Revisiting the Collective: What Could Have Been: Popular Movies That Almost Turned Out Differently

(CS: I haven't reposted one of my old Collective Publishing pop culture columns in some time. so today seems as good as any day.)

A few months back, I looked at several popular motion pictures that were initially very different at the conception or the first draft stage than what finally appeared on the big screen (CS: I think I am talking about this piece.). Movies are one art form where there are always many people involved in the creation from the writers to the directors to the producers to studio executives. It shouldn’t be very surprising that pictures can be drastically altered from the original vision. (CS: Which is why many filmmakers say it is a miracle any movie gets made at all, let alone great ones.) Sometimes it causes one to lament what could have been, but other times you can be thankful that some meddling steered the story in a far better direction. Good or bad, here are some more motion pictures that originally could have turned out very differently if it weren’t for a few circumstances. (CS: I think, I initially had planned to write about 10 movies, but I had already spent enough time on this compared to what I was getting paid. These pieces tended to take a pretty decent amount of research. Around this time, I was actively pursuing a lot of different projects and I think, I was right in the middle of negotiations for the dream job that never came to be.) 
Back to the Future (1985): The picture was always going to be about Marty McFly being stuck in 1955 and trying to avoid having sex with his teenage mom. Though it always was intended as a comedy, the initial draft was much bleaker and darker with McFly needing to break into a testing facility to use an atomic bomb to return home and rather than coming back to a happier 1985, it’d be a 1950s version of the future that included the absence of rock music. (CS: There were many movies about atomic bombs and teenagers in the 1980s.) 

If the initial draft were made into a movie, we’d also have lost out on one of the iconic artifacts of the’80s because instead of traveling in time on a DeLorean it was intended to be a Coca-Cola fueled refrigerator. (CS: At some point they switched pop brands too.) Doc Brown was also closer to being clinically insane, instead of the lovable odd-ball that he became. Producer Stephen Spielberg likely played a part in helping screenwriters Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis lighten the tone. It was actually fear of children being inspired to crawl into refrigerators that lead to finding another form of time travel. (CS: Spielberg obviously thought a hero in a fridge was an amazing idea that needed to be used eventually.) 

Universal Pictures executive Sidney Sheinberg actually provided input that tweaked things such as several name changes and turning the pet chimpanzee into a dog. Though he also felt that no movie with “Future” in the title had ever made a profit and so he wanted to change it to Spaceman from Pluto (because “Pluto” in a title means instant success). Spielberg saved that from happening by sending a letter thanking Sheinberg for his hilarious joke title, thus embarrassing the executive into dropping the idea. 
Speaking of dropping, the picture originally was being shot with Eric Stoltz in the lead role. There was a good bit of footage shot, before it was decided he just wasn’t the right fit. (CS: Apparently, there are a few wider shots in the movie that it is actually Stoltz.) It then was worked out that their original choice Michael J. Fox would be able to juggle filming the picture along with his starring role in the hot sitcom, Family Ties. It is intriguing to see how many little factors could have made this into a very different picture and possibly not become the 1980s classic that it is. (CS; I often forget that many people aren't movie trivia and minutiae nerds like me who sees this stuff as common knowledge.)

Godfather Part III (1990): This may be one of the most divisive pictures in all of cinema as many absolutely panned it while others claim it is a great movie that is just harmed by been compared to the two classics that preceded it. (CS: Frances Ford Coppola recently released a recut version called Mario Puzo's The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone that he claims to be closer to the original vision.) Some of the major criticism lobbied at the picture is the perceived nepotism with the casting of Director Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter, Sofia Coppola (who has at least redeemed herself by becoming an incredibly talented and provocative director). The bigger problem is that the third picture just didn’t have the epic feel of the previous pictures and also failed to incorporate many of the storylines that had been built up. 

The original script was originally supposed to be about the struggle for control over the family between Michael Corleone and Tom Hagen. The rivalry had been slowly mounting over the last two movies, and Hagen as the more virtuous and moral member was the perfect catalyst to Corleone. The third would have had a stronger focus on the fall of Michael Corleone and at one point the picture was to be titled The Death of Michael Corleone

Everything changed when Robert Duvall demanded a raise in his salary. He felt it was unfair that Al Pacino was paid so much more than him, and claimed it was actually three or four times more. The dispute over pay meant that Duvall wouldn’t be returning and Hagen was written out by announcing he’d passed away right at the start of the picture. Without the main rival that most fans would have been anticipating and almost promised, the picture really didn’t have much purpose being made. (CS: The recut obviously won't be able to address this major issue.) Godfather Part III does have merit and is better than most critics would have you believe, but it is hard to argue that the initial draft of the script likely would have made a far superior movie. 

Ghostbusters (1984): Dan Aykroyd’s initial story treatment had the picture set it in the future where capturing ghosts were a common occupation. The picture would have busters using more high-tech gear, there was a space-travelling sequence, and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was shoved near the start of the script rather than the climax. Director Ivan Reitman said that Aykroyd’s vision would have cost close to 300 million rather than the 30 million the actual picture cost (which in 1984 is still an incredible amount of money). 

The studios would not have ever approved Aykroyd’s vision, because before Ghostbusters, major special effect focused comedies tended to be flops, especially with Steven Spielberg’s 1941being a disappointment still fresh in the mind of executives. (CS: Actually, outside of Ghostbusters, big special effects comedies still have the reputation of being box office poison.) The other major difference at the early stages of the production was the cast tentatively attached. Planned Ghostbusters along with Aykroyd would have been John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Eddie Murphy, and instead of Rick Moranis, John Candy would have played the Louis Tully character. That would have been far too many over-the-top scene stealing comedians crammed in one picture that already had a bunch of floating cartoons. 

In the case of Belushi, his passing made his inclusion impossible, and Candy was nixed after he had way too many crazy ideas for his character. It was likely Harold Ramis’ work on the screenplay that helped ground the vision and called for more understated and witty comedians like himself and Bill Murray that made it the classic it is today. (CS: That initial cast sounds like a dream, but it really would have been a battle of trying to one up each other, especially in the 1980s when each were superstars.) 

The movie creating process is a crazy one and all the interference and second guessing makes it a wonder that any ever get made. It almost seems rare that a picture ever retains the original vision, especially if it isn’t an independent production. Looking at the past and seeing all the alterations and rewrites that almost every picture must battle through, it helps give a much greater appreciation for motion pictures. (CS: I have done work on potentially doing a book on a specific movie detailing the entire creative process and how it became a much different movie than its initial idea. I always find that aspect of the creative process fascinating.)