jason stives interviews the empire magazine film critic and author of books about unmade movies…
Anyone who has tried to break into the movie industry will tell you it is a truly difficult experience and busing and waitressing your way to the top doesn’t always produce results. Same goes for screenwriters, even ones with a day job who just can’t seem to get a script off the ground without interference.
Writer David Hughes has never had a single script turned into a feature film, but he has had better luck than most writers do getting work in Hollywood. A film critic for leading British film magazine, Empire, Hughes has penned and been hired numerous times over the years to either scribe original work or re write films that have either seen production under someone else’s name or have ultimately been scrapped. This hasn’t slowed down Hughes and he parlayed this common screenwriting experience into two books about some of Hollywood’s most infamous unmade movies: The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made and Tales from Development Hell.
This past February, Hughes re-released Development Hell in paperback with some new entries. Tales from Development Hell is an enriching read for anyone curious about films that see the green light only to falter under the pressure of studios in regards to the cast, the script, or the budget. The book covers fascinating stories ranging from how Minority Report almost became a sequel to Total Recall to a film version of Batman: Year One directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Clint Eastwood. Hughes also discusses his own personal experiences as a screenwriter which include writing a draft of the horror prequel Exorcist: The Beginning to a proposed epic miniseries about a virus outbreak on a airplane entitled “Airborne” with Bourne Supremacy director Paul Greengrass attached to produce it.
Being an aspiring screenwriter himself, Jason Stives spoke with Hughes about this great read as well as his own experiences as a screenwriter and things he has learned jumping through hoops within Hollywoodland.
Pop-Break: The one thing I noticed while reading the book is that so many different elements can get involved in making a movie that can sideline it instantly. When researching a lot of these films and even with your own experience of script writing, what is usually the most common element of interference when it comes to a film, is it a writer, the star, the director or the studio?
David Hughes: Studio executives have the job which is most difficult to describe and justify – directors direct, writers write, producers produce – what exactly do executives do? Execute? So the vast majority of interference with an ongoing project comes from them, because they’re terrified of making a wrong decision. Were you the executive who green-lit John Carter, giving Disney a $200m write-down? If so, good luck ever working again. Hollywood is a merciless town.
PB: What made you choose the films you chose between your two books? Obviously there are probably hundreds if not thousands of great ideas that were green lit and then sputtered and died before production, but the ones you did write about have very unique stories it seems.
DH: Once my editor, Adam Newell, and myself had agreed on a ‘long list’ of projects we might want to cover, I began researching about 25 films – more than I would actually need for the final book, but enough to allow a few chapters to drop out if they suddenly got made, or if they led me up a blind alley. If nobody at all wants to talk about a film in development, even if you can get hold of a script, there isn’t really much you can say about it. Interviews were always going to be the core of the book, so I wanted to make sure I could actually talk to the people involved. The fact that I was able to get so many heavy hitters shows that even the biggest names in Hollywood have had their taste of Development Hell.
PB: Certain projects I felt were absolutely amazing. The Hot Zone definitely piqued my interest and made me suddenly dislike the existence of Outbreak (laughs). ISOBAR also was fascinating, it actually made me sit there and go “Why hasn’t this been made?” Do you feel with projects like these two if they were really capable of being made right and effectively cost wise that they would have been made already?
DH: ISOBAR plays pretty well in my head, but on screen? I’m not so sure. It sounds a lot like the kind of film that loses a studio $200 million.
PB: Andrew Stanton, who recently directed the big screen version of John Carter, said in an interview that today’s film goers don’t have the ability to go into a movie and just discover, they are awarded so much information from the marketing of films, and definitely from everything they read on the internet. Would you agree with the notion that today’s generation of movie goers are over privileged because they are allowed so much access about movies before they even come out?
DH: Yes, but only if you are using “over-privileged” in the sense of “spoiled.” I mean, look at Prometheus: you don’t know it yet, but every secret the film has to offer is revealed among the trailers. How the hell does that benefit you? A wise man once said (OK it was someone on twitter @MovieWisdom but I forget who) “The greatest impediment to the enjoyment of a film is the trailer.” Although he forgot Brett Ratner.
PB: You include two chapters on films that are very well known for being in some sort of limbo until they finally got made: Indiana Jones 4 and Batman Begins. Considering the history behind these films and the availability of the internet in the years before and after those films have been, why include them in the book?
DH: Heck, I just thought they were good stories worth telling. And in the case of Batman Begins, I wanted to show that sometimes what seems like Development Hell can actually be heaven – if any of those other Batman films had been made, including Darren Aronofsky’s, we might never have see Christopher Nolan’s masterpiece.
PB: While you present a lot of great stories some that both ultimately got made in some form and others that sadly still haven’t, are there any you thought should stay unmade or ones that have been made that you think shouldn’t have?
DH: Well it would be very presumptuous of me to say this or that film shouldn’t have been made! But I will say that there is a danger in thinking the unmade films I describe in detail in the book will actually turn out to be any good. Any script is just a blueprint, and some of the ugliest buildings look good on paper.
PB: In your first book The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, you allowed the book to close on one of the most notorious tales of development hell with John Carter of Mars. Now that the film has seen the light of day what are your feelings on it considering the amount of research you did on its various incarnations and why it never came to be until now?
DH: Simple – as is often the case, no one had the nuts to write “the big cheque”. When the numbers added up – director with two hits behind him, one of them the biggest animated film of all time – the studio decided to make the film, and even though you could argue that the film could have used a star. Who knew who Chris Hemsworth was before THOR? They saved $20 million by not making Nicolas Cage of Mars and there’s no guarantee the film would have done any better with a star playing John Carter. The whole thing’s a crapshoot. You just have to try to work the odds.
PB: Do you feel that films like John Carter, which ultimately become a passion project, should be left in development hell or does it really come down to the right people and the right place at the right time?
DH: Again, it would be presumptuous of me to say this film or that film should rot in Development Hell. 99% of Hollywood success is about being in the right place at the right time. The rest is dumb luck.
PB: Considering some of the stories I have heard about recent projects that are struggling to get made like the live action Akira or Guillermo Del Toro’s planned version of At the Mountains of Madness, do you see yourself delving into another book about films in Development Hell? Are there any you left out of the book that you would love to visit? You mention in passing the Roland Emmerich aborted film Supertanker twice and I know nothing about it, but it sounds like it suffered the same fate as some of the other movies you have discussed.
DH: Well Supertanker just didn’t strike me as that interesting – it’s a very ’90s concept and I think well past its sell-by date. Having said that, if Battleship is a huge success, watch someone dust off Supertanker but throw aliens into the mix. And knowing Roland Emmerich, he wouldn’t object! As for another book … I’d love to, but it would take a couple of years to compile enough stories and do the interviews, and I’m kind of busy writing film scripts these days. I’m not sure I’d be able to make the time.
PB: What about your own screenwriting work? Have you been working on anything recently that you either wrote yourself or have been contracted to write a draft for?
DH: hanks for asking – yes. I’m working on my third draft of a commissioned script called “Field Station Africa” for which the director, producer and line producer are literally today in Equatorial Guinea scouting locations, and pre-production begins next month. I would be there with them, except I have a newborn baby to contend with and I think Equatorial Guinea would be a bit of a shock to her system! I am also in the process of rescuing a project from obscurity: a script called “Jack Ballard” (aka “Edge of Nowhere”) which was written 40 years ago for Sam Peckinpah to direct and Steve McQueen to star in, and then got lost – until I found it again last year, optioned it, found a director and a producer, and am now executive producing it. So watch out for that one.
PB: The one project you discuss that you had your hands in personally is your “Outbreak on an airplane” based miniseries, Airborne. I loved this idea! Is it something you hope will get made one day or do you feel as time has passed that it’s something that should stay a great unmade idea?
DH: Well, thanks – but I feel that after Contagion, Quarantine 2 and a bunch of other similar films, its moment has probably passed. That said, I’m busy turning it into a novel so you never know – maybe it’ll emerge in some other form.
PB: One of the best bits of advice I ever heard about screenwriting comes from the book Writing for Fun and Profit: How to Make a Billion Dollars at the Box Office without Trying by Tom Lennon and Robert Ben Garrant. They said don’t ever go in to the business expecting to make your passion project because its either not going to get made or it will ultimately go through so many stages that it won’t be yours anymore. Do you agree with that notion? Also what would be your own advice to people like myself who are looking to get into screenwriter but either A) don’t know how or B) don’t know what to expect if they can’t sell a script?
DH: I absolutely agree with that notion. If you can afford to make a film yourself, do it – that’s the only way you’ll ever get to realize your vision with the least compromise. If you can’t, you’re going to have to suck it up. My own advice? 1. Never get excited beyond the duration of the phone call or meeting – chances are, whatever they promise you won’t happen. 2. If only 1% of scripts get finished, only 1% of those get in front of someone who could help get it made, and only 1% of those actually do get made, every script is a million to one shot. So think of scripts as lottery tickets that play every week – one day your number might just come up.