Top Ten UNPRODUCED Screenplays

Here are the 10 best movies you're not going to see anytime soon. They're imaginative, emotionally complex, satisfying stories. And nobody who can afford to make them is will to -- yet.

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Two members of a very successful screenwriting team like to tell the story of how one of their scripts got such raves from a studio boss that they thought a surefire deal was in the making. When a good amount of time had passed without a bid on the script, the writers rang up their number one fan and were told, "Your screenplay's too good. Put it in the drawer. We'll only fuck it up." Ain't that the truth.

Twice before, in 1983 and 1987, I went digging for scripts that were just too good to get produced. My finds were unveiled in a now-extinct film magazine. Ten of those 20 screenplays have since been turned into such movies as Total Recall, Man Trouble, Jacob's Ladder, The Princess Bride, Eight Men Out, At Close Range, Jacknife, Miracle Mile, Love Hurts and Everybody's All-American. Another, Alive, arrives in theaters this month. It's astounding, really, that any of these scripts got produced--they were that smart and off-center--let alone that a couple of the resulting movies earned profits and critical acclaim. Personally, I didn't like any of those movies.

Some I actually hated. Why? Mostly because none of them came near to fulfilling the promise suggested by the printed page. This happens. Lots of filmmakers could tell you about the missed opportunities in the script by W. D. Richter that director and co-writer Peter Bogdanovich turned into the abysmal Nickelodeon. Or about how Lloyd Fonveille's highly praised revisionist Frankenstein story, derived from a novel by Vonda McIntyre, emerged as Franc Roddam's battered The Bride. Or about how hilariously David Giler's The Money Pit script read before it got Spielberged. Or about how Air America flamed out when producer Dan Melnick bumped writer-director Richard Rush and replaced him with Roger Spottiswoode.

In this year's hunt for the great American screenplay, I again pooled recommendations from writers, producers, directors, actors, story editors, agents and cinematographers. I read more than 70 scripts, searching for good entertainment, style, storytelling, vision and emotional resonance. Would audiences flock to movies made from these scripts? I have no idea. Would these movies excite, enrage, entertain, delight, amuse, challenge? With the right people behind and in front of the camera, and with some luck, definitely. Moviemakers, for your consideration:

CORTÉS

Nicholas Kazan, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Reversal of Fortune, harbors a script that offers high adventure of the highest order. Epic, sensual, apocalyptically violent and ferociously moral, Cortes paints a searing portrait of the 16th-century conquistador who vanquished Eden-like Mexico and its exotic inhabitants. Wrapped in what Kazan calls "science-fiction movie metaphors," Cortes and his men move through a magical landscape, encountering cannibalistic, sodomizing tribes in an other worldly drama that leaves both Spaniards and Indians as deeply mysterious to each other as Martians and earthlings might be. No wonder the role, which rivals Kurtz in Heart of Darkness for complexity and megalomania, has reportedly intrigued such stars as Andy Garcia and Mel Gibson.

In Kazan's telling, the historical catastrophe of Spain's clash with American Indian civilizations is played out with comedy, tragedy, valor and barbarism on both sides.

Ordered by Cuba's governor to "meet the savages, trade with them and teach them Christianity" but not to "settle the land or consort with Indian women," Cortes instead decimates the Aztec civilization, destroys grand ruler Montezuma II and plunders his vast treasures, defeats native armies of 200,000 with a band of 400, and beds exotic princesses. Kazan's Cortes emerges as monstrous, ruthless, power-mad and self-righteous. He is also one of the first of a long line of environmental terrorists.

For all its sweep and stunning detail, the piece, to which such directors as Peter Weir, Oliver Stone and Paul Verhoeven have reportedly been attracted, is not so much about conquering new worlds as it is about destroying paradise. As crops are burned, bridges are built and trees are cut down, the script shows us the very beginning of the end we now fear. "I became obsessed with wanting to write an entertainment that addressed environmental catastrophe without preaching," says Kazan. Written in 1988, the project is the passion of producer Ed Pressman and has been optioned by PentAmerica Pictures. Budgeted at a daunting $50 million to $75 million, Cortes is an epic that is worth the fuss. It does entertain, and it also haunts.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON

A funny thing happened two days after Robin Swicord delivered her screenplay of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Universal executives: Steven Spielberg announced he intended to direct it. The script sparked months of story conferences between Swicord (screenwriter of 1989's Shag) and Spielberg, a script reading with Tom Cruise, its intended star, and a green light from Universal on a $40 million budget. Then, with an imminent production date set, a not-so-funny thing happened: Spiel berg took on such other projects as Hook, Jurassic Park, Mr. Magoo and Schindler's List, and Orphaned.

Inspired by an early F. Scott Fitzgerald short story, the screen rights to which producer Ray Stark had owned for 20 years, Swicord's script revolves around a character who ages backwards. It's a moving, decade-spanning saga about being different, a freak, and being caught up in the cataclysm of the 20th century. With everyone around the ever-younger Button growing older, he abandons his unloving wife and detached kid to embark on such fabulous adventures as playing a stint as a jazz accompanist to Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman, serving in World War II and Vietnam, experiencing a thorny love affair with a beautiful, emancipated woman in the fashion industry, becoming a rock idol, and, in a ravishingly sentimental finish, coming to terms with his son, his lover and his own mortality.

Although Spielberg passed on Button, it continued to be championed by Universal executives Casey Silver and Josh Donen, the latter of whom subsequently left the studio to work for Ray Stark. The script was seen by such "A"-list directors as Penny Marshall, Robert Zemeckis and Barry Levinson, all of whom, says Swicord, "praised it to death." But passed. For all its potential pitfalls--for example, an 80-year story span (does one cast one actor or several to play the lead?)--here's a script that holds the promise of a classic.

EDWARD FORD

All the media hype about screenwriter Lem Dobbs that is unsupported by his produced work, The Hard Way and Kafka, is justified by his unproduced screen- play Edward Ford. A pissed off, freaky, dead-on Hollywood satire that reads like a mating of Nathanael West and the Eraserhead-era David Lynch, Edward Ford makes The Player seem euphorically uncynical by comparison. The eponymous hero is a forty-ish, movie-obsessed taxi driver who wiles away Saturday nights inhaling old flicks at fleapit movie theaters. By day, he casually auditions for acting roles by imitating Lionel Atwill in Son of Frankenstein, and aspires to nothing more ambitious than a career as a B-movie villain. He beds, then weds a slattern, whom he berates for so much as touching his meticulous card files which cross-reference every movie he's ever seen.

Edward gets befriended by the hip, sardonic Luke, who aspires to make movies and is, in fact, narrating this one. (At the beginning of the film we are told that the real-life Edward plays a cameo in this movie about him, and we're supposed to guess which character he is.) Explaining how his hapless friend appeared in a film once before, Luke explains that Edward didn't even rate as an "extra"--one of those people you see in a Biblical movie "huddled on the grass listening attentively to Christ"--but was merely "one of the dots on that hill 15 miles to the north." Edward's story is chock-full of parodies of such Hollywood underbelly types as a broken-down Western star who takes the hero to an indescribably weird party that the screen writer describes as resembling "a wedding reception for Tod Browning and Diane Arbus," and a wife-beating cult film director, modeled after Edward D. Wood Jr., who secretly wears women's undies. Then there's Edward Ford's lover, Mitzi, whom Dobbs describes as "a cross between a badly preserved child performer of long ago and something you might find in a primeval swamp."

This hilarious, out there script has spawned a cult of the faithful which includes mid-level studio executives who don't have the power to say "yes," as well as David Lynch, who has tried unsuccessfully to set this project up with several financiers, with himself as producer and Dobbs as director. One studio higher-up praised Edward Ford to me to the skies, but concluded, "It's just too weird to take a chance on. Unless, of course, Tim Burton and David Lynch took it on." Are you listening, strange dudes?

HAIR OF THE DOG

Steve Dejarnatt's Hair of the Dog is a quirky, raunchy, richly populated tale of a pill-popping, womanizing, hell-raising, failed Nashville crooner who fabricates a hoax about his imminent death and turns himself into an instant legend. Though the premise may recall the classic farce Nothing Sacred, Dejarnatt's hip, junkyard-dog attack on the material harkens back to Billy Wilder's scathing The Big Carnival. Set in 1965 against a back drop of guitar-playing hopefuls, hookers, animal catchers, hustlers and druggies, Hair of the Dog cuts its own idiosyncratic swath, taking jabs at pop culture's frenzy for celebrity, and spilling over with acerbic wit and touchingly crackpot characterizations.

"Elf Montgomery" stages a public psychodrama in which he appears to save real-life country music diva Kitty Wells from a vicious attack by a rabid dog. First pretending to be infected with rabies as a result of his heroic act, and then actually contracting the dreaded disease, and turning out to be allergic to the life-saving antidote, Montgomery's last days on earth become a media freak show. Hustled by record promoters, media sharks, horny groupies, quack "healers" and coattail-riding politicians, he finally wins an invitation to perform a "First and Last Performance" at country music's mecca, the Grand Ole Opry.

Montgomery is only one of several unforgettable key players in this mordant blend of social commentary and knife-edged tragicomedy. Robert Altman is an obvious candidate to have a field day directing this one. Despite having attracted fans everywhere from Paramount to Morgan Creek Productions, Hair of the Dog, written almost a decade ago, has never lurched past the admiration stage. "Announcing that I'm going to direct this arty movie for no more than $5 million in black-and-white starring Clancy Brown and William Forsythe doesn't gladden investors' hearts," explains Dejarnatt, who directed his own Miracle Mile. Still, several producers have approached Dejarnatt with the notion of casting the lead with one of the current pack of young country heartthrobs, so this movie might yet get made.

HELLO, STRANGER

"Everyone in Hollywood says: 'Bring us a My Man Godfrey, a Bringing Up Baby, a Lady Eve,'" observes screenwriter Topper Lilien, "but they didn't see a new screwball comedy when we laid one right in front of them." The funny-from-start-to-finish Hello, Stranger, by Lilien and Carroll Cartwright, is indeed screwball for moderns. It's a smart, corkscrew-plotted farce that boasts zingy dialogue, hip romanticism, frenzied plotting and, oddly enough, an unexpected emotional kick. Here's the setup: a cynical, '40s-style con man and a sexy, shrewd sharpie posing as his daughter scour the land for sucker sapiens. They never run out of people to fleece. First there's a Chinese gang boss from whom they swindle a fortune for a bogus "dragon's egg." Then there's a millionaire for whom the heroine poses as a blind, charity-minded Main Line Philadelphia do-gooder.

He's followed by America's dimmest zillionaire, who falls so hard for the heroine's rap that he's persuaded to decorate his penthouse in hundred-dollar bills. Next comes an elaborate scam involving a sexy, acid-tongued interior decorator, a Brinks truckload of money, Asian hit men, and a poodle and a dildo [don't ask). All this culminates in the leading lady's frenetic wedding--one of several in the movie--to the sweet, woman-mad male bimbo hero.

Lilien and Cartwright, who share credits on The Pope Must Diet, concocted the script on "spec" six years back with an unmistakable nod to classic Preston Sturges. But Hello, Stranger's gloves-off, mordant quirkiness--one of many qualities that keep it from being a What's Up, Doc?-type homage--has apparently perplexed Hollywood. "One studio executive actually asked us after reading it, 'Is this comedy?'" Cartwright says incredulously. Although such directors as Allan Moyle and James Lapine have "gotten" it, and Geena Davis is interested in starring in it, Hello, Stranger, on which A & M Pictures has dibs, still awaits the right director. A truly smart, wicked comedy? Boy, do we need one now.

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