Sergio Leone’s “Leningrad: The 900 Days”
What Was It? An adaptation of Harris Salisbury’s non-fiction book “The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad,” which tells the story of the one of the most punishing encounters in the history of WWII’s Eastern Front, Leone’s picture would have be told through the eyes of an American photographer, to be played, potentially, by Robert De Niro. He is trapped in the city as the battle begins, falls in clandestine love with a Russian woman and together they fight to survive the siege, only for him to be killed on liberation day.
What Happened? One of several potential Leone projects never made, Leone had already been attracted by this property back in 1982 while finishing up with “Once Upon a Time in America.” And while it seems that a script was never completed, Leone reportedly had already outlined the story and chosen the first shot—which was going to be, in typically grand, sweeping Leone fashion, a long unbroken cut (described in detail here) starting from the hands of Russian composer Shostakovich playing his “Leningrad Symphony” tracking out to follow a tram packed with armed Russians across the city, past the line of defensive trenches and out to a German Panzer division sweeping in. By 1989, Leone had financing in place to the tune, reportedly of a cool $100 million, and was due to film in co-production with a Soviet company (kind of a big deal in 1989, one would have thought), but just two days before he was due to sign the deal to direct it officially, Leone had a heart attack and died at the age of just 60.
Could It Ever Get Made? There’s no way that the particular vision of Leone’s could be brought to the screen, especially as no script was ever completed (director Jean-Jacques Annaud claimed Leone had wanted him to take over the project, but bailed when he discovered the “screenplay” was in fact a suitcase full of books on the subject, turning in the tedious "Enemy at the Gates" later instead). In 2003 Giuseppe Tornatore (“Cinema Paradiso”) had suggested he wanted to direct a similar-sounding project called “Leningrad,” with Nicole Kidman in the role of the woman, but that went cold too. So, even if this exact story does someday make it to screen, Leone’s intentions, outside of that minutely described opening, will always be beyond our reach.
Francis Ford Coppola’s “Megalopolis”
What Was It? Described by Coppola himself as being "a little like an Ayn Rand novel," the film was primed to be an ambitious, sprawling, big-budget sci-fi epic about an extraordinarily wealthy architect in a futuristic New York who tries to build a utopian mini-city. The script alone ran to 212 pages (you can read a highly critical review here), and almost every big name in Hollywood was mooted for a part in the large ensemble, with the likes of Kevin Spacey and Warren Beatty attending table readings.
What Happened? With test footage already in the can, financing secured (no mean feat—Coppola later claimed he had done three back-to-back studio films in “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” “Jack” and “The Rainmaker” purely so he’d be able to get financing for “Megalopolis”), all seemed to be going full steam ahead. And then 9/11 happened, and suddenly the idea of shooting a film in, and supposedly very much about, New York City that didn’t somehow contend with this incredibly traumatic event was inconceivable. As Coppola said “It made it really pretty tough… a movie about the aspiration of utopia with New York as a main character and then all of a sudden you couldn’t write about New York without just dealing with what happened and the implications of what happened. The world was attacked and I didn’t know how to try to do with that.” By the time for it to become a viable property once more, ardor had rather cooled, not least Coppola’s own.
Could It Ever Get Made? In 2007 Coppola said “I have abandoned that as of now... I plan to begin a process of making one personal movie after another and if something leads me back to look at that, which I’m sure it might, I’ll see what makes sense to me” and indeed that seems to have been the path he's pursued till very recently. Later in 2009 he said, “Someday, I'll read what I had on 'Megalopolis' and maybe I'll think different of it, but it's a movie that costs a lot of money to make and there's not a patron out there.” Of course recently such a patron seems to have materialized, but for a different New York City epic, and with the filmmaker now 74 years old, we should maybe retire ideas of “Megalopolis” ever coming to the screen with him at the helm.
Louis Malle's “Moon Over Miami”
What Was it? A black comedy about a political scandal to be directed by French Maestro Louis Malle and to star John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
What Happened? Let’s back up a bit. Political scandal? It was the ABSCAM scandal. If that acronym sounds familiar, it should. Essentially, it’s the same story of David O. Russell’s “American Hustle.” Malle was hot in the U.S. after “Atlantic City” (five Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director) and so the movie was past a green light and heading towards a start date very quickly. John Belushi would have played Melvin Weinberg, the same character that Christian Bale played in the 2013 film (or a version of him anyhow) and Aykroyd would have played the more straight-laced FBI guy (the Bradley Cooper role). Belushi was looking to stretch his wings, but Spielberg's "1941" was a bust, "The Blues Brothers," while a huge hit, was derided in the press for going over budget, and the dark comedy "Neighbors" was a big disaster no one went to see. While he and Aykroyd had decided to work apart, their solo successes were few, so the “Ghostbuster” convinced his crazy 'SNL' pal to take the part (Belushi could have starred in the Ivan Reitman paranormal comedy too). Aykroyd loved the script too, but Belushi didn’t even have a chance to read it. He died all too young at the age of 33 in 1982. The project was abandoned.
Could It Ever Get Made? See “American Hustle,” i.e. no, it’s been done and done well.
The Nick Cave-scripted “Gladiator 2”
What Was It? A sequel to the epic Ridley Scott drama “Gladiator” (2000) to star Cave’s fellow antipodean Russell Crowe again in the role that made him a megastar. But, huh, didn’t Maximus die at the end of Gladiator? Not a problem! Cave’s absolutely bonkers take had Maximus constantly reincarnated as an immortal warrior in a story whose theology would have encompassed both the pantheon of Roman Gods and Christianity (Maximus’ first task is to kill Jesus because the Gods are jealous of his increasing popularity) and would have spanned just about every conflict from ancient times up to Vietnam and beyond.
What Happened? That script happened. According to Cave, Crowe, who had drafted him in in the first place, responded with a brusque “Don’t like it, mate,” but Ridley Scott indicated that Crowe actually didn’t want to let it go and that they tried to work with it for a while, claiming he thought “as a piece of storytelling, it works brilliantly.” And of course it seems the kernel of the idea about Roman theology may have been planted by Crowe himself, who wanted to find a way to participate in a sequel, when the earliest version of it had actually been about his character’s son instead. But quite aside from it being about a gazillion miles away from what anyone would expect from a “Gladiator” sequel, and being so potentially blasphemous that Cave’s original title, “Christ Killer,” seems perfectly appropriate, there just doesn’t seem to be any possible universe in which this movie would get studio backing, and even Cave knew that. Despite insisting that the screenplay is “a stone-cold masterpiece” he also called it a “popcorn-dropper” during his Marc Maron interview, indicating he knew full well that the script would never get made.
Could It Ever Get Made? No. We just don’t live in that interesting a world, unfortunately. But you can read the whole thing right here.
Steven Spielberg's “Night Skies”
What Was It? A Steven Spielberg idea touted rather famously as “ ‘Straw Dogs’ with aliens” about an extraterrestrial menacing a family in Kentucky.
What Happened? After the success of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," Columbia naturally wanted a sequel, but Spielberg was not game. Instead, he came up with a horror treatment called "Watch The Skies" (also the 'Encounters' working title). Based on a real-life paranormal encounter account of a Kentucky family terrorized by aliens, this was a much darker reflection than the benevolent aliens depicted in ‘Close Encounters.’ Spielberg hired John Sayles (who had recently written Joe Dante’s “Piranha”) to pen the script (a review can be read here). Unsurprisingly too dark for Spielberg’s taste, he decided Tobe Hooper (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) should direct which really would have been all too perfect. Special special effects wizard Rick Baker was hired to create the creatures and it was scheduled to shoot after “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But after the scope, violence and intensity of that Tunisia-set shoot, Spielberg was all too happy to switch gears to the more tranquil “E.T.” and “Night Skies” was abandoned (it didn’t help that Sayles’ one and only draft needed work and they had parted ways). Spielberg would famously borrow and incorporate elements from “Night Skies” for both “E.T.” (falling out with Rick Baker in the process) and the similarly dark “Poltergeist,” which he would produce and Hooper would direct, under Spielberg's alleged micromanagement.
Could It Ever Get Made? No, though ironically enough, the project might have been revived by Spielberg himself who wrote a treatment for “E.T.: Nocturnal Fear” with the original writer Melissa Mathison, whose concept is very, “Night Skies”-ish. Fortunately, Spielberg only took brief leave of his senses and decided an “E.T.” sequel would blemish its legacy and quashed the idea himself (and you can read that treatment right here).
David Fincher’s “Torso”
What Was It? It's based on Brian Bendis and Marc Andreyko’s award-winning graphic novel recreation of the true story of the Cleveland “Torso Murderer” investigation, headed by celebrity historical personage Elliot “Untouchables” Ness. In 2009, the film seemed squarely in the Fincher/serial killer wheelhouse, (in period and theme almost a mashup of his two previous films at that point: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “Zodiac”) with a rumored cast including Matt Damon, Casey Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Gary Oldman.
What Happened? “Torso” appears to have been a victim of Fincher’s falling out with Paramount during the shooting and promotion of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” The studio had butted heads with the director over the length and the cut of the film, and as soon as those fences were mended, fell out with him all over again over his recalcitrant “difficult” behavior during the press rounds. It just so happened that the rights to “Torso” were coming up for renewal at this time and the studio let them lapse, despite it being slated as Fincher’s next film and the script being ready, written by Ehren Kruger. The cover story was about financial issues and tightening of purse strings, with some rumors that in fact they wanted Fincher to direct the Keanu Reeves comedy “Chef” instead (also now defunct; Fincher has a bunch of wayside films, of which the other one we're probably most excited by is "Rendezvous with Rama," but since the studio also dropped Fincher’s “Heavy Metal” not so long before, it seems there has to have been some other factors at play).
Could It Ever Get Made? Definitely no and definitely yes: it won’t be Fincher, but the project has now been added to “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” director David Lowery’s upcoming slate, though he is reportedly not going to be using the Kruger script developed for the Fincher incarnation (which presumably Paramount still owns). For enthusiasts of the material, that has to be good news, with Lowery seeming like a good, if lower-profile, fit for the mood and tone of the source.