The Films That Never Were | Jodorowsky’s Dune, Lost Soul & The Death of Superman Lives

Poster for Alejandro Jodorowsky's aborted attempt at making Dune

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

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

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

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.

Poster for Death of Superman Lives

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

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.

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Gotham Nights | Top Three Batman Adaptations

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox's Batman prequel series Gotham

Carmen Bicondova as soon-to-be Catwoman Selina Kyle in Fox’s Batman prequel series Gotham

The Fox network’s Batman prequel series Gotham looks to be a solid but unremarkable bit of hokum, if this week’s pilot is anything to go by. An otherwise competent-enough police procedural, it relies far too heavily on Caped Crusader brand recognition, hoping that none-too-subtle “a-ha!” moments revealing an early version of Batman’s rouges gallery will be enough to make us sit up and pay attention for longer than a couple of episodes.

Still, its inaugural episode made me look back at some of my favourite Batman stories in non-comic book media. I’ve narrowed it down to a top three – a top three of features I don’t mind re-visiting on occasion.*

3) The Dark Knight (2008)

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

The late Heath Ledger as The Joker

There are only a handful of films I’ve watched in my life time that were bona-fide ‘events’ at the cinema. Not even a handful… off the top of my head I can think of two, maybe three films, tops, that weren’t just successful genre blockbusters but long-awaited, almost social events by dint of their pre-screening buzz and subsequent pop culture impact.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) was the first. Despite the fact that it disappointed me even though I was an easy-to-please kid at the time, George Lucas’ return to the sci-fi/fantasy world that made him a Hollywood pioneer felt like some kind of watershed moment: never mind its intrinsic worth as a film – it was a monumental gesture on Lucas’ part that bridged two generations of fandom, right at the cusp of the internet revolution, which lent fuel to the fire of its many detractors.

Following closely on its trail was a far less controversial film – though its sequels proved to be a fast-tracked mirror image to the disappointment caused by the Star Wars prequels ­– which I won’t hesitate to call a modern masterpiece: The Matrix; a cyberpunk collage which wore its homages proudly on its sleeve but which was also animated by a pioneering energy.

The Dark Knight was the third and final one that comes to mind – the only example I can think of from past adolescence.

There are several reasons why Christopher Nolan’s sequel to Batman Begins (2006) struck a chord with me (along with many, many others worldwide). Its escalating tempo perfectly mirrors the chaotic, all-pervasive nature of a terrorist attack (relentlessly topical for all of us post-9/11), with Nolan perfectly balancing blockbuster friendly action with what is now referred to a ‘grimdark’ approach to superheroics. But instead of coming across as too sombre for its own good, Nolan’s seriousness is both gripping and infectious. He commits to the material in a way that doesn’t feel preposterous or disproportionate, in a way that’s been justifiably compared to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995).

But it’s unsurprisingly Heath Ledger’s performance as the film’s key antagonist, The Joker, that keeps me returning to the film. Over and above the tragic romance of Heath Ledger being reported dead soon after the shoot wrapped, there’s something magnetic about his performance that makes it a joyous thing to experience.

Yes, it’s disturbing and dark – like his director, Ledger grabs the role by the collar and doesn’t let go, diving head-first into the nihilistic psychosis of his character. But despite being the orchestrator of the film’s panic and chaos, he’s above all fun to watch, a spirited grotesque in the spirit of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow who is enjoyable to experience even in isolation, as his introduction to the parliament of Gotham mobsters amply displays (and rewards in repeat viewings).

2) Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

Batman: Mask of the Phantasm

The Paul Dini/Bruce Timm Batman Animated Series – as transmitted (and dubbed) on Italian TV – was one of the defining cartoons of my childhood. Apart from bolstering my love of Batman lore, it also imbued in me a love of film noir and Art Deco.

It gives us a Batman origin story beyond the my-parents-were-murdered sequence, as well as an uncharacteristic and finely fleshed out romance. There’s no bimbotic Vicki Vales here; in Andrea Beaumont Bruce Wayne gets a mirror image of his traumatic obsession. Also packing in a great Joker story, the feature-length ‘Phantasm’ exquisitely built on the foundations set by the animated series.

Playing into Batman’s noir appeal while remaining kid-friendly, it also maintains a certain decorum absent from subsequent – and concurrent – movie adaptations. It certainly has none of the camp excesses of the much-maligned Joel Schumacher films, and neither is it particularly close in tone to the comparatively toned down Tim Burton opening salvos.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have a flair for the theatrical ­– just wrap your ears around Shirley Walker’s theme tune for a rousing introduction to this inspiring labour of love.

1) Batman Returns (1992)

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Feline fling: Michelle Pfeiffer and Michael Keaton in Batman Returns

Nolan gets all the accolades and Schumacher gets all the hate, but it’s Tim Burton’s second (and final) sequel to his soujourn in Gotham that stays with me to this day – to the point that I re-watch it every Christmas (the period in which the film is set, all the better to amplify its Gothic excess).

It is the only Batman film in the franchise that takes on the core absurdity of the DC Comics character and runs with it.

But it doesn’t run with it in the same way that Burton’s successor Joel Schumacher ran with it; turning it into a camp carnival of steel bat-nipples and shiny gadgets and architecture. In pitting Bruce Wayne/Batman against the double-menace of feral jewel thief Selina Kyle/Catwoman (the never-sexier Michelle Pfeiffer) and the orphaned freak-cum-underground mobster Oswald Cobblepot/The Penguin (the never-uglier Danny De Vito), Burton showed that he understood the inner workings of Batman and his rogues’ gallery.

It’s about watching mad people in costumes tearing each other apart (which is as far as you can get from the moralistic, dead-serious drama-thrillers of the latter-day Christopher Nolan trilogy).

The snowy pall of Christmas time over Gotham city only reinforces the stylistically-heightened panorama: a truly Gothic sight if there ever was one, and a more than apt rehearsal for that other Burton-sponsored classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

*This, incidentally, remains the ultimate litmus test for me when it comes to deciding what is a ‘favourite’ – particularly in this day and age when daisy-chain social media gimmicks keep requesting us to make a favourite list of this or that. If you truly love something, you’ll keep coming back.