The grass is always greener on the other side. We always covet what we can never attain. Last week, Sony Pictures Classics‘ must-see documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune” opened in limited release; director Frank Pavich‘s funny, affectionate tale of Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s doomed attempt at adapting Frank Herbert‘s indispensable sci-fi classic for the big screen (our review). So ambitious and grand—legends like Pink Floyd, Mick Jagger, H.R. Giger, Mœbius, VFX wizard Dan O’Bannon, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles were some of the names mooted to be involved—perhaps Jodorowsky’s version was so insane it never could have really happened, or perhaps if it had, it would have been a epic fail (indeed David Lynch‘s version, which would eventually bring the story to the big screen in 1984, was one of that visionary director’s biggest stumbles, even according to Lynch himself).
The documentary, loving and insightful, also flirts with perhaps the essential idea behind these “what if?” scenarios: the film’s ambition is undeniable, but its “greatness” can only ever exist as a hypothesis because the actuality, had it happened, could well have been a spectacular folly. And if it had been good, or even excellent, it still wouldn’t have had that tantalizing, imagination-firing quality of being all things to all geeks, of dwelling in that realm of perfect imagination. As myths perpetuate and proliferate, “famously unproduced masterpieces” can sometimes loom larger in estimation than actually realized masterpieces that you can watch whenever you want, because just by actually getting made, a film is compromised from all the wondrousness it could have been, and reduced to what it is. With that (somewhat hilarious) paradox in mind, we thought we’d succumb to the temptation of “what if”-ing ourselves and recall some of the most delicious “oh-my-god, could-you-imagine?” unmade projects that have snagged our attention. Of course, the choices are numerous, so narrowing the list has proven an argumentative, though entertaining, process.
So without further ado, let’s get speculative about 25 of the most exciting projects ever to hover in the ether just beyond our reach. Or for reductive purposes: the Greatest Movies Never Made.
Stanley Kubrick’s “Napoleon”
What Was It?: Kubrick’s “Napoleon” was to be at once a character study and a sweeping, gigantic epic, covering not only his genius, but his early life in Paris and as a protégé of various affluent families.
What Happened?: In short, Kubrick went on an obsessive quest to turn over every stone and got caught down the rabbit hole of his endless and meticulous research. By the time he was done, interested studios like MGM and then United Artists essentially got cold feet, believing historical epics had gone out of vogue. Originally proposed as his next project after “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Kubrick pitched the movie as a $5 million production (roughly $100 million in today’s dollars) with extraordinarily ambitious plans that included upwards of 30,000 men as extras for the battle scenes. After names like Ian Holm, Alec Guiness, Laurence Olivier and Patrick Magee were thrown around, David Hemmings (“Blow-Up,” “Camelot”) was to play the lead, with Audrey Hepburn as Joséphine. The studio eventually balked at the price tag—it didn’t help that Rod Steiger’s “Waterloo” beat the film to screens and then flopped—and, unwilling to compromise his vision, Kubrick apparently thought it best to walk away.
Could It Ever Get Made One Day: No. You can read Kubrick’s 147-page draft from 1969 right here, but the man himself is dead. However, Kubrick fanboy Steven Spielberg is developing Kubrick’s version as a TV miniseries (much as he directed “A.I.” because Kubrick asked him to). WB has its own version in the works (sans Kubrick’s script or development notes) as a feature-length project that Rupert Sanders will direct. And Creative Differences (the company who produced Herzog’s 3D cave doc) announced in 2011 that they would be making a documentary of Kubrick’s unmade Napoleon film too. In fact, Kubrick’s list of unfinished projects is legendary. We wrote an entire lengthy feature dedicated to the dozen-odd films Kubrick developed but never made.
Werner Herzog’s “The Conquest of Mexico”
What Was It? A long-cherished project of Herzog’s which returns to his familiar theme of European colonialism in the New World, but sets out a fictional narrative told from the point of view of the conquered Aztecs, rather than the encroaching conquistadors.
What Happened? While it’s hard to find definitive detail on how far along in the process this film ever got, Herzog must have at least had at some point a strong outline, if not a fully finished screenplay, because it was the prohibitive budget that apparently scuppered his plans to make this film. Prohibitive, that is, for an independently financed project. It would have been chump change to a Hollywood studio, but none of those (those he approached anyway) were going to allow him the creative freedom he wanted to bring his vision to the screen.
Could It Ever Get Made? It’s easy to see shades of “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” “Fitzcarraldo” and even “Cobra Verde” in this idea, but Herzog’s never been one to shy away from going back to a thematic well, and this has been such a longtime passion project that it may still flare back to life. On the con side, even the mighty Herzog is getting on a bit and he’s not exactly known for easy shoots. It’s possible that he’s exorcized some elements of this story with his 1999 short documentary “God and the Burdened” (which you can watch a version of here) released as part of the “2000 Years of Christianity” TV series. But to get the kind of authenticity he’d no doubt demand, it’s likely that an inaccessible and difficult location shoot would be necessary, which is precisely the kind of thing that has scuttled similar projects in the past, notably James Gray’s Amazon-set “The Lost City of Z.” Then again, that jungle-set period epic is apparently now going ahead (starring Robert Pattinson who, coincidentally, will also appear in current Herzog project “Queen of the Desert”) so perhaps things don’t look as bleak on this front as they once did.
Ken Russell’s “Dracula”
What Was It: A version of the Bram Stoker tale only told by the always-controversial, shit-starting enfant terrible Ken Russell. Also, partially autobiographical. “My Dracula would be a philanthropist with a taste for the blood of genius,” Russell is quoted as saying in “Altered States: The Autobiography of Ken Russell.”
What Happened: In the 1970s, Ken Russell had more number-one hit films in Britain than any other filmmaker. The world was his oyster. Between “Tommy” and “Altered States,” Russell set his eyes on “Dracula,” which reportedly began as a ballet, and he wrote several screenplay drafts. His regular muse Oliver Reed was eyed for Dracula and the cast could have included Peter Ustinov, Peter O’Toole, Mick Fleetwood, Sarah Miles, Mia Farrow, Lucy Michael York , James Coburn and/or many others. The count was said to have been a Byronic anti-hero. “If you had lived for centuries would you go weak at the knees at a picture of a dull clerk’s fiancée and lock yourself away in a gloomy castle? I wouldn’t. I’ve come up with a reason why Dracula would want to live forever,” Russell once wrote. Russell’s autobiographer Paul Sutton, in the introduction to the published “Dracula” script, claims two Hollywood pictures were inspired by Russell’s script and went as far to suggest plagiarism by Francis Ford Coppola’s “Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” But it was John Badham’s competing 1979 version of “Dracula” starring Frank Langella that seemed to be the nail in the coffin (!) for Russell’s take, who wouldn’t end up getting his bloodsucker yah-yahs out until the more modern vampiric tale, “Lair Of The White Worm,” in 1988.
Could It Ever Get Made: Russell is dead, so probably not unless some budding young English filmmaker becomes a Russell obsessive. But the filmmaker was so idiosyncratic, we doubt anyone would ever be as interested in his distinctive version as he was, much less do it justice. The whole screenplay was published though, so if you’re curious all you have to do is buy the book.
Clair Noto’s “The Tourist”
What Was It: Set in contemporary Manhattan, “The Tourist” followed a beautiful 30-something female executive who counted herself among a secret group of exiled aliens on Earth desperately trying to get back to their home planets. Noto’s script, started in 1980, has often been cited as similar to “Blade Runner,” and its moody, atmospheric, and unexpectedly sexual overtones also suggested the alienation and tragic nature of “The Hunger” and the exotic mien of the creatures from Ridley Scott’s “Alien.”
What Happened: One of the most famous unmade movies ever, in short it languished in development hell forever, while its ideas proved so popular that it was plundered time and again, most blatantly by “Men In Black” which mostly lifted the concept wholesale, added heroic human agents as the leads, jettisoned the existential woe of estranged aliens, trapped and in-hiding on Earth, and of course made it a comedy. Legendary visualist H. R. Giger created a series of alien designs in the early 1980s and they, like the script, were much too sexualized and unsettling for the execs who were trying to grapple with an unwieldy story of morality, corruption, xenophobia, humanity and imprisonment, both physical and psychological. Citing influences such as Fellini and Antonioni, Noto once said of the screenplay “I wanted to portray sexual agony and ecstasy in a way I’d never seen before, and science fiction seemed like the arena.” But in development hell she remained, though briefly flirting with Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, before they went broke (legal problems began here, as another producer claimed she co-owned the option). Noto’s difficult nature saw her kicked off her own creation, which then spent years in the studio system (Universal, WB, Paramount, Joel Silver all being involved) as it was overdeveloped into something less nihilistic and more homogenized. And also, bland. In the end, it was a dark independent movie that should have stayed that way. Unfortunately, the Fox Searchlights of the world didn’t exist yet, thus the only option for the project was the studio world where it just didn’t fit.
Could It Ever Get Made One Day: Mostly no. As of the early aughts, Noto was back on the project and had written a new draft, but that feels like a fool’s errand now considering how the “Men In Black” pilfering rendered it obsolete. The upside is that nothing is ever truly new these days, and the idea of her concept being spoiled doesn’t even really matter anymore. The downside (and the reason it’ll probably never get made) is, “The Tourist” would be expensive, and studios rarely want to foot the bill for existential and dramatic sci-fi, especially if it’s not based, “Prometheus“-style, on a preexisting property. You’d need a filmmaker of hella stature with hella clout attached to even count it as a possibility.