Directorial Drop-Outs: When Big Names Bail On Big Films

December 21, 2017
Here are twelve filmmakers who jumped out of the director's chair on twelve high profile movies...with surprising results.

A film director is rightly seen as the pilot of the cinematic aeroplane, but sometimes – for a variety of reasons, from having “creative differences” with a studio or producer, to merely wanting to take a holiday – they make the big decision to parachute out of their own projects. Here are twelve curious tales of filmmakers who opted to pull the ripcord.


As one of Hollywood’s most prolific directors, producers, and developers of material, Steven Spielberg has passed on or dropped out of a number of high profile projects, including Cape Fear (which he handballed off to Martin Scorsese when he opted to direct Schindler’s List instead); Big (which he was planning to do with, yes, Harrison Ford, but ultimately exited so as not to “overshadow” his sister, Anne Spielberg, who co-penned the screenplay); American Beauty (which he gifted to Sam Mendes); and several more. Spielberg has stated that his biggest regret, however, was passing on the deeply moving drama, Rain Man. The director worked with upcoming screenwriter, Ron Bass (at that stage, best known for penning Francis Ford Coppola’s Gardens Of Stone), and stars, Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise, for six months fine-tuning the screenplay, but had difficulty in banging it into shape. Spielberg also had a cinematic axe looming over his head: an etched-in-stone start date for Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, the third installment of the hugely popular adventure franchise that he’d created with co-writer and producer, George Lucas. “When I saw that I was going to go past that start date, and that I would have to step down from Indy III, the promise that I made to George was more important than making Rain Man,” the director says in Steven Spielberg: Interviews. “So, with great regret because I really wanted to work with Tom and Dustin, I stepped down from the movie.” Spielberg then passed on all of his notes to director, Barry Levinson, who eventually crafted Rain Man into a Best Picture Oscar winning modern classic.


For many filmmakers, Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 sci-fi novel, Dune (and its many sequels and prequels), has been something of a Holy Grail: an epic tale with a mythology and landscape so complex as to render it near impossible to film. That said, it is ironically and emphatically cinematic in tone and scope. Producer, Arthur P. Jacobs (Planet Of The Apes), attempted to mount an adaptation in the early seventies with David Lean (Lawrence Of Arabia) in line to direct, but when that production collapsed, Chilean born head-tripper, Alejandro Jodorowsky (El Topo, The Holy Mountain), spent over three years trying – and failing – to get Dune made, all of which is captured in the 2013 documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune. The rights to the property were then purchased by flamboyant Italian producer, Dino De Laurentiis, who commissioned a script from Frank Herbert himself, and then brought on Ridley Scott – fresh from his success on 1979’s Alien – to direct. But after seven months of development, the director bailed.Dune was going to take a lot more work – at least two and a half years’ worth,” Scott says in Paul M. Sammon’s book, Ridley Scott: The Making Of His Movies. “And I didn’t have the heart to attack that because my [older] brother, Frank, unexpectedly died of cancer while I was prepping the film. Frankly, that freaked me out. So I went to Dino and told him that the Dune script was his.” Dino De Laurentiis then took a major gamble by bringing the highly unlikely David Lynch – then hot off 1980’s The Elephant Man – on to direct, which created a whole new set of now infamous problems…


When the sprawling and utterly compelling novel, Clockers, by Richard Price – the acclaimed author of The Wanderers and Bloodbrothers, and the writer of top-notch screenplays like Sea Of Love and Mad Dog And Glory – hit bookshelves in 1992, its obviously cinematic qualities screamed out for a movie adaptation. When it was eventually announced that Martin Scorsese (who had worked with Price on his episode of the 1989 portmanteau film, New York Stories) would be directing the film of the book, it was a match made in heaven. A double-narrative tome split between veteran homicide detective, Rocco Klein, and young African-American drug dealer, Strike, Clockers had the potential to be vintage grist for the mill of the Goodfellas and Cape Fear director. The casting of his regular collaborator, Robert De Niro, in the lead role, made it even more appealing. Scorsese and De Niro, however, eventually dropped out of the project to make the gangster epic, Casino, instead. Spike Lee came on board, and everything changed: he overhauled Richard Price’s script from the ground up, and shifted his focus to the story’s young drug dealer (played by Mekhi Phifer), thus relegating the cop (Harvey Keitel) to sideline status. “When Robert De Niro went with Marty to do Casino, I was able to change things, and make it a little more equal,” Spike Lee told The Philadelphia Inquirer of the story. “I wanted to tell it from Strike’s point of view. I brought my own sensibilities to it, which is not to say that it’s better or worse than Richard Price or Scorsese’s. But it is the perspective of being an African-American in this country.”


When it was released in 1992, Robert James Waller’s heartbreaking novel, The Bridges Of Madison County – the story of a married but lonely Italian woman, living in sixties small town Iowa, who has a passionate affair with a photographer – became a literary phenomenon, eventually selling over 50 million copies. Loved and hated in equal measure, the deeply romantic novel was unsurprisingly instantly snapped up in Hollywood, where it proved to be something of a difficult proposition, despite its apparent narrative simplicity. Purchased by major studio, Warner, and Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Entertainment, Clint Eastwood was the quick surprise pick for the role of nice guy photographer, Robert Kincaid, but the search for a director would prove far more perplexing. Sydney Pollack and Spielberg himself stepped aside after a number of scripts – by major screenwriters like Kurt Luedtke (Out Of Africa), Ron Bass (Rain Man), and Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King) – proved unsatisfactory, at which point Australian director, Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy), was brought onto the project. He commissioned a script by Oscar winning Driving Miss Daisy playwright, Alfred Uhry, which Spielberg and Eastwood (both still heavily involved in the film) ultimately rejected. “I realised after working on it for months that it would be better if Clint directed it, which I suspect that he wanted to do anyway,” Beresford told The Orlando Sentinel. “So I said, ‘Look, I’m gonna go; you direct the movie. We’ll all be a lot happier!’” That’s exactly what Clint Eastwood did, casting Meryl Streep as his on-screen lover, and delivering a simple, straightforward romance that proved to be one of the veteran director’s biggest surprise hits.


Howard Hughes – the American business tycoon, movie producer, and aviation pioneer who ended up an enigmatic, drug-addicted recluse – has remained a source of great fascination for filmmakers, with movies like Melvin And Howard, Tucker: The Man And His Dream, and most recently, Rules Don’t Apply, featuring this divisive figure. Also drawn into Howard Hughes’ curiously hypnotic biographical web was Michael Mann, the hard-nosed and highly regarded filmmaker behind Heat, The Last Of The Mohicans, and The Insider. With a script by John Logan, and Leonardo DiCaprio attached to star, Mann had intended to tell the unusual story of Howard Hughes, but was ultimately waylaid by Stuart Beattie’s script for the minimalist thriller, Collateral, which he opted to make instead. “I’d just done Ali, a picture about a huge real-life figure,” Mann told the DGA website of his 2001 biopic on iconic boxer, Muhammad Ali. “I’d developed The Aviator, about Howard Hughes, but as brilliant as John Logan’s screenplay was, and as much as I wanted to work with Leonardo, I would be doing a rerun of what I’d just done. What attracted me to Collateral was the opportunity to do the exact opposite: no wardrobe changes; two people; inside a cab; a small time frame viewed large. I admired the hard, gem-like construction of Stuart Beattie’s screenplay. It was tremendously appealing. That made my decision, and I asked Marty Scorsese if he wanted to do The Aviator.” With Mann remaining as producer, the great director took up the offer, and delivered an acclaimed drama that clocked up eleven Oscar nominations for five wins.


When Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan) was announced as the director of The Wolverine – the second stand-alone film to feature Hugh Jackman’s tough-as-nails X-Men character – the internet went haywire as fan-boys registered their unrestrained excitement. “I’d tried to get Darren to do the third X-Men film and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, but he didn’t like the scripts,” Jackman – who had previously worked with Aronofsky on 2006’s The Fountain – told FilmInk. “But with this script, he was like, ‘This is the one.’” Already famed for having tried to mount a dark, hotly against-the-grain Batman film in the late nineties, comic geeks started to salivate about what Aronofsky would bring to a film headlined by one of Marvel’s great anti-heroes. Soon, however, the director walked away from the film, understandably preoccupied by his divorce from actress, Rachel Weisz. “I loved the script, but it was a hard time in my life,” Aronofsky told MTV News. “I couldn’t leave New York for that amount of time. And, to be honest, the possibility of making Noah had started to emerge, which I’d been thinking about for years.” Jackman told FilmInk that Aronofsky “had one or two radical ideas, but he never got deep into it before he pulled out.” One of those radical ideas was that the already muscled-up Wolverine would be even bigger, and that he’d be covered in scars. “That was a good idea,” Jackman told Moviefone, but it wasn’t taken on by James Mangold (Walk The Line), who eventually took the reins on the film, and later delivered one of the best of all superhero movies with this year’s Logan. “I thought the film came out great,” Aronofsky later commented of Mangold’s The Wolverine.


After experiencing a number of personal and professional upheavals while shooting his much loved adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy, co-writer/director, Peter Jackson, made the big decision to relinquish the reins on a new series of films based on the author’s prequel novel, The Hobbit, opting instead to just co-write and co-produce. His anointed successor was Guillermo Del Toro, the creator of such acclaimed sci-fi, horror, and fantasy works as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, and Cronos. “Peter was really keen to not be hands on,” The Hobbit producer and co-screenwriter, Philippa Boyens, told FilmInk in 2012. “He just thought that it would be better if it was filmed by someone else. I noticed that changing though when he started the writing process…you do fall in love again.” That love, however, was soon tested. “There just seemed to be one obstacle after another,” star, Andy Serkis, told FilmInk in 2012. That’s putting it mildly. With New Line co-financing the project with MGM, the latter’s $4 billion worth of debts – already causing suspension of work on the James Bond film, Skyfall – led to a hiatus in The Hobbit so lengthy that a frustrated Guillermo Del Toro eventually stepped down, and Peter Jackson finally took his rightful place at the helm. “Once Guillermo made that decision, we really did start again,” Philippa Boyens told FilmInk. “We were now writing for Peter, which was obviously much more familiar. But it didn’t mean abandoning the great things that Guillermo brought to us, which was a fresh pair of eyes on Middle Earth. He helped us go back into that world.”


Big, bold, highly ambitious, and utterly riveting, Alan Moore’s 1987 graphic novel, Watchmen, changed the way that the world viewed comic books. Adult in tone and rich in political subtext, the story imagines an alternate 1985 where Richard Nixon is serving his fifth term as President, Cold War tensions between Russia and America are volatile, and costumed crime fighters – formerly part of the fabric of everyday society – have been outlawed. Dense and intricately plotted, Watchmen was deemed by many pundits to be unfilmable, but the novel’s heightened pop cultural profile and impressive sales figures saw Hollywood maintain a never-say-die level of interest. Though several fine filmmakers – including Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Ultimatum) – attempted to mount adaptations, the most radical vision for the film came from the characteristically radical Terry Gilliam (Brazil, Twelve Monkeys). Like everyone else who came and went, he was stumped by the novel’s notoriously difficult-to-film ending, and came up with a typically out-there solution: a time-shift climax that renders the “real” events of the film into the actual Watchmen comic book itself. “The fans would have been thinking that they were smoking crack,” Deb Snyder – who eventually produced the Watchmen film – told The Huffington Post. “The fans would have stormed the castle on that one,” added her husband, Zack Snyder, who directed the largely faithful, much debated, but richly impressive 2009 film version of the novel. “It was a labour of love. I made it because I knew that the studio would have made the movie anyway, and they would have made it crazy. I made it to save it from the Terry Gilliams of this world.”


The Mission: Impossible series, which features producer/star, Tom Cruise, as globetrotting superspy, Ethan Hunt, is almost unique amongst modern action franchises in that there is no overarching authorial voice. Unlike Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, or the Bourne films of Paul Greengrass, each Mission: Impossible is stylistically unique, with the only major comparison being the Alien franchise. “What attracted me was Tom’s idea that each film would have the style of its director, more than the other franchises around, which have a house style which the director is expected to adopt,” Brad Bird – who helmed the fifth installment, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – told FilmInk in 2011. Cruise’s against-the-grain vision for the series began right after Brian De Palma’s 1996 franchise starter. When mounting the film’s sequel, Cruise instantly looked for a new behind-the-camera voice. “It’s not going to be a direct sequel,” he told Vanity Fair. “You don’t have to do that with Mission: Impossible, because every time, it’s a different adventure. The director dictates the style.” The actor/producer’s first choice for the sequel was an unlikely one: the iconoclastic, eccentric, intellectual, and often provocative Oliver Stone, with whom he had so successfully collaborated on 1989’s Born On The Fourth Of July. “I’m working on six or seven projects in development,” the director told The Harvard Film Archive in 1997. “We are hopeful for Mission: Impossible II, which would be a combination of action-adventure and philosophy…a philosophy about the 21st century.” Unfortunately, that philosophy was never revealed, as Stone eventually dropped out, and Cruise handpicked Hong Kong action maestro, John Woo (The Killer, Face/Off), to put his stamp on Mission: Impossible.


Despite exhibiting an obvious knack for delivering big, high-tone comic book movies, Marvel Studios has a reputation for being an occasionally difficult dance partner for directors. While brave in its choice of helmers, Marvel can be less brave when it comes to allowing them to realise their own visions. After seven years of development, Edgar Wright (Shaun Of The Dead) famously departed the studio’s Ant-Man over “creative differences”, while Drew Goddard (The Cabin In The Woods) jumped ship on Marvel’s Netflix TV series, Daredevil, despite professing a great love for the down-and-dirty superhero. A pattern started to emerge when Marvel made the shock announcement that Patty Jenkins – who directed the grim, gritty 2003 indie, Monster, starring an Oscar winning Charlize Theron as lesbian serial killer, Aileen Wuornos – would take the reins on 2013’s Thor: The Dark World after the original film’s equally surprising director, Kenneth Branagh, opted not to make a second trip to Asgard. Not too long after the announcement, however, Jenkins was gone, with “creative differences” floated as the reason. “I have had a great time working at Marvel,” Jenkins told The Hollywood Reporter in an exclusive statement. “We parted on very good terms.” One of the earliest cheerleaders in support of Jenkins was co-star, Natalie Portman. “I was very upset, because she’s a wonderful woman,” the actress told FilmInk. “She’s so talented, and she can do anything. I was excited to work with her, but I understood why she chose to leave.” After a brief search, Jenkins was replaced by television regular, Alan Taylor. “It was bittersweet,” Portman said. “Alan is wonderful in a very different way.” There was, of course, a happy ending, with Patty Jenkins eventually helming the mega-hit superhero flick, Wonder Woman.


Though now largely forgotten by just about everyone except hardcore fantasy enthusiasts and Sean Connery completists, 1996’s DragonHeart remains a quietly fascinating slab of action-adventure filmmaking, and was actually a movie slightly ahead of its time. It was also a movie with a surprisingly tortured production history. The original script came from Patrick Read Johnson, who had co-written and directed the oddball 1990 sci-fi comedy, Spaced Invaders, and hoped to make this his considerably more ambitious sophomore effort. But Johnson’s entertaining and inventive script – about a knight who teams with the world’s last dragon to defeat an evil king – had generated a little heat, and the purchasing studio, Universal, started shopping it to Hollywood’s biggest directors. Richard Donner (Superman, The Goonies, Lethal Weapon, The Omen) was the first to take the bait, and he immediately started looking at ways to create a believable on-screen dragon (who actually talks, and is a noble, likeable character in his own right), instantly looking at the burgeoning CGI techniques of the day. “Richard Donner was actually the first to test the idea of a CG dragon,” Patrick Read Johnson told IGN. “He had [special effects company] ILM take the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and animate its mouth to speak. I’d love to see that footage! I’m sure that it’s hysterical. Maybe someone will anonymously send it to me!” After Donner failed to effectively make the dragon work, Kenneth Branagh briefly tangled with DragonHeart before Rob Cohen (The Fast & The Furious) took the helm, and crafted a rollicking, heartfelt fantasy, with Dennis Quaid as the knight, Bowen, and Sean Connery as the voice of the scene stealing dragon, Draco.


Of the many, many adaptations of the novels of horror master, Stephen King, one of the best is ironically lifted from one of his non-horror titles. Based upon the author’s 1982 novella, The Body, Rob Reiner’s 1986 comedy drama, Stand By Me, is an extraordinary mix of adolescent angst, scatological humour, lurching menace, and smalltown Americana, and rates as one of the director’s best works. It wasn’t, however, initially his. King’s The Body was loved by screenwriters, Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans (who had penned John Carpenter’s brilliant 1984 sci-fi drama, Starman), and they crafted their own adaptation of the novella on spec, even though they knew that it would be a tough sell. Aware that the film’s young teenaged characters would preclude the casting of major stars in the principal roles, they set about attaching a big-name director in order to catch studio interest. They hooked a burgeoning heavy hitter in the form of British filmmaker, Adrian Lyne, who was hot off 1983’s smash hit, Flashdance, and had also directed the 1980 teen drama, Foxes, starring Jodie Foster. Lyne helped Gideon and Evans develop the script, and assisted them in obtaining a studio deal, but there was a problem: the director was finishing editing on his sexy drama, 91/2 Weeks, and he’d promised himself a holiday upon completion. “Lyne is a good friend,” Gideon told The Sun-Sentinel. “He was enthusiastic, but he wanted to wait until the spring of 1986 to start production. We told him that we couldn’t wait that long.” Unwilling to budge, the holiday-minded Lyne dropped out of Stand By Me, and the project was handed on a silver platter to Rob Reiner, who promptly turned it into movie gold.


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