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Book Review: 'Tales From Development Hell' An Uneven Look Behind The Curtain At Getting A Film Made

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist February 27, 2012 at 2:02PM

Hollywood churns out roughly 400 movies per year, which is already a mind boggling figure, but becomes even more impressive when you think about the many hoops that need to jumped through just get a camera rolling. The vagaries of financing, locking down a cast, getting a script approved, protecting the film's creative integrity versus the business expectations of executives, balancing the egos of producers -- it's a minor miracle that as many movies get completed as they do. But for every movie that does get made, there are a handful more that don't for a variety of reasons, with some projects lingering around for years passing through multiple hands and directors without moving an inch. A recent example would be "Prisoners" which has been attached to directors Bryan Singer, Antoine Fuqua and Daniel Espinona at various points, with Christian Bale, Mark Wahblerg, Leondardo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender all rumored to star along the way; the project is currently in the hands of "Incendies" director Denis Villeneuve. These what-could-have-been scenarios are always fascinating to explore and serve as the central concept of "Tales From Development Hell" by David Hughes, a book that unfortuantely is never quite compelling as you might hope.
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Tales From Development Hell

Hollywood churns out roughly 400 movies per year, which is already a mind boggling figure, but becomes even more impressive when you think about the many hoops that need to jumped through just get a camera rolling. The vagaries of financing, locking down a cast, getting a script approved, protecting the film's creative integrity versus the business expectations of executives, balancing the egos of producers -- it's a minor miracle that as many movies get completed as they do. But for every movie that does get made, there are a handful more that don't for a variety of reasons, with some projects lingering around for years passing through multiple hands and directors without moving an inch. A recent example would be "Prisoners" which has been attached to directors Bryan Singer, Antoine Fuqua and Daniel Espinona at various points, with Christian Bale, Mark Wahblerg, Leondardo DiCaprio, Michael Fassbender all rumored to star along the way; the project is currently in the hands of "Incendies" director Denis Villeneuve. These what-could-have-been scenarios are always fascinating to explore and serve as the central concept of "Tales From Development Hell" by David Hughes, a book that unfortuantely is never quite compelling as you might hope.

Hughes has been down this path before, with the much better, must-read "The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made." That book truly lives up to its title, chronicling a strong batch of genre films that never made it out of gate, and he goes deep with his research, chatting with the screenwriters, producers and directors involved every step of the way. 'Development Hell' (arriving in an updated version of the 2004 edition), notably has as a sub-heading the question: "The Greatest Movies Never Made?" And the answer is (mostly): no. Of the fourteen chapters in the book, arguably only five of them actually focus on movies that were truly never made, while the rest explore the versions of movies that were eventually made, that were considered during development. Thus, unlike 'Greatest Sci-Fi' where the imagination soars at what could have been, here we already know what happened, so what we get is a lot of background with very few serving up a scenario where the alternate path never taken, is one that is truly a tragic loss.

But perhaps the biggest problem with 'Development Hell,' is that of those five movies that didn't get made, most of them sound like bad ideas to start with. "Crusades," a mooted picture about the religious wars that would have starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and been directed by Paul Verhoeven, is already ill-conceived, the former playing the hero of the story in a movie that aims to be politically balanced while still serving up the explosions and gore the director is known for. That it didn't get made is probably the best for all of us. Meanwhile, "Isobar" -- a genre thriller described as " 'Alien' on a train" -- never moves much beyond that fairly uninspired conceit, and it's more staggering that so much effort was put behind such a flimsy, unoriginal thriller.

And while those chapters work as examples where development hell probably spared everyone involved mediocre movies, "Smoke And Mirrors" and "Crisis In The Hot Zone" serveas  the best sections of the book, truly fascinating accounts of how the Hollywood machine and big personalities can serve to quash great material. In the case of the former, an incredible, inspired on by a true story tale about a French magician sent to Algeria in the 1850s to quell an uprising by exposing a tribal leader as fraud, spurred a bidding war between studios to land the script. But it was all downhill from there as rewrite after rewrite continued to move the story into "Indiana Jones" territory. Meanwhile the latter was Ridley Scott's proposed virus thriller, one that wound up in a race to get made with "Outbreak" (which was loosely based on the same true story), and was continually dogged by mooted star Robert Redford's requested changes that eventually forced Jodie Foster, who first signed on, to leave the project. Both stories are intriguing looks of how projects shift and turn as they continue through various hands, and how endless tinkering to please everybody along the way often causes more problems that it solves.

And while Hughes is on top form in these portions of the book, 'Development Hell' drags through chapters dedicated to "Indiana Jones IV" and the path to "Batman Begins." The fomer is especially tedious, as the film was never really in development hell, so much as it was just waiting for the principal players -- George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford -- to become available. So instead, we're treated to the recounting of every major rumor and leak of fan written scripts before "Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull" gets made. Meanwhile, the chapter on Batman is essentially an overview of the franchise at Warner Bros. starting with Tim Burton's "Batman" and permutations along the way before Christopher Nolan finally directed "Batman Begins." Yes, it touches on Darren Aronofsky's proposed "Year One" but it's all stuff you already know. But perhaps worse is Hughes' complete failure to mention George Miller's "Justice League," which would have brought a number of superheroes to the big screen -- including both Batman and Superman -- and might have dramatically changed to the comic movie landscape as we know it now. That it's not discussed is a rather glaring omission, and frankly, that project is probably more worthy of a chapter of its own than the general Batman recap.

For those looking for the same in depth approach taken by Hughes in 'Greatest Sci-Fi' will be disappointed here. Not nearly as insightful or involving as 'Greatest Sci-Fi,' most of 'Development Hell' rarely digs as deep, and for the most part rides on a surface level recounting of events. A more accurate description for the book might be "Tales From Development Purgatory," as many of these films were simply lost in limbo as directions changed along the way. If you're a junkie for stories about Hollywood, than 'Development Hell' does have some chapters that will sate your curiousity, but for anyone else the purchase of 'Greatest Sci-Fi' instead is probably the wiser investment of both money and time. [C]

"Tales From Development Hell" hits bookstores on Tuesday, February 28th.

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