Mystery on the Hollywood Backlot
John Logan (Hugo) wrote a screenplay that could’ve been the best movie Michael Mann ever made. Here’s why you can’t see it.
So why didn’t this ambitious, brilliantly crafted screenplay get turned into a movie? Well, why does anything happen, or not happen, in Hollywood? The answer is always money. Michael Mann and John Logan sent the screenplay out to studios in late April of 2007 with Leonardo DiCaprio attached to play Slidell and a budget of $120 million; nothing came of it. As Alan Horn, head of Warner Brothers, explained at the time, “it came down to a pricing issue.” It also likely came down to a timing issue: Mann had just made the financial disappointment Miami Vice for at least $135 million; a claim he could make a period piece for $120 million must have raised eyebrows. And Mann/Logan isn’t a movie you could easily fake with lookalike locations in Vancouver. Mann would have had to recreate not just the MGM lot, not just the Munchkinland set from The Wizard of Oz, not just the burning of the RKO backlot—but also the Trocadero nightclub on the Sunset Strip, the defunct Agua Caliente resort south of Tijuana, Hollywood Park racetrack the year it opened, a Christmas party at Sonja Henie’s (complete with an outdoor ice skating rink), and—like any good noir—the long-gone neighborhood of Bunker Hill.
In a script where virtually every set piece is a show-stopper, it was always unlikely Mann could pull things off for a reasonable price. Given how woefully over budget Mann went with 2009’s Public Enemies, even with a much less ambitious list of locations, it’s easy to imagine Mann/Logan Project would have been an accountant’s nightmare. It wouldn’t have been a cakewalk for the legal department either. Although most of the principal characters are dead, Mickey Rooney’s alive and well, and presumably would not welcome a movie that alludes to Lana Turner having his abortion.
Even so, the film came close to getting made. New Line Cinema made an offer with a $100 million budget attached, but it wasn’t enough money. In another era, New Line’s head Bob Shaye—whose biggest success came from gambling on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings—might have rolled the dice. But in the spring of 2007, Shaye had just directed the critical and commercial disaster The Last Mimzy, and the political battles that ended his tenure at New Line were underway. He was in no position to bet on a filmmaker with as troubled a record as Michael Mann, particularly not when New Line corporate parent Warner Bros. had already passed on the film because of its cost. The offer went away, other scripts got bought, and Michael Mann and John Logan moved on to other things.
To be clear, it’s doubtful Mann or Logan have many regrets—they’ve each had exceptionally great years. Mann is back on television for the first time in decades, producing and directing the pilot episode of HBO’s critically-acclaimed Luck. Logan’s had it even better, with a year possibly unmatched by any screenwriter since the heyday of the studio system he wrote so entertainingly about. In 2011, he had three films in theaters: Rango, the front-runner for the best animated feature Oscar; academy favorite Hugo, for which Logan is nominated for best adapted screenplay; and a Shakespeare adaptation (Coriolanus) that some critics think is the best of the three. But Mann/Logan is still a movie that needs to be made, because there’s never been anything else quite like it—a deconstruction of the Hollywood studio system that’s so gloriously over the top that only a Hollywood studio could make it.
Is there a path forward? Maybe. This isn’t the first time John Logan and Michael Mann developed an ambitious, expensive period film that didn’t go forward. The last time didn’t have anything to do with Mann’s reputation; he simply didn’t want to make another historical film after The Insider and Ali. But the project didn’t die: Mann stepped into a producing role, letting another director take the project forward. The film was The Aviator and the director was Martin Scorsese. It could happen again. If there’s money in it.