Following the success of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, Kubrick wrote to a colleague, “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” — Kubrick had set his sights on an epic biography of Napoleon Bonaparte, with Jack Nicholson playing the emperor. Kubrick worked on the film for two years, collecting a catalogue of 15,000 reference images, special lenses to film exteriors in the evening, and even a low-cost paper fabric for the soldiers’ uniforms.
The film was well into pre-production and ready to begin filming in 1969 when MGM cancelled the project. Numerous reasons have been cited for the abandonment of the film, including its estimated high cost, a change of ownership at MGM, and the poor reception the Soviet film WATERLOO had received months earlier. Slighted, Kubrick left MGM for Warner Brothers and made A CLOCKWORK ORANGE instead.
As his career soared, Chaplin envisioned an unconventional project: an adaptation of the emperor’s early years, with himself in the starring role. Chaplin wrote several fully developed screenplays for the project and conducted extensive historical research. Winston Churchill even expressed interest in the project and eagerly pitched ideas to Chaplin. Chaplin never made the film, but rather switched focus – from Napoleon, to Hitler. Chaplin’s vision changed shape and ultimately became his 1940 masterpiece THE GREAT DICTATOR.
SALVADOR DALI and the MARX BROTHERS – GIRAFFES ON HORSEBACK SALAD
The Spanish surrealist befriended Harpo Marx in the 1930s and wrote an unpublished screenplay for the brothers in 1937, but the film was never made: MGM felt the script was far too surreal – and Harpo himself didn’t find it funny enough. The script was forgotten for sixty years, before it was discovered among Dali’s papers.
In the 1990s, Polanski was set to direct an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s novella about a government clerk who goes mad, convinced that his doppelgänger has stolen his identity. John Travolta was set to star but, with just nine days before principal photography was scheduled to begin in Paris, Travolta flew back to the United States following an argument with Polanski. Travolta claimed that the screenplay had been significantly altered compared with the one he had signed up for, and left the project. The film collapsed shortly after – but the novella made it to screens in 2014, in writer/director Richard Ayoade’s pitch black comedy/thriller THE DOUBLE, starring Jesse Eisenberg.
Following the disappointing commercial and critical reception of MARNIE and TORN CURTAIN, Hitchcock took a sharp left turn and asked playwright Benn Levy to write a story about a necrophiliac serial killer. After multiple writers and revisions, the script eventually centered on a young bodybuilder who lures women to their deaths. Pleased with the story, Hitchcock composed a shot list with over 450 camera positions and shot an hour’s worth of experimental color tests, but Universal was disgusted by the script and immediately canceled the project. Hitchcock moved on to TOPAZ, and the outlandish thriller was never made.
Del Toro’s white whale has long been the supposedly unfilmable H.P. Lovecraft story, in which an Antarctic expedition unearths the long-dead bodies of strange, starfish-headed creatures – only for the specimens to wake up angry. Del Toro began work on the adaptation in 2004 and hopped from studio to studio with the project but faced an uphill battle: a $150 million, R-rated horror film “with a tough ending and no love story” is a hard sell.
In 2012, del Toro’s dream project hit another unexpected roadblock: Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS was released, a sci-fi horror film with similar themes and story elements. Del Toro subsequently put his project on hold – temporarily, or indefinitely.
Del Toro is currently scheduled to direct three future films for Universal; part of the deal entails continuing research and development for AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS.
TIM BURTON – SUPERMAN LIVES
Kevin Smith pitched a Superman film to producer Jon Peters and wrote the script with Peters’ specific, often bizarre requests in mind. When the draft was complete, Smith suggested Tim Burton as director, and Burton signed on with a pay-or-play contract of $5 million.
With Nicolas Cage set to star, SUPERMAN LIVES began pre-production but Warner Brothers requested script rewrites to bring down the $190 million budget. Even with a lowered cost, Warner Brothers still chose to put the film on hold in April 1998, and Burton left to direct SLEEPY HOLLOW – leaving $30 million spent with nothing to show for it.
Kevin Smith discusses getting the job and writing the script:
In 1971, Lewis was approached by producer Nathan Wachsberger and agreed to star in his film as Helmut Doork, a circus clown imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. According to writer Joan O’Brien, Lewis revised the script personally and practically changed the entire story into a Chaplinesque dark comedy a la THE GREAT DICTATOR.
The film was met with controversy regarding its premise and content, and particularly its ending, in which Doork is used to lead Jewish children to their deaths via gas chamber. Knowing the fear the children will feel, Doork begs to be allowed to spend the last few moments with them, and is so filled with remorse that he remains with children inside the chamber. The children laugh at his antics, and the movie ends.
THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED was never officially released – the story was just too much. Allegedly, Lewis has the only copy locked in a private vault where he vows to keep it from ever being viewed again. Few other films have gained such notoriety, yet remain unseen.
In 1979, actor Harry Shearer saw a rough cut of the film: “This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. ‘Oh My God!’ — that’s all you can say.”
In the 1980s, Malick focused on an adaptation of Walker Percy’s existentialist novel about a New Orleans man who connects to movies more easily than he does to everyday life. Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts were attached to star at one point, but Malick postponed the film in favor of THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Malick abandoned the project, claiming, “I don’t think the New Orleans of the book exists anymore.”
Before Netflix redeemed the superhero with a TV series, Carnahan came up with a gritty adaptation to undo the stigma of the poorly-received 2003 Ben Affleck film. Carnahan imagined a 1970s-set, TAXI DRIVER-esque superhero trilogy, and cut a sizzle reel to offer a glimpse into his vision. The trailer spread like wildfire, but timing was the film’s undoing: Carnahan came to the project just as the rights to Daredevil were set to revert back to Marvel. Carnahan and 20th Century Fox made a bid to retain the rights, but Marvel scooped them up. Carnahan’s DAREDEVIL was never made, and remains only as a trailer.
Daniels’ ambitious passion project involved Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, and the marches that led to civil rights reform – with a cast that included Hugh Jackman (as Sheriff Jim Clark), Liam Neeson (as Lyndon Johnson), David Oyelowo (as Martin Luther King), Robert De Niro (as George Wallace), Ray Winstone, and Cedric the Entertainer. But the financing never came through, and the cast and crew left the project one-by-one. Only Oyelowo remained in the cast when Ava DuVernay took control as director; Daniels didn’t approve of Oyelowo in the role, but DuVernay kept him onboard.
BOB CLAMPETT – JOHN CARTER OF MARS
In 1931, Looney Tunes animator Bob Clampett approached Edgar Rice Burroughs with a plan to adapt “A Princess of Mars” into a feature film. Burroughs approved, intrigued by animation’s capabilities to circumvent the limitations of live-action. Burroughs requested that Clampett create an original story for John Carter, the story’s protagonist, and Clampett agreed.
Clampett created animated footage with rotoscoped drawings of John Carter, green Martians riding “eight-legged Thoats,” and a fleet of rocket ships emerging from a Martian volcano. The footage was shown to MGM but earned a poor reception at test screenings. Many exhibitors believed the concept of an Earthman on Mars was too outlandish an idea for Midwestern American audiences to accept, and the project was scrapped for eighty years, before Disney tackled the material and produced JOHN CARTER in 2012, the 100th anniversary of the character’s first literary appearance.
HAROLD RAMIS, JOHN WATERS, STEVEN SODERBERGH, and DAVID GORDON GREEN – A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES
Hollywood has been trying to turn John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel into a movie for decades, ever since its release in 1980. Harold Ramis showed interest in directing and John Belushi, John Candy, and Chris Farley were all considered for the lead role – but all three actors died before the project could be realized. John Waters approached the project and chose his frequent collaborator Divine for the role, but Divine passed away before filming began.
In 2005, Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green began circling the project, but no progress has been made. Various reasons are cited as to why, including disorganization and lack of interest at Paramount Pictures, the head of the Louisiana State Film Commission being murdered, and – again – the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.
In a 2013 interview, Soderbergh remarked, “I think it’s cursed. I’m not prone to superstition, but that project has got bad mojo on it.”
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY – DUNE
In December 1974, Jodorowsky was approached to direct an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic 1965 science-fiction novel. Jodorowsky envisioned an eclectic cast including Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, and Salvador Dali (who insisted to be paid $100,000 per hour), with music by Pink Floyd. Herbert described Jodorowsky’s script as “the size of a phonebook” – likely a 14-hour movie.
The film ultimately collapsed when no studio could be found willing to fund the movie to Jodorowsky’s terms. In 2013, the documentary JODOROWSKY’S DUNE was released, chronicling the film’s failed production.
In 1982, while finishing production on ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, Leone was impressed with Harrison Salisbury’s non-fiction book “The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad”, and planned on adapting the book as a war epic: the story of doomed love between a cynical American cameraman (played by Robert De Niro) and a young Soviet girl against the epic background of the Siege of Leningrad.
By 1989, Leone had acquired $100 million in financing from independent backers, but the project was abruptly canceled when Leone died just two days before he was to officially sign on for the film.
Throughout his career, Leone also envisioned a contemporary adaptation of DON QUIXOTE with Clint Eastwood in the title role and Eli Wallach as Sancho Panza. Leone started seriously considering the project towards the end of his life, but the film never materialized.
ORSON WELLES – DON QUIXOTE
DON QUIXOTE was Welles’ most enduring passion: he began filming in 1955 and continued in Mexico, Spain and Italy over the following decades, bringing together the cast and crew whenever he could raise the necessary finances. Welles was still talking about finishing the film months before his death in 1985.
At the end of Welles’s life, all that remained of DON QUIXOTE was 300,000 feet of poorly-organized film footage. A hastily “restored” version of the film, assembled by director Jess Franco in 1992, was greeted with poor reviews.
In 1998, Gilliam defied the curse that had befallen two directors before him and began production on THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE starring Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp – but he didn’t get far: in the first week of shooting, Rochefort suffered a herniated disc and a flood severely damaged the set. The film was cancelled, resulting in an insurance claim of $15 million. The aborted project yielded the documentary LOST IN LA MANCHA, produced by a second crew that had been hired by Gilliam to document the making of QUIXOTE. Gilliam restarted production in 2008, with Depp still attached to the project and Robert Duvall reportedly stepping in for Rochefort, but the film was postponed again… and again… and again. In 2010, Gilliam announced that the funding had collapsed.
Gilliam re-restarted production in 2014, with John Hurt and Jack O’Connell in the lead roles. Filming is scheduled to begin on August 2015, with a release date of May 2016. Will the curse live on?