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Coming Never: Richard Gere as BlakeAuthor: Simon Sellars • May 7th, 2008 •
ABOVE: Richard Gere as Blake: more vapourware…
None of my books are being made into films at the moment, all is quiet. A lot of Philip K. Dick’s books have been filmed; they fit the American mood. His novels are very paranoid and I think that touches a nerve in America.
J.G. Ballard, interviewed in SFX magazine, 2007.
I have been working my way through a stack of Ballard interviews from the 70s and 80s, and one consistent note is JGB’s regret at never cracking the American market. But his US stocks might have been very different if a few more of the film options taken out on his books had come to fruition, an observation brought home to me after reading David Pringle’s 1990 conversation with Ballard (published in Fear magazine and kindly sent to me by Martin J.).
In this interview there is much tantalising detail about these vapourware films, including the news that Steven Spielberg’s partner Kathy Kennedy was keen to option Running Wild a couple of years after Spielberg’s film of Empire. Ballard, however, feared it was “slightly too strong a dish for Spielberg” while speculating that “one of those John Carpenter directors might have fun with it”. He also talks of stalled development on a proposed film of The Day of Creation, before bemoaning the fact that “nobody has ever got it together” to film Concrete Island, despite the fact it has “been continuously optioned ever since it was published” and that it “would be quite easy and cheap to film”. The latest option on Concrete Island (at the time, 1990), Ballard reveals, was from someone in Australia!
But the biggest revelation is that Richard Gere wanted to make a film of The Unlimited Dream Company. According to Ballard:
Richard Gere … has taken an option on The Unlimited Dream Company with a view to playing the hero himself. I met him in London and was very impressed by him — highly articulate, thoughtful, serious-minded. He’s very interested in Buddhism, does work on behalf of various Buddhist missions. Reincarnation through one species to another is very much a part of Buddhist thought, and obviously that is what intrigued him about the novel. What would have been the insuperable obstacle of filming the flying sequences is no problem these days — they can do that extremely convincingly. But one must assume, to be sensible, that nothing will come of it.
Richard Gere as Blake! The mind curdles! I wonder if Gere intended to keep the Shepperton setting? Perhaps it would have suffered a fate similar to the remake of The Wicker Man, sadly ripped from its pagan context on a remote Scottish isle and relocated to a “repressive matriarchal” island off the coast of Washington. In any case, Gere’s star was soaring at that time, riding on the back of Pretty Woman, so I imagine the film would have exposed Ballard similarly, the way Spielberg pulled him into his slipstream.
Well, with all this new info addling my brain, I thought I’d compile a list of Ballard’s brushes and near-brushes with the film world. If anyone has any more info, I’d be glad to receive it.
The Drought (1964)
According to JGB in 1976:
I … wrote a script from my early novel The Drought, which was bought up for TV by David Frost, but he’s never used it.
And 20 years later:
People have tried to buy [the rights] back from David Frost, but he’s put an incredibly high price on them, so I’m afraid that novel will remain unfilmed… Hazel Adair [who bought the rights with Frost] read the novel, and she was very familiar with my stuff. She just wanted to film it straight, as it was. She saw it as exotic, with a strong story — when the taps run dry what do people do? You take it for granted that you’ll be able to find water somewhere if the taps run dry, but if the rivers run dry as well you’ve got a problem on your hands. Against that background, there is this urban disaster story going on, with the characters losing their suburban virtues and becoming more and more archetypal. So I think she saw it as having good roles, and all the rest of it. But, ah well, this was 25 years ago; I think it was ’69 when they bought the rights, and by then, of course, the British film industry had just fallen through the grilles in the floor.
Quoted in Ballard’s 1996 interview with David Pringle for SFX magazine.
The Crystal World (1966)
According to JGB (again, from the 1996 Pringle):
The Crystal World has been optioned quite a few times over the years. I think the film-makers are attracted to the visual possibilities of the crystallizing forest, and crystallizing helicopters and crocodiles and the like, but it would be very difficult to portray convincingly.
The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
Filmed by Jonathan Weiss in 2000.
ABOVE: Jack Nicholson in Crash: “Heeere’s Vaughnie!”
I’ve seen a filmscript of Crash by a very good English writer named Heathcote Williams. Some film company wanted Jack Nicholson to star in it. This version was set in Los Angeles with American characters, an American landscape — obviously that’s where the money is to make movies. It was a genuine translation, not just of language but of everything. I didn’t really like it. It was almost Disneyfied — “Walt Disney Productions presents Crash!”
Concrete Island (1974)
1) According to JGB in 1976:
I wrote a script from my novel Concrete Island, that a French director wanted to film. That was last summer. I don’t know if he’ll actually make the film.
2) Option from someone in Australia, as above (1990).
3) According to JGB in 1996 (SFX interview):
A French company holds the option at present, and is developing it: whether they can actually get the money together to finance it I don’t know.
1) Currently in development hell with Vincenzo Natali attached.
2) Optioned in the 1970s with Nic Roeg as director and Paul Mayersberg as scriptwriter. Roeg and Mayersberg of course made The Man Who Fell to Earth, a bittersweet reminder of what might have been: sweet because it’s such an amazing film, bitter because it’s not Ballard.
3) Bruce Robinson, writer/director of Withnail and I, wrote a High-Rise script in 1979. According to an IMDB commenter:
Bruce put a lot of work into it. He researched the architectural side of the story, as well as some particularly gruesome torture devices available to ‘ordinary’ people. He was commissioned by Euston Films, ending up writing a $35 million film. It was dumped because Bruce believed it would never be made. Please read ‘Smoking In Bed: Conversations with Bruce Robinson’ by Alistair Owen, for more about this script.
The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)
Optioned by Richard Gere, as above.
Empire of the Sun (1984)
Filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987.
The Day of Creation (1987)
1) “Some interest”, as above.
2) In a 1987 interview, it was noted: “There are no immediate plans for a movie version of The Day of Creation, although Ballard says, ‘My film agent is getting a lot of response from directors and producers.'”
Running Wild (1988)
1) Interest from the Spielberg camp around 1990, as above.
2) In 2003, Samuel L. Jackson was bitten. Running Wild was supposed to be filmed by David Leland (Mona Lisa, Wish You Were Here), starring Samuel as “a forensic psychiatrist who investigates an unusual crime on a Pacific Northwest island. Running Wild is slated for production summer 2004 on Vancouver Island. The producers have partnered with Alliance Atlantis for this project.” Although the film was headed for the Wicker Man route, relocated to an American island, it, too, disappeared off the face of the earth.
Sam is back in the game!
Cocaine Nights (1996)
1) Last year, Andy Harries, one of the producers of The Queen, optioned Cocaine Nights with Peter Webber (Girl with A Pearl Earring; Hannibal Rising) attached as director.
2) According to my snout, Tim C., Paul Mayersberg was set to write a Cocaine Nights miniseries for ITV. It never came through, of course.
In 2002 Jeremy Thomas (Naked Lunch; Crash) optioned Super-Cannes for John Maybury (Love is the Devil; The Jacket) to direct from a script by Mayersberg (The Man Who Fell to Earth; Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence; Croupier). At the time Thomas said, ‘Until we have a finished script there can be no decisions on casting, budget or start of shoot.’ Can we assume that Mayersberg never delivered that script, since the production has completely disappeared off the map? By the way, in Ballardian terms, that makes three strikes for Mayersberg: Crash, Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes. None of them happened.
The Vermilion Sands stories (1957-70)
According to Tim C., in 2000 the BBC planned a series based on Vermilion Sands:
This from a posting to the JGB list (no one ever managed to dig up further details): “The BBC is producing Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence and working on adaptations of Nancy Mitford’s Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, Kingsley Amis’ Take a Girl Like You, JG Ballard’s Vermillion Sands and Alex Garland’s Tesseract.”
‘The Sound-Sweep’ (1960)
As Tim C. notes, there was a mooted “BBC opera version of ‘The Sound Sweep’, as mentioned in Judith Merrill’s anthology England Swings SF (1968) and nowhere else.”
‘Thirteen to Centaurus’ (1962)
Filmed by Peter Potter in 1964 for BBC television.
‘Minus One’ (1963)
Filmed by Simon Brook in 1991.
‘Low-Flying Aircraft’ (1975)
Filmed as Aparelho Voador a Baixa Altitude by Solveig Nordlund in 2002.
‘The Enormous Space’ (1989)
Filmed as Home by Richard Curson-Smith for BBC television in 2003.
Special mention must be made of Crash!, the 1971 short film made by Harley Cokliss for the BBC. It stars Ballard and is based on fragments from The Atrocity Exhibition as well as drawing from various ideas Ballard was working on at the time. I always assumed Ballard wrote the script, but in the SFX interview he reveals it was in fact Cokliss:
The screenplay, or whatever you want to call it, wasn’t written by me; it was written by Cokliss. So I just did what he told me. He’d say, ‘walk across the roof of this multi-storey car park, Jim, and get into that car,’ so I’d do that. I think I wrote a voice-over, which I remember recording at Ealing Studios. But I can scarcely remember the film. I’ve no idea whether it was any good or not. The past is another country.
I’d say Ballard did write the voiceover, not Cokliss, given it features concepts that would later pop up in his non-fiction pieces and in the introduction to Crash. We’ll give Harley credit for the actual shooting script, though.
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970)
ABOVE: “Ooooga Booga…” Imogen Hassall as Ayak, Magda Konopka as Ulido and Victoria Vetri as Sanna in When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. “No dialogue, just a lot of grunts” said Ballard.
Screen treatment for Val Guest’s prehistoric potboiler. According to JGB in a 1991 interview with Pringle and Richard Kadrey:
Back in the 60s, Hammer Films made a remake of the original One Million Years B.C. with Raquel Welch. The remake was a success, and they decided to make a sequel to their remake. They asked if I would do the original treatment, which I did. This was a film without dialogue, you would just hear a lot of grunts. I didn’t actually write a script; the shooting script was written by the director. For my treatment, I got a ‘screen credit’, my only screen credit up till Empire of the Sun. I’m very proud that my first screen credit was for what is, without doubt, the worst film ever made. An appallingly bad film that only distantly resembled anything in my original treatment.
While in Miracles of Life he really goes to town:
I was contacted by a Hammer producer, Aida Young, who was a great admirer of The Drowned World. She was keen that I write the screenplay for their next production, a sequel to One Million Years BC… She steered me into the office of Tony Hinds, then the head of Hammer. He was affable but gloomy, and listened without comment as Aida launched into a chapter-by-chapter account of The Drowned World, with its picture of a steaming, half-submerged London and its vistas of dream-inducing water.
… Hinds asked me what ideas I had come up with. Bearing in mind that the promised contract had yet to arrive, I had given little thought to the project, but on the drive from Shepperton to Soho I had produced several promising ideas. I outlined them as vividly as I could.
‘Too original’ Hinds commented. Aida agreed. ‘Jim, we want that Drowned World atmosphere.’ She spoke as if this could be sprayed on, presumably in a fetching shade of jungle green.
Hinds then told me what the central idea would be. His secretary had suggested it that morning. This was nothing less than the story of the birth of the Moon — in fact, one of the oldest and corniest ideas in the whole of science fiction, which I would never have dared to lay on his desk. Hines stared hard at me. ‘We want you to tell us what happens next.’
I thought desperately, realising that the film industry was not for me. ‘A tidal wave?’
‘Too many tidal waves. If you’ve seen one tidal wave you’ve seen them all.’
A small light came on in the total darkness of my brain. ‘But you always see the tidal waves coming in,’ I said in a stronger voice. ‘We should show the tidal wave going out! All those strange creatures and plants…’ I ended with a brief course in surrealist biology.
There was a silence as Hinds and Aida stared at each other. I assumed I was about to be shown the door.
‘When the wave goes out…’ Hinds stood up, clearly rejuvenated, standing behind his huge desk like Captain Ahab sighting the white whale. ‘Brilliant. Jim, who’s your agent?’
We went out to a glamorous lunch in a restaurant with Roman decor. Hinds and Aida were excited and cheerful, already moving on to the next stage of production, casting the leading characters. I failed to realise it at the time, but I had already reached the high point of my usefulness to them. I should have heard the ‘melancholy, long, withdrawing roar’ of the ebbing tidal wave, but it was exciting to have an idea taken up so quickly and be plied with enthusiasm, friendship and fine wine. Already they were discussing the complex relationships between the principal characters, difficult to envisage in a film with no dialogue, where emotions were expressed solely in terms of bare-chested men hitting each other with clubs or dragging a handsome blonde into a nearby cave by her hair. In due course I prepared a treatment, some of which survived into the finished film, along with my ebbing wave.
As Hammer films go, it was a success, but I am glad that they misspelled my name in the credits [as 'J.B. Ballard'].
Ballard was offered $20,000 to write the novelization of Alien, Ridley Scott’s classic film, a job which went to Alan Dean Foster in his stead. As Ballard told Pringle in 1984:
It was surprisingly easy to turn down. I wouldn’t mind doing the novelization of Alphaville, or even Huston’s Moby Dick or Hawks’s Big Sleep (Welles’s Macbeth would pose some problems).
(Still, there does appear to be some evidence that Ballard gave the Alien project more than a glancing thought…)
But despite what Ballard says in the Miracles quote above, that “the film industry was not for me”, in the SFX interview he actually regrets not being more closely involved with film. In fact, he sounds a little down about it. This is another interview I’ve just come across recently, and from it I was rather surprised to learn that Ballard’s burning passion was to write original screenplays and to collaborate with a gun director, forming a similar partnership to Graham Greene and Carol Reed.
Let me just catch my breath for a bit…
Someone really, really should have made that happen.
(But then again, precious egos would be at stake: today’s director’s are far too focused on writing their own scripts, to the detriment of good storylines.)
Here are Ballard’s closing remarks from the SFX interview:
I’ve had a lot of invitations, in recent years, to write a drama series — or to write original plays in the days when they existed. But I’ve always declined them because I’m not at my best working with a committee, and television is a world entirely made up of committees. It’s a huge collaboration. That doesn’t suit me. Cinema is quite different, actually; film is entirely driven by one or two people at the most — usually the producer first. The creative importance of the producer is underestimated by people who think that cinema is entirely the work of the director.
Not true: in my contacts with the film world, the producers have been more important than the directors, really (Spielberg and Cronenberg are virtually their own producers). Films are driven by (a) the producer, and then (b) the director, and you’re dealing usually with one person. I’ve never worked in film, and I regret that very much. Because I’ve always responded so to film, I regret that I’ve never been able to collaborate with a director I felt close to or in sympathy with — in the way that, say, Graham Greene was able to collaborate with Carol Reed. It’s a pity, but it just never happened, partly because most of my career as a writer has coincided with a period of two or three decades when the British film industry has virtually ceased to exist. Had my career as a writer begun 20 years earlier, say in the 1940s, probably more of my novels would have been filmed and I might well have got involved with some sort of simpatico director. But now it’s too late.
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