One attractive quality of documentaries is that you can seek out the films on subjects that interest you. This being Plot and Theme, a blog on film, I am often drawn to documentaries about film making. Many different aspects of film making interest me, but a subgenre has emerged in force over the last few years: the stories of films that fail to get made. Documentaries focusing on the strife behind camera have existed for decades, perhaps most notably in Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991), which details the struggles behind the making of Apocalypse Now. Similar docs portray the difficulty in making such films as Citizen Kane, Fitzcarraldo, and even The Boondocks Saints. But, at the end of the days, these films all got made according to the director’s vision, however compromised. The documentaries I am interested in showcase a different kind of film: ones that don’t make it to completion whatsoever.
Four films are considered in this piece, and I will place them on a continuum of least completed to most completed. These documentaries (and the films which are their subjects) are: Jodorowsky’s Dune (on, umm, Jodorowsky’s Dune adaptation . . . they really went on-the-nose with that title, eh?), The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? on Tim Burton’s Superman film during the late ‘90s, Lost in La Mancha on Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote film, and finally Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s “Island of Dr. Moreau”, which makes me want to rethink my Jodorowsky joke from before. For you visual learners, these films sit on the continuum in the order as I have listed them:
Moving from least complete to most complete, we’ll look at all four of these “Failed Film” documentaries. We’ll introduce their respective subjects and the relevant stories they are trying to tell. Then, we’ll detail the techniques these films use to depict the unrealized promise of the films which they are documenting. And finally, we’ll wrap it all up by discussing the elements of these films which make them so provocative.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)
If you are unfamiliar with Alejandro Jodorowsky and his oeuvre, you’re in for a nice little rabbit-hole here. The Chilean filmmaker, playwright, and comic book creator is well-known in the cult film community for his surrealist films like El Topo and The Holy Mountain. This documentary, directed by Frank Pavich, tells the story of Jodorowsky’s attempt to adapt Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic novel Dune into a major motion picture in the 1970s. Though not even a single frame of the film was ever shot, the work done on this hypothetical Dune would influence science fiction films for decades to come.
Pavich’s film details Jodorowsky’s extensive pre-production efforts through both interviews and still-frames of various production materials, a la Ken Burns. These include extensive storyboards drawn by the French graphic novel artist Mœbius, artistic design by Dan O’Bannon and H.R. Giger of Alien fame, and casting decisions which range from Salvador Dali to Orson Welles (one was bribed with the promise of being known as “the highest-paid actor in Hollywood”; the other with his favorite chef – no bonus points for guessing which is which). Interviews with the film makers describe the creative energy surrounding the project, but there are also interviews with creators who were not involved with the film but were aware of its notoriety in one form or another. One of those people is Richard Stanley, who will be featured in the final film of this piece – so we’ve got some interesting overlap here.
Throughout the film, the interviews with Jodorowsky are most telling. He alternates between heavily-accented English and Spanish seemingly without regard for which language is most appropriate. For one sequence, he takes a break to play with his cat for an extended period of time. But, throughout the film, his vision is pellucid: he wanted to make a transcendent film which would provide the audience the soul-searching experience of an acid trip, just without the actual acid. Everything about the film was chosen with this aesthetic in mind, and it promised to be a unique piece of cinema.
But it was not to be. Despite all the pre-production that Jodorowsky had organized, producers got spooked by his madcap vision for the film, and pulled the plug. To hear the director and assorted creatives talk about it, this was dumb Hollywood money failing to understand the importance of what they were trying to create. Jodorowsky himself remarks that it was, “the most important film in the history of cinema. We will change the world!”
Pavich certainly makes the case that Jodorowsky is not far off. The film culminates by showing how all of the creative efforts that went into Dune blossomed elsewhere in the world of cinema. The heads-up display from The Terminator is apparent in the storyboards of Mœbius. The psychosexual aesthetic of the Alien finds its roots in H.R. Giger’s designs of the Harkonnen, which would also pop up decades later in the spiritual successor Prometheus. In addition, the director of Alien Dan O’Bannon was first introduced to the world of film making through Jodorowsky. Ultimately, we receive only this pro-creator side of the store from Pavich. No executives, producers, or studio people are interviewed in the film. Hence, while the conclusion forwarded by the film should be taken with a grain of salt, one cannot reach the closing credits without feeling like the world was deprived of a masterpiece.
The Death of “Superman Lives”: What Happened? (2015)
This film, directed by Jon Schnepp, is the most recent entry into the this documentary genre. Its subject is an attempt by Warner Brothers in the late 1990s to reboot the Superman franchise, which started as “Superman Reborn” but eventually morphed into “Superman Lives”. Schnepp discusses the circumstances that led to the development of this film – from acquiring the movie rights, to writing various scripts and acquiring a director, and ultimately how the higher-ups at Warner Brothers pulled the plug on the project. The film tells the majority of this story through interviews with the major players involved, with interviews from both the creative side and the producer side, but there is also some outstanding archival test footage and pre-production concept art dispersed throughout.
The story unfolds in a logical manner, beginning first with the acquisition of the rights to the Superman character by Jon Peters at Warner Brothers. Peters is likely worthy of a documentary all his own. He is a fascinating character, who was once Barbara Streisand’s hairdresser before becoming a big Hollywood producer. His credits include Caddyshack, Clue, Rain Man, Batman(1989), and many others. He claims (in the film) to have been in 500 fights, and would routinely show off his new jiu-jitsu moves on crewmembers. His interview is dispersed throughout the film, as he is perhaps the only person capable of telling the entire story, albeit from his particularly odd worldview.
An initial script with the title of “Superman Reborn” was bounced around, and eventually Kevin Smith managed to get into the room and convince the higher-ups at Warner Brothers that he could do a better job (though not the best job – he thought that was reserved for the comics people writing Superman books at the time). Smith, fresh off of writing and directing Chasing Amy, re-wrote the script entirely and really went nuts throwing in any and all characters from the comics that he wanted (e.g., Braniac, Lex Luthor, Cyborg Superman, Doomsday). Peters liked Smith’s script well enough, though applied strange constraints on account of his misunderstanding of the character or various random whims. When Tim Burton was attached to direct, he brought his own script people, and much of Smith’s version was removed when a second version was written by Wesley Strick.
Burton brought aboard Nicolas Cage, avowed Superman fan, and pre-production went ahead full-throttle. The suit was re-imagined, and there is some astounding archival footage of the special effects team working through different versions. There is also test footage of Nicolas Cage wearing the suit and discussing it with Tim Burton, all of which is fascinating. Jon Schnepp also talks to concept artists who were busy designing Krypton, the Skull Ship, and all sorts of wonderful monsters which would make up “The Menagerie”, some of which you can see reproduced below.
But, the familiar theme of studio involvement rears its head again, and the edges begin to fray. First, Burton is pressured into firing his writer and hiring another to write a third version of the screenplay. There’s minor outcry from passionate fans who react poorly to some leaked stills of Cage in the costume, and we start to see a real case of “too many cooks” in the Superman movie. Once the executives at Warner Brothers asked for a budget calculation and realized that the film was projected to cost nearly $200 million (with another $100 million in marketing), a knee-jerk contraction of the budget was followed by a complete abandoning of the project.
From a stylistic standpoint, director Jon Schnepp incites the imaginations of the audience by placing the audio from the interviews on top of the relevant concept art, almost re-constructing the film in our minds. He also captures how the production seems to spiral out of control, and plays many of the interviewees against each other with various stories, which leads to some solid comedic moments. In fact, the weakest moments of the film are when Schnepp abandons these techniques and merely sits beside his subject. Were the entire film comprised of this style of interview, I fear it would have been too boring. But this is kept to a minimum, and the film is otherwise a resounding recreation of the stories surrounding this failed cinematic venture.
Many of the same criticisms heard from the creatives in Jodorowsky’s Dune are echoed here in What Happened?, namely that the studio executives lacked vision and were a little gun-shy after a string of recent failures. Another peculiar similarity between these films is that while their subjects were aborted before shooting even a single frame of real footage, films on the underlying intellectual properties were made in less than a decade – just not by the original creators. This provides the viewer with a strange anti-context, an invitation to look at how someone else tackled the respective stories, and definitely encourages us to wonder at the superiority of the unfinished projects (it doesn’t help that David Lynch’s Dune and Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns were both very poor films). But absent an actual Superman Lives film, we are left only to wonder at what could have been with assistance from Schnepp’s reconstruction of the events surrounding its attempted creation.
Lost In La Mancha (2002)
Moving along the continuum, we get to our first documentary where the subject film actually began primary shooting: Lost in La Mancha. This film began life as a behind-the-scenes making-of featurette on Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote before blossoming into a full feature after Gilliam’s film descended into development hell. Written and directed by the team of Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, this film has a more candid feel that our previous examples, as the majority of the footage was shot on-set and surrounding the actual production – and not pieced together from isolated interviews decades later. Thus, the viewer adopts the role of the fly-on-the-wall of a troubled production, and is privy to the initial high expectations and excitement, the despondence of abject failure, and everything in between.
Narrated by Jeff Bridges, Lost in La Mancha begins much like our previous documentaries by establishing all the pieces of the production. Terry Gilliam had been working on an adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote for nearly a decade at this point, and had injected some of his peculiarity into the story. Finding the entirety of Cervantes’ masterwork too daunting to adapt, Gilliam and his writing partner Tony Grisoni borrowed a concept from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and added an out-of-time character to the story. Toby Grisoni, a 21st century advertising executive (played by Johnny Depp) is thrown back in time to the 17th century and confused for Sancho Panza by Don Quixote (played by French actor Jean Rochefort, who learned English for the part). The female lead and love interest of Toby to be played by Vanessa Paradis.
The resulting story combines the classic Don Quixote themes exploring the intricacies of truth, justice, and the interplay between reality and fantasy with a pointed satire of modern life. For those familiar with the work of Terry Gilliam, this thematic structure espouses his worldview almost perfectly. In the film, he remarks that as he has gotten older (he was 61 at this time), he came to understand Don Quixote on a more personal level. He empathized with a man who yearns to leave his mark on the world with one last series of adventures, a motivation that Gilliam admits to sharing vis-à-vis the creation of this film. It takes very little imagination to craft a masterpiece for Gilliam out of this thematic material and subject matter, and hence the excitement that bubbles to the surface is understandable.
Unfortunately, it was not to be – although in this case it was less due to abandonment from the producers and financial backers and more due to a series of misfortunes and the legal entanglements that would result from them. Lost in La Mancha, more than any of the other films, goes beyond telling us what went wrong and actually shows us. Of course, Fulton and Pepe had the advantage of actually being on set during the whole process, but they should be commended for making certain that they do not squander that advantage. Hence, we actually experience the poor acoustics in the “soundstage” (actually a warehouse) as Gilliam clucks his tongue and the echo reverberates. We see the grimace on Jean Rochefort’s face as he sits on the horse, obviously in extreme pain. And we feel the frustration mount as his prognosis extends from “out for a week” to “out for 10 days” to “double-herniated disc; out another month”.
As the calamities pile up, the production bogs down in insurance claims and investor unhappiness. No one is certain whose job it is to make the call to continue, place the production on hiatus, or close it down altogether. Eventually, everything just sort of dissipates into the Spanish countryside as the film becomes less and less of a reality. An insurance claim of up to $15 million was reportedly awarded to the investors of the film (which had a $32.1 million budget), and the rights to the story went to the investment company. Gilliam has since re-acquired the rights, and has attempted to revive production multiple times, up to and including one set for this year. Following in the vein of the attempt dramatized by Lost in La Mancha, production was halted when the actor chosen to play Quixote, Jon Hurt, was diagnosed with cancer.
Unlike our previous films, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote cannot be said to have been doomed by studio interference or gutless producers. At worst, one can accuse the producers and investors of failing to properly organize and fund the film correctly, thereby resulting in a lot of cut corners which allowed problems to snowball out of control. Far more impactful were the unfortunate accidents which befell the production. Losing equipment and time to a flooding of your location is difficult to overcome, but certainly possible. Multiple health issues afflicting your lead actor is another issue entirely. Combined with other nagging issues like poor soundstages, unrehearsed extras, and military testing ranges operating adjacent to your shoot, it was just too much.
Still, there are moments in Lost in La Mancha which provide brilliant glimpses into the film that could have been – much like the storyboards and concept art in Jodorowsky’s Dune or the test footage in The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?. In this case, they take the form of actual footage that would have been in the finished product, and Terry Gilliam’s exuberance upon capturing those isolated moments. In particular, the moment where the aspect ratio changes to the widescreen establishing shot of Quixote on his horse is breathtaking, almost as if it transports us to another dimension where this film actually happened, however briefly. Again we are left to marvel at the heights that the film could have reached, and lament the roadblocks that shackled it.
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s “Island of Dr. Moreau” (2014)
There are two arguments against the inclusion of Lost Soul into the same “failed films” category of the other documentaries. First, the subject film, “The Island of Dr. Moreau” was completed in full, though it certainly bears little resemblance to director Richard Stanley’s original vision. Further, one could argue that the true subject of this documentary is the director himself – and not the film that was taken from him. Lost Soul begins talking about Stanley, his upbringing, and the career arc that led to him directing “The Island of Dr. Moreau”. And, even when Stanley is removed from the project, his presence is still felt on set in a real “stranger than fiction” turn of events.
Directed by David Gregory, Lost Soul tells the story of the oddball wunderkind director Richard Stanley, who had moderate success in the early nineties with the genre films Hardware and Dust Devil. Those of you paying particularly close attention may recall Stanley from Jodorowsky’s Dune, as he was one of the directors interviewed for that film. Stanley had a passion for the H.G. Wells story The Island of Dr. Moreau, and had a particularly grotesque vision that differentiated itself from previous adaptations in interesting ways. For instance, while previous adaptations climaxed with the animal-people overthrowing the Doctor, in H.G. Wells’ story this is only the half-way point! From here, the hybrids struggle to discover the best way to govern their new society, and intriguing conflicts begin to emerge, and the film becomes a meditation on the essence of man and his relationship with nature.
With these concepts in mind, Stanley convinced New Line Cinema to greenlight the project and started on pre-production. Special effects mastermind Stan Winston set to designing the prosthetics for the creatures, and Stanley acquired the acting talent of James Woods, Bruce Willis, and Marlon Brando. Of course, as its inclusion in this piece may suggest, things started to go wrong immediately. First, Stanley got word that New Line Cinema was seeking to replace him with Roman Polanksi. To answer this challenge, Stanley scheduled a meeting to get Brando in his corner and employed an unusual additional tactic: witchcraft. Seriously.
Stanley’s mother was an anthropologist who studied the religious traditions of various African cultures, so he was raised with a natural wanderlust and an appreciation for magic and tribal rites. He speaks matter-of-factly about these kinds of things, with a rapid staccato that spews a stream-of-consciousness that seems to always know where it is going, as if through some kind of bizarre forethought. His intelligence shines through – but does so with his queer brand of insanity.
The witchcraft and Stanley’s intelligence must have worked, because Brando was enamored with the director and the knowledge he had accumulated on the project. But this victory was short-lived. Bruce Willis and Demi Moore went through a prickly divorce, prompting Willis to be removed from the project. James Woods also left the project. They were replaced by David Thewlis and Val Kilmer, fresh off his stint as Batman. Kilmer promptly demanded 40% fewer shooting days, and started to throw his weight around the production. Meanwhile, Brando’s daughter Cheyenne committed suicide and left the actor crestfallen, delaying his appearance on set.
On set, the tumult was even more evident. Stanley chose to shoot in Cairns, North Queensland, Australia, and quickly learned that Val Kilmer was going to be problematic. Suffice to say, the star does not come off well in Gregory’s film – in fact he seems like a petulant child drunk on his own stardom. He objects to the amount of screen time given to other characters, questions Stanley’s directorial decisions, and intimidates his fellow actors at nearly every turn. Coupled with other on-set issues, Stanley was fired on the third day of shooting, and told to catch a plane back to California. Despite leaving the set, Stanley did not arrive in Los Angeles when the plane landed.
Stanley was replaced by the veteran director John Frankenheimer, who had a history of rescuing foundering films (or at least completing them). Production abated for a week while Stanley’s screenplay was altered by Ron Hutchinson, a frequent collaborator of Frankenheimer’s. When shooting continued, the new director was plagued by many of the afflictions of the former one. Val Kilmer was still uncontrollable, weather still ruined days of shooting, and the delays piled up. Many of the cast and crew report that the change in director made very little difference, furthering the idea that while replacing Stanley may have been imperative, it was not particularly effective.
The stories that emerge from this troubled production are legendary. Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer delay shooting by refusing to be the first to emerge from their respective trailers. Brando falls in love with a diminutive man from South America and insists that he play a larger role in the film (this was the inspiration for “Mini-Me” in the Austin Powers films). Richard Stanley is discovered camping in the jungles of North Queensland and sneaks on set as an extra wearing a bulldog mask. All of these things, and many more, happened on set, and are well-documented by Gregory’s film. More than any of the films in this particular subgenre, Lost Soul captures the mania of film-making – and yet paradoxically documents the one film that actually completed its production.
Still, at the end of Lost Soul we are left with that same gnawing feeling that we have been robbed of a seminal film. The producers are more directly positioned in this film than in the others, and along the way their decisions seem reasonable. But, when one of them laments that were Richard Stanley given $8 million and complete control over cast and crew, a completely different film would have resulted. As a viewer, one is encouraged to answer, “Well, then why didn’t you do that!?!”.
All four films we have discussed here leave the viewer with a whetted appetite. Their subjects are shown as aborted masterpieces never given the chance to breathe. Hence, it is natural to conceive of these films achieving the best-case scenario. Jodorowsky’s version of Dune is trend-setting and transcendent in the realm of science fiction, a spiritual follow-up to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Superman Lives ushers in the superhero craze years before X-Men and Spiderman. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a pitch-perfect mixture of Brazil and Mad Men, commenting on the fragility of legacy and the danger of fantasy in all its forms while also sending up modern consumerism. And not only does Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr. Moreau offer a unique perspective on humanity and all its savageness, it launches the mainstream career of a new voice in the realm of genre film making.
Of course, none of these things came to pass. This unique subgenre of documentary is an intriguing look at such “windbound films”: the films made subjects by these documentaries are like ships set to sail across a vast sea, only to remain forever mired in the harbor, beset against by the contrary gales of their day. Much care was made to ensure their safe passage: provisions collected, positions manned, and courses marked. But for all the planning, the destination is never a certainty. And though these films lament at the lost opportunities, they also showcase the value of the attempt and how even failure can alter the course of the world.