‘Grindhouse’ to ‘John Carter’ – 18 ‘dream projects’ that turned into nightmares

I am starting to suspect that dream projects should never be made. I know that sounds counter-intuitive and incredibly pessimistic. Hear me out.

Certainly, there are movies I love that very talented people have worked tirelessly to realize, and I would be devastated if those films did not exist. I get it. I love “Apocalypse Now.” I love that it smells desperate and sweaty in a way precisely because of the insane demands the production made on everyone. I love that it was finished. I adore every flaw, every eccentricity. I love it. But it is also true that there are many dream films that have been made that have turned out to be mystifyingly bad, bad in a way that can only be personal, and while I can’t imagine what might have started me thinking about this topic recently, I thought it would be worth looking back at what’s happened when people have backed a vision and given it everything and stood back and looked at the end result and thought…

… we are in so much trouble.

Exhibit A for me on this list is always Barry Levinson’s “Toys.”

I moved to Los Angeles in 1990, and at that point, “Toys” was already a legendary script thanks to magazines like “Movieline” and “Premiere,” which were starting to publish pieces about the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood and drafts of things that didn’t get made and original endings and alternate ideas. It was a fairly recent development in terms of publishing, and for a lot of guys my age living in places where there was no film industry to speak of, it gave us a glimpse at a world that seemed impossible to be part of. It was the first real big push at insider journalism, work written by people who were positively chummy with the folks making the movies. The film journalism of the ’70s had led to a much more publicity minded film journalism of the ’80s which led to a real sort of gigantic explosion of all sorts of different film journalism in the ’90s, and one of the reason “Toys” was legendary was because the first mentions of it were in the ’70s, and then again in the ’80s, and then it finally got made in the ’90s, and by that point, it was accepted fact: the script “Toys” by Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtain was one of the best unproduced scripts ever written. “They” said so.

Don’t take my word for it that the final film is not one of the best produced scripts of all time. I brought in professionals to back me up. I brought in Paul Scheer and Jason Mantzoukas, the guys who are 2/3 of the outstanding movie comedy podcast “How Did This Get Made?” Or rather, they brought me in, but i suggested the film for the episode I appeared on, and Jason and Paul both watched “Toys.”

When I saw Jason at Sundance in January, the first thing he said to me was, “Still f*#k you for ‘Toys.'” and I am totally okay with that. I understand the pain and the anger. It is a film that is full of choices, end to end, that I would just love to hear Barry talk us through. The casting of Michael Gambon and LL Cool J as father and son is fine… if there’s something you’re doing. The way it’s written and played here, it doesn’t work as a surrealist’s gag, and it’s played in so many zig-zagged tones that it’s hard to tell how serious we’re supposed to take their connection.

Is “Toys” supposed to be savage satiric commentary? If not, then what’s the point? It seems to me like there must have a been a draft of this movie, or maybe many drafts of it, that would have been more war-toy oriented, and more pointedly satirical. I’m trying to remember the state of the toy industry in 1992. It doesn’t seem like it ws particularly violence crazy. Video games had not gone totally “Mortal Kombat” bananas yet, and action figures weren’t really the nerd furniture they are today, display items instead of still largely aimed at kids. It feels like the biggest problem with “Toys” is that the toys themselves are terrible. I’m sorry… the biggest ugliest secret of the movie “Toys” is that the toys in it are terrible. No kid on Earth wants a single toy they show in this movie. You could show this to them, tell them that there was one of everything in the next room, and tell them all they had to do was name the one they wanted, and they would be stumped. This is a remarkably unappealing line-up of pretend toys.

I almost don’t even get how that happens. Forget the weird reality that this film can’t quite settle on. That’s a big issue that it seems someone never really got a handle on, and so it’s just… constantly shifting. What I really don’t get is how they didn’t hire a production designer who could look at the toys that are actually on the shelves as the movie’s being made and make something that might actually compete. That kind of choice can derail one of these dream projects easily, and there are so many other pitfalls that we felt like it was time to look at some of the instances where filmmakers finally got the chance to bring one of their most deeply-held dreams to life, only to suffer for it during the production or when the film was released. There are lots of important lessons for filmmakers to learn here, so let’s dig in.

In the meantime, ‘Winter’s Tale’ is still playing in theaters if you’re feeling hungry for a genuine disaster.