By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist November 27, 2013 at 4:32PM
Of the many projects we discuss here, the one that's kind of unthinkable that anyone else might direct is “LA Riots,” a recreation of the events leading up to and away from the infamous week of racially charged civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal by an all-white jury of four police officers charged in connection with the vicious videotaped beating of Rodney King the previous year. It’s sort of the film that Lee seems born to make, and yet, and yet…
So it was back in 2006, a year of frenetic activity for Lee following his biggest-ever box office hit “Inside Man” that saw a slew of projects suddenly come (back) to life now that they were sprinkled with the magic dust of a recent (modest) hitmaker, that it was first announced that Lee was to helm a film based on those controversial, incendiary events. Regular collaborator Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment was set to produce, and the film was to be scripted by John Ridley, who wrote both “Red Tails” and this year’s “12 Years a Slave.” A couple of years later and Grazer was again enthused about moving the film onto the front burner, though with a new screenwriter involved: Terry George, who Lee and Grazer would also tap for the second go-round at the “Inside Man 2” script. Grazer told the LA Times in July 2008: “John Ridley wrote a great script, but it needed a little more focus, so we put Terry George on it to do a rewrite. The script is due in two weeks, and, having worked with Terry before, we're expecting that it should be something that's ready to shoot." So with him insisting that Lee was going to deliver a more egalitarian and multi-perspective look at the riots than detractors might have feared (and seriously, what?), there was a brief flare of hope that Lee would be behind cameras on this one before the year was out.
But already in February of the following year, those hopes had been dashed. Lee told MTV in not-at-all-veiled disgust that the budget for what had to be, in his eyes, a film of a certain breadth and scope, could not be found. “How can you scale back the LA riots?! That’s not the movie I want to make. The studio said, ‘Scale it back.’ What’s the point?” At that same time, however, Lee was refusing to let go of it altogether saying “It’s not dead. But it’s…it’s on the shelf. Let’s use that term. It still should be made—I want to make it.” Usually, that’s where the trail on Lee’s stalled projects goes cold, but this one has an odd postscript. In 2012, following Rodney King’s death, and with the Trayvon Martin murder trial still ongoing, the project came back to life, but this time as a rumored directorial vehicle for “Fast Five” and “Fast & Furious 6” director Justin Lin. It was a strange move, regarded as possibly there as a prestige pic that might keep golden goose Lin from straying from the Universal fold, but with Lin more recently lined up for the next installment in the ‘Bourne’ franchise, and about a million other projects following the blockbuster success of his last ‘Fast/Furious’ go-round, “LA Riots” seems to have, yet again, gone cool. Either way, it seems that Lee is not going to be the one to throw a trashcan through this particular window any time soon.
Jackie Robinson Biopic
So earlier this year, you may recall, “42” was released (our review here), a film written and directed by Brian Helgeland and detailing the life and achievements of legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson. In fact the film marked the end of more than 15 years of gestation, a process enabled, but also occasionally hampered by Robinson’s widow, Rachel, who was the driving force behind the project, but also had, understandably, specific ideas on how she wanted it handled that saw some drafts not meet with her approval. During that period, however, one of the developing projects that came closest was that championed and developed by Spike Lee. Lee worked closely with Rachel Robinson (indeed he expressed his happiness that she’d have the satisfaction of seeing a version of her husband’s life on screen even if it wasn’t his version), and apparently was nearly ready to roll, but financing fell through about five years ago. Now we understand that studios are notoriously gun-shy about financing films about black protagonists, but this also has to be an example of Lee’s bad timing and/or ‘difficult’ reputation because we can’t imagine that he was asking for a great deal more than the $40m stumped up by Legendary for “42,” and that picture got greenlit for a neophyte director with an unknown lead.
But Lee had become philosophical about it all already by 2008, saying "I've been at peace for a long time, in fact, it's not just Jackie Robinson. I have a trilogy of films I've tried to make back after “Malcolm X” but nothing got made because of financing. Jackie Robinson was first; Joe Louis was second, and most recently was James Brown.” But this was in response to the news that Robert Redford’s rival Jackie Robinson project backed by ESPN was going ahead. About “42,” which has little to do with either his or Redford’s version (though Redford was working with Helgeland on his more Branch Rickey-centric take, prior to Legendary Pictures coming aboard), Lee hasn’t managed to sound quite so magnanimous. Earlier this year he told EW that while his version “was dead a long time ago” he couldn’t bring himself to go see “42” yet, as it would be “too painful. Here's the thing, though: I'm happy for Rachel Robinson. But for me, I can't see it yet. I will, but I can't yet.”
As part of the post- “Inside Man” 2006 scramble to make hay while the sun shone and pile projects onto his plate like a starving orphan at a banquet, Lee was also attached to “Selling Time,” a high-concept sci-fi action film (also described as a supernatural thriller), intially to rewrite but also potentially as a directorial vehicle. The original script, by ex DreamWorks TV president Dan McDermott, was bought by Fox all the way back in 2001, and details the downbeat “Groundhog Day”-style premise of a man who “sells” off chunks of his life in order to be able to relive his worst day over and over, presumably to get it right, or to make something right. In fact, Lee’s directorial connection to this project was only ever tenuous—it had prior to his involvement been linked to Forest Whitaker as a directing possibility. And while reportedly Lee met with Tom Cruise as a potential star in a version he’d direct, both men seem to have cooled on the project fairly rapidly. Indeed, after Lee exited, his draft of the script was rewritten by Derek and Steven Martini before being put on a shelf somewhere to gather dust for a few years. Recently, however, it coughed back to life in October of this year when Will Smith was reportedly very close to a deal to star in it, and the script, in the hilarious way of Hollywood, has made its way all the way back to original writer Dan McDermott for another pass. But aside from Lee not really ever having shown much interest in the genre (barring “Time Traveler,” see above) we’ve never really heard anything at all from the helmer about this one, so we’re going to have to assume, IMDB In Development listings be damned, that he’s forgotten all about it by now.