Doomed Passion Projects of Hollywood: The Lost Classics of Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and More
This week will see the release of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah,’ a cinematic epic over a decade in the making. But many of our greatest filmmakers’ most ambitious movies went unrealized.
“All people dream, but not equally,” D.H. Lawrence wrote. “Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their mind, wake in the morning to find that it was vanity. But the dreamers of the day are dangerous people, for they dream their dreams with open eyes, and make them come true.”
On Friday, the Biblical epic Noah hits theaters. The $130 million mega-production has been gestating in the mind of visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky since he was 13 when, as a seventh grader enrolled at Mark Twain IS 239 in Brooklyn, he penned a poem about the Noah’s Ark story entitled “The Dove.” He began work on the screenplay to Noah a decade ago. And after a turbulent production—one in which many of the film’s sets, including the giant ark they’d erected in Long Island, were wrecked by Superstorm Sandy—and a ridiculous deluge of pre-release criticism, his childhood dream will finally become a big-screen reality this week.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for some of cinema’s biggest dreamers. From Orson Welles’s star-studded avant-garde film-within-a-film The Other Side of the Wind to Stanley Kubrick’s historical epic Napoleon, the graveyard of Hollywood is riddled with tombstones bearing the names of auteurs’ unrealized passion projects.
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
For one of cinema’s most anal-retentive auteurs, this is the one that got away. Following the success of his groundbreaking 1968 sci-fi film 2001: A Space Odyssey, Kubrick wanted to film a large-scale biopic on the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. Kubrick claimed he read close to 500 books on Napoleon, drafted a screenplay, and scouted locations in France as well as Romania, where he intended to film the battle scenes. The Romanian Army even agreed to commit 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 cavalrymen to use for the battle sequences. He wanted David Hemmings or Oskar Werner for the role of Napoleon and Audrey Hepburn for Josephine, and reportedly wrote a letter to a studio executive in 1971 that said, "It's impossible to tell you what I'm going to do except to say that I expect to make the best movie ever made."
Unfortunately, the project was canceled for a number of reasons. First, the cost of location filming had become too high. But also, Soviet filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk stole Kubrick’s thunder. Bondarchuk’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace was released stateside, and his own Napoleon-themed epic, 1970’s Waterloo, had bombed at the box office. Kubrick used his wealth of research to eventually helm Barry Lyndon, and up until his death, had still wished to bring Napoleon to life. Last March, it was reported that Steven Spielberg, who’d helped bring the long-gestating Kubrick project A.I. to the screen, would adapt the late filmmaker’s Napoleon into a TV miniseries (possibly for HBO) and wants Baz Luhrmann to direct.
You can read a draft of Kubrick's Napoleon script here.
And all of the preproduction materials were compiled into a 1,112-page book, Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made.
Directed by Alexander Jodorowsky
In 1975, the rights to Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune was acquired by Chilean-French filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, who had a grand vision for the big screen adaptation, to say the least. Jodorowsky reached out to Peter Gabriel, Pink Floyd, and Magma to produce original music for the film; Salvador Dali (who demanded he be the highest paid actor in the world, negotiating a fee of $100,000 per screen minute), Orson Welles, Gloria Swanson, and David Carradine to star; and contacted artists H.R. Giger and Jean Giraud to help produce the set and character design. Jodorowsky elaborately storyboarded the entire film, and those with knowledge claim that the filmmaker’s script resembled a phonebook, and would have resulted in a 14-hour epic. The film was budgeted at $9.5 million, and Jodorowsky reportedly burned through $2 million during the pre-production process alone. Eventually, his vision proved too out there for studio execs, none of whom were willing to gamble on the project, and his rights to the source material eventually lapsed.But perhaps he dodged a bullet. The rights to Dune were later acquired by Italian film producer Dino DeLaurentiis, and the resulting movie, directed by David Lynch, hit theaters in 1984. It was, however, a colossal flop—critically and commercially—with Lynch later regretting sacrificing final cut. A recent eye-opening documentary, Jodorowsky’s Dune, revisits what could have been.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND
Directed by Orson Welles
Citizen Kane helmer Orson Welles was the victim of several unrealized would-be classics, from the director’s cut to The Magnificent Ambersons, to his epic Don Quixote, which he died before finishing, and which was cruelly patched together and released following his death. But it’s his compelling, wildly star-studded avant-garde film-within-a-film, The Other Side of the Wind, that provides the biggest question mark in his career.
The film opens with the death of Jake Hannaford, a once-great filmmaker struggling to make a comeback, but is largely set at Hannaford’s 70th birthday party the night before his death. It also includes segments of Hannaford’s film-within-a-film comeback vehicle, The Other Side of the Wind. Welles intended the project to be a send-up of Hollywood's studio system, movie critics, and avant-garde filmmakers, and shot it in a wide variety of styles—black and white, color, 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm. He cast filmmaker John Huston as Hannaford, and also cast a coterie of film icons as the director’s colleagues and nemeses, including Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Edmond O’Brien, Dennis Hopper, Claude Chabrol, and Paul Mazursky, among others.
“I'm going to use several voices to tell the story,” Welles told Bogdanovich. “You hear conversations taped as interviews, and you see quite different scenes going on at the same time … The movie's going to be made up of all this raw material. You can imagine how daring the cutting can be, and how much fun.”
Much of the cast and crew worked for free as favors to Welles—Huston was paid just $75,000 for the starring role—and was inspired by an idea Welles had following the 1961 suicide of Ernest Hemingway. Welles began second unit photography on the $2 million project in 1969, and principal photography commenced in 1970, but was stopped in ’71 when Welles’s production company was hit with a huge tax bill following an IRS audit. He resumed shooting in 1973, but then one of the film’s producers allegedly ran off with $250,000 of Welles’s money, so Bogdanovich put $500,000 of his own money into the project. While receiving an AFI Lifetime Achievement honor in 1975, he asked those in the audience to help finance The Other Side of the Wind so it could be finished. Principal photography, which took place in Bogdanovich’s Beverly Hills home as well as in England, Spain, Belgium, France, and even the MGM backlot (without permission), was finished in January of 1976. But then the real trouble started. Since the film was co-financed by Mehdi Bouscheri, the Shah of Iran’s brother-in-law, things became problematic when, in 1979, the Shah was overthrown. Ayatollah Khomeini impounded the film, and later released it to a vault in Paris (about 40 minutes of the film had been edited by Welles at this point). Following Welles’s death in 1985, a legal battle over the rights to the film ensued between Welles’s daughter, Beatrice, and his longtime lover/the film’s co-star, Oja Kodar. It wasn’t until 1998 that all the legal mumbo-jumbo was resolved and Showtime, the cable network, agreed to pony up the necessary funds to complete the film, now shepherded by Bogdanovich. To this day, however, The Other Side of the Wind remains unfinished.
“We’ve looked at the footage and it’s great,” Bogdanovich told Toro magazine in 2012. “I cut two scenes together that hadn’t been finished. There are a few scenes that Orson already cut together and then for the scenes that I cut, he had picked takes but just hadn’t assembled them. So we just used his takes and I could tell what he had in mind. It’s very different than anything else he made and quite strange. I don’t think any of us will know what it is until it’s done. I don’t know when it will come out, but I think one day it will.”
THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE
Directed by Terry Gilliam
It’s the project that’s haunted Terry Gilliam, the man responsible for the classics Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Brazil, for the last 16 years. In 1998, he began pre-production on a large-scale adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and successfully secured $32.1 million in outside financing. Gilliam’s version deviated significantly from the source material, and centered on Quixote, as well as Toby Grisoni (replacing Sancho Panza), a 21st century marketing exec sent back in time.
Filming began in 2000 with Jean Rochefort as Quixote and Johnny Depp as Grisoni. It had taken Gilliam two years to find his Quixote, and the Frenchman Rochefort had spent seven months learning English to prep for the part. But as soon as filming commenced, the problems began. On the first day of shooting, it was revealed that the filming location, Bardenas Reales in Southeast Spain, was right near a NATO base, so the sound of military jets flying overhead ruined the movie’s audio recording. On day two, a flash flood occurred, damaging much of the filmmaking equipment and ruining the appearance of the location. Then, Rochefort was diagnosed with a double herniated disc from all the horseback riding, and the production was canceled in November 2000. All of the drama was captured in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha.
In late 2009, it was revealed that the project had new life, with Robert Duvall in the role of Quixote and Depp still attached, but Depp’s commitment to other projects—including the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise—got in the way, and in May 2010, Ewan McGregor was cast in his place. The following month, however, funding had collapsed and the project was put in turnaround.
But there’s still hope for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. On Feb. 7, Gilliam revealed that the project had found a new financier in Spanish producer Adrian Guerra, and that filming would (allegedly) begin on Sept. 29, 2014, in the Canary Islands. Fingers crossed.
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Can you imagine? The Master of Suspense taking on The Great Bard? In the late 1940s, in the wake of Hitchcock’s first Technicolor film, Rope, as well as one of his most inventive, meant to resemble a single, continuous shot by weaving together several long takes, the filmmaker got even more daring. He dreamed of directing a contemporary version of Hamlet set in England, and enlisted the services of Cary Grant, who had starred in the Hitchcock films Suspicion and Notorious, in the title role.
Hitchcock described the passion project as a “psychological melodrama” in the vein of his other suspense films, and formally announced the project via his studio, Transatlantic. However, the wind was removed from Hitch’s sails when he was threatened with a lawsuit by a moody professor who’d penned a similar modernized version of the Shakespeare tale—also set in England. Hitchcock decided to abandon his adaptation of Hamlet to avoid any legal kerfuffle.
Directed by David Lynch
After the release of his acclaimed 1977 surrealist flick, Eraserhead, David Lynch embarked on an even weirder project: Ronnie Rocket. The premise involved a detective whose ability to stand on one leg allowed him entry into a bizarre second dimension. His inter-dimensional voyage, however, is interrupted by strange landscapes, an oncoming train, and weird, electricity-wielding creatures known as the “Donut Men.” It also tells the tale of Ronald d’Arte, a three-foot-tall teen dwarf, whose required to be plugged into an electrical supply after a botched surgery. Because of this, he also gains the ability to manipulate electricity and uses it to create beautiful music. He changed his name to Ronnie Rocket, becomes a bona fide rock star, and attracts a fetching tap-dancer, Electra-Cute.
The film was to be set in an idealized version of the 1950s, similar to the early scenes in Blue Velvet, as well as the soot-heavy industrial world, akin to The Elephant Man’s depiction of Victorian England. Unfortunately, no studios jumped at the project, deeming it too weird and inaccessible for a mainstream audience. After making 1980’s The Elephant Man, Lynch settled on actor Dexter Fletcher for the role of the detective, and later, following the release of 1986’s Blue Velvet, had settled on Michael J. Anderson for the role of the dwarf. He continued to revisit Ronnie Rocket after each of his subsequent films up to 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, but after that, decided to put the project on hold. According to Lynch, the project is still “hibernating” and still hopes to make it one day similar to Eraserhead—with a very tiny crew, small budget, and handmade sets.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
In the ‘90s, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven was all set to reteam with his Total Recall star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, for Crusade—a $100 million sword-and-sandals epic set in the Middle Ages. The film was meant to be uncompromising, refusing to shy away from any anti-Semitism and anti-Arab sentiments of the crusaders, and had sets build in Spain, as well as a cast that also included Robert Duvall, Jennifer Connelly, John Turturro, and Christopher McDonald.
And then Verhoeven blew a gasket.
“It was all written and ready to go but then Paul started going crazy,” Schwarzenegger told Empire. “We had the final meeting with the studio and we were all sitting at this boardroom table. They said, ‘So the budget is $100 million. That's a lot of money. What kind of guarantees do you have that we will get it for 100 and it won't go up to 130?’”
“He says, ‘What do you mean, guarantees?’ There's no such thing as guarantees! Guarantees don't happen and if anyone promises you guarantees, they're lying! We don't even know that if you want out of the building here you won't get hit by a truck. There's no guarantee that we're going to make it 'til tomorrow! I cannot have control over God—I don't even believe in God, why am I talking about God? But someone, nature, could just rain for three months and then what do we do? How can I give you a guarantee? This is ludicrous!”
“I kept kicking him under the table and trying to tell him to shut up while we’re ahead,” added Schwarzenegger. “But he just wouldn't, and that was it. That was the end of that movie. Paul always tried to be honest, but you can be a little bit selective about when to be honest and when to just move on with the project. It was a shame.”
Note: These are only a handful of many aborted could-be classics. Others include Sergio Leone’s Leningrad: The 900 Days, a $100-million epic about the siege of Leningrad meant to star Robert De Niro; Sergei Eisenstein’s unproduced adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy as a vehicle for Charlie Chaplin; Guillermo Del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness, an adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft novel produced by James Cameron and starring Tom Cruise; Francis Ford Coppola’s sci-fi epic Megalopolis; George Cukor’s Peter Pan, starring Audrey Hepburn as Peter and Laurence Olivier as Captain Hook; Tim Burton’s Superman flick, Superman Lives, written by Kevin Smith and starring Nicolas Cage; Federico Fellini’s The Journey of G. Mastorna; and many, many more.