Sunday, May 15, 2011

The "Never Got Made" Files #61 - #63: Carolco's Cinematic Craziness

Chances are if you saw an action picture in the mid-80s to the mid-90s that you recognize the familiar Carolco Pictures logo to the left.  Founded in 1976 by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna, Carolco – for years I thought it was Carloco, which sounds much better to me for a wild action company – became one of Hollywood’s biggest independent production companies thanks to their affiliation with action superstars like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger and affinity for throwing around the big bucks recklessly.  By the time they reached their 20th anniversary, the studio was all but dead thanks to its “live fast, die hard, er, young” attitude.  Carolco was totally the James Dean of the production company set.

Like most production companies, Carolco has a long history of undeveloped film projects. Their unrealized movies, however, were like their RAMBO or TERMINATOR franchises in that they became huge spectacles and the stuff of legend.  Even the casual moviegoer has probably heard mutterings about the unmade 1990s epic THE CRUSADES, a medieval tale re-teaming TOTAL RECALL’s Schwarzenegger with director Paul Verhoeven.  It is the film the Austrian famously said about, “We can’t possibly make this for less than $100 million.” I’m sure he would say $200 or $300 million nowadays.  Hey, I’ve got a way you can shave $20 million off that budget – don’t cast Ah-nold!  Anyway, this was typical of the company and today we’ll look at three ventures that encapsulate the madness of their non-moviemaking.  


The 1980s is often described as a decade of excess (at least for America it was) and a perfect example is in the late 80s Hollywood spec script sale tales.  Basically, a writer would come up with a hot idea and then studios spent obscene amounts of money in a bidding war (i.e. pissing contest).  The best part is I’d say 95% of the screenplays they went goo-goo over never got made; Hollywood in a nutshell right there.  One such script was David Chappe’s GALE FORCE, which sold for a record $500,000 to Carolco in 1989.

The project fell into the hands of young director Renny Harlin, who himself was a hot commodity after the success of DIE HARD 2 (1990).  According to an LA Times article, Harlin would earn a cool $3 million just to sign to direct this film. The tale of a sheriff in a coastal town who has to battle thieves and save his girl during a category 5 hurricane (“It’s like DIE HARD in a hurricane,” I can hear the execs succinctly saying), the big budget film was tailored as a vehicle for Sylvester Stallone.  The company slated a March 1991 start date for the film in Louisiana for a presumably summer 1992 opening:

Note how a script written by one guy suddenly has four (FOUR!) credited screenwriters.  Carolco also mentioned the film among their product in 1990 and 1991 Variety issues (bonus NGM items: note the unmade Stallone sci-fi actioner ISOBAR from Roland Emmerich and the John Hughes comedy BARTHOLOMEW VS. NEFF for Stallone and John Candy).

Despite having a firm start date, the film never got before cameras and dissolved.  So what happened?  According to an October 1991 article in Entertainment Weekly, the film fell apart due to endless rewrites:
Chappe was taken off the movie, and a succession of new writers came in, including top-paid screenwriter Joe Eszterhas (who sold the thriller Basic Instinct to Carolco for $3 million in 1990). He scrapped the Chappe story in favor of one of his own. ''The whole thing didn't work for me,'' says Eszterhas. ''I said I'd do an original screenplay with a hurricane in it — the only similarity. (Mine) was a film noir mood piece.'' 
Director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), who signed on to make Gale Force for $3 million, says he loved the Eszterhas script. But the writer's arty love triangle wasn't the movie Carolco wanted to sell to foreign distributors. After a few months, Eszterhas accepted a $500,000 fee and dropped out, and Carolco hired two more teams of writers, each contributing a new perspective on the story. 
But Harlin, more finicky, rejected the next wave of drafts. Finally, earlier this year a writer turned in one based almost directly on the original script — the idea had come full circle. By this time, the company had already invested an estimated $1.75 million on scripts alone.
Yeah, you got that right, the company spent millions rewriting a script they “loved” and paid a record amount for, only to come to the realization after several rewrites that the original script was the best version.  Even funnier?  Carolco claimed they pulled the plug on the $40 million dollar film because it wasn’t cost effective and instead went forward with the Stallone-Harlin team up CLIFFHANGER (1993), which cost $65 million!  Funniest of all?  The rock climbing epic contains basically the same plot as GALE FORCE, just different locations.  If you ever get an itch to see what GALE FORCE might have been like, rent the similar HARD RAIN (1998) which has basically the same premise.  At least someone in Hollywood was paying attention.  Harlin’s CLIFFHANGER turned out to be a sizable hit for Carolco and they gave him carte blanche for his next film.  That movie turned out to be CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995), the film that effectively bankrupted Carolco.


Regardless of the behind-the-scenes chaos, at least something was born out of GALE FORCE.  The same can’t be said for MANHATTAN GHOST STORY, which unfolds like the stereotypical Hollywood “dream-cum-nightmare” scenario.  As the MGS legend has it, the film’s genesis begins when producer Robert Lawrence indiscriminately picks up T.M. Wright’s horror novel at an airport kiosk, reads it on the plane, loves it and immediately decides to option the film rights.  Ha, like I believe that.  A producer who reads?  Yeah right!

Anyway, to prove they mean (big) business, Carolco sets the film up and, in the fall of 1990, agrees to pay Ronald Bass (fresh off his RAIN MAN Oscar win) the record writer assignment sum of $2 million dollars to write the screenplay.  No doubt they had visions of GHOST (1990), the year’s top box office draw, dancing in their heads.

Yeah, you got that right again, the company paid the screenwriter big bucks to adapt a book.  Hey *raises hand* I’ll do that for ¼ of the price.  My credentials, you ask?  I know how to read and type.

Carolco actively developed the supernatural project for years.  Sharon Stone, hot after Carolco’s BASIC INSTINCT (1991), was eventually signed to star and Carolco ran this ad in 1993 for the film with Mark Rydell (ON GOLDEN POND) attached to direct.

That is the closest the film has ever come to being before the cameras.  Just a few months later, this tiny blurb ran in October 1993 announcing Rydell was leaving the project:

The project stayed active in the screenwriting phase until Carolco's death in 1996. Eventually, the movie option was sold to Disney following Carolco’s bankruptcy where it was (once again) actively rewritten and developed as a project for Julia Roberts and director Wayne Wang.  Amusingly, it still has not been made.

#63 SADE

Now, before you think I am being overly cynical, let me say that I can understand the mindset behind the aforementioned spending sprees.  Action and horror pictures sell and, to quote ROBOCOP’s Emil, “It takes money to make money.”  This next example, however, is a perfect illustration of Hollywood’s tunnel vision and “inside the bubble” thinking.  In 1993, Carolco shelled out $1 million for the rights to Maurice Lever’s Sade: A Biography.  Yes, they wanted to do a biopic on 18th century aristocratic kink freak Donatien Alphonse François, Maquis de Sade.  Attached to direct was Paul Verhoeven, a man seemingly incapable of filming a movie for under $50 million.  Even worse, they were courting Jack Nicholson or Gerard Depardieu to star *grabs trash can and pukes*.

Now I would probably see a film like this.  Would Joe and Martha Moviegoer?  Hell no.  Not much happened on the production front, although Verhoeven did tell Movieline that he was hoping to cast his perennial female lead Sharon Stone as de Sade’s mother.  Yes, a woman in her late 30s as mother to potential stars 10 to 20 years her senior. Genius.  The film didn’t get made as Verhoeven moved onto the other film mention in the brief article above, SHOWGIRLS (1995) aka the world’s most expensive T&A film that helped bankrupt Carolco alongside a swashbuckling Geena Davis.

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