Top Ten UNPRODUCED Screenplays
HYMN TIME IN THE LAND OF ABANDON
A lonely Indiana kid's life is altered forever when she discovers a battered old angel who can't speak and lives on Twinkies. So is the life of her single mom, who's addicted to Italian language study tapes and abusive men. The mom's brooding, live-in boyfriend, a science teacher, goes ballistic when he's faced with the same magical angel, and when he suspects his woman is falling in love with the angel's mysterious protector, he terrorizes the mother and child.
These are the offbeat elements in Jeffrey Bell's beautifully observed, quietly persuasive Hymn Time in the Land of Abandon, which was inspired by a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story. Bell's script contains living, breathing, complex characters--those throwbacks to another era of moviemaking--brought into conflict and discovery by a brush with the mystical.
Hymn Time, which producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury have been devoted to for years, shines with Bell's evocation of small-town rhythms, his attention to the needs and tensions that percolate just below the surface of every day speech, and his ability to stage extraordinary events at mundane locales like a Dairy Queen and a roadside antique emporium. Bell is especially nimble at juxtaposing "small," persuasive details--a child's horror at a slain deer left bleeding in her wagon, and then, several scenes later, the young mother's magical experience of waking in the middle of the night to find her yard has become a ghostly, beautiful deer park.
This script offers a feast for actors--there are made-to-fit roles for people of the caliber of Jennifer Jason Leigh, Daniel Day-Lewis, John Cusack and Brad Pitt. Hopefully, a director smart enough not to mistake "small" for trivial will see Hymn Time in the Land of Abandon for the lovely, piercing work it is.
IT ONLY RAINS AT NIGHT
Screenwriter Neal Jimenez, who wrote River's Edge, and wrote and co-directed The Waterdance, taps into something bleak, savage, personal and outrageously funny in this frighteningly deadpan parable. The screenplay, to which Johnny Depp has been committed for several years, reads like an odd mix of Kafka, Jim Jarmusch and a funky, Max Fleischer version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It's about a lonely, bland bachelor who by day beheads society's "enemies," and by night practices gourmet cooking while listening to old Jack Benny radio shows. The crisis in this offbeat world occurs when he falls in love with the severed head (it can talk, too!) of one of his victims.
Jimenez is that rare bird who can create an alternate universe that's completely idiosyncratic, yet accessible. In this hypersurreal world the central character is described walking against a background of the same stock footage of "neighbors" over and over. He lives by his company's motto, "To Protect and Sever." And, once he's awakened to the madness of his existence and ponders suicide, the old codger angel from It's A Wonderful Life comes along to advise him to go ahead and end it all.
It Only Rains at Night has producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury (who produced Jimenez's ac claimed screenplay River's Edge) sold. "It's one of those projects that development and middle-level executives just love, but that their bosses think is just too weird," says Sanford, known as an advocate of edgy material. "It is weird, wonderful, and with Johnny starring and Neal directing, it will some day make a very special movie."
Becky Johnston's Lenya chronicles the tumultuous relationship of theatrical legends Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill, and sets the stage for a big, fat, Cabaret-style romantic drama with music. Remember those lighthearted movie songfests of yesteryear in which characters sang and danced for the joy of it? This isn't one of those. "It's a period project that looks at the different forms love takes--and happens to feature some of the greatest music ever written," observes producer Neil Meron, who, with Craig Zadan, his partner at Storyline Productions, along with Margaret South, Bonnie Bruckheimer and Bette Midler--the troika at All Girl Productions--has spent nearly three years trying to launch the project with Midler starring.
It hasn't been easy, but, then, neither is the material. Johnston, who adapted The Prince of Tides, begins with Lenya becoming a '30s Berlin rave in the stage and movie versions of The Threepenny Opera, while, offstage, sparring and screwing ferociously with composer Weill, her lifetime love. Although both give each other tremendous freedom, their ardor cools. Lenya helps Weill escape from Nazi persecution, and later, in New York, during his glittering Broadway successes that include Knickerbocker Holiday and Lady in the Dark, they reunite. Later still, exiled in Holly wood paradise, they become totally devoted to each other until his death, after which the revered Lenya triumphs in a Threepenny revival, returns to Germany to record an epic album of Weill tunes, and becomes the keeper of the flame of Weill's legend.
Incisive and unvarnished in depicting Lenya's yen for casual lovers and her later marriage to a gay writer, the script's adroit use of Lenya's best-known Weill tunes-- "September Song," "Speak Low" and "Pirate Jenny," for instance--deepens an already rich, sweeping, emotionally complex story. Still, Lenya is an expensive-sounding project about a performer who became a household word only in very select households. The script remains at TriStar, and spokespersons for Storyline and All Girl insist that they are "absolutely committed to making it happen," but a star director has yet to commit to the challenge. The recent box-office failure of several expensive musicals, including Newsies and Midler's For the Boys, probably hasn't helped spur the effort. But here's the stuff of which new-style musical legends are made.
MARIO AND THE MAGICIAN
Here's a script that's been around forever. Based on Thomas Mann's allegorical novella, Mario and the Magician, a many-tiered parable of a Mussolini-like dictator's stranglehold over a populace, the screenplay adaptation was written by the estimable Abraham Polonsky over 40 years ago. Set in 1929 at an Italian seaside resort, the story's events unfold like those in a foreign movie directed by, say, Luchino Visconti in his glory days. The characters include a well-to-do, badly married, Mann-like writer, his beautiful wife, their daughter (who, bullied by local hooligans, strips off her mud-flecked bathing suit in public and nearly incites a scandal) and a handsome waiter--named Mario--who loves the writer's wife from afar. While these characters fill their lives with trivia that passes for substance, Fascist Black Shirts hover in the background, ready to prey on their complacency. The story strands are woven together during a performance by a mesmerizing, deformed magician who enthralls and taunts his audience, finally provoking his own murder.
All right, this is slippery, offbeat, arty material. But in 1950, Polonsky struck a deal with 20th Century Fox to shoot the movie on European locations, possibly with Laurence Olivier as the magician. Then, in 1951, Polonsky was black listed for alleged Communist leanings, and by the time he was able to resume his directing career in the late '60s, nobody wanted to finance the picture. Polonsky and producer Michael Kaplan (The Whales of August) almost succeeded in getting the project set up at MGM by 1983, the year Frank Yablans became chief operating officer. Budgeted at around $5 million, it was to star Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen, who had won an Oscar for Melvin and Howard. Then things imploded, Kaplan says, sighing, "perhaps because Yablans showed it to people who expressed doubts and made him less secure. People thought it was too intellectual, too political. Polonsky wanted to make it so badly, we actually once thought of shooting it on a very low budget and not releasing it until Mann's story reverted to public domain." Polonsky, 82 now, eventually lost the story rights. Klaus Maria Brandauer's name has recently been associated with a German-financed production of Mario, which Brandauer would direct for his debut. What a pity that Polonsky himself never got to film his very, very beautiful script.
Alfred Hitchcock once said he avoided making costume movies because characters in them don't go to the bathroom. Virtually everybody goes to the bathroom, metaphorically speaking, in The Revolution, an epic, knockout 16-year-old screenplay by Michael Wadleigh and John Binder, from a story by Wadleigh. In this world, people also screw, cuss, spit fire, scheme, brutalize and, finally, triumph. The fact that all the characters are historical personalities--George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and General Charles Lee among them--makes The Revolution, a pulse-racer about America's winning of freedom from England, all the more enthralling.
An opening note to the script, researched by Wadleigh and Thelma Schoonmaker, reads: "What's most remarkable about the following is that it's all true, down to the small details." An amazing statement, really (one the creators back up with letters from such historians as Arthur Schlesinger and Daniel J. Boorstin), when one encounters the myth-shattering moments in this 300-page plus script, envisioned as a four-hour "Part One" of a two-part epic. Among other things, there's the suicide attempt by George Washington--a deeply conflicted control freak who cracks up during battle and wanders zombie-like into redcoat fire.
There's the syphilitic General Charles Lee, a profane, explosive rascal whose brilliant military strategies helped Washington win the war. There's firebrand Samuel Adams, a scheming, glorious manipulator who actually plotted the revolution few colonists actively wanted. There's also a marvelous, larger-than-life Benjamin Franklin working overtime at his printing press, "Peru," to crank out paper money spattered with propaganda to help sway the complacent. And there's foppish rich boy John Han cock, mincing, spouting revolution and fawning over Washington's manly physique. None of these eccentricities and foibles diminish from the awesome stature of these founding fathers--if anything, the mythical figures are humanized and their achievements seem all the more amazing.
The screenwriters have devised riveting, Goyaesque set pieces during battle and civil unrest, in which the untamed colonists and slaves loot, mug and pillage, many of them remaining fierce British loyalists who have to be forced, badgered and paid to fight the battle for independence. Patriotism is shown as the exceptional and slowly expanding sentiment it actually was in those ambiguous times. And, by the script's end, freedom is shown to have been seldom so hard-won.
In 1975, Wadleigh, director of Woodstock and Wolfen, found allies for the project in United Artists executive vice-president Mike Medavoy and chairman Arthur Krim. The script also won for Wadleigh, who describes it as "the birth of guerrilla warfare, propaganda,- it's America's War and Peace," the interest of directors like Stanley Kubrick, Hugh Hudson and Sydney Pollack, and actors like Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Marlon Brando. In the end, the project's mam moth logistics defeated it.
"The budget was huge, particularly for a historical period that had never been proven to be 'box office,'" Wadleigh admits. When the UA prospects dimmed, the project was courted by such potential backers as ABC TV, which offered Wadleigh a fortune to make it, he recalls, "without the battles or the so-called 'controversial' view of history." Director Hugh Hudson's notorious megaflop on the same general subject, Revolution, certainly damaged the prospects for Wadleigh's endeavor. But Wadleigh received another flurry of interest in mounting the movie following the acclaim for PBS's documentary miniseries The Civil War. "The tragedy about this movie not being made," says Wadleigh, "is that it would teach people so much about the real foundations of our country. If two big movies can be made about Columbus, isn't an honest, no-bullshit movie about our founding fathers at least as worthy a subject?" Yes. One idea, in view of Hudson's bomb Revolution, would be to immediately change the title of this screenplay to, say, The Founding Fathers.
STILL UP FOR GRABS
Of the author's 1983 and 1987 choices for the 10 best unproduced screenplays, the still-unfilmed include:
Harrow Alley, Walter Newman's plague-years journal, an on-again, off-again project for years, long owned by George C. Scott.
Bad Manners, Steven Zaillian's '60s teenage comedy-drama, owned by producer Ray Stark.
Interface, Chip Proser's science-fiction tale, once fancied by Francis Coppola.
Natural Acts, Michael Kozoll's thirtysomething relationship study.
The Eagle of Broadway, a melange of fact and fiction that has long been a pet of producer Mark Johnson and director Barry Levinson.
The Tourist, Clair Noto and Patricia Knop's altogether original, alienated-space-aliens black comedy, now in development at Universal.
Kinfolk, Stu Krieger's family comedy-drama favored by producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, to which director Penny Marshall was once attached.
Ain't That America, a drama about disenfranchised mill-workers by Frank Pierson, owned by Warner Bros.
Ozone, Rob Dunn's raucous '60s girl-group romp, owned by Warner Bros.
Stephen Rebello is a contributing editor of Movieline.
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