Came across a great movie book lately, THE GREATEST MOVIES YOU'LL NEVER SEE by Simon Braund, a correspondent with the British movie magazine, Empire. In it, he lists dream projects of some of cinema's greatest talents, projects that for one reason or another were never realized. These include Ridley Scott's GLADIATOR II, The Coen Brothers' TO THE WHITE SEA, Paul Verhoeven's CRUSADE with Schwarzenegger, Johnny Depp's SHANTARAM, Kubrick's NAPOLEON and many more.
The book is well-illustrated with production drawings and more, and supported by lavish, behind-the-scenes detail concerning these troubled films, some of which have gone on to a semblance of life under other filmmakers (e.g. Spielberg developing NAPOLEON as a tv project.)
Made me think of the various theatre projects which I'd dreamed of, worked on to various degrees, and came up short on production.
Two were during the early days of The Midnight Company. My then-partner Dave Wassilak, in addition to being a fine actor, has a rangy, raw-boned look that tends to work for various early Americana (and various purely theatrical) personas. The first was…
THE WAR OF 1812
(Not too ambitious a title and scope of project, eh?) I've long been fascinated by this episode in American history, the story, the people and its importance to our country. (And after the success of the Company-created story-telling of THE BALLAD OF JESSE JAMES, a similar approach to this – a cast of 10-12, playing multiple roles - would have been the approach.) From what I understand, we really didn't "win" the Revolutionary War – England got bored, and turned their attention to Napoleon. After they defeated him, they turned their empiric gaze back towards us. They began raiding US ships, impressing our sailors into their service. They teamed with Indians primed to attack the ursurpers of their lands, as Indians raided and massacred farms and families on the frontier. The rest of the world knew what had happened in 1776, and wasn't treating us like any kind of world power yet. So the US actually declared war on England, a fairly risky proposition. The war began badly, with England blockading key ports and ruling the seas, then marching on Washington, burning it as First Lady Dolly Madison helped salvage some of the nation's treasures in the escape. Key US victories helped stem the tide, including Andy Jackson's crushing defeat of the Creek Indian Nation. Among the fascinating characters and episodes that made me want to tell the story were some of the young soldiers who fought with Jackson against the Creeks, including Davy Crockett and Sam Houston, and the creation of our national anthem – Francis Scott Key scribbled the lyrics to "The Star Spangled Banner" as he watched the bombing of Fort McHenry. The war climaxed with The Battle of New Orleans (actually fought after a peace treaty had been signed), and the scintillating nature of this story continued: Jackson was ill-equipped to defend this key port, with a ragtag army made up of a few soldiers, volunteers and free men of color. His advisers argued that he needed to make an ally of the pirate Jean Lafitte, who controlled the island of Barataria, complete with ships and vital cannon. The British had already approached Lafitte and basically offered him New Orleans if he would throw in with them. Jackson refused to deal with an outlaw, much as he needed him, until one day, turning a corner in the French Quarter, he came face to face with Lafitte, whose fervor for the new nation changed Jackson's mind. Lafitte's forces, of course, helped turn the tide, and The Battle of New Orleans also became known as one of the prime support points for the truism, "an army travels on its stomach." The ladies of New Orleans provided lavish spreads for their army, while the British had to deal with the unimaginable conditions of the Louisiana swamps.
I had Wassilak naturally cast as Andy Jackson, but he refused to participate after reading a Davy Crockett quote I inserted, where Davy said of his time with Jackson against the Creeks, "We shot them down like dogs." A nice pacifist stance, but it did negate history. I'd envisioned this as a perfect History Museum project, but without my Jackson, I didn't move past an outline. Maybe someday. The only dramatic depiction of this epic story was in a fairly lame film, THE BUCANEER, with Yul Brynner as Lafitte and Charlton Heston as Jackson.
But I had Wassilak in mind for another iconic American role…
Read where Lincoln was such a fan of theatre, and particularly Shakespeare, and was understandably so burdened by his responsibilities during the Civil War, that on some evenings he would sneak away from the White House and his security guard and watch plays from a corner of the house.
I used that as a starting point and began working on a script where Lincoln has been taken hostage by John Wilkes Booth, and the two engage in a get-to-know-you battle of wills and oratory talents. (Wassilak, of course, would play Lincoln, I would do Booth.)
Advanced some pages on it before our partnership dissolved. (See the first blog in this section – Oct 22, 2007; The Midnight Company And After.)
But before we dissolved, the very final project Dave and I were discussing was…
JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG
I've also loved this work. It began as a tv drama, was turned into an Oscar-winning movie by Stanley Kramer, with Spencer Tracy, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Monty Clift, Judy Garland, Burt Lancaster and Maximilian Schell (in an Oscar-winning turn), and then became a play. (Schell, who played the fiery young defense attorney, played the Lancaster role in the play, that of one of the defendants.)
This clear-eyed courtroom drama takes square aim at war crimes and culpability through its fictional story of some of the final trials for WWII crimes. After all the "big" Nazi boys have been tried, it's come down to the judges, who perverted their roles to support Hitler's regime.
Not only did I love the drama and sweep of this story, I was adamant that somebody do something that in some way would point a finger back at Bush and Cheney and their gang for taking us (and a lot of the rest of the world) into the quagmire in Iraq.
The Grand Center group had approached us about doing something on the 2nd Floor of the Grandel Theatre. Midnight put a proposal together, requesting some upfront financial support from Grand Center to support this ambitious undertaking.
I was in mind to direct, with an Equity cast (Wassilak, of course, would have had his choice of roles.)
Grand Center backed away from this, and Wassilak backed away from The Midnight Company.
I took another crack at NUREMBERG, submitting it to The Missouri History Museum for one of their theatre seasons. They told me this was one of five finalists; the other four all involved women's stories as the central theme, and that's what they went with. (Turned out to be a season of mostly bad women's theatre. MHS said they wanted me to bring it back the next year, and even chose as that season's theme – Justice.) But I'd put a bit too much political passion into it; perhaps the time had passed; but maybe, just maybe, we'll get back to this one someday.
There've since been several choice theatrical pieces or concepts I've since gone after (many of them, naturally, one-man shows), including…
BILL GRAHAM PRESENTS
I recalled reading about the late Ron Silver playing Graham in this one-man show, detailing the life of one of the greatest rock and roll promoters of our time. Graham helped form the San Francisco scene with the Dead, the Airplane, Janis Joplin and more. He went on to produce some of the most prominent rock concerts and benefits of the 20th Century, before prematurely losing his life in a helicopter crash while returning from a show. In addition to his success, he was one of the most colorful characters on the rock scene, demanding good pay and working conditions for bands, and taking matters into his own hands (and fists) when needed. (His early life was even more exciting; as a boy, he just got out of France ahead of the Nazis, and was raised in a foster home in New York.)
I contacted the playwright, Robert Greenfield. This was his first and only play. He was a highly respected rock journalist for Rolling Stone and other publications, and had co-wrote Graham's own memoirs with him. Greenfield seemed delighted by the inquiry, was all for the idea, but had to run it by Graham's family, who controlled the rights. He didn't understand the decision, but Graham's family said no. And that was that.
I did get in touch with Greenfield once more, to congratulate him on his recent Burt Bacharach biography. I've always loved Bacharach's music, and was pleased to hear about the success of the recent New York revival and remounting of his music – WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
This was an existing play, but one that just wasn't going to be available. The next one I went after wasn't a play, but it should have been…
The Life And Inebriated Times of Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole and Oliver Reed. A book by Robert Sellers. This was an odd one. I read the title of the book in a book review in the NY Times, and before I started reading the review, I said, "this is a play." I read the review, then the book, then starting outlining the show. It would be a joyous (though politically incorrect) romp through the barroom habits and stage antics of some of the greatest English actors of our times. I located Sellers' agent, and proposed a one-man show. I focused him on its production location – St. Louis – and how we're out of much of the public's eye (even St. Louis' public.) The agent said there'd been some interest in a film – maybe documentary, maybe fictional – but thought that a play in St. Louis would be ok. And that's where our correspondence ended. Though I had much of the play worked out, and remained very interested in it for many months, the agent froze me out, no doubt looking for bigger, better paydays for the book somewhere. I don't think anything's come of the agent's quest for a big film, but oh, well.
But there was one more script that I really set my heart on…
TITLE AND DEED.
I love Will Eno's work, and had the opportunity to perform his THOM PAIN BASED ON NOTHING, that infuriating "existential stand-up" of a show. It was a success here, and I thought that would help in my quest to secure rights for this show. Eno had written the one-man show for Conor Lovett, who along with his wife, director Judy Hegarty, were principals in the Gare St Lazarus Players in Cork, Ireland, a company known for its work with Beckett. They did the show in Europe, then brought it to New York for its US premiere. It was then I became aware of it, and quickly secured a script. As I anticipated, I fell in love with the piece, an achingly melancholy story of a stranger in a strange land. It echoed Eno's brilliant language and his quirky world-view, but in a sweet and strange manner. I immediately started going after the rights. They weren't available through the usual outlets, so I went straight to Eno's agent. They were friendly, but rights were not available at the time, and to this day, they remain so. Perhaps because Eno wrote this for a specific company, there's a reluctance to release it to other companies. So, no TITLE AND DEED coming in the near future from Midnight, but I will stay the course.