Sergio Leone’s The Godfather? Alfred Hitchcock’s Thunderball? David Lynch’s Return of the Jedi? WTF?
Big name directors are hot property in Hollywood, so it’s little wonder that the very best have a resume of films that they nearly directed, to rival the list of movies that they actually made. Here are some examples of what could have been, had Tinseltown history taken a different turn.
Sergio Leone’s The Godfather
When looking for a director to bring Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather to the big screen, Paramount chief Robert Evans considered it vital that the man who got the job should hail from the ‘old country’.
Top of Evans’ list of Italian directors, was Sergio Leone. The director was a natural choice, with his Spaghetti Westerns dripping with the themes of destiny and greed, which were also so apparent in Puzo’s novel.
Yet, Leone was not impressed with The Godfather, feeling that the book glorified the mafia. Furthermore, at the time of the offer, Leone had begun to develop his own pet-project, which focussed on similar territory.
The project was an adaptation of Harry Gray’s autobiographical gangster novel The Hoods. Leone would spend over a decade bringing his vision of the book to the big screen, as he battled to win the rights and wrestled with what was becoming a gargantuan script.
In 1984, Sergio Leone’s last masterpiece was finally released, titled Once Upon a Time in America. His sprawling epic ran to 229 minutes, but was cut to 144 minutes for the American release, resulting in poor reviews from critics, who were enraged at the way Leone had been treated by the studio.
Of course, Francis Ford Coppola’s eventual adaptation of The Godfather is now so ingrained upon our popular culture that it is almost impossible to imagine the film having been directed by anyone else.
Having said that, there’s always room for improvement. An Ennio Morricone soundtrack anyone?
James Cameron’s Spider-Man
While DC Comics were enjoying blockbuster successes with their Superman and Batman franchises, their rivals at Marvel had struggled to bring their flagship title to the big screen.
So Spider-Man fans were ecstatic when it was eventually announced that James Cameron would write, produce and direct the cinematic debut of everyone’s favourite wisecracking webslinger.
Hot off the back of his hit sequel Terminator 2 , Cameron clearly had the required special effects know-how to bring Spidey to life. What’s more, it was rumoured that Cameron would be able to attract Arnold Schwarzenegger to the role of Dr Octopus, at a time when the former Governor of California’s name, was still box office gold.
With the Spider-Man film having been in development since 1985, several attempts had been made to perfect a screenplay. Cameron submitted a new draft of an existing script, but shortly followed this with a 47-page ‘scriptment’, which featured an alternate story.
Cameron’s document focused on the origins of Spiderman, as had the earlier drafts. However, there was no room for Doc Ock, with Cameron instead preferring to use versions of Electro and Sandman as his villains. Cameron took the liberty of changing the characters names, with Electro’s alias of Matt Dillion from the comic book series being altered to ‘Carlton Strand’, while Sandman was rather bizarrely, simply named ‘Boyd’.
While the fanboys would have been unlikely to approve of such tinkering with the source material, they may have been more receptive to Cameron’s idea of Spidey and Mary Jane Watson having sex on screen. Whether this would have gone down so well with a studio looking to make a family blockbuster is another issue.
The rights to bring Spiderman to the big screen had rested with several different companies at various times during the development period and it was the resulting legal confusion that put paid to Cameron directing Spiderman. The rights finally settled with Columbia, who hired David Koepp to adapt Cameron’s scriptment.
Koepp was eventually given full credit for the finished screenplay by the WGA, despite the complaints of several other writers who wrote subsequent drafts and of course, Cameron.
George Lucas was a big fan of Eraserhead and offered Lynch the directing job on Return of the Jedi. Lynch told Lucas that he should direct the movie himself.
Norman Jewison’s Malcolm X
As a college student, Spike Lee’s dream was to one day direct an adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
The rights to the book had been optioned by the producer Marvin Worth in 1967. Worth commissioned a script from the novelist James Baldwin, who was later joined by Arnold Perl, a blacklisted screenwriter in the McCarthy era.
The project spent years in development hell, despite numerous rewrites. It wasn’t until the late 1980s, when sales of The Autobiography of Malcolm X rose by 300%, that Warner Brothers finally greenlit the project. Norman Jewison was chosen to direct Malcolm X and cast Denzel Washington in the title role, having worked with the actor on A Soldier’s Story.
The hiring of a white director to tell the story of such an important figure in black history, created a real furore. One of the loudest voices in the ensuing protest was that of Spike Lee, who unsurprisingly wasn’t against the notion of directing the movie himself.
Jewison agreed to step down and let Lee direct the film. He later claimed that he gave up the movie, not because of the protest, but because he could never solve the riddle of Malcolm’s private life and was unsatisfied with the script.
Warner Brothers had no doubt chosen Jewison as their director, due to his pioneering exploration of racial tension in his Oscar winning film In the Heat of the Night. Jewison returned to the similar territory with his 1984 film A Soldier’s Story and would complete a trilogy on the subject of racism, with The Hurricane in 1999 (also starring Washington).
Malcolm X was released in 1992 and enjoyed moderate box office returns, amid mixed reviews. Lee’s insistence that the story of Malcolm X should only be directed by a Black American made some political sense, but whether he was capable of making a finer film on the subject than Jewison, is arguable.
Sam Raimi’s Batman Forever
Though Tim Burton’s Batman Returns was a financial success, Warner Brothers were of the opinion that it should have done much better at the box office. Deciding to adopt a lighter tone, it was decided that a new director would be sought for the franchise, with Burton taking on a producing role.
Pushing himself to the front of the queue to take directorial duties was Sam Raimi. The creator of the Evil Dead Trilogy had form in the comic book genre, having written and directed the 1990 film Darkman.
Unable to purchase the rights to The Shadow, Raimi set about creating his own superhero, giving rise to Darkman. The character took the form of a non-super powered, masked vigilante. Sound familiar?
Raimi has admitted that he drew inspiration from Batman when creating the character of Darkman. Now he had a shot at directing the real thing, but though he lobbied hard, the studio preferred Joel Schumacher.
The rest is history. The Schumacher-directed Batman pictures descended into camp mockery; killing the franchise until it was eventually revived by the dark vision of realism that was Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins.
Raimi eventually fulfilled his comic book cravings when he brought Spiderman to the big screen, breaking box office records in the process. Would Raimi have been able to perform similar heroics if he’d taken on Batman?
It’s doubtful. By the time of the third film in the Batman franchise, more attention was being paid to potential action figures than script development, with the studio eager for multiple-villains to be crammed into the plot. Raimi will know better than most, how that can spoil a third-in-the-franchise super-hero movie.
David Lynch’s Return of the Jedi
The very notion is as surreal as one of David Lynch’s own films. Could the director of such unorthodox fare as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and Lost Highway, really have taken charge on Star Wars: Episode VI?
Incredibly it could have been true. George Lucas was a big fan of Eraserhead and offered Lynch the directing job on Return of the Jedi. Lynch told Lucas that he should direct the movie himself.
Lynch officially turned down the job the next day. He has later indicated that he didn’t feel that he would have had any creative control over the project. This certainly seemed to be true for the film’s eventual director, Richard Marquand, who frequently clashed with Lucas. The Welsh helmer likened the experience to directing King Lear, whilst Shakespeare was in the next room.
Having rejected Jedi, David Lynch did take on a sci-fi project for his next film, bringing the long in development Dune to the big screen. Dune was a critical and commercial flop and Lynch has yet to return to the sci-fi genre.
As for what would have been the consequence of a Lynch directed Return of the Jedi, Youtube is awash with Star Wars fans’ interpretations. Those backward-talking Emperors have to be seen to be believed.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Thunderball
An impossibly suave Englishman, on foreign soil, becomes embroiled in an action packed spy mystery. Is it any wonder that having seen Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the would-be producers of the first James Bond film considered Hitch to be the perfect director for the project?
In 1959, Ian Fleming agreed with producers Kevin McClory and Ivar Bryce, that he would write an original treatment for a Bond movie. McClory himself was a director, having worked as an AD for John Huston on Moby Dick and having helmed his own 1957 film, The Boy and the Bridge.
Despite McClory’s credentials, Fleming and Bryce thought that they needed a more experienced director, if they were to attract stars and American distributors. Bryce suggested Hitchcock and Fleming personally sent the director a note through their mutual friend Eric Ambler, asking if Hitchcock would be interested in directing the first Bond film.
Word got back to Fleming that Hitchcock was indeed interested in the project, possibly as a vehicle for the by then 51 years old James Stewart. Surprisingly, Fleming was not averse to the casting of Stewart as Bond, but Bryce saw his style as being totally wrong for 007. Moreover, Bryce was beginning to question the wisdom of bringing Hitchcock onto the project, fearing that the auteur would insist upon having full creative control.
Hitchcock eventually passed over the chance to bring Bond to the big screen, as he began work on Psycho. The project collapsed and bereft of fresh inspiration, Fleming used the existing story as the basis of his next Bond novel, Thunderball (filmed in 1965). Hitchcock never directed a 007 movie, but with his films Torn Curtain and Topaz, he attempted to make a realistic Bond-style spy thriller.
A realistic Bond movie? Now who’d be interested in that?
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