Saturday Night At The Movies: What exactly was ‘Arrive Alive,’ and what happened?

Last week, we talked about Eddie Murphy’s career and the way it has served to disappoint fans of his early work with almost surgical precision.  In that piece, I didn’t even include a story that depressed me more than almost anything else I’ve ever heard about Eddie.

Around the time “The Goods” was coming out, the lovely Tamar over at Paramount asked me and a few other writers if we wanted to have lunch with Neal Brennan, who directed the film.  Brennan was the co-creator of “Chapelle’s Show,” and he’s a guy who has been working in LA comedy for years.  As we talked, the conversation touched on any number of topics, and at one point, Brennan told us about an evening where Eddie Murphy came to Chapelle’s house.  Over the course of that long night hanging out, Eddie, Dave Chapelle, and Brennan all started pitching ideas for sketches, eventually realizing that they had enough material to put together a sketch comedy movie.  Eddie was energized by the material they were bouncing back and forth, according to Brennan, and by the time he left, they had all agreed that they were going to find a place to make the film together.  That turned out to be the last contact Brennan had with him, which is terribly sad.  Can you imagine a sketch comedy film with a fire-in-his-belly Murphy going head to head with Chapelle, determined to prove something?  It could have been glorious.

Those “almosts” are the things that can be hardest to accept as fans because we can’t help but imagine what might have been.  For me, the last twenty years has had a big fat question mark nagging at me in regards to a film called “Arrive Alive,” and until last night, I had no way of answering those questions.

First, some background.  Michael O’Donoghue, who I’ve written about a little bit earlier in this column, was one of the first generation of SNL writers, and he was unlike almost anyone else who has ever worked on the show.  He came to TV from National Lampoon, and much of the time, it felt like his work was compromised because he simply couldn’t work in a network TV environment.  Even so, enough of his blistering, angry wit made it through to win him lifelong fans like… well, like me.  And thanks to books like Live From New York and Mr. Mike, his legend has grown over the years.

One key part of that legend involved the film “Arrive Alive,” which came very close to playing at a theater near you.  Jeremiah Chechik, hot off of “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” was hired to direct the film, and Willem Dafoe was set to star as Mickey Crews, a low-level Miami scumbag who gets caught up in a mystery involving killer whales, Everglade Indian tribes, and Florida land development.  The film shot for a few weeks before Paramount, citing schedule and budget issues, shut it down and locked the footage away.  Since then, that script has been damn near impossible to find, and I’ve certainly spent my time looking.

At one point in the mid-’90s, I was working for the Director’s Guild.  When the Northridge earthquake happened, we were driven out of our offices and into temporary offices in Burbank.  We ended up sharing a space with the American Humane Society’s film branch.  They have to read every script that is in development at every studio to determine how the animal action in each film will be handled, and they give the studios notes on how to shoot things and what needs to be simulated and what can be done for real.  In each of their files, they have the script as well as their notes.  My friend at the Humane Society would let me browse their files to satisfy my curiosity about any number of projects, and in every single case, the script was right there in the file.

In every case but one, that is.  In the case of “Arrive Alive,” the only thing in the file was a single sheet of paper, the letter that Paramount got from the Humane Society.  It consisted of two terse sentences:  “We in no way endorse the making of this motion picture.  We find the content of the script entirely objectionable.”  And just that short letter made me laugh so hard, trying to imagine what could have led to that reaction, that I have spent all the years since then wishing I could get hold of the script.

And on Friday, in the middle of the day, it showed up in my inbox thanks to the Herculean efforts of a friend of mine.

So now I’ve had a chance to read the fourth draft of the script, and my first reaction is that I can see the studio’s fingerprints all over it.  There’s something in the first six pages that I know has been toned down from the original draft thanks to things we’ve heard from various sources over the years.  In Vic Armstrong’s new book, there’s a passage where he talks about getting hired to work on the film, and how he couldn’t believe what he was reading.  The opening took place at a Sea World park where, during a Shamu show, a killer whale jumps up and bites off the head of the trainer.  That is not the way the script starts that I read, but I can see where the beat would have gone.

So what is “Arrive Alive”?  And why did Paramount pull the plug on it?

Well, are you familiar with the work of Carl Hiaasen?  Like John D. McDonald before him, Hiaasen has made a tremendous living writing about Florida and all the insane types that seem to make their home there.  I lived in Florida for many years, so I have a very particular point of view on Florida stories, and I have to say, co-writers Michael O’Donoghue and Mitch Glazer get it right.  Their story could only really take place in Florida, which still feels like the wild west as far as land development goes, and since the script was written in the late ’80s/early ’90s, i’s a period piece at this point.  It perfectly captured the moment it was written, when Florida was struggling towards a new respectability… badly.

Mickey Crews is the perfect Florida hero.  A seedy guy working odd jobs in a seedy hotel, the role was obviously written for a late-’80s-era Bill Murray, who would have torn this up right around the time he starred in “Scrooged,” which was also co-written by O’Donoghue and Glazer.  It is a shame he didn’t play it, because Mickey would have been a great role for him.  We meet Mickey mid-scam.  There’s a statuesque woman staying at the hotel named Joy, and Mickey is determined to meet her.  When we meet the two of them, she’s in the hotel bar, crying, and Mickey approaches her to see if he can help.  He introduces himself as the hotel detective, and she explains that her dog is missing.  He tells her that there are organized dognappers about, and that he’d be happy to see if he can get her dog back.  He proceeds to walk upstairs to the hotel room where he’s got the dog stashed, a blatant ploy to meet her.  He is a liar, a fraud, a blowhard, and a complete asshole at times.  He does have his soft spots, though, and although he starts off simply trying to bang Joy, he starts to really fall for her.

At the same time, he finds himself in the middle of a real mystery when Red Johnson, a former champion boxer who now runs a shoeshine stand in the hotel, turns up dead.  Mickey dives in, determined to figure out who did it, and for his trouble, he gets stomped, beaten, abducted, threatened, chased, and generally treated poorly.  I love the way Mickey repeatedly offers people money, even as they’re pounding on him, not to hit him in the face or to just stop punching him.  I also love the little ways Mickey deals with frustration, whether it’s repeatedly sending massive amounts of take-out food to a dry cleaner that screwed him or using an elevator to torment a woman who is always coughing.  He’s a jerk, but he’s a great jerk, and once he really dedicates himself to figuring out who killed Red and why, he’s a surprisingly effective detective.

He and Joy have a very funny relationship in the film, one that develops gradually, and she responds to the little tiny kernels of decency she finds in the giant turd that is Mickey.  Over time, he wears her resistance down, and he also genuinely changes in the face of how good a person she is.  The two of them banter well, and even without any ad-libbing, it’s a fun back-and-forth that could have been great with the right two people involved.  The problem was, according to Art Linson and others I’ve spoken to about the eighteen days of shooting, Willem Dafoe is not a comedy star, and his take on the character was starting to really creep people out.  Hearing that makes me laugh, but it would have ruined the movie.  You have to like Mickey, and you have to buy him as a light, funny, somewhat charming asshole.  It sounds to me like a case of massive miscasting, and while I’d love to see the footage, I don’t think he was the right guy for the job.

This fourth draft is a fairly studio-friendly film, and it hits all the beats a big-studio comedy would need to, which makes me think this is a radically reworked version of whatever it was that O’Donoghue and Glazer initially turned in.  While animals are almost constantly abused or put in harm’s way in this script (there’s a great scene where Mickey needs to escape from a group of giant alligators, and he throws Joy’s dog to them as a distraction), it doesn’t read to me like a movie that would make the Humane Society so angry they would just send the script back.  Everything that’s in here, with the exception of two scenes involving the killer whale at Sea World, could easily have been done with fake animals or basic camera tricks.  Either they overreacted, or I’m reading the version after the upper brass at Paramount screamed at O’Donoghue and Glazer for a while.

Whatever the case, I read a lot of unproduced scripts, and in most cases, I can see what stumbling blocks kept something from getting made.  Here, I think it was mostly bad luck.  “Arrive Alive” could have easily been a fun, wicked little ride in the right hands, and it just seems to me that Dafoe and Chechik were the wrong guys for their particular jobs.  I still think a smart producer could sift through the various drafts of this one and find the great movie lurking in there, and as long as they hired the right Mickey Crews, they could have something wonderful.  If “Arrive Alive” is truly dead, that’s a shame.  Even in this toned-down form, it proved to be well worth the wait.

My thanks to the great J.M. for tracking this one down. 

And for those of you new to this series… 

“‘MacGruber,’ ‘Wayne’s World,’ and the legacy of ‘Shrek'”

“‘Caddyshack’ hits Blu-ray… so it’s got that going for it”

“Riggle, O’Hara, Wilson, and the art of the supporting player”

“‘Despicable Me,’ ‘Megamind,’ ‘Shame Of The Jungle,’ and more”

“He’s Chevy Chase, and you’re not”

“Phil Hartman, Cheech & Chong, and Pee Wee Herman

“What the heck was ‘The Saturday Night Live Movie’?”

“Belushi, the Bully Boys, and Wired 2.0”

“Why ‘Noble Rot’ Died On The Vine”

“Is The Whole Purpose Of The Show To Make Movie Stars?”

“What SNL Faces Will You See In Movies This Summer?”

“Why Eddie Murphy Breaks My Heart”

“Saturday Night At The Movies” runs here every Saturday night.  Appropriately enough.