If there's one fun trivia fact about 20th Century Fox's Deadpool, it's that it was a decade in production and pushed along to life largely by the will (and sneaky tricks) of star Ryan Reynolds. But when it comes to #superhero movies, Deadpool is far from the only one that was many a year in development.
Enter Jonathan Gems, playwright and screenwriter extraordinaire. You probably know at least a portion of Gems's work, though you may never have heard his name: He wrote the Tim Burton directed cult hit Mars Attacks! and did an uncredited rewrite on Burton's Batman.
And now Gems — via a tell-all Heatstreet article — has revealed the role he played in getting #Marvel's Doctor Strange from paper to screen, and it turns out there's a pretty tragic story behind how long it took for the movie to get made.
Turn Back The Clock
Flashback to 1991. Freddie Mercury died, the internet as we now know it took off, and Nirvana's Nevermind was released. It was also the year that Gems was approached to write a feature-length screenplay based on Marvel's #DoctorStrange comics. At the time, he was told that the project had already been in development for five years, and it would be 25 more before Stephen Strange finally made his big-screen debut.
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So, why didn't the movie get made back in the early '90s? Gems describes Hollywood as "not so much a film industry as a development industry," noting that most people in the industry make their money from developing ideas, not necessarily making them. Such is true of Gems, who has written several undeveloped scripts for Tim Burton.
A major studio may have around 200 movies in development every year, but only five or six of these will actually get made. And these are the money makers, fueling the studios to continue for the next year upon year. Gems isn't aware how much money had gone into developing Doctor Strange at this point, but given that it had already been five years, there was probably a decent amount.
Gems's draft script for Doctor Strange followed a similar path to the one we saw in cinemas last year, which he describes thusly:
Doctor Strange is in a serious accident, he’s a mess and is then offered the opportunity to go on an enlightened journey to Asia (Tibet in my draft).
But despite producing a treatment and the first draft of the script, the movie didn't progress any further and Gems didn't get paid. The reason for this? The tragic death of his producer, Anton Furst.
Furst was a production designer from the UK who Gems met on the set of Batman, and after the massive success of the movie and winning an Academy Award for his design, Furst became Hollywood's new hot ticket. Moving to LA, Furst began working on high demand movies, and created the famous interior design for mega-hit restaurant chain Planet Hollywood. But yet he wasn't satisfied with his lot, as Gems relates:
[Furst] was in great demand as a production designer, but he wanted more. He was ambitious. He wanted to act. He wanted to direct. He wanted to produce. He wanted to make shed-loads of money.
But, as these stories so often go, Furst's ambition was his downfall. His relationship with his wife started to suffer, which Gems describes as a result of "his growing fondness for Columbia’s chief export." It was Furst who got the rights to produce Doctor Strange, and Furst who brought Gems onboard. Originally, the plan was for Tim Burton himself to direct, which would've brought us some mighty weird but mighty appropriate visuals.
But, two months after setting everything up, Furst died. After separating from his wife and falling into a deep depression, Furst committed suicide by jumping off of an eighth story parking deck on the evening of November 24, 1991.
Following Furst's death, the movie sunk. As Gems tells it:
'Doctor Strange' went into turnaround, I was treated like I didn’t exist, and that was the end of it. Don’t be a Hollywood screenwriter if you don’t have a thick skin.
Onward To The MCU
When Doctor Strange finally released under the Marvel Cinematic Universe banner 25 years later, Gems didn't expect to like it. Having written a draft script, he himself was aware how difficult a franchise it is to adapt for the big screen, and he didn't expect Disney to have done a good job with the "complex and sophisticated" characters.
So he was pleasantly surprised when he ended up both enjoying and respecting the movie, saying even that "in the end they did better than I could have done."
But who knows what we could have seen if tragedy had not struck. Gems was approached to write his script a good 17 years before the birth of the #MCU, so had the movie been made, it wouldn't have formed part of the narrative universe that we know and love.
If Doctor Strange had been made in the early '90s and had been successful, the movie would've had a knock-on effect upon the narrative of the new movie, the popularity of the character in the public consciousness, and perhaps even the MCU itself. And with such visual experts as Furst and Burton at the helm, things could've been very different.
But at the end of the day, on the Doctor Strange production side of things, the story of Anton Furst is another reminder of the high pressure that artists have to work under once they reach the height of fame Hollywood. It might seem like a dream come true, but the reality is often very different to the expectations.
To play it out, here's how Gems would like us to remember Anton Furst:
I’ll always remember Anton — his hair-whipping energy, his irrepressible optimism, his generous smile, and his bold way of standing, with his jeans tucked into his cowboy boots.
Would you have liked to have seen a '90s version of Doctor Strange directed by Tim Burton? Tell us your thoughts in the comments, and check out our epic Doctor Strange Easter Egg breakdown below!
(Source: Jonathan Gems via Heatstreet)