Movies are synonymous with the person who yelled “CUT!” on set. But the long and complicated process that is filmmaking means that no one is safe from leaving a project for whatever reason, including the director.
Below are a handful of gigantic Hollywood movies that were nearly directed by someone else entirely. What would they have looked like?
1. Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Man of Steel’
Zack Snyder has become the gatekeeper of the Justice League franchise. But Darren Aronofsky, whose specialty is broken people like in films such as The Wrestler and Black Swan, was in talks to direct Man of Steel, a movie about pop culture’s most unbreakable superhero.
What we almost got: A broken Superman. Snyder’s Man of Steel tried really, really hard to humanize its Kryptonian alien but he just couldn’t pull it off. But Aronofsky is an expert in bringing down gifted or strong-willed characters. While Man of Steel probably would have been just as dark as it ended up being under Aronofsky, it probably would have been a more compelling character study of Superman than just some hunk being emo that he’s too powerful.
Right now, it’s in vogue for directors to bash superhero movies, but Aronofsky is refreshingly the opposite. He’s determined to make a big superhero movie one day, and was also almost in the director’s chair for projects that would end up becoming Batman Begins and The Wolverine.
2. Tim Burton’s ‘Maleficent’
Disney’s recent efforts to give their classic movies the gritty reboot treatment have been mixed. Maleficent was a huge success and was directed by first-timer Robert Stromberg. But it was nearly directed by someone else armed with a little more experience: Tim Burton.
What we almost got: More weirdness, less obvious CGI. Tim Burton is renowned for his gothic texture, even in movies he only was a producer in. Maleficent under Burton probably would have been far more quirky, weirder, and less sterilized than the final film we ended up seeing.
3. Patty Jenkins’ ‘Thor The Dark World’
Marvel has succeeded in attracting left-field directors to take on their colossal productions. Who knew comedy directors the Russo Brothers would have made the intense thriller that was Captain America: The Winter Soldier? They like challenging filmmakers like that.
What we almost got: Patty Jenkins, the force behind Monster, nearly helmed Marvel’s hunkiest hero. It was a really challenging selection: What could this female visionary see in a Shakesperean brute? It would have been phenomenal to see this big project from not just a woman’s perspective, but from a radical artist’s vantage point. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be, and Marvel enlisted Alan Taylor who ended up disowning the whole experience. Thor co-star Natalie Portman was reportedly furious when Marvel let Jenkins go.
4. Guillermo del Toro’s ‘The Hobbit’
The Hobbit series are bloated, needless wastes of time. They are the Star Wars prequels for millennials, and it’s unbelievable Peter Jackson directed them. I sometimes suspect he was actually napping during the whole editing process.
What we almost got: Good movies. Genre master Guillermo del Toro was to sit in the director’s chair before Peter Jackson.
The visionary behind Pacific Rim, Hellboy, and The Devil’s Backbone was so involved in the preproduction of The Hobbit before departing due to production issues. In the above video, del Toro expresses heartache over his detatchment from the films.
The biggest sore spot of Jackson’s Hobbit movies was its reliance on CGI. Unlike his masterful Lord of the Rings movies, which brought Middle Earth to life, The Hobbit felt more like an expensive video game. Del Toro favors realism and builds what we can; even the CGI orgy that was Pacific Rim had more real sets than one would assume. His aesthetic and love for creatures that you could almost touch would have done The Hobbit wonders.
5. Steven Spielberg’s ‘American Sniper’
The world’s most famous filmmaker nearly crafted our nation’s most important, intimate portrait of the recent war on terror. Instead, we got utter bullshit.
What we almost got: A real intimate portrait of war. The movie American Sniper probably should have been. Even though Spielberg had read Chris Kyle’s book, he had the smarts not to drink that freak’s jingoistic Kool-Aid and was intrigued at the idea of parallel soldiers who yin-yanged each other. But under Spielberg’s watch, the script grew to a hefty length that would have ballooned its budget past Warner Bros. desired $60 million.
Eventually, Spielberg left and Clint Eastwood ceased arguing with empty chairs and put himself in one, helming American Sniper and bringing out idiots like flies to actual shit.
6. James Cameron’s and David Fincher’s ‘Spider-Man’
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was a colossal hit that helped usher in the current superhero zeitgeist. But it was almost overseen by two very different, very prolific filmmakers: James Cameron and David Fincher.
What we almost got: With James Cameron, the most uncomfortable allegory to puberty ever on film. With David Fincher, he was really into killing Gwen and doing “an opera.”
The title sequence of the movie that I was going to do was going to be a ten minute — basically a music video, an opera, which was going to be the one shot that took you through the entire Peter Parker [backstory]. Bit by a radio active spider, the death of Uncle Ben, the loss of Mary Jane, and [then the movie] was going to begin with Peter meeting Gwen Stacy. It was a very different thing, it wasn’t the teenager story. It was much more of the guy who’s settled into being a freak.
It also wouldn’t be out of the realm to expect a few seconds of Spider-Man swinging on a fixed camera before a crane shot down into a dark, dimly-lit alley for the rest of the movie.
7. Edgar Wright’s ‘Ant-Man’
If Marvel can’t use you, they ditch you. The upcoming Ant-Man has generated some decent buzz — Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn was super about it — but genre king Edgar Wright’s departure from the project is still a sore subject.
What we almost got: The best script Marvel ever had, according to Avengers director Joss Whedon. Just try to imagine what a superhero who could change his size at any moment would look like in the hands of a true comedic auteur.
8. Terry Gilliam’s ‘Watchmen’
One of the most celebrated graphic novels of all time, Alan Moore’s Watchmen was once deemed unfilmable. But Zack Snyder expertly proved it could be, and though its reception was lukewarm, it was the most faithful adaptation anyone could ask for. But it was almost so bizarre.
What we almost got: An entirely different ending. Terry Gilliam, the genius behind Brazil and Monty Python and the Holy Grail nearly had the reigns to Warner Bros. big-budget adaptation of Watchmen. His different ending is so big, but thematically kind of works. Spoilers if you’ve been under a rock since 1986 and haven’t read Watchmen yet.
What he did was he told the story as-is, but instead of the whole notion of the intergalactic thing, which was too hard and too silly, he maintained that the existence of Doctor Manhattan had changed the whole balance of the world economy and political structure. He felt that THAT character really altered the way reality had been. He had the Ozymandias character convince, essentially, the Doctor Manhattan character to go back and stop himself from being created, so there never would be a Doctor Manhattan character. He was the only character with real supernatural powers. He went back and prevented himself from being turned into Doctor Manhattan, and in the vortex that was created after that occurred these characters from “Watchmen” only became characters in a comic book.
So the three characters, I think it was Rorschach and Nite Owl and Silk Spectre, they’re all of the sudden in Times Square and there’s a kid reading a comic book. They become like the people in Times Square dressing up like characters as opposed to really BEING those characters. There’s a kid reading the comic book and he’s like, “Hey, you’re just like in my comic book.” It was very smart, it was very articulate, and it really gave a very satisfying resolution to the story, but it just didn’t happen. Lost to time.
Watchmen wouldn’t have been the only “unfilmable” adaptation Gilliam could have succeeded: though it bombed at the box office, his vision of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has been a cult hit with stoned, liberal arts college kids everywhere.
9. David Lynch’s ‘Return of the Jedi’
After the successes of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, George Lucas wanted David Lynch to direct the final installment of his initial Star Wars trilogy. David Lynch had no interest, and after meeting Lucas he turned it down. It is downright impossible to guess what anything could look like when David Lynch is involved.
What we almost got: Well, someone tried.
10. Sergio Leone’s ‘The Godfather’
The master of the spaghetti western almost made the most famous movie about mobsters who most likely ate spaghetti. According to Shortlist, Paramount wanted an Italian in the director’s seat for their adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel. But Leone felt the project glorified the world of organized crime too much, and in 1984 he released his own take with the gritty Once Upon a Time in America.
What we almost got: Once Upon a Time in America is a pretty great indicator for what was nearly his Godfather. Leone favored close-ups together with extremely lengthy long takes. Scenes like Michael getting the gun in the bathroom would have felt more claustrophobic while his car blowing up in Sicily would have been a much grander moment.
11. David Cronenberg’s ‘Total Recall’
Bringing Philip K. Dick’s short story to the big screen had been an effort tried by many, starting with Ronald D. Shusett in the 1970’s. By 1990 it would be the blockbuster picture and sci-fi classic starring Arnold Scwarzenegger we now know and love, with a 2012 remake no one really cares about.
What we almost got: Something more horrifying with a bit more grandeur. There are plenty of gory moments in the original Total Recall that were masterfully created with practical effects, but what if The Fly and Videodrome director David Cronenberg did them?
Cronenberg spent a year on the script — stripping away any sense of levity and camp that had been layered onto Dick’s story. The result was something thematically very faithful to the original short story but in direct contrast to what the producers had hired Cronenberg to make. Cronenberg’s vision for the film’s protagonist was actor William Hurt. Douglas Quaid was a psychologically wrecked man struggling to piece his memories together. Of course, it was Cronenberg, undisputed master of body horror, who also introduced the concept of mutants into Total Recall. Without Cronenberg’s involvement, we would never have had Kuato, the tumorous oracle who leads the Martian rebellion, or any of the other malformed mutants who make the Red Planet their home. Cronenberg also took the concept of Ganzibulls, Martian creatures created by Shusett that were basically camels outfitted with oxygen masks, and turned them into sewer-dwelling mutant camels.
Lots of moments in the final film are echoes of Cronenberg’s involvement, but what if he had been the one to steer the ship? What we recognize as the pseudo-campy, early-‘90s classic today would have been something else — something more grotesque — entirely.
Sewer-dwelling camels. Wow.