What Happens When Filmmakers Raid Dead Directors’ Unmade Projects?

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Getty Images

This week, Vulture is taking a look at great unproduced, unreleased, or unheralded entertainment.

It’s weird to find yourself simultaneously looking forward to a movie or show while also being philosophically opposed to it. That’s the position I find myself in with the recently announced HBO miniseries of Napoleon, based on Stanley Kubrick’s never-filmed dream project about the life of Bonaparte. The director of 2001: A Space Odyssey spent several decades prepping a biopic about the French general and emperor, only for the project to be continually postponed or scuttled. With each passing year, the film seemed to grow ever more mythic — even after Kubrick’s 1999 death. In 2009, a giant book containing a draft of the script along with other materials was published — the kind of coffee table book so big it could legitimately be the coffee table.

So now “Kubrick’s Napoleon” is finally getting made, or so we’re told. It’ll be a mini-series for HBO, with Steven Spielberg producing. A new script is being written, based on Kubrick’s draft. And the director announced — Cary Fukunaga — is a brilliant dude in his own right, who will certainly bring his own vision to it.  It’ll probably be good. It may even be great. I’ll most certainly watch it. But needless to say, this won’t be Kubrick’s work. Putting his name in there is just clever branding, which just rubs a Kubrick obsessive like me wrong in all sorts of ways.

Still, it’s often fascinating to watch two strong directorial sensibilities clash in this rather odd way. Consider Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, another project that Kubrick had worked on for many years before his death. Kubrick’s conception of the film resembled a cerebral fairy tale — a fairly simple story that explored the question, “What makes us human?” Spielberg’s finished film spends some time on these ideas; the structure and the characters come pretty much entirely from Kubrick. But it truly comes to life when it focuses on themes like childhood and loss of innocence, as we watch the robot boy David (Haley Joel Osment) strive to find his place in his human family. In other words, the moments in A.I. that really sting come straight out of Spielberg’s wheelhouse.

Meanwhile, Kubrick’s structure sits uncomfortably with Spielberg’s sensibility and style. The younger director doesn’t seem at ease around some of the film’s moments of mundane horror, its attempts to build a slowly gathering sense of unease. The film’s opening scene, in which William Hurt dryly unveils a next-generation robot that can love like a human, is a perfect example of something Kubrick could have nailed, but which falls flat in Spielberg’s rendering. Spielberg also can’t seem to keep some of the sentimentality of the story in check: Kubrick’s forte was taking emotional stories and filming them with a cool, level gaze that prevented them from slipping into melodrama. This sometimes led to his work being labeled “cold,” but I always found that this approach provoked more emotion in the viewer, not less. Spielberg’s forte is the opposite: He leans into emotion. He can take the tiniest little moment and make it seem world-changing. 

In the end, though, A.I. largely works — and seems to improve with each passing year. (That is, perhaps, its most “Kubrickian” quality.) And the situation with that particular film is complex, too, because Kubrick had reportedly handpicked Spielberg to direct it, while he himself would produce. At the time that this news emerged, it sounded suspiciously like convenient studio revisionism to my skeptical ears: Why would a control freak like Kubrick ever hand over one of his most notorious dream projects to another director? But over the years, I’ve come to accept the fact that what makes A.I. so fascinating and compelling is this very conflict between its two creators’ identities. 

We can find a less successful example of competing directorial sensibilities in Tom Tykwer’s Heaven (2002), based on a script by the late Krzysztof Kieslowski and Krzysztof Piesiewicz. This one also comes with some complicated backstory: Kieslowski, who died in 1996, had announced his retirement from filmmaking before writing the screenplay, and it’s been reported that he had also never intended to direct Heaven, just produce it. Furthermore, it was supposed to be part of a trilogy, but Kieslowski only completed the first script; his treatments for the other two parts, Hell and Purgatory, were later expanded and filmed by other directors, with even less success.

Heaven follows a woman (Cate Blanchett) whose attempt to bomb a corrupt lawyer’s office goes horribly awry, killing four innocents. Captured by the police, she’s interrogated for days, while her police interpreter (Giovanni Ribisi) falls for her and tries to help her escape. The story makes use of the kinds of ironic incidents and narrative paradoxes that Kieslowski was known for, but it’s also a rather thin, absurd tale, in which characters make bizarre, unmotivated actions. Kieslowski’s ability to place us in unreal but lovely environments helped sell his stories; there was always a quiet mysticism to his work. Tykwer is no less a stylist than Kieslowski, but he can’t quite create the kind of mood that will sell Heaven’s strange narrative conceits. Whereas Kieslowski reveled in absurdism, Tykwer tries to paper it over. The results are certainly interesting, but kind of a mess.

Spielberg tried to balance his sensibility with Kubrick’s. Tykwer tried to make a movie that was largely his own. Another approach can be found in Lars Von Trier’s 1987 TV movie of fellow Dane Carl Theodor Dreyer’s script for Medea, based on the Euripides play. Shot in fuzzy video and utilizing very spare sets, Medea works as both an homage and an adaptation, but it’s infused with Von Trier’s spirit of experimentation. With its silent movie aesthetics and its almost confrontational minimalism, Medea feels like Von Trier is trying to conjure Dreyer back from the dead — which, when you think about it, is a very Lars Von Trier thing to do.

So where does that leave Napoleon? Funny thing: If you read Kubrick’s script for the film, you may come to the realization that, in some ways, he already made it — with Barry Lyndon, his 1975 masterpiece. True, the story of that film — based on William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel — is nothing like Bonaparte’s. But Kubrick not only brought to Barry Lyndon much of the research that had already been done for Napoleon, he also brought a similar tone and structure. His Napoleon would have been a movie in which plangent romanticism and cold-eyed irony were locked in constant battle — a battle that finds its fullest, most emotionally overwhelming expression in Barry Lyndon. Would it be intriguing to watch Cary Fukunaga or anyone else try to replicate that, and to invoke the spirit of Kubrick? Perhaps. But in truth, what I really hope he does is forget that this movie was ever anyone else’s, ignore the branding and the corporate synergy and the desire to cash in on a great filmmaker’s name, and just make his own damn thing. Leave Kubrick’s Napoleon where it is: as the Greatest Movie Never Made, and not the TV Special That Was Pretty Good.

Bilge Ebiri is a film critic for the Village Voice. He was previously a film critic for Vulture.