"The greatest movie
"There are certain projects that have a form and a structure to them that any good writer can really come in and deal with," said screenwriter Clair Noto of her unproduced science fiction/horror script THE TOURIST. "This doesn't have that. It's all over the place; definitely a can of worms."
Can of worms aptly describes the business history of this unique screenplay, for which H. R. Giger created a Series of alien designs in the early 198Os.
Set in contemporary Manhattan, the story follows Grace Ripley, a beautiful executive who counts herself among a secret group of exiled aliens, some morphed to human form to live among us, while others remain in their original guises, waiting to die on the backward planet Earth. Her secretary Marty doesn't know of Grace's origins, nor does Marty's friend Spider O'Toole, a one eyed beauty disenfranchised from society and floating from job to job.
Frogner, an alien disguised as a human salesman, discovered Grace's alien identity while trying to make a deal. He tells this to Harry Sloane, head of the Manhattan Grief Clinic, a front for the alien hideaway known as the Corridor, where any manner of extraterrestrial is stuffed into cubicles to live out their useless lives.
Sloane desperately wants to find John Taiga, an alien who may have developed a way to leave Earth. Sloane will stop at nothing to find and kill Taiga, including enlisting Grace to go on her own search that leads to New York's seedier recesses and the Corridor's darker secrets. Anxiety kills these beings, while sex can either be a savior that rescues them from morphological breakdown, or it can kill both the alien and the chosen human mate in a life-draining cocoon.
Begun in 1980, the rise and fall of THE TOURIST is almost as bizarre as one of the fascinatingly grotesque creatures Giger has designed for it. Vicious infighting, numerous rewrites, financial mismanagement and clashing egos highlight the history of the script Noto wrote for Universal under the guidance of then-studio executive Sean Daniels.
"I was giving him 50 pages at a time," said Noto, "which he would edit down. Sean had a very good feeling for it. When the first draft was finished he was too busy to work on it any further, so it was given to this woman named Renee Missell for revision. She and I had very little contact; I did not get along with her at all. The project became such a mess, which is part of the reason the picture never got made."
With Missell as producer and director Brian Gibson at the helm, Noto quickly and uncompromisingly found herself ejected from the project that came off her typewriter.
"The inspiration for THE TOURIST came from a movie that I adored ever since I saw it on television: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. When the film opens you see Michael Rennie in his space suit; then from that point on he is in a suit and tie. I loved the whole idea of a man who could walk around in a boarding house in Washington, who was from another planet and you didn't recognize his alienness. The idea of a human being who wasn't a human being had been in my mind for a long time."
A unique aspect of Noto's rather unconventional script was the use of strong female presences. Gace Ripley, the determined alien fighting her private battles on a male-oriented world; Spider O'Toole, the alienated New Wave human; and even the guards of the Corridor, depicted as strong yet sexy women whose sensuality belied not only their true purpose, but their underlying strength. Noto found a variety of personal sources for character patterns that she believes stymied other writers from fully understanding her script.
"The character of Frogner is lightly based on my own uncle and some stories of what my ex-boyfriend told me about his father, who was a used car salesman. The character of Spider O'Toole was sort of based on a friend of mine.
The persona of Grace Ripley was a combination of many things, including a dog I had at the time, a Great Dane. The dog was so smart and communicative. The whole idea of Communication between species was very interesting, a DAY OF THE DOLPHIN kind of thing."
"THE TOURIST had a very New Wave structure," Noto continued. "At the time Fellini, Antonioni and the more unstructured directors were some of the people I was really influenced by. On this particular script I didn't give a damn to try to make a mainstream script."
Casting such a concept proved difficult, with Noto's first choice, noted German actress Hanna Schygulia, giving the writer an opportunity to reevaluate what she was looking for. "Hanna was somebody I was interested in, although when we met I was less sure of her than I was after seeing her films. She did not have in person the kind of mystery that I wanted Grace to have. And I think, strangely enough, that there was an American quality unbeknownst to me that I wanted that Hanna did not possess.
"Right now, it would almost be closer to somebody like Kim Basinger, Teresa Russell, even Sharon Stone to a degree, although Stone may be overplayed in a certain kind of part.
Michelle Pfeiffer could have the kind of Garboesque character and have it read the way I want it to read. Casting Ripley has always been interesting. People saw Kathleen Turner for a while. Madonna has come up for it. I think the script was actually sent to her."
At the executive level, Noto said she found nothing but harsh treatment from Gibson and Missell. "When they took it away from me they were very nasty; like, 'Fuck you. We're going to put it together,' and they couldn't do it [Gibson] always looked like a jerk. To my face he was really nasty. I think he regretted it later on. I also think it damaged his career for along time. He couldn't do anyhing.
"THE TOURIST didn't do anybody any good," Noto continued. "It hurt me, it hurt a lot of people. Renee Missell destroyed herself. You cannot do what people did with that material and not have some fallout. I couldn't get Renee Missell on the phone. It was terrible, just terrible. She kept belittling the project saying, 'Nobody's even going to want to make this movie. Or if they would, it would be a cult movie that would play at midnight like ROCKY HORROR.' Totally insulting about it. She would say things like, 'I was the only person in town who didn't like STAR WARS.' My feeling was that this is not a good situation." After numerous rewrites with varying scriptwriters, including a stab taken by genre favorite Dan O'Bannon, Misseli and Gibson still had an unworkable project and continued to keep the story's originator at arms length. "[Missell] didn't want to go back to my script," said Noto, "because she didn't want me to have credit.
She was trying very, very hard to make sure that if it ever got made, my name would never be seen on the screen. At one point, they changed the city from New York to San Francisco, which did not work at all. They changed a lot of the characters' names and had all these politically correct aliens running around San Francisco. Very boring."
It was around this time that H.R. Giger was brought onto the project, developing numerous aliens for the Corridor sequences. Noto believes that no completed script was ready at the time, but, hot off his inspired work for ALIEN, Giger added a certain class to the proceedings.
"I had mentioned Giger, I believe, to either Renee or to Brian Gibson," Noto said. "My feeling was that the best way to proceed for the alien designs would be to have many different designers do their own versions of the aliens that would be put into that club. What I wanted to try to do was a version of the STAR WARS cantina that was more reality-based, where you had one designer's view of an alien sharply contrasted with another designer's view so that they were sharply different, giving you the impression that these aliens could be from vastly different places. If you put Giger's alien next to somebody else's, they would not look like they were made by the same person. I tried to figure out a way to really jolt people, to do something new with the way those aliens looked. Juxtaposing images of very different sensibilities so it would have taken more than one person, I think, to complete this thing as I originally saw it. But I was not involved when Giger's designs were being done. I was even surprised that Gibson and Missell picked up on Giger, because it was something that I had said."
Noto's hands-off orders extended to Giger's designs. Not only was she refused an oppotunity to see the paintings, but could not even get beyond the artist's agent to talk with him. The first time she saw any of the designs was in CINEFANTASTIQUE'S May 1988 issue, which featured a Giger cover story, as well as two alien concepts Giger had planned.
"I asked to see them." remembered Noto "but was told that I could not be alowed to. I was told that, at that point, the script did not belong to me and that I was no longer important to it. The drawings in CINEFANTASTIQUE did not look like what I had imagined the aliens to look like, but I was not the one directing what Giger was doing. It was Brian Gibson, really, who was working with him. If I had spoken to Giger, there are other things that he had done and other ideas that I would have encouraged him to pursue. It was hard to tell which parts of the script the drawings I saw in CFQ were pertaining to. Giger may have been working from a very different draft. I think they had production designs made before they had a draft that they wanted to use."
Unfortunately for Gibson and Missell, Clair Noto had that rare clause in her contract-for-hire called turnaround, in which the author receives a year long option on the work should the original production deal fall through, which this one did once Universal pulled the plug. The first to go was Renee Missell, as well as Gibson, who went on to direct POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE and the cable TV bio THE JOSEPHINE BAKER STORY.
Noto took the script to United Artists, who would have refused to allow her to work on it. From there she went to Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studio, one of the grandest failed experiments in excessive power in Hollywood history.
By the early 198Os, Coppola had transmuted his incredible success from his GODFATHER films and APOCALYPSE NOW into Zoetrope, which was to be the one place filmmakers could come to create their cinematic visions with total freedom, under contract in the manner of the old studios of Hollywood's Golden Age. Unfortunately, Coppola's grand dream crumbled under the financial excesses of his failed epic ONE FROM THE HEART, a $23 million bomb that left nothing for the talent signed to Zoetrope and created a bankrupt mess within a few years.
One of the directors signed with Coppola's dream was Franc Roddam, a personable Brit who was hot off his 1979 hit QUADROPHENIA. With Noto back on the project, Roddam was brought onto the film by a mention from its former director, Brian Gibson. After QUADROPHENIA, Roddam spent two years trying to get his environmentally conscious project RAINFOREST off the ground But even with the pull of heavyweight Robert Redford involved, RAINFOREST seemed a doomed project. Gibson mentioned THE TOURIST to Roddam while playing tennis with him and fellow director Adrian (FATAL ATTRACTION) Lyne. Producer Michael (A FISH CALLED WANDA) Shamberg also brought the script up a few weeks later and said that he now controlled it with Noto. At Zoetrope, along with fledgling Roddam came David Lynch as well as a host of international cinematic legends, including America's Gene Kelly, England's Michael Powell and France's Jean Luc Goddard.
"I was surrounded by 10 people in this little unit," remembered Roddam, "and we were all going to make fantastic films for Francis. Not only did none of the films get made, there was absolutely no money for our preparation of these films. No money for our secretaries and no money for us. And Francis, meanwhile, is spending millions and millions of dollars refurbishing his studio and making ONE FROM THE HEART. What was supposed to be the greatest ideal studio to go to and work with an artist-producer, Francis, and was supposed to be heaven turned out to be pure hell. It was worse than any journey he did up in the fucking Phillipines. He treated us like shit. He was appalling."
One story Roddam related illustrates the point of desperation everyone working at Zoetrope felt. At one point, crews and office personnel working at the studio had a meeting, threatening a walk-out unless they were paid. Walking by with an assistant, Coppola reportedly asked who all the gathered people were. The assistant told him they were workers, wanting to be paid, where Coppola allegedly replied, "They should pay to sweep my floors.'
"I had an amazing moment where I tried to force the issue," Roddam said, "to get the film made, to get my secretary paid and to keep my family alive. I remember once going into the executive's office saying, 'Where's my money?' They said, 'We can't.' The deal's held up with the lawyers.' I said, 'You employ the lawyers. You get them on the phone and tell them to send me a check right now.' For a while they were going to have me arrested for kidnapping an executive for four-and-a-half minutes."
During this time under Coppola, legendary director Michael Powell had to resort to cannibalizing ONE FROM THE HEART sets and try to furnish his film. Roddam remembered seeing Gene Kelly wandering the studio grounds one rainy day with his head down, "and he wasn't singing or dancing. Meanwhile, I'm working with Clair. We're both passionate people. We were talking to art directors and discussing how the film should be made, but there were no funds coming. In the end, Francis' studio is going under." After spending eight months "pissing around, talking to actresses," it became obvious that the Zoetrope production of THE TOURIST simply would not be.
"We tried to set up a deal with Dino DeLaurentis and other people to try and get THE TOURIST made elsewhere, because it's a fantastic script," said Roddam. "The deal got held up because Francis wanted a fee. He wouldn't just let it go free and clear. He wanted money even though he hadn't put any money into it. Then, suddenly, Renee Missell came into it again at Universal saying, 'Hey, there's a legal problem here anyway.' So it floundered.'
Roddam believes Missell's question had to do with basic ownership of the property-for-hire. "If you look at the journey of the script," he elaborated, "it seems to me that it's a fight on the part of the writer to try and retain the integrity of the piece as she saw it. There is this danger when somebody just takes an option on a piece of work. It's like Ayn Rand's Fountainhead. I think, in a sense, that Clair thought she created the work and therefore her thoughts should be respected and I agree with that. At the same time, sometimes as a director you say, 'I respect it and I'm going to see it clearly for you,' but sometimes the verbal vision has to be altered to make it work on film.
"Sometimes people have bought scripts and just said, 'We'll do the Paul Robeson story, but does he have to be black?' I've actually heard that before. The real story of this piece is Clair's attempt to protect her vision.
I can't speak for Renee because I don't know what she did, but if's quite common that a producer will take a piece and just say, 'I own it and I'm going to do what I like with it' And that wasn't the original deal."
Although he didn't have the opportunity to create the film, Roddam's involvement with THE TOURIST mess did put the director in the middle of a bonafide Hollywood legend. The story, as it goes, involves a fistfight between Roddam and former TOURIST director Brian Gibson on a plane over the rights to Noto's script. Never happened, said Roddam. "The fight was between Brian and Adrian Lyne at Morton's over who would pick up the check for their meal. I just happened to be there."
Despite bad memories of a deal never completed, Roddam has fond memories of the script and his chance to work with its writer. "Clair is an extraordinary person,"he said. "I often think of Clair as being one of the greatest cinematic talents who one doesn't hear of.
"I think a lot of directors read THE TOURIST and have raided it. You'll see elements of it in other people's movies. The tragedy was that THE TOURIST could have been a film way ahead of its time, fantastically hip, totally cool. It's been out there in the open air in Hollywood and had its bones picked. If THE TOURIST had broken through, if Francis hadn't been such an asshole, it would have been a great movie, I think. It was a project I felt very close to and, when it fell through, it was a project that I very reluctantly put out of my life."
By the time Zoetrope went under, Coppola had Noto's turnaround option. THE TOURIST eventually found its way back to Universal and to the desk of Renee Missell. From that point on, Noto was not allowed near it again. Brian Gibson, again named director, wanted her to take another stab at the script, but Missell would not hear of it. As individual studios continued to make money off the optioning and reoptioning of the script, Noto wouldn't see a dime.
One reason, Noto believes, that the various rewrites of THE TOURIST have failed to find favor is their lack of the original author's voice. "It's a very idiosyncratic script," she said. "I think that other writers can hear those voices. Those voices are from my past. Every time somebody tries to rewrite it, the script just doesn't come together. That's been part of the problem.
"Every time somebody got a hold of the script," Noto continued, "they just held onto it. Warner Bros had it for seven or eight years, optioning it after they knew they weren't going to make it.
They didn't want to have it back to Universal and have them make it into a successful picture, which would have made Warner Bros look bad. It's like a stupid chess game. Universal spent a shitload of money because of the Giger designs and paid for several rewrites with different writers, and I think they had more than one director on it. THE TOURIST has always had incredible supporters and incredible detractors. Right from the very beginning it aroused very strong feelings one way or another. People were either very taken by it or felt it was the antichrist. I still don't, to this day, really comprehend what all the fuss was about. I think THE TOURIST is an interesting story, but I don't see the degree to which people have responded to it."
To date, ownership of THE TOURIST remains with Universal, which is currently being wooed by heavyweight producer Joel (DIE HARD) Silver, who wants to produce the film and has been offering large amounts of money for the rights. Noto believes Universal is reluctant to release the property for the same reason Warners kept such a tight hold on it for so long, fear of looking foolish if it should become a hit for another studio.
THE TOURIST is a unique, original work that has yet, 14 years after being written, to fall by the wayside. "There is something about that script," Noto said with incredulity. "It has a life of its own. I don't get it. Something that Giger could have been involved with, that other people were involved with on such an emotional level. Millions of dollars spent; option money paid year after year and it all comes to nothing. It's like CITIZEN KANE, for crying out loud!"