Electric Underpants

The Clearing House for My Brain Stuff…

Archive for February 2014

Films That Almost Got Made That Time Forgot: Clone of Contention

with 2 comments

By 1995, the filmmaking team of producer Ismael Merchant, director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, collectively known as Merchant Ivory Productions, had just finished a decade of remarkable success. Beginning in 1985 with A Room with a View and continuing through 1993’s Remains of the Day, the partners had produced six critical and commercial successes in a row. They were also the recipients of multiple Academy Awards during this period, with A Room with a View winning three Oscars, 1992’s Howards End also winning three. While Remains of the Day did not take home any Oscars, it was nominated for eight, including Best Picture.

Merchant Ivory was best known for its literary adaptations, which, more often than not, dealt with

A page from Jhabvala's original script. Annotated by Ismael Merchant and James Ivory.

A page from Jhabvala’s original script. Annotated by Ismael Merchant and James Ivory. Click to enlarge.

the balance between peoples’ suppressed feelings and their subsequent actions. Merchant Ivory films nearly always took place in the past, and were often lush costume dramas. Their most successful films were often set in the English Countryside and involved the wealthiest members of society and the often culturally forbidden interactions between them. At a time when the world economy was flailing, these themes struck a chord with moviegoers who saw the plight of the upper crust as perfect escapist fare.

But in 1995, their streak of success came to an end with the release of the historical epic Jefferson in Paris. The film received lukewarm reviews from critics and was a box office flop. While Merchant and Ivory were inclined to shrug off the failure of the film as part of the hit and miss nature of filmmaking, Jhabvala was affected very deeply, blaming herself for the films shortcomings. In response, her next screenplay was a radical departure from her previous work. Rather than a costume drama detailing the relationships of the emotionally compromised, her new screenplay was a modern horror tale. Entitled Clone of Contention, it was the story of a super-intelligent, yet disturbed, scientist who would extract DNA samples from unsuspecting women through vigorous handshakes. He would then take the DNA samples back to his lab and create clones of the women, ultimately assaulting and murdering them. The female protagonist of the story has a kind of psychic connection with her clone and is haunted by visions, in effect seeing through the eyes of her clone as it is cultivated in the lab and menaced by the killer. Finally, with help from a rogue cop who plays by his own rules, and a gay best friend whose wisdom transcends his role as comic relief, the heroine defeats the serial killer and saves the life of her clone. The heroine and her clone become best friends. The final scene involves the two of them on a well-deserved shopping spree in which they end up buying the same shoes.

Theatrical poster for the film. (Artist's Conception.)

Theatrical poster for the film. (Artist’s Conception.)

Perhaps predictably, Merchant and Ivory were unimpressed with Jhabvala’s screenplay and refused to film it.  Hurt and discouraged, Jhabvala quit Merchant Ivory Productions for a short time. But because she could not find anyone else to produce her horror film, she returned to Merchant Ivory Productions late in 1995, writing the screenplay for its next feature, Surviving Picasso.

Clone of Contention was never filmed, and Jhabvala refused to speak of it from the time Merchant and Ivory rejected it until her death in 2013. However, a rumor circulated in Hollywood that, after several more flops in the late 90’s, Merchant Ivory Productions considered reviving the rejected screenplay, changing the setting to 19th century London, changing the clones to class-conscious male suitors, changing the heroine from a career-driven American go-getter to the spinster daughter of a wealthy English landowner, and casting British actor Richard Harris as the killer. The revival was ultimately abandoned when Harris passed away in 2002.

Written by sfcox

February 23, 2014 at 8:14 pm

Posted in Fiction

Films That Almost Got Made That Time Forgot: Psycho

leave a comment »

Hitchcock with Martin and Lewis on the set of "Psycho!"

Hitchcock with Martin and Lewis.

Alfred Hitchcock has long been recognized as one of the finest and most successful directors in the history of cinema. Five of his films were included in the American Film Institute’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest films of all time, and in 2012 Vertigo finally overtook Citizen Kane for the top spot in the Sight & Sound list of best films. The peak years of his career came in the 1950’s and by 1959 he’d had a string of hits that included Dial M for MurderRear WindowTo Catch a ThiefVertigo and North by Northwest. However, after this run of success, Hitchcock found himself at a crossroads. There was no denying that his films were critical and commercial hits, but he had been working in essentially the same two genres his whole career. Thrillers and mysteries had been good to Hitchcock, but he was anxious to branch out and try something different. As Hitchcock told French filmmaker Francoise Truffaut in a 1959 interview, “I had done thrillers to death, so to speak, and I wanted to try my hand at something more…fun.”

To that end, Hitchcock purchased the rights to Robert Bloch’s 1959 novel Psycho, which was loosely based on the life of notorious psychopathic murderer Ed Gein. At first glance, the book would seem to embrace the horror and thriller elements that had permeated Hitchcock’s recent work, but the director saw comic possibilities in the morbid tale of a homicidal recluse’s obsession with his dead mother. “Actually, Gein was a very humorous man,” Hitchcock told Truffault. He was known to provide entertainment at parties of the lampshade-over-the-head variety and he enjoyed making people laugh with his pratfalls and silly voices. This was before he killed them, of course. After finishing the book, I immediately thought of Jerry.”

Jerry Lewis had been a popular comedian in the 1940’s and 50’s while teamed up with partner Dean Martin. Lewis and Martin had dissolved their partnership in 1956 and, while both went on to successful solo careers, by 1959 both were at low points. When Hitchcock offered the part of Norman Bates to Jerry Lewis and the part of Sam Loomis to Dean Martin, the two jumped at the chance. The studio was also enthusiastic and saw the film as a comeback vehicle for Lewis and Martin, while Hitchcock was thrilled to be at the driver’s seat of what would surely be a wacky comedy. As if to solidify the broad comic tone he was trying to achieve, Hitchcock cast comedienne Phyllis Diller in the key role of Marion Crane, the beautiful secretary who meets her fate at the Bates Motel.

Filming began on November 11, 1959, but was troubled from the start. Hitchcock became frustrated with Lewis’s constant mugging for the camera and inserting the phrase “NICE LADYYYY” into the scenes between the Bates and Crane characters. Hitchcock had always stuck closely to the text of the script during shooting and did not encourage improvisation. But he also had trouble with Diller who insisted on smoking a cigarette in a long cigarette

Phyllis Diller in the iconic shower scene.

Phyllis Diller in the iconic shower scene.

holder during the shower murder scene and blurting out unscripted one-liners during the shower scene, such as “honey, if you’re going to stab me, at least let me put my best wig on. Some of those ambulance drivers are to die for!”

Dean Martin gave Hitchcock a different set of problems. Angered over what he considered a supporting role in the film, Martin drank heavily. On one occasion, he became so drunk that he made a sloppy pass at the dead mother prop that had been prepared for the final scene. The special effects crew later discovered evidence that Martin had managed to consummate the “relationship.”

Dean Martin and friend.

Dean Martin and friend.

Things came to a head during the final scene when Lewis and Martin were performing the climactic song and dance number, “Mummy Dearest.” A fistfight erupted between the two men, who had been increasingly at odds with each other. In a fit of anger, Hitchcock ordered the cameras to stop rolling, dismissed the cast and crew and shut down production. Hitchcock had ultimately not been comfortable with his new direction and preferred to return to making thrillers. Shortly after shutting down filming, Hitchcock commissioned a new, much darker script, recast the film and resumed production a few months later.

The revamped Psycho would go on to become one of Hitchcock’s biggest hits and cement his reputation as a master filmmaker. Martin and Lewis would not speak again until the mid-70’s and would not perform together again until the 80’s.

The footage of the original version of Psycho has been lost, which leaves Hitchcock fans as well as Martin and Lewis fans to wonder what might have been.

Written by sfcox

February 9, 2014 at 1:07 am

Posted in Fiction