Just because you’re a well-established director with award-winning hits and/or commercial successes doesn’t mean you can make any movie you want. Just ask Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Sofia Coppola, Darren Aronofsky, and more. All these auteurs have had passion projects over the years they’ve had to kill or put on indefinite hiatus for a variety of reasons, which is a shame given how incredible all of them sound on paper.
Christopher Nolan taking on Howard Hughes. Spike Lee making a boxing epic around Joe Louis. Kathryn Bigelow resurrecting Joan of Arc for a female warrior saga unlike any the big screen had ever really seen in the 1990s. We’d buy a ticket for all them years in advance if we knew they were definitely happening.
With many of our favorite auteurs currently in production on new movies, we decided to look back at the best movies they never made. Our 15 favorite lost projects are below.
Christopher Nolan’s Howard Hughes Biopic
After successfully transitioning to studio filmmaking with “Insomnia” in 2002, Christopher Nolan began writing a movie about the billionaire tycoon Howard Hughes. Years later, Nolan would tell The Daily Beast that the screenplay was the best script he had ever written. So what happened? Martin Scorsese, of course. Nolan’s movie found a home at Castle Rock in 2002 with Jim Carrey attached to star, but Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio’s similarly-themed “The Aviator” got a head start on production and a release date, leaving Nolan’s take on Hughes dead in the water. It’s a shame given how excited the filmmaker was about the project; he even called the role of Hughes the part Carrey was “born to play.” Nolan ended up making “Batman Begins” for Warner Bros. instead, which brought him into the WB family and set his career up for a very acclaimed future. The rest is history.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Joan of Arc Epic “Company of Angels”
Before committing full time to “The Weight of Water,” Kathryn Bigelow was trying to get a Joan of Arc epic off the ground. She was researching and assembling the script with Jay Cocks, who she had worked with before on 1995’s “Strange Days.” Cocks is best known for his Scorsese collaborations, including “The Age of Innocence,” “Gangs of New York,” and “Silence.” The film was called “Company of Angels” and seemed to heading in the right direction when Luc Besson came on board to provide the necessary funding. But Besson demanded his partner Milla Jovovich be cast as Joan of Arc over Bigelow’s preferred choice, Claire Danes. The movie fell apart after Besson pulled funding and went to make his own Joan of Arc movie, 1999’s “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.” Bigelow filed a lawsuit against Besson for breach of contract, claiming he had taken elements of her script for his own film. Bigelow never returned to the project again.
Terrence Malick’s Che Guevara Drama
Terrence Malick has come and gone from many projects over his reclusive career, including a drama about Jerry Lee Lewis and an origin story of the universe titled “Q,” but one of his lost projects we’d most love to see is his take on the guerilla leader Che Guevara. Malick wrote extensively about Che during his time as a Latin America reporter for LIFE magazine in the late 1960s, and he was approached by Steven Soderbergh after the release of “Traffic” to direct a biopic about the revolutionary. Soderbergh was putting together a project with Benicio Del Toro and producer Laura Bickford and Malick was his top choice to direct, but Malick’s script ended up being “unreadable,” according to Soderbergh. Malick’s film focused exclusively on Che’s Bolivian campaign from 1966–67, but the script’s atypical nature (producer Bill Pohlad told The Wrap the screenplay was “daunting” and not an “easy” read) forced Soderbergh to step in and save the movie by directing. Malick moved on to film “The New World” instead.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Killer Crow”
Tarantino always seems to be talking about projects and then years later abandoning them — from “Kill Bill” sequels to his Vincent Vega/Vic Vega crossover movie and an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel “40 Lashes Less On” (which could actually end up becoming a TV miniseries) — but one feature he has mostly written and never made is “Killer Crow.” The script was carved out of a section of the massive “Inglourious Basterds” screenplay that Tarantino had to cut while filmmaking. The story follows a platoon of black soldiers who go on a bloody revenge mission against the white officers who screwed them over in the military. In the original “Basterds” screenplay, the platoon comes across Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine and company. Tarantino has admitted the “Killer Crow” script would need another polish if it were to ever be made (and he has said “it could happen”), but with only two movies left before he retires after 10 films (and one of those reportedly being a Manson family murders drama), it seems likely “Killer Crow” will remain a lost project.
Spike Lee’s Boxing Drama “Save Us Joe Louis”
The boxing drama is something that many filmmakers try their hand at during their careers, from Martin Scorsese to Michael Mann, Ron Howard, Clint Eastwood, and David O. Russell. One of Spike Lee’s passion projects has always been “Save Us Joe Louis,” a drama about the rivalry between the African-American boxer and German fighter Max Schmelling that took place just before World War II. “On the Waterfront” screenwriter Budd Schulberg handled the script, and Lee was attached to direct as early as 2001. The director went on to make “25th Hour” and “Inside Man,” but he maintained that “Joe Louis” would always be shot, citing David Lean as a source of directorial inspiration for the project. Terrence Howard was even cast in the lead role in 2006. The movie hasn’t moved forward since.
Steven Soderbergh’s Leni Riefenstahl Movie
Towards the end of the first decade of the 21st century, Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns began writing a script for a movie about Leni Riefenstahl. The two had previously worked on “The Informant!” and had a relatively interesting, if not controversial, idea to make a movie in which the audience would come to root for the female filmmaker. The duo planned to treat Hitler and Goebbels as types of Hollywood studio heads and Riefenstahl as the aggravated artist being held back by them. Both men soon realized that no Hollywood studio would fund the feature, so they pivoted and developed “Contagion” instead.
David Fincher’s “Torso” Graphic Novel Adaptation
David Fincher’s biggest unrealized project will probably always be “Rendezvous With Rama,” the proposed $100-million Arthur C. Clarke adaptation with Morgan Freeman, but one that got much closer to actually happening was “Ness,” his adaptation of the graphic novel “Torso.” Fincher was set to direct the movie following “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008, with Matt Damon starring as Prohibition agent Eliot Ness in a story about the hunt for a fictional Cleveland serial killer. The director was in talks with Casey Affleck to star, and Rachel McAdams was rumored to join the cast, too. The fact the movie never got off the ground had nothing to do with Fincher, however, as the final script from “The Ring” scribe Ehren Kruger was delivered to Paramount just a few weeks before it was set to lose the rights to the graphic novel. Fincher moved on to “The Social Network,” but the “Ness” script has continued to float around Hollywood, with Paul Greengrass now the current director attached to the movie.
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