One man who resolved very early in his career that he was prepared to risk his neck in Lovecraft-land was Guillermo del Toro. The director first began sketching out design ideas for a possible adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness around the time his debut film, the vampire movie Cronos, was released in 1993 and by 1998 he had completed a script with Matthew Robbins, who cowrote the director’s 1997 giant bug film Mimic.
In March 2000, it was announced that New Line Cinema’s president of production Michael De Luca had hired Del Toro to direct Blade 2, the second in the Wesley Snipes-starring vampire series. De Luca, too, was a Lovecraft fan and, in fact, had penned Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, whose Lovecraft hat-tipping extended well beyond its title. In June 2001, de Luca was appointed head of production at the Steven Spielberg-cofounded DreamWorks. The next spring, after Blade 2 earned a more-than-healthy $33M on its opening weekend, it was announced that the Mexican director was negotiating with De Luca to direct Mountains for Dreamworks.
Over the next five years del Toro’s star continued to rise as he made 2004’s Hellboy and then 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth but Mountains remained very much on the director’s mind. In an article published by the Irish Times in September 2004, Del Toro said that Spielberg “loved” the project and that DreamWorks was “extremely supportive” of the film. “I keep saying that will be my Titanic,” del Toro added. “Which, of course, could be taken two ways.” Despite Spielberg’s alleged enthusiasm, DreamWorks never greenlit the project. De Luca left the company in June 2004, and by 2006 the director was in talks with Warner Bros. about the movie.
By now, the director’s enthusiasm for the idea of adapting Mountains was well known to his growing fanbase. At the end of 2006, del Toro answered a series of queries posed by EW readers, one of whom asked whether he had yet found a studio for Mountains. “Not really” del Toro replied “although WB is still interested if I can do it for a certain number.” When another EW correspondent suggested del Toro was the “perfect” director to oversee Mountains, he responded “Somebody, quick! Send this Q&A session to the WB production dept NOW!!! Woo-hoo!!!”
Around the same time del Toro spoke with EW he gave an interview to London Time Out in which the filmmaker made clear that one of the major obstacles to getting Mountains into production was his own determination to stay true to Lovecraft’s tale. “I’m trying to do a trailer to show the studio what the movie could be,” said the director. “I finished the script three years ago, I already have my designs and I believe we are three quarters of the way there but the studio needs another push. So I’m going to make a trailer to show Warner Bros. what the movie could be. Because I believe that movie could be absolutely amazing. The studio is very nervous about the cost and it not having a love story or a happy ending, but it’s impossible to do either in the Lovecraft universe. Mountains of Madness is a very difficult novel to adapt, but if we ever made it, it will be a great movie to see. It will be an event.”
Ultimately, the attempt to get the project off the ground at Warners would also come to naught. Instead, del Toro busied himself with Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which would be released in July 2008. Earlier that year, the chances of del Toro making Mountains his next movie had seemingly diminished from slight to nonexistent with the news that he had been hired to direct The Hobbit. But the film’s production was repeatedly delayed, in large part thanks to the bankruptcy of MGM, and in the spring of 2010 del Toro announced that he had decided to leave the world of Gandalf, Bilbo Baggins et al.
In June 2010, while attending the Saturn awards, Del Toro made clear in an interview for the website Collider that, while he still had ambitions to make Mountains, he felt it unlikely a studio would put up the money to realize his vision. “I would love to be doing At the Mountains of Madness,” he said. “But still it’s very difficult for the studios to take the step and do an R-rated tentpole movie with a tough ending, no love story, set in period.”
Del Toro’s luck was about to change. Or so it seemed. Around the same time as the Saturn Awards, the director met with James Cameron, who had first encountered the filmmaker just prior to the release of Cronos and stayed in friendly touch over the years. Del Toro told Cameron that he wanted his next movie to be one that would feed his soul as a filmmaker. “What’s your favorite project?” Cameron asked. Del Toro replied the movie he most wanted to make was At the Mountains of Madness. “Let’s do it,” Cameron replied.
On July 28, the horror fan community achieved collective nerdgasm when it was reported, accurately, that Cameron and del Toro were in negotiations with Universal to make the movie. “It’s going to be an epically scaled horror film and we haven’t seen anything like that in a really long time,” Cameron told Wired in August. “I guess since Aliens.” With Universal providing seed money for the project, the director employed a team to design the movie’s monsters, of which there would be many. In addition to the Old Ones and the Shoggoths, Guillermo also intended to depict the dreaded Cthulhu. Meanwhile, the rumor mill had Tom Cruise, James McAvoy, and Chris Pine all in the running to star in the film, which del Toro and Cameron intended to shoot in 3-D.
In a video interview posted in February 2011, Cameron confirmed to MTV that he and Guillermo had approached Cruise about the project. “Tom does want to do the picture,” he said. “I don’t think we have a deal with him yet, but we’re hoping to get that closed soon. Guillermo is madly working on a new draft of the script. Hopefully we’ll be shooting by June or July.”
That hope was shattered when Universal ultimately declined to greenlight the movie, whose budget would have been in the region of $150m. On March 7 del Toro emailed the CritierionCast website declaring the project to be “dead.” In another missive, to a writer at The New Yorker, the director elaborated: “Madness has gone dark. The ‘R’ did us in.” On March 9, the director announced that his next film would be the monster movie Pacific Rim.
Despite this setback, del Toro remained determined that one day he would return to his dream project. Last July, in the course of Entertainment Weekly’s Visionaries panel at Comic-Con, the director said he hoped to still make the movie: “I’ve been trying to do it for so many years. We were so close, and the incarnation we were going to do is so great, I don’t want to give up. I hope I make it. It’s one of those movies that’s a Holy Grail for me.” Finally, this April, even del Toro seemed to lose faith when he realized that the plot of Prometheus might make any version of Mountains seem like old news to the public.
So is del Toro’s dream of adapting At the Mountains of Madness really dead? Maybe. Maybe not. Yes, the box office success of Prometheus means some cinemagoers might find a Mountains adaptation thematically familiar. But the film’s box office figures also demonstrate that there is an appetite for exactly the kind of Lovecraft-inspired, philosophically-inclined monster mayhem which del Toro has now spent two decades trying to bring to the big screen. And, as the sequels-filled movie release schedule proves week after week, a lot of studio executives seem to believe that familiarity breeds contentment among moviegoers.
Of course, when you’re talking about H.P Lovecraft, it’s always unwise to assume that anything is ever really dead. Just ask the doomed explorers in At the Mountains of Madness. Except, of course you can’t. So, instead, let’s let the last words go to Lovecraft who, in The Call of Cthulhu, wrote…
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.
Have you seen Prometheus? Do you think del Toro should abandon his dream project? Or do you agree with the correspondent to the director’s website who yesterday argued that “if there’s room enough for two Snow White movies released within the same year there’s room for Prometheus and AtMoM to be released years apart. Given how important it is to Guillermo I hope we get to see it at some point.”?