Forget Batgirl, where’s Superman Lives? The inside stories of Hollywood’s biggest abandoned films

·8 min read

Warner Bros’s previously announced Batgirl film is the latest big-budget project that will never see the light of day, despite being in post-production, with shooting already completed. Hollywood is brutal – for every film released there are numerous others that never make it to the big screen. These are projects in which the studios invest millions – only for them to be spurned at the script stage, trapped in that infamous “development hell”, or even halted mid-production. Part of the appeal of abandoned films is that we can build them up in our heads to be whatever we want. But perhaps the most interesting element of these ghost films is the way many continue to haunt cinema: affecting the choices actors and directors go on to make, changing the types of stories that get funding and even, in some cases, weakening long-established studios. Here, experts give us the inside stories on three films with surprising legacies – despite never having been made …

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Torso

Brian Michael Bendis is an award-winning comic book artist. He is the co-author (with Marc Andreyko) of Torso, a 1990s graphic novel based on the true story of the Cleveland torso murderer and “Untouchables” agent Eliot Ness’s efforts to capture him. Film versions by David Fincher and Paul Greengrass were left unmade.

Torso had all the elements of a thing that Hollywood would like: it was true and it was kind of a sequel to a hit movie, The Untouchables: the 1987 Brian De Palma film following Ness in his pursuit of Al Capone.

Marc and I wrote a draft and took it out and it was almost a comedy of errors. We had one very famous producer argue with us whether Eliot Ness was a real person or not. And then, all of a sudden, David Fincher was attached. He’s one of my heroes. It was being positioned as kind of a trilogy with Seven and Zodiac.

It was going to be black and white, Matt Damon was going to be Ness. I don’t know who was cast officially, but all these names were coming at me: John Malkovich, Casey Affleck, Rachel McAdams. It was greenlit, and then something happened where it just went away. And I was like: “Oh well, I got to meet David Fincher, that was pretty cool.” But in my heart, I was like: “No, I did really want to see that movie.”

Then, a couple of years later, Paul Greengrass got attached to it, and I got even more excited. I think I knew what the Fincher movie would look like, but Greengrass – I was like: “What will that be?” I was intrigued. But then that went away.

I want to say: never feel bad for someone who has an option. Someone gives you money to sit there and be still. There isn’t a person on the planet who doesn’t have their projects that haven’t been made yet, things they really want. Maybe it’s just not the time, not the moment. It’s not personal. And Torso is a perfect example – I’ve had a lifetime of really cool interactions and experiences because I don’t have the movie yet.

I made the true graphic novel Fortune and Glory based on my experiences in Hollywood, and it ended up being my biggest commercial book. It’s the thing that people most identified with, because even if they weren’t in Hollywood, they knew what it felt like to go: “That meeting sucked.”

A couple of years ago I was introduced to the director Corin Hardy, and Torso is now being developed as a television series. The saga continues.

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Superman Lives

Holly Payne is a director, producer and writer. She produced The Death of Superman Lives, a 2015 documentary written and directed by her late husband Jon Schnepp, examining the 1996-98 production of Tim Burton’s Superman adaptation, which would have starred Nicolas Cage.

For the time that Superman Lives was in pre-production it was a huge endeavour and a big risk. It would have been a radical change to Superman. Nicolas Cage was at the peak of his career, but he was a wildcard. He didn’t necessarily have the rugged Christopher Reeve look, but he brought alienness to it. And that’s what Tim was striving for.

The film would have changed the playing field for superhero films. There is a lot of optimism in Tim Burton films, so there was more of that hopefulness and lightness to it, but still with the Burton aesthetic. It wouldn’t have been dark in colour like Batman, but it would have been weird.

Related: 3D mermaids, CobraGator and Louis CK: the never-released films Batgirl will join in Hollywood’s vault of shame

Jon Peters [the Burton film’s controversial producer and erstwhile boyfriend of Barbra Streisand] was looking at the George Lucas model. He wanted to world-build, and wasn’t thinking about the character of Superman that is beloved by so many people. The thing we got asked the most about after the documentary came out was: “Is Jon Peters crazy?” Yeah, he kind of is, but we got where he was coming from. His vision and Burton’s vision did not connect. And I think it had a lot to do with ego. I love that our interview had a bit to do with Paul Thomas Anderson’s depiction of Jon Peters in Licorice Pizza [where he was memorably portrayed by Bradley Cooper], because some of the things that we talked to Peters about showed up in that movie.

Really, the ultimate death knell for the film was budgetary constraints. But it was also the casting, and the struggle between Peters and Burton. The irony is that the money that they didn’t put into Superman Lives they put into [the much-mocked Will Smith action film] Wild Wild West … and then that bombed.

Our motivation for making the documentary was to shine a light on the creatives who put all their inspiration, hard work and ideas into a film that never saw the light of day. Many people who worked on the film came to the premiere and they told us first-hand: “This is incredible. You made me feel like this could have been something and I’m not ashamed to have been a part of this.”

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The Girl in Pink Tights

Dr Lucy Bolton is a reader in film studies at Queen Mary University of London, and has helped the British Film Institute run Marilyn Monroe events. The Girl in Pink Tights was a 1954 musical that Monroe turned down.

The Girl in Pink Tights was a Broadway musical – and exactly the type of role that Monroe was fed up with. The studio had found she was great at musical comedies – and she did have brilliant comic timing – but these characters were always dumb blonds, and she felt that mirrored how she was treated by the studios. She had a fractious relationship with producer and studio executive Darryl Zanuck, who, although he made millions out of her, didn’t respect her. She had to fight with him to get taken seriously.

Breaking with the studio was certainly a risk, personally and professionally. Monroe always relied on the people around her, and when the studio renegotiated for more money and more control, her husband Joe DiMaggio in particular thought that she should just do the movie. But she still held out because she was so determined not to. Vulnerability is a massive part of her popular cultural image, but in terms of her business, and knowing her value, she was canny, strong and determined.

Rather than just stay at home and wait for the contractual battle to be resolved, she went out and behaved like the world-leading star that she was, for example, entertaining troops in Korea while on honeymoon. Zanuck completely underestimated the public’s love of Monroe.

Related: Ones that got away: posters for films that never happened – in pictures

There had always been actors who worked independently, right back to Carole Lombard in the 30s, but this was a high-profile battle and it was part of what reduced the power of the big studio bosses. 20th Century Fox took her back with a better contract, but she also set up her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. And, even though it only made one film, The Prince and the Showgirl, that’s a terrific performance and she’s amazing in it.

It’s hard to know whether there would have been anything particularly toxic or wonderful about The Girl in Pink Tights. But it spurred Monroe to break with the studio and really assert her independence. And I think that the impact of that is immense, because she negotiated to star in The Seven Year Itch, which was image-defining for her. And with other films she did later (even though some were musicals) such as Bus Stop or Some Like It Hot – were not just the dumb blond movies. There’s more to these roles. And she made that happen herself.