Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made? essay and exclusive excerpt

Destination: Development Hell

David Hughes, longtime Empire contributor and author of the new book Tales from Development Hell, reveals the secrets of the darkest place in Hollywood

Tales 1These days, Hollywood studios don’t waste much time exploiting their intellectual properties: it seemed that no sooner had Sony finished counting the box office receipts from the last of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, a "re-boot" was announced, taking its most valuable film franchise in a new direction, bringing it too a new generation, or – who knows? – perhaps simply making the suit, and perhaps the story, a shade darker. What Sony hasn’t done is wasted years in "development hell," figuring that a bird in the hand (a Spider-Man movie in cinemas) is better than two in the bush (another round of draft screenplays).

This wasn't always the case, however. Six years passed between Aliens and Alien³, eight between Batman & Robin and Batman Begins -- and an unthinkable eighteen fallow years between Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Superman Returns. So what was going on for all that time? My first book, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, set out what was taking Hollywood so long to bring popular properties such as The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Thunderbirds, Silver Surfer etc. to the big screen -- as well as exploring the various approaches to famous franchises (William Gibson’s Alien III, Tim Burton’s Superman, Philip Kaufman’s Star Trek, etc.) which were abandoned en route to the films we know. With my next book, Tales from Development Hell, I chose a variety of projects -- a few stillborn, others aborted, one or two with a particularly painful gestation -- which aimed to illustrate the kinds of problems which can beset a film, even when some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters are involved.

Why were Oliver Stone’s and James Cameron’s thrilling takes on the Planet of the Apes property rejected in favor of Tim Burton’s unimaginative “re-imagining”? How come even the combined muscle of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven, at the height of their powers, couldn’t get Crusade off the ground? How did Outbreak get a green light when Ridley Scott’s The Hot Zone, set to star Robert Redford and Jodie Foster, did not? How many different directors, from Ridley Scott (again -- the man does seem to suffer more than his share of development hell) and Roland Emmerich, have jumped aboard the alien-on-a-train movie ISOBAR? Why have we still not seen a Sandman movie? Where’s the film of Smoke and Mirrors, a script so hot it sparked a feeding frenzy in the early 1990s, and was never heard from again? The answers to all these questions, and more, lie in one or the other circles of development hell. I should know. I wrote the book on it.

Tales from Development Hell is published by Titan Books.

Excerpt from Tales from Development Hell, by David Hughes

Sometime around 1987, emergent independent production company Carolco Pictures purchased a script for a futuristic science fiction/horror hybrid described as “Alien on a train.” The script, entitled Dead Reckoning, was written "on spec" by future Fight Club screenwriter Jim Uhls. “It was a sci-fi action thriller,” he says, “set in the future, in which an altered form of life gets loose on a high-speed runaway underground train. The creature was a humanoid with a genetically-altered brain that was intended to be used as the 'hard drive' in an artificial intelligence project.” The setting was near-future Los Angeles, which Uhls describes as “a traffic-infested dystopia, with wide shots of freeways and streets -- even residential streets -- completely jammed with non-moving, honking cars. And billboards that admonished, 'Did you allow yourself three hours to get there?' There was reference to a new law, just passed, outlawing horns on vehicles in LA County. The super-subway was the only viable means of transportation.” The script was bought by Carolco, with Joel Silver, producer of the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard films, climbing aboard as producer.

At the time of its purchase, Carolco had yet to score big with the science fiction milestones RoboCop, Total Recall and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Nevertheless, Carolco bosses Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna saw Dead Reckoning as the perfect vehicle for Ridley Scott. Although the Alien director had sworn off science fiction following the dismal critical reception and commercial performance of Blade Runner in 1982, his most recent films -- the fantasy flop Legend and the neo-noir thriller Someone to Watch Over Me — had nudged him from Hollywood’s A-list, and he perhaps saw Dead Reckoning as a way to recapture his former glory. According to Uhls, Scott came aboard as director in 1988, accompanied by production designer Norris Spencer, with whom he would later work on Black Rain, Thelma & Louise, 1492: Conquest of Paradise and Hannibal.

No sooner had Scott coupled himself to the project than he contacted H. R. Giger, the Swiss artist with whom he had collaborated on an aborted adaptation of Frank Herbert’s epic science fiction novel Dune and, more successfully, Alien, for which Giger had won a special Academy Award. “Sometime in 1988, Ridley Scott telephoned me and asked me if I would like to make a science fiction movie with him,” the artist wrote in his book Giger’s Film Designs. “For me, there is nothing greater than this. I was enthusiastic about it and immediately accepted, because a remarkable movie always originates from a director like Ridley Scott.” Scott seemed equally enthusiastic at the prospect of working with Giger again. “I have come close to working with Giger on a number of projects since we did Alien,” he commented later, “and it is my strong hope that we can work together again in bringing something special to the screen.”

At this early stage, Giger noted, there was no agreement between Scott and Carolco: “he told me to just think about the project and to capture my ideas in sketches. He would negotiate a contract with Carolco in the meantime.” Giger set to work with his customary enthusiasm, without discussing the project further with Scott or signing a contract with Carolco, producing many color and black-and-white sketches for the project, under the new working title The Train. “If somebody is telling me something I am always so enthusiastic that I don’t wait until the contracts are done, otherwise I will lose interest,” he explains. “I have to do it when I have the spark.” Giger worked for almost nine months, between the summer of 1988 and the spring of 1989, working up numerous bizarre designs for trains, stations, passenger compartments -- even a radical new kind of emergency exit in which passengers are ejected into a spontaneous ejaculation of soft foam.

During this time, Giger was frustrated by his inability to reach Scott by telephone, and unaware that the director had already moved on to direct Thelma & Louise for MGM. “Shortly thereafter he telephoned me late in the evening,” Giger recalled, “and disclosed to me that he had already gotten out of the project, three weeks before, because he would have been given too little artistic freedom.” Says Uhls, “Ridley Scott left the project, seemingly out of some disagreement with Joel Silver.” Giger continued, “He promised me that he would still negotiate with 20th Century Fox,” referring to the film’s proposed distributors, “and that if he would be able to deal with them, he would of course take me on.” As a result, he says, when the project derailed, “I never got engaged and I never got paid.” Nevertheless, Giger was able to exploit some of his unused designs for The Train when he was engaged to work on designs for "Sil," the beautiful but deadly alien at the center of the science fiction horror movie Species. “I had an idea about Sil dreaming about a ghost train,” he explains, “a train which comes and picks up people who are waiting in the station, [and who] she eats to get power. I worked on this train, and I put a lot of my own money into it,” he adds. Giger went as far as building a three-dimensional model of the train, which he filmed in action in the back garden of his home just outside Zurich.

Following Scott’s departure, producer Joel Silver set about re-working the script in earnest, starting with the title: instead of Dead Reckoning, Silver preferred Isobar, defined in The Oxford Modern English Dictionary as “a line on a map connecting positions having the same atmospheric pressure at a given time, or on average over a given period.” One problem was that Isobar happened to be the title of a script which another screenwriter, Jere Cunningham, had written for Silver and fellow producers Lawrence Gordon and John Davis around 1986-1987, described by Cunningham as the story of “a mutant professional fighter in a future world, on a quest to discover the truth of his origins.” According to the writer, Arnold Schwarzenegger was interested in playing the role, but the actor’s $5 million asking price proved too rich for 20th Century Fox, and he signed to star in Total Recall instead. “A year or two later,” Cunningham reveals, “Joel Silver called and said he wanted to use my title for another project because he loved the word ‘isobar’. I said, ‘Whatever, Joel, it’s cool.’” Explains Uhls, “He wanted the name, so it had to be made to work.” Uhls dutifully came up with an explanation for the title with an acronym -- Intercontinental Subterranean Oscillo-magnetic Ballistic Aerodynamic Railway. “It was basically a magnetic levitation train underground that was a subway connecting the entire world,” he explains, “traveling as fast as a commercial jet plane, in a vacuum.

The new version of the script was set in a more distant future, with the surface of the Earth rendered uninhabitable. “The creature was changed to be an evolutionary leap,” Uhls recalls. “A super-adaptive humanoid that was caught thriving outside, in the environment that’s hostile to humans. It is put onto the train to be transported to a special lab. It breaks free, then it must adapt faster and more dramatically to stay alive inside the train. It requires massive doses of adrenaline to do this, so it kills people to get it.”

Uhls continued to work with Silver as German-born director Roland Emmerich and his producing partner Dean Devlin came on board. “I had worked with Roland on Moon 44,” the producer says, referring to Emmerich’s first science fiction film, “and based on that movie, Mario Kassar brought Roland in to direct the picture. Roland came in, read the script, and wanted to do a major rewrite, and asked me if I’d rewrite it. So I said, ‘Sure.’” While Devlin worked on his draft, he and Emmerich were surprised to learn that Joel Silver had hired another screenwriter. “Roland and I read in the paper that Joel Silver had hired Steven de Souza to do a rewrite, and Roland said, ‘Well, you’re about to get a new draft in two weeks, why are you hiring someone else?’ And Joel said, ‘Oh, Steven did Die Hard with me, he’s the best writer in Hollywood -- trust me.’ So they never read my draft, they waited for Steven’s draft, and when that came out, Roland said to Joel, ‘I don’t want to do that, but I’ll do Dean’s draft,’ and Joel said no, so Roland bailed out of the project.”

At the time, Emmerich and Devlin were some years away from delivering their science fiction blockbusters, Stargate and Independence Day, and Silver evidently had no qualms picking de Souza, the writer of Die Hard, 48HRS , and The Running Man, over two relative unknowns. Says Devlin, “I think the biggest change which Steven made in his draft, which we didn’t do, is that he gave it a kind of uplifting feeling at the end, a kind of E.T. thing. And also Steven came up with some amazing characters that weren’t in the original drafts. That’s really the direction he went -- it just wasn’t what we were going for. We were going for something much more like Alien.”

Certainly, Silver’s decision would have been endorsed by action star Sylvester Stallone, who had previously met with de Souza to discuss a potential rewrite of his 1993 science fiction film Demolition Man, and had been impressed with the writer’s ideas. “They wanted a total reinvention of the script,” de Souza says of ISOBAR. “The original script was one of these usual dystopian, post-apocalyptic futures, and the movie was a complete rip-off of Aliens. It was sort of like Aliens combined with Alien, with a squad of guys assigned to catch this monster and bring it in for study by "The Company" -- a shameless rip-off. But then they had to get the train to its final destination, which made no sense at all.” After all, de Souza reasoned, if The Company wants to keep the existence of the monster secret, and has reason to believe that it may be dangerous, it would be more prudent to land the creature closer to its final destination. “Plus, if they’re going to take it to some military facility where they’re going to study it, wouldn’t they have an airstrip there? So from page one it made no sense.”

De Souza was equally nonplussed by the script’s description of the monster itself, which he describes as “a guy-in-a-suit kind of creature. It lived off adrenaline,” he adds, “sucking adrenaline out of your body with these big nails, like a vampire. It reminded me way too much of a picture called It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which was itself a rip-off of ‘Black Destroyer’ and ‘Discord in Scarlet’, from A.E. van Vogt’s short story collection The Voyage of the Space Beagle. So with ISOBAR, you had a rip-off of a rip-off.” Overall, he says, “It was too much like Alien, the monster wasn’t fresh enough and there was no explanation of why the world was this way -- it was one of these science fiction movies where it’s supposed to be the near-future, but it’s a completely implausible near-future without any kind of explanation. The script was just embarrassing.


  1. Interesting write up, but: Nonplussed. I’m not sure that it means what you think it means, because a guy in a suit doesn’t sound all that surprising.

    1. I think in this context it’s meant to convey “What the hell are they thinking writing in this hackey knock-off alien?”

      Nonplussed is one of a rare breed of words: it has come to mean both its original meaning (upset, bewildered) as well as its complete opposite (unfazed).

  2. Hmm… this is the “New Updated Edition” of 2004’s Tales From Development Hell that I read earlier this year (having picked it up @ Ollies for $1.00). The highlight excerpted here appears to be exactly the same as the 2004 version.  Can anyone tell me how much new material Hughes has added to his already excellent tome?

  3. Isn’t the executive summary of this how prior to the 1970s & the release of Star Wars & Jaws, the movie industry was quite casual when it came to releasing works.  Meaning decisions were made based more on creative merit of the film itself & how much the profit/loss ratio would be.

    Then after Star Wars & Jaws the industry truly became a business. And movies were no longer self-contained creative ventures, but pure investments that needed to do more than break even to prove themselves.  Thus “development hell” while studios gamble that they would rather wait it out to strike pure gold, and make money back on merchandising & licensing, than just release something that might not make them filthy rich.

    Nowadays it seems that studios release films based purely on market research & as a vessel to promote a brand rather than being an experience in itself.

    1. I think prior to Star Wars and Jaws, but post Gone With the Wind, Cleopatra, etc. It was a tight business of bottom lines in the old Studio days of contracted writers, players, directors, but all that fell apart for about ten years until Jaws started the new world you mention.

      1.  I’d even doubt that those ten years were as good as you mention. Yes, there’s the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, etc. but you also had epic disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Airport, etc. Pure money-making exploitation ventures. I know that it’s been a common trope among cineastes that there was some noble era of American auteurship that was wiped out singlehandedly (or doublehandedly, maybe) by Lucas and Spielberg, but I don’t think that history really supports that.

        1.  I’d argue that it was wiped out by Kennedy and the Beatles.  The old guard of Hollywood simply grew stale and  only a handful of outstanding films carried the sixties (The Graduate and Dr. Strangelove come to mind).  And those 70’s big budget disaster movies just couldn’t compete with the new style.  Corman should get his due for incubating the American wave of post 1960’s cinema.  Add to that mix the technology that allowed the camera much more freedom and the film schools eating up French films. 

          1. Working for Corman gave many people their first real exposure to movie making and the idea that visual effects can be improvised on the set. 

        2. > Pure money-making exploitation ventures.

          No, that’s incorrect.  As @BarBarSeven was saying, the studios were not driven in this way because they had not figured out how to do it.  They basically released movies (including the Poseidon Adventure/Inferno/Airport movies) hoping they’d do well.  They hadn’t really tapped into the *formula*.  Spielberg brought that with Jaws, and Lucas blew the roof off of it with Star Wars.

          1. I don’t agree.  Hollywood had already figured this out.  The Planet of the Apes series is a classic example of this.  Each movie had a smaller budget and lesser known actors (except for inexpensive stars like Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter) and they came out annually, rolling into a TV series and animated cartoon.  PotA created the modern marketing blockbuster before Jaws or Star Wars.

            Hollywood has always been a business where art gets made and not the other way around.  The model changed as the costs did and external threats like television forced them to adapt (essentially, they had to differentiate themselves, usually in terms of scale).  Look at many movies from the 20s-50s…many of them could have been TV productions, had TV existed when they were made.

            The myth that Spielberg and Lucas somehow broke Hollywood is just that.

    2. And I don’t recall seeing a 1977 Star Wars trailer. One exists, and it’s pretty awful.  I only recall some radio ads on the local FM hipster station.  

      Jaws?  Yes that had been a best seller and they promoted the hell out of it with a very effective trailer featuring the woman skinny dipping at night. Close Encounters got promoted so heavily that I was afraid the movie was going to suck balls.

      1. > And I don’t recall seeing a 1977 Star Wars trailer.

        I do.  The 1977 tv trailer blew me away as a kid.  It was a harbinger for something radically different and we all noticed it.

    1. One of the best science-fiction movies that was never made is ‘Ender’s Game’

      It’s taken years, but “never made” no longer accurate. The film is currently in post-production and is scheduled for release November 1, 2013.

      More info.

  4. The first description made me think the alien would look human, and blend in with passengers on the train. That made me think it was cool.
    There’s maybe some distant potential in the feeding on adrenaline idea. It could be completely ridiculous, or awesome to have a creature with a motivation to terrify it’s victims as much as possible before killing them, using it’s engineered intelligence to psychologically manipulate people’s deep seated anxieties.

    1. So its the sci-fi version of the Orient Express murder mystery, only with an Alien super-hybrid?

      1. I don’t think comparisons to plot elements of previous stories is fair. Unless a story follows a plot point by point, it’s a different story.

      2.  Is there a part of that that’s not awesome?

        Also like that episode (those episodes) of Twilight Zone, y’know, the one where the bus stops at a diner, and they’re trying to figure out which person is an alien.

  5. Q – How many studio executives does it take to change a light bulb?

    A – Does it have to be a light bulb?  Could it be a dog? A talking dog!

  6. “Intercontinental Subterranean Oscillo-magnetic Ballistic Aerodynamic Railway”
    Good thing it was aerodynamic, if it was operating in a vacuum.

  7. A friend told me his cousin who works in Hollywood told him he saw a screenplay for a reimagined ‘Smoky and the Bear’.

    Burt Reynold’s role was written with Johnny Depp in mind, with Neil Patrick Harris in Sally Fields’ role and Lance Henriksen in Jackie Gleason’s role as the sheriff.  Peter Dinklage was to be his deputy. 

    The script was written with these actors in mind, but also offered alternatives, don’t remember who they were. I’m not sure when the screenplay was written, but my cousin mentioned it about five or six years ago. The only reason I knew of Dinklage was because I saw the Station Master.

    This is just one of many wacky screenplays likely floating around. Bizarre choice of  characters. Maybe it would work with David Lynch or Tim Burton directing?

    1. That was confusing, because you mean “Smokey and the Bandit”.  I was expected Ranger Smith.  No, that’s Yogi.  So I was just all-around confused.

      1. Yes, Smokey and the Bandit. Not sure why I wrote bear. Oh wait…Smokey the Bear.

        As for Yogi the bear…Have a live action interpretation. Yogi (Johnny Depp) and Boo Boo (Dinklage) are two Furries who are squatters at Jelly Stone National Park. Yogi and Boo Boo steal from tourists picnic baskets, beer, personal lubrication and whatever else they need. Lance Henrikson plays Ranger Smith.

  8. F. Paul Wilson’s exceptional character, “Repairman Jack”, has been in stalled development for over a decade.  Truly a developmental hell for Dr. Wilson.  He needs to talk to George R. R. Martin to see how it is done.  Martin has never failed to get his work on film, but writing for TV  since 1986 would tend to give a person the experience and the network.

  9. My understanding of the Spider-Man situation is that Sony “had to” make another movie to prevent the rights from reverting to Marvel, although I can’t immediately confirm that from online sources.

      1. They didn’t have to keep him, either.  It’s almost a certainty that Marc Webb’s salary was far less than Raimi’s would have been…and since the rest of the cast was being recycled, why not the director?  The third film was a financial success but a critical flop, while the newest movie has succeeded on both fronts and has restarted the franchise for several more movies.

        For Sony it’s a win-win (though marvel would surely like to get control back, their contract is something that benefited them then, but they’re stuck with now).

  10. 2012, as I recall, was the year (one of a succession of many) we were supposed to see the adaptation of The Stars My Destination.   Uh-huh.  Considering what one could realistically expect from such a thing, I’m thankful this shows every sign of being yet another failed 2012 prophesy.

  11. no sooner had Sony finished counting the box office receipts from the last of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, a “re-boot” was announced, taking its most valuable film franchise in a new direction, bringing it too a new generation, or – who knows? – perhaps simply making the suit, and perhaps the story, a shade darker.

    …but the suit in Spider-Man 3 was black.

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