The only stories I love to read more than “The Making of …” this or that film are stories about films that almost got made, kinda got made, never got made.
I recently treated myself to a popcorn book, The Greatest Movies You’ll Never See, and although I knew broadly about several of these would-be almost sorta films: Kubrick’s Napoleon, Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind (which actually was shot, just never completed), Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried (which was not only shot but finished, but is so bad, Lewis has forbidden its release for another 10 years).
But Sergio Leone’s The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad was a new one to me.
Leone first travelled to the USSR in 1971 to gain their trust and cooperation, feeling he could not film anywhere other than Leningrad itself. However, it took the ascendance of Gorbachev in 1984, and the relaxing of restrictions, or Glasnost, to change Soviet inflexibility; Once Upon A Time In America was the first of Leone’s films to be allowed a release in the Soviet Union. Leone suggested a Russian writer, familiar with the conditions of the siege, work with him on the script, to which the authorities agreed. Leone envisioned the film beginning thus:
“I start with a close-up of the hands of Shostakovich. They are on the keys of his piano … The camera will be on a helicopter out of the house and close up will be taken through the open window. We see the hands seeking the notes of the “Leningrad Symphony”. And the composer begins. The music is repetitive. It begins with three instruments, then five, then ten, then twenty, then one hundred. … And my opening will be made on this music. In one clip. A clip as it has never been done: the camera leaves the close up of the hands of the composer. It goes back. We discover his room. It comes out through the window. It is the street. Dawn. Two civilians out into the street. Everyone carries a gun. And they ride on a tram. The camera follows the tram. The music continues. The tram stops several times. Civilians take it. They are all carrying weapons. Finally, the tram arrives in a suburb. It stops in a small square where there are already several other trams. And beside them, there are waiting trucks. Trams empty. All the passengers were armed men … no women. Men climb into the trucks. The camera follows the truck. Always the music. Always the same plane. No cuts. No inserts. And we arrive at the front trenches to protect the city. Music is increasingly strong. There are trenches. And suddenly, the camera goes to the steppe. Huge. Empty. The music rises more. Until the camera has crossed the steppe to take in a row, thousands of German tanks ready to fire. And from the first shots, mixed with music, I cut! Following plan: a curtain opens. This is the concert of Shostakovich. Five thousand people in the room. Hundred eighty musicians play. And then: CREDITS!”
Also on my shelves is The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made. Written in 2001, a lot of these films have now actually been made—Fantastic Four, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I Am Legend—but by different filmmakers, and with dubious results.
Oh, and while I’ve got your attention: director Ridley Scott originally wanted Dustin Hoffman to play Deckard in Blade Runner. (Don’t laugh—Hoffman’s so good an actor, I bet he could have pulled it off. Imagine a futuristic Lenny Bruce. Now imagine that he may or may not be a vice cop who arrests guys like Lenny Bruce.) And there’s a product-placement curse attached to the flick. What do Atari, Pan Am, RCA, Cuisinart, and Bell Phones all have in common, other than that their logos appeared in the film? That’s right. They dead.