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Film... Lost gems: The greatest films never made


Documentary: The Death of Superman Lives tries to find out what went so wrong with the 1990s bid to resurrect the Superman franchise

Documentary: The Death of Superman Lives tries to find out what went so wrong with the 1990s bid to resurrect the Superman franchise




Documentary: The Death of Superman Lives tries to find out what went so wrong with the 1990s bid to resurrect the Superman franchise

Film writing is a fickle business, and the vast majority of screenplays that enter the Hollywood treadmill never make it out the other end. Even those ideas given the green light don't always make it to your cinema, and some productions get cast, budgeted and even partially shot before a nervous studio or producer pulls the plug.

Few got closer to being made that Superman Lives, an ill-fated attempt to revive the Superman franchise in the mid-1990s that fell foul of a mercurial director and a studio made twitchy by a string of costly flops. And a new documentary called The Death of Superman Lives, which we'll see here later in the year, tries to find out exactly what went so horribly wrong.

In the course of his meticulous film, director Joe Schnepp managed to talk to most of those concerned in the costly failure, from director Tim Burton and writers Kevin Smith, Dan Gilroy and Wesley Strick to controversial producer Jon Peters, and Warner Brothers executive Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Intriguingly, we don't get to hear from Nicholas Cage, Burton's unlikely choice to play the Man of Steel, but perhaps the actor finds the memory too painful.

Burton had retired from the Batman franchise after completing Batman Returns in 1992, but was persuaded to take on the Superman resurrection for a 'pay or play' $5m contract. He had a full crew, most of his cast, had chosen locations, ordered rewrites to Kevin Smith's original script and spent $10m of his budget before Warners began worrying about exactly how big that budget was going to get.

They were also worried about Cage, the twitchy, nervy, unpredictable leading man who was then on a high after winning an Oscar for his portrayal of a suicidal drunk in Leaving Las Vegas. The superhero fan-base found it hard to imagine him playing the do-gooder from Krypton, but Warners were even more concerned about the antics of producer Jon Peters, whose vision for the famous character was, shall we say, problematic.

Peters was dismissive of Superman's traditional image, and wanted him to dress in black rather than red and blue, never be shown flying, and do battle with a giant spider. It all began to sound more and more like a costly stinker, and in April of 1998 Warners put the project on hold and Burton left to make Sleepy Hollow.

One is left wondering how Cage might have fared as Superman, an intriguing question that will never now be answered. But Superman Lives is just one of a number of very famous projects that were started but never finished, or abandoned on the eve of production.

One of my favourite doomed projects is Giraffes on Horseback Salad, a 1937 screenplay writer by the surrealist painter Salvadore Dali for the Marx Brothers. Dali had come to Hollywood to try and move surrealism into the mainstream. He became friendly with Harpo Marx, was a great admirer of Groucho's anarchic humour, and came up with the idea of writing them a surreal film script.

Dali's screenplay included giraffes wearing gas-masks, Harpo harvesting dwarves in a butterfly net and Groucho answering numerous telephones with multiple arms. Groucho, a wily veteran who'd learnt all about what audiences love and hate playing in Vaudeville, decided that the giraffes "wouldn't play", and that was that, unfortunately.

I wrote a few weeks back about Orson Welles, who ought to be the patron saint of unfinished films. And the one that probably haunted him the most was Don Quixote, an ambitious attempt to reset Cervantes' 17th-century novel in the present day. He began shooting it in Mexico City in 1957, but was forced to stop when his financial backer pulled out. He resurrected his shoot in Spain in the 1960s, filming fragments in Pamplona and Seville whenever he could afford to, and casting theatre actor Francisco Reiguera as the wandering knight.

But Reigeura died in 1969 with the film unfinished, and Welles' dreams were left in tatters. He was still tinkering with his footage when he died in 1985. Miguel de Cervantes' book must be cursed: when Terry Gilliam took on the daunting epic in the 1990s, his production also ended in chaos and failure after a freak flood destroyed his set.

In the late 1960s, Alfred Hitchcock was frantically struggling to reinvent himself as a director in the aftermath of French and Italian new wave cinema, which he felt had superannuated him. Inspired by the work of his friend Francois Truffaut, and Michelangelo Antonioni, Hitchcock decided to use hand-held cameras and natural light to tell the story of a serial murderer from the killer's point of view.

Kaleidoscope was conceived as a kind of prequel to his 1943 film Shadow of a Doubt, and combine daring technical advances with brutal violence and a strong sexual undertone. It might have been a very interesting film, but the Universal and MGM boards refused to back such a potentially controversial film, and it never got made.

A few years later, Hitchcock returned to London to make his last great film, Frenzy, a seamy crime thriller that contained some of the ideas in Kaleidoscope.

David Lynch's 1984 film Dune was one of the biggest box-office flops of all time, but was in fact the third attempt to adapt Frank Herbert's best-selling science-fiction novel for the big screen. In the late 1970s, producer Dino De Laurentiis hired Ridley Scott to direct a version, but nothing came of it. Even more intriguing, however, was Alejandro Jodorowsky's ill-fated 1976 attempt.

Jodorowsky's idea was so grandiose it was almost bound to fail. Pink Floyd would write the music, HR Geiger and Dan O'Bannon would write and design behind the scenes, and Dune's cast would include Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, David Carradine, Gloria Swanson and Salvadore Dali, who was tempted by an offer of $100,000 per minute on screen. But the film's budget soon spiralled out of control, and the producers panicked and fled when they realised that Jodorowsky's script would result in a film over ten hours long.

In the last years of his life, David Lean wrestled manfully with a project based on Joseph Conrad's epic novel Nostromo. Lean hired Christopher Hampton and Robert Bolt to adapt Conrad's story of an Italian adventurer in 19th-century South America, then got rid of them and wrote a screenplay himself. Marlon Brando, Paul Schofield, Anthony Quinn, Isabella Rosselini and Peter O'Toole would form the stellar cast, and the film would be shot in Spain to accommodate O'Toole's desire to remain close to home.

After much manoeuvring, Lean managed to cobble together the $46m he would need to make his epic, but died of cancer just six weeks before the shoot was due to start.

Francis Coppola's great unfinished folly was a futuristic epic about a mad, debauched architect who dreams of transforming New York into an ultramodern utopia. He started planning Megalopolis as early as 1984, writing a huge screenplay which he then tinkered with for decades.

Producers were nervous given Coppola's extravagant exploits in Thailand during the making of Apocalypse Now, and worried that Megalopolis would be yet another costly folly. But eventually, in 2001, he was given the go-ahead to being shooting it.

Then, 9/11 happened, and a film about the rebuilding of an idealised Manhattan suddenly seemed problematic. "All of a sudden," Coppola said, "you couldn't write about New York without dealing with what happened and the implications of what had happened. I didn't know how to try to deal with that."

Following the huge critical and financial success of Ridley Scott's Gladiator in 2000, greedy studio executives began figuring out how to make a sequel. There was one major obstacle to this, of course, as the film's indomitable hero, Maximus, had died at the end of the first one. Initially they thought about a prequel, then a sequel involving Maximus' son.

But Russell Crowe was keen to be involved, and in the mid-2000s he and Scott asked Nick Cave to write a screenplay. In Cave's audacious script, Maximus awoke in the afterlife, was reborn and sent back to Earth 16 years after his death, where he's contracted to kill Jesus. In fact, the film's working title was Christ Killer, which may not have helped sell it to its dubious backers, DreamWorks. So far, no sign of it.

Kubrick and Napoleon

It's often been called the greatest movie never made, and few failed projects are as mouth-watering to the cinephile as Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon. He was fascinated by the French Emperor, and after finishing Space Odyssey in 1968 began work on a project that was staggeringly ambitious in its scope. Kubrick sent emissaries to Elba, Austerlitz and Waterloo to scout locations, amassed a library of 15,000 images, and secured the services of the Romanian army for his battle scenes, which he wanted to look impeccably authentic.

He wanted Audrey Hepburn to play Josephine, but she had more or less retired from acting by that point and said no. British actors Ian Holm and David Hemmings were considered for Bonaparte before Kubrick settled on Jack Nicholson, and production was about to begin in 1969 when MGM abruptly pulled the plug.

Kubrick's visionary project would have cost a fortune, and the studio was not convinced there'd be much appetite for a film about a high-handed Gallic autocrat. So Kubrick struck a deal with Warner Brothers and moved on to A Clockwork Orange. But many of the ideas and techniques he'd envisaged for Napoleon would later appear in his 1975 film Barry Lyndon.

Indo Review