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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Watch Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein in SNL’s Southern Rock Supergroup

Fred and Carrie kept it mellow on the SNL season finale.

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Photo Credit: Saturday Night Live / NBC Universal

It was a veritable “band from comedy heaven” this weekend as a myriad of comedians assembled for a feel-good musical sketch in the Saturday Night Live season finale. Guest host Fred Armisen was joined by Portlandia cohort Carrie Brownstein as well as Maya Rudolph, Andy Samberg, Jason Sudeikis, Larry David, and members of the SNL cast to form faux-southern-rock supergroup The Harkin Brothers — a band whose members managed to outnumber its audience.

If The Harkin Brothers’ smooth vocal stylings remind you of The Blue Jean Committee from Documentary Now!, that’s probably not a coincidence. The BJC first appeared in a different, more regionally-specific form in a SNL sketch with Sudeikis on drums.

Watch an all-star SNL cast perform a mellow tribute to Arkansas called “Summertime in Fayetteville” in the video below.

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Is "Farewell, Mr. Bunting" the best SNL sketch of the season?

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Photo Credit: Saturday Night Live / NBC Universal

The 41st season of Saturday Night Live drew to a close this past weekend, and star of Portlandia and Documentary Now! Fred Armisen hosted the occasion. A former SNL player himself, this homecoming allowed Fred to show off the comedy chops and character skills he’s honed since leaving Studio 8H.

Here are the 5 funniest sketches from the season finale of Saturday Night Live hosted by Fred Armisen.

1. Farewell, Mr. Bunting

What appears to be a straightforward take on the maudlin climax of the 1989 Robin Williams classic Dead Poets Society takes quite an unexpected turn. But if you’re really watching, you’ll realize it’s completely organic and integral to the plot.


2. Fred’s Monologue and One-Man Show

Actor, writer, producer, musician, impressionist — Fred can do it all. So tackling the many characters in the story of his life is a cakewalk for such a talent. Here, Fred takes us on the emotional journey through the day he got the job at SNL and luckily he leaves no detail, however minor or insignificant, out of the performance.


3. New Girlfriend

We were wondering what characters Fred would bring back, but we didn’t predict Regine. Fellow SNL alum Jason Sudeikis appears in this sketch as Regine’s new boyfriend, who introduces his pals to his snarky, raunchy lady. Watch Aidy Bryant try not to crack up at Fred/Regine’s joygasms.


4. Expedition

Three of the biggest stars in American colonialism are Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and Sacagawea. But what most history books choose to omit is the simmering sexual tension between the three explorers. Fortunately, a group of community players illustrate the historical figures’ lustful dynamic to a high school class in graphic detail.


5. Escape Pod

As an interstellar ship begins breaking apart, Fred plays the lucky member of the space crew who wins access to the last escape pod. But a heartfelt goodbye is mitigated by the pod’s virtual assistant ensuring all the luxuries and pampering are to the occupant’s liking.

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Batter up for A League of Their Own this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

While there may be no crying in baseball, lots of blood, sweat, and tears went into the making of A League of Their Own. From sweltering July heat to concussions to the Material Girl causing trouble, making the hit film wasn’t exactly a homerun. Before you catch A League of Their Own on IFC, check out some dirt on the making of this sports movie classic. Hear that call! The time has come for one and all to play ball!

1. The cast really had to play baseball.

League of Their Own Quotes
Columbia Pictures

Director Penny Marshall was adamant that all of the actresses cast in the film could really play baseball. Prior to the start of filming, the cast (even Madonna!) trained eight hours a day, six days a week for over seven months to hone their skills and bond as a team. They initially practiced sliding using a Slip ‘N Slide, but that method was abandoned when both Tracy Reiner and Megan Cavanagh suffered concussions.


2. Geena Davis auditioned in Penny Marshall’s backyard.

Geena Davis
Columbia Pictures

The Fly and Beetlejuice star was the last person cast in the film after several other prominent actresses like Debra Winger, Laura Dern, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Demi Moore passed. Davis had never played baseball but won Marshall over through a game of catch in her backyard. A natural athlete, Davis was outplaying most of the other actresses on the film. (Though she did use a double for the sliding portion of her infamous catch in the splits.)


3. Tom Hanks entertained the extras with puppet shows.

Tom Hanks
Columbia Pictures

Over 1,700 extras were used throughout the shoot, enduring long hours and occasionally extreme 100+ degree summer heat while on location in Indiana. To keep them entertained in between shots and scenery changes, members of the cast performed. Tom Hanks did puppet shows behind the dugout while Rosie O’Donnell would perform stand-up. Madonna reportedly refused to perform (what a shocker!), leaving the rest of the cast to perform imitations of her. Geena Davis suggested they perform “Bohemian Rhapsody” and songs from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, assigning Tom Hanks the role of Caiaphas.


4. Madonna wasn’t exactly a team player.

Madonna Bosoms
Columbia Pictures

To say the Material Girl was a bit of a handful during the shoot is an understatement. In addition to refusing to perform for the extras and ignoring requests for autographs, she often complained about coming into the film a star but being relegated to the background. According to costar and friend Rosie O’Donnell, Madonna brought a boombox to set the first day and warned everybody that if they broke it, they’d have to buy her another one. She also wrote a somewhat scathing letter about her experiences to a friend, calling Geena Davis a “Barbie Doll” and lamenting the lack of “beautiful men” in Chicago.


5. All of the injuries in the film were real.

Bruise League of their Own
Columbia Pictures

The real women of the All American Girls Pro Baseball League were tough, but their onscreen counterparts were equally as tenacious on the field. Penny Marshall had the actresses play a lot of real games with multiple cameras set up in order to get enough footage for montages, and they didn’t go easy on one another, jamming their shoulders, spraining fingers, and nearly breaking noses. The giant strawberry bruise Alice gets while sliding into base was a real injury actress Renee Coleman sustained during filming, and it lasted for well over a year.  Ouch.


6. Lori Petty and Rosie O’Donnell were the real most valuable players.

Rosie O'Donnell
Columbia Pictures

Though Geena Davis showed natural ability and was supposed to be the “best player in the league,” on-set coach William E. Hughes was most impressed by Lori Petty and Rosie O’Donnell. Petty could actually outrun Davis, so she was forced to slow her pace during the scene where the two race so as not to appear faster than Davis. She wound up throwing more pitches during filming than most Major League Baseball pitchers do in a full season. O’Donnell had actually played Little League baseball with her brothers growing up, so she excelled during training camp, learning how to throw two balls at once from one of the real AAGPBL players on set. O’Donnell and Petty often had hitting competitions and could hit the fences at Major League parks with little difficulty.


7. Even Tom Hanks didn’t know how long he would pee in the locker room scene.

One of the most memorable moments in A League of Their Own occurs when Jimmy Dugan introduces himself by bursting into the locker room in a drunken stupor and relieving himself in front of the rest of the Peaches while Mae times him. To keep both Hanks and the actresses on their toes, Penny Marshall stood in a stall off camera and made the noises with a hose and a bucket for maximum comedic effect. The actual length of Dugan’s epic #1 is an impressive 53 seconds!


8. Jimmy and Dottie had a romantic subplot that was cut from the film.

A League of Their Own Spit

The initial cut of the film clocked in around four hours before being cut down to its more slender two hours and eight minutes. Among the footage left on the cutting room floor were scenes depicting a growing romantic relationship between Dugan and star player Dottie. The conversation on the bus left in the final cut of the film hints at tension, but in a deleted scene the pair shared a passionate kiss late one night on the field which is what originally led to the scene with Dottie telling Lowenstein she was going home.


9. Jon Lovitz was almost upstaged by a cow.

In the scene where Lovitz’s character, baseball scout Ernie Capadino (a role specifically written for the SNL star), visits Dottie and Kit at their family dairy farm, the girls are seen milking cows. Unbeknownst to Lovitz, one of the cows off-screen was giving birth and mooing loudly, causing him to ad lib the line “WILL YOU SHUT UP?!” It was only after they finished filming that Lovitz found out a calf had been born, which the farm named Penny after director Penny Marshall.


10. Some of the cast reprised their roles on the A League of Their Own TV Show.

CBS aired a TV version of A League of Their Own for a brief period in 1993. Cast members Megan Cavanagh, Tracy Reiner and Jon Lovitz reprised their roles, with former “Bond Girl” Cary Lowell in the Dottie role and Sam McMurray channeling Hanks as Jimmy. As you can imagine, it only lasted five episodes.

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