The practically back-to-back release of three documentaries about films that never ended up being made makes for quite the wistful (and geeky) movie marathon, but it’s also a great exercise for the imagination and a jumping-off point for other artists to maybe get inspired to do something similar.
I’m talking, of course, about the trifecta made up of Jodorowksy’s Dune, Lost Soul and most recently The Death of Superman Lives. With ‘Dune’ being the most intriguing and richest of the bunch, it’s also garnered the most attention so far, in large part thanks to the charismatic, loquacious presence of its central protagonist, the cult Chilean director Alejandro Jodorowsky, as well as the totemic reputation of another key cook in the abortive Dune broth – pioneering French comic book artist Jean Giraud, aka Moebius.
Frank Pavich’s film sets the tone for this strand of documentary, balancing industry gossip with insights into the artistic process, and so feeding our curiosity from two different angles. We get to hear about ‘Jodo’ wrangling with studio execs, convincing the likes of Salvador Dali, Orson Welles and Pink Floyd to join what was already becoming a movable feast of a film.
Alejandro Jodorowsky, seen here with the totemic book of storyboards for Dune
But by dint of the fact that Moebius had completed the storyboards for the film long before the film went into (ultimately doomed) production, Pavich’s film also has the luxury of being the most visually arresting of the three films we’re discussing here, giving us a presumably accurate approximation of what Jodoroswky’s film may have looked like.
Jodorowsky’s Dune is also, perhaps, the most ‘culturally significant’ film of the three, because the fallout of the project then paved the way for likes of HR Giger and Dan O’Bannon to assert their influence on that other sci-fi behemoth – Ridley Scott’s Alien – to say nothing of how the would-be Dune’s reputation had a ripple effect that helped give rise to the likes of Star Wars.
Though all of the three projects were ultimately felled by a common enemy – film studios getting cold feet over what were essentially sprawling, avant-garde projects – this predicament is felt most keenly in Lost Soul, directed by David Gregory and charting the demise of director Richard Stanley’s attempt to make The Island of Dr Moreau.
Concept art for Richard Stanley’s The Island of Dr Moreau
Eventually released in 1996 thanks to the efforts of a new director, John Frankenheimer, the Marlon Brando-starring stinker had a far more interesting – read: disastrous – behind-the-scenes story, owing in no small part to its exotic Australian location. Being the most ‘advanced’ project of three – for whatever it’s worth, the film was actually completed – its make-up is slightly different to that of Jodorowsky’s Dune or The Death of Superman Lives… but only to a point.
We’re here to lament the loss of Stanley’s proposed visionary take on HG Wells’s classic novel, the film suggests, and the fact that a bastardized version was sent to die to the theaters is irrelevant – if anything, it’s yet another twist of the knife.
Lost Soul is mostly talking heads and some piecemeal archive footage – there’s a disappointing scarcity of concept art on display – but its narrative does boast a universally appealing backbone: the tragic story of a misunderstood eccentric crushed by bean-counting and nervous executives (there’s a more tenuous connection too – Stanley can also be counted among the talking heads in Jodorowsky’s Dune).
Richard Stanley, holding the Dog Man mask he used to sneak his way onto the set of The Island of Dr Moreau after he was fired
Though Jodorowsky is hardly the pinnacle of well-adjusted normality, and though would-be director of Superman Lives Tim Burton has built a career out of marketing himself as an ‘outsider’, it’s only Stanley who comes across as the true eccentric of the bunch. Dressed all in black and sporting a hat at all times, a believer in the power of witchcraft (as bolstered and made somewhat more intellectually palatable by his background as an anthropologist), Stanley arrives to the project with plenty of interesting things to say, and a passion to lend a relevant, contemporary spin on Wells’s story while fully respecting its historical and intellectual history.
Things are, of course, not as black and white as all that, and what also emerges is how unsuited Stanley was for such a large scale project. Fresh off cult hits Hardware and Dust Devil, Stanley was a stranger to big studio films and hardly inspired confidence on set – refusing to have meetings and clearly not being comfortable with the demands of such a production.
To say nothing of dealing with the egos of the likes of Val Kilmer, whose fee ballooned the budget to ridiculous proportions, putting further pressure on an already strained shoot (to say nothing of the fact that he had reduced shooting days, and acted like a complete dick on set).
Still, the documentary suggests that Stanley had a healthy clutch of supporters, and that even the film’s producers were sympathetic to his overall aims and wanted what was best for the film.
Actress Fairuza Balk, who found a kindred bohemian spirit in Stanley, comes across as his most impassioned defender in Gregory’s film, and her immediate reaction to Stanley being eventually fired from the production makes for a hilarious anecdote.
By contrast to the two other films, The Death of Superman Lives is a conversation with high-powered industry individuals who, despite the project never getting off the ground (hur hur) remained comfortable in their careers and weathered this (very expensive) storm in the end.
Whereas Stanley went into exile after being fired from ‘Moreau’ – first in Australia, then to the Montsegur commune in France – Tim Burton was allowed to continue his career in the rarefied atmosphere of Hollywood virtually unimpeded… although, as one-time screenwriter for the project Wesley Strick tellingly suggests, he hasn’t scaled the heights of its potential ever since.
Directed and narrated by Jon Schnepp – who is seen chatting to all of the interviewees – the partially Kickstarter-funded documentary has a rough-around-the-edges feel to it.
Sound quality fluctuates throughout and a disproportionate amount of the running time is dedicated to the costume Nic Cage would have worn for the film – perhaps betraying the ‘fanboy’ nature of Schnepp’s project (where dwelling on seemingly superficial accoutrements becomes a matter of cultish fetishisation).
But barring Nic Cage – whose presence is nonetheless felt through the use of now-totemic archive footage of costume fittings – Schnepp manages to assemble all of they key players involved in the cancelled production to have their say (on this point he gets one over ‘Lost Soul’, in which the absence of Kilmer and fellow actors David Thewlis and Ron Pearlman is keenly felt).
Giant spider! Pre-production concept art for Superman Lives
If nothing else, the film is a treasure trove of concept art. The jump to a high-budget production of this kind from Dune and ‘Moreau’ is made all the more evident by just how many varied talents were brought in to help bring Burton’s vision to life, and Schnepp succeeds in bringing the wild, colorful panoply into relief.
But for better or for worse – and despite a somewhat woozy presence from Burton himself – the key attraction remains producer Jon Peters. A former hairdresser with claims to bona fide street cred (at one point he tells Schnepp he was in “five hundred fights”), he comes across as a well-meaning nuisance at best, a bully at worst. He’s a fervent believer in the project but clearly also the product of the deluded Hollywood machine; 20 percent substance and 80 percent bullshit.
Tales of wondrous projects squashed by the machinery of ‘reality’, these films give breathing space to a pop culture landscape rapidly losing any heterogeneity in the name of financial security.
Perhaps they’re also a by-product of the internet age, in which nothing remains hidden for long, and where film fans become pseudo-historians and archivists by proxy. Whatever the case, I hope that they end up serving as cautionary tales above all, rather than just harmless curiosities.