By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist November 27, 2013 at 4:32PM
You hardly need to be a daily reader of our humble blog (though if you're not, what's wrong with you?) to know that there are few filmmakers we are more eternally fascinated by than Spike Lee, despite, and let's be honest, often because of his predilection for pissing people off. Lee is an epochal figure even away from the feuds and the tiffs and the controversies; we will never forget just how awestruck we were when we first saw "Do the Right Thing" and went on to enjoy the fruits of the independent filmmaking scene that it pretty much revolutionized. If Lee had never made another film, he'd deserve our attention just for that. But of course, Lee has made other films, and if anything, the way he has subsequently swung wildly from near-genius ("The 25th Hour," "Malcolm X," "4 Little Girls") to what the what? ("Girl 6," "She Hate Me," "Kobe Doin Work"), and regularly visited all points in between, makes us even more interested in tracking his output.
This week, another first for Lee opens up in theaters—"Oldboy," his first remake (you can read our review here). Of all the highways and byways of his career, we have to say "U.S. remake of foreign original" was probably the one we were least eager to see him explore, but a little research reveals the difficulty Lee has experienced, almost from the off, in getting many of his passion projects off the ground. And so perhaps we can cut him a little slack for taking on a less creatively intriguing project if the opportunity presented itself, especially with his previous two features "Miracle at St. Anna" and the lower-profile "Red Hook Summer" underperforming commercially and critically. Don't believe us? Here's a rundown of just ten of the myriad projects to which Lee was once attached, and which never, for one reason or another (but mostly just one reason: money) came to fruition.
“Inside Man 2”
In 2006, Lee’s always zigzaggy career took a major zag when he flirted, in earnest, for the first time with the mainstream, with the heist thriller “Inside Man.” And the mainstream flirted right back, delivering Lee’s biggest-ever box office and marking him out, contrary to his rep to that point, as a filmmaker whose sheer directorial confidence could lend gloss and texture to a film that, really, had little to do with race relations, black history or other four-quadrant audience turn-offs. However, we shouldn’t overstate “Inside Man”’s success: $184m is certainly nothing to be sniffed at, but the film had also had a higher than average budget (for Lee) at $45m, and an immensely bankable lead and a stacked supporting cast in Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Plummer, so those numbers were solid, rather than immediately screaming “sequel.”
But a sequel was almost immediately mooted. It almost felt like Hollywood was kind of relieved that they suddenly had somewhere to put Lee and didn’t want to mess with the formula too much, despite the first film’s story being based around the kind of twisty tricksiness that made it a feel like a one-off. A little hampered by the writers’ strike and also the fact that he was writing “Righteous Kill” around this time, screenwriter Russell Gewirtz (for whom “Inside Man” had been his debut) took a stab at a script which duly leaked online. Gewirtz’s “Inside Man 2” essentially retained the Washington and Owen characters from the first, but put them in an entirely different plot in which they form a reluctant partnership (in fact, in Washington’s case an unwitting one, since he still doesn’t know that Owen is his nemesis from the first picture) in order to take down a vicious gang of Eastern European diamond thieves. It also apparently featured a slightly larger role for Jodie Foster’s “fixer” character this time out (you can read an analysis here).
But by September of 2008, when word on Lee’s involvement with the sequel was confirmed (it had always been assumed/rumored), the screenwriter being mooted was in fact “Hotel Rwanda” director Terry George, who had done some punching up on the original, apparently, according to Lee’s DVD commentary, adding the Nazi subplot and the diamond ring element. By January 2009, rumors that George’s script would focus on Owen’s gang of thieves were themselves debunked by Lee, who said “not anymore” and revealed that George was only at the end of the first act thus far. Washington, Foster, Ejiofor and Owen were all said to be returning, though. Then, an eerie silence descended, too eerie in retrospect, considering Lee had hoped the film would be shooting by the end of that year, until word officially dropped in April 2010 during an ESPN interview, of all things, that the project was dead, with Lee referring to it in the past tense pretty definitively: “We were going to do ‘Inside Man 2,’ but it didn’t work out.” It seems that the issue that has dogged Lee throughout his career has returned, and even on this most apparently bankable of projects—a sequel to an already successful film—Lee hadn’t been able to find funding. He told Charlie Rose in 2011 “ ‘Inside Man’ was my most successful film, but we can’t get the sequel made. And one thing Hollywood does well is sequels. The film’s not getting made. We tried many times. It’s not going to happen.” Of course, in the interim, Lee’s Hollywood cachet had no doubt dimmed somewhat with “Miracle at St. Anna” underperforming so drastically (something which apparently led Lee to change talent agencies). Still, the whole process did seem to prime Lee to take something of a “one for me and one for them” approach, which is perhaps the roots of the Lee joint that’s in theaters this week—not a sequel, but that other most Hollywood of projects, a remake (for all we’re not supposed to call it that).
The James Brown Biopic
So back in December 2006, when we were all still in rompers, Lee was officially attached to a gestating biopic of The Hardest Working Man in Showbiz, The Godfather of Soul, Mister Dynamite, The Man of Many Nicknames, James Brown. In fact the announcement, with typical Hollywood timing, came the day after Brown’s death (he died on Christmas Day that year). By that stage, the script had already been through several incarnations, with Brown himself involved at all stages, having met with original screenwriter Steve “Feeling Minnesota” Baigelman, and then given rewriters Jez and John Henry Butterworth (Doug Liman’s “Fair Game”) full access to his estate and his personnel. Lee was to do a subsequent pass himself.
Initially Lee cast Wesley Snipes as Brown, saying determinedly in early 2009 “We’re doing it together – it’s going to happen”—this despite delays that Lee claimed were due to studio bosses being reluctant to find the money to mount biopics of black celebrities. His plan was to dub Snipes’ singing voice, however, as he said “I want to hear James Brown’s voice. That’s just my personal taste… I know Joaquin Phoenix in ‘Walk the Line,’ he did some of the singing, [but] I’m a purist.” However this was also around the time that Snipes’ tax evasion chickens came home to roost, with the actor being handed a three-year sentence which he appealed against in vain, and which he began in December 2010.
The next actor who was linked in any serious way to the role was Eddie Murphy (though Chris Brown and Usher were apparently also approached, according to James Brown’s daughter). Murphy himself had always taken an active interest in the project, in fact endorsing Snipes’ casting back in the day saying “he turned into the action dude, but Wesley has all the talent... James Brown isn't just singing and splits, you gotta be able to act, you gotta get chased in a car in a crack haze and shot at. Wesley could pull that off, you need to be an actor.” With Murphy himself back in favor following “Dreamgirls” for a while it certainly looked like the Lee/Murphy/James Brown dream team combo was going to become a reality.
Of course, we never really know what’s going on behind the scenes as it’s happening, but it turns out that after Brown’s death, the rights issues around the all-important music became much, much thornier, and the various interested parties apparently did not agree on Lee as the director of the project. In fact Murphy alluded to these issues already in March 2012, saying “there's the most incredible script that Spike Lee worked on that has everything in it, but you have to get the rights from the people who have the rights to James' story... and getting them all together... which makes it hard to come together... but I hope it comes together, it's a great, great piece" so perhaps the news that, in October 2012, in fact the directorial chair would be filled by “The Help” ’s Tate Taylor shouldn’t have come as too big a surprise. Taylor’s incarnation will star “42”’s Chadwick Boseman alongside Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Lennie James and Keith Robinson. But we have to say that the shift from Lee to Taylor has dampened our enthusiasm for this one a bit. With the film originally imagined as a warts-and-all, uncompromising take on the superstar’s incredibly dramatic life story, we can’t help but feel Taylor’s “Get On Up” may pull a few more punches than Lee’s version would have. But we’re willing and ready to be proven wrong.
Still, as sorry as we may feel for Lee over this whole affair, spare a thought for producer Brian Grazer, who has been trying to get a Brown biopic off the ground since feathered bangs were in… the nineties. Ok, fine, he’s still a gazillionaire superproducer, so you don’t have to feel too bad, but still, next year’s “Get On Up” will mark the culmination of a lot of work (including bringing Mick Jagger on as a producer), even without Lee’s involvement.