Telling Tales From Development Hell

by Ethan Alter February 28, 2012 6:01 am
Telling <i>Tales From Development Hell</i>

Everyone knows that Tom Selleck was going to be Indiana Jones before his Magnum P.I. commitment passed the fedora and bullwhip along to Harrison Ford instead. But were you also aware that an early draft of the screenplay for the film that would become Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull featured cameos by such characters as Sallah, Willie and Short Round? That's one of the many fun pieces of behind-the-scenes trivia you'll learn in David Hughes's, Tales From Development Hell, which explores the fortunes of some of the greatest movies never made. An updated version of his 2004 tome of the same name, this new edition, which hits stores today, reveals what happened to such high-profile, development hell stranded projects as Paul Verhoeven and Arnold Schwarzenegger's medieval epic, Crusade, Darren Aronofsky's gritty Batman reboot Year One and the multiple big-screen versions of Neil Gaiman's beloved Sandman comic. We won't spoil all of the secrets that this enjoyable, well-researched book has to offer, but here are a few choice tidbits sure to whet movie lovers' appetites.

* Long before Tim Burton royally screwed it up, then-fledgling writer/director Adam Rifkin was hired to relaunch the Planet of the Apes franchise with what he described as an "alternate sequel" to the 1968 original. This modestly-budgeted version would pick up three centuries after the first film with a descendant of Charlton Heston's time-tripping astronaut leading a Spartacus-like human revolt against the decadent Ape Empire. Initially put on the fast track to production, the project fell into development hell after a new round of hirings and firings at Fox. Several other bigger-name directors (including Oliver Stone, Chris Columbus and James Cameron) subsequently passed through the revolving door that was the Apes relaunch before Burton landed the gig. And we all know how that turned out.

* This summer's Prometheus marks Ridley Scott's long-awaited return to the science fiction genre since Blade Runner flopped hard at the box office all those years ago. But the director originally planned to venture back into sci-fi territory in the late '80 with a script entitled Dead Reckoning penned by Jim Uhls (who would later write the film versions of Fight Club and... um, Jumper). Pitched as "Alien on a train," the story took place, a la Blade Runner, in a dystopian Los Angeles and involved a genetically engineered creature getting loose on a runaway underground train. Scott actually enlisted his old Alien collaborator H.R. Giger to come up with early designs for the movie, but then moved on to make Thelma & Louise without informing the artist that Dead Reckoning was... well, dead, at least for the time being. You'll have to read the book to find out for yourself how a prolonged stint in development hell transformed Scott's Dead Reckoning into a Sylvester Stallone action vehicle called ISOBAR.

* Of the many terrible versions of Sandman that passed through development hell, the absolute worst had to be a script penned by William Farmer, who turned Neil Gaiman's Morpheus into a kind of badass dream warrior battling the Corinthian (who in this iteration is the Dream King's brother) over the life of one Rose Kendall that holds the key to preventing Lucifer from taking over the world. Besides being utterly unrecognizable when placed alongside the source material, the script suffered from terrible dialogue and bone-headed plot reveals. Neil Gaiman hated it so much that he openly called it "nonsensical, poorly written trash" in interviews. (For his part, Farmer later claimed that the story was actually created by committee and he was just "the schmuck being paid to make the whole thing read like a script and sign my name to it.")

* Unlike the recent, all-too-faithful animated version of Batman: Year One, Darren Aronofksy's version of Frank Miller's seminal graphic novel would have departed significantly from the text. And here's the kicker: as a co-writer on the script, Miller fully approved of those changes. For starters, following the murder of his parents, young Bruce wouldn't return to Wayne Manor but instead was to be taken in by auto mechanic "Big Al" and raised amongst the slums and whorehouses of Gotham City's East End with little memory of his actual heritage. He makes his debut as a vigilante clad in a cape and hockey mask specifically designed to recall Friday the 13th psycho Jason Voorhees. And finally, his version of the Batmobile is just a black Lincoln Continental with armored bumpers and an engine swiped from a school bus. Aronofsky also contemplated shooting the decidedly hard-R movie on Super-16 to give it an even grittier edge. If you think it's unlikely that a studio would ever greenlight that version of a comic book movie, you're not the only one. As Aronofsky himself says in the book, "I think Warner's always knew it would never be something they would make."

* In the final chapter, Hughes -- who pens screenplays as well as movie reviews for Britain's Empire magazine -- discusses his own personal experiences with development hell, where a number of his screenplays (including T.J. Hooker: The Movie and an action comedy entitled 250 GTO) ended up. Perhaps his most promising screenplay currently stuck in limbo is Airborne, a thriller in which a deadly virus is unleashed aboard a commercial airline traveling between London and Los Angeles. Paul Greengrass originally expressed interest in the script and actually discussed turning it into an eight-episode TV series before moving on to United 93. Currently, there's no director or producer attached, so aspiring filmmakers may want to find a way to get in touch with Hughes if they're interested in helping a poor soul out of development hell.

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