Mystery on the Hollywood Backlot

John Logan (Hugo) wrote a screenplay that could’ve been the best movie Michael Mann ever made. Here’s why you can’t see it.

Michael Mann and John Logan.

A Hollywood noir project of Michael Mann and John Logan was never produced. Why not?

Photo of Director Michael Mann by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images. Photo of John Logan by Ian Gavan/Getty Images.

It’s awards season once again, when Hollywood celebrates, if not the greatest and most audacious films of the year, at least the best of a certain kind of movie. This year, the academy is likely to honor films about filmmaking: The Artist and Hugo are love letters to silent cinema (and The Artist is nearly a silent film in its own right). The spectacle of the film industry telling the world how great it is always smacks of the Ouroboros, but this year, when the most-lauded movies are themselves paeans to the art of filmmaking, we’re in danger of running out of snake.

So as a preventative measure, here’s my fantasy pick for best picture of 2011: a fantastically entertaining and original movie with a different perspective on the film industry, a movie that presents cinema not as the dream factory of Hugo or The Artist, but, as one of the film’s characters aptly describes it, as “a river of money.” Unfortunately, you can’t see this film in theaters; it wasn’t just snubbed by the academy, or critics, or audiences, but by the studios themselves. It’s a movie that doesn’t exist, because no one made it—though they nearly did. In 2007, Michael Mann and John Logan—yes, the same John Logan who resurrected Georges Méliès in Hugo—collaborated on a screenplay that could have been not only the best thing either of them ever did, but the great film noir, the great Los Angeles movie and the great film about Hollywood itself. And they never shot a frame of it.

It doesn’t even have a name: The title page simply reads “MANN/LOGAN PROJECT.” It might as well read Inexplicably Unproduced Hollywood Noir, because if the film didn’t exist, movie lovers would have to invent it. Think about it: Los Angeles is the ground zero for film noir and the city’s signature industry is the movies. So what are the great noirs about the movie business? You’d think there’d be hundreds, but the list peters out after Sunset Boulevard and In a Lonely Place. The greatest Los Angeles noir, Chinatown, is about water rights and city hall, not movies. You can make a case for L.A. Confidential, but Danny DeVito’s gossip columnist and Kevin Spacey’s TV show “technical adviser” take a back seat to conflicts between the LAPD and organized crime. A hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker (even when she’s really Lana Turner). Mulholland Dr. is more of a great hallucinogenic nightmare than a classic noir. Hollywoodland, Paul Bernbaum and Allen Coulter’s underrated film about George Reeves, is probably the closest ancestor to Mann/Logan Project, but Bernbaum goes small where Logan goes very, very big.

Mann/Logan Project is set in 1938, the absolute peak of the Hollywood studio system, on the lot of MGM, the epitome of the Hollywood studio. The films made in the fall and winter of 1938 were released in 1939—in the Turner Classic Movies pantheon, Hollywood’s Greatest Year, more important to the town’s mythology than any other point in its history. It’s this historic moment that Logan systematically, gloriously destroys over the course of his screenplay.

Logan’s main character is one Harry Slidell, who, as the introduction informs us, is a historical antecedent of Eddie Mannix. Think of him as MGM’s Michael Clayton: He’s the guy who keeps MGM’s public face clean, whether that means paying off the mob or covering up murder. It wouldn’t be a noir without a femme fatale, and Logan’s created a best-of-breed hybrid in the character of Ruth Ettis, a starlet with Ginger Rogers’ career, Joan Crawford’s scandalous past, and Jean Harlow’s suspiciously dead husband. It’s that dead husband that gets Slidell and the studio publicity machine involved, and that’s Logan’s jumping off point for a whirlwind tour of everything Hollywood wants to forget about the 1930s.

Much of the fun of the script is the wide spectrum of Hollywood scandal and mob sleaze—apocryphal or true—Logan managed to stuff into the plot, clearly operating under the philosophy that more is more. Not just Harlow and Crawford, but Lee Francis. Not just Bugsy Siegel, but Jack Dragna, Johnny Roselli, and Frankie Rio. The bogus story about Clark Gable running over a pedestrian gets retold, this time with a drug-addled Judy Garland behind the wheel. Even William Desmond Taylor gets a throwaway mention—all that’s missing is Ted Healy getting beaten to death by Wallace Beery outside the Trocadero. This stuff is crack to TCM fans, but even if you don’t know the stories behind the stories, it’s a rich tapestry.

And Logan does it justice. It’s a blast to read; not just the dialogue but even the scene descriptions tiptoe right up to the edge of parodying hard-boiled prose without ever quite falling in. (“Peter Nielson was once handsome. Not anymore. Now he’s dead.”) And the historical material is handled exceptionally deftly. The danger with this kind of movie is that the filmmakers will either overplay the historical importance of their characters in ways that no one could have known at the time, or underplay it to the point of ridiculousness. Mann/Logan Project successfully walks that tightrope from the first page to last. The audience knows Vivien Leigh is going to be cast as Scarlett O’Hara, and why it’s going to matter, but to Harry Slidell in 1938, it’s just another piece of studio gossip. Slidell’s investigation comes to a gonzo finale during the shooting of the burning of Atlanta sequence in Gone With the Wind, but to the characters, the most salient fact is that pyrotechnics make it easy to dispose of a body.

So why didn’t this ambitious, brilliantly crafted screenplay get turned into a movie? Well, why does anything happen, or not happen, in Hollywood? The answer is always money. Michael Mann and John Logan sent the screenplay out to studios in late April of 2007 with Leonardo DiCaprio attached to play Slidell and a budget of $120 million; nothing came of it. As Alan Horn, head of Warner Brothers, explained at the time, “it came down to a pricing issue.” It also likely came down to a timing issue: Mann had just made the financial disappointment Miami Vice for at least $135 million; a claim he could make a period piece for $120 million must have raised eyebrows. And Mann/Logan isn’t a movie you could easily fake with lookalike locations in Vancouver. Mann would have had to recreate not just the MGM lot, not just the Munchkinland set from The Wizard of Oz, not just the burning of the RKO backlot—but also the Trocadero nightclub on the Sunset Strip, the defunct Agua Caliente resort south of Tijuana, Hollywood Park racetrack the year it opened, a Christmas party at Sonja Henie’s (complete with an outdoor ice skating rink), and—like any good noir—the long-gone neighborhood of Bunker Hill.

In a script where virtually every set piece is a show-stopper, it was always unlikely Mann could pull things off for a reasonable price. Given how woefully over budget Mann went with 2009’s Public Enemies, even with a much less ambitious list of locations, it’s easy to imagine Mann/Logan Project would have been an accountant’s nightmare. It wouldn’t have been a cakewalk for the legal department either. Although most of the principal characters are dead, Mickey Rooney’s alive and well, and presumably would not welcome a movie that alludes to Lana Turner having his abortion.

Even so, the film came close to getting made. New Line Cinema made an offer with a $100 million budget attached, but it wasn’t enough money. In another era, New Line’s head Bob Shaye—whose biggest success came from gambling on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings—might have rolled the dice. But in the spring of 2007, Shaye had just directed the critical and commercial disaster The Last Mimzy, and the political battles that ended his tenure at New Line were underway. He was in no position to bet on a filmmaker with as troubled a record as Michael Mann, particularly not when New Line corporate parent Warner Bros. had already passed on the film because of its cost. The offer went away, other scripts got bought, and Michael Mann and John Logan moved on to other things.

To be clear, it’s doubtful Mann or Logan have many regrets—they’ve each had exceptionally great years. Mann is back on television for the first time in decades, producing and directing the pilot episode of HBO’s critically-acclaimed Luck. Logan’s had it even better, with a year possibly unmatched by any screenwriter since the heyday of the studio system he wrote so entertainingly about. In 2011, he had three films in theaters: Rango, the front-runner for the best animated feature Oscar; academy favorite Hugo, for which Logan is nominated for best adapted screenplay; and a Shakespeare adaptation (Coriolanus) that some critics think is the best of the three. But Mann/Logan is still a movie that needs to be made, because there’s never been anything else quite like it—a deconstruction of the Hollywood studio system that’s so gloriously over the top that only a Hollywood studio could make it.

Is there a path forward? Maybe. This isn’t the first time John Logan and Michael Mann developed an ambitious, expensive period film that didn’t go forward. The last time didn’t have anything to do with Mann’s reputation; he simply didn’t want to make another historical film after The Insider and Ali. But the project didn’t die: Mann stepped into a producing role, letting another director take the project forward. The film was The Aviator and the director was Martin Scorsese. It could happen again. If there’s money in it.