The last nine months have seen the release of two films that cinephiles worried would never see the light of day: Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind and Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. They are two of the most notorious projects in film history to be stuck in that dreaded zone known as “development hell,” two cursed words that are attached to a project that takes much longer than average to get to the big screen.
Every year, a few major movies fall into this Dante’s Inferno of filmmaking, but it’s fascinating to consider the ones that have managed to climb out of the rings of development hell. Some have become even bigger than their creators could have imagined they would be when they first landed on a whiteboard; others probably should have stayed in the fiery pits. We evaluate some of the most notable phoenixes to rise from the movie ashes.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam, 2019)
What It’s About: A filmmaker returns to the scene of a short movie he made a decade earlier to find that the man he cast as the legendary literary character Don Quixote now believes he really is the famous adventurer. Fantasy high jinks ensue.
When It Started Production: In 1989, the Monty Python legend and Oscar nominee Terry Gilliam read Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote of La Mancha and began imagining how to intertwine that story with his vision. He signed a deal with a company called Phoenix Pictures to make it back in 1990; names like Sean Connery and Danny DeVito were tossed around. But Gilliam made other movies and nothing really gained traction until 1998, when it was officially announced as the filmmaker’s next project while he was promoting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
What Happened Next: It went very poorly. Jean Rochefort, Johnny Depp, and Vanessa Paradis were cast in the lead roles, most of its hefty budget (between $30 million and $40 million) was raised, and filming began in 2000. A flash flood destroyed footage, actors didn’t show up, and then Rochefort became so uncomfortable riding a horse that he winced on-camera. The debacle was documented in the 2002 film Lost in La Mancha, which started life as a behind-the-scenes featurette and became the record of a disaster. But Gilliam never gave up, trying to mount the production again and again with people like Michael Palin and John Hurt attached at different points. Finally, in 2017, Adam Driver stepped in to help raise the money as a co-star with Jonathan Pryce, and the film was completed, premiering at Cannes 2018 (although a rights issue held it from U.S. release for nearly a year).
How’d It Turn Out? Pretty good! Yes, some critics have bemoaned the messy structure of the film, but it’s easy to see Gilliam’s passion in this one. It was a project on which he was simply unwilling to give up, and the result is a movie that only he could have made.
The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, 2018)
What It’s About: A movie about the industry that contains a film within a film as well as some nonfiction techniques. A Hollywood director is trying to revive his flagging career, and the film takes place at his 70th-birthday party while also incorporating an unfinished film with the same title as this one. We know from the beginning that the director will die in a car crash after his party.
When It Started Production: Orson Welles reportedly first conceived The Other Side of the Wind in 1961, but there was no real traction until 1966, when Welles started to raise money for the project. And then things got weird.
What Happened Next: He would shoot the film on and off in a very unconventional style for the next several years, starting to tell people in the mid-’70s that it was nearly complete. The film would stop and start, money would run out, people would be recast, the nature of the final project would change — it’s all very well documented in They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, which is streaming on Netflix. It’s one of several films that Welles never saw through to completion. Legal issues kept the film in limbo for nearly four decades until 2014, when it appeared all rights issues were resolved and the film could be completed (although even after that, crowdfunding was needed to finish it).
How’d It Turn Out? The Other Side of the Wind premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2018 and was on Netflix before the end of the year. Critics were almost universally positive (an 82% on Rotten Tomatoes), and some Welles experts consider it an essential work of his career.
The Dark Tower (Nikolaj Arcel, 2017)
What It’s About: Ha, well, short version is that the Stephen King story centers on Roland Deschain, the last of the “gunslingers,” and the mysterious Man in Black, Walter Padick — although that only hints at a deep mythology that King developed over multiple novels and decades of his career.
When It Started Production: It began in earnest in 2007 when it was rumored that J.J. Abrams was working on a version of the story of the Man in Black and the gunslinger who followed. Abrams’s collaborators Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof had acquired the rights from King for $19 (a number that will mean something to fans), a comic book was released, and it looked like production would start any day now …
What Happened Next: … And then it just didn’t. The Dark Tower would keep coming up in interviews and on junkets — Abrams reaffirmed that he was making it in early 2008 and again in 2009. And then the option on the rights ran out. The next year, 2010, Universal announced a trilogy of films from the series to be written by Akiva Goldsman and directed by Ron Howard. Stories of several movies and then a TV series followed. There even was a release date of May 17, 2013, for the first film. A cast started to materialize including Javier Bardem and Viggo Mortensen in the lead roles. By 2011 budget rumors started to circulate, and a September 2011 start of production got pushed to 2012 before getting canceled altogether.
However, Howard didn’t give up and it was still being shopped around, with the latest expectation being a series on HBO. Russell Crowe got attached in 2012 for a little while, as did Aaron Paul and Liam Neeson. Finally, in 2015, Nikolaj Arcel came onboard and Sony and MRC fast-tracked the project. Matthew McConaughey and Idris Elba ended up in the lead roles, and development hell was over for the gunslinger.
How’d It Turn Out? Not good! The problem is that the final film wasn’t just bad but also deeply dissatisfying for fans of the franchise. It was such a letdown that it’s basically been ignored. A TV series is reportedly in production at Amazon, and the thinking is that it will pretend this movie never even existed.
Silence (Martin Scorsese, 2016)
What It’s About: Two Jesuit priests in 17th-century Portugal travel to Japan to find their mentor, who has gone missing after venturing into the region to spread Christianity, which has been suppressed in Japan.
When It Started Production: In 1989, Martin Scorsese was asked to play Vincent van Gogh in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, and he ended up reading the book Silence, by Shusaku Endo, around that time. He optioned the rights, and development of this passion project really started in 1990 — not long after Scorsese made another one of his deeply religious films, The Last Temptation of the Christ.
What Happened Next: For a long time, not much. Scorsese made other films, some of them masterpieces, and then returned more seriously to Silence in 2009, when he actually took a crew to Japan to explore sites from the book for a potential shoot. Even while he was making other movies in that era, he kept referencing Silence, saying in 2011 that it would be his next movie; people like Daniel Day-Lewis, Benicio del Toro, and Gael García Bernal were attached at different points. It wasn’t his next movie. He made The Wolf of Wall Street. There was some unpleasant legal wrangling, too, as Cecchi Gori Pictures sued Scorsese for taking so long to make the film, saying it had an agreement for him to make it back in 1990. He settled that case and finally made it with Liam Neeson, Adam Driver, and Andrew Garfield.
How’d It Turn Out? Masterfully. One of the best films of 2016, Silence is the work of one of the country’s best filmmakers, and it’s the rare movie for which the journey through development hell feels like it was what needed to happen, as it gave Scorsese the perspective of age to really tell this story. And if you think about it too deeply, it makes a certain kind of thematic sense that a film about faith would have to travel through hell.
Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, 2015)
What It’s About: The Mad Max franchise entrant finds Max Rockatansky returning to a postapocalyptic world in which water and other supplies are scarce. Someone named Imperator Furiosa steals the movie.
When It Started Production: Ten years after 1985’s Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and in the same year that he made the Best Picture–nominated Babe, the rights to the Mad Max franchise reverted back to George Miller. He reportedly had an idea for a fourth film in the series in 1998, but the film stalled before breaking down entirely after 9/11, which put a number of projects on indefinite hold because of what the attacks did to the economy.
What Happened Next: In 2003, the project got a budget ($100 million) and even a start date and location in Australia, but Mother Nature had other plans. In 2006, a script for Fury Road resurfaced and Miller said he was going to make it in 2007. Crazy rumors circulated including Heath Ledger being involved before his passing and an animated version instead of live action. Then production was slated for 2011 in Wales with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron. Miller was planning to make two films: Mad Max: Fury Road and Mad Max: Furiosa. Rain washed out more locations, shoots got delayed, but filming actually began in 2012 in Namibia. It would be another three years before it came out.
How’d It Turn Out? When the film was finally released in May 2015, it was widely hailed as a masterpiece and became an instant action classic, even earning Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
The Thief and the Cobbler (Richard Williams, 1995)
What It’s About: A riff on Arabian Nights, this animated film tells the story of Tack the Cobbler, the only man who can save the Golden City after a thief absconds with orbs that are protecting it from destruction.
When It Started Production: An animator named Richard Williams reportedly started working on an adaptation of the tales of Mulla Nasruddin in 1968. There’s an entry in the International Film Guide from that year stating that Williams was about to start on “the first of several films.”
What Happened Next: Williams worked on the complex project on and off for years as it went through titles like The Amazing Nasrudin, The Majestic Fool, and just Nasrudin, and Vincent Price was hired to voice the villain. Accusations of embezzlement shelved the project after the rights were taken away from Williams, but he held on to the work he had completed. It eventually became an urban legend, really — the most daring animated film never released. Everyone from Saudi princes to Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz was involved at one point or another. There were sample reels, test footage, but the money to finish what was now called The Thief took years to come together.
In 1986, Jake Eberts of Allied Filmmakers put up a lot of the money needed but also wanted changes to the final product. Not long after, Steven Spielberg saw footage and asked Robert Zemeckis to see if Williams could help with a new movie Zemeckis was making called Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That movie was a hit, and Williams won two Oscars for it. It allowed The Thief and the Cobbler to finally be completed and released, although there would be more financial and editing dramas that delayed it until 1995 in the United States in a version that had been greatly altered by Miramax and not Williams.
How’d It Turn Out? At first, not great. By the time it had been released in August 1995 under the name Arabian Knight, the animated field had really changed and no one paid much attention to it. It didn’t even make $1 million. Williams reportedly never even saw it. Renamed The Thief and the Cobbler for home media, it has been cited as an influence for animators since, and bootlegged versions of the Williams version of the film circulated to such a degree that a fan cut was put together and well received. Fandom for Williams’s work on the film (not the theatrical version) was so vocal that a workprint of the film was screened in L.A. in 2013, 45 years after that first International Film Guide entry.
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
What It’s About: An epic sci-fi film that promised to revolutionize the way people watch movies, Avatar tells the story of the colonization of a planet called Pandora and the tribe that lives there known as the Na’vi.
When It Started Production: James Cameron’s vision started life as an 80-page treatment way back in 1994, when Cameron was near the peak of his fame, between T2 and Titanic. Cameron planned to shoot it right after that Oscar-winning smash.
What Happened Next: It looked like Avatar would be Cameron’s first film after Titanic, and a release date was planned for 1999. (Imagine if The Matrix and Avatar had come out in the same year!) Reportedly, Cameron didn’t feel the technology was there to make Avatar the way he really wanted it made. He really kept Avatar in development hell himself, waiting for the right equipment to realize his vision. As he did this, the budget skyrocketed. It reportedly started north of $200 million and just kept going up as Cameron got closer to actually making his movie. Motion-capture techniques that had never been used before were a part of production that finally started in 2007, 13 years after that original treatment.
How’d It Turn Out? The film was released in 2009 and made roughly a bajillion dollars on its way to multiple Oscar nominations. Cameron is reportedly working on four sequels to be released in December of 2020, 2021, 2024, and 2025. We’ll believe it when we see it.
The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
What It’s About: Terrence Malick adapted James Jones’s 1962 novel about World War II and the Guadalcanal Campaign. It stars Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, and Ben Chaplin, but it’s almost more famous for the people who hit the cutting-room floor.
When It Started Production: Malick expressed interest in adapting Jones’s book in 1988, at which point it had already been a decade since his last film, Days of Heaven. It would be another decade before his next one.
What Happened Next: Malick submitted a 300-page draft in 1989. The next year, he discussed the project with Jones’s widow, but the project stalled until pressure from the producers who had asked for it in the first place heated up in 1995. It still wouldn’t be until 1997 that The Thin Red Line would start filming, but that didn’t go smoothly either. Even after sets started to be built, Sony canceled the project, fearful that Malick couldn’t bring it in under-budget. Fox stepped in to co-finance but demanded that a few movie stars be cast in an effort to try to recoup its investment. Malick assembled a top-notch ensemble; everyone wanted to be in the masterful director’s first film since the ’70s. Names like Johnny Depp, Edward Norton, Matthew McConaughey, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly met with Malick. Even actors who shot scenes for the movie were surprised to end up not being in it, including Bill Pullman and Mickey Rourke. The most famous story goes that Adrien Brody thought he was the lead when he made the movie and didn’t find out he was a bit player in it until a screening.
How’d It Turn Out? Despite Brody’s dissatisfaction, pretty spectacularly. Gene Siskel thought it was the “finest contemporary war film,” and it was nominated for seven Oscars, losing in a few categories to a different kind of WWII film from 1998, Saving Private Ryan.
The Bodyguard (Mick Jackson, 1992)
What It’s About: Kevin Costner plays a former Secret Service officer hired to protect a music star played by Whitney Houston. Will they fall in love? We won’t spoil it.
When It Started Production: At first, it almost starred very different people. It’s not exactly a Quixote-esque vision of development hell, but it’s fun to consider the other iterations of this movie that could have existed given that it was the legendary Lawrence Kasdan’s first screenplay, written back in 1976, with Steve McQueen and Diana Ross reportedly attached to star.
What Happened Next: Not much until the early ’90s. It wasn’t until Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston came onboard that The Bodyguard found its love. In between his first draft for The Bodyguard and its release, Kasdan was nominated for Best Screenplay three times and wrote a few movies you may have heard of including The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
How’d It Turn Out? Critics hated it, audiences couldn’t get enough of it. It made over $400 million worldwide (and became the second-highest-grossing domestic film of 1992) on the back of the best-selling soundtrack of all time thanks to a little song called “I Will Always Love You.”