David Lean’s “Nostromo”
What Was It? An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo, A Tale of the Seaboard” as directed by David Lean and produced by Steven Spielberg for Warner Bros.
What Happened? Centering on an integrity-filled sailor who became involved in a plot to smuggle silver out of a South American mining town, the book was written in 1904 but had to be modernized, which gave Lean and his writers problems. Lean was also in his 70s and hadn’t made a movie in 15 years. Developed for over five years with four different screenwriters, playwright Christopher Hampton worked on it for years, and they even went location scouting in Mexico. Marlon Brando, Alan Rickman, Paul Scofield, Peter O’Toole, Isabella Rossellini, Christopher Lambert, and Dennis Quaid were names that were bandied about, but development was just too slow. Spielberg often wanted to work with his idols and David Lean was one of his particular icons, so he injected some dynamism into the project by coming on board as a producer around the time of “Empire of the Sun,” but his notes to the legendary filmmaker were apparently irritating and unwanted. Hampton took six months off to write the adaptation of his own play “Dangerous Liaisons” and this caused further delays (leading Lean to employ formerly-estranged “Lawrence Of Arabia” screenwriter Robert Bolt). Budget issues were a factor (WB would only put up 50% of the sprawling cost), Spielberg eventually pulled out citing creative differences and poor health dogged Lean for the last few years of his life. This would cause major insurance issues as the film carried on; the studio insisted on a standby director in case he couldn’t finish and suggested names like John Boorman, Peter Yates and Arthur Penn (Lean would like Robert Altman; they would eventually go with Guy Hamilton). All of it would end up moot. Lean died in 1991 of throat cancer with the project frustratingly unrealized.
Could It Ever Get Made? Seems highly doubtful, but the screenplay can be read here. Extra credit: Ridley Scott tipped his cap to the story, naming the ship in “Alien” the Nostromo, a theme that carried through into “Aliens” in which an escape ship is named Sulaco, after the mining town setting of Conrad’s novel.
There are a few notable exclusions from this list that we’d like to shout out: Henri-Georges Clouzot‘s “Inferno” should rightfully be at the top of anyone’s unmade masterpieces list, but we’ve written about that one rather recently. Other legendary projects that never quite came to pass include Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried” (which we’ve written about extensively; including in this similar feature; the comedian also wanted to reportedly make “The Catcher in the Rye”) and Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which we purposely left off the list because it’s perhaps the most well-known of all of them and knock on wood, it’ll get made in the near future.
For more on contemporary unproduced projects that have gained legendary status, like Baz Luhrmann’s “Alexander The Great,” Guillermo del Toro‘s “At the Mountains of Madness,” James Cameron‘s “Spider-Man,” Steven Soderbergh‘s 3D musical “Cleopatra,” Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill 3” (here’s an in-depth rundown of QT’s unmade projects), and any number of interesting Spike Lee projects (read: 10 Lost, Unmade & Possible Future Projects Of Spike Lee). Additionally, there are myriad David Fincher projects outside of those mentioned above, Spike Jonze’s unrealized version of “Harold & The Purple Crayon,” Neill Blomkamp’s “Halo,” dozens of still-unmade Michael Mann projects, as well as Christopher Nolan’s abandoned Howard Hughes project and his would-be big-screen adaptation of the seminal ‘60s TV show “The Prisoner.” Tim Burton’s got a closet full of movies he’s never made and Martin Scorsese has at least four or five passion projects he’d like to make before he shuffles off this mortal coil.
On the more classic, vintage side, Orson Welles was obviously the tragic king of unrealized film projects while projects from Michael Cimino, Akira Kurosawa, Bernardo Bertolucci, Salvador Dali-meets-Disney, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Max Ophüls, along with Greta Garbo‘s would-be triumphant return to the screen are among those we’ll be looking at next. But if you are jonesing for more right now, let us point you in the direction of a wealth of extra-credit material: “Lost & Abandoned: 10 Movies That Were Shot, But Eventually Scrapped” and “Shelved Movies: 18 Films With Delayed Releases” “5 Superman Movies That Never Took Flight,” “10 Unmade Tim Burton Movies” the “Lost & Abandoned Projects Of J.J. Abrams,” “5 Marvel Movie What Ifs” “5 Unmade Movies From The Legendary Sergio Leone,” “5 Things [Films] We’d Rather See David Lynch Do Than Open His ‘Mulholland Drive’ Club in Paris” and the aforementioned run downs of Tarantino and Spike Lee projects that never came to pass. Advanced readers should also check out our “Ten Dead Projects We’d Like To See Resurrected” and we have a few of those (parts 2 and parts 3 as well) and finally “20 Superhero Movies That Couldn’t Fly All The Way To The Big Screen.”
Tell us what you think about our picks in the comments—would they actually have been any good in completed form or are they better off endlessly pursued, never caught, as our very own cinematic white whales? -Rodrigo Perez & Jessica Kiang with Drew Taylor