The Best Movies Never Made
BY CHRISTIAN ZILKO, ALISON FOREMAN
AUGUST 8, 2023 9:00 PM
A tortured genius caught between what he can and what he should do, J. Robert Oppenheimer seems tailor-made to be the subject of Christopher Nolan’s first biopic. But there’s an alternate reality in which Howard Hughes — the eccentric Hollywood producer, business magnate, and airplane enthusiast (among other odd titles) — became the first to receive Nolan’s feature-length consideration.
The “Tenet” filmmaker got snaked by Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” in 2004, which also sought to capture the larger-than-life nature of Hughes and went into production before Nolan’s character study could take complete shape. His would-be portrait of the complicated American figure, played by Leo DiCaprio in Scorsese’s version, is one of many entries in a dense log of movies that might’ve been amazing if they’d made it over the finish line. But getting stuck in development is a common fate for countless films.
Everything from scheduling conflicts and failed funding to guild strikes and even national news items can stop movies from being made at any point along the production pipeline. Just take “Barbie,” which churned through tons of talent before Mattel found Greta Gerwig to champion its billion dollar box office smash. Relaunching Barbie as a fun feminist summer romp could’ve easily proven too tough an idea to crack, but the toy company saw it through and it paid off.
Unmade films don’t just happen because of studio interference or lacking creativity. The death of William Friedkin exemplifies the linchpin role directors play in getting movies made, with the late “Exorcist” director’s scads of abandoned projects offering insight into his creative priorities and the obstacles he faced even as a legendary filmmaker. (To commemorate the late director’s passing, we’ve rounded up many of Friedkin’s unfinished film ideas in a separate list.)
Listed in no particular order, the following are potential, unfinished movies we wish we could see. All titles reached at least some stage of what you could call “early development,” with some projects finished with different talents attached.
With editorial contribution by Zack Sharf. [Editor’s note: The following list was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated accordingly.
- Christopher Nolan’s Howard Hughes BiopicTitle
Nolan began writing a biographical drama about the billionaire tycoon and filmmaker Howard Hughes shortly after he made his major 2002 Hollywood studio debut with the Warner Bros. thriller “Insomnia.” The “Dunkirk” Oscar nominee told The Daily Beast in 2007 that the script for his Hughes biopic was the best thing he’d written, and pre-production got far enough along that Jim Carrey circled the role of Hughes (Nolan said Hughes was the role the comedian was “born to play.”) The project died once Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” got ahead of Nolan in the production cycle. Scorsese cast Leonardo DiCaprio as Hughes and Nolan did not want to make a competing biopic on the same subject. The director dropped his Hughes biopic and decided to reunite with Warner Bros. to direct its Batman reboot “Batman Begins.” —ZS
- William Friedkin’s “The Devil’s Triangle
In the greenish afterglow of his wildly successful “The Exorcist,” William Friedkin turned to the skies and plotted a path to making a UFO flick, tentatively titled “The Devil’s Triangle.” Unidentified aerial phenomena are buzzy enough these days that it’s easy to imagine Friedkin coming up with something fairly spectacular based on theme alone. But the film also had top talent attached with Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, and Charlton Heston playing men trapped in the Bermuda Triangle. The production of “Sorcerer” ultimately overran the endeavor, and “The Devil’s Triangle” was abandoned. —AF
- Bette Midler as Mae West (as Directed by William Friedkin)
Development execs at HBO Films had the brilliant idea to cast musical comedy icon Bette Midler as bawdy Hollywood legend Mae West in a film aptly titled “Mae West” in 2013. They topped those smarts with a plan to have William Friedkin executive produce and direct a script written by Harvey Fierstein. The project never materialized, but reportedly would have charted West’s rise to big-screen stardom through her raunchy live performances and their legal and social ramifications. —AF
- “Barbie” Written by Diablo CodyTitle
Known for “Juno” and “Jennifer’s Body,” Oscar winner Diablo Cody was one of many screenwriters approached by Mattel to adapt Barbie for the big screen, before the toy company ultimately settled on Greta Gerwig’s vision. Cody never turned in her take on the famed doll brand, telling GQ that she just “couldn’t figure it out.” Still, intrigue around what she might have made persists. “I think I know why I shit the bed: When I was first hired for this, I don’t think the culture had not embraced the femme or the bimbo as valid feminist archetypes yet,” Cody said to GQ. “If you look up ‘Barbie’ on TikTok you’ll find this wonderful subculture that celebrates the feminine, but in 2014, taking this skinny blonde white doll and making her into a heroine was a tall order.”“I heard endless references to ‘The Lego Movie’ in development, and it created a problem for me because they had done it so well,” the writer continued. “Any time I came up with something meta, it was too much like what they had done. It was a roadblock for me, but now enough time has passed that they can just cast [‘The Lego Movie’ actor] Will Ferrell as the antagonist in a real-life ‘Barbie’ movie and nobody cares.” —AF
- Martin Scorsese’s “Dino”
Martin Scorsese has long wanted to make a Dean Martin biopic titled “Dino.” The director bought the rights to Nick Toches’ book of the same name way back in 1992 and brought on his “Goodfellas” and “Casino” screenwriter Nicolas Pileggi to write the screenplay. Rumor had it Scorsese was ready to cast “Dino” sometime around 1997 and was planning to cast Tom Hanks as Martin and John Travolta as Frank Sinatra, plus Hugh Grant, Adam Sandler, and Jim Carrey in supporting roles. Scheduling conflicts and budget negotiations between Scorsese and Warner Bros. delayed the project, so Scorsese went off to make “Gangs of New York” with Miramax instead. “Gangs” ended up being a lengthy production and by the time Scorsese was finished Warner Bros. had dropped “Dino” from development. —ZS
- Baz Luhrmann’s Alexander the Great EpicTitle
Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” is one of the most notorious flops of the 2000s, but moviegoers were originally set to get another Alexander the Great film epic. Baz Luhrmann announced in 2002 he was developing an Alexander the Great movie along with his “Romeo + Juliet” leading man Leonardo DiCaprio. Stone’s movie was already in development at the time with Colin Farrell, so Luhrmann struggled to get the financing budget he needed to see his vision through. Some reports estimated Luhrmann was looking for a $150 million production budget. The project collapsed under its own ambitions, with Luhrmann and DiCaprio reuniting years later for the director’s “Great Gatsby” adaptation. —ZS
- Sofia Coppola’s “The Little Mermaid”
Sofia Coppola boarded Universal Pictures and Working Title’s live-action “The Little Mermaid” in 2014, but the more expensive the movie’s budget became the more Coppola realized she would have to compromise her original vision for the movie. Coppola wasn’t interested in making the family-friendly Disney version realized with Halle Bailey in 2023, but instead wanted to keep the dark elements of the Hans Christian Andersen original. The director told IndieWire the studio wasn’t going to spend big money on such a risky pitch, which included filming much of the feature underwater. The filmmaker eventually left after a year of development. The project floated around Hollywood without Coppola, with Chloe Grace Moretz cast as Ariel in 2015, but it never got off the ground. —ZS
- Sylvester Stallone’s Edgar Allen Poe Movie
Sylvester Stallone has been trying to get a movie about Edgar Allan Poe off the ground for nearly 30 years. As the writer-director-actor once said, “What fascinates me about Poe is that he was such an iconoclast. It’s a story for every young man or woman who sees themselves as a bit outside the box or has been ostracized during their life as an oddball or too eccentric. It didn’t work for him either…His work was too hip for the room…but he developed the modern mystery story. He was also one of the great cryptologists; there were very few codes he couldn’t crack. He was just an extraordinary guy.”
While Stallone originally wanted to play Poe himself, he later recruited Robert Downey Jr. to star in the title role. “It has [to] be like Downey, I designed it for Downey,” Stallone explained. “Perhaps I could re-work the script. [Maybe] Johnny Depp. It needs a very special actor like that.”
The project got far enough long where Downey Jr. read the script and was impressed, telling Screen Rant in 2009, “Stallone wrote a great script that he wants to direct about Edgar Allan Poe.” Nearly 15 years later, the project has yet to move forward. —ZS
- Terrence Malick’s Che Guevara Biopic
Steven Soderbergh’s 2008 biographical drama “Che” first got its start as a Terrence Malick-directed drama. The “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven” filmmaker was obsessed with Che Guevara during his time as a reporter for LIFE magazine and was approached by Soderbergh (fresh off “Traffic” at the time) to direct a Che biopic. Soderbergh already had his “Traffic” Oscar winner Benicio del Toro lined up to play the title character. Malick began working on the script, which focused exclusively on Che’s Bolivian campaign from 1966–67, but Soderbergh revealed Malick’s draft was “unreadable.” Producer Bill Pohlad told The Wrap in 2011 that Malick’s screenplay was daunting” and not an “easy” read. Soderbergh ended up taking over the project and starting from scratch. Malick’s Che feature died and the director went on to work on “The New World.” —ZS
- Quentin Tarantino’s “Star Trek”
Quentin Tarantino has always preferred to work on original projects, but a chance to play in the “Star Trek” sandbox was almost too much for the longtime Trekkie to resist. In 2019, it was announced that Tarantino was working on his own “Star Trek” film inspired by “A Piece of the Action”: an episode of the original series that takes place on a planet that based its culture on 1920s Chicago gangsters.
Tarantino toyed with directing the project, which likely would have been rated R, but ultimately decided not to make it as his last film. Still, the idea of Tarantino making a “Star Trek” film that combined aspects of science fiction and gangster movies will have cinephiles asking “What if?” for years to come. —CZ
- Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Old Fink”
The Coen Brothers have never made a sequel to one of their films, but have been open about their desire to continue the story of “Barton Fink.” The genre-bending black comedy stars John Turturro as a radical playwright struggling to work within the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s, but the filmmaking duo has plans for a sequel that would pick up nearly 30 years later. Because the eponymous protagonist would be older, they appropriately want to title the film “Old Fink.”
“That’s another 1967 movie,” Joel Coen said. “It’s the summer of love and [Fink is] teaching at Berkeley. He ratted on a lot of his friends to the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
While the idea of Fink becoming a rat would mesh well with the hypocrisy of the character that they established in “Barton Fink,” the brothers seemed to be equally excited about the fashion choices that the 1960s setting would open up for them.
“He’s got the George Kaufman hair but he’s going gray,” Ethan Coen said. “He wears a medallion.”
The Coen Brothers always planned to wait decades for Turturro to be old enough to play the role, so “Old Fink” may not be dead yet. But given the turbulent status of Joel and Ethan’s filmmaking partnership these days, fans probably shouldn’t hold their breath for this one. —CZ
- Spike Lee’s Jackie Robinson Biopic
Spike Lee gave cinephiles the ultimate gift during the pandemic in 2020 by dropping the full screenplay for his unmade biopic about baseball icon Jackie Robinson. A decades-long passion project for Lee, the script was based on Robinson’s autobiography “I Never Had It Made.”
“We’ve all had a lot of time to think about stuff, our life, what happened, what didn’t happen. And I began to think about one of my dream projects,” Lee said in a video accompanying the release of the screenplay. “I wrote a script for Jackie Robinson. I wanted Denzel to play Jackie, but Denzel said he was too old. And I pulled this script out of the vault. And so, I’m gonna share this script with you. And also — don’t worry about if you don’t like baseball, sports. This is a great American story. Never got made, but I wanna share this script with you…It’s the fifth draft, 1996…Hope you enjoy it. If you don’t, that’s alright, too.” —ZS