A twisted satire from the Wachowskis about a cannibalistic soup kitchen serving the rich to the poor? Count us in. Sadly, but perhaps not too surprising given the grisly subject matter, the famed siblings’ first screenplay, Carnivore, failed to find a single studio willing to take it on. None other than Warner, however, did pick up their second. Only this time, most of the butchering went on behind the scenes.
The process of making Assassins, the suspenseless 1995 thriller (release 25 years ago on October 6) in which Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas play warring hitmen, is far more intriguing than anything that made it onto the screen. There’s crediting disputes, million-dollar checks, and even a cameo from then-Hollywood darling Mel Gibson.
Yes, back when he was considered a bankable, clean-cut leading man, the Aussie gave Lana and Lilly Wachowski (then known as Larry and Andy) a cool $1k in return for a 24-hour decision window. Gibson was impressed by the Assassins script that had somehow landed on his desk. But after mulling it over, he opted to don some warpaint and make the five-time Oscar-winning Braveheart instead.
The siblings, who’d previously written for Marvel imprints Epic Comics and Razorline, didn’t have to wait too long to get a much bigger paycheck. Industry titan Dino De Laurentiis offered the duo ten times the amount to option their script. “Oh my god, we don’t have to work for years,” was their instant reaction, Lana told BuzzFeed 20 years later.
You can only imagine the Wachowskis’ disbelief soon after, when Joel Silver (Predator, Die Hard) handed them one million dollars to bring their words to life. Yet the distant sound of alarm bells may well have started to ring when his choice of director was announced.
Sure, Richard Donner was responsible for one of the most iconic horrors of the 1970s. But following The Omen’s success, his resumé became dominated by family-friendly adventures (Superman, The Goonies) and wisecracking Mel Gibson vehicles (the Lethal Weapon franchise, Maverick), not stylish, noirish cat-and-mouse tales.
Yet the Wachowskis may still have expected Donner to leave their script well alone. After all, this was a man who knew how it felt to be undermined in Hollywood. He’d famously been fired from Superman II over creative differences with less than a third of the film left to shoot. Much to the siblings’ frustration, however, he wasted little time in stamping his own commercial mark on the story, albeit with some help from future Academy Award-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), too.
“Right off the bat, we did not click with Mr. Donner,” Lilly told Buzzfeed in 2015. “He wanted to make something that wasn't as dark as our script. And eventually, he took it away.” In fact, the Wachowskis were so enraged by the director’s meddling that in a 1998 interview with Gadfly, they described Assassins as “our abortion.”
It takes just five minutes for Donner’s mainstream instincts to kick in. The original script sees Sylvester Stallone’s cold-blooded killer Rath walk a fellow hitman through a swamp before mercilessly putting a bullet in his brain. On screen, however, Rath gives his target the opportunity to pull the trigger himself. There’s even a flicker of remorse as the man’s lifeless body slumps into the wetlands below. Yes, Rath is now an assassin with a conscience, a development which changes the entire tone of the movie.
According to the Wachowskis, Donner believed audiences wouldn’t connect to Rath without making him more sympathetic. Apparently, he also needed to be sexless. In the original script, the hitman embarks on a passionate affair with Julianne Moore’s Electra, the plucky computer hacker he’s initially hired to kill. But their night of animalistic hotel room passion is reduced to little more than a brief kiss in the finished product. Donner also tones down the Wachowskis’ signature blend of pulpy violence and dark humor, as well as Rath’s obsession with computer chess, and brings in the latter’s presumed-dead mentor Nicolai (Anatoly Davydov) for a drawn-out finale.
As you’d expect from a pair renowned for their uncompromising vision, Lana and Lilly didn’t take this lying down. Ignoring Silver’s advice (“This is your first movie, and you're trying to take your name off of it?! That's crazy!”), they tried to officially disassociate themselves with the film: the Writers Guild of America, however, didn’t listen. And they have spent the last quarter-century bashing Assassins any time the subject comes up.
Nevertheless, you could argue that Donner did the Wachowskis a favor. Having experienced the pitfalls of handing over your work to outsiders, the duo became determined to also take the director’s chair for their follow-up, 1996 low-budget neo-noir Bound. They still had to fight for their cause, of course. Producer De Laurentiis initially insisted that the central couple should be heterosexual, not lesbian. But Lana and Lilly stood their ground, and the blood and nudity-filled result inspired Silver to take a punt on their next project, a little-known dystopian sci-fi called The Matrix.