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The Alternate 2011: Who Nearly Directed Or Starred In The Most Notable Movies Of The Year?

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
December 12, 2011 2:05 PM
12 Comments
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2011 hasn't been too shabby for the movies. But even in a year such as this, there's that niggling feeling of what could have been. With the process of picking a director and casting a film seemingly more public than ever, thanks to rumors leaking and trades running short-list stories, it's possible to imagine any number of alternate outcomes for many of the biggest, and best, films of the year.

So, with 2011 coming to a close, we're kicking off our year-end coverage, and have delved into The Playlist archives (you know the room from the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark", a bit like that), to bring you a glimpse into some of the paths not taken. What would have happened if Gwyneth Paltrow didn't miss her train? If Franka Potente didn't trip over that one guy? If we'd understood what happened at the end of "Source Code"? Somewhere in a parallel universe, someone's enjoying (or not) the same movies as you did this year, but with very different names on the DVD box. Check them out below.

Superhero Movies

Thanks to fan interest, there's always a whirl of rumor around the big superhero franchises, and it's hard to separate rumor from fact sometimes. Pretty much every one of the big four comic book flicks of the year went through the casting mill a bit, to some degree or other. "Green Lantern" was seemingly the most painless (although, ironically, the most painful to sit through), with the short-list to play Hal Jordan running to a mere three names: Ryan Reynolds, who got the gig, Bradley Cooper, who was reported as the front-runner at one stage, and Justin Timberlake. Jackie Earle Haley was rumored, seemingly erroneously, to take the part of Sinestro, eventually landed by Mark Strong, while four other women were in contention for the female lead eventually won by Blake Lively: Eva Green, Keri Russell, Diane Kruger and Jennifer Garner. Bullet successfully dodged, ladies.

"X-Men: First Class" had a pretty stressful production, but a seemingly simple casting process, although there were a few faces mentioned who didn't end up in the film. Rosamund Pike was mentioned for the thankless role of Moira MacTaggart that Rose Byrne ended up taking, while Amber Heard was seemingly high on Fox's wish-list for Mystique, before Jennifer Lawrence came on the scene. Finally, theater star Benjamin Walker was actually cast as Beast, before Fox decided that there needed to be more of an age gap between the part and James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (who incidentally, went with 'X-Men' over the part of The Lizard in "The Amazing Spider-Man"), and sacked Walker for Nicholas Hoult. But no hard feelings as the actor will headline "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" for the studio next summer.

The Marvel movies were more public in their casting choices, particularly when it came down to the leads. For example, did you know that the company were keen for Josh Hartnett to play either Loki or the title role, in "Thor?" Baffling now, but true story. Tom Hiddleston ended up as Loki, having tested for the God of Thunder himself, alongside Alexander Skarsgard (who came very close), Charlie Hunnam, Joel Kinnaman and Liam Hemsworth, whose brother Chris won out in the end. Otherwise, Dominic Cooper was in the running to play Fandral, a part intially cast with Stuart Townsend, until the actor, who was also sacked as Aragorn from "Lord of the Rings," was fired, and replaced by Joshua Dallas. Finally, Clifton Collins Jr tweeted at the time that he was in the running for a part, although we can't imagine which one. Perhaps Loki or maybe The Frost Giant leader taken by Colm Feore

"Captain America: The First Avenger," meanwhile, had a long list of prospective stars, with a casting/testing process that seemingly dragged on for months. Ryan Phillipe, Mike Vogel, Garret Hedlund, Scott Porter ("Friday Night Lights"), Chace Crawford ("Gossip Girl"), Michael Cassidy ("Smallville"), Patrick Fleuger ("Footloose") and even Channing Tatum were all discussed as potential Caps. Meanwhile both "The Office" star John Krasinski and Sebastian Stan, who ended up playing Bucky in the film, were seemingly close to winning the role, until Chris Evans won it, although the actor nearly turned the part down, and played hardball with the notoriously thrifty Marvel. Additionally, Emily Blunt, Keira Knightley and Alice Eve were all touted for the female lead before Hayley Atwell landed it.

The Tentpoles
It doesn't always feel like it, but there are big blockbuster action/sci-fi films that don't necessarily involve superheroes, and there are some interesting parallel version of those films out there too. For instance, no one really credited the success of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" to James Franco, and indeed, the actor was never the first choice for the project. HitFix reported back in the day that the actor only landed the lead role after Tobey Maguire was offered the film, but was shut out of discussions when he tried to offer notes on the project. He's not the only what-coulda-been from the film as Don Cheadle turned down the part eventually played by David Oyelowo, while the project began under the name "Caesar," with Scott Frank ("Minority Report," "The Lookout") set to write and direct. He departed years back, and the studio went to Kathryn Bigelow, Robert Rodriguez, Tomas Alfredson, Pierre Morel, The Hughes Brothers, James McTiegue, Dennis Illiadis and Scott Stewart before deciding (correctly, as it turns out) that Rupert Wyatt was the man for the job.

Meanwhile, pity poor Thomas Sangster. The actor, best known as Liam Neeson's son in "Love Actually," was only 17 in 2008 when Steven Spielberg picked him out as the star of his motion-capture film "The Adventures of Tintin." But when shooting was delayed, Sangster had to drop out, and Jamie Bell stepped in. Still, it's not like anyone would have seen his face, anyway...Meanwhile, Spielberg also had a shake up on his other film of the year, "War Horse," offering Eddie Redmayne the part before deciding that he was too old, and going instead for Jeremy Irvine.

And then there's the two big blockbusters that haven't quite made it to theaters yet, "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol," and "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo." On the former, Tom Cruise met with Ruben Fleischer ("Zombieland") and Edgar Wright before deciding that Brad Bird was the man to trust his flagship franchise with, while Lauren German ("Hawaii Five-O") and Kristen Kreuk ("Smallville") tested alongisde eventual victor Paula Patton for the female lead, and Christopher Egan ("Letters to Juliet"), Kevin Zegers ("Transamerica") and Anthony Mackie were up for the part taken by Jeremy Renner.

And as for 'Dragon Tattoo,' the saga's probably familiar by now, but for those who've forgotten, Carey Mulligan topped the studio's wishlist to play Lisbeth Salander when David Fincher first signed on, and the actress actively campaigned for the part for months, while Scarlett Johansson apparently made a strong case with a last-minute test. And in the meantime, Natalie Portman, Ellen Page, Emma Watson, Emily Browning, Lea Seydoux, Katie Jarvis ("Fish Tank') and relative unknowns Sarah Snook and Sophie Lowe all reached various stages of the process, before Rooney Mara, Fincher's first choice all along, convinced Sony execs. And if you watch the Sweden-set film and wonder why Max Von Sydow isn't in it, there's a reason: he was originally cast as the beleaguered Henrik Vanger, but dropped out, with Christopher Plummer replacing him.

Also, in 2007, we came close to a version of "Source Code" starring Topher Grace. Just sit on that one for a minute.

The Comedies
Perhaps the best known casting shake-up of the last few years came from the year's biggest comedy "The Hangover Part II," where, as you might recall, disgraced star Mel Gibson was set for a brief cameo as a tattoo artist, which was deep-sixed when the cast and crew objected to his presence, and the actor was swiftly replaced by Liam Neeson. But what's that? You saw the film, and don't remember seeing Neeson? Well, that's because Neeson's role had to be reshot to make way for post-production script rewrites, and the actor was unavailable, due to production on "Wrath of the Titans." So instead, we got the magnetic screen presence of Nick Cassavetes.

"Horrible Bosses" did pretty well too, in part thanks to the cluster of stars in the title roles, but the studio were chasing even bigger names to play the most horrible of the bosses, with Tom Cruise, Phililp Seymour Hoffman and Jeff Bridges all turning the role down that eventually went to Kevin Spacey. Meanwhile, we nearly saw Amy Adams (who picked "The Muppets" instead), Mary Elizabeth Winstead or Rachel McAdams in Scarlett Johannson's part in "We Bought A Zoo."

One of the more dramatic changes came on comedy-drama "50/50" (which was originally titled "I'm With Cancer"). Firstly, "Please Give" helmer Nicole Holofcener dropped out, then the film lost lead James McAvoy on the eve of shooting. Fortunately, Jonathan Levine and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, respectively, stepped in. But really, the funniest film we saw this year, albeit not intentionally, was Madonna's "W.E," and Ewan McGregor and Vera Farmiga were both circling the parts eventually taken by James D'Arcy and Andrea Riseborough. Until, presumably, they read the script.

The Festival Favorites
We've already documented at least once some of the early, never seen versions of "The Tree of Life" -- both the confirmed news that Heath Ledger was initially going to play Brad Pitt's part, his sad death unfortunately making that impossible, and the less concrete reports that, on its inception, Malick wanted Mel Gibson and Colin Farrell to star, presumably as Pitt and Sean Penn's characters respectively. Another Cannes picture that could have been very different was "Drive," originally announced to be directed by Neil Marshall ("The Descent") with Hugh Jackman set to star. We're sure it would have been just as bloody, but we imagine the electro-score count would have been much lower. 

Meanwhile, the award for thinking with the head over the heart in 2011 goes to Penelope Cruz. The actress had been attached to Pedro Almodovar/Antonio Banderas' reunion "The Skin I Live In" since 2002, back when it was called "Tarantula." Furthermore, she was also originally in discussions with Lars Von Trier to star in apocalyptic drama "Melancholia." Instead, she went and played dress-up for Johnny Depp in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." Good news for Elena Ayana and Kirsten Dunst, who took over, and even better news for the Cruz/Bardem bank account.

Finally, while not strictly speaking a 2012 film in the U.S, Andrea Arnold's adaptation of "Wuthering Heights" has played festivals and been released in Britain, so we'll include it here, if only because it's had a particularly meandering route to the screen. Originally set to be directed by John Maybury ("Love is the Devil"), it originally had Natalie Portman attached as Cathy, before Abbie Cornish replaced her, with Michael Fassbender landing the role of Heathcliff. The pair dropped out when Maybury left (although Fassbender would scratch his Bronte itch with "Jane Eyre," which, incidentally, was to initally star Ellen Page in the title role), and "The Girl With The Pearl Earring" helmer Peter Webber took over, with the less impressive pair of Ed Westwick and Gemma Arterton in the lead roles. When Arnold nabbed the directing gig, she stripped it down, with virtual unknowns taking all the parts. 

The Awards Contenders
One of the biggest revolving casting doors of 2011 turned out to be, ironically, for the film that perhaps ended up with the best cast of the year, Tomas Alfredson's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy." When originally announced, Michael Fassbender was set to play Ricky Tarr, eventually taken by Tom Hardy, while David Thewlis was also linked to an unknown role (our best guess is that it was the part eventually taken by Mark Strong). Later, Ralph Fiennes and Jared Harris were also added, again in unknown parts. Fassbender had to drop out when he landed 'X-Men,' while Thewlis' deal never seemed to close, Fiennes committed to finish directorial debut "Coriolanus," and Harris ended up as Moriarty in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" (after overtures to Daniel Day-Lewis came to naught).

Fassbender in turn watched another cast-mate drop out relatively late in the game on another of his many projects, as Christoph Waltz was originally going to play Freud in "A Dangerous Method," until he got offered "Water for Elephants," leaving David Cronenberg's frequent collaborator Viggo Mortensen to step in. Meanwhile, George Clooney's "The Ides of March," originally named "Farragut North," had a bit of a roundabout for its leading man. Leonardo DiCaprio was originally circling the project before Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" proved more tempting, and Chris Pine, who played the same role on stage, was also closely linked before Ryan Gosling decided he wasn't going to be omnipresent enough in 2011 without teaming up with Clooney. The latter of whom, reportedly faced competition for the lead role of "The Descendants" from, of all people, Louis C.K. That's one to mull on as we close in on the new year...

Finally, we nearly saw a totally different version of "Moneyball" than the one that ended up on screens. Steven Soderbergh was only three days away from starting filming on his take when Sony head Amy Pascal pulled the plug, unhappy with last-minute changes the director had made to the script with Steve Zaillian, including documentary-like interviews that Soderbergh had already filmed with the likes of Daryl Strawberry. While Brad Pitt stuck as Billy Beane, Jonah Hill's role was initially pegged for stand-up and "Taking Woodstock" star Demetri Martin, who had to settle for a small role in Soderbergh's "Contagion" as consolation. We love Bennett Miller's film, but Soderbergh's take would have been equally fascinating.

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12 Comments

  • Bev | December 15, 2011 1:05 AMReply

    I really liked planet of the apes. The CGI was great I watched it @ http://b4releasemovies.com

  • raina | December 13, 2011 11:30 PMReply

    Um, no. Heath Ledger turned down the part in The tree of life well before his death.

  • Mike | December 13, 2011 4:49 PMReply

    Penelope Cruz actually did a lot more than discuss taking the lead in Melancholia, it was discussions with her that inspired Von Trier to write the film in the first place.

  • Dara | December 13, 2011 3:26 AMReply

    For what it's worth, James Franco was the director's first choice. And it looks like Tobey maguire(or whoever was studio's first choice) did not just try to offer notes; he wanted to completely change the script.

    http://www.thisisfakediy.co.uk/articles/film/interview-rupert-wyatt-dan-lemmon

  • dudeabides | December 12, 2011 4:26 PMReply

    Louis CK in The Descendants would have been incredible! waiting for his big screen splash!

  • Finley | December 12, 2011 3:52 PMReply

    Would love to have seen a Nicole Holofcener-helmed '50/50' with James McAvoy...

  • Benjamin | December 12, 2011 3:31 PMReply

    That Descendants article says Louis C.K. auditioned, but I thought that Payne actually pursued him for the role. I heard that C.K. turned it down because he didn't want to be away from New York for so long as being a father comes before work for him. Any validity to this?

    Also, if Payne ever gets around to doing Daniel Clowes' "Wilson", I say he should shoot in New York and do ALL he can to get C.K. in that role. It's perfect for him.

  • CHASE | December 12, 2011 2:43 PMReply

    This article was a cluttered mess.

  • Dave | December 12, 2011 6:02 PM

    It certainly was.

  • Scott Nye | December 12, 2011 2:42 PMReply

    Heath Ledger dropped out of The Tree of Life about a month before his death. Seemed like a bummer at the time, and I'd still love to have seen what Malick could have drawn from Ledger, but getting one of Pitt's best performances of his career is decent compensation.

  • kintaro.west | December 12, 2011 5:00 PM

    I agree with you on that one...Heath's performance would of been grand.....don't you hate playing "What If"? Brad's portrayal was nothing short of brilliant though.....so I would of been happy either way.

  • jmp | December 12, 2011 2:36 PMReply

    Oliver, Cameron Crowe chose Scarlett Johannson over Amy Adams for the female lead in "We Bought A Zoo." Adams didn't turn down the role.

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