Very few people realize just how hard it is to get a movie made. Some movies will start fast, only to fizzle out just before production because of a disgruntled star. Others will be stuck in pre-production for decades, getting passed from one executive to another in an endless game of hot potato. In Hollywood, it’s called getting stuck in “Development Hell.” It’s a place that film journalist and screenwriter David Hughes knows all too well.
The cover of David Hughes’ book Tales From Development Hell teases the reader with a number of tantalizing “What Ifs?”: What if Frank Miller and Darren Aronofsky‘s ‘Batman: Year One’movie hadn’t been derailed? What if John Boorman brought his medieval sensibilities to ‘Lord of the Rings’ years before he directed ‘Excalibur’? The stories in the book are equal parts fascinating and frustrating.
Recently, Screen Rant talked with Hughes about his book, which chronicles some of the biggest “What Ifs” in Hollywood history, and what it’s like for the many writers and filmmakers that have seen their projects go through the seven circles of development hell.
Screen Rant: Each chapter in the book presents a different terrifying, but entertaining, look at the Hollywood development process. What is your personal favorite story in the book?
David Hughes: The chapter on Neil Gaiman‘s wondrous comic book ‘The Sandman‘ is my favourite. Seeing bone-headed studio executives try to turn ‘The Sandman’ into the next ‘Batman’ (which, as Neil says in the book, is a bit like trying to make Great Expectations the next ‘Batman’) tells you so much about the Hollywood system. But I do believe that someday someone will make a perfect ‘Sandman’? Maybe it needs a ‘Waltz with Bashir’ type approach?
The chapter on the Total Recall sequel is interesting because it shows how much power a big star has during the development process. It seems like every time there was a little big of traction, Arnold Schwarzenegger would turn down the script. At one point, you even quote Bob Weinstein who says Arnold turned down “the best script that’s ever been offered to him.” Do you think big movie stars have too much power in Hollywood, or is it a necessary evil?
Well, first of all, the Weinsteins always say things like that – that’s what makes them, them! To answer the question though: stars, like everyone else in Hollywood, are terrified: none of us can imagine what it’s like to be the biggest box office star in the world – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Cruise – and have five or six blockbusters in a row, and then make a ‘Last Action Hero’ or a ‘Far and Away’ and crash to Earth (or almost as bad, to make ‘Minority Report’ and then be told $350 million worldwide wasn’t enough – the studio expected $450 million).
I tried not to editorialize in the book, mostly using Internet script reviewers where available or direct quotes from screenwriters etc., so I could let readers make up their own minds about the relative merits of different projects or drafts. But I read all of the drafts of ‘Total Recall 2’ and I can assure you that none of them were the best script that’s ever been offered to him – though Crusade could well deserve that accolade.
My favorite section in the book is on Indiana Jones 4. I thought it was amazing how, over a 20-year-period, certain scenes from very early drafts still ended up in the final film. What makes one scene stick from draft to draft?
In a perfect world, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Strangely enough, the stickiest scene in Indy 4 – the one that stayed from draft to draft and writer to writer – was the ‘nuking the fridge’ scene, which was generally received so poorly by people on the Internet that it became a new kind of ‘jumping the shark’. Actually I think you’ll find that audiences at large really enjoyed that scene.
As a writer yourself, you have first-hand experience watching your scripts get stuck in development hell. What’s the most frustrating part of seeing a project go down that dark road?
I try not to get frustrated – although having Paul Greengrass help develop my feature ‘Airborne’ into an amazing 8-part television series, only to say it would work better as a film, was quite frustrating. Neil Gaiman taught me not to get excited beyond the duration of a meeting or a phone call, so I don’t really catch the bug – or try not to – when some excitable Hollywood producer calls and asks after a project of mine, or options it (I name and shame a few of them in the book) and then goes cold on it the next day or the next week. The most frustrating aspect – I think many screenwriters would agree with me on this – is when a viable project is in the hands of the wrong producer, which is worse than having it in a drawer, in the same way that having a bad agent is worse than having no agent.
In the Planet of the Apes section of the book, you describe how a writer was fired from the project because he didn’t add one of the producer’s “pet scenes” in a new draft. Are Hollywood executives really that petty, or is it a matter of survival — if they don’t put their “stamp” on the movie, then they can’t justify their job?
“A little from column A, a little from column B.” Hollywood executives can really be that petty, and woe betide any screenwriter who doesn’t find a kind way to say “I’m not putting that in – it’s dumb.” I’ve had that situation myself a dozen times: but in Hollywood, like anywhere else, he who pays the piper calls the tune, so if you’re being paid to write a script, or rewrite one, you really have to find a way to make even the dumbest idea – apes playing baseball, anyone? Superman fighting a giant mechanical spider? Sandman and Corinthian having a fist-fight? – work. Either that, or quit!
With digital technology making filmmaking more affordable and accessible than ever before, it seems like directors are better equipped to make their own films without studio interference. Does this technological shift represent a viable challenge to the studio system?
Absolutely! In the same way that the stars wrested power away from the studios in the ’70s and especially the ’80s (now the pendulum has swung back the other way to a certain extent, with studios refusing to make films even with a 900 pound gorilla attached, if the numbers don’t add up – e.g. ‘At the Mountains of Madness’). Now it’s the producers and directors who can make, not only films like ‘Paranormal Activity’ or ‘Red State’, but special effects-laden films like ‘Iron Sky’ and ‘Battle: Los Angeles’. Those films will improve in time, and become more star-heavy (as studios make fewer films, and actors still want to work), so we definitely live in interesting times. We are at the threshold of the world Jean-Luc Godard dreamed of, where film is as cheap as pen and paper (your favourite film of this year, or next, might be shot on an iPhone), and it’s damned exciting.
Movie blogs – like ScreenRant.com – help fans stay on top of the latest new and rumors surrounding big projects. Is there a problem with following a project too closely, though? Does fan visibility into the development process help or hurt a movie from getting made, or does it have no effect?
There was a time in the 1990s when it did have an effect – but then two things happened (broadly speaking): one, ‘X-Men’ came out, and it was brilliant despite a lot of Internet scuttlebutt about Hugh Jackman being cast as Wolverine, or the yellow-and-black suits being an essential part of an ‘X-Men’, or whatever the hell they were on about. The studio trusted Brian Singer, and the film was not only very good, it was a big hit, launching an entire decade of massive money-spinners for studios up and down Hollywood. The second thing was that, if Internet buzz was to be believed, ‘Snakes on a Plane’ was going to be bigger than ‘Lord of the Rings’ – and when it wasn’t, studio executives stopped listening to the buzz and chatter and started the process of re-learning to trust their instincts – even if those instincts were based on such-and-such’s last opening weekend. Hollywood’s a crapshoot, and people know even less than they did when William Goldman said “Nobody knows anything.”
What would have been cooler: Darren Aranofsky’s super-gritty Batman movie based on “Year One,” or Wolfgang Petersen’s Batman vs. Superman movie?
A teenage Batman living in a basement garage, who doesn’t know he’s part of the Wayne dynasty, driving a converted black Lincoln Continental with a school bus engine and Boss tires, having an affair with one of the girls in the cat-house across the street… are you kidding me!? No contest. Aronofsky wins! I still have a hope that Darren Aronofsky and Frank Miller’s script for ‘Batman: Year One’ will be turned into an amazing prestige graphic novel. In fact, I bumped into DC editor-in-chief Karen Berger one night in SoHo and pitched exactly that idea, but unfortunately it was late at night, I was halfway through a rather drunken poker game, and I think I might have scared her off with my inebriated pitch (Darren gave the idea his blessing, though, so you never know)!
Tales From Development Hell is a great book for any major film fans and Screen Rant highly recommends it. What movie do you most want to see make its way out of Development Hell?
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