Top 10: best films never made

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A studio boss decides he doesn’t like your film. A producer cuts off your credit line. Tolkien hates your guts. Or Murphy’s Law rears its ugly head and every disaster that can happen, does happen. There are endless reasons why films never make it to the screen. From Stanley Kubrick to Luchino Visconti, and not forgetting The Beatles, all of cinema’s greats (or nearly all of them) have experimented with the overlooked genre of the unmade masterpiece. Here are ten of the finest examples.

By Matthieu Rostac.

Top 10: best films never made

Capital (Sergei Eisenstein, 1927-28)

Who but Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian master behind Battleship Potemkin (1925), would even think of adapting Karl Marx’s economic tragedy, Capital, for the big screen? At a time when European cinema was still the equivalent of a baby crawling on its knees and making gurgling noises, the revolutionary Soviet filmmaker dubbed “The Father of Montage” resolved to bring Marx’s dialectical materialism to a Bolshevik audience. But the project wasn’t to Stalin’s liking. The moustachioed dictator leaned on Eisenstein with the full weight of the Soviet machine. If Eisenstein was being told to toe the line, he did so literally with the film he did actually manage to get off the ground, 1929’s celebration of Trotskyism, The General Line.

Crusade (Paul Verhoeven, 1991-93)

On a roll after making Total Recall in 1990, producer Mario Kassar wanted the Dutch director’s next film to be set during The Crusades. The problem? Kassar needed Verhoeven to guarantee the film’s budget didn’t top $100 million (which was similar to 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day, then the most expensive film ever made). But Verhoeven threw a hissy fit: “What do you mean guarantee? There are no guarantees. That’s ridiculous.” Kassar responded by ditching the project, and putting his money into Cutthroat Island, Renny Harlin’s adventure romp starring Geena Davis and Matthew Modine. One of the biggest box office catastrophes in movie history, it took Kassar’s company Carolco Pictures, down with it.

Nostromo (David Lean, 1986-91)

Adapted from the Joseph Conrad novel, Nostromo was intended as the Lawrence of Arabia director’s swansong, yet ended up accompanying him to the grave. From the outset Lean sensed that things weren’t right – he couldn’t even finish the novel – but persevered, and convinced Steven Spielberg to come on board. However, when Stevie took the liberty of making some script changes, Lean fired him, and burned out three additional scriptwriters whilst trying to raise $30 million. Rumours were circulating that the 83-year old Lean was losing his marbles, and his producers took out a $4 million life insurance policy. It proved a shrewd move: six weeks before shooting was scheduled to start, Lean died of throat cancer. Nostromo was his final epic – an epic fail.

Who Killed Bambi? (Malcolm McLaren, 1977)

In 1977, Malcolm McLaren was determined to give The Beatles a run for their money with a punk version of A Hard Day’s Night. Envisaging a “huge fucking film,” he wanted Russ Meyer in the director’s chair, and the mammary-obsessed auteur behind the likes of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! didn’t need a second invitation. Meyer duly roped in his top scriptwriter, film critic Roger Ebert, who’d helped him out on Orgissimo and Megavixens. A few weeks later, the script for Anarchy In The UK – or as it would posthumously become, Who Killed Bambi? – was complete. A mockumentary depicting real-life milestones in the Pistols’ career like the El Paradise gig and the infamous Bill Grundy interview, it caught the attention of Twentieth Century Fox. The studio reportedly loved the saucy script, which included an incestuous romance between Sid Vicious and his smack-addled mother, as well as a cameo from Mick Jagger. With money from his own company Matrixbest, McLaren readied to shoot at the famous, Hammer-owned Bray Studios. Only he was playing for time: Fox had in fact decided that it wouldn’t back a Meyer film, and no other studio would touch the project. Johnny Rotten saw through McLaren, and spilled the beans. Ebert returned to the States, but Meyer stuck it out on set, where after just a day and a half of shooting – the only footage they got was the slaughter of a deer – the project collapsed. It seems the perfect fate for a film that, despite never getting made, encapsulates the punk spirit in all its anarchic glory.

Megalopolis (Francis Ford Coppola, late 1980s-2007)

Francis Ford Coppola tried just about every trick in the book to get the green light for Megalopolis, the tale of a New York mayor taking on a corrupt real estate speculator. He made Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Jack and The Rainmaker in the ‘90s to try to bankroll it, and in 2003 even broke his contract with MGM in order to self-produce it. Test shoots and meetings with potential stars Robert De Niro, Kevin Spacey and Nicolas Cage were all arranged. But after 9/11 something was gnawing at the Italian-American director. Ultimately, he couldn’t imagine his “New York utopia” against the city’s amputated skyline. After developing Megalopolis for some 20 years, he finally ditched his grand project in 2007.

In Search of Lost Time (Luchino Visconti, 1969)

Adapting Marcel Proust’s sprawling, unfinished masterpiece for the screen would be no piece of cake. But that didn’t deter Luchino Visconti. The director hired Suso Cecchi d’Amico (Rome, Open City) to work on the script, started scouting locations in Paris and Normandy, and cherry picked a stellar cast including Alain Delon, Marlon Brando, Charlotte Rampling and regular collaborator Helmut Berger. But when it became clear that the film required a four-hour running time, and a budget that would make James Cameron blush, to do the novel justice, Visconti put down Proust, picked up Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice, and promptly made a classic.

Superman Lives (Tim Burton, 1996-98)

In January 2013, a photo of Nicolas Cage in an ill-fitting Superman costume surfaced on Twitter. At first glance, it looked to be the personal pic of a self-confessed Superman fanatic. Except that, with Cage sporting a full head of hair, it soon became clear that the picture had been taken nearly 20 years ago. It eventually emerged that Cage had been lined up as Christopher Reeve’s replacement for a mid-‘90s reboot. The film’s producer Jon Peters, a botoxed Richard Gere lookalike who had just produced Batman, was planning to ditch the red and blue lycra for an all-black costume and, bored of the ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane?’ jokes, was also keen to create a Superman who would keep his feet firmly on the ground. Kevin Smith’s script was a love letter to the comic book character, featured an army of DC supervillains including Braniac, The Eradicator and Lex Luthor, and borrowed liberally from an episode of The Simpsons. Tim Burton agreed to take the directorial reins on a $5 million retainer, but when he decided he was unhappy with Smith’s script and hired Wesley Strick to rewrite it, the budget quickly spiralled beyond $190 million. Worse still, Strick turned Clark Kent into an extra-terrestrial existentialist, more interested in grand philosophical statements than saving lives. Dan Gilroy replaced Strick in a bid to bring the budget down below $100 million, but it was too little, too late. In 1998 Burton left to shoot Sleepy Hollow, Warner refused to put any more into a project that had already cost $30 million. But that’s not the end of this story. In early 2013, Jon Schnepp, a US television producer, set up a Kickstarter project to fund the documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? The last time we checked, he’d raised $115,000. To be continued…

The Lord of the Rings (The Beatles, 1967)

After making A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, the Fab Four wanted to maintain the momentum with their biggest cinematic outing to date. John Lennon was attracted to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and had the film all mapped out in his head: McCartney would play Frodo; Ringo Starr his faithful companion, Samwise Gamgee; George Harrison would play the wizard Galdalf; and Lennon would take the role of Gollum. They even approached Stanley Kubrick about filming the group’s adventures in a papier-mâché Mordor, before Tolkien torpedoed the project on hearing word of it. So what was his gripe? Then living in genteel Oxford where his ill wife could convalesce, Tolkien was aghast at the psychedelic explosion happening in ‘60s England: he tartly described a neighbour as “a member of a group of young men who are evidently aiming to turn themselves into a Beatle Group. On days when it falls to his turn to have a practice session the noise is indescribable.” Tolkien may not have been the hippest of literary giants, it seems, but his intervention certainly spared us the indignity of Scouse Hobbits.

Flying Tetsuo (Shinya Tsukamoto and Quentin Tarantino, mid-’90s)

With his cyberpunk diptych Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer, Japanese director Shinya Tsukamoto was hot property in the early ‘90s. His story of a man morphing into a metallic killing machine had a huge fan in Quentin Tarantino, who was determined to produce the third episode in the United States, with Tim Roth in the lead. Tsukamoto took the compliment with equanimity, telling Tarantino: “I’ll do it with a $300 million budget, and if you let Tetsuo destroy North America.” If he was serious, it was a big ask – perhaps a little bit too big – or maybe Tsukamoto just wanted to remain independent of Hollywood. Either way, that film never happened; but the English script he’d written didn’t go to waste. Some 15 years later, in 2009, Tsukamoto used it as the basis for Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, and the trilogy was complete.

L’Homme ensablé (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1934)

Paris, 1933. Italian journalist Ernesto Quadrone pays a speculative visit to a wealthy Russian film producer, a screenplay under his arm. Arriving at the wood-panelled offices near the Arc de Triomphe, he is introduced to Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer who, enchanted by the script, follows the journalist to Somalia with a small Italian film crew, an old camera, and some 30,000 to 40,000 metres of film stock. Dreyer is making good progress with his “African fairy tale” until malaria strikes down the sound truck driver, then the camera assistant, and finally Dreyer himself. The latter would prove to be the final nail in the coffin for this ill-fated adventure.

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