5 Famous Filmmakers Whose Dream Projects Were Disasters
Hollywood is full of stories about writers, actors, and directors struggling with projects that take forever to get produced but are finally released to critical and commercial success -- films like Garden State, Schindler's List, and Hellboy II: The Golden Army. But not every filmmaker's passion project turns out to be Star Wars. More often than not, it's The Chronicles of Riddick, and everyone goes home broke and depressed.
L. Ron Hubbard decided that Battlefield Earth was going to be made into a movie pretty much the instant he finished writing it, which was news to anyone who actually took the time to read all 1,000 vaingloriously self-indulgent pages. So, he immediately whipped up some screenplay drafts, had copies of the novel sent to John Travolta, and had the Church of Scientology's in-house literary agency sell the movie rights to the first production company that made them an offer. A screenwriter and producer were hired, a giant inflatable alien was stationed on Hollywood Boulevard to try to raise money for the movie, and the project caved in on itself like a Peruvian mine, because precisely no one in Hollywood was interested in turning this ridiculous book into a movie. Except for John Travolta.
"It's like Star Wars, only on a much less challenging reading level!"
At that point in the 1980s, Travolta had about as much industry clout as Dean Cain's butler, so he spent the next decade clinging to Battlefield Earth like a seat cushion in a transatlantic plane crash. As soon as Pulp Fiction came around and gave him some of his A-list juice back, Travolta thrust the full force of his considerable chin-butt into fierce negotiations for a Battlefield Earth movie. That was in 1995. It still took five more years for the movie to finally come out, because no production company wanted to touch it -- they felt it was too mired in Scientology, a notion they probably got from the countless passages in the novel condemning the field of psychology as a long-dead cult, the fact that the evil aliens are called Psychlos and Catrists, and the fact that John Travolta had been Scientology's most visible and vocal supporter right up until Tom Cruise was lured into pledging himself to the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard by Mimi Rogers' giant boobs. There was also the lingering problem that the story was the stupidest fucking thing ever written, an affliction John Travolta seems to be incapable of diagnosing.
Travolta didn't give up, though, and insisted that the movie was going to be better than Star Wars, which back in the '90s was still a high-enough bar that you couldn't jump straight over it with a rusty tricycle and a ramp of old refrigerator boxes. He finally found a willing partner in Franchise Pictures, a production company headed by a nightclub-owning swindle merchant who unsurprisingly wound up embezzling $30 million of the film's budget, and in July of 2000, Battlefield Earth was unleashed on a world that wanted absolutely no part of it.
Pictured: the exit row of every theater showing Battlefield Earth.
The entire movie is filmed in skewed-angle shots like a two-hour episode of Batman, the dialogue sounds like someone trying to write a ransom note using nothing but fortune cookie messages, and John Travolta seems to be doing an impression of a terrible John Travolta performance. Also, Forest Whitaker is in it, and Forest Whitaker should know better.
Both of these men have received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor.
Battlefield Earth bombed like shrapnel from an unholy meteor, incinerating the proposed plans for a sequel alongside John Travolta's credibility as a maker of sound financial decisions.
The Sisyphean task of adapting Frank Herbert's Dune into a movie began in 1971, back when science fiction still looked like this:
Over the next 13 years, Dune changed hands in the wake of collapsed ruin so many times, it was like the goddamned monkey's paw. First, the people responsible for the Planet of the Apes sequels tried to get Dune off the ground with two different directors and two different screenwriters, but the head of the production studio wisely died before the project went anywhere, and the rights were picked up by another company.
"The task of bringing my perfectly sculpted hair to the silver screen must pass to another."
The second company meant to turn it into a 10-hour miniseries starring Salvador Dali, Mick Jagger, and Herve Villechaize and featuring a soundtrack by Pink Floyd. The ticket stub to see this movie would've been a tab of LSD. Had it been made, this version of Dune would've been the most well-baited trap of all time -- people would've totally paid to see Tattoo and Mick Jagger prance around a cosmic desert and wouldn't have discovered that the movie was 10 hours long until it was too late. That's like going to the circus and suddenly realizing that all of the clowns are stolen children and all of the ushers have had their mouths sewn shut.
And in order to escape, you have to battle Sting to the death.
When that production of Dune eventually ran out of money, it changed hands yet again, this time falling to legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis, who hired Ridley Scott to direct. Scott tried three times to turn Dune into something both filmable and watchable, but then quit to go make Blade Runner, and the world is a better place for his decision. However, judging by Blade Runner's seven versions, it does not appear as though Scott had any firmer grasp of what the hell was going on in that movie.
In his defense, I don't think anyone was meant to decipher the sequence wherein Sting tortures a man
with a cat in an electric body sling.
Finally, the producers saw The Elephant Man and inexplicably decided that David Lynch would be the perfect person to direct Dune. Apparently they thought the Elephant Man was from space. Anyway, Lynch personally wrote five drafts of the script before they finally started filming, resulting in one of the most sprawling productions in film history -- there were about 80 sets built for Dune, and it had a working crew of nearly 2,000 people. It also had Sting, whom I think just showed up in clothes he brought from home. And Sean Young, who probably showed up in clothes she stole from Sting's garbage. And a young, moon-faced Kyle MacLachlan, who disappeared into his role as the prince of the cosmos so completely that, to this day, nobody has any idea who he is.
He arguably prefers it that way.
Dune finally premiered in theaters in 1984 and immediately bored audiences into weeping, blubbery depression. As Cyriaque once pointed out, David Lynch refuses to have his name attached to certain cuts of the film, because many of the final decisions were taken completely out of his hands and he was so thoroughly bummed with how they turned out that he didn't want to be associated with them. Judging by his filmography, if Lynch had gotten his way, Dune would've been utterly indecipherable as opposed to merely confusing.
Not even Patrick Stewart knows what's going on, and he's usually hip-deep in this bullshit.
Occasionally-esteemed director Barry Levinson really wanted Toys to be his first movie, because he was apparently engaged in some Andy Kaufman meta joke designed to euthanize his own career before it ever had a chance to live. He wrote it back in 1979, but 20th Century Fox thought Toys was way too risky, because it is full of visual gags and jokes seemingly intended for children, yet is aimed directly at adults as a larger commentary on war and pacifism. So despite the fact that they'd already invested money in the project, Fox decided to sit on it for another 10 years, presumably hoping the script would make more sense the longer they thought about it. At one point they almost sold the movie to another production company, so I guess their decade of meditation never really crossed that "sense-making" threshold.
"What ... what is this? We can't show this to people, they'll be killed."
Levinson had to spend the 1980s directing a bunch of other movies before anyone would trust him to turn the howling stack of moonman gibberish that was the Toys screenplay into something people would pay money to go see. After he coughed up Diner, Good Morning, Vietnam, and Rain Man, Fox said, "We still have no idea what shrieking Mesopotamian deity commanded Barry to write Toys, but we guess he knows what he's doing" and gave him $43 million to finally make his dreams come true.
One of which was to see Robin Williams drive a bumper car to a funeral.
The finished film, released in 1992, features Michael Gambon as a militaristic toy developer who wants to make human-murdering toys for the military, LL Cool J in an early king-making role as Robin Williams' improbable cousin, and Joan Cusack as Williams' secretly robotic sister. That sentence sounds like someone spilled Wite-Out in a TV Guide and put all the surviving words together in a straight line. To try to convince people to watch this monster, Fox unveiled a baffling marketing campaign that included a shitty Sega game, full-page ads in children's comic books, and one of the worst theatrical trailers ever created. Toys is the type of film Roald Dahl and Michael Jackson would've made together and is remarkably similar to the film Michael Jackson did make.
"You know what? Let's not pursue this line of thought any further."
To the surprise of absolutely no one, Toys didn't manage to connect with anyone and quickly vanished from theaters like a 19th century magician. Levinson has made a bit of a career of putting Dustin Hoffman into uncomfortable situations (he stuffs him into a metal dungeon at the bottom of the ocean with Sharon Stone and Sam Jackson in Sphere and forces him to pretend to be related to Tom Cruise in Rain Man), so I'm curious why he didn't ask Hoffman to be in this picture. Maybe he did and Hoffman declined. He and Robin Williams probably had a good laugh about it while they were making Hook.
"Thank God I dodged that bullet!"
Speaking of dressing respectable actors up like assholes, Roman Polanski originally wrote the script for Pirates right after he finished work on Chinatown, with the idea that Jack Nicholson would be the star. Nicholson approached the project with his usual negotiation tactic, which was to demand all of the money in the known universe while stabbing his agent in the eyes with toothpicks, so Polanski was forced to rethink his casting decision, which is a phrase that inexplicably translated to "He hired Walter Matthau instead." Production had to be put on hold, however, when Polanski was forced to flee the United States to escape prosecution for having sex with a 13-year-old girl, robbing us of his pirate masterpiece.
"Shit, the cops are here! C'mon, Walt!"
After spending several years scaring up some financial support, Polanski resumed production of the movie in Tunisia, which looks just like the Caribbean, only much less expensive. Polanski needed that extra money to build an $8 million pirate galleon just for the film, which is confusing considering that pirate galleons probably didn't cost that much to make back in pirate times, and I assumed shipbuilding techniques would have improved over the subsequent 300 years. But he needed to construct a believable set for his important film, which features Walter Matthau drinking pee and threatening to kill and eat his first mate.
"I'm not joking, I'm literally going to tear your head off and chew the marrow from your bones like a desperate, dying wolverine."
Pirates was finally released in 1986, 12 years after Polanski first started working on it. The film was almost universally hated, though it did manage to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Makeup, a distinction it shares with Bad Grandpa, Harry and the Hendersons, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and The Nutty Professor, which was justly nominated for Eddie Murphy's dazzling fat suit (his later effort Norbit went surprisingly unrecognized by the Academy, although I assume Murphy was wearing the exact same fat suit). Despite the heartbreaking failure of a movie he had spent over a decade of his life working on, Polanski still found time to heroically have sex with another teenager, because the man apparently just cannot help himself.
"Nobody saw that coming? Man. This telescope is a piece of shit."
Howard the Duck
George Lucas galloped into the 1980s on a stallion made of diamonds and the tears of lesser men. After pummeling into submission everyone who ever told him his ideas were "terrible" and "unprofitable," Lucas had Hollywood literally holding its breath to see what he would come up with next. What new gilded nugget of merchandisable inspiration would erupt from his bearded skull like an oblong T-shirt cannon?
After birthing juggernauts like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, anything was possible. When George stepped down as president of Lucasfilm in 1984 to focus on producing, the imagination peddlers of the world blasted holes in both ends of their underpants in violent, unrestrained anticipation. This was going to be a whole new era of moviemaking -- now that he was no longer responsible for an entire company, Lucas was completely free to weave the tapestry of his dreams, which apparently began with the invention of fried milkshake balls and the decision that he would eat nothing else to sustain his life force.
Studio heads were prepared to battle each other on nitro cycles in Thunderdome just to see what Lucas was going to bring to the table. And Howard the Duck was what he came up with. Universal jumped on the project the instant it was announced, which makes me 100 percent certain that they didn't actually read any of Lucas' proposal. Either that, or the proposal was simply the words "Howard the Duck" overlaying a picture of George Lucas jumping rope with a braided string of $100 bills.
"'More adventure than humanly possible'? Oh, because he's a duck! Haha, that's great!
Give us some more of that magic, Mr. Lucas!"
Despite the initial idea being that the film would be animated (because it is about the intergalactic adventures of a humanoid duck), Lucas insisted that the movie could be done live action, with dazzling special effects and creature construction from the same group of people who handled Star Wars and Indiana Jones. This normally would've been music to a producer's ears, but the film in question was about a perpetually horny giant duck from space.
There's no way that duck isn't about to start masturbating.
You see, despite its PG rating, Howard the Duck is weirdly sexual, with Lea Thompson being forced to make innuendo-laced conversation with a 2-foot-tall duck who is so stammeringly awkward about her obvious interest in him that I assume his fully erect duck penis must be an antlered, bone-crushing homunculus of arcane magic, and he dare not awaken it from its slumber. The movie also features Tim Robbins as a hang-gliding bumblefudge and Jeffrey Jones as an odious, horrifying alien, which must have been the most powerful challenge of his acting career. It's like someone deliberately set out to make the worst George Lucas movie they could possibly think of as a goof, only George Lucas actually made it.
He is truly a master storyteller.
The wallet-immolating failure of Howard the Duck may come as less of a surprise to us now, in the year 2014, because Lucas famously has the self-awareness of reheated spaghetti. But back in the golden 1980s, Howard the Duck's cataclysmic release was the first terrifying sign that the Bearded One might not actually have any idea what the fuck he is doing.