Why are so many movies so terrible? Why does it so often seem as though Hollywood stars and power players are locked in an unholy struggle to suck every last bit of coolness and genuine fun out of your favorite stories?
You probably don't want to know. The real knowledge of Hollywood's inner workings is not for ordinary mortals, and to gaze up on it is to go mad. Your eyes are not meant to encompass such ugliness. And so on. But if you really do want to understand what seems to go wrong so often, then you can get some terrific insights by reading the book Tales from Development Hell by David Hughes. Just don't blame me when you try to stab your own eyes out with a paper clip.
There's a certain grim satisfaction in reading tales of futility over and over again. And if you like to experience the suffering of creative people vicariously, then Tales from Development Hell will probably give you a sadistic buzz. But even if you get off on schadenfreude, reading over and over again about the development process may leave you with an unquenchable sense of loathing and bitterness. Which is probably what it feels like to live in Los Angeles.
We already ran an excerpt from this book last week, dealing with the horrific 900-car pileup that was the attempt to make a Total Recall sequel. Tons of scripts, loads of ideas, and increasingly overcomplicated attempts to channel the "is it real or just a dream" mindfuck from the first movie — and all of it crashing against Arnold Schwarzenegger's ego and the whims of various directors. The whole book is like that, pretty much.
Actually, it's worth buying just for the chapter on Neil Gaiman's Sandman, especially if you're a fan of the graphic novels. Reading about the various attempts to convert the comics into a blockbuster 90-minute movie will probably make you weep — and then it gets worse. I can't really summarize the plots of the various scripts here, but the synopses get howlingly funny and awful. There were retcons and contrived plot twists and ridiculous hero storylines for Dream — and that's before Batman producer Jon Peters decided that he basically wanted the entire movie to be about people punching each other. In the Sandman chapter, every time you think the story can't get more insane, it takes another steep dive. And there are some neat gems in there, including this quote from Neil Gaiman that just sort of sums the whole thing up:
Films carry with them a certain amount of fear because if you say 'Yes' to something and you're wrong, you're out on your ear, whereas if you say 'No' to something, you're never going to get into trouble, [especially] if everything is always defensible. So 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 end up with films that look like other films.
The other great quote, from the Sandman chapter, comes from screenwriter William Farmer, whose script was probably the worst, and who went on the website Coming Attractions to say that a faithful Sandman adaptation probably wouldn't draw a mass audience. Farmer later decided that he did make a lot of bad choices in this screenplay, because he didn't have the guts to say no to all the producers. As Farmer explains it to Hughes:
If someone hires you to write something, then presumably they think you can write better than they can; otherwise, they'd just do it themselves. So rather than do what you're told, you're far better off doing what you believe is best. Had I done that with Sandman, I might still have created a version that didn't get produced, but at least I would have kept my personal dignity intact. Because at the end of the day, the only one who will get the blame for the script is the writer. Sandman was a project that no studio should have tried to do. It was doomed to fail. Now, when all is said and done, everyone involved in that failure can simply say, 'It was Farmer's fault.' In hindsight, it's clear that this was the sole purpose for which I was hired.
The whole book is full of weird anecdotes that will make you smack your own head. Like, for example, a couple of years before Tim Burton's horrible Planet of the Apes reboot, there was another POTA script in development that Fox chairman Peter Chernin called one of the best scripts he ever read. But a minor Fox exec who was in the meetings felt the need to put his own stamp on it, demanding that there should be a scene where some apes are trying to play baseball or some similar game, but they're missing a key element, like the pitcher. Until the hero comes along and shows them what they're missing, and they all start playing together.
The exec, apparently feeling that he needed to add his own creative input to the film, to justify his involvement in the process, insisted that scene had to be in there — and when it wasn't in the next script, he had the writer fired. In turn, the director quit.
You wind up with the impression that this happens all the time — there's a script that almost everybody agrees is perfect, but one producer or studio exec decides to scuttle it, or bring in their own pet writer. Or the director has a writer who always rewrites scripts for him (or her). Or the movie's star wants a rewrite to increase his or her screen time. Good scripts get rewritten for silly reasons, and bad scripts get filmed because time has run out.
Perhaps the funniest chapter is the one about the first Tomb Raider movie, which went through a ton of scripts before the director basically threw them out and created his own sort of impressionistic mess out of thin air.
Development Hell is full of hilarious anecdotes, like the fact that in 1966 a group of people had the movie rights to Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but they were due to lose them unless they could produce a "full colour motion picture version" of The Hobbitby a certain date. So they got together and created a movie version almost overnight, using a small cast and paper cutouts, and then charged people 10 cents admission to see it, thus hanging on to the movie rights. (You can see it at left.)
There's also the story of the "Alien on a train" movie Isobar, which went through various versions with Ridley Scott and Roland Emmerich on board. (Scott even had H.R. Giger working on designs, before he left the project.) And the saga of Ridley Scott and various others trying to make a realistic movie about the spread of Ebola, only to be beaten out by Outbreak. Plus the slow, crushing death of the Fantastic Voyage movie.
But also, there's a great chapter on all the attempts at making a Batman film in between the Schumacher travesties and Batman Begins — including Superman Vs. Batman and Darren Aronofsky's Batman: Year Zero.
All in all, you emerge from Tales from Development Hell feeling as though you've had a sojourn in the dark heart of Hollywood. And the next time you see a movie with cliched characters and a dull storyline, perhaps you might feel a tiny pang of sympathy for the poor trapped souls who spent years of their life trying, utterly in vain, to make it better.