Unfinished Business: Development Hell for Movies!

“Abandon all hope, all ye who enter.” One can only imagine what was going through Dante’s mind when he entered the door with these words etched over it. Of course, he was a character in a book (the author himself) taking the reader on a journey into the abyss and ultimately, paradise. Dante Alighieri’s fictional account looked at what life would be like in the depths of hell for us humans, but there exists another hell…one that’s especially for films.

Plagued by issues of money, creative differences, copyright issues, power-hungry stars/producers, numerous script rewrites, casting issues — agony and torture await any motion picture that should find its way here. The damned here is primarily made up of adaptations of novels, comic books, videogames, plays and musicals.

It’s an interesting lot and some have been here for quite a while whereas others not so much. Some are sequels in the making, others big budget blockbusters…you name it and it’s here. So let’s see what lies in the depths of this pit and what has braved this damnation to finally find release in the paradise of box office success.

At the top and on its way out is Tintin. The rights to this Belgian comic were bought by Steven Spielberg in the 1980s and together with Roman Polanski, they planned to make a trilogy. That plan, however, completely fell apart when Polanski and Spielberg could not agree over creative visions, and Spielberg himself not being satisfied with the scripts. But now, after almost 20 years in limbo, Tintin is about to see the light of day. In May of 2007, Spielberg announced that he will team up with director Peter Jackson (both Lord of the Rings and King Kong served their time here) and release the trilogy back-to-back by using motion capture technology and computer animation. There’s no release date yet, but it seems that this project just might find its way out yet.

Next up is a sequel-in-waiting to two action-comedy-horror blockbusters which probably will never see the light of day because of creative procrastination. Ghostbusters 3 was announced sometime in the 1990s, and though initially dismissed as a rumour, writer/acter Dan Aykroyd has been acknowledging its release. Two scripts had been drafted but eventually the project fell through because Bill Murray simply did not want to bust ghosts anymore. There are plans, however, for a videogame to be made on the scripts for the potential film.

Rendezvous with Rama, a science fiction book by Arthur C. Clarke, spiraled into film purgatory after constant production delays. Morgan Freeman originally wanted to star and produce the film through his studio, Revelation Studios, sometime in the late ’90s. Though still in pre-production status and David Fincher’s name attached, the film only continues to spiral its way down deeper into the abyssal pit.

Recent years have seen the revival of many franchises from the 1980s, Starsky & Hutch, Swat, Dukes of Hazzard, to name a few. Producer and creator Paul Maslansky announced that he was interested in reviving his franchise of the Police Academy for an eighth outing. “I felt it was time to start again. I saw that Starsky & Hutch and a number of other revivals were doing really well. Police Academy has such a great history, so I thought ‘why not’?” he told news website, UGO.com. But that was over four years ago, and there hasn’t been a mention of Police Academy 8 since.

Another TV franchise unable to escape from the pit is the Six Million Dollar Man. Optioned in the 1990s, Kevin Smith provided several treatments for the script. Then, Jim Carrey was attached to the project and by that time the film had been reduced to something completely different from the original concept into a comedic and ironic adaptation.

The space at the bottom is reserved for one of its worst sufferers. Though by no means is any one film bad than the other, since it’s all about damnation here, this film has gained a sort of notoriety because of its subject matter and those who have seen it know that this is a disaster just waiting to happen. The Day the Clown Cried is an unfinished, unreleased, motion picture originally filmed in 1972, co-written and directed by Jerry Lewis. The story tells of a former circus clown in Germany during the Holocaust who makes a deal with the Nazis after finding himself in a concentration camp. Helmut Doork (Lewis) will lure children into the gas chamber for as long as he is in the concentration camp, and Nazis will spare his life. But Doork suffers a crisis of conscience and takes matters into his own hands by walking into a gas chamber himself with the children. This sort of stuff would make the Pied Piper give up his day job.

Harry Shearer (Simpsons) spoke to Spy Magazine in 1992, about the time he got to see a rough draft of The Day the Clown Cried in 1979. “With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This film is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. ‘Oh, my God!’ is all you can say.” Shearer went on to say that he told Lewis the film was, “terrible” which of course made Lewis furious.

Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton were the original writers of the script based on O’Brien’s novel of the same name. They unanimously agreed that they would never allow this film to be released simply because of the “ridiculous” changes made to the script by Lewis. The master comedian, on the other hand, has other ideas. He has told close friends that this film “will see the light of day” and that all he needs to do is to “get some establishing shots and make the title and end credits.”

Rumour has it that the only existing copy of this film is in Lewis’ office, where he keeps it in a vault and occasionally shows it to journalists and friends. To this day no one knows where the original negatives of the film are being kept.

What if the leading punk band of its time decided to follow in the steps of the Beatles and make a film about a day in their lives? Then you’d have punk rock legends Sex Pistols, screenwriter and critic Roger Ebert, and tawdry film-maker Russ Myer making Who Killed Bambi? Only a day-and-a-half worth of footage was shot before the film’s studio saw the footage of the dailies and pulled all financing from the film and ordered all sets built to be destroyed.

Though these are just some of the damned, there are many, many more. A recent new entry Spinning into Butter, which stars Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex in the City though, a TV series, found itself in development hell due to the unwillingness of Kim Cattrall but was the biggest chick flick of 2008), has found its way into film puragtory after no studio sanctioned it for release.

There are newcomers and films that may have stayed here for forever, but there are some films that manage to escape and live an almost dream-like success life at the box office. There is a picture that found so much success after it escaped film hell that it spawned two sequels (and a fourth one in the making), a gigantic entertainment franchise, transformed its founding company from a comic book company to an entertainment company, launched the careers of its actors as blockbuster stars and established its director/producer as a Hollywood bigshot. The film is Spider-Man.

Originally a dream project for James Cameron, the film changed numerous studios, from Cannon films, to Carolco, to 20th Century Fox until finally to MGM/UA where it found itself stuck in a tangled web of litigation and legalities. It wasn’t until 1999 when there was a trade-off between MGM/UA and Sony Pictures: Sony won’t make its version of James Bond and MGM/UA will relinquish all rights of the Spider-Man franchise to Sony. Free at last, Spider-Man swung its way into box office glory after years of being entangled in a web of red tape.There you have it. Just some of the denizens of film purgatory waiting to see the light of day. There are, however, many more. All it will take for them to see salvation is time, a whole lot of money and even more determination, for the path to box office paradise is a long and tedious one.

Pakistan Studies -- The Oral History Project of Pakistan

The creation of Pakistan is considered to be an awe-inspiring yet shocking moment in time, kick-starting the somewhat tumultuous history of this nation. The generation that succeeded Partition cherished this land, born out of the sacrifice and struggle of countless lives. And although it has been like this for many generations, never has an attempt been made to archive this event...until now.

The Oral History Project (OHP) aims to archive the events leading up to, during and after Partition — and the resulting birth of Pakistan. By conducting interviews and collecting old photographs, the OHP will eventually be a kaleidoscope of information. It will be the proverbial beacon for those who wish to know more about Pakistan, its creation, the people behind it and the immense sacrifices made.

Award-winning documentary film-maker and journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is known for her documentaries and her writing. Based in Karachi as well as many cities across the globe, she has won accolades from all over the world — the most notable being the Livingston Award for journalism and being the only non-American so far to have received it.

We sit in the office of the Citizens Archive of Pakistan (CAP), the umbrella to the OHP and other projects, such as last year’s Shanaakht festival. Instead of some quiet neighbourhood, the office is in the heart of Karachis suburbs. Around us, a score of volunteers go about their work, tabulating and archiving eyewitness accounts, arranging interviews and gathering data. Telephones are ringing and phone calls are being made. The walls are plastered with either charts, maps or black and white photographs. On closer inspection they seem familiar

— names of places, familiar buildings and pictures of people from all walks of life at a crucial moment in our history.

It is clear that Sharmeen is perfectly at ease here and I ask her how the OHP began. “It began last year when I got a group of friends together and we realised that we have no identity as Pakistanis, and the only way we can get it is by exploring our history.” And so the nonprofit CAP was formed. “Our main objective is to preserve and archive our country’s history, and to make sure people from all walks of life have access to it.”

What was the inspiration behind this auspicious, elaborate and tedious project? Sharmeen adds, “The generation responsible for creating our country is either very old or about to pass on. If we do not start preserving their stories — the events they actually saw unfolding before their very eyes in 1947 and the ideology behind the creation of Pakistan — we’ll never be able to progress. Otherwise there will always be this question of our identity: Who we are and why was this country formed? We’re aiming to create a history database, primarily interactive, but one that will also give the seeker an academic overlook into the events.”

So far the project has had its fair share of troubles and Sharmeen is quite forthright about them, “Major funding issues…. When you think of nonprofit in Pakistan, how do you manage to come up with the money if you’re not running a hospital or a school? Most of our work is based on digital equipment. We train people to go out and conduct interview, take pictures and collect data. It is quite difficult to arrange funding.”

Funding, of course, is an important aspect of the OHP, and even though it aims to do something of national interest, there has been little to no interest from the government in CAP and its projects. “There hasn’t been a single cent that has come in from the Government of Pakistan, which is why we’re seeking out corporations, MNCs, wealthy families and asking them to donate to us because we want to be independent from the government in all aspects, including the views on Partition.” But shouldn’t the government be worried about that? “The government should be thankful to us; we’re doing something that has never been done before, not even by it,” Sharmeen says.

Even though this is probably like archaeology — carefully brushing the dust away from a prized find — Sharmeen and her team has uncovered a plethora of unheard stories. “The response we’ve been getting is fantastic. Some of the stories that have emerged have been absolutely amazing. For example, we interviewed someone who was working at a refugee camp on the border when cholera broke out and many people who had made it through the transit died in that camp, at the doorstep of freedom. We’ve also heard from people involved in mob violence, people who’ve admitted to taking part in the killings.” She goes on to tell about how this project isn’t just about politics, but also about the way of life, the physical struggles and quite literally the catharsis of Pakistan’s creation and afterwards.

“Our line of questioning right now is targeted towards the 80 something year olds, people who have been through Partition. But we’re moving beyond that,” she says. One of the things they’re trying to find out is what everyday life was like after Partition, how was life like in Karachi, Lahore? What changed? When they came over what happened? And for this they’re talking to indigenous people in their language, for example to Sindhis in Sindhi and so on and so forth. “We’re aiming for diversity, in terms of language and in terms of people.”

Is the OHP a one-sided story or are there people contacted from the other side of the border who would want to share their points of view? “We’ve been working closely with someone based in Delhi at the moment conducting interviews from the Indian side, but this is going to be a lifelong project which will continue to grow.” Although they do have connections, it is clear that Sharmeen wants CAP’s very own people to be involved no matter where the stories come from. “Once we have enough funding, we aim to send more and more volunteers across cities and villages to collect stories. We’ve just sent two people to Lahore to conduct interviews there and the idea is to send people across Pakistan eventually.”

What about the volunteers. Who are they? “Most of them are students who either have just finished their secondary education or are awaiting their results, or those who have done their Bachelors and have some time on their hands.”

Plans are already underway to build a museum that would hold all of the OHP’s collection along with storage of all the information in multimedia formats for people from all walks of life. All of this will be carried out under the watchful eye of CAP that has carefully planned out its growth; so far as to even select the location for the museum somewhere in the heart of Saddar primarily because they want everyone to have easy access to it.

After having undergone Hollywood’s spin saga treatment, tragedies involving a very large ship striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic or perhaps what happened in some concentration camp in Poland is what comes immediately to the minds of the present generation of Pakistanis when one talks of the horrors of the past. While the loss of human life in such events is immeasurable, the sacrifices of humanity’s determination should also not be forgotten. Right now, people are either saying that these are the darkest times in Pakistan’s history or the beginning of a new age.

Whichever way you choose to look at it, only the past can act like a beacon and guide us towards the future. And with people like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and projects such as the Oral History of Pakistan, the beacon will continue to burn bright.