Book: Tales from Development Hell


There’s a line from David Hughes’s Tales from Development Hell that captures the whole absurd process of failed film development: “This [script] is perfect. Who can we get to rewrite it?”

That’s attributed to a prototypical producer or executive throwing a wrench in the works of a screenplay, but there are more problems as well. Directors have their go-to screenwriters to rework a script to their style. Actors may request rewrites as well, sometimes to suit their screen persona or sometimes just to add a different flavor to the character. An example of that in the book: though not his go-to screenwriter, Dustin Hoffman hired the poet Maya Angelou to rewrite all of his dialogue for Outbreak.

So the old cliché holds true: it’s a miracle that any movies get made. Some movies are in a perpetual state of “almost” — the script is almost there, the funding is almost in place, a star has almost committed — and then “not quite.” That doomed condition is development hell.

And yet as we learned from many books, hell is an interesting place to visit, but it’s not the sort of place you’d want to live. The same is true with development hell.

The first movie covered in the book is all about Smoke and Mirrors, a historical epic about the real-life illusionist Robert-Houdin being sent to Algeria to debunk a tribal leader with divine powers. It was stage magic combined with Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia. A pitch like that has lots of possibility for adventure, swashbuckling, and grand theatrics. There’s the the clash of illusion and magic to explore, as well as the contrast between logic and invention. There’s a problematic colonial aspect to it too that makes the story messy (in the good way, I think), and two males leads that would have been fine foils for each other: the introspective illusionist Robert-Houdin, and Darcy, the dashing Legionnaire with a wooden hand.

Smoke and Mirrors was a hot property when the first draft hit in 1993, but then after years and years of rewrites, recasting (Sean Connery was interested at one point and got some rewrites, then ditto later on with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones), and so on, the film vanished. Almost 20 years after that first draft was the hottest thing around, Lee and Janet Scott Batchler still think the movie may yet be made.

The fitting title of that first chapter: “Disillusioned.”

As apt as “Disillusioned” is, I’m also reminded of the phrase at the entryway to hell in Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” It’s the credo of the screenwriter in the worst case scenario.

Hughes lays out how bad it can get in his preface. The original screenplay writer can be replaced. If not, the studio people give their notes, the writer rewrites, the studio gives more notes, the writer rewrites (or is replaced), the director and stars give more notes, repeat. I’m reminded of a shirt that gets thrown in the wash repeatedly and wrung out. Eventually the shirt loses its color, it gets torn, and it’s something that’s not worth wearing. In those worst case scenarios, the life and heart of a screenplay is extracted or replaced with something mechanical.

Earlier in the week we mentioned a producer note for an unmade Sandman movie in which Morpheus is summoned and captured by teens at a slumber party. Another odd producer note can be found in the chapter chronicling a failed Planet of the Apes revamp called Return of the Planet of the Apes. Rather than going into the future, scientists travel back to the prehistoric past to find a cure for a plague in the present. During a script meeting, Fox exec Dylan Sellers had the following suggestion:

What if our main guy finds himself in Ape land, and the Apes are trying to play a game like baseball, but they’re missing one element, like the pitcher or something. And when our guy comes along, he knows what they’re missing, and he shows them, and they all start playing.

A lot of execs like to leave their mark on a project, but often times it resembles what animals do to designate territory. (A little inside baseball that Hughes mentions in a footnote: many screenwriters intentionally include scenes or moments that don’t work. These are sacrificial lambs for coverage writers to identify so execs feel like they’ve contributed something useful.)

Reading through Tales from Development Hell, I was struck by a certain lack of imagination and adventure from major film producers and studios. So many of the projects that never got made sounded exciting and original, but exciting and original are never quite sure things at the box office. Robert-Houdin in the desert is not a sure thing. Then again, neither is a sci-fi movie like ISOBAR (The Thing/Alien on a futuristic underground bullet train) despite attracting people like Ridley Scott, Sylvester Stallone, and H.R. Giger.

Neil Gaiman (who did his fair share of film journalism well before his Black Orchid and Sandman days) has a telling quote from a BBC interview that’s included in the book:

You wind up in development with people trying to make things more like things they know, because that is a defensible position: you will probably not get fired for it. Unfortunately, that’s why you wind up with films that look like other films.

And so you move toward convention and cliché: the same story structures, the same sorts of characters (not archetypes, but stock characters), the same kind of story trajectory, and the same kind of predictability, like sunrise in the east or sunset in the west. The big difference, of course, is that sunrises and sunsets can still inspire awe; unoriginal art or entertainment only inspires indifference.

This probably sounds terribly glum to think in these terms — the death of creativity, the hobbling of dreams, imagination molded into a disposable commodity — but there’s something entertaining and enlightening about it all. The combination of Hughes’s research and his dry wit make Tales from Development Hell readable yet not demoralizing.

There’s a sort of sense of wonder when it comes to unmade movies. You’re allowed to indulge in games of “What if…” If imagination was destroyed by the realities of filmmaking (both as a business and as a series of technical challenges), you are at least able to build the unmade movie in your head. And, to be honest, maybe the version of Lord of the Rings starring The Beatles in your mind would be better than what would have actually been made. Counterfactual history (the alternate world) overcomes the real world — dead dreams live.

Maybe the best bits of comedy are in the book’s final chapter in which Hughes discusses his own trips through development hell. Hughes has written/co-written 10 screenplays, none of which have been produced. His diverse titles include T.J. Hooker: The Movie (yes, that T.J. Hooker), an ambitious Peter Greengrass TV project called Airborne, and a great-sounding original film called After the Gods. When discussing his work on the fourth Exorcist film, Hughes writes that Morgan Creek is “the company behind numerous good films, and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.”

There is laughter in hell, and besides, it’s just projects that are trapped in hell, not the writers themselves. (Private hells still exist for writers, but those are thankfully not subject to studio notes.)

One of Hughes’s other books is called The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to it if it’s similar to Tales from Development Hell. Hughes makes an entertaining guide through hell, and there’s even a dignity to his 0/10 record as a screenwriter. In an odd way, Hughes is part Virgil and part Sisyphus. Maybe only someone like that could have pulled off the book so well. Hell’s a vast place, of course, and part of me wonders whak new spheres we’ll see in an updated edition.

I came out of Development Hell thinking about good movies that get made. Somehow, despite it all, we get something that isn’t just the old tales and the familiar characters. Sometimes, we’ll still see a movie that will affect us deeply and make us remember why we fell in love with movies in the first place.

Maybe that’s why screenwriters persist in the face of insurmountable odds. When it’s not just making a product, it’s a labor of love with the potential to to remind others of their ability to love.

We have found it: a hope in hell.

Tales from Hell:

Lord of the Rings starring The Beatles

Darren Aronofsky’s Batman: Year One

Paul Verhoeven’s Crusade starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

Sandman the Movie

Hubert Vigilla
Brooklyn-based fiction writer, film critic, and long-time editor and contributor for Flixist. A booster of all things passionate and idiosyncratic.