Making movies is hard. It’s a long, arduous and expensive process, and even when you have all the money in place, there will be producers breathing down your neck, various regulations to follow, trends to keep up with and industry pressure to not screw it all up. It’s not uncommon for films to be announced with incredible fanfare, then disappear off the face of the earth. Greenlights are turned red, producer money is pulled, actors become unavailable, and tragedy can strike. You’ll struggle to find a major director who managed to make every movie they wanted to, and most of them have at least one passion project they dedicated several years of their lives to with nothing to show for it.
Unmade films are as much a part of cinematic lore as those that were lost to history. Most silent films no longer exist due to carelessly trashed stock and there are finished films languishing in vaults due to producer wars and director hubris. Yet it’s in the unmade film where the unrealized possibilities of the medium are at its strongest. When a film never gets made, it always gets to be potentially great. You get to imagine that everything went completely right in production: The casting was perfect, the director made all the proper choices, all the duff bits of the script were fixed, and the budget was flexible enough to cover every moment of magnificence.
This tends to lead to some unnecessary deifying of films that probably never would have deserved it had they made their way to the big screen. Tim Burton’s Superman Lives could have been interesting, but I question whether it would have been great. We’ll be getting this routine for years to come as people demand the ‘Lord and Miller cut’ of Solo. A big problem with the unmade film is it is given he benefit of the doubt that finished products are seldom rewarded. We always want what we can’t have.
Sometimes, those great lost masterpieces get a second life through retrospective documentaries, such as Jodorowsky’s Dune, or production finally gets going after decades of waiting. Only this year, Terry Gilliam finally got to see The Man Who Killed Don Quixote screen in an actual cinema, but that didn’t end the story of one of the film world’s most fraught stories. But mostly, we are left with speculation, the occasional interviews from directors on their failed follies, and, if you’re lucky, an archive of pre-production material.
We could be here all day talking about some of the unmade films everyone knows about. Hell, we even wrote a piece on a mere fraction of the projects Guillermo del Toro never got to finish or actually start. There are some obvious ones that I won’t touch on here - Kubrick’s biopic on Napoleon, Christopher Nolan’s Howard Hughes film, Steven Soderbergh’s 3D rock musical about Cleopatra (oh yes), and basically everyone who’s taken a crack at Blood Meridian. There are also films that were made but will never see the light of day, like Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried, which I won’t touch on here. Unmade films in this piece will also encompass films that abandoned shooting. I’ve mostly picked films that I believe had true potential to be great or at least fascinating in ways that cinema could use more of. If I’ve missed anything out that you believe to be a particularly egregious omission, let me know in the comments.
Lynne Ramsay’s The Lovely Bones
Fellow Scot Lynne Ramsay is one of my all-time favourite directors, and the woman responsible for my top film of 2018 so far, You Were Never Really Here. There are few filmmakers working today who have as piercing an insight into the machinations of trauma as Ramsay does. Her filmography is a testament to the cinematic power of showing the myriad ways people can be fucked up by it. Following the critical success of Morvern Callar, her second film, Ramsay was given a chance to adapt an unfinished but hotly hyped debut novel that fit right in her wheelhouse of narratives about the impossibilities of grief. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is a seriously questionable book, one that’s almost unbearably earnest but veers between light and dark in a disjointed fashion. The draft of her book Ramsay read wasn’t what the book became, and the director was more interested in the maddening grief of Susie Salmon’s family than her time in heaven. The problem was that, by the time the book was published, it had become a massive hit and the producers wanted the script to adhere as closely to the source material as possible. So, Ramsay was kicked out and replaced by Peter Jackson, whose finished version of the story is, to put it mildly, problematic. Jackson wanted to amp up the technicolour dream-fest of Susie’s heaven, but the end result was both hokey and kind of offensive.
Shane Carruth’s A Topiary
In 14 years, Shane Carruth has made a grand total of two films, both of which are singiular visions of idiosyncratic and ambitious science-fiction that has no concern for frivolous notions such as exposition. Auteur theory is a messy idea that ignores how collaborative film is, but it can easily apply to Carruth, who writes, directs, produces, stars in, and does the music, editing and cinematography for his own films. His work tends to be cheap to make, with the combined budget for his two films barely squeaking past $57,000. That makes him an easy sell for indie funders, but when it comes to bigger visions, Carruth’s struggled to get things off the ground. The most famous example of that is A Topiary. Rian Johnson described its script as ‘mind-blowing’, and unmade film geeks I know have called it one of the most ambitious screenplays they’ve ever read. It’s 245 pages long! It’s about kids who find a machine that lets them make robot creatures! It’s about predestination and starburst patterns and cults! It would have cost around $20m - which is nothing nowadays for sci-fi films - and even got Stephen Soderbergh and David Fincher on board as executive producers. Alas, not even those big names could convince anyone to hand over the needed funds to get it into production.
Ken Russell’s Dracula
As many of you may already know, I’m a sucker for any and all adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I’ll watch them all, regardless of quality (I own Dracula 2000 on DVD and watch itregularly, come at me). Various people have taken a stab - heh - at the book, but the unmade version I crave the most is by the gloriously mad British auteur Ken Russell. Wouldn’t you want to see a version of Dracula by the guy who made The Devils, a film that features various nun orgies and Vanessa Redgrave going onto autopilot with a femur? Ah, classic. Anyway, Russell wrote several drafts of a Dracula screenplay and his version leaned more into Dracula as a Byronic anti-hero who lived undead life to the fullest. Oliver Reed was eyed up for the lead role, but after John Badham and Frank Langella’s 1979 version of the story under-performed at the box office (it’s actually a really good film you should check out), Russell’s project died. However, he did get to make a vampire movie from a Bram Stoker story in 1988, called Lair of the White Worm. It’s fucking bonkers. Watch it!
Clair Noto’s The Tourist
(Image from io9).
Before Shane Carruth took the crown for the most fascinating unmade sci-fi film, Clair Noto had become famous for her daring debut to be about exiled aliens living on Earth trying to make connections with one another. That concept may inspire thoughts of adorable E.T. trying to phone home, but Noto’s story featured graphic tentacle sex, alien refugees and character design by H.R. Giger. Even at a time where David Cronenberg was at his most prominent, it always seemed like The Tourist would never get made. How do you pitch this idea to a studio in the 1980s as a mainstream effort? What studio would say yes to a bleak story of xenophobia, isolation, and alien sex, even if it was something that could be done on a tight budget? The film was in development hell for decades, jumping through the studio system, and eventually saw Noto be removed from her own project for a while. Some producers tried to make it more palatable, which seemed to be against the whole point of the film. Alas, it’s doubtful we’ll ever see any version of this film, and that may be for the best for Clair Noto.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis
Ah, Coppola. Seldom has a director soared so high then plummeted to the earth with such force. How do you go from The Godfather to One From the Heart? Or from Apocalypse Now to Jack? Coppola doesn’t make flops so much as he makes earth-shatteringly bonkers disasters that more often than not send him to bankruptcy court. Therein lies half the fun of a Coppola film, to be honest: You never know what you’re going to get. Megalopolis was a dream project for the director, with a 212 page script about an ambitious architect who is given the job of rebuilding New York City after a major disaster. Coppola himself described the script as being a bit Ayn Rand-y - eww - but if nothing else, this would have been a visual marvel. Oddly enough, Coppola actually managed to secure the funding for Megalopolis, but following the attack on New York on 9/11, producers decided to take a step back from the project, worrying it would be insensitive. Coppola seems happy to make wine these days, occasionally making indie films that don’t get a lot of coverage, so there’s probably no change of Megalopolis ever going into production. Coppola’s ambition often exceeded his incredible grasp, but the results are usually intriguing, if nothing else.
Nick Cave’s Gladiator sequel
Okay, now stick with me here: A sequel to the Oscar-winning historical epic Gladiator, written by musician Nick Cave, centred on Maximus AFTER his death, wherein he is returned to earth by the gods on the promise that he must murder Christians, and then he decides to wage war on the gods instead. Oh, and he’s also immortal and fights in World War Two, the Vietnam War, and the Pentagon. Oh, and he also murders Jesus because he’s getting too popular. This was a real script! THAT Nick Cave wrote it! There’s no way in hell this ever would have gotten made and no way it would live up to the image I have in my head of Russell Crowe in full gladiatorial armour fighting in the trenches of the Second World War. Apparently, Crowe hated the script, but that was when Crowe was an egotistical jerk. He’s way more laid-back now and clearly doesn’t give a fuck so maybe we can clean the dust from this screenplay and get it off the ground?
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images)