Kubrick and Antonioni Projects Revived

The Daily — Mar 9, 2021
Stanley Kubrick during the making of Killer’s Kiss (1955)

Two ambitious projects are underway, one based on a treatment that Stanley Kubrick thought he had lost and another that Michelangelo Antonioni had to let go after he’d spent two years working on it. Kubrick left behind so many unrealized projects in various stages of development that there’s a Wikipedia page devoted to them, and ten years ago, the coffee-table book publisher Taschen celebrated the best known of the lot with the less-than-humbly titled Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made. Among the lesser known is Lunatic at Large, a treatment Kubrick wrote with novelist and screenwriter Jim Thompson that has now been picked up by Bruce Hendricks, who has worked as an executive producer on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and Galen Walker, also a producer but better known for his work as a sound editor on such films as Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides (1999).

In the mid-1950s, when Kubrick was in his twenties, his marriage to his second wife, the Austrian dancer Ruth Sobotka, was not going well. The titles of three screenplays he started writing and then abandoned—they were discovered just two years ago—speak to his preoccupations: Married Man, The Perfect Marriage, and Jealousy. His first and second features, Fear and Desire (1953) and Killer’s Kiss (1955), were met with positive reviews but weak box-office returns. His fortune turned when he met producer James B. Harris and the two of them set up the Harris-Kubrick Pictures Corporation and bought the rights to Clean Break, a novel about a botched racetrack robbery that would become The Killing (1956).

Kubrick was an avid reader of Jim Thompson’s, calling the 1952 novel The Killer Inside Me “probably the most chilling and believable first-person story of a criminally warped mind I have ever encountered.” He hired Thompson to write dialogue for The Killing, and they worked together again on the screenplay for Paths of Glory (1957). Then they turned to Lunatic at Large. But it was also around this time that Kubrick and Marlon Brando fell out over One-Eyed Jacks (1961). Brando had already fired screenwriter Sam Peckinpah, and just weeks before production began, Kubrick backed away and Brando wound up directing himself.

Before Kubrick could turn back to Lunatic at Large, Kirk Douglas called on him to replace Anthony Mann on Spartacus (1960). The film’s success was Kubrick’s ticket out of Hollywood, and in 1962, he moved to London to stay, and the treatment for Lunatic at Large got lost somewhere along the way. When Kubrick died in 1999, his son-in-law, Philip Hobbs, found it among a few other screenplays and, as Charles McGrath reported in the New York Times seven years later, Hobbs “set about trying to make it into a movie.” Hobbs teamed up with screenwriter Stephen R. Clarke and television commercial director Chris Palmer, and four more years later, Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell were attached to star. In 2011, producer Steve Lanning told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson that he was lining up financing and aiming to finally get the production off the ground in early 2012. That never happened.

When Charles McGrath read Clark’s screenplay in 2006, he found it to be “a dark and surprising mystery of sorts, in which the greatest puzzle is who, among several plausible candidates, is the true escapee from a nearby mental hospital.” The story centers on Johnnie Sheppard, a short-tempered carnival worker, and Joyce, an attractive young woman he’s picked up in a bar. “The great set piece,” wrote McGrath, “is a nighttime carnival sequence in which Joyce, lost and afraid, wanders among the tents and encounters a sideshow’s worth of familiar carnie types: the Alligator Man, the Mule-Faced Woman, the Midget Monkey Girl, the Human Blockhead, with the inevitable noggin full of nails.”

While Kubrick’s involvement with Lunatic at Large never passed the treatment stage, Antonioni got as far as the location-scouting phase on Technically Sweet. Like everything else, the title sounds better in Italian: Tecnicamente dolce. Based on a story by Italo Calvino, the film would have centered on a journalist in Sardinia who becomes increasingly alienated from the life he’s leading and the girl he’s in an ill-defined relationship with. So he takes off for the Amazonian jungle.

Technically Sweet was to have been the third film in English that Antonioni had agreed to make for producer Carlo Ponti. The first, Blow-Up (1966), was a landmark hit with critics and audiences, but the second, Zabriskie Point (1970), flopped on both fronts. Ponti pulled the plug on Technically Sweet. “He was probably scared that I would never leave the jungle or that I would start painting it,” Antonioni told Gianluigi Rondi in 1975, the year Ponti and Antonioni released The Passenger, a film that bears traces of the remnants of Technically Sweet.

Ponti may have actually been put off by Antonioni’s plans to experiment with video, which was, in the mid-1970s, still a relatively new and underdeveloped technology. “What I would really like to do is make a feature film with television cameras, that is my dream,” he told Gideon Bachmann in 1975. “Telecameras offer a very free working method. You can paint your images. You can change the colors. Since the colors are electronic, this is easy, as it is for a painter. I had tried to do this in the cinema, with Red Desert, but I want to carry this technique even further. What counts is the reality that ends up on the screen. My reality.”

Early in the 1980s, Antonioni handed Technically Sweet over to his assistant director, Jirges Ristum, who died before he could realize it. Now Ristum’s son, director André Ristum (The Other Side of Paradise), is taking it on and Enrica Antonioni, the director’s widow, will serve as associate producer. Technically Sweet is not the only abandoned Antonioni project. He worked for a time on another Calvino adaptation, but he was never fully satisfied with the screenplay for The Color of Jealousy. In 2015, Antony Sellers told the story in Senses of Cinema behind The Crew, a project based on the real-life disappearance of a skipper from his own yacht. Antonioni hoped to shoot the film in Australia, completed a screenplay with his Passenger cowriter, Mark Peploe, and carried on trying to get The Crew financed until he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1985.

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