Nolan then attempted to resuscitate Hughes after The Dark Knight Rises, talking about possibly changing his approach to the subject. Working from Michael Drosnin’s Citizen Hughes: The Power, The Money And The Madness, Nolan now intended to tell of Hughes’ crazed later years (not covered in The Aviator), when the tycoon surrounded himself with Mormons; shot codeine into his veins on a daily basis; ran his business operations out of Las Vegas hotel suites; bought up a string of Texas fast food joints out of a concern for food safety; and cut his hair and finger nails only once a year. Sadly, however, Christopher Nolan appears to have moved on from Howard Hughes, with the project no longer in the director’s creative pipeline.

SEAN PENN: A QUESTION OF MERCY

“I almost did, but the movie never got made,” actor, Aaron Eckhart, replied to Advocate when asked if he’d ever played a gay character. “I was going to do the film version of David Rabe’s play, A Question Of Mercy, which is about a man dying of AIDS. Sean Penn was directing. But before we started filming, 9/11 happened, so it just fell apart. I was already out spending time in San Francisco, doing research, and talking to people who had been affected by the disease.” Though little documented, Sean Penn did indeed attempt to mount what would have been his biggest, starriest project in the early 2000s, with a movie version of acclaimed playwright, David Rabe’s on-stage adaptation of a 1991 magazine article in which Richard Selzer, a physician and writer, described his involvement in a plan to help a man desperately ill with AIDS take his own life. A longtime friend of David Rabe’s (he’d starred in many of the writer’s plays, as well as the 1998 film adaptation of Rabe’s notoriously full-bore Hurlyburly), Penn had intended for A Question Of Mercy to be his fourth directorial effort, after The Indian Runner (1991), The Crossing Guard (1995), and The Pledge (2001). He’d assembled a dream cast – Warren Beatty was to play Richard Selzer, while Jude Law was cast as the dying man, with Aaron Eckhart as his boyfriend, and Annette Bening and Robin Wright in supporting roles – and the project was looking like a potential Oscar winner. “You couldn’t get more blue chip,” Aaron Eckhart told Den Of Geek. “Warren was really driving it, but then 9/11 hit. I basically called up Sean and said, ‘Sorry, can’t do it.’ There was a script on my floor, The Core, which I’d turned down before, and I thought that the world was going to hell and that I needed some dough, so I went and did it.”

STANLEY KUBRICK: THE GERMAN LIEUTENANT

The late, great Stanley Kubrick is almost as famous for the films that he didn’t make as the heralded favourites that he did complete. There was his cherished biopic on Napoleon Bonaparte (with Jack Nicholson in the lead role); the Holocaust drama, The Aryan Papers (which the director scuttled when his friend, Steven Spielberg, beat him to the punch with Schindler’s List); a biopic about Nazi filmmaker, Veit Harlan (the uncle of Kubrick’s wife); an adaptation of Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel, Foucault’s Pendulum; I Stole 16 Million Dollars, a fictional account of thirties bank robber, Willie Sutton, set to star Kirk Douglas; and many, many more. One of Kubrick’s most interesting (and less discussed) unrealised projects, however, was The German Lieutenant, which he co-wrote with Richard Adams, a paratrooper in The Korean War who had also studied with master Danish filmmaker, Carl Dreyer. Drawing on Adams’ own wartime experiences, the WW2-set The German Lieutenant follows two friends – Lieutenants Kraus and Dietrich, professional German soldiers in the elite paratroop division – assigned an absurd and utterly pointless mission in the dying days of the war, with the Allies set to topple The Third Reich. For Kubrick, the project would be a quick return to the cinematic battlefield after his 1957 WW1-set masterpiece, Paths Of Glory. “One of the attractions of a war or crime story is that it provides an almost unique opportunity to contrast an individual of our contemporary society with a solid framework of accepted value, which the audience becomes fully aware of, and which can be used as a counterpoint to a human, individual, emotional situation,” the director told Film Quarterly in 1959 of the appeal of The German Lieutenant. “Further, war acts as a kind of hothouse for forced, quick breeding of attitudes and feelings. Attitudes crystallise and come out into the open. Conflict is natural, when it would in a less critical situation have to be introduced almost as a contrivance, and would thus appear forced, or – even worse – false.” Sadly, like so many of Kubrick’s “lost projects”, The German Lieutenant became another casualty of the director’s hard-fought cinematic war.

If you liked this story, check out Broken Dreams # 1 and Broken Dreams # 2.

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