There's one dismaying thing about stories that set out the best unproduced screenplays circulating in Hollywood: Most of these scripts will never be produced. The ones that have been around for more than six or seven years are presumed, in some quarters, to have lost their edge. Others have been labeled too original, too challenging or not mainstream enough. What is there to say? It's a cash-hungry, shortsighted world.
Based on a poll of 40 or so agents, producers and studio executives, here's a rundown on some very good unproduced scripts that may actually go before the cameras. Some are being pushed by major players. Some are relatively new and unread. Others are temporarily stalled. But they all have some kind of heat, reflecting either what Hollywood has recently found safe and profitable, or where things are headed in the uncharted '90s.
1--Best unproduced adaptation: "Legends of the Fall" by Bill Wittliff ("Lonesome Dove," "Country"), based on the novella by Jim Harrison. An ambitious, potentially expensive film (in the mid-$30-million range), "Fall" is a sprawling saga about three brothers, spanning from 1912 to the late '20s that suggests "East of Eden" with a touch of "A River Runs Through It." Set up at TriStar Pictures with Ed Zwick ("Glory") to direct, "Fall" stalled a year ago when TriStar chief Mike Medavoy declined to green-light it. Susan Shilliday is reworking the script to "make it more accessible," Wittliff says. "It's powerful stuff."
2--Best unproduced thriller script (psychological, character-driven, low body count): "The Specialist" by Alexandra Seros. The story, set in Miami, is about an ex-CIA demolition expert and free-lance assassin, Earl Quick, who falls for a female client, unaware his former bosses are using her to lure him back. At first optioned and later bought by Warner Bros., the script has scores of admirers (it launched Seros' career) but has been struggling for three years to get off the ground. Mario Van Peebles was attached to direct in '91 but bailed. Warners executives Bruce Berman and Lorenzo di Bonaventura recently tried (but failed) to push Steven Seagal to star in "The Specialist" before he directs "Rainbow Warrior." (Seagal is a fan of the script but wants the sex scenes toned down.) The script had its title handed over last year to John Badham's remake of "La Femme Nikita," then got it back when the Badham film was retitled "Point of No Return."
3--Best unproduced romantic comedy: "A Woman Is a Hell of a Thing" by Karen Leigh Hopkins ("Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael"). A charming, unregenerate skirt-chaser, returning to his hometown of Phoenix for his mother's funeral, learns that a high-school flame was his mother's lover and is now the executor of her estate. Producer Lynda Obst, who just moved from TriStar to Fox, has optioned the 2-year-old script and is trying to set it up. Though "Woman" has an ardent fan club ("It's one of the best scripts I've ever read," says Universal production executive Nina Jacobson), some Hollywood voices are saying, "We love it but can you take out the lesbian stuff?" This despite the fact there are no sex scenes and the focus is the emotional growth of a ladies' man. Producer Denise Shaw, who has optioned Hopkins' "Blue Chair," calls it "a purely commercial studio film in the best sense of the term."
4--Best unproduced, super-expensive surrealistic comedy: "Me" by John Mattson. A woman who doubts her boyfriend's emotional commitment is launched on a "Wizard of Oz" trip through his brain (it's too complicated to explain how) and comes face-to-face with the various aspects of his personality--the little boy, the jock, the sexual aggressor, etc. The theme, says Mattson's agent, Rima Greer of Writers and Artists, "is, if you could go into someone's mind and know everything about them, would you still want to marry them?" Written about two years ago, "Me" has scared potential producers because of its projected budget ($40 million-plus) and ambitious, Salvador Dali-like production design. "It's a ballsy, imaginative script," says a studio-based executive, "but it needs a strong, Tim Burton- or Terry Gilliam-like director." With the recent $1.1-million sale of Mattson's "Milk Money" to Paramount, the hope is that the writer's other works will also seem bankable.
5--Best unproduced splatter comic book epic (weaponry, explosions, high body count): "V for Vendetta" by Hilary Henkin ("Romeo Is Bleeding"), based on the "graphic novel" (i.e., hardback comic book) by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore. Set in a brutal, futuristic, "post-revolutionary" London, Henkin's script is a wild, over-the-top saga of a young orphan girl's search for her phantom-like father, V, in a world of despots, plotters and murderers. Written before "Romeo" (which recently wrapped with Gary Oldman, Lena Olin and director Peter Medak) and being shopped by Silver Pictures, "V" is "Les Miserables" meets "A Clockwork Orange" in search of a strong director (Gilliam again, or perhaps Paul Verhoeven).
6--Best unproduced social drama (real life, relevancy, politics): "Washington Slept Here" by Claudia Salter. A "Nashville"-styled political dramedy set during a 1996 political convention, focusing on the wife of the President, wife of a powerful senator, the President's female campaign manager and a female Hollywood fund-raiser. "It's about women and power and manipulation," says producer Wendy Dozoretz, who has an exclusive Disney deal. An up-to-the-minute take on political realities of the '90s, "Washington" is presently engaged in a rewrite. Runner-up: "Above the Fold" by Wendell Rawls Jr. and Pat Conroy, a possible Robert Redford project about former Atlanta Constitution editor Bill Kovach.
7--Best unproduced cult movie script: "The Garden of Ed" by Mark Sercomb and Tim Chandler. Flavored with grotesque imagery and absurdist humor, the story is about a fat, lascivious small-town mayor and doctor who cuts a ravenous swath through the local female populace. The script has stirred interest around town, especially among aficionados of the weird and avant-garde, but not with investors. Runners-up: "Jonathan Wild" by Don MacPherson and Neil Jordan and "Edward Ford" by Lem Dobbs, the "Kafka" screenwriter, a longtime favorite of hipper literary agents.
8--Best unproduced romantic drama: A tie between the mainstream, long-in-development "The President Elopes," with drafts by William Richert, Kevin Wade and Lowell Ganz-Babaloo Mandel, and "Fools Rush In" by Joan Taylor, a fresh newcomer being developed at Columbia. "President," touted as an eventual Robert Redford vehicle in the vein of "Sullivan's Travels," is about a widowed chief executive who ducks out of sight to pursue a romance with an ex-wife of a senator. "Fools," based on the real-life experience of producer Doug Draizin ("Moving Violations"), is about a Jewish man who dates a Mexican woman, gets her pregnant, marries her, then falls in love with her. Columbia production executive Teddy Zee commissioned a script after Draizin told him the story in late 1990.
10--Best unproduced script about characters living alternative lifestyle: "A Simple Lesbian Wedding" by Julie Talen, from a story by Talen and Ron Bass. The most widely admired of a recent crop of lesbian-themed scripts (including "Nightwood Bar," a murder-mystery being developed by Tim Hunter, and "Cynara," written by "Claire of the Moon" director Nicole Conn), it's an ensemble piece about four sisters, one of whom decides to marry her female lover in a traditional, white-lace ceremony. Amusing and smartly written, "Wedding" "would be a studio movie in a second if it weren't for the subject matter," says an independent producer. Talen owns the script and says she's "very particular" about who directs; Bass will produce with Doug Wick.