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

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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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Grow TFU

Adulting Like You Mean It

Commuters makes its debut on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Jared Warner, Nick Ciavarella, and Tim Dean were once a part of Murderfist, a group of comedy writers, actors, producers, parents, and reluctant adults. Together with InstaMiniSeries’s Nikki Borges, they’re making their IFC Comedy Crib debut with the refreshingly-honest and joyfully-hilarious Commuters. The webseries follows thirtysomethings Harris and Olivia as they brave the waters of true adulthood, and it’s right on point.

Jared, Nick, Nikki and Tim were kind enough to answer a few questions about Commuters for us. Here’s a snippet of that conversation…

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IFC: How would you describe Commuters to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Nick: Two 30-somethings leave the Brooklyn life behind, and move to the New Jersey suburbs in a forced attempt to “grow up.” But they soon find out they’ve got a long way to go to get to where they want to be.

IFC: How would you describe Commuters to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jared: It’s a show about how f*cking stupid people who think they are smart can be.

IFC: What’s your origin story? When did you all meet and how long have you been working together?

Jared: Nick, Tim, and I were all in the sketch group Murderfist since, what, like 2004? God. Anyway, Tim and Nick left the group to pursue other frivolous things, like children and careers, but we all enjoyed writing together and kept at it. We were always more interested in storytelling than sketch comedy lends itself to, which led to our webseries Jared Posts A Personal. That was a show about being in your 20s and embracing the chaos of being young in the city. Commuters is the counterpoint, i guess. Our director Adam worked at Borders (~THE PAST!!~) with Tim, came out to a Murderfist show once, and we’ve kept him imprisoned ever since.

IFC: What was the genesis of Commuters?

Tim: Jared had an idea for a series about the more realistic, less romantic aspects of being in a serious relationship.  I moved out of the city to the suburbs and Nick got engaged out in LA.   We sort of combined all of those facets and Commuters was the end result.

IFC: How would Harris describe Olivia?

Jared: Olivia is the smartest, coolest, hottest person in the world, and Harris can’t believe he gets to be with her, even though she does overreact to everything and has no chill. Like seriously, ease up. It doesn’t always have to be ‘a thing.’

IFC: How would Olivia describe Harris?

Nikki:  Harris is smart, confident with a dry sense of humor but he’s also kind of a major chicken shit…. Kind of like if Han Solo and Barney Rubble had a baby.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Nikki:  I think this is the most accurate portrayal of what a modern relationship looks like. Expectations for what your life is ‘supposed to look like’ are confusing and often a let down but when you’re married to your best friend, it’s going to be ok because you will always find a way to make each other laugh.

IFC: Is the exciting life of NYC twentysomethings a sweet dream from which we all must awake, or is it a nightmare that we don’t realize is happening until it’s over?

Tim: Now that i’ve spent time living in the suburbs, helping to raise a two year old, y’all city folk have no fucking clue how great you’ve got it.

Nikki: I think of it similar to how I think about college. There’s a time and age for it to be glorious but no one wants to hang out with that 7th year senior. Luckily, NYC is so multifaceted that you can still have an exciting life here but it doesn’t have to be just what the twentysomethings are doing (thank god).

Jared: New York City is a garbage fire.

See the whole season of Commuters right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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C'mon Fellas

A Man Mansplains To Men

Why Baroness von Sketch Show is a must-see.

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Mansplaining is when a man takes it upon himself to explain something to a woman that she already knows. It happens a lot, but it’s not going to happen here. Ladies, go ahead and skip to the end of this post to watch a free episode of IFC’s latest addition, Baroness von Sketch Show.

However, if you’re a man, you might actually benefit from a good mansplanation. So take a knee, lean in, and absorb the following wisdom.

No Dicks

Baroness von Sketch Show is made entirely by women, therefore this show isn’t focused on men. Can you believe it? I know what you’re thinking: how will we know when to laugh if the jokes aren’t viewed through the dusty lens of the patriarchy? Where are the thinly veiled penis jokes? Am I a bad person? In order: you will, nowhere, and yes.

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Huge Balls

Did you know that there’s more to life than poop jokes, sex jokes, body part jokes? I mean, those things are all really good things, natch, and totally edgy. But Baroness von Sketch Show does something even edgier. It holds up a brutal funhouse mirror to our everyday life. This is a bulls**t world we made, fellas.

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Oh Canada

After you watch the Canadian powerhouses of Baroness von Sketch Show and think to yourself “Dear god, this is so real” and “I’ve gotta talk about this,” do yourself a favor and think a-boot your options: Refrain from sharing your sage wisdom with any woman anywhere (believe us, she gets it). Instead, tell a fellow bro and get the mansplaining out of your system while also spreading the word about a great show.

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Dudes, that’s the deal.
Women, start reading again here:


Check out the preview episode of Baroness von Sketch Show and watch the series premiere August 2 on IFC.

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Happy Tears

Binge Don’t Cringe

Catch up on episodes of Documentary Now! and Portlandia.

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Photo Credit: GIFs via GIPHY

A brain can only take so much.

Every five minutes, all day, every day, ludicrously stressful headlines push our mental limits as we struggle to adapt to a reality that seems increasingly less real. What’s a mind to do when simple denial just isn’t good enough anymore?

Radical suggestion: repeal and replace. And by that we mean take all the bad news that keeps you up at night, press pause, and substitute it with some genuine (not nervous, for a change) laughter. Here are some of the issues on our mind.

Gender Inequality

Feminist bookstore owners by day, still feminist bookstore owners by night, Toni and Candace show the male gaze who’s boss. Learn about their origin story (SPOILER: there’s an epic dance battle) and see what happens when their own brand of empowerment gets out of hand.

Healthcare

From Candace’s heart attack to the rise of the rawvolution, this Portlandia episode proves that healthcare is vital.

Peaceful Protests

Too many online petitions, too little time? Get WOKE with Fred and Carrie when they learn how to protest.

What Could Have Been

Can’t say the name “Clinton” without bursting into tears? Documentary Now!’s masterfully political “The Bunker” sheds a cozy new light on the house that Bill and Hill built. Just pretend you don’t know how the story really ends.

Fake News

A healthy way to break the high-drama news cycle is to switch over to “Dronez”, which has all the thrills of ubiquitous adventure journalism without any of the customary depression.

The more you watch, the better you feel. So get started on past episodes of Documentary Now! and Portlandia right now at IFC.com and the IFC app.

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