David Lynch’s “Ronnie Rocket”
What Was It? Conceived in the aftermath of “Eraserhead,” the story followed a detective seeking a mysterious second dimension, aided by his ability to stand on one leg, who is being stalked by the “Donut Men” who wield electricity as a weapon. Simultaneously, the tale of Ronnie Rocket unfolds, a teenage dwarf rock star who needs to be plugged into an electrical supply which gives him power over, um, power, which he can use to produce music or cause destruction.
What Happened? An ongoing talisman/pebble in Lynch’s shoe, “Ronnie Rocket” was suggested as his next project after almost every one of his early films from “Eraserhead” to “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.” But during that time, Lynch’s career blossomed, as did the number of projects he was attaching himself to. So while it got as far as casting in some of those incarnations (Dexter Fletcher was attached at one point, as was Michael J. Anderson who would go on to become a Lynch regular), as quickly as likely financiers stepped up, they fell away (or in the case of Coppola’s American Zoetrope and the Dino De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, went bust before the film could be shot).
Could It Ever Get Made? As recently as July 2013, Lynch spoke of the project as an ongoing possibility, but bemoaned the interim rise of “cheap storm windows and graffiti” as well as the disappearance of the authentic industrial smokestack landscape that is central to his vision of the film. He also, more detrimentally to the film’s chances perhaps, spoke about his own doubts as to whether the script was ready and whether the story would ever “go over.” So while it sounds fascinating and tantalizing and we certainly want to see Lynch back behind the camera soon, the possibility of it being for this project seems remote. And we really can’t see anyone else taking it on.
Either Alain Resnais/Stan Lee collaboration
What Was It: Alain Resnais meets Marvel’s Stan Lee, and they try to make two movies: one more Resnais-like, one more Lee-esque. Unlikely, but true. The first project was “The Inmates”: a Bronx-set story that had “to do with the whole human race, why we’re on Earth, and what our relationship is with the rest of the universe,” Lee said in a 1977 interview. Despite its far-out, science fiction-like surface, Lee described it as a very human, very philosophical story—perhaps not different from Resnais’ 1968 “sci-fi” film “Je t’aime Je t’aime,” and said that he had written a treatment for it. (Interesting note: the book “Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book” described it as the polar opposite: a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of an imminent alien invasion of Earth). The second project was “The Monster Maker,” which according to Sean Howe‘s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story,” centered on a disenchanted Roger Corman-esque B-movie maker dreaming of more, who makes a film centered on the dangers of pollution and toxic waste. It was of course an autobiographical allegory of Lee wanting to make something of substance.
What Happened? While he made some of the most treasured and opaque arthouse films in cinema, including “Last Year At Marienbad” and “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” the French filmmaker was a devoted comic-book fan since childhood (it’s how he learned English) and he had once hoped to adapt Herge’s Tintin book, “The Black Island” and the comic “Red Ryder.” He met the great Stan Lee in New York in 1971 and was instantly hooked by the comic book author’s “loveable” personality, “He told me that he has written more than 7000 stories, and would like to try something else,” Resnais told the Harvard Crimson the following year. But “The Inmates” would never go beyond a treatment—Resnais wanted a screenplay written by Lee himself and Lee wanted the auteur to find a script collaborator. “The Monster Maker” would go further; a script was completed and then sold for $25,000, which Resnais and Lee split. But the producers wanted myriad changes, which Resnais resisted completely. “Alain, I’ll change it, I’ll change it!” Lee recalled saying in a 1987 interview to which his “nutty” friend Resnais replied. “’No, you wheel not change a word!’ Well, the goddam script is still sitting there, on a shelf somewhere.” In a 1998 interview collected in “Stan Lee: Conversations,” the Marvel mogul said he was going to try torevive “The Inmates,” but obviously that never happened. Of “The Monster Maker” he said, “[it] would require so many changes that I just don’t have the time.”
Could They Ever Get Made: Renais passed away recently, and you’ll never get the Renais-Does-Marvel touch without the man himself. Lee’s sounds like it will languish unmade too (though shouldn’t someone at least make it into a comic?)
David Cronenberg’s “Frankenstein”
What Was It? Cerebral Horror maestro Cronenberg’s take on Mary Shelley’s classic novel.
What Happened: Details on this one are pretty fuzzy, but it seems like it was nothing more than an idea, albeit a pretty inspired one, from Canadian film producer Pierre David. He approached Cronenberg in the ’80s with it and the filmmaker offhandedly said yes. “He said, ‘Listen, tell me what you think… “David Cronenberg’s Frankenstein“?’ ” Cronenberg recalled of the producer’s pitch. He replied “Sounds good to me. What about poor Mary Shelley?” And the next thing Cronenberg knew, there was a full-page ad in Variety touting, “David Cronenberg’s Frankenstein.” Evidently, Cronenberg did think about it a little bit. “It would be a more rethinking than a remake. For one thing I’d try to retain Shelley’s original concept of the creature being an intelligent, sensitive man. Not just a beast,” he is quoted as saying in the collection of interviews “Cronenberg on Cronenberg,” but, beyond that nothing seemed to happen. Other projects that interested the director included “American Psycho” (which he was briefly attached to, as was Brad Pitt) and “Total Recall,” which he spent a year working on. Producers said his version was too much like Philip K. Dick (uhh, the original author) and they wanted “Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.”
Could It Ever Get Made? Arguably Cronenberg already made a Frankenstein-type movie of sorts with “The Fly” in 1986. And 1994’s overambitious Kenneth Branagh version did seem to be coming from a similar place with regard to humanizing the monster somewhat. But with the director’s interests seemingly shifted elsewhere, it does seem like the time for a Cronenberg take on this classic tale has well and truly passed.
Orson Welles’ “Heart of Darkness”
What Was It?: An adaptation of Joseph Conrad‘s bleak psychological horror masterpiece.
What Happened?: While Orson Welles‘ completion anxiety is well-documented and is attributable to the broken heart he suffered with the butchering of “The Magnificent Ambersons” (his career was really never the same afterwards), his attempt at mounting ‘Darkness’ was years before his soul would get wholly crushed by the Hollywood machine. Welles’ famous Mercury Theater, The Mercury Players and their eventual move to radio gave him wunderkind status and he landed in Hollywood in 1940 at the age of 25 with carte blanche—RKO gave him an unprecedented deal of complete creative control and freedom for his first two pictures (one which would eventually become “Citizen Kane”). Purportedly the first screenplay that Welles ever wrote, “Heart of Darkness” was also the first film he would try to realize. Welles was planning to shoot the film in about 165 long panning shots, representing the protagonist Captain Marlow’s point of view as he began his long, slow-death journey through the jungles of Africa (Welles would also play the lead, of course). He seemed committed to shooting it the (very impractical) way he had imagined and RKO soon deemed the would-be technical innovation too expensive (plus it was supposed to be an allegory on fascism and the beginning of WWII was said to have hurt it). The material too was just too challenging, and all of it enough to make studio heads uneasy enough to pass on.
Could It Ever Get Made: Seems deeply improbable for reasons beyond his death, but if someone wanted to faithfully make it, the script can be read here (and a one-off production was staged in 2012). Francis Ford Coppola obviously went on to almost kill himself adapting it into “Apocalypse Now” which is maybe more reason to let it lay as is. You can check out Welles’ radio version of the story here.
Tim Burton’s “Superman Lives”
What Was It? Maybe the most famous aborted superhero reboot in history. Way back in 1996, work began on a new Superman movie that was inspired in part by the caped hero’s return to the cultural consciousness following the “Death of Superman” comic book storyline. Kevin Smith, a noted comic book enthusiast and world-class nerd, was hired to write the screenplay (a process hilariously detailed in one of his lecture tours), in part because of the scene in “Mallrats” when characters discuss a Kryptonite condom. Throwing away most of an earlier draft of the screenplay (entitled “Superman Reborn” and written by Jonathan Lemkin), Smith set about creating a deeply soulful and highly reverential take on the hero. After Smith submitted his second draft, the studio hired Tim Burton as a director, on Smith’s suggestion. Warner Bros., on their part, were keen on seeing what the filmmaker’s take on the material would be, especially after the wild success of the original “Batman.” Burton, still wounded by the catastrophic failure of “Mars Attacks!,” wanted a surefire hit. Nicolas Cage, another super-nerd and comic book freak, signed on to play the title role.
What Happened? Everything that could go wrong, did. Wesley Strick, who had worked on “Batman Returns” for Burton, was brought on and began lobotomizing Smith’s script. Tests went on with Cage encased in a suit embroidered with pulsating colored lights, and shooting locations were picked out in Pittsburgh. But the script never came together. Strick’s draft seemed nonsensical and overtly violent (with Braniac and Lex Luthor eventually becoming a single entity dubbed “Lexiac” in the script). Subsequent drafts by Dan Gilroy turned off Burton and mere months before the movie was slated to hit theaters, in time for the character’s 60th anniversary, the movie was shelved. Burton went off to do “Sleepy Hollow,” Cage departed, and yet work on the screenplay, seemingly in the vacuum of space, continued, with two more hugely expensive original drafts (one by William Wisher and the other by Paul Attansio) later submitted to Warner Bros. And subsequently ignored.
Could It Ever Get Made? The short answer is no. The main problem with “Superman Lives” is that it was a cool concept whose script seemed to never cohere into something that could be seen as a singularly feasible goal. And with Warner Bros. now positioning Superman as a character who not only anchors his own franchise but serves as the sun which the rest of the DC cinematic universe will orbit, it seems unlikely that they would put so much time and effort into a project that was, by all accounts, so hopelessly strange and rudderless.