David Hughes Tells ‘Tales from Development Hell’

His latest book reveals how films like Batman Begins got from the page to the screen, and how films like Total Recall 2 went nowhere.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Every day there seems to Hollywood seems to announce yet another film with high hopes, impressive pedigrees and foolproof concepts. And every day another one of them winds up in “Development Hell” – a dark place that screenwriters speak of in fearful, or at least really annoyed tones, where good ideas are mangled by constant studio notes, new directors and unexpected twists of fate. David Hughes knows this place well, as the screenwriter of such unproduced films as 250 GTO and T.J. Hooker and the author of Tales from Development Hell, the updated version of which hits stores February 28.

The book explores the difficult paths that led films like Batman Begins, The Lord of the Rings and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider to the silver screen, and also led many potential blockbusters to never see the light of day, such as the Paul Verhoeven/Arnold Schwarzenegger epic Crusade, Ridley Scott’s pandemic thriller The Hot Zone, Roland Emmerich’s “Alien on a Train” film ISOBAR and the long-gestating adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s an excellent read for genre fans who wonder what might have been, and for screenwriters looking to scare themselves silly.

David Hughes was kind enough to answer some questions about Tales from Development Hell, the industry that invented the concept, and which of the many films chronicled within its pages deserved to be made (and which ones are better off unseen).

CraveOnline: I've talked to a lot of producers and publicity people who have claimed their films weren't in Development Hell, no matter how long they were in production. How do you officially know when you're in Development Hell?

David Hughes: I think few producers and publicity people would willingly admit to being in Development Hell – many have flatly denied it to me, despite the occasional 10- or even 20-year development period! It's usually screenwriters who are more prepared to admit that a project is there, perhaps because they are so often involved in projects which seem to go nowhere, despite their (one would hope, at least) best efforts. Of course you really only have a gut feeling that a project is in Development Hell – generally when you feel that further development of a project is not actually inching the project in question towards a green light, but simply 'going through the motions' of development – multiple drafts, the coming and going of talent (invariably with 'notes'), revolving-door studio executives eager to put their individual mark on a project, etc. I don't want to say anything as glib as the traditional definition of pornography – you know it when you see it – but I think it's usually quite obvious when you're in Development Hell, rather than in development. What I will say is that if two or three years go by before a project moves forward, it's in stasis rather than any active state.


CraveOnline: I keep looking at Tales from Development Hell in two ways. On one hand, it's a catalogue of broken hopes and shattered dreams. On the other, it's a work of speculative non-fiction about films that might have been. How do you think of it?

David Hughes: "A little from column A, a little from column B." That said, although the publisher inevitably preferred the subtitle The Greatest Movies Never Made? (the '?' being an essential caveat), a more apposite sobriquet may be Films That Never Were, as they often feel like films that might exist in a parallel universe. I could just as easily – and with equal enthusiasm – written a book about rejected car designs, or rejected designs for famous buildings, and would find those 'roads not taken' stories far more interesting than a 'making of' book about something that was actually made. Indeed, as I get older I find 'making of' books and documentaries to be increasingly reductive. How much more interesting it is to peek behind the curtain of one of the countless films that didn't make it, than to examine the making of a film that you can actually see. 


CraveOnline: Would you say the obsession with aborted projects and "Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda" casting is the result of the 24/7 internet news cycle? Nowadays we seem to treat news that someone "might" make a film with as much validity as when they officially sign on.

David Hughes: Absolutely! Before the Internet age, a book about unproduced films would have been a curiosity at best – I'm just not sure the interest would have been there in the '60s, '70s, '80s. But with the coming of the Internet, especially the script reviewers of sites like Ain't It Cool (which provided such a valuable research resource that I asked Harry Knowles to write the afterword to my earlier book, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made – which, incidentally, he used to champion the unmaking of his own pet unmade project, John Carter of Mars), films began to grow up in public, so that mass audiences could begin to witness the process by which films are made – and not made – which previously they would not have been privy to, except perhaps years after the fact. This information explosion is a double-edged sword, of course: if fans had had their way, Hugh Jackman might not have been cast as Wolverine (as he wasn't originally – of course it was Dougray Scott), and The X-Men might have ended up in yellow and black suits.

I think over time, Hollywood studio executives learned to listen to their gut, again, rather than well-meaning but often misguided rumblings from the blogosophere. That was a cycle, and I'm pleased to say there is much less of a reliance in Hollywood on paying attention to the 'haters' and more on good old-fashioned gut instinct. Although the downside is that pure mathematics plays an increasing role in deciding which films get made (in pure numbers terms, Battleship makes financial sense, At the Mountains of Madness does not), the slack is being more than picked up by the independent sector, which is producing some of the greatest films of our time, thanks to the wider availability of the means of production. Your, and my, favourite film of 2013 may well be something that was filmed by a fifteen-year-old on an iPhone – not something which could realistically have happened in any other decade in cinema's 100-year history.


CraveOnline: How did you got about picking the projects that wound up in the book? The Lord of the Rings and Batman seem like slam dunks, but Isobar struck me as an unexpected choice.

David Hughes: I know! But Batman was by no means a "slam dunk", as one could argue that the films which resulted from Warner Bros' laudable diligence in selecting the future direction of the franchise (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight) were the best of all possible scripts – even though Darren Aronofsky's Year One undoubtedly gave Christopher Nolan a run for his money. There's an argument that I should have focused on films that never came to be in any shape or form, but given that this was a book about Development Hell, I felt it was fair to include a few films that did get made, albeit in very different form. Personally I consider it a huge loss to cinema that we were treated to Tim Burton's godawful re-imagining of Planet of the Apes, rather than the infinitely more interesting Oliver Stone and James Cameron versions…but if either of those films had been made, we would probably never have seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and that would have been a damn shame. As for ISOBAR – yes, it probably wouldn't have been one of the greatest films ever made, but when I was treated to the inimitable Steven De Souza (Die Hard, Commando) dissing the drafts which were done before he came aboard, i couldn't resist. I tried not to editorialize on the relative merits of one draft or another, but I hope what comes across in this chapter is that all of the various drafts were – frankly – a load of old codswallop, which would likely have gone the way of The Island rather than become a classic like Aliens.


CraveOnline: When you talked to screenwriters about their unused drafts, everyone seemed pretty confident that they were the only ones with the right take on the material. Is that what gets us into development hell in the first place? Executives, writers and filmmakers all trying to put their own stamp on the material? It seems like the "Oh crap, here we go again" moments in the book always start with, "And then so-and-so came aboard and had their own ideas…"

David Hughes: That's true: in fact, one of my 'unique selling points' as a screenwriter – I like to think, anyway – is that I follow the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule, whereas there's a tendency on the part of many others to throw out the baby with the bathwater, rewriting and reworking stuff that was working perfectly well, either because that's their individual style or approach, or – more cynically – because the WGA tends to award credit (and therefore rights and/or remuneration) based on who contributes the most to a given film. Personally I get an enormous kick out of every screenwriter who comes in saying the previous drafts were a disaster, blah blah blah, and they saved the project with their amazing ideas… but I take great comfort in those who say "Actually it just needed a polish." There [is] room for both kinds of screenwriter – I just know which category I fall into. In fact, I've lost a few jobs over the years by being honest with producers, saying something like "You're trying to repaint a house that's sinking into the mud" when what they really want to hear is "One more draft and you're basically there."


CraveOnline: Of all the unused scripts in the book, that you had a chance to read at least, what seemed like the biggest missed opportunity for greatness?

David Hughes: I'd like to live in a parallel universe where Crusade – the Arnold Schwarzenegger/Paul Verhoeven epic written by Walon Green – actually became a movie, rather than a chapter in my book. I doubt that will ever see the light of day – or that there will ever be an actor better suited to its protagonist, Hagen, than Arnie, no matter how many Vin Diesels or The Rocks come along – whereas I still have a hope that Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller's script for Batman: Year One will be turned into an amazing prestige graphic novel. In fact, I bumped into DC editor in chief Karen Berger one night in Soho and pitched exactly that idea, but unfortunately it was late at night, I was halfway through a rather drunken poker game, and I think I might have scared her off with my inebriated pitch! (Darren gave the idea his blessing, though, so you never know.)


CraveOnline: Which script or ideas seemed the most laughable? A lot of Tales from Development Hell seems like a diary of bad studio notes.

David Hughes: One of the amazing stories from my earlier book, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, was producer Peter Guber's alleged insistence on getting a giant mechanical spider into the Superman movie. When that didn't work, lo and behold a giant mechanical spider turned up in Wild Wild West – somehow, Guber just wanted a giant mechanical spider in a film and I think it would have ended up in The Kids Are All Right or Gran Turino if it hadn't made it into Wild Wild West. Who knows how the mind of a studio executive works? It's God's own private mystery. For this volume, I probably most enjoyed the various attempts by studio executives to mould Neil Gaiman's The Sandman into the next Batman – which, as Neil himself says in the book (a tad immodestly, I now realise), is a bit like trying to make Great Expectations the next Batman.


CraveOnline: Your book uses a lot of material culled from the internet from the late 1990s, early 2000s, back when we used to publish script reviews of films in early development all the time. That doesn't happen much anymore. Do you think it was a bad idea in the first place, or a new system of checks and balances? I'm thinking of William Farmer's quote, "They're perfectly willing to destroy the source material and piss off the fans, but if the fans find out about it ahead of time, they pull the plug."

David Hughes: It was a new system of checks and balances, and – for me – a welcome one, because, in a vacuum, you really might see a Sandman in the Batman mold. That said, I think the suggestion that a studio would pull the plug on a property because the Internet rejected the premise, or the approach, is a fallacious one; if that situation ever existed (and I doubt that it did), it lasted only a couple of years, until execs realised that Internet script reviewers were no less subject to William Goldman's famous "Nobody knows anything" truism than anyone else. The Internet, after all, told us that Snakes on a Plane was going to be as big as Lord of the Rings. And ultimately, the public at large won't give a damn what bloggers or reviewers think – if they want to see a movie, they'll see it, regardless of how hard the blogosphere or traditional media critics beg them not to.


CraveOnline: Speaking as somebody who's been in development hell, what advice do you have for screenwriters in the same position? It seems that caving in to bad ideas from executives gets you the blame, but ignoring them gets you fired.

David Hughes: Which begs the question, is it better to cave into bad ideas, or get fired? (There's a reason I get fired so often – I just can't write ideas I don't believe in. But then, I have more than one source of income…) Only your personal bank balance can decide that for you – assuming you're even getting paid, that is. It's one of the great unreported scandals in the film business the amount of screenwriting work which is undertaken unpaid, in the hopes that someday somebody will cut them a check. Of all the screenwriters I interviewed in the book, I think only Roger Avary had the nuts to say he didn't get paid for any of the work he did on the Sandman project, on the promise that he might get to direct it – and thus save it from a Fater worse than Death.


CraveOnline: Finally, if 21 Jump Street does well at the box office, does that mean your T.J. Hooker script has a chance again?

David Hughes: I wish! Probably not, because my draft is now "tainted" – someone has already passed on it, and it's very rare that someone will have the nuts to say "You know, maybe the first draft was the best one after all." It's more than their job, their parking space, or their seat in the commissary is worth. It would be like somebody standing up in church and saying, "Isn't this all a bit, you know, silly?"