Book Review: Tales From Development Hell

Tales From Development Hell
The Greatest Movies Never Made?
New Updated Edition
Paperback | Kindle
By David Hughes
Titan Books
Release Date: February 28, 2012

The Lowdown

For every movie that gets released each year hundreds or thousands more don’t even make it past the script stage. Some even get cancelled just as filming is about to begin. It’s all part of working in the business. Writers know this. Those who are just starting out with dreams of one day writing for the movies scour trade publications such as Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter and camp out in Internet chat rooms and film fan forums to read in wide-eyed wonder at the joy they found in news stories about young screenwriters who sold their first script to a major studio for untold sums of money. Sometimes those stories are true, but for most screenwriters before you manage to sell one script you will have to write another ten or twenty that will get tossed in some studio executive’s waste basket or get locked away in your desk drawer for the rest of time.

Film sites are always running articles about the great movies that sadly remain unmade, that came so close to going before the cameras before they were killed for a variety of reasons or were slowly poisoned in the pre-production stage. It’s wonderful to read these articles, to gaze upon the rich details of fantastic movie scripts that were commissioned or written on spec, to have your mind melted at the directors and writers and actors who labored for years to bring these movies to the silver screen only to see their tireless efforts fail to pay off. However, we don’t always get the full story, probably because if we knew every single detail of what caused a potential classic of cinema to die on paper we would likely smash our computer screens to pieces and burn every title in our DVD or Blu-ray collection.

Tales From Development Hell was British author David Hughes‘ follow-up to his astounding 2002 book The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, a title that has become a cherished part of my personal library. First published in the U.S. in 2004 Tales told the bruising, torturous, and occasionally optimistic tales of several films that never got to go before the cameras, many of which had already been recounted in the trades and on the various fan sites over the years. Most of the time while I was reading this book I would put it down and sigh when I realized that the fourth Indiana Jones movie could have been so much better if Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had filmed Frank Darabont’s amazing 2005 draft Indiana Jones and the City of the Gods, which not only had better characters and cooler action scenes, but also would have brought back Sean Connery as Indy’s father. Best of all, no part for Shia LeBeouf!

Hughes also chronicles the development of the return of the Planet of the Apes film franchise, which oddly enough began in 1988 under the direction of Adam Rifkin (Detroit Rock City) and would go through directors like Oliver Stone, Michael Bay, Phillip Noyce, and Chris Columbus before Tim Burton signed on to helm what would become the much-derided 2001 Planet of the Apes “re-imagining.” The most horrifying passage in that chapter is when a particularly meddlesome studio executive insisted there be a scene in the script where the human hero teaches the apes how to play baseball. Even more frightening are the horror stories surrounding the pained development of a movie based on Neil Gaiman’s Vertigo Comics classic Sandman. Although the various writers, which included Oscar-winner Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), makes no bones about the fact that Gaiman’s non-linear approach to writing the Sandman comic made crafting a screenplay highly difficult having the constant creative interference of befuddled and apoplectic superstar producer Jon Peters trying to mutate Gaiman’s esoteric creation into a more conventional superhero adventure made the task akin that of childbirth without the benefit of epidural.

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name comes up a few times in the book. He was mooted for the lead in Oliver Stone’s Planet of the Apes movie before it collapsed and one chapter details the long development of a Total Recall sequel after Miramax Films bought the rights to make the film in the late 1990’s. But the greatest unrealized project that Schwarzenegger was born to star in was Crusade, an epic medieval adventure that would have re-teamed him with his Total Recall director, Dutch firebrand Paul Verhoeven. This is my favorite chapter of the book despite the fact that of all the unmade film projects Hughes discusses in his book Crusade is the one that should have been a no-brainer for any studio to finance. The project was something that Verhoeven and Schwarzenegger took seriously and they set out to make it an A-list film, something more ambitious and challenging than anything the Austrian action hero and future California politico had ever been involved with or would ever be for the rest of his movie career. But the escalating budget, graphic violence, and weighty thematic content made Crusade into a political hot potato no studio would touch, especially in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

We also get extensively-detailed looks into the making of competing bio-pics about Howard Hughes that had directors like Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan and stars like Johnny Depp, Nicolas Cage, and Jim Carrey all attached at various points until Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator was released in late 2004. Another chapter spotlights the development of a single film based on the Lord of the Rings trilogy that John Boorman (Deliverance) was enticed to make for United Artists in the early 1970’s, which at point was going to star the Beatles. The Tomb Raider movies get their own chapter as well; while I’ve never been a big fan of the busty digital heroine’s big screen exploits the story of the many different script drafts that were commissioned and ultimately discarded before the studio ultimately went with what amounted to a last-minute cut-and-paste job that didn’t translate well to the screen is no less fascinating.

At least some of the chapters have happy endings, particularly in this new updated edition. Sections about the making of a new Batman movie that took nearly a decade before Nolan’s Batman Begins resurrected the franchise in 2005 and the aforementioned Indiana Jones and Planet of the Apes movies close on a positive note, indicating that while the end results may have been greeted with mixed reactions from moviegoers and critics sometimes a special film is lucky to escape from the dark recesses of Development Hell. Each chapter in this updated edition has been expanded to include new material given the eight-year difference between editions. For this edition Hughes even added two new chapters: one discusses the ongoing development of a new film based on Issac Asimov’s sci-fi novel Fantastic Voyage that has involved directors like Roland Emmerich, James Cameron, and currently Shaun Levy; the other is an autobiographical tale of Hughes’ own journey through Development Hell. The writer has spent most of the past decade attempting to break into the business of Hollywood screenwriting and even spent some time working on the script for 2004’s Exorcist: The Beginning, the movie most notorious for being filmed once by veteran writer-director Paul Schrader (Affliction) and then scrapped by a studio that found the film too cerebral and completely re-shot by Renny Harlin (Deep Blue Sea).

Although most of the stories contained in Tales From Development Hell do not always inspire the feelings of sadness and spontaneous outbursts of “WHY THE HELL WASN’T THIS MADE?” that one would get from reading The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, you do a greater sense of the mind-boggling difficulty all writers must face when they set out to script a feature film. It’s one thing to read harrowing tales of genre properties with narrow audience appeal that are axed by the studios, but when even a surefire prospect like a Batman: Year One movie directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan) or a sword-slashing epic adventure with Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime can be impolitely tossed aside one starts to wonder if the mentality of a typical studio development exec is something that a sane human mind is capable of analyzing without losing a great part of their soul or the ability to digest dry toast.

Last Words

There are a million stories in the naked city known as Development Hell, and David Hughes’ Tales From Development Hell is an entertaining and informative collection of just a few of the more notorious stories of the collision between artistic ambition, corporate small-mindedness, and rampant celebrity egomania. More than that it is also a series of powerful cautionary tales that any fan of the cinema or budding screenwriter should read if they want to know just how tough it can be to write for the movies.

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