From E.T. 2 to Friday the 13th: 3-D: the Best Movies Never Made
On their film podcast, Best Movies Never Made, hosts Stephen Scarlata and Josh Miller rake over the ashes of movie projects which didn't actually make it to the big screen, often with a writer or director who saw their dreams go up in flames along the way. "People are a little worried about telling their story," says Miller, who cowrote the recent Sonic the Hedgehog movie. "But all of our guests afterward have said, 'That was like therapy, that was really cathartic to finally tell the story.'"
Scarlata became interested in unmade movies, and unmade versions of movies, when he discovered that David Cronenberg had once been set to direct Total Recall, a film which was ultimately made by Paul Verhoeven.
"It started in high school," he says. "Total Recall is my favorite Schwarzenegger movie. When I saw it when it came out, it blew my mind." Then Scarlata read a piece in the magazine Cinefantastique about Cronenberg's earlier involvement with the science fiction thriller. "It had an article in about Cronenberg’s Total Recall and about how Richard Dreyfuss was going to be in it," he says. "My mind was blown to think that there was a Total Recall without Schwarzenegger and without Paul Verhoeven. From that moment on, I was fascinated. I needed to know whatever I could find on movies that weren't made."
That fascination ultimately led to him producing the 2013 documentary Jodorowsky's Dune about director Alejandro Jodorowsky's doomed attempt in the '70s to adapt Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel. It was around the time of the movie's release that Scarlata first met Miller, who was similarly interested in the history of abortive movie projects. "I loved the doc so much and we started to become friends," says Miller. "If you talk to Steve for more than five minutes, inevitably some other interesting almost-made-movie story will come out of his mouth. I was like, 'I feel you should do more.' A podcast felt like a natural evolution."
Scarlata and Miller's guests have included Detroit Rock City director Adam Rifkin, who discussed his attempt to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise in the late '80s, and Cube filmmaker Vincenzo Natali, who talked about collaborating with fellow sci-fi auteur Richard Stanley on a never-made adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High Rise.
"For some people, it’s more painful than for others, often depending on how close they got," says Miller. "One of the producers of our podcast is Mark Altman, who [cocreated] the new CW show Pandora, but he also did the movie Free Enterprise, the kind of Star Trek-meets-Swingers film. He and his partner did that movie and they’d never actually talked about what happened with their attempts to make Free Enterprise 2. Because he is the producer of our podcast, he was like, 'Alright, I’ll tell the story for you guys.' And it was very heartbreaking."
Who would be the pair's dream guest?
"It's funny, we’ve now done two John Sayles scripts. We did Night Skies," says Miller, referring to the script Sayles wrote based on an idea by Steven Spielberg, "and the utterly insane Jurassic Park 4. In that, the military forms an elite squad with raptors and gives them guns and stuff. It’s like a Schwarzenegger movie almost where they send them on missions to take out drug dealers and whatnot. We’d love to get him."
"I want to say I’m stumped," says Scarlata. "I’m overwhelmed by that question, because there’s so many."
Below, the pair talk about their favorite episodes of the podcast.
MILLER: Night Skies is almost like Critters, a farmhouse gets attacked by a group of evil aliens, but there’s one sympathetic nice alien that forms a friendship with a kid in this farm family. Spielberg was clearly like, "Wait, let’s just make a whole movie out of this kid and the cute alien."
SCARLATA: E.T. came out on June 11, 1982 and just became this huge hit. Then Spielberg [and E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison] wrote a treatment, this insane treatment [for a sequel], and he brought back some elements from Night Skies, the bad aliens, into E.T. 2.
MILLER: It would have been a wild movie.
SCARLATA: Elliott and all of his buddies from the first movie are onboard a spaceship just being tortured for the entire treatment by these aliens. They torture Eliot to the point where he blacks out, and his screams echo into space, and E.T. hears it and comes in at the very ending of the treatment, the very ending, to save them. If this was made, it would have just destroyed kids. [Laughs]
MILLER: I've certainly heard the conspiracy theories that he wrote the treatment to tank the sequel, so the studio would read it and be like, “Never mind.” But I don’t know if I believe that’s what happened. Who knows?
MILLER: The screenplay by Nick Antosca, who did the Channel Zero TV show. For that episode, we had on director David Bruckner, who did The Ritual for Netflix, because he was going to direct it. I’m definitely a lifelong diehard Jason fan. This is one for sure we wish had gotten made, because it did a great job of doing all the low-hanging fruit, all the stuff you want from a Jason Voorhees movie, also putting in a lot of high-minded horror that I think Bruckner’s known for. The first half of the movie was more like the original Friday the 13th but starting midway through the movie it turns into this insane bloodbath once you really start seeing Jason. The first half is all kind of nighttime-y stuff and, then once Jason shows up, it’s all bright daylight, just insane death everywhere.
SCARLATA: This movie should have been made. The script is great. There’s this sequence underwater that in 3D would have been amazing. There’s a girl hiding behind a floating deck in the middle of the lake, and Jason’s on land and he starts walking from land into the water, and while he’s walking underwater you see bubbles trailing towards her. Eventually, he grabs her by the ankle and yanks her underwater, and it’s this [sequence] of her being dragged underwater and all the bodies of the victims that he’s killed. That sequence forever stuck in my mind.
MILLER: We did four episodes following this fascinating trajectory in the ‘80s where Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus of Cannon Film Group got the rights to Spider-Man, and tried to make the movie, and then eventually James Cameron was trying to do it. It’s so interesting thinking about how superhero moves were handled. When he got the rights, Golan knew it was a popular comic book, but it’s funny realizing how little he knew what Spider-Man was. Initially, he wanted to do a story where Spider-Man got bit by a spider and it became a werewolf movie where he kept turning into this spider monster. Then he looked at the outfit and was like, "Well, Spider-Man is a ninja." This as an era when Golan was making all these ninja movies. If you Google the poster they made for Spider-Man, to get some money for it, Spider-Man’s pose, it’s almost identical to Enter the Ninja, the movie that Golan made. Clearly, ninjas were on his brain.
MILLER: It’s a project not that many people have heard of from Fred Dekker, who [directed] Monster Squad and Night of the Creeps and more recently [cowrote] the newest Predator movie. This was going to be for Richard Donner (director of Superman and Lethal Weapon). Johnny Quest was a family adventure show in the ‘60s. They ended up making fun of it with that Adult Swim show The Venture Brothers Bros. It focused on this kid who acts like an adventurer. It has a fun, sci-fi, fantasy element. Fred Dekker is one of our favorite guests. I think we’ve had him on four times. Fred is kind of known as a horror guy but he really loves James Bond. Fred is a real James Bon aficionado, his nerd-dom goes deep on that one. I think he saw Johnny Quest as a chance to do his version of a James Bond. This was going to be for Richard Donner to make. It’s one of the best scripts we’ve ever read, that just hasn’t been made.
SCARLATA: It’s one of the most painful ones that we didn't get in the mid-90s, because it would have just killed, for kids, for adults.
MILLER: Sometimes you'll read a script, and it’s a lot of fun, but you also get why it didn’t get made. Like, our most recent episode was with Eduardo Sánchez, who was one of the guys who did The Blair Witch Project. One of the scripts we talk about is this Bigfoot movie he did that would have been pretty expensive. It has a ton of Bigfoot. It’s almost got a war movie feel to it. The script was fun and we would have loved to see the movie. But it’s also like, I understand why a studio was maybe hesitant to spend a lot of money on a period piece about people after a train crash fighting an army of Bigfeet. But Johnny Quest is one of those movies where it’s like, they should have made this movie. Richard Donner should have directed this movie. It would have been so much fun.
SCARLATA: It was through Turner Pictures. That’s who Donner was working through at the time. They had a crazy slate of movies they were working on, like a Gilligan’s Island movie, Spike Lee’s Jackie Robinson bio-pic, and Michael Crichton was making this modern-day Frankenstein movie. It just bottomed-up and all those pictures went away. I think the one that lasted was that John Travolta-angel movie (Michael).
MILLER: It was a two-part sequel to John Carpenter’s The Thing. It would have been a mini-series for Syfy. It was right after they’d done that Dune miniseries, which was high profile for the channel at the time. It did well for them and they were looking to do more big-budget things. This is another one that it’s painful it didn’t happen. The scripts are so good. The first episode is what you’d think of as a reboot, it’s recycling a lot of the same gags you saw in Carpenter’s film, even though it is a sequel. It begins with a bunch of Soviets finding Kurt Russell and Keith David’s frozen corpses, and obviously some particle getting back [to Russia]. Somebody had been infected by The Thing, and escaped from the Soviet Union, and the big inciting incident is that a plane crashes in, like, Utah or Nevada or something. It’s spreading through this little town. But then, the second episode, is where the writer, David Leslie Johnson, who is now one of James Wan’s go-to guys, does a lot of clever things. It’s a natural progression of, well, okay, if the Thing had kept going at the end of Carpenter’s film, what other crazy things would it have gotten up to? I think it was ultimately too expensive for Syfy to do at the time.
SCARLATA: It would have been like what Aliens is to Alien. It’s the sequel The Thing really deserved and taking it from Antarctica to the desert was a really clever twist. From the opening scene with Childs and MacReady from the first movie being frozen, I was kind of in, from that moment on.
MILLER: You could still do it!
The Best Moves Never Made podcast is available to hear via the Electric Now app.