I’ve long been fascinated by movies that, for one reason or another, were never filmed or released. What would it have been like if Stanley Kubrick actually got to film Napoleon or The Aryan Papers? What would have happened if Salvador Dali actually did get to make a movie with the Marx Brothers? Could Orson Welles have ever completed any of the films he tried to independently finance? And would Jerry Lewis have been allowed near a camera had The Day the Clown Cried found its way into theaters? In some cases, the films came so tantalizingly close to being shot and released that it could have changed careers.
In the past, these films would end up in a vault somewhere, gathering dust. Luckily, in the era of increased interest in those lost projects, we have a new way to see what the filmmakers intended. Directors are all too happy to discuss the projects that got away from them or just how far from their vision they strayed. Some of the filmmakers just move on, but others talk in almost hushed tones for the camera, seemingly basking in their own genius.
But the documentary makers themselves have a different agenda. They don’t want to discuss the original concept or even agree with the director. They want to show how a film with promise can turn into a forgettable waste of time. While the documentaries succeed at portraying Hollywood’s cut throat style and its constant need for results, the films they’re ostensibly trying to promote are sometimes treated like an afterthought. What’s even stranger is when the films finally resume production and are released, usually to less than stellar reviews.
So, what were these lost projects? Are we truly missing anything or are the films best left as unrealized projects? We’ll look at five recent documentaries about lost films and whether they make a good case for the movies they showcase.
Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four – I’ll start with the “unreleased” film that everyone has seen. A few minutes on Google will net you a copy of the Roger Corman produced Fantastic Four. It’s a film that looks terrible, with shoddy special effects and a script that was seemingly written under duress.
But that could also describe every Fantastic Four film that came after Corman’s ash can copy. All of them feature bad acting, bad writing, and visuals. Worse, they don’t capture the spirit of the comics they were based on. Early Marvel may have been revolutionary, but it was not interested in singular visions. All of its early plots were derived from simplistic pulp fiction designed to appeal to a wide audience. That’s an attitude someone like Roger Corman understood.
The documentary devotes a lot of time to the internal politics affecting Marvel at the time. (Considering the powerhouse it is now, I wonder how many people realize that they declared bankruptcy in the mid ‘90s and were considered to be a joke company.) But the actors also talk about how they felt this was something that would lead to greater things. At the very least they expected for people to see their work.
The final film, of course, would only be released as a bootleg at countless comic book conventions. Today, it looks like something that cosplayers threw together over a weekend as a YouTube parody. Archive footage of Stan Lee featured in the documentary confirms that it was not something Marvel was proud of and pretty much all of the producers talk about how it was meant to fulfill a contract requirement.
But the actors and the director never feel that way. They talk about the effort they put into making these heroes come to life at a time when most comic book movies were still not taken seriously by studios. They do acknowledge the film’s special effects shortcomings, but this film was made with as much care as The Avengers.
What would have happened if this Fantastic Four was released? It couldn’t have killed the comic book series the way Josh Trank’s film did. It more than likely would have been considered in the same vein as the Captain America movies starring J.D. Salinger’s son. It’s a curiosity, but not something damaging to the brand. Its unreleased status is what keeps it in the popular conscious.
And frankly, I hate seeing a completed film shelved like this. Money was spent, directors signed on so there wasn’t a gap on their resume, and actors still created their characters. There would have been nothing wrong with releasing this Fantastic Four, and the documentary shows why.
Jodorowsky’s Dune – Jodorowsky practically invented the cult film. His vision is so unique that the fact films like The Holy Mountain were ever screened in theaters is a miracle. The fact that a major producer wanted to work with him to create a massively budgeted sci-fi epic at a time when sci-fi epics didn’t exist is the sort of miracle that Jodorowsky would have built an avant garde play around.
But it makes more sense than it appears. Dune, like Lord of the Rings, is a deeply religious work that was seemingly created out of thin air. Jodorowsky’s midnight movies were cut from the same cloth. They feel familiar, as though we had heard the biblical-inspired stories before, but they’re presented in such an unusual way that your beliefs have to be re-examined.
El Topo is the same way. It’s the hero’s journey and the plot is incredibly basic. (A gun fighter fights other gunfighters to prove he’s the best and then has to conquer a frontier town? John Wayne called that “Thursday.”) But the visual images and the themes make it seem new and exciting.
Dune wasn’t a passion project of Jodorowsky’s. In the documentary, he said that he does not know why he told anyway this was the next film he wanted to do. But he committed to it, creating an adaptation that was both incredibly different from the novel and incredibly indebted to it.
Most of the documentary focuses on Jodorowsky describing scenes he wanted to include in the film (he’s never interested in describing the overall plot) and talking about the actors he wanted to cast. There are some great stories about him meeting Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. But at the end, he presents himself as the ultimate sage who was able to attract these people as though they weren’t performers, but disciples. The fact the film wasn’t made seems like an illogical conclusion. He made me excited to see it and write whatever check he needed. But, at the end of the day, the film could not exist without proof it would be a box office smash. George Lucas demonstrated that only two years after Jodorowsky pitched his film. Maybe then we wouldn’t have had to suffer through David Lynch’s version.
Jodorowsky’s Dune would have been a phenomenal breakthrough. Even listening to him describe his plans is enough some of the most exciting cinema I’ve seen. The team he assembled would have been perfect for the project. As Jodorowsky points out, these same people later inspired entire genres. Star Wars and Alien would not exist without Jodorowsky showing people the way. And we could have avoided the awful David Lynch adaptation.
Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Doctor Moreau – John Frankenheimer’s Island of Doctor Moreau remains unseen by me. But I’ve seen far too many things like it. Moreau was a bizarre runaway studio project that featured an overpaid Marlon Brando deciding that he’d rather be remembered as a carnival performer than as a master thespian. It was a film more about Hollywood egos than about fantastic monsters.
But Richard Stanley’s vision would have at least come from a personal place. Stanley, at the time (and for all time), was an indie genre filmmaker who blended kitsch sci-fi and horror with deep religious elements. As he shows his preproduction art work (and explains that he based the drawings on the Stations of the Cross), Stanley brags about how close the project was to him and how it had been a dream of his for many years.
The last half of the film is devoted to the production woes of the released version. But I’m not entirely certain that Stanley would have been able to overcome the massive production the film required. He solved his problems using witchcraft (literally) and he’s also the person that selected the locations in Australia to shoot – the same locations that poured rain. He’s the guy that brought Brando aboard and demonstrated he had not learned any lessons from Dust Devil about the needs of studios.
Besides, Dust Devil and Hardware are incredibly risky films that even now are mostly unknown except to a cult audience. And had the film bombed, Stanley would have taken the full blame. Frakenheimer, at least, was able to bounce back with Ronin. Stanley has never really tried to create a feature film after his experience. Who knows how such a sensitive, withdrawn figure would have taken the failure of his dream project?
Stanley’s Island could not have been worse than the released version. But it likely would not have been a major breakthrough. In fact, it would probably have bombed. I do admire Richard Stanley’s ambition with the film. But maybe, like Moreau’s mad experiments, the effort was always doomed.
Lost in La Mancha – In 2018, Amazon is scheduled to release Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Also in 2018, every pop culture website added a story to their editorial calendar about how the final version isn’t worth the 18 year wait.
That feels defeatist, but there’s no other way this story can end. Don Quixote is a project that has been on Gilliam’s radar for almost 20 years and has changed so many times that his released version will feel like a compromise. It doesn’t matter how good it is. It will always be spoken about as a “what could have been” film.
Lost in La Mancha created the legend of Gilliam’s Quixote. It was originally filmed to be a DVD extra in the vein of The Hamster Factor for the 12 Monkeys home video release. But after the film was abandoned, Lost in La Mancha become the only way for anyone to understand what Gilliam had in mind.
Some of the film was shot and Lost in La Mancha documents Gilliam’s attempt to make the film. It would have been a very Gilliamesque film about old traditions colliding with a self-interested modern man. The visuals would have relied on practical effects. The cast would have been a “who’s who” of character actors. But sadly, Gilliam only shot for five days before the film was abandoned.
We do see some of the finished film in the movie, but what’s more interesting is how the documentary turns Gilliam into Quixote. Like Quixote, Gilliam is a dreamer doomed to failure who does not listen to reason. Producers tell Gilliam they can’t make the film as he sees it with the limited funds that they have. And like Quixote, Gilliam eventually “goes home” to normalcy.
Of course we know that he never abandoned the film and, supposedly, it will finally be released on Amazon this year. But it will be massively different from what was originally envisioned. Lost in La Mancha captures a moment that cannot be replicated. And that’s why, in a lot of ways, I think that Quixote belongs unmade.
The documentary suggests that, despite careful planning and passion, somethings everything goes wrong. That was the whole point of the Quixote novel. Seeing a completed version robs the lesson of its purity. Lost in La Mancha is a wonderful standalone film with an important lesson for all filmmakers.
I am an enormous Gilliam fan. I consider the time I made him chuckle by mentioning Sid Sheinberg’s name at a Q & A to be one of the best moments of my fanboy life. I want The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to be the most amazing movie I’ve seen. But I don’t know if the released version will live up to my expectations. Lost in La Mancha shows me why Gilliam would remain so passionate about the project and why he would want to see a finished version in front of an audience. But I remain convinced that the Quixote I want to see will never reach me. Gilliam in 2000 was still hungry and eager to prove himself to an audience. The Gilliam of 2018 has accepted that he’ll never gain mass recognition and his films are only being accepted by a select audience. Don Quixote is something that requires a passion, not a surrender.
Orson Welles – One Man Band – By the end of his life, as pointed out in Jodorowsky’s Dune, Orson Welles had become a joke who was not able to release a completed film. He hacked away at work for hire jobs to make films that, for the most part, were never completed. Those that were (like Chimes at Midnight, The Trial, and F for Fake) were overlooked as too strange. At the same time, critics like Pauline Kael were merciless toward Welles, claiming he did not deserve the credit for reinventing cinema with Citizen Kane. It was not until after Welles’ death that his reputation in America was saved and people began to wonder about all of those films that were never finished.
One Man Band is the closest that we’ll get to see many of those lost works. Some are great – The Other Side of The Wind, which will finally see the light of day in 2018, could very well have started another artistic revolution in Europe as newcomers saw a grand master mocking their technique. Others look downright terrible. There is a sketch comedy show that features silly borscht belt jokes and a very offensive yellow face gag. And that’s not even getting into the clips from Welles’ talk show pilot, where he justifies his new venture to the Muppets.
But One Man Band also captures Welle’s obsession with making a film even when he had no idea how it would evolve. It’s a very impressionistic version of directing where scenes would not come together until the end. The glimpses and flashes we do see in the film show a man who was still obsessed with experimentation and making grand films even though he had no money to make them.
Some of the footage highlighted in the movie is now available. For example, you can find the Q & A documentary about the making of The Trial on YouTube and people have intermittently released clips from Wind many times over the years. But One Man Band is still the only way to see many of these lost works.
I’m not sure how the finished project for most of these would have looked. Welles didn’t seem like he cared either. The most important thing to him was the creative process of filmmaking, which is why he continued no matter how many times Hollywood told him to stop. One Man Band is successful because it captures Welles’ filmmaking spirit.