There’s a cool new wave in the world of documentary filmmaking: telling the stories of troubled or entirely cancelled film productions.
The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? is director Jon Schnepp’s personal journey into the failed ‘90s Superman film that was to star Nic Cage and be directed by Tim Burton. Lost Soul looks at Richard Stanley’s doomed journey to make The Island Of Dr. Moreau— which was actually finished by a completely different director while Stanley looked on in horror. Jodorowsky’s Dune looks back on a hallucinogenic science fiction adaptation that managed to influence the entire genre, including Star Wars, despite the fact that not a single frame was ever produced. And all of these live in the shadow of Lost In La Mancha, the ten year story of Terry Gilliam’s attempt to bring Don Quixote to screen and the pitfalls along the way.
(If the genre interests you, try your hand at tracking down the occasionally leaked documentary The Sweatbox about a particularly awful animated Disney production featuring Sting and a lot of yelling. There are very few clips easily accessible, but the infamous one is right here.)
With the undeniable success of these small budget productions telling the story of failed colossal productions, here’s a selection of disastrous cinematic nightmares we’d love to see given the documentary treatment.
In the early ‘90s, the troubled production of adapting Bret Easton Ellis’ Dostoyevskian serial killer novel in a movie was immediately plagued by protests over its misogynistic themes. Johnny Depp expressed interest in developing the property in 1992, but quickly bowed out. The owners of the property, Lionsgate, spent a few years putting a team together and eventually placed Mary Harron in the director/screenwriter role. Harron almost immediately selected Christian Bale as her lead. Reportedly, Bale never asked Harron for the character’s motivation, because he understood the character had none.
However, unbeknownst to Harron, the producers also sent a script and a $20 million dollar offer to Leonardo DiCaprio, who shockingly accepted. Suddenly, Lionsgate was producing a drastically more expensive version of the same movie for Leo (with Oliver Stone directing) behind Harron’s back. They announced the bigger film at Cannes in 1998, much to Harron/Bale’s shock and outrage, then watched DiCaprio and Stone tear each other apart over the next year. Lionsgate eventually had to come back to Harron/Bale with their tail between their legs, after Gloria Steinem reportedly cornered DiCaprio at a basketball game and begged him not to do the film for the sake of his teenage female audience.
Multiple films in pre-production simultaneously, including a rumored third version that Tim Burton was trying to get off the ground, and the presence of such a historically divisive property — alongside the battle over what “feminist filmmaking” means between Harron and Steinem — makes this such a perfect choice for a documentary to dig into. Ellis himself is also usually good for an annoyingly contrarian sound bite.
As Warner Brothers scrambled to reboot the Batman franchise, there were a number of high concept pitches in contention. The Wachowskis, fresh off The Matrix had a killer pitch for a giant action adventure film, but Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One went off the deep end in terms of gritty bleakness. He imagined Clint Eastwood in a darkly personal battle. On the subject of his script:
“The Batman franchise had just gone more and more back towards the TV show, so it became tongue-in-cheek, a grand farce, camp. I pitched the complete opposite, which was totally bring-it-back-to-the-streets raw, trying to set it in a kind of real reality — no stages, no sets, shooting it all in inner cities across America, creating a very real feeling. My pitch was Death Wish or The French Connection meets Batman.”
As someone who read the script (which you can find online) it is so grounded it’s almost impossible to call it a Batman movie, and that makes it very, very interesting to imagine all the What If’s involved. Looking at this film, and the history of all the big-name unproduced Batman films through the years, is probably an excellent jumping off point for a young filmmaker.
Stanley Kubrick dedicated more than three years of his life just to the research on this project, which he deemed would be the “Greatest film of all time.” Unfortunately, the cost escalated beyond the realm that any studio would touch it, despite his stellar film stable. The production was set to take place on multiple continents and would return the director to the period he mined so successfully in Barry Lyndon.
Taschen has actually published a book (now out of print) about Kubrick’s production notes, research, and even includes some script pages. Napoleon would have undoubtedly held a higher place in cultural history than his fifteen other unrealized projects, including one focusing on his fascination with the life and social circle of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
Guillermo del Toro
Yeah, this isn’t a movie, it’s just a guy.
The enigmatic director has been attached to almost every major fantasy or science fiction franchise in the last ten years — usually because he goes out of his way to announce “I want to do that TOO!” He’s like the Mexican horror version of James Franco in terms of his overreach versus completed projects. But there’s always work in his wake. This includes cancelled video game projects including the infamous Silent Hills collaboration that Konami blew up.
Most famous among the director’s cancelled projects was the long gestating H.P. Lovecraft adaptation At The Mountains Of Madness that was set to star Tom Cruise. After ten years of pre-production on what would’ve been the only good Lovecraft film ever made (yes, fight me) the Shoggoth-ridden property was scrapped as the budget surpassed $150 million on a horror film that del Toro refused to make unless it could achieve a commercially untenable hard-R rating. As someone who has seen the physically imposing world bible for Pacific Rim, I cannot fathom how much artwork and world building exists for this film.
The property itself has such a disastrous history, it’s almost shocking there isn’t a documentary available for every outing. The Roger Corman production, which was created just to retain rights to the property, is apparently the subject of an unreleased documentary called Doomed that should be coming out in 2016.
The most recent production from Fox has made headlines as the studio bailed on director Josh Trank’s vision after an antagonistic shoot between Trank and everyone else involved. The end result is a death-nail in Fox productions of Marvel properties, and maybe in Trank’s career, and boy I wish we could hear Trank’s side of things. This video summarizes a lot of the issues that could be explored.