DID YOU READ

“Tales From Development Hell” reveals more about the “Lord of the Rings” movie starring The Beatles, and other films we’ll never see

beatles lord of the rings

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In his new book Tales From Development Hell, author and screenwriter David Hughes takes readers on a journey to a place filmmakers hope their projects will never end up: the creative limbo known as Development Hell.

Using the stories of several high-profile, never-made films to illustrate how the Hollywood machine can kill the momentum of even the most plausible projects, Hughes’ offers a fascinating look behind the scenes and into the boardroom as movies are conceived, re-conceived, written and rewritten, but never make it to the screen. From Darren Aronofsky’s “Batman” movie starring Clint Eastwood to a film based on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, Tales From Development Hell recounts the tumultuous journey from pitch to purgatory for a long list of projects.

IFC spoke to Hughes about the book, and got his take on some of the projects he uses as examples, what their fates say about the filmmaking industry, and some of the surprises he discovered during his research. We also received an exclusive excerpt from the book describing one particular project that almost happened: a big-screen adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings starring The Beatles.

IFC: David, can you give me a little background on the book and the research you did for it? How does one go about getting information on stalled projects like these?

DAVID HUGHES: I started work on my first book about unproduced films, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, more than a decade ago (the first volume was published in 1999), so it’s kind of been an ongoing process since then — it’s just been a matter of narrowing the field from the dozens of high-profile unproduced movies to the ones which I felt deserved a whole chapter to themselves.

IFC: What was the most surprising development story you unearthed?

HUGHES: I’m surprised it wasn’t more widely publicised that Oliver Stone and James Cameron both had very different “Planet of the Apes” reboots in the works before Tim Burton landed the gig in 2000. In that case, from reading the various drafts involved, it seemed as though they went ahead and filmed the worst of all possible scripts — but then that’s not as uncommon as one might think. I mean, if you leave Frank Darabont’s “Indiana Jones” script on the shelf and make “Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” all bets are off.

For sheer entertainment value, however, the story of Ridley Scott’s unmade Ebola-outbreak movie “The Hot Zone” takes some beating: Scott had Jodie Foster and Robert Redford as co-leads, and the rights to the originating article, Richard Preston’s “Crisis in the Hot Zone” – and Warner Bros simply ignored them and went ahead and made “Outbreak,” which had the advantage of not having to stick to the facts. You have to admire the chutzpah.

IFC: Did you find any recurring themes or similarities between the projects that often get relegated to development hell?

HUGHES: One word: fear. As Neil Gaiman — one of the countless writers, directors and producers I interviewed for the book — puts it: “Films carry with them a certain amount of fear because if you say ‘Yes’ to something and you’re wrong, you’re out on your ear, whereas if you say ‘No’ to something, you’re never going to get into trouble, if everything is always defensible. So you wind up in development with people trying to make things more like things they know, because that is a defensible position: you will probably not get fired for it. Unfortunately that’s why you wind up with films that look like other films.”

Few people at the studio are willing to risk their job, their reputation, their parking space, their place at the commissary, or whatever, by backing the wrong horse. So they might throw another million at yet another screenplay, by whoever just had a big movie opening (and therefore seems to know what the audience wants), rather than write “the big check” for maybe $100, $200 million, and get it wrong. There is very little to choose between “Speed Racer” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” going in. It’s a crapshoot.

IFC: As you were writing the book, did you find yourself revising any chapters as projects surfaced again or moved forward unexpectedly?

HUGHES: Yes, but those didn’t end up in the book — the last thing I wanted was for a particular film to be in theaters as the book came out, unless of course the development story was still worth writing about. Funnily enough, as the book was getting ready to go to press, the screenwriters of the infamous spec script “Smoke and Mirrors” (about an ageing stage magician called out of retirement to discredit an Algerian mystic — based on a true story) suddenly sold a big script, “Pompeii,” and told me to stand by for news about a revival of “Smoke and Mirrors.” But I’m still waiting for the call, so…

IFC: Among all the projects you researched, was there a particular film that’s had a rougher development period than the rest? Something that just seems unluckier than the others?

HUGHES: Something always seemed to come along to stop Walon “The Wild Bunch” Green’s epic script “Crusade” being made: first director Paul Verhoeven lost his currency when “Showgirls” flopped; then Arnie lost a bit of his sheen when he had a couple of underperformers; then 9/11 made it virtually impossible to film in the Middle East (or to make a politically risky film sympathetic to Muslim factions in the 11th Century); and then Arnie – who was already too old to play the leading man, Hagen – went off to be Governor of California. That one is a real missed opportunity, and now there are millions of dollars stacked up against it, so anyone who takes it on will start with a really big bill. I doubt that will ever happen.

The development of Neil Gaiman’s comic book series The Sandman also makes sobering reading – even when editing the book, my jaw dropped a couple of times – and the fact that the film hasn’t been made at all is some kind of Pyrrhic victory of common sense/artistic sensibility over stupidity/commerciality. They really did try to make Sandman the next Batman, which — as Gaiman said — is a little like trying to make Great Expectations the next Batman.

IFC: You make it clear that there are many, many more reasons for a project to end up in development hell than whether it’s good/well-conceived. What are some of the common reasons you found in your research?

HUGHES: Being “good/well-conceived” is rarely a reason a film gets made to begin with! There are almost as many reasons as there are unproduced films: perhaps a star gets nervous and jumps ship, leaving the studio holding the bag; maybe something similar opens, and doesn’t do that well — or has a similar idea; a star becomes attached but isn’t available for three years, by which time the moment has passed…

Frequently it’s just that the numbers don’t add up. I mean, I would have spent $100 million of my own money on “At the Mountains of Madness,” the H.P. Lovecraft adapatation with Guillermo del Toro directing, Steven Spielberg producing, and Tom Cruise starring. But then someone would legitimately say that the film would have to do $500 million to break even, so it would have to be the biggest R-rated movie of all time. That’s a hell of a big ask. Despite what “Field of Dreams” has taught us, if you build it they don’t always come.

IFC: If there was one stalled project you came across in your research that you could push forward, which one would it be?

HUGHES: I do have a soft spot for “Crusade,” “Smoke and Mirrors,” and “At the Mountains of Madness” — but if I had to pick one I’d have to selfishly say “T.J. Hooker: The Movie” because I wrote it! I thought it was a really fun, viable “Beverly Hills Cop”-style action-comedy with real action and real comedy — not one of those “neither one thing nor the other” efforts like “Starsky and Hutch.” But when “The A-Team” opened, T.J. Hooker creator Rick Husky put it back in a drawer, and now William Shatner is 80, and probably too old to play T.J. Hooker Senior opposite Kevin James or Will Ferrell, or whoever would be tapped to play the hapless T.J. Hooker Junior. Sigh.

IFC: What can aspiring writers/filmmakers learn from your book?

HUGHES: Hopefully that even the biggest filmmakers in the world can struggle to get a film off the ground! James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, Ridley Scott, Tim Burton…these guys have between them put billions of dollars into the Hollywood machine, and they still have a catalogue of unrealised dreams. So hopefully aspiring writers/filmmakers can take solace in the fact that they’re not alone. It’s certainly helped me to remain philosophical in my screenwriting career: I’ve come so close to having high-profile films produced, but I try never to get excited for longer than the duration of the phone call or the meeting — because anything else is just slow-motion suicide.

And now, an excerpt from Tales From Development Hell:

[The Lord of the Rings] had become one of the publishing sensations of the decade, and every studio in town was clamoring for the film rights. This time, it was another 60s phenomenon — The Beatles — who became linked to the project, a move apparently instigated by John Lennon. “We talked about it for a while,” Paul McCartney told Roy Carr, author of The Beatles at the Movies, “but then I started to smell a bit of a carve-up because, immediately, John wanted the lead.” According to Carr, however, Lennon was interested in the role of Gollum, with McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr opting for Frodo, Gandalf and Sam respectively. Whether related to The Beatles’ ambitions or not, United Artists successfully acquired the rights to film The Lord of the Rings in the autumn of 1969, for the sum of $250,000.

It was around this time that Heinz Edelmann, designer and art director of The Beatles’ animated film Yellow Submarine, became interested in pursuing the idea of an animated adaptation. At the time, Edelmann was doubtful that stories of action, suspense and thrills could be depicted as straight animation, and proposed to make the film “as a kind of opera, or a sort of operatic impression”, more closely related to Disney’s Fantasia than, say, The Sword in the Stone. He intended to approach it “As one does an operatic version of any book,” he told Outré magazine, “[to] sort of try for a distillation of the mood and the story, but not follow every twist of the plot.” For instance, “One could have packed 300 pages of wandering into a five-minute sequence set to music.”

Edelmann has said that his version of The Lord of the Rings would not have been stylistically similar to Yellow Submarine: “The artwork would have been completely different: much less colour, and unrealistic, but without the art nouveau touch Yellow Submarine has.” Neither did Tolkien’s original illustrations for the book, which were all based on medieval art, appeal to Edelmann, who saw the story more in terms of an Akira Kurosawa film. “If you look at all the fantasy films done in the last thirty years,” he said in 2001, “there is a strong Japanese ethnic influence in the staging, in the buildings, and especially in the costumes. I think at that time we might have been the first to think in those terms. The Lord of the Rings is such a classic right now that almost no artistic freedom is possible. Back at that time, when it was new and Tolkien was still alive, it would have been a contemporary version, and I think that would have given us much more artistic freedom.” Nevertheless, he added, “I would have loved to have done it. Sometimes I do still think about it, but it would have been an awful amount of work. Maybe it’s better that it has remained just a concept.”

“Tales From Development Hell” by David Hughes is on shelves now. Chime in below or on Facebook or Twitter.

(The Beatles/Lord of the Rings image courtesy of Geeks of Doom.)

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Religuous Bill Maher

Politics Now!

10 Hilarious Political Documentaries You Need to See

Documentary Now! gets political with "The Bunker" premiering September 14th at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: ©Lionsgate/Courtesy Everett Collection

Who says political documentaries can’t be hilarious? The best political docs — like The War Room, the 1993 depiction of the Clinton presidential campaign that Documentary Now! pays homage to with “The Bunker” — have plenty in them to make you laugh. Here are 10 political documentaries that will elicit more than just bitter laughter.

1. The Yes Men

Activist duo Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos are responsible for not just one, but three funny and scathing political documentaries: The Yes Men (2003), The Yes Men Fix the World (2009) and The Yes Men are Revolting (2014). The pair impersonate bad guys from the worlds of business and government, and often end up fooling the media. They also stage elaborate pranks like having dozens of people don inflatable ball outfits called SurvivaBalls to help survive catastrophes resulting from climate change. Along the way they’ve racked up numerous awards and almost as many arrests.


2. Weiner

“Hilarious…like a Spinal Tap of politics,” said the New York Post about the doc Weiner, of course adding, “…it’s the full package.” This doc follows the disgraced Congressman, who had to resign due to a sexting scandal, in his quest for a comeback, running for Mayor of New York City. Incredibly, yet another sexting scandal explodes during the course of filming. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, as the whole sordid story unfolds before the cameras, featuring Weiner and his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin. It’s the film that puts the (Carlos) “danger” back in politics.


3. Please Vote for Me

Politics on a scale much smaller but just as riveting are on display in this 2007 documentary. A third grade class in China is given the task of holding an election for class monitor. The resulting web of intrigue, dirty tricks and bare-knuckle politics among this group of 8-year-olds are reminiscent of something Karl Rove or Lee Atwater would come up with. And the parents are worse. A fascinating look at the roots of democracy, with a touch of Lord of the Flies.


4. Roger & Me

Filmmaker Michael Moore could have any one of a number of his movies in this list (his is the first name most people think of when the subject of funny political docs comes up). But his first doc, Roger & Me, remains one of his funniest and — with its focus on the economic impact of globalization on American workers — still remains one of his timeliest. The film centers around Moore’s attempts to confront then CEO of General Motors Roger B. Smith. Moments from the film including scenes with former game show host Bob Eubanks and another with a luckless rabbit have become iconic.


5. Bronx Obama

The first feature-length documentary from filmmaker Ryan Murdock, Bronx Obama follows the story of Louis Ortiz, a lifelong resident of the South Bronx. Unemployed and with a young daughter, Ortiz is told by a friend in 2007 that he looks like a rising young politician. Before long, he’s making a living as a Barack Obama impersonator. The award-winning doc shows many hilarious moments intentional and otherwise as Ortiz comes to grips with his new life over the course of three years during Obama’s first term and deals with an unscrupulous manager.


6. Religulous

Bill Maher brings his scathing satire of organized religion to his 2008 documentary Religulous. In the course of the film he travels to The Wailing Wall, The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City and The Vatican, among other places. But some of the best scenes are in cheesy locales like The Creation Museum and a Christian theme park in Orlando called Holy Land Experience. He even finds a Muslim gay bar in Amsterdam. Maher is merciless in his mockery of the main Western religions, but even if you disagree with his viewpoints, his comedy is always spot on.


7. Al Franken: God Spoke

From the makers of The War Room, this doc shows the evolution of Al Franken from comedian to political pundit during the first term of George W. Bush. We see Franken touring in promotion of his book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot, broadcasting at Air America Radio and touring with the USO in Iraq. The most memorable encounters in the film are clashes with right-wing pundits like Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. It’s a funny look at a man on a journey from SNL to the US Senate.


8. Journeys with George

In the year 2000, Alexandra Pelosi (daughter of Nancy Pelosi) was covering the presidential campaign of then-Texas Governor George W. Bush for NBC. For 18 months, she also used a handheld camcorder to record Journeys with George. The result is a remarkably warm and funny portrait of a somewhat goofball politician. Pelosi went on to become a filmmaker. Bush went on to bigger things as well. From the vantage point of 16 years later, the big takeaway from Journeys with George is that George W. Bush seemed a lot funnier before we had eight years of him as president.


9. Mitt

You may have suspected that George W. Bush could make a goofily entertaining subject for a documentary. What you never suspected was that Mitt Romney could ever be anything other than stiff and robotic. For the film Mitt, documentarian Greg Whiteley was given unprecedented access to Romney in his runs for president in both 2008 and 2012. What emerges is a surprisingly human portrait of Romney and his family. There’s an amazing scene in the hotel on the night Mitt lost to Barack Obama revealing that he never even contemplated the possible need for a concession speech.


10. Sarah Palin: You Betcha!

No list of things both political and funny can avoid having at least one entry about Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin: You Betcha! is from noted British documentarian Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney) and should not be confused with the fawning Palin doc The Undefeated. In 2011, after she had become a conservative icon, Broomfield went to Alaska and documented his attempts at getting an interview with Palin in a Roger & Me-esque pursuit. In interviews with Palin family, friends, fans and foes, Broomfield manages to make the self-described “mama grizzly” seem both dangerous and ridiculous, both of which are undoubtedly true.

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Die Laughing

5 Depictions of “Death” in Comedy

Catch Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey this week on IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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With Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey airing as part of IFC’s Rotten Fridays, we got to thinking about how exactly the character of Death made his way onto the screen – and onto the poster – of a 1991 comedy sequel.

Ingmar Bergman’s depiction of Death in his 1957 classic The Seventh Seal set the tone for how most people think of The Grim Reaper. Portrayed by Bengt Ekerot, Death was a chess-playing philosopher, answering deep existential questions while capturing your rook with his knight. In Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Death is partial to board games.

Here then is the journey of Death in movie comedies, from Bill & Ted to Whoopi.

1. The Dove / De Duva (1968)

Three years after The Seventh Seal hit theaters, this short film parodied as much Ingmar Bergman as could fit into 14 minutes. The centerpiece is of course the pale-faced and shrouded Death, challenged this time in a game of badminton. It’s also the film debut of Madeline Kahn, who would go on to become the queen of parody with Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety and Blazing Saddles.


2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail trailer (1975)

One of the greatest comedies of all times parodies one of the greatest movies of all times –- but only in the trailer. Referring to the director and title by name, this preview promises something “all rather silly” when compared to The Seventh Seal. To wit: Death takes a pie to the face.


3. Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Bill and Ted
Orion Pictures

If Death can play chess, then why not Twister, Clue and Battleship? Of all the comic portrayals of Death in movies, this is the one that holds up best. William Sadler brings a vulnerability to the role while never losing Death’s sense of menace. Like the Bill & Ted movies, it’s brilliantly smart and stupid all at the same time.


4. The Last Action Hero (1993)

"Ian
Columbia Pictures

This action-comedy-trainwreck acknowledges The Seventh Seal as a movie and then takes a big leap as the character of Death leaves the land of Ingmar Bergman and jumps into the world of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ian McKellen (the Bengt Ekerot of our day) takes over the role and wreaks havoc in 1990s America.


5. Monkeybone (2001)

Monkeybone
20th Century Fox

Whoopi Goldberg plays Death in this bizarre 2001 comedy, where Brendan Fraser’s comatose cartoonist must get an “exit pass” from Death in order to return to the land of the living. Also, Death has a giant robot. It’s a weird movie, folks.

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Rick Moranis Honey I shrunk the kids

Rick of Time

10 Best Rick Moranis Roles

Catch Rick Moranis in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Buena Vista Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection

Everyone loves Rick Moranis. It’s just the truth. This month on IFC, you get a chance to rediscover his awesomeness in Honey, I Shrunk the KidsAs you enjoy that family comedy gem, here are a few other roles that showcase Rick Moranis’ greatness.

1. Little Shop of Horrors, Seymour Krelborn

Only Rick Moranis could play a character that you still root for even though he’s murdering people and feeding them to an alien plant. Audiences loved Seymour so much, the studio had to reshoot the ending of the film. Originally, the film ended like the original Off-Broadway play, with Seymour and Audrey being eaten and Audrey II taking over the world. Test audiences couldn’t stand the fact that they were killed, so a new ending was shot with our leads victorious and the film became one of the best movie musicals of all time.


2. Ghostbusters, Louis Tully

In a film with so many comedy legends, it would have been easy for Rick Moranis to fade into the background as the hapless Louis Tully. But he more than holds his own up against the rest, making Tully just as funny as he is pathetic. And when he goes bug-eyed as Vinz Clortho, Keymaster of Gozer, that’s when the fun really starts.


3. Spaceballs, Dark Helmet

You don’t often think of James Earl Jones and Rick Moranis being typecast together. But in Mel Brooks’ goofy send-up of Star Wars, Moranis takes on his version of Darth Vader. As Dark Helmet, Moranis is a perfect mixture of occasionally threatening and mostly inept. If Brooks ever decides to revisit the Spaceballs franchise on the big screen, hopefully he’ll find a way to bring Dark Helmet into the new Star Wars universe.


4. Parenthood, Nathan Huffner

Directed by Ron Howard, Parenthood is a wonderfully truthful movie about marriage, having children and the dangers of oral sex while driving. Moranis plays Nathan Huffner, an intellectual who’s more interested in raising his daughter as a science experiment than being a loving father. Though there are many comedic moments, this is a much more understated performance for Moranis. And he gets easily the sweetest moment in the film when he serenades his estranged wife in front of her students.


5. Strange Brew, Bob McKenzie

Bob and Doug McKenzie were breakout characters from SCTV that were originally created by government demand — the CBC mandates that a certain percentage of all shows in Canada have specifically Canadian content. So, Moranis and Dave Thomas thought of the most stereotypical Canadians possible and the McKenzie brothers were born. The duo appeared on SCTV, in Pizza Hut and Molson commercials, on a platinum-selling comedy album and their big screen debut, Strange Brew. It’s a tale of poisoned beer, mind control plots and an escape from an insane asylum. Plus, it’s a loose take on Hamlet. Probably not what you’d expect from characters made as a joke, but that’s what makes Bob McKenzie a great and surprising “hoser.”


6. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Wayne Szalinski

In this 1989 classic, Rick Moranis plays a bumbling inventor who accidentally shrinks his kids and neighbors to the size of ants. Though that may sound horrifying, Moranis is great as a man who’s thrilled that something of his finally worked and just as comically terrified by what he’s done. With impressive special effects for the time, the film still holds up as a fun family comedy.


7. My Blue Heaven, Barney Coopersmith

Did you know that Rick Moranis was in a comedic version of Goodfellas? My Blue Heaven, starring Steve Martin and Moranis, came out one month before Scorsese’s legendary Mob film. Though the silly comedy and gritty gangster drama may seem completely different, both are based on the life of Henry Hill, known as Vinnie Antonelli in Heaven. Moranis plays the average neighbor who tries to keep former mobster Vinnie (Martin) in line so he can remain in witness protection. Though Goodfellas was based on a novel about Hill’s life by Nicholas Pileggi, My Blue Heaven was written Nora Ephron, who happened to be married to Pileggi at the time. It’s a small mob world.


8. The Wild Life, Harry

This ’80s teen comedy has been mostly forgotten, but it’s notable not only for a performance by Moranis as a trendy manager with very big hair but it’s top level cast. Eric Stoltz, Randy Quaid, Lea Thompson and a bleached blonde Chris Penn all star, with a soundtrack by Eddie Van Halen. It’s all the more surprising that this film isn’t better remembered, since it was writer Cameron Crowe’s follow up to Fast Times at Ridgemont High.


9. Head Office, Howard Gross

This 1985 satire of the corporate world stars Judge Reinhold as a new employee who gets mysteriously promoted within a huge company and learns of the seedy underbelly of business. The film features a few subplots, one starring Danny DeVito and one with Moranis as a failing executive whose screaming idiocy is a great parody of the executive top brass. Though it may not be much of a parody, since we’ve all probably experienced our fair share of screaming, asinine bosses.


10. Brewster’s Millions, Morty King

In Brewster’s Millions, Richard Pryor finds out he’ll get a $300 million inheritance only if he can spend $30 million in one month. (If only we all had such troubles.) As Pryor’s character gets more attention for his big spending and eventual mayoral campaign, he attracts a bunch of odd characters. One of which is Moranis as Morty King, King of the Mimics. It’s a small role where he plays a guy that always repeats everything that’s said, but Morty has got a great costume and Moranis plays this confident weirdo with delightful skill. Also, the idea of anyone crowning himself “King of the Mimics” for doing a trick that little brothers use to annoy everyone is a pretty insane thought.

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