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"Trying to make a film in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it." Tales from Development Hell was written by David Hughes and first published in 2003. The book is about the torturous gestation of big Hollywood film projects and how they become mired in a revolving door of writers, directors and actors and become trapped in "development hell" - sometimes for decades. Some of these films get made in the end (and it's fascinating to see how different the finished article often is from the original conception) and some simply languish in limbo forever and never reach the screen at all. Hughes' first book - The Greatest Sci-Fi Films Never Made - looked at the seemingly endless struggle to bring properties like The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Star Trek, Thunderbirds, I Am Legend and the Silver Surfer to the big screen and also the ridiculously complicated battle to get a new Superman and Alien film in production in the nineties. Tales from Development Hell is essentially more of the same with a fresh slew of films under the microscope. It's a fascinating insight into how preposterously slow and knotty it can be to make a big Hollywood film and also gives you more of an understanding of why many turn out to be disappointing or simply don't get made at all. Many films have so many writers coming and going that they lack one coherent vision. Screenplays shunted together from different authors, writers re-writing the previous script and so on. You also of course get studio executives and writers who simply don't understand the spirit of the property they are trying to turn into a film.
There are twelve chapters in the book, including six on films that to this day have yet to be made. The other chapters revolve around films that did actually make it to the screen in the end (although not always of course when this book was first written) with varying degrees of success. Lord of the Rings, a Planet of the Apes remake, Lara Croft, Indiana Jones IV, a Batman reboot, and a Howard Hughes biopic. The book begins with an interesting chapter about a film that has never been made despite once being regarded as the hottest script in Hollywood and inciting a fierce bidding war between studios. Smoke and Mirrors was written by the husband and wife writing team of Lee and Janet Scott Batchler and first surfaced in the early nineties - the screenplay eventually being sold for one million dollars. The film was to be a historical epic based on real events. In 1856 an uprising in Algeria occurs. A local tribal leader and sorcerer named Zoras is apparently using dark magic to incite a revolution. The French decide to send a stage magician to debunk Zoras and the man they choose is Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin - the magician who inspired Ehric Weiss to become Houdini. Accompanied by his much younger wife Collette on this epic mission, they are eventually joined by a dashing French Legionnaire named Darcy, who soon has designs on Collette. The screenplay was described as "Lawrence of Arabia meets Raiders of the Lost Ark" and loved by everyone. So why wasn't it made?
The answer is the same for most of the films here. An endless revolving door of writers constantly reworking the screenplay at the behest of the studio until no one had the faintest idea what they wanted and the moment had passed. Sean Connery was attached to the project to play Robert-Houdin but became part of the problem himself when he kept demanding rewrites. Then it became a vanity project for Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones but still nothing came of it. Eventually, the studio began to get cold feet. A 1997 novel called The Magician's Wife was based on the exact same historical event and Smoke and Mirrors suddenly didn't seem so fresh and original. So-so as it was, the late nineties action film The Mummy also stole some of Smoke and Mirror's thunder with its Foreign Legion desert capers. Hughes always keeps the book zipping along by deploying many quotes from those involved in the projects, especially the writers (who he clearly has the most sympathy with). I like the way he also uses quotes from film websites like IGN and AIC, in particular their script reviews. Granted, AIC is only worth it lately for comedy purposes (Harry Knowles increasingly bizarre Jackson Pollack approach to the English language) but there are some great snippets from days gone by nonetheless. Hughes own writing is nice and fluid and to the point, allowing the reader to immerse oneself in this geeky trifle.
The chapter on remaking Planet of the Apes is excellent. It begins with a wonderful backdrop. A history of the Planet of the Apes series and the genesis of the original film in 1969 from Pierre Boulle's novel. How Charlton Heston carted designs for the film around to bemused studio bosses and how when they screened the first test footage 20th Century Fox executives said if anyone at all laughed during the screening they'd know they were wasting their time. No one laughed at the talking apes onscreen and the film was a go. The road to Tim Burton's terrible 2001 "reimagining" begins in 1988. A 21 year-old filmmaker named Adam Rifkin makes an indie film called Never On Tuesday that so impresses 20th Fox president Craig Baumgarten he asks Rifkin if he'd like to make a film for the studio. Rifkin is a huge Planet of the Apes fan and pitches his idea to bring back the cult franchise. "Spartacus with apes. The film would open on the last scene from the first film where Charlton Heston was screaming up at the Statue of Liberty, then fade to black. A card would read: 300 years later. When we would fade up, the ape empire had reached its Roman era. A descendant of Heston would eventually lead a human slave revolt against the oppressive Roman-esque apes. A real sword and sandal spectacular, monkey style."
Baumgarten hired Rifkin to write and direct the film with Tom Cruise or Charlie Sheen slated to take the lead role. It all seemed too good to be true to Rifkin - and it was. Baumgarten was replaced as the president of 20th Century Fox and Planet of the Apes and Rifkin were forgotten. The forensic detail in each chapter is great fun. All the people who flitted through. With Planet of the Apes for example you can read about how Oliver Stone and James Cameron joined and left the project before Burton arrived. Stone's idea is typically Stone. Cryogenically frozen Vedic Apes who hold the secret numeric codes to the Bible. Arnold Schwarzenegger was set to take the lead role at one point. What else is in the book? There is a nice chapter on The Lord of the Rings and the winding path to Peter Jackson's trilogy. Hughes tells us how for many years the novel was considered unfilmable and defeated various people who tried to bring it to the screen - including Hollywood in the fifties (nice anecdote here about American science fiction writer Forrest Ackerman going to Oxford to meet Professor Tolkien and failing to understand practically anything Tolkien said to him). There is an account of (believe it or not) The Beatles trying to get the rights and then John Boorman's attempt to film it in the seventies.
Boorman came close and had a completed script but had to throw the towel in in the end. There is also some time devoted to Ralph Bakshi, who produced an animated version in the late seventies. Bakshi seems to be rather bitter that Peter Jackson never contacted him or gave him any credit for supplying a film that could be used as shorthand for what Lord of the Rings should look like visually. Jackson claimed at one point he'd never seen Bakshi's film but he was obviously lying. There is a chapter on the fourth Indiana Jones film too which is good fun. This film perfectly illustrates how preposterously complicated it can be to get something into production. Harrison Ford first expressed a desire to make a fourth film in 1994 but it took until 2008 for it to appear! This was down to them never deciding on a script they liked and the fact that they needed to find a time when Ford, Spielberg and George Lucas were all available to do it at the same time. The latter proved the most impossible obstacle. It's fun here to learn about the rejected scripts (and even some fan ones that turned out to be fake). The finished product was hardly worth all the trouble though. There is a chapter too on the (failed) attempt to get a sequel to Total Recall made that I found rather dull to be honest because it mostly revolved around a book I've never read and also one about the process of transplanting Tomb Raider to the big screen. As much as I love Angelina Jolie I found this dull because it has a lot of material about computer games.
A chapter entitled Crisis in the Hot Zone is fascinating though. This is about Hollywood's attempt to make a film based on Richard Preston's article (and later book) about an incident involving viral hemorrhagic fevers, particularly ebolaviruses and marburgviruses. A bio-thriller if you will. Robert Redford and Jodie Foster were attatched to the project and Ridley Scott signed to direct. What could go wrong? Well, Redford started acting the big star and trying to take over, bringing in his own writers. Eventually they were beaten to the punch by Outbreak, a similar bio-thriller with Dustin Hoffman. If you don't move fast on your idea in Hollywood you can be sure someone else will. The chapter on the path to Nolan's Batman reboot is excellent. How Batman & Robin sank the franchise and how they had to start again. There are some fascinating insights into some of the proposed ideas for a new Batman film prior to Nolan coming onboard. Darren Aronofsky (director of Pi) had the most arresting take (in collaboration with Frank Miller) but it was ultimately deemed too risky by Warners. "The Batman franchise had just gone more and more back towards the TV show, so it became tongue-in-cheek, a grand farce, camp. I pitched the complete opposite, which was totally bring-it-back-to-the-streets raw, trying to set it in a kind of real reality -- no stages, no sets, shooting it all in inner cities across America, creating a very real feeling. My pitch was Death Wish or The French Connection meets Batman. In Year One, Gordon was kind of like Serpico, and Batman was kind of like Travis Bickle."
There is a chapter on trying to adapt Neil Gaiman's Sandman (which I couldn't get into much because I've never read those comics) and also a pretty good one about the various attempts to make a Howard Hughes biopic over the years. What have I missed out? Oh, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven's failed attempt to make an epic film about the Crusades (a shame this one was never made) and one of my favourite lost projects here - ISOBAR. ISOBAR (aka Dead Reckoning) was a script from the late eighties written by future Fight Club scribe Jim Uhls and described as "Alien on a futuristic train". It was going to be directed by Ridley Scott (blimey, Scott must hold some sort of record for being attatched to films that never got made) and star Sylvester Stallone. I'd pay money to watch that. Alien on a futuristic train with Sylvester Stallone! Tales from Development Hell is a very readable and enjoyable book if you like this geeky film stuff and certainly recommended. My only complaint is that I wanted it to be much longer. You can easily read this in a day. At the time of writing you can buy Tales from Development Hell for around a fiver. I would recommend that you buy the updated 2012 edition as there are a couple of versions of this knocking around.