Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Unmade Films of Donald Cammell

Rebecca and Sam Umland's 2006 book Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side is one of the strangest director biographies I've read in quite some time. This is not a criticism of the writing - the book is excellent throughout but what makes it unique among other director biographies is the sheer amount of films discussed within the text which didn't get made. Cammell made just four films between 1968 and 1995 but left behind twice as many screenplays which for various reasons outlined in the Umlands' book failed to catch fire. Jean-Luc Godard famously said that all one needed to make a film was a girl and a gun but time and again Cammell's perennial obsessions with sexuality and violence failed to make the transition from page to screen. I've scribbled down some brief notes from the book on a few of the more significant film projects that slipped through Cammell's hands. I should point out that my attempt to make tidy synopses of the screenplays discussed below does Cammell a disservice given the characteristic complexity the director invested in each project, and I would encourage anyone interested to seek out Rebecca and Sam's book for a detailed commentary.

Ishtar... The Beard...

Ishtar written soon after Performance, is set in Morocco and concerns a chance meeting between a film maker struggling to make a movie about the ancient Goddess Aisha, and a political revolutionary who has kidnapped a prominent American judge (a role William Burroughs was considered for). Ultimately the film foundered due to budgetary reasons (the film was to employ some innovative optical effects) but Ishtar refused to lie still - in 1972 Cammell shot some footage in Arches National Park in Utah loosely based on Ishtar, later posthumously edited and released as The Argument. In the mid-80's the screenplay was revived and retitled The Last Video, a project David Puttnam's Goldcrest wanted to make but withdrew from after the expensive disaster of Revolution (1985)

In 1972 Cammell wrote a screenplay based on Michael McClure's bizarre play, The Beard in which Billy the Kid and actress Jean Harlow meet up in an eternal afterlife and battle it out. Cammell declared he would not change a word of McClure's dialogue and hoped Mick Jagger would play the Kid but nothing came of the proposed film. In 1973 Cammell set to work on another uncompromising project, writing a dense and visually arresting screenplay of Nabokov's labyrinthine 1962 novel Pale Fire, typically considered unfilmable. Unsurprisingly Cammell failed to secure financing.

Aisha the witch in a expressionist shot from The Argument

The Lady Hamilton... Hot!... Fan-Tan...

Cammell next wrote a screenplay entitled The Lady Hamilton, (later known as Faro) a historical biopic of Emma Lyon, a free spirited and sexually adventureous women whose lovers included Lord Nelson. Lyon's story had been filmed in 1941 as That Hamilton Woman! starring Vivian Leigh and Laurence Olivier but Cammell was unable to stir up any interest for his version.

Following Demon Seed, Cammell worked on a Jack The Ripper screenplay with English theatre critic and writer Kenneth Tynan but was fired by the producer, which Tynan recorded in his diary - "Bill Tennant tells me over lunch that he wants me to continue with the script of the Ripper but that he proposes to ditch Donald C. as director replacing him with John Schlesinger or Nic Roeg." In any event the proposed the film eventually collapsed. (Warners had their own Ripper film Time After Time, in production around the same time). In 1978 Cammell worked on a screenplay originally developed by Zalman King entitled Hot! which was centred around a community of radioactive mutants living in the desert. King sought out Cammell to direct the screenplay on the strength of Performance. Cammell's vision of the film was steeped in mythological and Biblical references and might have resembled The Hills Have Eyes had it been directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.

In 1978 Marlon Brando commissioned Cammell to work on a screenplay known as Fan-Tan, a hugely convoluted sea-adventure set around Hong Kong and French Polynesia just before the second World War. Brando was to play the film's swaggering anti-hero, but his enthusiasm for the project eventually dried up and the project ran around. Cammell however salvaged the screenplay and turned it into a novelisation which finally surfaced in 2006 co-authored by Brando and Cammell

Jericho... The Cull...

Cammell entered into another ill-fated collaboration with Marlon Brando who contacted Cammell after seeing White of the Eye and impressed by the film asked Cammell to work on a project he was developing. Jericho was a story about an unhinged CIA agent who is offered One Last Job to assassinate a Columbian drug baron. Of the crop of unmade projects Cammell collected over the years Jericho came close to being realized - finance for the projected 14million dollar production had been secured but Brando and Cammell proved too volatile a mix and the film was ultimately abandoned.

In 1993 Cammell began working on a screenplay called The Cull in which a traumatised Gulf War soldier wanted by American and British authorities goes into hiding in the wilderness of the Scottish highlands. On the face of it, the screenplay mines similar territory as First Blood, but The Cull has a complex time-shifting narrative and explores themes of man's propensity for violence, and illegal military warfare. Apparently Sean Connery expressed an interest in making the film. It's interesting to note that the climax of The Cull has the film's hero survive being shot in the head which may have helped propagate the myth that Cammell survived for some time after he turned a gun on himself, a myth the Umlands in their book strenuously debunk - Cammell's death was almost certainly instantaneous, ending a remarkable life and career.

A shot of Cammell's collection of unfilmed screenplays
(from The Ultimate Performance documentary)

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