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Films That Almost Got Made That Time Forgot: The Lobster Boy

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The Poster for The Elephant Man.

The Poster for “The Elephant Man.” (1980)

When comedian Mel Brooks decided he wanted to take a break from comedy and produce a serious film, he settled on the story of Joseph Merrick, the famed “Elephant Man” of the Victorian England sideshow circuit. When it came to choosing a director, he looked for a candidate who could bring a strong artistic vision to the project. He found what he was looking for in David Lynch. Lynch’s first feature-length film Eraserhead had been a surprise success. Although the film wasn’t a box office hit, it was respected as a surrealist masterpiece featuring lush black and white photography and an intricate sound design. Brooks had liked Eraserhead and hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man and co-write the screenplay.

Abandoning the surreal elements that populated Eraserhead, and would also turn up again in future projects like Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, Lynch crafted a sensitive and moving portrayal of Merrick, a young Englishman who demanded to be treated with dignity in spite of his catastrophic physical deformities. The film was a huge success, garnering eight Oscar nominations and winning BAFTA Awards for Best Film, Best Actor and Best Production Design.

When it became clear that the film was a hit, Brooks approached Lynch

The proposed poster for "The Lobster Boy."

The proposed poster for “The Lobster Boy.”

and informed him that The Elephant Man was always intended to be the first of a trilogy of films about people who had been marginalized due to their deformities. Brooks offered Lynch the

chance to direct the sequel to The Elephant Man tentatively titled The Lobster Boy. It was to be the story of Grady Stiles, a circus performer who suffered from ectrodactyly, a deformity in his hands and feet that caused them to take on the appearance of lobster claws. At the time, Stiles was at the height of his fame as a circus performer, and was quite successful in spite of his disability.

"The Lobster Boy" was to be Matt Damon's first fillm.

“The Lobster Boy” was to be Matt Damon’s first film.

Lynch appreciated the offer, but was already deep in preproduction for his next film – the epic Sci-Fi Fantasy Dune. Brooks was disappointed and spent the next ten years searching for a director willing to take on the project, but met with no success. Things took a turn for the worse when, on November 29, 1992, Stiles was shot to death. The gunman had been hired by Stiles’ wife and son. During the subsequent trial, unflattering details of Stiles life emerged, including the fact that he was a violent alcoholic who terrorized his family.

Brooks decided that making a movie about an abusive, drunken Grady Stiles would be a poor fit thematically with the story of the sensitive, harmless Joseph Merrick. Brooks subsequently dropped plans for the Lobster Boy movie as well as for the planned third film in the trilogy, The Baboon Lady.

Written by sfcox

May 17, 2014 at 10:50 pm

Posted in Fiction

Films That Almost Got Made That Time Forgot – 2002: Another Space Odyssey

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The Poster for Kubrick's breakout sci-fi hit.

The Poster for Kubrick’s breakout sci-fi hit.

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was a huge hit in 1968 and also something of a revolution in science fiction filmmaking. Previous science fiction films had been heavily action-oriented and even frivolous, generally featuring aliens in unconvincing rubber suits and tough-guy heroes. Kubrick’s film, on the other hand, was slow moving and contemplative. The special effects were meticulously crafted and realistic. Classical music gave the space sequences a sense of elegance. The film thoughtfully raises questions about what it means to be human in a universe in which we are not alone, but provides no answers. Viewers are invited to enter the Monolith and fly through the “star gate” with David Bowman, but they must decide for themselves the meaning of what he finds on the other side.

Not all viewers were impressed with this ponderous epic, but those who were returned to the theaters again and again, ultimately making the film a financial success. This popularity meant that MGM was anxious to produce a sequel as soon as possible. Kubrick was dead-set against any sequel. He would not produce one himself, and he threatened legal action should MGM try to make one with a different director. Kubrick’s threats were essentially

The iconic match cut from bone to satellite. The bone later came in handy in helping Kubrick to make a point with studio executives.

The iconic match cut from bone to satellite. The bone later came in handy in helping Kubrick to make a point with studio executives.

empty because MGM owned the rights, but studio executives found that, in a show of solidarity, no reputable director would touch the project. Finally, in desperation, they contacted low-budget film impresario Roger Corman, who agreed to direct the sequel so long as he was given absolute creative control. Fearing that momentum built up by the original film’s success would stall if they waited too long, the studio agreed to Corman’s demands and hired him to direct the film.

Corman chose to write the film himself and, three days after signing the deal, presented the finished screenplay to MGM executives. The executives were unsure what to make of the script, which Corman had titled 2002: Another Space Odyssey. In Corman’s story, David Bowman returns to earth from the mysterious alien world that he inhabited at the end of the first film. In an attempt to reintegrate into society, he opens a car

A section of Corman's storyboards for "2002." (click to enlarge)

A section of Corman’s storyboards for “2002.” (click to enlarge)

repair shop in Alabama with his pal Skeeter. One day Bowman is replacing the valves on an El Camino when Lulu Blossom, the daughter of the county Sheriff, wanders into his shop. The two hit it off right away, but just as they realize they are falling in love, Lulu is kidnapped by local moonshiners. Bowman and Skeeter give chase in Bowman’s sentient Camero “HAL” (the acronym for Hot As Lightning) which has a caustic personality and makes wise cracks through a glowing red light on its dashboard (predating the hit television series Knight Rider by ten years.) Bowman, Skeeter and HAL pursue the moonshiners, while simultaneously being pursued by the Sheriff, who wrongly believes that Bowman is the kidnapper. Skeeter is ultimately

Kubrick's angry letter to the CEO of MGM. (click to enlarge)

Kubrick’s angry letter to the CEO of MGM. (click to enlarge)

killed when he is run over by a conflicted HAL, but Bowman finally defeats the moonshiners with the help of a band of surprisingly violent apes who derive their fighting abilities from an eerie, black Monolith. Shortly after her rescue, Lulu becomes pregnant with Bowman’s baby. In the final shot of the movie, the Starbaby (actually

The concept poster for "2002: Another Space Odyssey." (click to enlarge)

The concept poster for “2002: Another Space Odyssey.” (click to enlarge)

Bowman and Lulu’s unborn child) appears over the earth. Angry that it was conceived out of wedlock, it destroys the Earth in a moderately-priced effects shot.

Realizing that producing the film would likely lead to box office failure and would tarnish the legacy of the original film, MGM executives pulled the plug. Corman shrugged off the setback and set to work on his next film, Von Richthofen and Brown. The sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, was eventually made, but not until 1985. All of Corman’s ideas were discarded for the sequel except for the character Skeeter, who was retained.

Written by sfcox

May 1, 2014 at 7:25 pm

Posted in Fiction

Film That Almost Got Made That Time Forgot: The Jazz Singer

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Al Jolson in "The Jazz Singer" (1927)

Al Jolson in “The Jazz Singer” (1927)

From the advent of motion pictures in the late 1800’s until the 1920’s most motion pictures were silent. Films were projected without sound and often an organist or orchestra in the theater would provide live musical accompaniment. Dialog was confined to title cards, which were interspersed with the action. By the early 1920’s, sound recording technology had improved enough that film producers began to experiment with sound-on-disc and sound-on-film systems with varying degrees of success. But these early efforts were exclusively short subjects that saw limited release.

The first feature-length motion picture to incorporate synchronized dialog was The Jazz Singer, which was released in 1927 by Warner Bros. Popular singer and actor Al Jolson starred in the story of a young Jewish man who rejects his father’s wish that he become a cantor in a synagogue, and finds fame as an entertainer instead.

This first “talkie” was heavily promoted by the studio and highly anticipated by the movie-going public. But when the film premiered on October 6, 1927 at the Warner Bros. Theater in New York, audiences were shocked when Jolson’s first on-screen words were, “hiya sister, that’s a boffo set of turnips ya got there.” Several women in the audience fainted, a priest went blind and half a dozen monocles were lost or damaged when they fell from their wearers’ eyes.

Will Hays

Will Hays

Warners acted swiftly in response to the controversy, pulling the film from circulation and dubbing in the phrase “wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” over the offensive passage in all subsequent prints. However, the damage had been done. By the late 1920’s, Hollywood studios had become concerned about their image with the general public due to an increasing number of risqué movies and off-screen scandals involving their biggest stars. The Jazz Singer incident was seen as the last straw. Studio heads banded together and formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), hiring Will H. Hays to oversee the office in an effort clean up Hollywood’s image. Hays set to work immediately, creating a list of rules for motion picture producers and distributors, which became known as the “Hays Code.” The Code governed what could and could not appear in motion pictures created for release to the general public.

Besides outlawing on-screen sex, nudity, blasphemy, perversion and the use of illegal drugs, the Code also contained a comprehensive list of obscene words that could not be used in talkies.

The first page of the Hays Code.

The first page of the Hays Code.

The Hays Code stayed in effect until the late 60’s when more permissive attitudes became prevalent. It was replaced with the Motion Picture Association of America rating system that did not ban particular content, but rated films in such a way that audiences could be prepared for more adult material.

The effectiveness of the Hays Code is debatable. Film producers found ways around the Code through symbolism and subtext. And while the wisdom of banning potentially objectionable content is an open question, the Hays Code did manage to keep the word “turnips” out of movies for 42 years, until Dennis Hopper finally said it in 1969’s Easy Rider.

Written by sfcox

March 24, 2014 at 7:25 pm

Posted in Fiction

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

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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

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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

Love in the Time of Hand Sanitizer

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Jeff sat in the overstuffed couch, feeling a little uncomfortable. The couch was so overstuffed in fact that he felt like he was being consumed by it — forced back through its gullet toward its insatiable stomach. He expected to find other people living in the couch’s gut – all with anxiety disorders and all waiting for a rescue that wouldn’t come until the couch was reupholstered a few years down the road. Aside from the ravenous couch, the rest of the psychologist’s office seemed familiar:  bookshelves, clocks, pictures, and warm, friendly colors. The usual.

As long as he could remember, Jeff had been afraid of germs. And it was a particularly frustrating phobia because he couldn’t see the enemy, but he knew they were there: breeding, growing, flying through the air, loitering on surfaces, invading his body through every orifice; making him sick, making him tense, whispering their dirty little thoughts in his ears…

“Jeff, your toothbrush is in the bathroom 24 hours a day,” a germ would say. “Seems a little unsanitary to me.”

“Jeff, that chicken’s been in the refrigerator for three days. It looks a little green.”

“Jeff, I saw the chef earlier and it looked liked he had a runny nose.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by sfcox

February 1, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Posted in Fiction