B-Movies Extended: The Top Eleven Movies That Never Got Made

Steven Spielberg's Harry Potter? It almost happened. Bibbs and Witney present some of the most fascinating film projects that didn't work out.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

 

So, as you may have noticed, I was not actually on the last episode of The B-Movies Podcast, as I was abroad in Canada on a secret mission. You’ll see the pictures once the embargo is lifted in about a year, but until then, I have to remain an international man of mystery, secretly harboring covert film knowledge under threat of prosecution. See? Sometimes the life of a film journalist is rife with intrigue, suspense, and adventure. Because I was out of town, the capable and dazzling Alonso Duralde and Dave White, previous guests on the show, filled in for me, and I couldn’t be honored more to have such awesome fellows in my stead. Listen, if your mind can handle the brilliance.

Anyway, I am still contributing to this week’s edition of B-Movies Extended, as there is still something fun to discuss. As you may recall from the episode (and you did listen, right?), Dave, Alonso, and William “Bibbs” Bibbiani discussed an interesting news story. It turns out that, way back in the early 1990s, a young and ambitious filmmaker named James Cameron wanted to direct the film version of Jurassic Park. As we all know, the project was eventually handed to Steven Spielberg, who proceeded to make one of the highest grossing films of the 1990s. And while I like Jurassic Park as much as the next guy – seriously, I can level no legit criticism toward it – and I would never impugn Spielberg’s version, wouldn’t it have been interesting to have seen what James Cameron would have done with it? Would the already amazing special effects have been pushed to even more amazing levels? Would James Cameron really have “gone nastier,” as he said in his interview? And if his Jurassic Park had been a big hit, would he have gone on to make True Lies? Or even Titanic? Would Spielberg have done something like Avatar in a sort of spiritual exchange? The parallel universe speculation is irresistible.

Indeed, this is a common game played by critics and film fans all the time. What if “x” project had been made by “x” director? Hollywood is copiously peppered with stories of ambitious film projects and would-be blockbusters that, for one reason or another, never made it off the ground. Some, you’re even probably familiar with. Indeed, if you follow any long-working film director, you’ve probably heard them tell stories about how they never managed to complete a dream project or two.

And what were some of those dream projects? Well, lucky for you, my mind is a swirling fractal-like miasma of oblique and specious film trivia, and I have, in my adventures rolling through the stinkier pits of cinematic obscurity, accumulated the following viscous patina of knowledge to fling in great, sticky ropy strands onto you, my poor onlooking whelps. Look and listen, and listen to a few stories about the more interesting films that never got made.

 

Udo Kier's Broken Cookies

The prolific and intense German character actor Udo Kier is a familiar and anticipated sight to every serious connoisseur of Euroschlock cinema. He has appeared in literally hundreds of films, across all genres, but is most noted for his bizarre and intense roles in films like Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Frankenstein movies (as the title characters in each), as well as numerous vampire and crime flicks. He has also worked with prestigious and controversial directors like Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Lars Von Trier. Few people know about this, but in 2002, Udo Kier started to direct an ambitious project called Broken Cookies, a feature film about an underground community of wheelchair-bound transsexuals living in Hollywood. He planned on making an honorable tribute to the real-life community of wheelchair-bound transsexuals, casting himself as the group’s stand-in leader. Kier has revealed that the project was too stressful, and he never completed it. The film sounds glorious and a bit bonkers. Who wouldn’t want to see it?

 

David Lynch's Ronnie Rocket

David Lynch’s 1977 film Eraserhead is an oblique nightmare about a grimy and unintelligible place, inhabited by a sad soul who is so stifled by the pressures of mechanical inner city life, that his life has become a prison of bizarre, dream-like hauntings and choking silent stress. It’s one of my favorites. When Eraserhead was released, and slowly accumulated a small amount of cult praise from a mildly expanding midnight movie audience, some producers began approaching Lynch to make more movies. His dream project was a superhero film called Ronnie Rocket about a three-foot man with tall red hair, and mechanical body parts. I can only imagine what Lynch would have made when given carte blanche to make whatever he wanted. Ultimately the studio dubbed the project too weird (of course), and Ronnie Rocket has gone on a shelf, never to see the light of day. Lynch’s next film would be the excellent The Elephant Man, so perhaps it’s good that he was never allowed to make Ronnie Rocket. But the thought of a big-budget Eraserhead boggles my mind.

 

Alejandro Jodorowsky's Dune

And speaking of David Lynch, one of his least-liked projects was his bizarre adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic sci-fi novel Dune. The film version of Dune is a mixed bag at best, but I am still fond of the weird ambition of it. It turns out that Dune, though, was one of those sci-fi properties that was kicking around Hollywood for a while. Indeed, one of the first directors attached to the project was none other than the surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky, the director of awesome, poetic, acid-trip midnight movies like El Topo and The Holy Mountain. Jodorowsky’s Dune was designed, contracts were signed, and actors were even hired. It sounds effing epic. In Jodorowsky’s version, H.R. Giger would do the designs, a 900-lb. man would play Baron Harkkonen, Salvador Dalí would play a role, comic book artist Moebius would draw up the storyboards, and the special effects would be larger than anything the screen had ever seen. There was even a contract signed with Pink Floyd to do a three-volume soundtrack concept record. Think of Star Wars filtered through The Cremaster Cycle.

Eventually, the project collapsed under its own weight. A lot of the material was used in the filming of Star Wars (no lie), and H.R. Giger’s designs attracted the attention of Ridley Scott, who tapped him to design the creature in Alien. I like the finished Dune that ultimately came out in 1983, but this proposed Dune sounds like it would have torn the universe a new space hole.

 

Starfleet Academy

When Star Trek V: The Final Frontier came out (and to remind you, that was the one that Shatner directed, and featured the Enterprise meeting God face-to-face), it was a critical and box office flop. Rather than let the series end on such a disappointing note, producer Harve Bennett came up with a great Star Trek idea that would have brought new life to the series, and perhaps continued Star Trek in an unpredictable way. His idea was ultimately discarded for Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, as the studio didn’t want to lt go of any of the original cast, as this new idea would have done so. Bennett’s idea might sound familiar to you: It was to take place at Starfleet Academy, and was to focus on the lives and hardships of the young Kirk and Spock before they were assigned to starships. It was to be about racism and the social struggles of young and ambitious space jockeys. Needless to say, Bennett was a bit upset when J.J. Abrams started making his own version of Star Trek that was essentially the same thing. A cerebral and less action-packed version of Star Trek that would have come out in 1990, though, has my Trekkie gland drooling.

 

Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon

Many people know about Stanley Kubrick’s famed and failed Napoleon Bonaparte feature film. Indeed, there is an enormous coffee table book about the film available. Kubrick, evidently, spent literally years obsessing about Napoleon, and was determined to make a film about the famous soldier’s life. He was in talks with several actors to play the role (I think Jack Nicholson was his first choice), and he filled an entire filing cabinet with a complex system of notecards detailing – quite literally – every single day of Napoleon’s life. It was a film that, in true Kubrick fashion, was to be the historical epic to end all historical epics. Thousands of extras, epic battle scenes, authentic antiques. Everything! Like so many projects of this scope, however, it was never realized. The project got so large, it pretty much toppled over. Kubrick would take many of his ideas, and apply them to the historical epic he did make, Barry Lyndon, an oft-overlooked but still rather excellent film in Kubrick’s oeuvre.

 

Swirlee

Seriously, this was almost made: A violent gangster film about a guy with a giant ice cream cone for a head. About 17 minutes of this thing were actually filmed. I often complain that movies these days aren’t as weird as they used to be. Allow me to offer this as solid evidence.


 

From the Desk of William Bibbiani:

As I mentioned on this week’s B-Movies Podcast (which I was actually on, along with guest co-hosts Alonso Duralde and Dave White), I’m very fond of the alternate reality from the television series “Fringe,” in which many of the world’s films and comic books are taken from “What If?” scenarios based on real-life possibilities. On “Fringe,” Ronald Reagan starred in Casablanca, Eric Stoltz wound up in Back to the Future after all and Frank Miller turned the comic book world on its head with his gritty mini-series The Man of Steel Returns.

Filmmaking is an intensely collaborative process, as well as a studio-driven one. Many of the classics we take for granted weren’t spearheaded by just one creative individual from beginning to end. Different directors were considered for almost every movie ever made, or at least different cast members. I once heard a story, likely apocryphal, about Alfred Hitchcock that went like this: Hitchcock, having just directed the blockbuster success The 39 Steps, was offered a chance to direct bigger movies in Hollywood. He wanted to go right away, but a studio executive informed Hitchcock that he was still under contract for two more features. Hitchcock, understandably annoyed, grabbed the top two scripts off a pile on the executive’s desk, not even looking at the titles, and said, essentially, “Fine. I’ll make these.” Those two scripts were for The Lady Vanishes and Jamaica Inn, which were indeed the last two films Hitchcock made before moving to America. The twist ending to that story was that, allegedly, the third script on that pile was none other than The Wizard of Oz.

So we were just one collating mishap away from seeing Alfred Hitchcock’s Wizard of Oz. Boy, what an interesting film that would have been. Is the story true? Possibly not, maybe even probably not, but the point is that you can’t hear this tale without wondering about the Wizard of Oz that might have been made instead of the one we all know. As film fanatics, we’re often attuned to a filmmaker’s signature style, and the mere suggestion that they could have directed a film that wound up being made by another, very different director – or not being made at all – sparks the imagination.

There are tons of movies that almost got made, or almost got made very differently, that we can easily picture in our heads. Sometimes we wonder if the world would be better off with these pictures in them, sometimes we shudder violently at the very thought of Brett Ratner directing a Superman movie. What follows are some of my favorite “almost” movies, which I really hope are waiting for me, in high-definition, special features-laden Blu-rays, when I die (if there really is a heaven).

 

Joel Schumacher’s Batman: Year One

Joel Schumacher gets a lot of crap, perhaps rightly so, for his hypercampy interpretation of the Batman mythos in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. But before he put nipples on the bat suit, he was the guy who made the stylish teen horror comedy The Lost Boys and the dark, insightful sociopolitical thriller Falling Down. You can catch glimpses of his future Batman movies in the psychotropic horror film Flatliners, but otherwise, you could almost imagine Schumacher making a pretty classy adaptation of the character. And there’s a chance he really could have: his first pitch to Warner Bros., the story goes, was to follow Batman Returns with an adaptation of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One, finally revealing the origin story of The Dark Knight in a real world setting, not unlike what Christopher Nolan did with the franchise years later, and what Darren Aronofsky attempted (also unsuccessfully) to produce in the interim.

Instead, Warner Bros. wanted a complete about-face from the dark Tim Burton movies, which had put a damper on Batman’s lucrative merchandizing opportunities. Schumacher agreed to go with the flow, and he’s been apologizing – seriously apologizing, listen to the Batman & Robin commentary track if you don’t believe me – ever since. Oh, but what might have been…

 

Stanley Kubrick’s The Lord of the Rings

You may remember that J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings grew to spectacular popularity in the 1960s, when peaceful mindsets and hallucinogenic drugs probably amplified the novels’ gentle themes and fantastical imagery. One particularly enthusiastic fan even tried to get a movie version produced. His name was John Lennon. Perhaps you’ve heard of him? He had a rather popular rock outfit at the time called “The Beatles,” and together they pitched an adaptation of Tolkien’s trilogy to none other than Stanley Kubrick, with Paul McCartney cast as Frodo Baggins, Ringo Starr as Samwise Gamgee, George Harrison as Gandalf the Grey and Lennon himself taking the role of Gollum.

Take a moment to let the idea for this movie sink in. The Beatles. Starring in The Lord of the Rings. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. It would have been either the most amazing movie ever produced or the most oddball cinematic curiosity ever filmed. It’s too bad Kubrick thought Tolkien’s novel was too epic to realize on film, at least at the time, and turned it down. I want to live in a world where Kubrick’s The Lord of the Rings was made.

 

Renny Harlin’s Nosebleed

A lot of films were altered or scrapped altogether following the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Some movies used digital technology to erase the World Trade Center from the New York skyline, while others never came to fruition because they involved terrorist attacks or bombings that might have seemed crass immediately following 9/11. Some suggest that Hollywood overreacted, and that perhaps films like Tick-Tock – a real-time mad bomber movie set in Los Angeles during the Christmas shopping rush, starring Jennifer Lopez – could probably have been made eventually, without too much negative publicity, the stunt-laden action thriller Nosebleed was never going to see the light of day under any circumstances.

The film was set to star stuntman kung fu superstar Jackie Chan as a window washer, working at the World Trade Center, who catches wind of a terrorist plot to blow up either the Twin Towers or The Statue of Liberty (reports vary on the specific plot point). While the film, to have been directed by Cliffhanger’s Renny Harlin, probably would have had some of the most amazing stunts of Chan’s career (you just know he would have jumped from one tower to the next, right?), there was absolutely no way that the concept would have been feasible, or any fun, after the real-life attacks.

 

Tim Burton’s Superman Lives

We might be better off without this one, but who knows? Everyone said Tim Burton’s Batman was a gamble until they actually saw the end result, so maybe this could have worked. Back in the late 1990s, Warner Bros. was keen to get a new Superman film franchise off the ground, capitalizing on the hero’s pop culture resurgence after DC’s Death of Superman comic book storyline. They planned to make a movie about Superman dying in battle with the alien monster Doomsday, then coming back to life and fighting a supervillain team-up of Lex Luthor and Brainiac. Nicolas Cage was set to play Clark Kent, and although they were never officially attached, Courtney Cox was in talks for Lois Lane, Chris Rock came close to playing Jimmy Olsen, Tim Allen might have played Brainiac, and Kevin Spacey was considered for Lex Luthor (a role he eventually played for real in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns).

It was big, it was epic, it was written by über-comic book geek Kevin Smith, and it probably would have stunk up the joint. Studio control led to a series of baffling creative decisions that included a gay robot sidekick for Brainiac, a Fortress of Solitude protected by robot polar bears, and as little footage of Superman in costume as humanly possible. I’ve read Smith’s script (which was heavily rewritten as production moved forward), and there were some decent moments here and there – Batman’s eulogy for the Man of Steel, for example, would have set the stage of inter-comic book movie crossovers years before Marvel Studios tried it – but overall this was the kind of studio-driven blockbuster mentality that sank the Batman franchise. Superman Lives eventually fell apart in pre-production, but both Tim Burton and Nicolas Cage walked away with their full paychecks ($5 million and $20 million, respectively) despite never having completed the film.

 

Steven Spielberg’s Harry Potter

It is generally considered (by everyone I know except Witney Seibold) that the first two Harry Potter movies, despite successfully laying the groundwork for the rest of the series, were the worst two films of the franchise. Many people blame director Chris Columbus, who cast the films beautifully but didn’t inject a distinct personality into J.K Rowling’s world, especially the author’s own. But he was not the first choice to direct Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. J.K Rowling’s personal pick to helm the first feature was actually Time Bandits director Terry Gilliam, but thanks to his much-publicized budgetary issues with The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, he was never a likely candidate. The director who actually came closest before Columbus secured the chair was Steven Spielberg, who wanted to adapt Rowling’s novel as an animated feature, with Harry Potter himself voiced by The Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment.

What happened? Reportedly, Osment’s casting was the main issue, with Rowling wanting the series’ cast of characters, who were almost exclusively British, to be played by real Brits. But whatever the reason, Spielberg eventually turned the film down, and after an extensive search, Home Alone director Chris Columbus won out over such lauded talent as Peter Weir, Wolfgang Peterson, Jonathan Demme, Alan Parker and Rob Reiner. Spielberg finally directed an animated feature, also adapted from a hit book series (albeit a comic book series), in 2011 with The Adventures of Tintin