Tuesday, 17 November 2015


When you're the most commercially successful director in Hollywood history and have two Best Director Oscars, you more or less have first pick on any project you want. Over the years this has lead Steven Spielberg to develop a lot of projects he didn't end up directing. Even in the early days of his career, there were films for which Spielberg was considered which he turned down or which otherwise ended up not coming to fruition. There are enough of these projects from over the years that it's nearly impossible to avoid missing some, and this list is not intended to be exhaustive or definitive, but here is a brief look at some of them as we
consider what might have been.

CRUISING

The least Spielbergian of all was this dark and disturbing story of a serial killer stalking New York's gay community in the late 1970's/early 1980s and the undercover cop who infiltrates the leather bar community , which ended up being filmed by William Friedkin and starred Al Pacino. The film was such a notorious and controversial flop that it was instrumental in leading to Pacino's big screen hiatus for most of the '80s. It required major cuts of graphic sexual content and was so reviled by the LGBT community that it lead to the inclusion of a disclaimer that it depicted only a small subculture. Like almost any significant '70s or '80s film it has seen a reexamination in recent years which looks upon it somewhat more favorably.

The only thing that could make Cruising a stranger fit for Spielberg is if he were directing it for Disney. Of the nearly 30 feature films he's directed, only about three of them have included strong sexual content. So how was Spielberg even considered for this? It's important to remember that this was the 1970s, and Spielberg wasn't Spielberg yet. There was no E.T. with which to associate him, and it's certainly understandable that anyone would consider the director of Jaws and Duel a prime candidate to direct any thriller. Still, there's no question this would have been a terrible match of director to material. How could he possibly he find the heart in a film which ends with the implication that the protagonist himself may be the killer? And considering the controversy and terrible reception for the film, it's very likely that if Spielberg had directed it it would have done serious damage to his career, and even if it had been a success it certainly would have altered its trajectory. We would have seen a very different Spielberg emerge. It's very fortunate that the prospective producers were unable to find backing, Spielberg moved on, and they eventually went back to Friedkin (who had wisely passed before Spielberg was approached).  We can all be glad this one didn't happen.

                                                                           WATCH THE SKIES/NIGHT SKIES

Columbia Pictures' desire for a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind lead Spielberg to develop this sc-fi horror concept about four malevolent aliens terrorizing a rural family, because clearly that's what the audience enchanted by Close Encounters' almost spiritual view of life on other worlds wanted (though to be fair the project was no longer intended as a direct sequel). As the project got further along Spielberg decided he would merely produce the film, not direct it, and hired John Sayles to write and envisioned Tobe Hooper directing. Development went as far as Rick Baker creating an alien prototype, but Spielberg decided during filming of Raiders of the Lost Ark that he wanted to follow all that Nazi killing with a gentler film. Fortunately, Sayles' screenplay bequeathed him an idea: the gentle fifth alien, Buddy, bonded with the family's children, morphed into E.T. 

While clearly nothing like Close Encounters, this may have turned out to be an interesting film in its own right, and had Spielberg actually chosen to direct there's an appeal to seeing what he would have done with a John Carpenter style sci-fi/horror film. But there's no question Spielberg and audiences were much better served by the creation of the masterpiece that eventually evolved out of the concept.

E.T. 2 -NOCTURNAL FEARS

To borrow a line from a Spielberg sequel that did happen, this was "the worst idea in the long, sad history of bad ideas." This abandoned sequel involved malicious mutant aliens who had been at war with E.T.'s people, and their following the Speak-and-Spell signal back to Earth, where they ended up torturing Elliott. I promise.

 Yes, E.T. himself eventually returned to save the day, and it's a widely accepted convention to go darker with the second installment, but this would have been like doing a Sound of Music sequel where the Nazis catch up with the Von Trapps. It would have utterly ruined the legacy of Spielberg's seminal film, and thank the Maker that wisdom and good taste prevailed and lead him to abandon the project. I guarantee he's glad he did.

RAIN MAN

This one is an entirely different situation. The Oscar-winning story of a self-centered young man forming a bond with his autistic brother is full of Spielbergian heart and sentiment, and it's easy to imagine that he would have made a film just as powerful as the one Barry Levinson did, especially considering that he'd already made a heavier and more challenging drama in The Color Purple.

However good Spielberg's version would have been, it would have been a different film from Levinson's, which, while was less overt in its sentimentality than one imagines Spielberg's version would have been, especially at that point in his career. And it's important to note that Spielberg was still somewhat reluctant work with the biggest stars at this point, which would could have conflicted with casting Dustin Hoffman in his now legendary role (interestingly, Hoffman almost dropped the film after struggling with finding the character and suggested Spielberg favorite Richard Dreyfuss as his replacement). Spielberg left this one only because of a scheduling conflict: George Lucas decided it was time to make that third Indiana Jones adventure, and Spielberg was obligated to join him. Since the end result was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, that means Spielberg's departure and Levinson's hiring resulted in us getting two great films.

CAPE FEAR

A man who once proclaimed he hated remakes almost directed two in a five-year time span (being the early '90s, this would have come shortly after Always).  There is no doubt Spielberg's film would have been a highly suspenseful one, but it certainly would have been less dark and more PG-13 than the Martin Scorsese thriller we ultimately saw. One imagines Spielberg's version focusing much more on the family and portraying them more sympathetically. Spielberg families had also typically put the mother more in the forefront than the father (though as this would have come after Last Crusade the shift in his portrayal of paternal figures had already to some extent begun). Where Scorsese seems fascinated by the villainous Max Cady, Spielberg likely would have been repulsed by him. Certainly the characterization would have been very different, as what we saw is uniquely a creation of Scorsese's creative relationship with Robert De Niro. Spielberg ultimately decided Cape Fear wasn't somewhere he wanted to go emotionally at that point in his life, and he traded with Martin Scorsese for a project the latter was developing. Since that project was Schindler's List, this couldn't have worked out better.


HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER'S STONE

Without a doubt the biggest project the bearded one has ever passed over, and one which seemed perfectly attuned to his sensibilities. Ultimately, Spielberg decided he wouldn't have freedom to make the film his own and bowed out. This is one of the most debatable choices Spielberg has ever made. Certainly he would have done well at capturing the sense of magic and adventure so central to the Wizarding World, and it's easy to imagine that we lost a Potter with a sense of directorial inspiration that far exceeded what Chris Columbus gave us. Yet it's also important to remember that the most skillfully directed of the films, Alfonso Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban, is also perhaps the most criticized by fans for compressing and cutting the source material. Given the freedom he wanted, Spielberg probably would have made a brilliant film, but there's a good chance it wouldn't be the Harry Potter the fans know and love. How far it would have departed we'll never know, but when we consider how strongly devoted fans reacted to even minor changes it's entirely plausible that we would have seen an entire generation growing up reviling Spielberg for changing the beloved novels that were their Star Wars.

It's also worth considering that Spielberg certainly wouldn't have stuck around to make seven films (or eight as it turned out to be). If he had made major changes that would have left subsequent directors stymied on whether to more closely follow Spielberg's film or the books. As it turns out this franchise wasn't well suited to being the vision of a single filmmaker, as it took on a such an enormous life of its own that J.K. Rowling's vision had to remain it's guiding light.

THE RIVALS

This early 2000's project would have starred Nicole Kidman as legendary French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt and told of her rivalry with fellow actress Elenora Duse, and in the late 19th French theatre world would have given Spielberg a setting rather different from any he'd previously explored.

The Rivals was an intriguing and promising project, and would have been a stretch for Spielberg in multiple ways: he hasn't given us a female centered film since The Color Purple, this would have given him two female lead in Kidman and whoever ended up playing Duse, and a screenplay by acclaimed screenwriter Robin Swicord. The early 2000s were unquestionably the height of Nicole Kidman's career as both an actress and a move star, when she had emerged out of the "Mrs. Tom Cruise" shadow and become recognized in her own right. No official reason has ever been given as to why this one didn't materialize, but it's intriguing potential leaves it feeling like a lost opportunity.


LINDBERGH

Spielberg purchased  the rights to A. Scott Berg's biography of Charles A. Lindbergh, one of his long-time heroes before it hit the shelves, and planned an epic historical drama. But Spielberg became increasingly uncomfortable with an aspect of Lindbergh's life story explored in the book: his opposition to American entry into World War II and what some saw as a sympathetic attitude toward Hitler's Germany and the appearance of anti-semitism.

Lindbergh's life is certainly an interesting story,  but there is good reason to doubt whether Spielberg was the one to tell it.  Certainly it would have been a much different film than the one Spielberg seems to have had in mind when he first considered the project. Spielberg's historical films have been to a large degree pleas for tolerance or tributes to the valor of the soldier, and while there's dispute to the exact nature of Lindbergh's ideas, this was not a good fit for the director of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan.  Spielberg is an artist, not a historian, and it's understandable for him to confine himself to historical stories which fitness artistic vision and worldview,

Lindbergh's life story may also me be better suited to a television miniseries than a feature film. Biopics which try to cover a person's entire life rarely work, and while the Lincoln or Selma 
approach of focusing on a particular event or period of time usually leads to a better film, it seems in Lindbergh's case likely to rob the story of important context.



GHOST SOLDIERS

Before War of the Worlds, Spielberg and Tom Cruise considered making their second teaming an adaptation of Hampton Sides' best-selling book which chronicled a raid to liberate a Japanese prison camp following the Bataan Death March of World War II. The film was dropped after Miramax Films and director John Dahl beat them to the punch with a competing version, the solid but uninspired The Great Raid. 

 It's obvious that Spielberg could have made a good, even great film from this material, providing a sort of Pacific War counterpart to Saving Private Ryan. However, he also would have been covering ground he'd covered rather thoroughly before. While the loss of Ghost Soldiers no doubt means the loss of a very good film, it's doubtful it would have been one which brought a new and different vision from the director.
                                                                        

HARVEY

Light, gentle comedy is the kind to which Spielberg  is best suited (tell me The Terminal doesn't play better than 1941), and Mary Chase's Pulitzer Prize winning story of a kindly man named Elwood P. Dowd and his imaginary (?) six foot rabbit friend Harvey fits Spielberg's sensibilities to a tee, even if would have been another remake. But actors such as Robert Downey, Jr. and even Spielberg favorite Tom Hanks were understandably reluctant to accept the role of Elwood, reasoning it can't really belong to anyone but James Stewart (or perhaps Andy Looney,  who nailed it in the 2002 semi-pro stage production where I played the Cab Driver). The film was quietly dropped before we ever found out if Spielberg was planning to stick close to the original material or place it in a modern setting.

INTERSTELLAR  

Before his brother Christopher came on board as director, Jonathan Nolan was writing this science fiction epic for Spielberg, based on the work of physicist Kip Thorne.

There is no official (or to my knowledge even unofficial) explanation for why Spielberg let this one go, but I suspect it was at least in part because of an abundance of projects in development and a desire to focus on finally getting Lincoln made. While there is a lot about Nolan's film which seems heavily Spielberg influenced, particularly the relationship between lead character Cooper and his child (a boy in the earlier drafts), it's likely Spielberg's version would have focused even more on the emotion of that relationship and been less ponderous, and almost certainly would have given space travel a greater sense of wonder and joy (though it's debatable how well that would mesh with a story about astronauts trying to save a dying Earth by leaving their families behind for decades).  As a fan of Nolan's flawed bu intriguing film, I'm fine with the way this one turned out.


AMERICAN SNIPER

Spielberg was the first director attached to Bradley Cooper's passion project, but he backed out when Warner Bros. wouldn't pay for his much more expensive version, which would have greatly increased the emphasis on Chris Kyle's cat and mouse rivalry with an Iraqi sniper.

This one leaves me with mixed feelings. While it features an excellent lead performance and some extremely powerful sequences, I was underwhelmed by Clint Eastwood's version, largely because I feel it presented a one-sided view of subject Chris Kyle which ignored some of the more controversial and potentially inflammatory portions of his book.

I suspect Spielberg might have been able to create a more compelling film, and certainly a more focused one. Yet as first attempted to read the book upon which it was based, I was instantly struck by how far removed its politics struck me as being from Spielberg's. Like Eastwood, Spielberg would have almost certainly focused on an honorable portrayal of soldiers serving their country rather than on the politics of the war, but I doubt his film would have ended up with a more nuanced and less one-sided portrayal of the controversial character at its center.


 As we consider these potential Spielberg films which he did not end up guiding to the screen,  it's important to remember that each of these would have altered his career and filmography in some way, with some other project likely being abandoned or pushed back to make way. While certainly not all of Spielberg's films (like those of any director) are equal in quality, each has been in some way essential to his creative development and in making him the director we know. Even 1941 brought him a renewed discipline which helped him to craft Raiders of the Lost Ark into the lean adventure masterpiece we know. All in all, as much as some of these abandoned films are fascinating prospects, all seems to have worked out for the best.
 



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