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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Bummer: No 'Mountains' for del Toro, just madness

Its going to eat our money! Halp!
  • It's going to eat our money! Halp!
Here's a heartbreaker for fans of ambitious genre movies and/or Grand Guignol genius filmmaker Guillermo del Toro. As reported on Deadline on Monday, the director of Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth had put together all the ingredients for a potentially breathtaking film experience: a 3D adaptation of the novella In the Mountains of Madness by groundbreaking American horror scribe H.P. Lovecraft, with James Cameron attached as an executive producer and Tom Cruise interested in making the film, alongside del Toro regular Ron Perlman. However, Universal Pictures reportedly balked at the prospect of spending $150 million for an R-rated "epic horror film," forcing del Toro to defer his dream project yet again.

Del Toro's vision for the film sounded like the original Alien or John Carpenter's The Thing with special effects on the scale of James Cameron's Avatar. The sad case of In the Mountains of Madness offers a fascinating case study in the creativity behind the development process and the depressing challenges of getting any expensive film financed, particularly in Hollywood's current climate. For a little context, Mark Harris' February GQ magazine article "When the Movies Died" uses the film industry's nonplussed reaction to the success of Inception (a dense, challenging thriller not based on a familiar property that defied expectations and proved hugely popular) to illustrate Hollywood's risk aversion:

But it's really bad news when the industry essentially rejects a success, when a movie that should have spawned two dozen taste-based gambles on passion projects is instead greeted as an unanswerable anomaly. That kind of thinking is why Hollywood studio filmmaking, as 2010 came to its end, was at an all-time low—by which I don't mean that there are fewer really good movies than ever before (last year had its share, and so will 2011) but that it has never been harder for an intelligent, moderately budgeted, original movie aimed at adults to get onto movie screens nationwide.

HitFix's Drew McWeeney hits on similar themes in an post-mortem on the failed Mountains of Madness deal, "Is It Fair to Blame Universal for the State of the Industry Today?" but takes a tone that's more in sorrow than in anger:

Universal badly wanted to be in the Guillermo Del Toro business. It was a priority to them, and when they made "Hellboy 2: The Golden Army," that was in large part a show of faith on the part of the studio. They wanted to make "Frankenstein" with Guillermo. They wanted to give him a home for his particular voice and vision. And when it came down to it, after a few years marked by expensive filmmmaker-driven flops and sure-thing properties that failed and cult fanboy favorites that no one turned out for, they looked at that R-rated $150 million horror film and said, "We can't." Not that they didn't want to, or that they don't believe in Guillermo, or that they want to make crap instead. They looked at the money they've made, the money they've lost, the choices that have led them to this place, and they said, "We can't."

Daniel Zalewski's recent, hefty New Yorker profile on del Toro provides as compelling a portrayal of a film's creative development as anything I've ever read. When the author tours with del Toro and his five-man pre-production design team, the director's approach to the material sounds remarkable. Consider this exchange with del Toro and Wayne Barlowe on the look of Cthulhu, a huge, hideous, god-like alien at the center of Lovecraft's horror fiction:

[Barlowe] had been sketching Cthulhu in a surprisingly soft hand. In his rendition, many appendages emanated from a central vertical column; it had the majesty of a redwood tree. When del Toro looked at it, he said, “I love the idea of the floating things!” Cthulhu was surrounded by satellite parasites, just as some sharks are haloed by schools of fish. Barlowe said that he was going for a “regal look,” and pointed at the creature’s neck. “It’s like an Elizabethan collar!” del Toro said, smiling. “Great.”

On Tuesday, del Toro spoke with Deadline about Universal's failure to greenlight Mountains of Madness, and why he refused to agree to commit to a PG-13 version of the film.

DEL TORO: I’ve been offered four or five times at different studios the chance to make this movie in what I think was the wrong way. With $20 million or $30 million less than what I need, with a contractual PG-13, and I don’t want to do it that way.

DEADLINE: Why is that such a deal breaker for you?

DEL TORO: Ultimately, I think the MPAA could rule the movie PG-13 because the movie and the book are not gory. If that is the outcome, fine. But I don’t want to put the PG-13 on paper, for one reason. We created Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, thinking we would be safe looking for PG-13 because we had no profanity, no sex, no gore, but we made a very intense movie in a very classical mold. And the MPAA gave it an R. They said the movie was too intense for a PG-13. The only think I know about Mountains is, I do not want it to be bloody, I do not want it to be crass, but I want it to be as intense as possible. And those discussions were had in the open. Everyone knew this was my position, that I knew I was asking the chance for the movie to be what it needs to be.

Having spent months in New Zealand developing The Hobbit, only to drop out in May of 2010 when the film had not yet been greenlit, del Toro hasn't directed a film since 2008's Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. With At the Mountains of Madness on indefinite hold, he's moved onto a new project, a monster picture called Pacific Rim that sounds like an homage to Godzilla and his ilk. But Cthulhu could be the one that got away.

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