EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: Spider-Man - From Cannon to Cameron, The Lost Films
Spider-Man: From Cannon to Cameron is a Kindle publication that takes a behind the scenes, interview-filled look at the numerous failed attempts to bring Spidey to the big screen in the 1980s and 1990s. What follows is an exclusive excerpt.
A single glistening strand of a spider’s web bisects the BLACK FRAME. As CLASSICAL MUSIC caresses our ears, we see the strand criss-crossing others in a perfect orb web. A spider – black with an intricate pattern – drops INTO FRAME. It gracefully gathers and weaves the strands together….
Those words begin the screenplay for the first draft of Spider-Man, the adaptation of one of comics’ most popular characters. It is not, however, the script filmed by Sam Raimi with Tobey Maguire in the dual role of Peter Parker and Spider-Man that launched the movie franchise back in 2002 (and which has just been rebooted). In fact, the actor was all of 10 years old when screenwriters Ted Newsom and John Brancato first presented this particular script to former Marvel head honcho, Stan Lee.
The point being made is that the gestation period for the first Spider-Man movie was no less than seventeen years between those words being written and Spidey finally reaching theatres. As such, it represents one of the longest roads ever traveled by a film project from conception through completion.
Back in the early 1980s, Stan Lee was growing increasingly anxious that Marvel’s numerous properties were not being exploited on film, whether it be on television or on the big screen. DC had already scored with the live-action Batman and Wonder Woman television series, as well as the extremely lucrative Superman film franchise, and Lee saw no reason why Marvel shouldn’t enjoy equal success. Yes, the company had scored briefly with the live-action Spider-Man show back in the 1970s and the Incredible Hulk, but it seemed that there was so much untapped potential. In the end, Marvel needed something special, and Lee felt that he had found it in Newsom and Brancato.
The duo was a pair of writers that were determined to break into Hollywood and they felt they had found a possible inroad through a developing friendship with Lee. Intrigued by their writing style, imagination and sheer enthusiasm, Lee hired them to pen a screenplay adaptation of the old Marvel World War II title, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos. The plan was that Lee, armed with the screenplay and comics, would make the studio rounds to see if he could drum up some interest in the property.
“We did the Sgt. Fury script, which Stan loved,” says Newsom, a film producer and guiding force behind a number of documentaries on the horror genre. “Then he asked us what we’d like to do next and we immediately said, ‘Spider-Man.’ He said we couldn’t do it because Cannon Films had the rights to the project.”
Anyone who has followed the industry over the decades remembers Cannon well. The company – in its most famous incarnation – can be traced back to 1979. Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, who had achieved great success in their homeland, were able to take control of Cannon when it was a minor independent that had specialized in exploitation films. Under the guidance of Golan/Globus, a new means of doing business was established. Cannon would come up with titles they planned on producing, attach as many big names as they could in terms of actors, writers and directors, and sell the projects to different international territories, thus guaranteeing a profit before a foot of film had actually been shot. It’s a formula that worked for such low budget entries as Death Wish 2, The Last American Virgin and Enter the Ninja, and one which led to such higher budget and more successful entries as Death Wish 3, Delta Force and the Chuck Norris actioners, Missing in Action and Invasion USA, the latter two of which turned out to be the company’s biggest hits and also managed to establish director Joe Zito (more on him a bit further on).
If you were able to find a copy of Variety or The Hollywood Reporter from the period, you would probably be stunned to see the sheer quantity of ads Cannon took out to announce their projects in development. Millions of dollars were spent and essentially wasted as a vast majority of these films never saw the light of a theatre projector. And those that actually were filmed, often ended up colossal box office failures.
“There were a number of cheese-ball cheapo production companies that, during the ‘80s, decided that they would turn themselves into studios,” Brancato reflects. “Instead of making B-list pictures, they tried to make the serious money A-list pictures. Cannon was one of them and one after the other they failed. New Line, New World, Vestron – they were all the same. But Cannon was a pretty magnificent flame-out. They didn’t have the best tastes and got involved in financing a lot of lame projects. They built themselves a nice fancy office and I remember going to the opening of the building and there were Spider-Man promo posters everywhere. Within six months, though, everything had fallen apart. It was the meteoric rise and fall of Cannon.”
One big-budget flop followed another, beginning with Hooper’s remake of Invaders From Mars, Master of the Universe, based on the He-Man toy line; and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, whose $35 million budget was cut in half on the eve of production, resulting in the worst entry in the series and the end of Christopher Reeve’s turn as the Man of Steel. Fiscally exhausted, it was only a matter of time before Cannon’s collapse would be complete.
SPIDER-MAN: FROM SCRIPT TO SCREEN
But in 1985, when Hollywood was their oyster, Golan and Globus felt that the superhero genre still hadn’t reached its full potential (or, more pessimistically, hadn’t been fully exploited yet). Golan negotiated with Marvel Comics to option the feature film rights to the Spider-Man character. In the end, Cannon paid Marvel $225,000 plus a percentage of gross revenue for a five-year option.
Satisfied with the deal, Golan, who never truly understood comics in general or Spider-Man in particular, hired Outer Limits creator Leslie Stevens to write a film treatment. The result was a story in which Peter Parker works as a photographer for the Zyrex Corporation. The owner of the company, identified only as Dr. Zyrex, performs an experiment on the unsuspecting Parker by bathing him in radioactive waves. The result is not the acquisition of spider-like powers, but, instead, a transformation into an eight-legged human-tarantula hybrid. For the rest of the story, Parker had to battle one mutant after another.
Needless to say, this story was rejected by Stan Lee, who, unlike today where studios don’t even have the courtesy to consult with him regarding characters he created, had the power to veto things that he didn’t feel represented a faithful adaptation. That’s where Newsom and Brancato stepped in.
“Once Cannon hired us,” says Brancato, whose writing credits include Terminator 3, “Stan suggested we write the script from his outline – which was about two pages long and more or less dealt with Spider-Man’s origin.”
From the outset, the duo pitched a story that differed from the comics in that it intertwined the origins of both Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus. In their scenario, Doc Ock’s experiments results in his being physically altered and joined with his mechanical waldos, and Peter being bitten by an irradiated spider and transformed into Spider-Man. The rest of the origin plays out pretty much the way it did in the comics, though an attempt was made to keep a sense of realism to the characters in terms of their motivations and reactions to things. Admittedly, though, things get a little fanciful at the end when Doc Ock’s experiments involving anti-gravity results in the science building at Empire State University floating high above the ground as hero and villain battle it out. Nonetheless, an effective approach to the material.
Brancato points out, “The problem with any superhero comic, obviously, is to try and find the right tone. Spider-Man, unlike Superman, always had a tongue-in-cheek, self-conscious approach to itself. It was difficult to capture that and make it play as a satisfying action film. In a lot of ways, Spider-Man was a parody of Superman and all the other books of the time. Peter Parker, being a self-conscious, socially unsuccessful, somewhat nerdy character, is very different from a square-jawed hero. Clark Kent has some similar attributes, but Spider-Man had a much more self-conscious humor about the whole situation. The villains were pretty self-conscious and goofy. If you read those stories, they have a very different tone from the DC Comics at the time. Marvel really did put itself up as being for the slightly brainier audience out there. From the very beginning, the Spider-Man comic is laughing at itself. A lot of it is asides to the audience and everything done with a wink, which is the style Stan mastered.
“It’s one of the reasons Spider-Man was so lovable,” he continues. “But it was also a tough tone to capture. That was always the challenge of it. Superman: The Movie was so mythic and grandiose in the way it was presented, and Spider-Man could never be that. It was always the younger brother to that storyline. It didn’t take itself as seriously.”
But, as Newsom adds, the writers themselves knew that they had to approach the material in a serious way in terms of the audience and the characters.
“We took the approach that we couldn’t presuppose anyone knew anything about these characters,” Newsom explains. “So what you had to do was a creation story, and if you were going to have a super villain, you had to create him, too. It can’t just come out of nowhere. So Stan had a treatment from which we worked our story. We made alterations and changes. Cannon approved that treatment and we started scripting from there. The one thing that John and I didn’t agree with Stan on was his take on villains and superheroes in general. I say this with due deference, because I owe a great deal of whatever we got going to Stan. But in his story, Doctor Octopus has this horrible accident and he has these waldos placed invasively into his body. As a result, he goes crazy and decides to become the greatest master criminal in the world.
“Well,” he continues after a brief pause, “people don’t do that. That’s not the way real people react. If you’re in an accident and you lose a leg, you don’t decide to become the greatest pirate the seven seas have ever known. That is not a rational, logical or even understandable emotional leap from where you were. Despite Bela Lugosi carving Boris Karloff’s face up in The Raven, it is not part and parcel of being repulsive that makes you do ugly things. There are real human motivations in life that drive people. So with Doctor Octopus, he wasn’t a master criminal, he was insane. Now it might very well drive you crazy if your whole body became an H.R. Giger image. You might very well go crazy, but you would still be the same person inside and you would still have the same goals, which is one thing we kept pushing. He just kept doing exactly what he was doing, but he just happened to have four mechanical arms at that point.”
Lee didn’t like that particular approach, finding it too confusing. He remained steadfast in his feeling that Doc Ock should have his accident and come out of it with a lust for world conquest.
“Nothing’s wrong with that if you’re doing a comic book,” muses Newsom. “One of the blessed things about Marvel and Stan’s work in particular, is that there was an element of sophistication about it that hadn’t been present in comic books before that. You actually dealt with human themes and motivations and back stories, which you really didn’t have in the DC stuff or Charlton Comics. There was a depth to Marvel that had not existed before. So we tried to stay with that. Look, is James Mason the villain of North by Northwest? He’s the antagonist, but if you sat down and asked him, he would not say he’s doing bad things. His goals are absolutely pure as far as he is concerned. Most anybody, if you ask them, unless they’re sociopaths, will tell you that their goals are pure as far as they’re concerned. Their goals are the best that they can see. You have to have somebody like that as a villain if it’s supposed to be anything else but white hat/black hat. We tried to keep the character human, despite the fact that he’s an odd mutation.”
Their version of Doc Ock was pretty ruthless in certain instances, violently killing people with his waldos when they get in his way. By the same token, there was a genuine sense of kindness emanating from him when it came to his feelings about Peter’s Aunt May, who the script establishes as having once been his lover.
“All of the Marvel villains, especially in Spider-Man, were sort of shaded and you sympathized with them in the same way that the heroes were less perfect,” says Brancato. “It gave warts to the whole world of superheroes, which was so much of the appeal of it. Spider-Man from the beginning had elements of this sort of Batman-like origin. He is self-serving and his uncle gets killed by the same villain he let go because he didn’t give a shit. There is definitely a darker strain all the way through on Spider-Man. We tried to get that across, and the idea of Doc Ock being kind of a scary monster.”
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