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The 25 Greatest Movies Never Made

by The Playlist Staff
March 25, 2014 3:52 PM
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A Confederacy of Dunces
What Was It? John Kennedy Toole’s hilariously picaresque novel about the implacable Ignatius J. Reilly: a "huge, obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua, a Don Quixote of the French Quarter” and his adventures in New Orleans.
What Happened? In what could have been yet another touchstone classic under his belt, in the early 1980s, the late Harold Ramis (“Ghostbusters”) penned a script that he would direct. He envisioned it as a starring vehicle for John Belushi and Richard Pryor and Ruth Gordon were signed on to star. Belushi’s death in 1982, however, put the kibosh on the whole thing. Other iterations followed. John Candy, Jonathan Winters, and Josh Mostel were all names talked about in the ‘80s. Chris Farley and John Goodman's names were mentioned in the '90s, but the most viable second attempt came in the late '90s via Steven Soderbergh. A script was penned with Scott Kramer (producer on “The Limey”), but myriad legal woes made it thorny (much of them documented in Soderbergh’s journal/Richard Lester book, “Getting Away With It”). Soderbergh passed the torch on to David Gordon Green in the early aughts, post “Undertow,” and it was going to be his next project. The cast of Will Ferrell, Lily Tomlin, Mos Def, Drew Barrymore, and Olympia Dukakis was assembled, a reading was even staged, but the sticky legal woes (Miramax vs. Paramount vs. producers) quickly stuck a fork in it. Jack Black’s name was floated a few years later, and most recently, an iteration with James Bobin (“Flight of the Conchords,” “The Muppets”) and Zach Galifianakis (whose entire haughty comedic demeanor is arguably just the embodiment of Ignatius) came to light.
Could It Ever Get Made? Maybe once the legal drama is sorted. Broadway sounds like the most recent viable option, though it is still listed as in development on Bobin and Galifianakis' IMDb pages for what it's worth.

Ridley Scott’s “Blood Meridian
What Was It? While a film based on Cormac McCarthy’s most famous, and probably best, novel has been mooted for a long while, the name that was associated with it for longest was Ridley Scott. The story is incredibly bleak and grisly, an anti-western following a young boy as he falls in with with a gang of psychotic scalp hunters in the U.S./Mexico borderlands who are in thrall to the hairless, quasi-mystical Judge Holden.
What Happened? While Pulitzer Prize winner McCarthy’s novels have been adapted often for screen (“All the Pretty Horses” “No Country for Old Men” “The Road”), it’s been with varying levels of box office return so they’re still a hard sell to studios. And “Blood Meridian” is an outlier even in McCarthy’s unflinching oeuvre, with the kind of extreme violence and uncompromisingly grim storyline that smacks of uncommerciality. So for the majority of the time Scott was trying to get his version of “Blood Meridian” off the ground, it was simply regarded as too dicey a proposition, especially as Scott claimed his version would have been ”double-x horrific… Hieronymous Bosch” with the film playing out more like a horror movie than a western. It is perhaps the only way to tackle a film version, but again, studios tend not to sink a lot of money into horror films so we can see why they’d be reluctant to stump up the budget required for this sweeping, bleak period tale.
Could It Ever Get Made? Scott has seemingly scratched his McCarthy itch by winning the bidding war for the novelist’s first screenplay and making “The Counselor.” But a “Blood Meridian” adaptation has hung around since without him, having director Todd Field attached at one point, with very vague, unconfirmable reports that Terrence Malick was interested in having Gene Hackman star in a version, and recently, more chillingly, being name checked as one of the many projects being eyed by James Franco as a potential directorial gig—though his uninspired adaptation of McCarthy's "Child of God" instead took precedence. So while “unfilmable” is a tag that’s been attached to many a project over the years and proven false, we’ll give Scott the last word on this one—asked about the film some time after he’d left the project he said simply "I think it's a really tricky one, and maybe it's something that should be left as a novel.”

David Lean's Nostromo
What Was It? An adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s “Nostromo, A Tale of the Seaboard” as directed by David Lean and produced by Steven Spielberg for Warner Bros.
What Happened? Centering on an integrity-filled sailor who became involved in a plot to smuggle silver out of a South American mining town, the book was written in 1904 but had to be modernized, which gave Lean and his writers problems. Lean was also in his 70s and hadn’t made a movie in 15 years. Developed for over five years with four different screenwriters, playwright Christopher Hampton worked on it for years, and they even went location scouting in Mexico. Marlon Brando, Alan Rickman, Paul Scofield, Peter O'Toole, Isabella Rossellini, Christopher Lambert, and Dennis Quaid were names that were bandied about, but development was just too slow. Spielberg often wanted to work with his idols and David Lean was one of his particular icons, so he injected some dynamism into the project by coming on board as a producer around the time of “Empire of the Sun,” but his notes to the legendary filmmaker were apparently irritating and unwanted. Hampton took six months off to write the adaptation of his own play "Dangerous Liaisons" and this caused further delays (leading Lean to employ formerly-estranged “Lawrence Of Arabia” screenwriter Robert Bolt). Budget issues were a factor (WB would only put up 50% of the sprawling cost), Spielberg eventually pulled out citing creative differences and poor health dogged Lean for the last few years of his life. This would cause major insurance issues as the film carried on; the studio insisted on a standby director in case he couldn’t finish and suggested names like John Boorman, Peter Yates and Arthur Penn (Lean would like Robert Altman; they would eventually go with Guy Hamilton). All of it would end up moot. Lean died in 1991 of throat cancer with the project frustratingly unrealized.
Could It Ever Get Made? Seems highly doubtful, but the screenplay can be read here. Extra credit: Ridley Scott tipped his cap to the story, naming the ship in “Alien” the Nostromo, a theme that carried through into "Aliens" in which an escape ship is named Sulaco, after the mining town setting of Conrad's novel.

Honorable Mention
There are a few notable exclusions from this list that we'd like to shout out: Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Inferno" should rightfully be at the top of anyone’s unmade masterpieces list, but we’ve written about that one rather recently. Other legendary projects that never quite came to pass include Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried” (which we’ve written about extensively; including in this similar feature; the comedian also wanted to reportedly make “The Catcher in the Rye”) and Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” which we purposely left off the list because it’s perhaps the most well-known of all of them and knock on wood, it’ll get made in the near future.

For more on contemporary unproduced projects that have gained legendary status, like Baz Luhrmann’s “Alexander The Great," Guillermo del Toro's "At the Mountains of Madness," James Cameron's "Spider-Man," Steven Soderbergh's 3D musical "Cleopatra," Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill 3” (here’s an in-depth rundown of QT’s unmade projects), and any number of interesting Spike Lee projects (read: 10 Lost, Unmade & Possible Future Projects Of Spike Lee). Additionally, there are myriad David Fincher projects outside of those mentioned above, Spike Jonze’s unrealized version of “Harold & The Purple Crayon,” Neill Blomkamp’s “Halo,” dozens of still-unmade Michael Mann projects, as well as Christopher Nolan’s abandoned Howard Hughes project and his would-be big-screen adaptation of the seminal ‘60s TV show “The Prisoner.” Tim Burton’s got a closet full of movies he’s never made and Martin Scorsese has at least four or five passion projects he’d like to make before he shuffles off this mortal coil.

On the more classic, vintage side, Orson Welles was obviously the tragic king of unrealized film projects while projects from Michael Cimino, Akira Kurosawa, Bernardo Bertolucci, Salvador Dali-meets-Disney, Carl Theodor Dreyer, and Max Ophüls, along with Greta Garbo's would-be triumphant return to the screen are among those we'll be looking at next. But if you are jonesing for more right now, let us point you in the direction of a wealth of extra-credit material: “Lost & Abandoned: 10 Movies That Were Shot, But Eventually Scrapped” and “Shelved Movies: 18 Films With Delayed Releases” “5 Superman Movies That Never Took Flight,” “10 Unmade Tim Burton Movies” the “Lost & Abandoned Projects Of J.J. Abrams,” “5 Marvel Movie What Ifs” “5 Unmade Movies From The Legendary Sergio Leone,” “5 Things [Films] We'd Rather See David Lynch Do Than Open His 'Mulholland Drive' Club in Paris” and the aforementioned run downs of Tarantino and Spike Lee projects that never came to pass. Advanced readers should also check out our “Ten Dead Projects We'd Like To See Resurrected” and we have a few of those (parts 2 and parts 3 as well) and finally “20 Superhero Movies That Couldn't Fly All The Way To The Big Screen.”

Tell us what you think about our picks in the comments—would they actually have been any good in completed form or are they better off endlessly pursued, never caught, as our very own cinematic white whales? -Rodrigo Perez & Jessica Kiang with Drew Taylor

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  • Nikhil Dhawan | May 15, 2014 1:03 AMReply

    I was looking forward to "The Tourist"

  • Felip Serra | May 8, 2014 7:47 PMReply

    Re: "Napoleon"
    $5 million (1969?) is $100 million in today's dollars? Really? Seems a bit high...
    Also Audrey Hepburn was offered the role of Josephine was politely declined. You can read the letter in the Taschen book on the subject.

  • Martijn | April 8, 2014 2:35 PMReply

    Crisis in the Hot Zone should have been mentioned! I read a bootleg script once. It was totally intense. Like a real-life Andromeda Strain. Instead WB beat Fox to the punch and made Outbreak which now reads as such a completely absurd movie. Thankfully many years later Soderbergh made Contagion which very realistically depicted a modern pandemic in a way no other film has.

  • Brendan | April 8, 2014 12:37 PMReply

    Michael Mann's Gates of Fire
    Ridley Scott's Crisis in the Hot Zone
    Ridley Scott's Dune
    Ron Howard's remake of Colossus: The Forbin Project

  • I. P. Freely | March 31, 2014 12:23 AMReply

    "Man's Fate" from the Andre Malraux novel about a political revolution in China, and it's
    futility, was to be directed by Fred Zinemann and then Micheal Cimino....

  • Sanker from India | March 29, 2014 3:21 PMReply

    I have only read the intro so far but I need to say this. The opposite thing to imaginary movies possibly being amazing only because they exist in our imaginations would be films that are so mind altering that nothing is ever the same again. Take 2001: a space odyssey, for example. Now it may seem obvious and even inevitable to say that it's fantastic but before that first viewing I had no idea what was in store for me. After watching it and once the experience really sunk after the second viewing, my viewpoint if all cinema was forever altered. The film's brilliance, in this case, was something I couldn't even fathom before I saw it. Those kind of unexpectedly amazing experiences are the ones which I personally treasure the most.

  • Parker | March 28, 2014 8:19 PMReply

    Alexander Payne's Downsizing with Sacha Baron Cohen, Paul Giamatti, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep. I hope finally this will be happen. Downsizing's subject will be also current in the future...

  • Xian | March 26, 2014 7:20 PMReply

    Curious about "Night Skies"... here's a script critique:
    scriptshadow . blogspot . com / 2010 / 02 / titan-week-night-skies . html

    Close the space on the link and cut/paste to address/url.

  • Simon B | March 26, 2014 6:49 PMReply

    Nice piece. Just to add to MDL's comment, it seems you may have stumbled across The Greatest Movies You'll Never See (which I co-wrote and edited). 'Borrowing' the artwork for Moon Over Miami, which, like all the posters in the book, was specially commissioned, was a bit of a tip-off. Still, top marks for finding a few that escaped us.

  • avant576 | March 26, 2014 11:31 AMReply

    I yearn for Shane Carruth's A TOPIARY

  • Greg | March 25, 2014 7:40 PMReply

    The Coen brothers' unrealized To the White Sea, which was to star Brad Pitt and boast no/minimum dialogue, is a project I'd dearly love to have seen. And speaking of the Coen brothers, they reportedly wrote a draft of a '30s-set The Shadow, with Sam Raimi set to direct. I just... I can't. No. That one hurts too much.

  • Thunderbubble | March 25, 2014 7:31 PMReply

    Thanks for the Night Skies treatment.
    I would add Harlan Ellison's I, Robot screenplay to that list. I've always loved it's "Citizen Kane"-ish structure. In a sci-fi setting it would be incredible. Plus you get all the stories the way Azimov intended them to be told. Pure genius! Sigh...

  • fry | March 25, 2014 7:20 PMReply

    Carl Dreyer's film about Jesus and Kurosawa's complete "The Idiot" are the biggest what-ifs for me.

  • MDL | March 25, 2014 6:36 PMReply

    There's a book about this titled: The Greatest Movies You'll Never See. Might want to note it.

  • James | March 25, 2014 5:52 PMReply

    I haven't read "Night Skies", but when Shyamalan's SIGNS came out, lots of writers said it borrowed heavily form Spielberg's unmade film.

  • Rick | March 25, 2014 5:07 PMReply

    I was looking forward too Alex Proyas Paradise Lost

  • Benjamin | March 25, 2014 5:00 PMReply

    What about Lem Dobbs' Edward Ford or Dan O'Bannon's screenplay adaptation of Theodore Rozsak's Flicker? Now THOSE are great scripts. It's a crime they never got filmed.
    As for Scorsese's innumerable could-have-been's, I've always wondered the most about the Elmore Leonard adaptation of LaBrava (quite possibly his finest novel) with Dustin Hoffman on the lead role way back in the 80's. Could have been pretty cool.

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