Paul Verhoeven’s “Crusade”
What Was It? An Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring, immensely violent, historical blockbuster epic with a nice line in shit-stirring controversies, including the faking of a miracle, the revelation of the corruption and venality of the First Crusade and the papacy at the time, as well as pointed commentary on anti-Arab prejudice and anti-Semitism. Exhaustive plot detail can be found here, and a breathless script review is here.
What Happened? So close, and yet so far … “Crusade” almost got made in 1994, despite its massive budget and what seems now like a seriously dicey concept in light of the heebie-jeebies Hollywood gets over anything the Christian conservative lobby might object to. But why wouldn’t it have? At the time, Schwarzenegger was the most bankable star in the world, and was coming off “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” which had itself broken the $100 million budget barrier, and yet turned out to be the most lucrative film in Carolco’s history. Verhoeven was similarly hot following ”RoboCop” “Total Recall,” and “Basic Instinct” and furthermore had a good working relationship with the star, as well as a proven record in delivering high-concept popcorn entertainment that also shaded in satire or social commentary. The script had been worked over, a top-notch cast attached including Robert Duvall, Jennifer Connolly, John (or possibly Nicholas) Turturro and superlative “that guy!” villain Christopher MacDonald, with shooting scheduled to begin in summer 1994. But that was just a little too late—despite Carolco’s recent successes, they had overstretched their production capabilities and Verhoeven was, he claimed “too honest. I was stupid” when it came to the budget process—an assessment co-writer Gary Goldman agreed with, saying “[Paul] doesn’t really lie about budgeting, which is a mistake because there’s no way to get these movies made without lying.” In fact, pulling out was itself costly, as Schwarzenegger had a pay-or-play deal in place, and several million had already been spent on preproduction. Costlier still, the shingle regrouped and decided instead to put their eggs into a different big-budget basket. That film? “Cutthroat Island,” which bankrupted them.
Could It Ever Get Made? Online geek petitions to the contrary, realistically “Crusade” is the kind of ’90s production that wouldn’t get made anymore: aside from its controversial aspects as regards Christian history (waay more heretical than “Noah“), the era of the action megastar is kind of passed. Verhoeven himself has more “serious” projects about religious history in the works (read: probably non-Hollywood) so it’s very likely this one will remain forever a hypothesis.
Salvador Dali’s “Giraffes on Horseback Salad”
What Was It? A 1937 surrealist comedy screenplay, adapted from Dali’s original idea called “The Surrealist Woman,” which was to feature the Marx Brothers as it stars, alongside a distinctly Dali-esque cast of giraffes in gas masks and dwarves as Groucho et al., the central woman and her suitor journey through a “surrealist cabaret.”
What Happened? With Dali also a part of Jodorowsky’s “Dune,” perhaps the great surrealist is the patron saint of this list. From the details online (which you can read here), the script he wrote, which was only rediscovered in 1996, sounds like it would have been potentially the most amazing thing ever, but also very possibly borderline unwatchable. Groucho thought something similar, anyway recounting later about the project that while Dali had been enthusiastic, saying ”Have I got a script for you!”… “He didn’t. It wouldn’t play.” However Harpo liked it and carried on a correspondence with Dali, who even embarked on a short film scenario solely featuring Harpo, seeing as they got along so well and “liked the same type of imagination.” Sadly that never came to pass either, and when asked in 1973 about the project, Dali became enraged, beating at nearby pigeons with his cane and declaring “nobody would dare to do Dali’s script!”
Could It Ever Get Made? Nope, nor should it. I mean, with Dali and all the Marx Brothers now gone, what on earth would be the point? Some ideas can exist outside of the mind created them, and be taken on by other people—this, from everything we’ve read about it, is emphatically not one of those ideas.
Sergio Leone’s “Leningrad: The 900 Days”
What Was It? An adaptation of Harris Salisbury’s non-fiction book “The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad,” which tells the story of the one of the most punishing encounters in the history of WWII’s Eastern Front, Leone’s picture would have be told through the eyes of an American photographer, to be played, potentially, by Robert De Niro. He is trapped in the city as the battle begins, falls in clandestine love with a Russian woman and together they fight to survive the siege, only for him to be killed on liberation day.
What Happened? One of several potential Leone projects never made, Leone had already been attracted by this property back in 1982 while finishing up with “Once Upon a Time in America.” And while it seems that a script was never completed, Leone reportedly had already outlined the story and chosen the first shot—which was going to be, in typically grand, sweeping Leone fashion, a long unbroken cut (described in detail here) starting from the hands of Russian composer Shostakovich playing his “Leningrad Symphony” tracking out to follow a tram packed with armed Russians across the city, past the line of defensive trenches and out to a German Panzer division sweeping in. By 1989, Leone had financing in place to the tune, reportedly of a cool $100 million, and was due to film in co-production with a Soviet company (kind of a big deal in 1989, one would have thought), but just two days before he was due to sign the deal to direct it officially, Leone had a heart attack and died at the age of just 60.
Could It Ever Get Made? There’s no way that the particular vision of Leone’s could be brought to the screen, especially as no script was ever completed (director Jean-Jacques Annaud claimed Leone had wanted him to take over the project, but bailed when he discovered the “screenplay” was in fact a suitcase full of books on the subject, turning in the tedious “Enemy at the Gates” later instead). In 2003 Giuseppe Tornatore (“Cinema Paradiso”) had suggested he wanted to direct a similar-sounding project called “Leningrad,” with Nicole Kidman in the role of the woman, but that went cold too. So, even if this exact story does someday make it to screen, Leone’s intentions, outside of that minutely described opening, will always be beyond our reach.
Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis”
What Was It? Described by Coppola himself as being “a little like an Ayn Rand novel,” the film was primed to be an ambitious, sprawling, big-budget sci-fi epic about an extraordinarily wealthy architect in a futuristic New York who tries to build a utopian mini-city. The script alone ran to 212 pages (you can read a highly critical review here), and almost every big name in Hollywood was mooted for a part in the large ensemble, with the likes of Kevin Spacey and Warren Beatty attending table readings.
What Happened? With test footage already in the can, financing secured (no mean feat—Coppola later claimed he had done three back-to-back studio films in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “Jack” and “The Rainmaker” purely so he’d be able to get financing for “Megalopolis”), all seemed to be going full steam ahead. And then 9/11 happened, and suddenly the idea of shooting a film in, and supposedly very much about, New York City that didn’t somehow contend with this incredibly traumatic event was inconceivable. As Coppola said “It made it really pretty tough… a movie about the aspiration of utopia with New York as a main character and then all of a sudden you couldn’t write about New York without just dealing with what happened and the implications of what happened. The world was attacked and I didn’t know how to try to do with that.” By the time for it to become a viable property once more, ardor had rather cooled, not least Coppola’s own.
Could It Ever Get Made? In 2007 Coppola said “I have abandoned that as of now… I plan to begin a process of making one personal movie after another and if something leads me back to look at that, which I’m sure it might, I’ll see what makes sense to me” and indeed that seems to have been the path he’s pursued till very recently. Later in 2009 he said, “Someday, I’ll read what I had on ‘Megalopolis’ and maybe I’ll think different of it, but it’s a movie that costs a lot of money to make and there’s not a patron out there.” Of course recently such a patron seems to have materialized, but for a different New York City epic, and with the filmmaker now 74 years old, we should maybe retire ideas of “Megalopolis” ever coming to the screen with him at the helm.
Louis Malle‘s “Moon Over Miami”
What Was it? A black comedy about a political scandal to be directed by French Maestro Louis Malle and to star John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
What Happened? Let’s back up a bit. Political scandal? It was the ABSCAM scandal. If that acronym sounds familiar, it should. Essentially, it’s the same story of David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” Malle was hot in the U.S. after “Atlantic City” (five Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director) and so the movie was past a green light and heading towards a start date very quickly. John Belushi would have played Melvin Weinberg, the same character that Christian Bale played in the 2013 film (or a version of him anyhow) and Aykroyd would have played the more straight-laced FBI guy (the Bradley Cooper role). Belushi was looking to stretch his wings, but Spielberg’s “1941” was a bust, “The Blues Brothers,” while a huge hit, was derided in the press for going over budget, and the dark comedy “Neighbors” was a big disaster no one went to see. While he and Aykroyd had decided to work apart, their solo successes were few, so the “Ghostbuster” convinced his crazy ‘SNL‘ pal to take the part (Belushi could have starred in the Ivan Reitman paranormal comedy too). Aykroyd loved the script too, but Belushi didn’t even have a chance to read it. He died all too young at the age of 33 in 1982. The project was abandoned.
Could It Ever Get Made? See “American Hustle,” i.e. no, it’s been done and done well.