Saturday, 12 March 2011

When ‘R’isky Movies Attack

Question: What do Paul Verhoeven's blood drenched battle epic Crusade, Martin Scorsese's period gangster flick The Irishman and Oliver Stone's controversial dramatisation of the brutal My Lai Massacre Pinkville all have in common?

Answer: They are all hugely anticipated movie projects, largely violent in content, which almost got made but stumbled at the last minute due to studios getting cold feet and withdrawing their support, fearing the films too risky to greenlight.

Now added to that list is Guillermo del Toro's long gestating adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's horror tome At the Mountains of Madness which tells the story of a post WW1 expedition to Antarctica where a team of explorers encounter a malevolent alien civilianisation that can manipulate both physical and psychological matter, also having the power to control time and space.

Mountains was ready to start filming this summer but Universal Pictures crushed it this week by informing del Toro they felt uncomfortable investing $150 million on an R-rated esoteric monster movie. It was another blow to del Toro's already fraught efforts to realise his dream project, initially having planned to film the movie in 1998 when Dreamworks optioned the adaptation rights for the director. The project has since fumbled along, bouncing from Dreamworks to Universal. (Del Toro had in fact been actively developing Mountains independently since 1993.)

After bailing on The Hobbit due to studio inconsistencies, del Toro announced last summer that his next project will finally be Mountains. Universal was keen to associate itself with the visionary director and encouraged him to package it together. (The New Yorker suggests that del Toro was in fact fired from The Hobbit in order to facilitate Peter Jackson as director who had wanted to redeem his filmmaking career after making flops King Kong and The Lovely Bones.)

Adam Fogelson, chairman of Universal Pictures, was excited about Mountains, telling the New Yorker's Daniel Zalewski ― a journalist who has been following the Mexican director's attempts to get the ambitious movie greenlit ― that he was amazed at del Toro plans for the film saying: "The kind of movie Guillermo is looking to create is not something there's been much of in the recent past ― we think great films make great business."

The conditions were set. Don Murphy and Susan Montford were brought in to produce the picture. James Cameron, having just come off Avatar, signed on to exec produce and Tom Cruise was in final negotiations to come on board to star in the lead role of William Dyer (although the studio was initially pushing for the younger James McAvoy as he had starred in Universal's successful action film Wanted). James Cameron even sat in on creative meetings with del Toro at Universal where he convinced the director to lens the film with the same 3D technology he utilised on Avatar. This was a project where all the essential elements were cosmically aligned ― all they needed was the studio greenlight.

That optimism went to seed this week. In an e-mail to Daniel Zalewski last Monday, del Toro wrote: "Madness has gone dark. The 'R' did us in." Bizarrely this confirmation of cancellation on Mountains came shortly after producer Don Murphy had mistakenly informed io9 that filming was scheduled to begin in June but he later retracted his comments. (Does anyone in the film industry know what they are doing?)

It seems the suits at Universal were seriously uncomfortable with del Toro wanting to make the film for $150 million and insisting that his contract include the finished movie be allowed permission to risk an R-rating. Deadline reported that despite a stunning visual presentation that met the studio's budget specifications, Universal just couldn't risk banking so much money on a largely unknown period horror property that could prove to be a hard sell to mainstream audiences.

So it is at this stage the blogosphere erupts in aggressive vitriolic tones, berating Hollywood's aversion to funding original ideas and not respecting the esteemed vision of a gifted film auteur like del Toro. That is sort of true, but is there really any surprise in Universal's decision? Can they be blamed for not wanting to take a risk on a project that will probably backfire? The intelligent answer is that no one can wag their finger at the studio because it seems Universal made a sensible decision.

Before any further elucidation it must be highlighted that I am a fan of H.P. Lovecraft's original 1931 novella At Mountains of Madness and have also read del Toro and Matthew Robbins screenplay for the film, though it has surely been superseded by subsequent drafts since. It's a great story, though not to everyone's taste. The same can be said of the script, replete with rich atmosphere, crazy pacing and arcane sense of plotting. Much like Lovecraft's original story, the script lacks digestible character relationships and there is little in the way of emotional pull. Added to this is a lack of comprehendible horror context and bizarre imagery that makes the project difficult to anchor. The screenplay remains faithful to the original period setting of the novella which may have further perturbed Universal as the screenplay's characters, tone and dialogue signal prestige horror picture rather than a contemporary scary movie.

This brings us on to the question of studios stifling original projects because of 'unfeasible' apprehensions. Making films is a business and an expensive business at that. We're living in a time when the studios know what is more likely to work and those projects are often not adult in tone. With ever greater mollycoddling, studios are weary of making anything that will offend parents and guardians who may not permit their kids to watch even nominally violent content. (In America, R-rated films can be watched by anyone as long as they're accompanied by an adult, unlike here in the UK where 15 and 18 certificated movies cannot be watched by anyone younger than the age specified.)

The film consumer landscape of now is vastly different to 25 years ago when studios gave the greenlight to majorly expensive violent fare like Total Recall, RoboCop, The Silence of the Lambs, The Fly, Predator and Die Hard ― products designed to shock as well as entertain. Nowadays it's impossible to make those types of films as the costs are too great and directors are contractually obliged to deliver films within a safe classification rating. All this hints at economics and societal pressures dictating the current model for the types of movies getting greenlit. 20 years ago you were more likely to see your first violent film before your 13th birthday than what you are today. Added to this is the actuality it's hard to come by higher rated pictures as studios don't tend to make them anymore.

Furthermore, we can't be too hateful to Universal Pictures. Deadline noted that Mountains would need to take in $500 million worldwide to break even. It would have to be the most successful R-rated movie of all time or do Transformers and Harry Potter box-office to keep investors happy. R-rated films of late have been low or mid-budget films where the risk is offset by manageable budget and affordable viral ad campaigns. Del Toro's envisaged proposal for Mountains would have required massively expensive P&A (prints and advertising) that would have further exacerbated its bottom-line.

Plus it's not like Universal hasn't taken gambles and got its fingers burned recently. Last year the studio banked films like Green Zone, Robin Hood, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: expensive director driven projects that failed to find a satisfactory audience base. The studio also released a $90 million remake of The Wolfman which was an R-rated period horror picture that seriously underperformed. If anything The Wolfman was an easier sell than what Mountains will be and it cost 40% less than the former. Considering the entire data available one can't blame Universal for not wanting to proceed with Mountains.

Yes, it would be grand to see del Toro's hugely expensive treatment of Mountains but it was not meant to be. To be honest, it's surprising that a project like this managed to get as far as it did in the development process. As del Toro eloquently explained to Zalewski, Hollywood is "the Land of Slow No," with studios dragging out their decision to ultimately suspend further support for movie projects they were initially keen on. It's flummoxing how del Toro can invest 18 years of work in a film and then just walk away from it. I find it difficult to understand why he couldn't trim the budget to a less alarming figure or at least limit the depiction of violence, but then again I suppose for us people who don't actually make movies we cannot gage the difficult processes involved in balancing creativity with fiscal control.

It's like when director Mark Romanek, who was originally hired to helm The Wolfman but bailed due to budgetary issues, claimed: "[People argue] 'he (Romanek) couldn't figure how to make a movie for a hundred million dollars', well you know what? If you are 30 or 40 or 45 million dollars shy of what you need that's on the page and there's a strike and you can't change anything [in the script], what the fuck do you do? That's a problem. It's very easy for people that actually don't make films to say 'Oh, he couldn't figure it out for a hundred million dollars'."

Maybe a similar line of defence will ring from del Toro in future interviews about Mountains. Much like Romanek, del Toro didn't want to bargain his vision, thus choosing to abandon it because by reducing the budget it wouldn't comply with his goals. This was a passion project for the director and he was not willing to compromise his dreams. Perhaps it is exactly that kind of thinking that separates creative geniuses like del Toro from the rest of us.

Deadline's Mike Fleming reported on Wednesday that del Toro has since announced he will shoot Warner Bros. creature feature Pacific Rim this September as his next movie, for which he is contractually obliged to turn in a PG-13 rated cut. When Fleming quizzed del Toro about his feelings regarding the current state of studio film commissioning the director said: "What is really dramatic to me is that most decisions are now being taken by comps, and charts, and target quadrants. All these marketing things we inherited from a completely different system, in the 80s, it has taken hold of the entire industry. Marketers and accountants seem to be running things and less and less of the decisions are in the hands of filmmakers." He went on to say: "I've been offered four or five times at different studios the chance to make [Mountains] in what I think was the wrong way. With $20 million or $30 million less than what I need, with a contractual PG-13, and I don't want to do it that way.

There will always be fantastic movies that were so near yet so far away from getting made. It will probably become an even commoner phenomenon as time goes by. The market isn't like what it used to be even 15 years ago when MGM made the NC-17 rated Showgirls, New Line bankrolled grisly serial killer film Se7en and Warner Bros. released gloriously senseless violent thriller Natural Born Killers.

Expensively violent movies for grownups are pretty much dead. Just like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd sang in his jaded lyrics about the film industry: "Who knows what it's about, as long as the kids go.

It makes you want to punch someone, and not in a PG-13 way either.


  1. wow, this was a very very long post :)
    Well, with the frightening possibility of Tom Cruise getting the lead in THE MOUNTAINS I'm really not eager to see the final product :) But if they hire the super talented and amazing James McAvoy, now that would be a whole other story.

    I'm guessing the news of Del Toro possibly taking JOURNEY TO THE WEST project, that I've published today over at HOLLYWOOD SPY didn't make you happy :) I'm guessing he won't do that one.

  2. Love the Cruise. Find McAvoy too weasel like.

    Like I've said, del Toro is now more famous for the stuff he hasn't done than the stuff he has done. He must have one hell of a brilliant mind being able to balance the multiplicity of projects he's currently developing, producing, writing, consulting on, starring in and - possibly - directing.

  3. Yeah i took them by phone, I know the quality is bad :D

  4. When I first heard about Del Toro developing Mountains, I was excited and intrigued. It's a PG-13 world and books/stories that deal with violent subject matter may not translate well.

    Del Toro is a genius and I've loved his Strain trilogy. A very cool take on vampires.

  5. Tom Cruise always kills it . Del Toro is good too.

  6. Del Toro is making PACIFIC RIM as a tactical move that affords him the chance to get MOUNTAINS greenlit next.

    It's like del Toro said over the weekend when he was questioned about it:

    "I've got to just keep going. I think that I am very, very aware that in an equation that included Tom Cruise and James Cameron, I am box-office-wise the weakest link in the equation. So hopefully with a little luck they will find me a little more useful next time."

  7. Oh wow this is incredibly informative. I am impressed with your knowledge! :)

    I read a small article about Tom possibly being in this movie last week, but didn't know the entire story surrounding it. Thanks for the head's up. Kind of makes me want to read the novella now, to see what all the fuss is about!