By Edward Davis | The Playlist December 30, 2010 at 5:40AM
Projects come and projects go. Actors and directors join or spearhead them and then sometimes they leave. Sometimes it's not personal, sometimes it's downright acrimonious. We're not crying over spilled milk or anything, but there were a handful of high profile films in 2010 that started one way, then headed in an entirely different direction. In some cases it was for the better, in some cases for the worse, in some cases it just doesn't make much difference to anyone, but as we were thinking of the bigger news items of 2010, we thought it would be fun to look back on the history of some of the films that finally made their way to the big screen this year. So here's seven projects that began -- or reportedly began in some cases -- with certain talent and filmmakers and then, for whatever reason, took a different turn.
Originally, this was a Tom Cruise vehicle. Or rather, this was one of several projects Cruise deigned to consider. Circa spring 2009, the actor was looking for a follow-up to Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie." Not a great film in the least, Cruise apparently still believed in screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie ("The Usual Suspects"), and essentially hired him to touch up every script he was remotely interested in and tailor them to his needs. OK, maybe not every single one of them, but lots of them. Charlize Theron was attached and Bharat Nalluri ("Miss Pettigrew Lives For a Day") was directing. As he is wont to do, Cruise's attention wandered and instead he took an action-comedy script called "Wichita" (Dana Fox, Scott Frank and Patrick O'Neill were all credited as screenwriters at one time or another) that eventually became "Knight and Day." Theron stayed on board and then in summer 2009 when studio heads could already smell that "Avatar" would be a huge hit and make a star of a certain Na'vi to be, Sam Worthington attached himself to the lead role. Eventually all three principals bailed and then the agents of Johnny Depp and Angelia Jolie unfortunately picked up the script and thought, "wow, there's gold here." Nalluri left, Alfonso Cuarón flirted with the idea of directing the film for a minute, and then Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (the German helmer behind "The Lives of Others") eventually took over this remake of the 2005 French film "Anthony Zimmer" -- that turned out like, well, how it turned out (it's on our worst films of 2010 list). It's kind of incredible that a film with two of the biggest stars on the planet today has only grossed $77 million in three weeks across the globe (only $40 million domestically; its opening weekend was an incredibly soft $16 million, but yes, international audiences who love these two will surely help it at least break the $100 million mark worldwide). So Nalluri, Worthington and Theron? It might have been marginally better, but we can only imagine how many writers a project this size actually went through, even by mid-2009, two writers had taken a pass, including Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park"), and McQuarrie and von Donnersmarck were eventually credited too, so it's anyone's guess who's to blame for the loss of spark in the final product.
May 2008, awesome project alert, enough to get all of the Playlist staff in a lather. Noah Baumbach coming off the poorly-received "Margot At the Wedding" (deserved much better, most underrated of 2007 frankly), announces a new relationship project called "Greenberg." The idea was conceived by Baumbach and his then-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh (they divorced this year), and the cast? Mark Ruffalo and Amy Adams were set to lead. Holy shit, get us to that theater stat. But Ruffalo's brother committed suicide shortly thereafter and the actor bowed out only to be replaced by... Ben Stiller? Adams also left in that middle-ground era, but it's unclear whether she bailed when Ruffalo did (though we'd like to think she'd rather act in a Baumbach film with Ruffalo over Stiller). Greta Gerwig eventually took the female role, and the film... well, it hit to mixed results, perhaps no better reflected then in our 2010 year end lists. One list (with one writer) calls it overrated, another list (from a different writer) calls it underrated. No matter what our disparate opinions are, most of us can agree that the original concept simply had much higher caliber actors. Two that have yet to win Oscars, but no doubt eventually will get pretty damn close, if not finally win the gold statue. Our guess is the initial cast would have made for a "Kids Are All Right"-type scenario -- an indie film with bona fide Oscar 10 chances.
Hate on our hate all you want, Joe Johnston's "The Wolfman" has made plenty of year-end worst lists (including ours). We called it "botched, compromised" and all kinds of a mess and that's being kind. However, versatile filmmaker Mark Romanek (how completely opposite is his "Never Let Me Go"?) was originally pegged to direct the film. Romanek had some wonderful ideas, but never saw eye-to-eye with the producers. "I wanted to reinvent that genre and make this dark, rich, intelligent Jungian kind of piece that I was hoping could totally work as populist entertainment and yet be legitimate, like be an intelligent film that might even be critically well-received," he said earlier this year. "And I just could never get on the same page with the producers about what it should be." But Romanek dodged a bullet, frankly, as "The Wolfman" under Johnston was a debacle; Danny Elfman was supposed to write the score, then Paul Haslinger did, and then Elfman was brought back on board. Just one small example of the greater indecision going on within the big picture and the reason why the tone has no conviction. Even Johnston pretty much admitted he inherited a tough turd to bring to the screen. So Romanek's version would have clearly been better, yes? Well, it sounds like the producers of this one were the real drivers and they were going to screw the pooch no matter what. The director is probably glad he got out when he did. Still, we'd love to see the talented Romanek try his hand at something like this again down the road.
During early press for Danny Boyle's mountain climbing survival film, "127 Hours," James Franco admitted that he had met with the director, it had not gone so well and the filmmaker was already "far down the road" with another actor so he assumed he wasn't getting the job. For one reason or another, that actor never worked out and Franco got the gig. While it's never been publicly stated who that actor was, it seems pretty clear that the person in question was Ryan Gosling, who was the first thespian loosely attached to the role when it was announced. We'll probably never really know what happened -- and duh, we should have asked -- but Gosling did admit that he and Peter Jackson were never on the same page about "The Lovely Bones," a film he eventually walked away from, so it's conceivable that the actor and Boyle could never find the same common ground. While Gosling leading "127 Hours" is a fascinating prospect, we're extremely happy with the way the film turned out -- frankly, it's underwhelming critics and the box-office so we should have put it on our underrated list -- and Franco was perfect, so we're gonna chalk this one up as an interesting what-if, but nothing we'd ever go back on.
Darren Aronofsky, Matt Damon and Mark Wahlberg (and at one point Brad Pitt) -- hello morning cinematic wood. This is the original principal trio surrounding the "Irish" Micky Ward boxing drama that just successfully hit theaters earlier this month (Wahlberg tried to get Scorsese to direct after their collaboration on "The Departed," but Marty had already done a classic boxing film). OK, so drop Matt Damon who can't fit playing Ward's drug-addicted brother Dicky Eklund into his schedule, and enter Brad Pitt, who probably owes Aronofsky one since his last-minute departure on "The Fountain" totally deep-sixed the original version of the film that had more like an $80 million dollar budget (the version that ultimately hit screens was like $35m). Sounds like a sure-fire winner, but for whatever reason the film can't get off the ground and Pitt bails on the project in the fall of 2009. Then, coming off "The Wrestler" and mounting another film about the physical damage done to the body at the cost of perfection ("Black Swan"), Aronofsky realizes he's not up for a "body trilogy" and quietly exits as well. Meanwhile, Wahlberg, a persistent champion of the film and the main reason it got made at all, talks up the film for two years straight, so much so that it starts to become a boy-who-cried-wolf project. After a while, we're all "suuuuuuure it's coming soon." However, Wahlberg sticks to his guns, and his promise to the Ward family (from his native South Boston) to get the movie made. After getting close to signing on with a new director (who was never named), Wahlberg did a 180 when his new co-star Christian Bale agreed to meet with David O. Russell, who he had worked with on "Three Kings." All three parties give their consent and we have a go picture -- a go picture that is surprisingly full of vitality, humor and a playful spark not witnessed in early drafts of the film (that were much darker, akin to Aronofsky's work, those drafts were like "The Wrestler" set in the boxing ring). So yes, while we still long to see a movie with Aronofsky directing and Damon, Pitt and Wahlberg involved, we couldn't be more happy with the way "The Fighter" turned out, (as was Aronofsky who remained an exec producer) and its tone and strengths -- centering on family and female characters -- were a very pleasant surprise.
Back to our buddy, Tom Cruise, who was originally tapped to play the eponymous "Edwin A. Salt,"about a CIA officer who must prove he is not a Russian sleeper spy out to assassinate the president. Evidently Sony decided to turn that he into a she; that she being Mrs. Brad Pitt, aka Angelina Jolie, who stepped into the role in 2008.The script was then retweaked to fit her feminine needs (you know, no pantyhose scene in the original screenplay). But why the gender switch? Perhaps a flipping the script moment of inspiration? Nope, "Tom Cruise was considering the role, but eventually it was too close to ("Mission: Impossible" character) Ethan Hunt," director Phillip Noyce said this summer. "That's when [Sony Chief] Amy [Pascal] made what at first seemed the outrageous suggestion that we should offer it to Angelina." The project then simply became "Salt" and stunk up screens this summer. As we articulated in our comments section (for crying out loud), "Salt" made $118 million in the U.S. and was budgeted around $110 million, not counting another $30-40 million for P&A (prints and advertising). That right there is a flat-out failure. However, the picture made another $175 million worldwide, minus the $40-50 million for P&A across the rest of the planet. Not a huge success, and it might show that in North America at least, audiences won't turn out for a dated Russian spy film even if Jolie is in it (hello, "The Tourist" backs that posit up too). Would "Salt" have been any better with Tom Cruise in it? Hell, no. Phillip Noyce, please do something else -- off the action, spy-thriller beat. How about this project, which is far different from most films you've directed.
OK, there's not a ton here, but evidently in the very early stages of the film's production, Warner Bros. was considering Brad Pitt and Will Smith for the lead role in Christopher Nolan's film. Apparently while Leonardo DiCaprio has strong international pull, these two have more of a consistent box office track record. Shocking? Not exactly. "Inception" was a high-concept, expensive film not based on any easily-marketable franchise/toy/sports drinks, etc., and we're sure name brand casting was the subject of many discussions between Nolan and the studio as they figured a way to bring the film in within a reasonable budget, while allowing him to retain his creative vision and ensuring Warner Bros. wouldn't take a bath on the project. Thankfully, it worked out well for everyone. Will Smith in "Inception"? Just doesn't feel like it would have worked.
And there you have it, a timely look back at the projects that were, and what they came to be. Do you have your own "what could have been in 2010"? Maybe wishing "Iron Man 2" still had Terrence Howard in it rather than Don Cheadle? Or how about an early one for 2011 In Reverse. Heath Ledger was supposed to have Brad Pitt's part in "The Tree Of Life" (even earlier, Colin Farrell and Mel Gibson were once loosely involved). As Linda Richman would say, "Discuss."