By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com March 19, 2012 at 10:17AM
The walls of the studio backlots have always been haunted by the films that never made it into production. Whether through design, tragedy or somewhere in between, every great filmmaker and star has at least one project that slipped through the net, films that, had they made it to the screen, might have stood among the classics. Indeed, we've run down through several of the casualties of development hell in the past (part one, part two, part three, part four). Over the weekend, new details of one of the projects we've featured emerged, which made us wonder: might it be one of the few to get a second lease on life?
The ghostly film in question is one that Slate put the spotlight on in the last few weeks: a never-titled project that would have teamed "Heat" director Michael Mann, Oscar nominated writer John Logan ("Hugo," "Gladiator") and A-lister Leonardo DiCaprio, who were all meant to work together on "The Aviator," and in many ways was a darker, more genre-inflected take on similar subject matter. And it's a film that Slate says "could have been not only the best thing either of them ever did, but the great film noir, the great Los Angeles movie and the great film about Hollywood itself."
Penned by Logan (who's more recently written "Rango," "Coriolanus" and "Skyfall") on spec for Mann, who attempted to get studios on board five years ago, in the run up to the 2007 writers' strike, DiCaprio would have played Harry Slidell, the (fictional) resident publicist/fixer at MGM at the height of the studio's power in 1938, just as they were in production on "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone With The Wind" (with scenes taking place on the sets of both). Slidell (who's based on real-life figures Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickland, as detailed in E.J. Fleming's book "The Fixers") has to get involved after the husband of a starlet, Ruth Ettis, is found dead. Slidell falls for Ettis, and the investigation takes him into the dark side of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The movie moves through the famous sets and landmarks of classic Hollywoodland (part of the reason the budget was so high, more on that in a sec) and is hard chewing noir (a genre studios have a very mixed track record with).
The script has been widely praised as one of the best unmade ones of recent times (Slate call Logan's script "ambitious [and] brilliantly crafted" -- we're dying to read it ourselves, and if you have a copy, you know where to send it), but Mann couldn't get the film settled, thanks to a $120 million budget that, given the director's perfectionism and tendency for overages, couldn't get financed. Mann's last film at the time, "Miami Vice," was a major box office disappointment, and even DiCaprio, who was yet to have the one-two punch of "Shutter Island" and "Inception," wasn't a sure-fire box office bet -- his most recent solo lead, "Blood Diamond," also underwhelmed, domestically at least. New Line (who would be folded back into parent company Warner Bros within a year) were interested, but wouldn't offer more than $100 million for the budget, and a deal could never be struck.
Mann went on to make another period crime tale, "Public Enemies," Logan had a hit on stage with "Red" and DiCaprio would make "Revolutionary Road" with Sam Mendes. Butt the film continues to linger as one of the great unmade pictures, as shown by the article over the weekend. The question we have to ask is: is there any chance of it actually coming to fruition?
Often, the problem with films stuck in development hell is that they already have a wealth of money spent on them. Should one studio want to pick up a film that a rival put into turnaround, they'd generally have to compensate the seller for any development costs, which can number many millions, particulary if a project has been in the works for a while. But as no studio ever picked up the project, that's unlikely to be a hurdle here: as far as we know, the rights remain with Mann and his production company, although depending on the length of his option, they may have reverted to Logan by now.
Ultimately, while the Oscar-winning success of a classic Hollywood-inspired picture like "The Artist" might help to make this a more appealing prospect, that budget is still extremely high, particularly as Mann hasn't had a hit in a while -- "Public Enemies" did ok, but given that it starred Johnny Depp, probably not as well as it should have done. But also, we wonder if the director is even the best choice for the film: his current infatuation with scrappy digital photography would seem to work against the picture.
But given how hot Logan is right now, might he be able to set the project up with another of his famous director pals? Could Mann give way for "Hugo" director Martin Scorsese -- a man who seems to be perfectly fitted for the material -- as he did on the Logan-penned "The Aviator," on which he was a producer? After all, Marty's working with DiCaprio for the fifth time on "The Wolf Of Wall Street," and might want to go for a sixth, even if he has many other films competing for his attention. Or could Logan persuade his "Skyfall" director Sam Mendes, someone studios would feel safer with than the maverick Mann, to take a look, and consider making it his follow-up to the Bond picture?
Of course, financing is the key, and it seems that the obvious way to move forward would be to bypass the studio system entirely (especially given that the film is investigating their own sordid histories...), and go to one of the new generation of independent financiers. Given that "Hugo," "Rango" and "Coriolanus" all came from GK Films, Graham King might seem like an obvious stop. The super-producer and financier has a history of backing films like this, and while he's taken a bath financially on "Hugo," that was likely tempered by pre-sales, and the prestige that came with eleven Oscar nominations. And making money on "The Aviator" proved that this kind of film can turn a profit, and this would arguably be a more commercial proposition, thanks to the genre tinge. Or perhaps Megan Ellison, who's specialized in backing passion projects from great directors, might step in: it's a bigger risk than she's yet taken on such a film, but she is also planning to resurrect the "Terminator" franchise under her Annapurna Pictures banner, which shows she's not scared of spending the big bucks.
Ultimately, a new thriftiness is taking over Hollywood, as we've detailed in the past, and if "The Artist" can recreate the Hollywood of the 1920s on a $15 million budget, there doesn't seem to be any reason that this 1930s noir couldn't be brought on a sum significantly less than originally planned (though some rewriting might be needed to make that happen and to work around a couple of the splashier set pieces). All it needs is an enterprising filmmaker, and a financier ready to roll the dice. Whether it happens or not remains to be seen, but surely this new interest in the project can't hurt.