Top Ten UNPRODUCED Screenplays
When people complain about the quality of movies, they often cite the lack of good scripts. The truth is, there are plenty of well-written screenplays out there. But most of them never see the light of day because they are viewed as too risky. In the November 1992 issue of Movieline magazine, Stephen Rebello compiled a list of some of his favorite unproduced screenplays – two of which eventually got made.
Two members of a very successful screenwriting team like to tell the story of how one of their scripts got such raves from a studio boss that they thought a surefire deal was in the making. When a good amount of time had passed without a bid on the script, the writers rang up their number one fan and were told, “Your screenplay’s too good. Put it in the drawer. We’ll only fuck it up.” Ain’t that the truth.
Twice before, in 1983 and 1987, I went digging for scripts that were just too good to get produced. My finds were unveiled in a now-extinct film magazine. Ten of those 20 screenplays have since been turned into such movies as Total Recall, Man Trouble, Jacob’s Ladder, The Princess Bride, Eight Men Out, At Close Range, Jacknife, Miracle Mile, Love Hurts and Everybody’s All-American. Another, Alive, arrives in theaters this month. It’s astounding, really, that any of these scripts got produced–they were that smart and off-center–let alone that a couple of the resulting movies earned profits and critical acclaim. Personally, I didn’t like any of those movies.
Some I actually hated. Why? Mostly because none of them came near to fulfilling the promise suggested by the printed page. This happens. Lots of filmmakers could tell you about the missed opportunities in the script by W. D. Richter that director and co-writer Peter Bogdanovich turned into the abysmal Nickelodeon. Or about how Lloyd Fonveille’s highly praised revisionist Frankenstein story, derived from a novel by Vonda McIntyre, emerged as Franc Roddam’s battered The Bride. Or about how hilariously David Giler’s The Money Pit script read before it got Spielberged. Or about how Air America flamed out when producer Dan Melnick bumped writer-director Richard Rush and replaced him with Roger Spottiswoode.
In this year’s hunt for the great American screenplay, I again pooled recommendations from writers, producers, directors, actors, story editors, agents and cinematographers. I read more than 70 scripts, searching for good entertainment, style, storytelling, vision and emotional resonance. Would audiences flock to movies made from these scripts? I have no idea. Would these movies excite, enrage, entertain, delight, amuse, challenge? With the right people behind and in front of the camera, and with some luck, definitely. Moviemakers, for your consideration:
CORTÉS (read the script)
Nicholas Kazan, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Reversal of Fortune, harbors a script that offers high adventure of the highest order. Epic, sensual, apocalyptically violent and ferociously moral, Cortes paints a searing portrait of the 16th-century conquistador who vanquished Eden-like Mexico and its exotic inhabitants. Wrapped in what Kazan calls “science-fiction movie metaphors,” Cortes and his men move through a magical landscape, encountering cannibalistic, sodomizing tribes in an other worldly drama that leaves both Spaniards and Indians as deeply mysterious to each other as Martians and earthlings might be. No wonder the role, which rivals Kurtz in Heart of Darkness for complexity and megalomania, has reportedly intrigued such stars as Andy Garcia and Mel Gibson.
In Kazan’s telling, the historical catastrophe of Spain’s clash with American Indian civilizations is played out with comedy, tragedy, valor and barbarism on both sides.
Ordered by Cuba’s governor to “meet the savages, trade with them and teach them Christianity” but not to “settle the land or consort with Indian women,” Cortes instead decimates the Aztec civilization, destroys grand ruler Montezuma II and plunders his vast treasures, defeats native armies of 200,000 with a band of 400, and beds exotic princesses. Kazan’s Cortes emerges as monstrous, ruthless, power-mad and self-righteous. He is also one of the first of a long line of environmental terrorists.
For all its sweep and stunning detail, the piece, to which such directors as Peter Weir, Oliver Stone and Paul Verhoeven have reportedly been attracted, is not so much about conquering new worlds as it is about destroying paradise. As crops are burned, bridges are built and trees are cut down, the script shows us the very beginning of the end we now fear. “I became obsessed with wanting to write an entertainment that addressed environmental catastrophe without preaching,” says Kazan. Written in 1988, the project is the passion of producer Ed Pressman and has been optioned by PentAmerica Pictures. Budgeted at a daunting $50 million to $75 million, Cortes is an epic that is worth the fuss. It does entertain, and it also haunts.
(Current Status – Cortez came close to being made under the title Conquistador in 2006. Antonio Banderas was attached to star, but it never happened.)
THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON
A funny thing happened two days after Robin Swicord delivered her screenplay of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Universal executives: Steven Spielberg announced he intended to direct it. The script sparked months of story conferences between Swicord (screenwriter of 1989’s Shag) and Spielberg, a script reading with Tom Cruise, its intended star, and a green light from Universal on a $40 million budget. Then, with an imminent production date set, a not-so-funny thing happened: Spielberg took on such other projects as Hook, Jurassic Park, Mr. Magoo and Schindler’s List, and Orphaned.
Inspired by an early F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, the screen rights to which producer Ray Stark had owned for 20 years, Swicord’s script revolves around a character who ages backwards. It’s a moving, decade-spanning saga about being different, a freak, and being caught up in the cataclysm of the 20th century. With everyone around the ever-younger Button growing older, he abandons his unloving wife and detached kid to embark on such fabulous adventures as playing a stint as a jazz accompanist to Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman, serving in World War II and Vietnam, experiencing a thorny love affair with a beautiful, emancipated woman in the fashion industry, becoming a rock idol, and, in a ravishingly sentimental finish, coming to terms with his son, his lover and his own mortality.
Although Spielberg passed on Button, it continued to be championed by Universal executives Casey Silver and Josh Donen, the latter of whom subsequently left the studio to work for Ray Stark. The script was seen by such “A”-list directors as Penny Marshall, Robert Zemeckis and Barry Levinson, all of whom, says Swicord, “praised it to death.” But passed. For all its potential pitfalls–for example, an 80-year story span (does one cast one actor or several to play the lead?)–here’s a script that holds the promise of a classic.
(Current Status – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was eventually directed by David Fincher with Brad Pitt in the lead. It was a critical and commercial success in 2008 and was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay – although the script was rewritten by Eric Roth who got sole credit. Robin Swicord was credited with cowriting the story.)
EDWARD FORD (read the script)
All the media hype about screenwriter Lem Dobbs that is unsupported by his produced work, The Hard Way and Kafka, is justified by his unproduced screenplay Edward Ford. A pissed off, freaky, dead-on Hollywood satire that reads like a mating of Nathanael West and the Eraserhead-era David Lynch, Edward Ford makes The Player seem euphorically uncynical by comparison. The eponymous hero is a forty-ish, movie-obsessed taxi driver who wiles away Saturday nights inhaling old flicks at fleapit movie theaters. By day, he casually auditions for acting roles by imitating Lionel Atwill in Son of Frankenstein, and aspires to nothing more ambitious than a career as a B-movie villain. He beds, then weds a slattern, whom he berates for so much as touching his meticulous card files which cross-reference every movie he’s ever seen.
Edward gets befriended by the hip, sardonic Luke, who aspires to make movies and is, in fact, narrating this one. (At the beginning of the film we are told that the real-life Edward plays a cameo in this movie about him, and we’re supposed to guess which character he is.) Explaining how his hapless friend appeared in a film once before, Luke explains that Edward didn’t even rate as an “extra”–one of those people you see in a Biblical movie “huddled on the grass listening attentively to Christ”–but was merely “one of the dots on that hill 15 miles to the north.” Edward’s story is chock-full of parodies of such Hollywood underbelly types as a broken-down Western star who takes the hero to an indescribably weird party that the screen writer describes as resembling “a wedding reception for Tod Browning and Diane Arbus,” and a wife-beating cult film director, modeled after Edward D. Wood Jr., who secretly wears women’s undies. Then there’s Edward Ford’s lover, Mitzi, whom Dobbs describes as “a cross between a badly preserved child performer of long ago and something you might find in a primeval swamp.”
This hilarious, out there script has spawned a cult of the faithful which includes mid-level studio executives who don’t have the power to say “yes,” as well as David Lynch, who has tried unsuccessfully to set this project up with several financiers, with himself as producer and Dobbs as director. One studio higher-up praised Edward Ford to me to the skies, but concluded, “It’s just too weird to take a chance on. Unless, of course, Tim Burton and David Lynch took it on.” Are you listening, strange dudes?
(Current Status – Edward Ford remains too weird for Hollywood.)
HAIR OF THE DOG
Steve Dejarnatt’s Hair of the Dog is a quirky, raunchy, richly populated tale of a pill-popping, womanizing, hell-raising, failed Nashville crooner who fabricates a hoax about his imminent death and turns himself into an instant legend. Though the premise may recall the classic farce Nothing Sacred, Dejarnatt’s hip, junkyard-dog attack on the material harkens back to Billy Wilder’s scathing The Big Carnival. Set in 1965 against a back drop of guitar-playing hopefuls, hookers, animal catchers, hustlers and druggies, Hair of the Dog cuts its own idiosyncratic swath, taking jabs at pop culture’s frenzy for celebrity, and spilling over with acerbic wit and touchingly crackpot characterizations.
“Elf Montgomery” stages a public psychodrama in which he appears to save real-life country music diva Kitty Wells from a vicious attack by a rabid dog. First pretending to be infected with rabies as a result of his heroic act, and then actually contracting the dreaded disease, and turning out to be allergic to the life-saving antidote, Montgomery’s last days on earth become a media freak show. Hustled by record promoters, media sharks, horny groupies, quack “healers” and coattail-riding politicians, he finally wins an invitation to perform a “First and Last Performance” at country music’s mecca, the Grand Ole Opry.
Montgomery is only one of several unforgettable key players in this mordant blend of social commentary and knife-edged tragicomedy. Robert Altman is an obvious candidate to have a field day directing this one. Despite having attracted fans everywhere from Paramount to Morgan Creek Productions, Hair of the Dog, written almost a decade ago, has never lurched past the admiration stage. “Announcing that I’m going to direct this arty movie for no more than $5 million in black-and-white starring Clancy Brown and William Forsythe doesn’t gladden investors’ hearts,” explains Dejarnatt, who directed his own Miracle Mile. Still, several producers have approached Dejarnatt with the notion of casting the lead with one of the current pack of young country heartthrobs, so this movie might yet get made.
(Current Status – Hair of the Dog has yet to be made.)
“Everyone in Hollywood says: ‘Bring us a My Man Godfrey, a Bringing Up Baby, a Lady Eve,'” observes screenwriter Topper Lilien, “but they didn’t see a new screwball comedy when we laid one right in front of them.” The funny-from-start-to-finish Hello, Stranger, by Lilien and Carroll Cartwright, is indeed screwball for moderns. It’s a smart, corkscrew-plotted farce that boasts zingy dialogue, hip romanticism, frenzied plotting and, oddly enough, an unexpected emotional kick. Here’s the setup: a cynical, ’40s-style con man and a sexy, shrewd sharpie posing as his daughter scour the land for sucker sapiens. They never run out of people to fleece. First there’s a Chinese gang boss from whom they swindle a fortune for a bogus “dragon’s egg.” Then there’s a millionaire for whom the heroine poses as a blind, charity-minded Main Line Philadelphia do-gooder.
He’s followed by America’s dimmest zillionaire, who falls so hard for the heroine’s rap that he’s persuaded to decorate his penthouse in hundred-dollar bills. Next comes an elaborate scam involving a sexy, acid-tongued interior decorator, a Brinks truckload of money, Asian hit men, and a poodle and a dildo (don’t ask). All this culminates in the leading lady’s frenetic wedding–one of several in the movie–to the sweet, woman-mad male bimbo hero.
Lilien and Cartwright, who share credits on The Pope Must Diet, concocted the script on “spec” six years back with an unmistakable nod to classic Preston Sturges. But Hello, Stranger‘s gloves-off, mordant quirkiness–one of many qualities that keep it from being a What’s Up, Doc?-type homage–has apparently perplexed Hollywood. “One studio executive actually asked us after reading it, ‘Is this comedy?'” Cartwright says incredulously. Although such directors as Allan Moyle and James Lapine have “gotten” it, and Geena Davis is interested in starring in it, Hello, Stranger, on which A & M Pictures has dibs, still awaits the right director. A truly smart, wicked comedy? Boy, do we need one now.
(Current Status – Hello, Stranger was rewritten by E. Max Frye and was released in 2000 as Where the Money Is starring Paul Newman and Linda Fiorentino.)
HYMN TIME IN THE LAND OF ABANDON
A lonely Indiana kid’s life is altered forever when she discovers a battered old angel who can’t speak and lives on Twinkies. So is the life of her single mom, who’s addicted to Italian language study tapes and abusive men. The mom’s brooding, live-in boyfriend, a science teacher, goes ballistic when he’s faced with the same magical angel, and when he suspects his woman is falling in love with the angel’s mysterious protector, he terrorizes the mother and child.
These are the offbeat elements in Jeffrey Bell’s beautifully observed, quietly persuasive Hymn Time in the Land of Abandon, which was inspired by a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story. Bell’s script contains living, breathing, complex characters–those throwbacks to another era of moviemaking–brought into conflict and discovery by a brush with the mystical.
Hymn Time, which producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury have been devoted to for years, shines with Bell’s evocation of small-town rhythms, his attention to the needs and tensions that percolate just below the surface of every day speech, and his ability to stage extraordinary events at mundane locales like a Dairy Queen and a roadside antique emporium. Bell is especially nimble at juxtaposing “small,” persuasive details–a child’s horror at a slain deer left bleeding in her wagon, and then, several scenes later, the young mother’s magical experience of waking in the middle of the night to find her yard has become a ghostly, beautiful deer park.
This script offers a feast for actors–there are made-to-fit roles for people of the caliber of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Daniel Day-Lewis, John Cusack and Brad Pitt. Hopefully, a director smart enough not to mistake “small” for trivial will see Hymn Time in the Land of Abandon for the lovely, piercing work it is.
(Current Status – Hymn Time remains in the land of abandoned scripts.)
IT ONLY RAINS AT NIGHT
Screenwriter Neal Jimenez, who wrote River’s Edge, and wrote and co-directed The Waterdance, taps into something bleak, savage, personal and outrageously funny in this frighteningly deadpan parable. The screenplay, to which Johnny Depp has been committed for several years, reads like an odd mix of Kafka, Jim Jarmusch and a funky, Max Fleischer version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s about a lonely, bland bachelor who by day beheads society’s “enemies,” and by night practices gourmet cooking while listening to old Jack Benny radio shows. The crisis in this offbeat world occurs when he falls in love with the severed head (it can talk, too!) of one of his victims.
Jimenez is that rare bird who can create an alternate universe that’s completely idiosyncratic, yet accessible. In this hypersurreal world the central character is described walking against a background of the same stock footage of “neighbors” over and over. He lives by his company’s motto, “To Protect and Sever.” And, once he’s awakened to the madness of his existence and ponders suicide, the old codger angel from It’s A Wonderful Life comes along to advise him to go ahead and end it all.
It Only Rains at Night has producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury (who produced Jimenez’s ac claimed screenplay River’s Edge) sold. “It’s one of those projects that development and middle-level executives just love, but that their bosses think is just too weird,” says Sanford, known as an advocate of edgy material. “It is weird, wonderful, and with Johnny starring and Neal directing, it will some day make a very special movie.”
(Current Status – It Only Rains has not yet become a very special movie.)
Becky Johnston’s Lenya chronicles the tumultuous relationship of theatrical legends Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill, and sets the stage for a big, fat, Cabaret-style romantic drama with music. Remember those lighthearted movie songfests of yesteryear in which characters sang and danced for the joy of it? This isn’t one of those. “It’s a period project that looks at the different forms love takes–and happens to feature some of the greatest music ever written,” observes producer Neil Meron, who, with Craig Zadan, his partner at Storyline Productions, along with Margaret South, Bonnie Bruckheimer and Bette Midler–the troika at All Girl Productions–has spent nearly three years trying to launch the project with Midler starring.
It hasn’t been easy, but, then, neither is the material. Johnston, who adapted The Prince of Tides, begins with Lenya becoming a ’30s Berlin rave in the stage and movie versions of The Threepenny Opera, while, offstage, sparring and screwing ferociously with composer Weill, her lifetime love. Although both give each other tremendous freedom, their ardor cools. Lenya helps Weill escape from Nazi persecution, and later, in New York, during his glittering Broadway successes that include Knickerbocker Holidayand Lady in the Dark, they reunite. Later still, exiled in Holly wood paradise, they become totally devoted to each other until his death, after which the revered Lenya triumphs in a Threepenny revival, returns to Germany to record an epic album of Weill tunes, and becomes the keeper of the flame of Weill’s legend.
Incisive and unvarnished in depicting Lenya’s yen for casual lovers and her later marriage to a gay writer, the script’s adroit use of Lenya’s best-known Weill tunes– “September Song,” “Speak Low” and “Pirate Jenny,” for instance–deepens an already rich, sweeping, emotionally complex story. Still, Lenya is an expensive-sounding project about a performer who became a household word only in very select households. The script remains at TriStar, and spokespersons for Storyline and All Girl insist that they are “absolutely committed to making it happen,” but a star director has yet to commit to the challenge. The recent box-office failure of several expensive musicals, including Newsies and Midler’s For the Boys, probably hasn’t helped spur the effort. But here’s the stuff of which new-style musical legends are made.
(Current Status – Lenya remains unproduced.)
MARIO AND THE MAGICIAN
Here’s a script that’s been around forever. Based on Thomas Mann’s allegorical novella, Mario and the Magician, a many-tiered parable of a Mussolini-like dictator’s stranglehold over a populace, the screenplay adaptation was written by the estimable Abraham Polonsky over 40 years ago. Set in 1929 at an Italian seaside resort, the story’s events unfold like those in a foreign movie directed by, say, Luchino Visconti in his glory days. The characters include a well-to-do, badly married, Mann-like writer, his beautiful wife, their daughter (who, bullied by local hooligans, strips off her mud-flecked bathing suit in public and nearly incites a scandal) and a handsome waiter–named Mario–who loves the writer’s wife from afar. While these characters fill their lives with trivia that passes for substance, Fascist Black Shirts hover in the background, ready to prey on their complacency. The story strands are woven together during a performance by a mesmerizing, deformed magician who enthralls and taunts his audience, finally provoking his own murder.
All right, this is slippery, offbeat, arty material. But in 1950, Polonsky struck a deal with 20th Century Fox to shoot the movie on European locations, possibly with Laurence Olivier as the magician. Then, in 1951, Polonsky was black listed for alleged Communist leanings, and by the time he was able to resume his directing career in the late ’60s, nobody wanted to finance the picture. Polonsky and producer Michael Kaplan (The Whales of August) almost succeeded in getting the project set up at MGM by 1983, the year Frank Yablans became chief operating officer. Budgeted at around $5 million, it was to star Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, who had won an Oscar for Melvin and Howard. Then things imploded, Kaplan says, sighing, “perhaps because Yablans showed it to people who expressed doubts and made him less secure. People thought it was too intellectual, too political. Polonsky wanted to make it so badly, we actually once thought of shooting it on a very low budget and not releasing it until Mann’s story reverted to public domain.” Polonsky, 82 now, eventually lost the story rights. Klaus Maria Brandauer’s name has recently been associated with a German-financed production of Mario, which Brandauer would direct for his debut. What a pity that Polonsky himself never got to film his very, very beautiful script.
(Current Status – Mario and the Magician have disappeared.)
Alfred Hitchcock once said he avoided making costume movies because characters in them don’t go to the bathroom. Virtually everybody goes to the bathroom, metaphorically speaking, in The Revolution, an epic, knockout 16-year-old screenplay by Michael Wadleigh and John Binder, from a story by Wadleigh. In this world, people also screw, cuss, spit fire, scheme, brutalize and, finally, triumph. The fact that all the characters are historical personalities–George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and General Charles Lee among them–makes The Revolution, a pulse-racer about America’s winning of freedom from England, all the more enthralling.
An opening note to the script, researched by Wadleigh and Thelma Schoonmaker, reads: “What’s most remarkable about the following is that it’s all true, down to the small details.” An amazing statement, really (one the creators back up with letters from such historians as Arthur Schlesinger and Daniel J. Boorstin), when one encounters the myth-shattering moments in this 300-page plus script, envisioned as a four-hour “Part One” of a two-part epic. Among other things, there’s the suicide attempt by George Washington–a deeply conflicted control freak who cracks up during battle and wanders zombie-like into redcoat fire.
There’s the syphilitic General Charles Lee, a profane, explosive rascal whose brilliant military strategies helped Washington win the war. There’s firebrand Samuel Adams, a scheming, glorious manipulator who actually plotted the revolution few colonists actively wanted. There’s also a marvelous, larger-than-life Benjamin Franklin working overtime at his printing press, “Peru,” to crank out paper money spattered with propaganda to help sway the complacent. And there’s foppish rich boy John Hancock, mincing, spouting revolution and fawning over Washington’s manly physique. None of these eccentricities and foibles diminish from the awesome stature of these founding fathers–if anything, the mythical figures are humanized and their achievements seem all the more amazing.
The screenwriters have devised riveting, Goyaesque set pieces during battle and civil unrest, in which the untamed colonists and slaves loot, mug and pillage, many of them remaining fierce British loyalists who have to be forced, badgered and paid to fight the battle for independence. Patriotism is shown as the exceptional and slowly expanding sentiment it actually was in those ambiguous times. And, by the script’s end, freedom is shown to have been seldom so hard-won.
In 1975, Wadleigh, director of Woodstock and Wolfen, found allies for the project in United Artists executive vice-president Mike Medavoy and chairman Arthur Krim. The script also won for Wadleigh, who describes it as “the birth of guerrilla warfare, propaganda,- it’s America’s War and Peace,” the interest of directors like Stanley Kubrick, Hugh Hudson and Sydney Pollack, and actors like Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando. In the end, the project’s mammoth logistics defeated it.
“The budget was huge, particularly for a historical period that had never been proven to be ‘box office,'” Wadleigh admits. When the UA prospects dimmed, the project was courted by such potential backers as ABC TV, which offered Wadleigh a fortune to make it, he recalls, “without the battles or the so-called ‘controversial’ view of history.” Director Hugh Hudson’s notorious megaflop on the same general subject, Revolution, certainly damaged the prospects for Wadleigh’s endeavor. But Wadleigh received another flurry of interest in mounting the movie following the acclaim for PBS’s documentary miniseries The Civil War. “The tragedy about this movie not being made,” says Wadleigh, “is that it would teach people so much about the real foundations of our country. If two big movies can be made about Columbus, isn’t an honest, no-bullshit movie about our founding fathers at least as worthy a subject?” Yes. One idea, in view of Hudson’s bomb Revolution, would be to immediately change the title of this screenplay to, say, The Founding Fathers.
(Current Status – This Revolution never happened.)
STILL UP FOR GRABS
Of the author’s 1983 and 1987 choices for the 10 best unproduced screenplays, the still-unfilmed include:
Harrow Alley, Walter Newman’s plague-years journal, an on-again, off-again project for years, long owned by George C. Scott.
Bad Manners, Steven Zaillian’s ’60s teenage comedy-drama, owned by producer Ray Stark.
Interface, Chip Proser’s science-fiction tale, once fancied by Francis Coppola.
Natural Acts, Michael Kozoll’s thirtysomething relationship study.
The Eagle of Broadway, a melange of fact and fiction that has long been a pet of producer Mark Johnson and director Barry Levinson.
The Tourist, Clair Noto and Patricia Knop’s altogether original, alienated-space-aliens black comedy, now in development at Universal.
Kinfolk, Stu Krieger’s family comedy-drama favored by producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, to which director Penny Marshall was once attached.
Ain’t That America, a drama about disenfranchised mill-workers by Frank Pierson, owned by Warner Bros.
Ozone, Rob Dunn’s raucous ’60s girl-group romp, owned by Warner Bros.
Stephen Rebello is a contributing editor of Movieline.