john cribbs


This is an experiment I've been mulling over for some time. It's dedicated to great directors. Great directors...who've transgressed. Disappointed. Befuddled. But not to the point of being written off entirely. In the course of long careers these filmmakers have made the occasional slip, and the intent behind this ongoing column will be to try and figure out what their motivation might have been in choosing projects that proved questionable, wrongheaded or outright embarrassing. The purpose of this experiment is not to deride, but to understand.


The subjects: William Malone, Geoffrey Wright, Walter Hill, Jack Sholder, Francis Coppola, Thomas Lee

The movie: Supernova

MGM is going through some tough times. Despite their successful foray into new distribution practices such as downloading through iTunes and DirecTV over the last decade, the recession hit them as bad as anybody. The forbearance on interest payments granted by their lenders expired July 14, and with the various rumored buyout deals dissipating one by one they could be headed for bankruptcy. Even the guy who saved Krispy Kreme Donuts may not be able to get them out of their current crisis. Can you imagine Leo the Lion out on the corner with a sandwich board reading "Will roar for food?" (you can probably at least imagine a dumb political cartoon to that effect). And it's all over the trades how the new James Bond movie went from having a prestigious cast and director to being "indefinitely suspended" to being flat-out canceled. Is this the lowest and most embarrassing period to have befallen this once-illustrious company?

That's debatable. MGM lost a lot of prestige starting in the late 50's when the classic studio system went out the window. There was the mass sell-off of historical memorabilia, including the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Then the giant downsizing of employees to accomodate changes in the company's business model at the end of the 60's. There was the brief early 90's reign of Giancarlo Parretti, the Italian mogul who spent his time in power dipping into corporate funds to buy gifts for his various girlfriends, becoming the first man to effectively stall the James Bond series. And I'm sure certain executives and stockholders probably sunk a little lower in their seats at the premiere of such studio-financed fiascos as Ryan's Daughter, Gymkata and Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man. Of those fiascos, however, one such disaster that's always stuck out like a sore space thumb on the filmographies of three notable directors, footnotes on the career of two others, and the empty resume of one fictional filmmaker is an imploded failure of a science fiction would-be spectacle, wrapped in 1998, toiled and tinkered with and finally released to the universal indifference of moviegoers at the beginning of 2000, the super-embarrassing super-debacle Supernova.

Supernova came along during a notably dismal period for science fiction adventures* - 1997's Alien: Resurrection and The Postman, 1998's Sphere, Armageddon and Deep Impact, Battlefield Earth and Red Planet from the same year, 2000. In the holding period between the initial completion of filming (1998) and the movie's release (2000), the genre got a big shot of adrenaline in the ass thanks to a little movie called The Matrix. The Wachowski Brothers' philosophical leather-clad cyber-punk bullet ballet (pre-dated by such similarly flawed yet conceptual science fiction depictions as Strange Days, Dark City and The Truman Show) was a colossal crossover hit, arguably the most successful melding of high-minded sci fi and mainstream sensibilities since Kubrick's 2001, which MGM had released 40 years earlier. Consequently, the 2001 mold of "space mission" stories became the new "traditional" type of science fiction archetype. Fantastical tales of treks to alien planets, post-apocalyptic dread, liberation from future tyrannical governments and intergalactic threats which will end the world as. we. know it. became the new B-movie while the more existential, reality-questioning, literally down-to-earth films became the trendy and predominant new entries to represent the genre (it continues today with movies like Inception and The Adjustment Bureau). And unfortunately for Supernova, it was very much in the antiquated style of the former. 

I have to admit going into this that I don't have a 100% clear understanding of every facet of the production woes, and only vague ideas and theories as to which director contributed what to the story and finished film. But that's kind of what this Frustrating Filmographies series is all about: theorizing my way to some sense of understanding. I had wanted to publish this on the 10th anniversary of the movie's release, but that was back in January. However, this is being published on the 10th anniversary of the film's release in Finland (July 2000).

So to all our Finnish readers, onnellinen Supernova päivä, jokainen! Translation: take off your clothes everybody, we're going to be getting into our bio-protection units and dimension jump right into this epic mess! All hell is about to break loose...

It all started with William Malone, a UCLA film student and B-movie enthusiast who secured his place in cinema history by taking a William Shatner mask and turning it into the iconic face of Michael Myers for John Carpenter's Halloween. Following that feat, he supported himself in the 80's by churning out Alien clones. Having already directed two Alien-esque horror movies, one earthbound (Scared to Death, 1981) and one planetary (Creature, 1985), he developed a script titled Dead Star, which he saw as "Hellraiser in space" (note that this was before there actually was a Hellraiser in space). The title itself had Alien connotations, evoking John Carpenter's 1974 film Dark Star, the movie that inspired co-writer Dan O'Bannon to come up with an idea for a story about a spaceship crew terrorized by a monster from beyond the stars. To make the Alien connection complete he hired HR Giger, who had designed the creatures for Malone's two previous films, to produce conceptual art for the movie. Malone's movie failed to materialize, and somehow his script ended up in the hands of Daniel Chuba, a special effects producer whose credits include everything from Airheads to Showgirls. Chuba wrote a new draft, retitled Supernova, in 1995 essentially as a project for his new company Hammerhead Productions. Along with Hammerhead president Jamie Dixon, Chuba put together a short trailer highlighting the script's potential effects shots and successfully sold the idea to MGM/UA. Although Dixon and Chuba remained on as producers (along with Ralph S Singleton**), the script went through yet another major rehauling by David C Wilson, whose only other screen credit was writing the Jeff Speakman vehicle The Perfect Weapon.

Whatever the story had started out as, it had developed into this: the crew of the Nightingale 229, a space ambulance tooling around the universe in the 22nd century (presumably being chased around by space lawyers in tiny pods), are lured into deep space by a mysterious distress signal. Nothing too surprising so far: in every "space crew" movie - 2001, The Black Hole, Alien - the reason for journeying into the unknown is almost invariably a distress signal. Even 2007's Sunshine starts out with a mission to reignite the sun with a nuke but ends up waylaid when they pick up...a distress signal. The only real variants on this basic formula are the old "we've lost contact with yadda yadda, go check it out" (Solaris, 2010, Aliens) or "how is it we've come to crash-land on this strange rock?" (Planet of the Apes, Pitch Black, Alien 3). Anyway, unlike in any of those previously mentioned movies, this crew finds something in the darkest bowels of space that ends up wiping them out one by one. Other staples of the genre featured in the story include space suits, laser guns, a robot, a talking ship's computer with a remarkably human personality, faster-than-light travel technology and an oppressive-but-only-mildly-referenced fascist future society.

Malone had since gone on to a career directing television shows like "Freddy's Nightmares" and "Tales from the Crypt" (executive producer: Walter Hill), and his involvement with the script he had written was long over, although he and Chuba would eventually share a "story" credit. Instead, the studio decided to give the project to somebody they'd been trying to figure out what to do with: indie Aussie wunderkind Geoffrey Wright. Wright, a former movie critic, had gained notice for Romper Stomper, a ballad of Melbourne skinheads which had given a pre-telephone brandishing Russell Crowe exposure in the west and led to his star-making role in 1997's L.A. Confidential. 'Stomper had been a big hit in his native country and scored him a nomination for the 1992 Australian Film Institute Best Director Award (he lost to Baz Luhrmann, but so did Black Robe's Bruce Beresford so no great dishonor there). Following the release of Metal Skin, his ballad of Melbourne petrol-heads, Wright was offered a contract with MGM and spent the next three years waiting for something to happen. Undoubtedly keen to get this hot young director of unflinching, "gritty" (note quotation marks) dramas attached to one of their exciting new projects, the powers that be assigned him Supernova.

It's there that the history of Supernova's production starts to get blurry. Wright found his leading man in James Spader, whose co-pilot Nick Vanzant takes over the ship only to wind up stranded on a dead moon before returning to save the surviving crew members from the danger onboard. As love interest Dr. Kaela Evers, Wright cast Angela Bassett, hot off the hit studio space movie Contact.*** Vincent D'Onofrio joined Wright's production, stating in an interview that he'd be playing a man "in love with a computer." Sets were built, costumes were made, crew positions filled. Then suddenly, a mere five weeks prior to start of production, Wright was fired from the movie. The trades called it "creative differences" with MGM chairman Frank Mancuso, but the real reason is left to speculation. Was Mancuso touring the massive corridors of the ship on the sound stage when he suddenly realized he was handing his epic, $60 million space movie to an unkempt Australian who'd never directed a movie in America or with such lavish production design? Or was there really a confrontation, this early on, about the direction the movie would be going in? It's pointless to guess, but needless to say that with plenty of cash already committed to the project and pre-production nearly completed Mancuso must have been steadfast in his conviction that Geoffrey Wright was not the man to make Supernova a reality.

[Quick aside: I'm spend a lot of time getting into him because he is the most important character in this whole business, but if you know who Walter Hill is already you should go ahead and skip the next paragraph. Thanks -- john.]

Enter Walter Hill, a prolific producer/writer/director whose filmography up to that time featured more fluctuations between the fascinating and the frustrating than almost any other American movie maker. He hit the ground running in his early career, enjoying a decade of success from his directorial debut in 1975 to his first critical and commercial flop in 1984. Starting off with a string of Steve McQueen projects, he worked as second unit director of The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt before turning in the script for Sam Peckinpah's Jim Thompson adaptation The Getaway. A series of action movie writing gigs followed and finally led to Hill helming his first film, the Charles Bronson depression-era street fighting classic Hard Times. From that point on, Hill led an ideal filmmaker's life, churning out well-received projects while making his bread and butter producing a highly-successful franchise (see next paragraph). After coming up with four straight-up gems in five years - The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders and Southern Comfort - it looked like Hill was the real deal, an uncanny combination of Peckinpah, John Ford and Jean-Pierre Melville, a man who discovered the middle road where journeyman moviemaking and art-minded auteurism met. Following his biggest hit, the Eddie Murphy-Nick Nolte action/buddy comedy 48 Hrs., were three woeful signs of a general loss of focus for Hill: Streets of Fire, a self-proclaimed "rock 'n roll fable" from the mid-80's that dated a little too prematurely, Brewster's Millions, a Richard Pryor vehicle and Crossroads, a white-boy-learns-the-blues drama starring Ralph Macchio. From a business standpoint, these must have seemed like smart moves, but fans of his gritty (note no quotation marks) action-dramas were understandably let down. After this rough patch the director entered what I call "Hill's white elephant," an era where he returned to the kind of crowd-pleasing action-packed heroic bloodshed pistol operas that defined the first stage of his career but received more roundly mixed to outright hostile reactions: Extreme Prejudice, Red Heat, Johnny Handsome, Trespass, a sequel to 48 Hrs. To quote the final line of Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, "It ain't like it used to be, but, uh, it'll do."

In the late 70's Hill formed a production company called Brandywine with partners David Giler and Gordon Carroll specifically to buy and produce a science fiction/horror script that had been making the rounds at 20th Century Fox. Hill and Giler did eight uncredited rewrites of the screenplay, during which the lead character was changed to a female. When pre-production was set to begin, Fox offered Hill the chance to direct, but he was busy finishing The Warriors and starting The Long Riders, and reportedly felt uncomfortable handling the special effects. Instead they hired Ridley Scott and the resultant film, Alien, would of course make a mountain of money for the studio; its sequels have been Hill's bread and butter ever since (he's stayed on as producer for all five, even the crappy ones with co-starring the Predators). Maybe he always regretted not taking the directing reigns of that original classic. Maybe he just felt stuck in period adventures (his last three movies were westerns Geronimo: An American Legend and Wild Bill and the Depression-set Last Man Standing) and thought it would be fun to jump to the future. Maybe it just made sense, thematically and from a business viewpoint, for the man who made the Alien movies so big to direct a space thriller of his own. Exactly why the project enticed Hill is uncertain, but shortly after the disclosure of Murphy's end of involvement came the announcement that Walter Hill would taking over the directing duties of Supernova

Do you understand now why this is such a mega-frustrating entry in the Frustrating Filmographies series? At this point the question is, who's most responsible for the ensuing monstrosity of a movie? Is the original vision of William Malone to blame? Or the pre-production work of Geoffrey Wright? I mean you have to assume that most of the set, costumes etc had already been prepared and approved by Wright, but what did Walter Hill bring to the plate? For one thing cinematographer Lloyd Ahern, Hill's go-to DP since 1993, must have been brought on after Wright was shipped out (he was also a camera operator on The Black Hole). Should anybody be held accountable but Hill himself, the man who shot and edited the movie. It seems like that should be the case - except that his final cut with his footage intact never saw the light of day. There's a lot more to the history of Supernova, and I'm only halfway there...


* The two notable exceptions being 1997's Starship Troopers and 1999's Galaxy Quest, both of which did respectable if not amazing box office. Some might drag Robert Zemeckis' Contact into the "success" pile, but all I have to say is that Robert Zemeckis' Contact is no Carl Sagan's Contact.

** Whose sole directing credit was the Stephen King adaptation Graveyard Shift.

*** It's a weird coincidence that this is the second Frustrating Filmography in a row to feature Angela Bassett (the last one was Music of the Heart, which was released while Supernova was in post-production limbo). I don't have anything against her personally, although I'm certainly not a fan. She always comes off as humorless, even as the stewardess in Kindergarten Cop, and her role in this movie is no exception. I don't know, maybe she just needs to get her groove back. (If anyone has seen Ms. Bassett's groove, please return it to Ms. Bassett forthwith).

Also, I know we haven't gotten to Francis Coppola's involvement in this story yet, but the C.U.S.B (Committee on Uncovering Scumbag Behavior) asked me to include the fact that Coppola filed a lawsuit against Carl Sagan...six days after Sagan died of myelodysplasia. Coppola claimed that Sagan promised him rights to produce a children's television special based on Contact in 1975. Ann Druygan, Sagan's widow, reacted to the news with appropriate disdain: "All I can say is, when a man writes a complaint with his lawyer while your husband is dying after a third bone-marrow transplant, and then waits for him to die so he can file it - it's outrageous."

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