The low-rent death and high-rent rebirth of a superhero film

I’ll be damned!” You can almost discern a big exclamation point in a word balloon above director Oley Sassone’s head. Vacationing in Paris after shooting a German TV movie, he never saw the Aug. 25 Daily Variety item: Producer Bernd Eichinger had signed director Chris Columbus — best known for bouncing bricks off Daniel Stern’s head in the Home Alone movies — to make for Twentieth Century Fox a $40 million-plus movie version of The Fantastic Four, based on Marvel Comics’ venerable superheroes. If Sassone now sounds brick-struck himself, there’s a good reason: Two years ago, not only was he asked by Eichinger to direct The Fantastic Four, but-Holy Toledo!-Sassone actually made the movie for less than $2 million.

No, it’s not some loopy showdown between alternate-universe auteurs. It’s just a fantastic chapter in the annals of Hollywood deal-making. The potential profits from turning merchandisable properties like comic books into sequel- friendly franchises are so huge that producers will go to just about any length to enlist a major studio and an A-list director.

But nobody, it seems, has ever gone quite so far as Eichinger, a producer for the German-funded, L.A.-based Constantin Films. He declined to speak to EW for this article, but others swept up in his two Fantastic deals have described them. Eight years ago, before Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles kicked up the bidding for comics adaptations, Eichinger bought the rights to make a Fantastic Four movie. But by November 1992 his rights were about to expire, and the only way Eichinger could retain them was to have a movie-any movie-in production by Dec. 31. If not, the rights would revert to Marvel Comics, whose reps could then shop them around for considerably more than the amount Eichinger had paid.

Caught in a jam that might have stumped even Mr. Fantastic, the Four’s absurdly resourceful and elastic leader, Eichinger simply deferred his dreams of an expensive, custom-tailored superhero saga and settled for a hastily assembled facsimile. That way, say the people who put together the stopgap, if a better deal came through, Eichinger could shelve the quickie. If not, he could release it and likely make a profit. Without consulting Marvel — which apparently he wasn’t obligated to do — he took a provisional $2 million budget to B-movie producer Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures, and basically said, ”I want a Fantastic Four flick and I don’t want it good-I want it Tuesday.”

”The people at Concorde told me it would be a $3 million budget,” says Sassone (Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight), who had less than a month to prepare for an initial four-week shoot that started Dec. 26.

”It turned out to be about $1.5 million, which I might not have agreed to if I’d known.” One thing Sassone did know was the reason the film had been greenlighted-something cast members say they never heard about until much later. ”I thought, a month is kinda good to get ready for an independent film,” says Alex Hyde-White (Biggles: Adventures in Time), who plays the gray-templed Mr. Fantastic. ”Usually it’s, ‘Here’s the offer. Are your bags packed?’ ”

Actor Jay Underwood (The Boy Who Could Fly) saw such a strong opportunity in The Fantastic Four that he jumped at the offer to play the pyrotechnic Human Torch and agreed to dye his light-brown hair blond. He nearly got his bangs fried off by the first peroxide dose, which raised blisters on his scalp. The real burn, however, came nearly a year later, in December 1993, after the cast (including Rebecca Staab as the Invisible Girl and Carl Ciarfalio as the Thing) and director had spent months promoting the still-in- postproduction film at comic-book shops and sci-fi conventions. ”We busted our ass to finish the effects,” says Sassone. He even managed to wheedle a Concorde producer into allocating a bit of extra money for computer graphics- enhanced shots, like Mr. Fantastic’s arms stretching across the screen. The film’s composers, David and Eric Wurst, weren’t so lucky: According to Sassone, they spent $6,000 of their own money on the score and never got paid.

Ignoring requests from Eichinger’s company in the fall of 1993 to surrender the negative, Sassone went along with Concorde, he says, in pushing the film toward release. He was all set for a Jan. 19, 1994, premiere in Minneapolis to benefit children’s causes, including a Ronald McDonald House, when word came down that Eichinger had reportedly paid Concorde $1 million to buy back the film and shelve it-permanently. (Corman, who’s also working on a deal with Fox to remake some of his ’50s and ’60s cheapies, declined to discuss the settlement.)

”I just don’t get it,” says Hyde-White. ”Concorde and Constantin kept saying they loved the movie. From what I saw in the rough cut, it’s a decent, coherent picture.” Some who’ve seen the finished film in bootleg copies (available at conventions) have been far less enthusiastic: Sci-Fi Universe magazine called it ”a mess one (lost) movie that deserves to be lost.”

Marvel publisher Stan Lee, who created The Fantastic Four with artist Jack Kirby in 1961 and oversees the development of the company’s film and TV projects, says, ”I feel very, very sorry for the actors and the director and most of the people involved in (Sassone’s) movie. I tend to like creative people, and here were a bunch doing their best.” Lee concedes, however, that in Hollywood, quality carries a premium. ”I have a sentimental attachment to The Fantastic Four, and I was heartbroken to think it might appear only as a low-budget quickie. When you compare it with something like Terminator 2, I’m glad they’re gonna do it over.” And will the original cast show up for auditions? Maybe. But they’re all pretty sure the response will be, Hasta la vista, baby.