Development Hell – When Does a Movie Take Too Long to Make?

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.  These are the opening words of Stephen King’s epic 8 volume tome, The Dark Tower, considered to be the esteemed author’s crowning achievement in the literary world.  The sentence, taken into the context of the entire series could be read in face value as a statement of plot, or carry a deeper meaning to the themes of the story.  But, more than anything, it establishes for the reader the sense of a journey taking place before our eyes.  Now, who would have thought that the hardest journey that would befall this story would come about in it’s trek through a treacherous land known as Hollywood?  After many years of talk and numerous attempts at production, The Dark Tower finally made it’s way to the big screen just last week, fulfilling a desire that many fans of Stephen King and of the books had longed hoped for.  And the end result of all that waiting was an overwhelming and almost universal feeling of disappointment.  Why did a movie with almost two decades of development result in such a lackluster showing?  A variety of factors certainly contributed; primary among them being the fact that the movie wasn’t very good.  Fans of the books in particular were really sore about the way that the vast, epic story got truncated into a singular 90 minute film.  Other casual fans were left confused because the movie failed to properly establish it’s world and lore, making them wonder why it even was worth getting excited about.  But, what I see with The Dark Tower is a prime example of a project that unfortunately get mismanaged due to the unforgiving forces of time in the Hollywood machine.  This process is also so common in the industry that it’s been given it’s own ominous name; Development Hell.

When The Dark Tower began in the 1980’s, with the publication of the first volume titled The Gunslinger, Stephen King was already a household name and already in good standing within Hollywood.  Two of his books had already become box office hits (1976’s Carrie and 1980’s The Shining), and many more were already in development.  King was also beginning to use his fame to carry a lot more clout within the industry, stressing his displeasure with how some of his stories had been changed for the big screen.  As The Dark Tower continued to be written with each subsequent volume, King remained very protective of his work.  Hollywood remained more interested in King’s more grounded thrillers for the most part, considering that they were cheaper to make than adapting a multi-part fantasy saga.  But, that changed when the success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter brought fantasy back into the spotlight in a big way.  Suddenly The Dark Tower was in demand and given the opportunity to be brought together as a whole.  However, this was easier said than done.  Initially, it was revealed that director J.J. Abrams was going to be involved, but he quickly dropped out after landing the Star Trek gig.  Then Universal, the rights holders, announced that they were bringing the entire series together through a joint theatrical and television presentation under the supervision of Ron Howard; with a trilogy of films and two seasons of a series giving enough time due to the epic tale.  Howard even got as far as casting before Universal got cold feet.  The project was given over to Warner Bothers, who soon balked at the soaring budget, and they passed, also leading to Ron Howard’s departure.  Sony picked up what was left, managed to cast Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in the leads to fans approval, and got the film finally completed after many years.  Sadly, all that work and determination doesn’t always translate into a good movie.

So, are the studios to blame for The Dark Tower’s failure.  Are Stephen King’s books just too un-filmmable?  Are audiences just not interested in the story anymore?  There is no simple answer to what happened to The Dark Tower and where things went all wrong.  The simple thing is that time took it’s toll on the project, with more and more complications adding to inevitable disaster.  Being passed around didn’t help the project at all, and it probably would have served the movie better to have been scrapped and restarted somewhere else, where better opportunities could have benefited it.  Unfortunately Hollywood is not a place that likes to admit failure.  A lot of projects that enter “development hell” never get out, because doing so means that money spent just ended up going to waste.  A lot of companies purely use unfinished projects as fodder for trade, protecting the value of the rights for that project while at the same time never doing anything with them.  Eventually a studio gives up their claim when more interested parties come along, and they can make a sale or trade that passes along the cost of the project to another, allowing them to recoup.  And in all this time, no movement on the project ever gains speed.  That’s why it’s called “development hell,” because it’s where projects disappear and live out a tortuous existence out of their control.  And if a project does make it out, it doesn’t turn out for the better, like with The Dark Tower.  With promising ideas behind it’s back, like the TV and Film crossover, The Dark Tower could have been really something, but instead we are left with a lackluster single outing that feels like the bare minimum of what could have been.  It’s a sad result, but The Dark Tower is not alone.

Honestly, the fact that The Dark Tower exists at all is something of miracle, considering how unforgiving the industry can be.  Development Hell not only affects big projects like Tower, but a whole variety of other projects as well, ranging from those still in script phase all the way to films in physical production.  For every movie that makes it to completion, there are maybe twenty more that don’t.  More than anything, it’s an issue affected by dollars and cents.  Some movies gain traction, only to face a brick wall once the industry’s budget crunching sees the red flags appearing on the horizon.  It becomes less of a problem when the film is still in it’s scripting phase, because then all the company needs to do is cut the writer a check, and then just shelve the script, because it cost them nothing to just sit on it indefinitely, unless there is a licensing issue.  Unfortunately, other projects make it past the scripting stage and into physical production, which then contributes to a lot of budget overruns the longer a production is put on hold.  Once a project stops production, it becomes a lot more expensive to either keep it in suspension or to start it up again, which is why so many companies stop production early when things aren’t going well, and if it’s too late, they try their best to pass the cost over to someone else.  Money problems are not a new thing in Hollywood, as a lot of the industry is built upon the foundation of many failed enterprises.  But, some productions go even too far, and take on a life of their own as stories about what could have been.  Tim Burton’s failed attempt at a Superman film resulted in a now legendary aborted production, and Terry Gilliam’s many attempts at adapting Don Quixote  to the big screen ironically echoes the futile journey of it’s literary subject.  Both productions have been spotlighted in documentaries, The Death of Superman Lives (2015) and Lost in La Mancha (2002), which do an exceptional job at showing just how maddening it can be to see a movie start production, only to fall apart and never see the light of day.

Sadly what contributes to the state of these failed productions is something that I already spotlighted in a previous article, and that’s the unfortunate agitator known as hype.  Hype can be a movie’s best friend, but it can also unsteady a delicate situation and make the inevitable fall all that much harder.  One thing that Hollywood seems to love doing often is generate early hype for a production.  It can either appear as an Easter egg in some franchise film, or produced through a word of mouth whisper campaign through press circles, or even made through a very pointed tease.  Regardless, Hollywood runs the risk for making announcements so early in production.  It’s even more risky when the tease is all they have.  Now, they have to live up to the audience expectations that created, and the longer that the film remains in production, the more they leave themselves open to disappointment.  Audience attention spans are far more fleeting these days, with tastes changing on a dime without any warning.  By the time a long awaited movie does finally come out, it’s window may have already passed, and the early hype would prove to be worthless in the end.  Sometimes, if well managed, studios can use early hype as a way of gauging audience interest, and if they see little excitement, then they can quietly let the project die in development.  Unfortunately, some hype campaigns are not well managed, especially when you run into the factor that some involved parties are more excited than others.  Directors and actors in particular love to tout their passion projects, and hype them up even when there is no chance for them to be made.  I remember when Guillermo Del Toro teased his involvement in a new Haunted Mansion movie with the Disney company with an announcement at Comic Con, complete with a teaser poster to go with it.  Sadly, many years later, this is all we’ve gotten related to the project, and in all likelihood, that’s all that will every be.  Early hype is good only if the possibility is there for it to become a reality, and if you are out there only promising dream projects that’ll never happen, sooner or later, audiences will stop believing in what you say.

Development hell is also factored by the moving target that is audience interest.  For a lot of movies, timing is everything.  A film can be well made and have a lot of promise, but if it is not in-sync with the times it ends up being released in, then it loses all of it’s appeal.  A lot of movies that make it past the script phase end up falling into this hole because of that reason.  There is a thing in the film industry known as the “Black List” which is an annual survey of what is regarded as the best un-produced screenplays.  These are the aforementioned scripts that the studios sit on, only they garner heat enough to still grab public attention, thus staying afloat in Development Hell.  For a lot of these, it’s all a matter of timing, which sadly may never come about.  I remember hearing about one script that made it out of the list for a period of time called College Republicans, from screenwriter Wes Jones.  It was a true life inspired story about the early days of future Republican Party strategists Karl Rove and Lee Atwater when they were in college.  The development of the film gained steam in the wake of Rove’s controversial time in the White House as Chief of Staff, and it looked as if we were about to get a fascinating character study about this contemporary figure.  It even got as far as having Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe cast as Atwater, but for some reason this project suddenly went quiet.  My belief is that it’s short window closed up quickly, and whoever was involved lost interest.  I think the changing political climate factored in, as the Republican Party itself has changed, making Rove and Atwater far less fascinating figures.  The script may someday live again, but in a political landscape dominated by Trump, it’s hard to say if this political study may ever find it’s time ever again, because both politics and the Republican Party will be unrecognizable after this.

Getting off politics now, I just find it fascinating how time affects the development of movies in general.  Some films rush through production without any hangups, while others languish for what seems like an eternity.  But, why does it affect some movies more than others.  Sometimes it’s not just worries about the budget that puts movies on hold, but a lot of internal politicking that gets in the way.  Sometimes the studios put the brakes on a film because there is a dispute between the people making it and the people financing it.  Sometimes a studio sees a change in management and that leaves the already in development projects in a sort of limbo, as they are remnants of the old guard’s way of doing things.  This particular factor is what leads to some being released long after they were completed, to little or no fanfare.  A lot of companies, for whatever reason, go under and leave a lot of projects hanging.  Some of these even remain fascinating relics as half complete films that had the potential to become masterpieces.  One interesting example is an animated film called The Thief and the Cobbler (1993).  Worked on by legendary independent animator Richard Williams for over 20 years, his financial support ran out and he was forced to sell his uncompleted work to a major studio, who completed it with inferior animation at another company, completely ruining the director’s original vision.  Like The Dark Tower, too much time and outside interference spoiled what should’ve been a home-run with Cobbler.  Some devoted animation fans have since made an effort to reassemble the original Richard Williams version, which is in various states of completion, in what is called the “Recobbled Cut,” and it’s a fascinating look at what could have been.  For Williams, 20 years of work created something beautiful, but ultimately incomplete because of how complex it became.  Eventually, the desires of the artist and those paying for the art become a sticking point, and the art became compromised and cheapened in the end as a result.  It’s the sad reality of the industry that movies rarely have a pleasant development towards completion, usually ending up a mangled mess by the end.

So, while the end result for The Dark Tower is an unfortunate one, it is not at all surprising.  It was too long of a wait for the film, and too much interference slowed the production down.  As a result, you can see that lesser effort was put into the final product, and more problematic than that, too much was left out because the budget wouldn’t allow for it.  What should have been a Tolkein-esque epic saga that could have stood side by side with the acclaimed films set in Middle Earth is instead an indistinguishable action thriller; no more special than anything else out there.  King’s novels were a game-changer; the movie is sadly not.  And what upsets me more is that this one actually had some ingredients that could have made it amazing.  They certainly made good casting choices with Elba and McConaughey as the Gunslinger and Man in Black respectively.  But, The Dark Tower becomes yet another “what could have been” tale in the history of Hollywood.  I wish that this had become a reality back when they were planning a television and film adaptation.  In fact, if the success of Game of Thrones has proven anything, it’s that The Dark Tower would have been better served being adapted into a series rather than a film.  That way, you can devote enough time to capturing King’s full vision.  It’s not like that hasn’t worked well before; case in point, the made-for-TV adaptation of It (1990).  But, for now, The Dark Tower is another victim of that sadly all too common cinematic wrecking ball known as “development hell.”  It’s unfortunate that money, egos, and changing attitudes end up spoiling the completion of very promising film productions, but considering that this is such a high stakes game, it is also very predictable as well.  It makes you appreciate when a movie does live up to it’s potential even more, considering how miraculous a thing it is to get a movie out of development in the first place.  You always hope that every good story makes it out of hell and into paradise, but in Hollywood, that’s a story that sadly rarely happens.

Collecting Criterion – M (1931)

World Cinema has created a wonderful variety of styles, all of which have left their mark both on film history and on Hollywood itself.  Pretty much any new technique developed by filmmakers around the world will influence someone here in Tinseltown, who will in turn give it a mainstream appeal.  You could see it in the development of Soviet Montage techniques from Russian filmmakers, as well as the radical free form film-making popularized by the French New Wave.  But, if there ever was an international style that had the most profound impact early on within Hollywood, it would be the style of German Expressionism.  Developed in Weimer Era Germany during the heyday of Silent cinema, Expressionism was a technique of storytelling that emphasized emotion through abstract visuals.  Instead of portraying the world as is, Expressionism distorts the world to convey a larger truth behind the veil of what we see as “reality.”  It was the primary artistic force that drove the flourishing of art to came out of Weimer era culture, and it’s cinematic contributions are no less noteworthy.  The extreme visual mind-trips like 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and 1922’s Nosferatu left a profound imprint on cinema, even across the world in Hollywood.  You can see the influence of German Expressionism in everything from Film Noir to Disney fairy tales.  The Criterion Collection is very fond of this era itself, spotlighting a few of the classics from this movement.  Pioneering dramatist Georg Wilhelm Pabst has a couple films honored in the collection including Pandora’s Box (Spine #358) and The Threepenny Opera (#405).  Even a modern Expressionist view of Weimer culture is spotlighted in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 15 hour behemoth Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980, #411).  But, if there is one Expressionist filmmaker who holds  a special place in the Collection, it is the legendary Fritz Lang.

Fritz Lang is not only one of Germany’s most celebrated auteur directors; he one of the most celebrated filmmakers in world history, period.  Filmmakers all over the world look to him as a big influence in their work, and it’s largely due to his fantastic command of stories told on both the grandest and most intimate of scales.  He made a steady rise in early days of German cinema, specializing in gritty crime thrillers.  He famously created the cinematic trope of criminal masterminds wrecking havoc on society with his creation of the villainous psychic gangster, Dr. Mabuse.  Though part of a longer series, only one of those Mabuse films has been given the Criterion treatment; 1933’s The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (#231).  But, the film that would make Lang a household name around the world would be his colossal modernist epic, Metropolis (1927).  Metropolis is widely seen as one of the greatest movies ever made, and without a doubt the pinnacle of cinema in the silent era.  With a sense of scale unheard of until that time, Lang revolutionized cinema and created what many consider to be the first science fiction film.  You can see homages to Metropolis in everything from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) to George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977).  But, Metropolis would also be a turning point for Lang as a filmmaker, as Germany itself would begin to change.  The libertine years of Weimer Germany gave way to a rise in Nationalistic Fascism, which also saw the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party.  And with this, the creative freedoms allowed to filmmakers like Fritz Lang were suddenly unavailable.  Lang’s post-Metropolis films were considerably smaller, but no less provocative.  He amazingly was still able to create some profound cinematic works, even under threat of censorship from the Nazi regime, but only for a short while.  And the most famous of these films has been given a cherished place in the Criterion Collection; the harrowing and influential crime thriller, (1931, #30).

The minimalist title M refers to a mark left on suspected child murderer who is at the center of the story; marked so that he is more easily hunted down by those wishing to bring him to justice.  The story is less about the murderer, and even less about the victims themselves.  Instead, Fritz Lang examines the societal reaction to such crimes, and how justice is enacted by both the people in power and by ordinary citizens.  It begins with the disappearance of  a little girl named Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut), who is found murdered shortly after.  Outrage pours in from Elsie’s family, as well as from the neighborhood she called home, all chastising the local government for not doing enough to stop this string of child murders from happening.  As the investigation goes on, it seems apparent that the children in the city are all falling victim to the same assailant.  Fed up with the slow response of law enforcement in the city, the victims’ families enlist the help of the criminal underground to find the child murderer and finally bring him to justice.  Leading them is ruthless Schranker (Gustaf Grundgens) whose network of spies and hitmen scour the city for any clues as to the identity of the killer.  Finally, a blind balloon salesman points them towards a lead, as he remembers hearing the same man whistling Edvard Greig’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” from the “Peer Gynt” suite as he was buying a balloon for each of the slain children.  When the same whistle is heard suddenly again, the city discovers the identity of the killer, a portly young man named Hans Beckert (Peter Lorre).  Beckart is hunted down, escaping for a time in an abandoned building, but is ultimately caught and brought before the community.  What follows is one of cinema’s most unforgettable portrayals of insanity and social commentary as Beckart faces a kangaroo court all intent on enacting a ruthless kind of justice that asks us the viewer how monsters are created in the end; are they born that way, or are they a manifestation of society at it’s worst?

is a captivating film, and one of the most influential ever made too.  Within it, you can see Fritz Lang writing the blueprint for the modern crime thriller, with his unflinching look at how crime and punishment and societal evils are almost always cyclical in the way they perpetuate each other.  Lang doesn’t sympathize with the child murderer exactly, but he does show the society that’s hunting him down to be nearly as monstrous as he is.  For the first time in cinema history, we received a look into the mind of a killer and examine what would drive him to commit such terrible acts; and the shocking thing is that society in general creates these kinds of monsters.  Hans Beckert doesn’t kill to make a point nor for any personal gain.  He kills, because he can.  He is driven by a compulsion, one that even he doesn’t understand completely, but still one that satisfies a deep down need inside.  And, as Lang points out in the movie, society loves to create and destroy it’s own monsters.  Beckert sees that people will fear him when they witness the results of his crimes, and he enjoys the rush of power that gives him, lustfully desiring it even more.  But, once discovered, he suddenly loses that impervious feeling, and we see the infantile little man that he really is.  All he can do then is to confess his true feelings, and what’s frightening to everyone is that this horrible monster is all too human in the end.  With M, Lang makes the case that by giving monstrous deeds so much attention, that it empowers those who enjoy committing them, and as a result we ourselves become a little monstrous ourselves for indulging in this cycle of mayhem.  No other crime thriller before or since has portrayed the cycle of violence with this much clarity, and Hans Beckert’s emotional breakdown is still one of the most harrowing moments ever captured on film; brilliantly conveyed through Peter Lorre’s iconic performance.

Lang’s masterpiece is also a remarkable time capsule of the era in which it was made.  We are familiar with the decadent flourish of Weimer Era art in Germany, as well as the rigid Fascist regime that followed it.  But, we have few documents of the years in between, where freedom gave way to totalitarianism in a short amount of time.  In the film M, we can see the beginnings of nationalistic fervor that swamped over Germany at the time.  In these days, political opportunists seized upon scapegoats for societal ills, and as we saw, the prosperous Germanic Jewish communities were singled out.  In the movie, the desperate townspeople turn to shady criminal hoodlums to enact justice where the government had let them down.  The same result was going on nationwide in Germany at the time, as “brown coat” fascists began to take more power by portraying the Jewish as a foreign entity that was destroying their society.  Eventually, this movement coalesced into the Nazi Party which gained national prominence under Hitler’s leadership.  There is an unmistakable parallel in the portrayal of Schranker to the rise of the Nazi’s, with his black leather trench coat and purely Aryan looks being an unmistakable representation of the atypical fascist thug.  Lang clearly wanted to show with his thriller a chilling examination of the social turmoil that his country was going through.  He pointedly shifts blame on the people of Germany, showing that inviting the wolves to chase the fox out of the hen house only creates a new den of wolves.   Unfortunately, Lang’s film was misconstrued by the Nazi regime, with propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels spotlighting Hans Beckert as an ideal representation of a Jewish monster.  Lang was even offered the position of the chief in charge of cinema under the Third Reich by Goebbels, but the pro-democratic Lang refused and swiftly escaped his home country.  He made his way to Hollywood, following in the footsteps of his marquee star Peter Lorre, where he again left a strong influence, becoming one of the architects of film noir style in that era.  But, would sadly mark the end of a legendary rise for both him, and Germanic cinema in general.

When it comes to a title this legendary and beloved, you can be assured that Criterion is going to give it a very special treatment.  First added to the collection in it’s early days on DVD, has benefited from a few updates and remasters over the years, leading to a new pristine blu-ray edition made available today.  The restoration was completed using a fine grain print, made from a duplicate negative restored in the Netherlands in 2000.  The original negative was of course destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, so this duplicate negative is the best source we have to preserving Lang’s original vision.  All things considered, the scan used for the digital presentation of the film looks outstanding, especially for a film this old.  There are plenty of scratches still present, but not too much to be distracting.  Detail is incredibly conveyed in the transfer, and the color scaling enables us to not have any of the darkest scenes be washed out in black.  What is interesting however about this Criterion edition is the inclusion of the complete English version of the movie.  Back when sound film was still new, alternate versions were sometimes shot simultaneously in multiple languages.  Few of these alternate versions have survived over the years, like the famous Spanish version of Dracula (1931), but thankfully film archivists were able to track down this English version of M somewhere deep in the archives of the British Film Institute.  While most of the film is dubs over the original actors, there are some instances where British actors are inter-spliced into the film, particularly in the moments focusing on the investigators of the crime.  More interesting though is that Peter Lorre performed his famous confessional speech in three different languages, since he was fluent in all of them; German, French and English.  His performance is different in each, which makes for a fascinating contrast.  I’d say that his German performance is the best, since that’s the one where he was working with Lang’s direction, but his brilliance shines through in all versions.  The English version is also un-restored, so it gives you a much clearer idea of the extensive work that went into making this movie look as pristine as it does.

Included in this edition are some valuable extras as well, which is to be expected of Criterion at this point.  In addition to the complete English version of the movie, we also get an interesting audio commentary from German film scholars Anton Kaes and Eric Rentschler, who go into more depth behind the film’s historical context, it’s deeper themes, as well as it’s cinematic legacy.  Another interesting inclusion is the documentary Conversations with Fritz Lang, which is a collection of interviews conducted by Oscar-winning filmmaker William Friedkin with Lang towards the end of his life in his Beverly Hills home.  It’s fascinating to hear the man himself discuss his own work, and much of the interviews touch upon the themes and legacy of M.  Lang also recounts his harrowing escape from Germany after refusing Geobbels offer.  While some of it may have been embellished over time, it’s nevertheless shows Lang’s command over story in hearing him tell this personal account.  There’s also a short film called M le maudit, which is a short French film that was heavily influenced by the classic, and it’s director Claude Chabrol is also interviewed separately, discussing the influence that Lang’s film had on him.  Interviews taken from audiotapes of M‘s editor, Paul Falkenberg, as well as a brand new video one of Harold Nebenzal, the son of the film’s producer Seymour Nebenzal, are also included on the set.  There is also a fascinating visual essay made about the physical history of M, which includes images of how the film was marketed, how it was exploited by the Nazi regime after release, how Weimer Era culture influenced it’s setting, as well as details on the restoration work recently completed on it.  The best part of this essay is the inclusion of the French version of Lorre’s famous confessional scene, which provides yet another interesting contrast with the final film.  Overall, it gives this classic and influential film the well rounded home video release that it deserves, and lives up to the high standard that is typically expected of Criterion.

Fritz Lang’s has held up remarkably well over it’s long history, and sadly feels more prescient than ever.  With populism and nationalistic movements on the rise throughout much of the world once again, Lang’s chilling look at society torn apart through fear of the unknown feels all too prophetic nowadays.  Without knowing it at the time, Lang documented the conditions that lead to the rise of dictatorships, and it’s a harrowing cautionary tale that everyone should take note of.  At the same time, Lang also set the high standard for intelligent crime thrillers by which all successors are still judged by.  With his interesting procedural breakdown of investigative crime-fighting, to the complex portrayal of the criminal himself, Lang’s cinematic touch can be felt in every crime thriller since M, from the big screen to the little screen.  How many TV cop procedural dramas owe their existence to legacy of M?  Lang himself continued to extend the style that he pioneered, making classic noir thriller in Hollywood like Fury (1936) and The Woman in the Window (1944).  Peter Lorre also prospered after answering the call of Hollywood, himself escaping certain death under the Nazi regime, and he would become a valuable character actor for many years, appearing in such classics like The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1943).  Still, features the best work of both men, and it will likely remain one of cinema’s greatest pairing of actor and director that we will ever see.   Criterion has been good to this film for many years and it is a pleasure seeing them continue to treat this film with the utmost care.  The digital restoration is superb for a film this old and it gives us an excellent representation of how the film might of looked back when it was first released.  The alternate English version included also provides us with an interesting window into how films were made in the early days of sound, before they began to figure these things out and just use subtitles instead.  Anyone who appreciates film and world history should absolutely watch this movie.  It’s scary in it’s prescience and profound in it’s unflinching view of humanity and the societies we create.  And in a world that is growing all the more hostile and untrustworthy, this film is now essential viewing more than it ever has been before.