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Hollywood’s Homeless Screenplays

Hollywood’s Homeless Screenplays

Articles - Directing

Shakespeare In Love almost
never was. The original story was hatched in 1989 and was set
to go in 1993 with Ed Zwick directing, Julia Roberts in the lead,
and Universal behind them until the project was mysteriously
aborted. Suffice to say, it wasn’t until 1996 when Zwick sent
the script to Harvey Weinstein that Shakespeare started shaking
once again. Why do great scripts go unproduced, and what’s lying
around today that stands to be rescued?

A note for all you indie producers and agent’s assistants
out there: this is not a pre-selected list of need-a-leg-up screenplays
ready to be hyped into post-haste production. Although such lists
have been published, they have tended to generate more biased whispers
than genuine interest. Instead, the aim here is to cross industry
trolleytracks, picking up tales and tips from storytellers to decision-makers,
from studio to “indie-land” as to why great scripts fall through
the cracks.

“There is the stink,” UTA literary agent David Kanter
says, referring to the reception that dredging up an old title
causes on his turf. “Many of these old scripts take on the aroma
of trouble.” Nevertheless, being in the business of trouble, Kanter
admits that “some of the best films are made after years and years
of inactivity.”

As proof that screenplays can (and should?) be rescued
from dusty vaults there is George Hickenlooper’s adaptation of
the Orson Welles’ political passion-play The Big Brass Ring.
Welles completed a rough version of the script in 1981 and spent
a year trying to cast the lead role of Pellerin, a Clintonesque
presidential candidate around whom scandal breeds like fleas in
a dog pound. Jack Nicholson, though interested, wouldn’t cut his
fee in half. Warren Beatty wanted final cut. Robert De Niro was
willing to negotiate, but Welles didn’t think he was right for
the part. Eventually, a despondent Welles shelved the project and
moved on to sell wine.

Hickenlooper, co-director of the documentary Hearts
of Darkness
and director of the short, Some Folks Call
it a Slingblade
, came across a rare copy of the script in
1988. “There was such a timelessness about these characters,” says
Hickenlooper. “I wanted to adapt the material, as I would never
presume to try and make this as Welles envisioned it.” After
four or five attempts at an adaptation, Hickenlooper chanced
upon film critic EX. Feeney, who had his own version of The
Big Brass Ring
in the works. The two eventually collaborated,
bringing their wildly different takes on the source material
together.

Hickenlooper shot the film last year with William
Hurt as Pellerin and Nigel Hawthorne as Menniger, the candidate’s
dubious mentor. Advance word on the fihn is favorable. “The film
boldly goes into political and moral territory that Primary
Colors
wouldn’t touch,” says one festival programmer. With
a Showtime window in place, Hickenlooper says he “has high hopes
for a theatrical release,” as he enters the festival circuit

Unlike Shakespeare in Love, or The Big
Brass Ring
, not every project can return from the dead smelling
like a rose. “Many of the so-called great unproduced scripts
are a pleasure to read but don’t make great movies,” commented
Vogue film critic John Powers. “Sadly, the best writing is easily
misinterpreted-all those vivid descriptions and unforgettable
lines sometimes just fall flat when put on screen,” he added.

Wesley Strick, one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters
(Cape Fear, Arachmphobia) agrees with Powers and is quick
to point to his own script, Final Analysis, as an example.
The original script was widely praised as groundbreaking in story
and psychological detail, and it opened doors for the young screenwriter
all over Hollywood. Nine years later and countless drafts down
the line, Strick was heartily nonplussed by the version that was
eventually realized, adding him to the ranks of screenwriters who,
in creative hindsight, might rather have seen their work go unproduced.

On the subject of homeless screenplays Strick recalls “a
certain kind of material that attracts the finest directors and
actors, but alienates studio executives. Because there’s talent
attached, this type of project gets set up somewhere and seems
to be on the road to production, until inevitably someone high
up at the studio actually reads the script and says, `what the
hell is this?’ and pulls the plug:’ This reccurring phenomenon
may explain as many as half the studio development roster at any
given time. (On a side note, Strick was recently approached by
RKO to revive another Welles project that never came to be, called “The
Mexico Project,” aka “The Way to The Santiago.” Strick passed,
though he is still a fan of the story which remains in the RKO
vault.)

The Spec Screenplay Sales Directory is as thick as
an LA phone book, and its publisher Howard Meibach seems to have
its contents memorized (wwwhollywoodlitsales.com). Meibach, a leading
authority on the sale and marketing of spec screenplays, has seen
more than his share of outstanding scripts miss the boat. In his
opinion, the single largest killer of quality screenplays happens “when
one studio head goes out and a new one comes in. They always want
to wipe the slate clean.” As an adjunct, he adds, “and of course
lots of great material is lost when a company goes under.” But
it’s not just the execs who pull plugs. “If you are lucky enough
to work with a top actor or director, look out,” cautions Meibach,
because “they can easily jump ship and go to another project. No
one sues when this happens because, of course, they hope to work
with that person in the future. The only payoff is that the movie
they drop out to make usually stinks.” Another tactic Meibach has
witnessed seems born straight from the Cold War era. “I’ve seen
a studio go out and buy a script just because it’s close in subject
matter to something they’ve got underway. They don’t want another
studio to get it. A recent example has to do with a film about
hockey that Disney was working on. Another hockey script was out
there getting some recognition, so they ran out and bought it for
$800K, just to get rid of it:”

After shepherding hundreds of scripts over the years,
what sticks out in Meibach’s memory as a lost gem? “There’s a script
called “Icarus” that I can’t figure out why it hasn’t been made.” When
contacted, writer Bob Stitzel remained confident that his 21-yearold
script would see the screen in the new millennium.

“It’s a character driven, high-action piece about
a soon-to-be-retired fighter pilot ace who decides to make off
with an F-15. The action is held together by the relationship between
the pilot and his friend on the ground who tries to talk him down
before the plane runs out of fuel”The film was set to go in the
early ’80s until an ornery general put the kabosh on using his
planes. In 1995 Patrick Duncan brought the script to Paramount
for a rewrite, and soon after brought on Bruce Willis to star and
produce. Since then, Willis has committed to other projects, and “Icarus” simmers
on a back burner. Stitzel blames “studio politics” for the ongoing
delays.

Clearly, as formulas and effects take their hold
on moviemaking, storytelling has officially become cinema’s number
one endangered species. At the studio level, risk taking is not
high on the agenda, so in turn, ambitious and original scripts
go unmade. To paraphrase James Brooks speaking at a recent AFI
event, “Half of the great movies that get made, get made because
a star or a director or a producer bullies them through:” Certainly
the ratio of great scripts to bullies is lopsided at best.

“We are in the business of moving away from the cold
and into the heat,” says UTA’s David Kanter, describing Hollywood’s
frenetic search for hits. “Necessarily, one result of this equation
is the sacrifice of brilliant material that is rendered irrelevant
by a fickle marketplace:” Kanter is up front about the quirks of
the business, but also insists that movie audiences share the blame
for “less than landmark” films that do get made.”Audiences are
used to pre-digested info-quickly cut, a lot of music, a lot of
light, but not a lot of classical story-building elements.” Without
getting into which came first, the mediocre movie or the audiences
for them, Kanter’s candor reveals both industry awareness and nonchalance
towards the loss of top quality screenplays.

Kanter’s pick for a first-rate unproduced script
is Jon Kamps’ “Now or Never.” Described as an American Like
Water for Chocolate
, it is the story of a lonely woman who
over the course of regressive therapy slips into another life-the
life of Elvis Presley’s cook, the very woman who lovingly made
the food that would sustain him through his career while destroying
his looks and his health at the same time. “It’s funny and extremely
touching-striking material,” says Kanter. “People have been afraid
to touch it because it appears too soft on one hand and too original
on the other:” Rene Zellweger has expressed interest, Richard Pierce
would like to direct, still not a banana has been fried.

Crossing the tracks from studio fare into the independent
world conjures up less Armani, more risk-taking, and a very nearly
impenetrable series of obstacles. Here, even the finest scripts
sit like eager grasshoppers springloaded at the base of the Himalayas.

“Getting any independent script off the ground is
nothing short of a miracle” says indie producer Peter Glatzer,who
has produced two films with the Pate Brothers and just finished
producing first time director/writer James Rowe’s “Blue Ridge Fall,” with
Peter Facinelli and Tom Arnold. “You’ve got no one throwing money
toward the project in the early stages, plus there’s typically
only one or two people railing against the whole system: ‘With
minimal human and financial resources the effort to simultaneously
spin, cast, finance and ultimately sell a cohesive package is messy
work, fraught with near misses. Glatzer recalls a project, “Drowning
Creek,” which he tried to make several times with josh Pate (who
penned it), and later with others. “Out of 12 projects that got
into the Sundance screenwriting program in 1994, “Drowning Creek” was
the unlucky 13th finalist.” As with so many indie scripts there
were flurries of interest, and countless strategy meetings. “There’s
really no mystery to itwhen the things that don’t happen finally
outweigh those that do, great projects are lost,” says Glatzer.

Michelle Satter, director of the feature film program
at the Sundance Institute confirms it requires obsessive behavior
to get from script to screen. “A great writer isn’t necessarily
a great salesperson. And while a strong producer or literary agent
is critical to the life of a screenplay, beware-financiers or a
production company may not want to work with the attached producer,
director, or any other built-in elements.”

Satter is fortunate to regularly encounter savvy
writers with distinct and marketable voices. Still, she runs into
many scripts that don’t take into account the marketplace, scripts
that simply write themselves out of ever being made. “I really
wish more people realized just how few companies out there can
finance a script that will cost $4 million to make, as opposed
to $1.5 million.”The moral of the story, if you want your independent
script to see the light of day sooner rather than later, is to
think lean. That said, there is certainly less pain in shelving
a script yourself and waiting for the right moment to shop it around
than knowing it is forever stuck in development hell. Saner believes “there
is a writer’s zeitgeist that is not in sync with the marketplace.
Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is shelve a project for
a year and let the rest of the world catch up.”

Alas, there are some projects that the world may
never be ready for. One of the presiding historians of homeless
screenplays is Chris Gore, founder of Film Threat magazine,
as well as author of the upcoming book The 50 Greatest Movies
Never Made
. His knowledge is thorough, though typically somewhat
skewed toward the obscure and the outrageous. Because Gore has
spent the last 10 years researching this topic, he is able to rattle
off titles, log lines, and writers’ bios as if they were old drinking
buddies.

Notable among many is Stanley Kubrick’s “Napoleon,” which
was slated to star up-and-comer Jack Nicholson. The project had
been in development for years, and finally, in1968, right on the
heels of the tremendously successful 2001, Kubrick was ready to,
roll. “He fascinates me. His life has been described as an epic
poem of action,” said Kubrick of his protagonist. There were actually
plans underway to hire 75,000 soldiers from the Romanian army to
recreate battle scenes. Needless to say, after years of planning
the film never got made. While cost was an obvious factor, one
might guess that in 1968 a young experimentally inclined Nicholson
might have been busy expanding his own consciousness. “Can you
imagine having A Clockwork Orange as your safety back-up
project?” laughs Gore.

Moving from would-be epics to the utterly genre-less,
Gore brings up Good Night Irene by Carol Lay. The script
is based on her popular series of underground comix, “Good Girls;” which
parodied romance comic books and novels of the 1960s. “It’s hilarious,” says
Gore, “but it’s also unbelievably touching-something like Edward
Scissorhands
meets You’ve Got Mail. I’m guessing the
script was just too weird for Hollywood.”

The obviously vast backlog of unmade movies suggests
a thriving Land of Misfit Scripts exists; a ghostly parallel universe
where wild and wonderful stories lounge in there might-have-been-ness.
One wonders if maybe that world might ultimately be more entertaining. MM

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