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.