Book Review: Tales From Development Hell

Once upon a time, the general public was not largely aware of how movies were created. Mind you, this was before the internet and Entertainment Weekly magazine peeled back the protective shell of Hollywood and let the common folk see how the sausage was made. These days if anyone is interested in the inner workings of studio movies, there are many resources that detail every aspect of the creative process. One of those resources is the book Tales From Development Hell by David Hughes, which has just been republished in an updated edition from Titan Books.

In the movie world, "development" is the period of time in which an idea is put on paper and reworked and rewritten until it's deemed fit to film. "Development Hell" is the term given to the many projects that never break free from this process and have little to no hope of ever getting made. David Hughes's book chronicles in painstaking detail the road of a dozen or so projects that lead them to Development Hell.

Shooting a movie is the sexy side of the business where elaborate sets are brimming with high tech equipment capturing the actors acting and things blowing up. What's less glamorous, but I think more interesting, is the road the movie took to get there. Each chapter in Development Hell outlines a particular project's twisted journey through the studio system, from Total Recall 2 to James Cameron's take on Fantastic Voyage and many more. They all begin with a great idea and lofty intentions but soon become victims of bad input by producers or executives, talent dropping out, or the lack of enthusiasm from a director. Every story is different, but they all pretty much end the same way: with a potentially good project that never gets off the ground.

Throughout the book, Hughes manages to report the proceedings without bias or malice. He not only describes the events of each project, but he summarizes the different drafts of the scripts as it changes hands from writer to writer, allowing the reader to see how things progressed or lapsed. If anything, Tales From Development Hell makes one realize that it's a minor miracle that any movie gets made, let alone comes out good. Any one detail can derail a project: a movie star who wants to write his own dialogue, a director that doesn't fully believe in the material, a producer more interested in box office than story, a studio executive trying to justify his position by giving notes where none are needed… Though only a few movies are outlined in the book, there are hundreds of stories just like these throughout Hollywood.

Unlike a lot of businesses, script development is not about hard fast truths, only opinions. There is no right or wrong. What's good to one can be awful to another. Many of the reasons why a movie ends up in development hell are because of this. It also shows that being creative in an industry that truly only cares about the bottom line is a complex tightrope act.

If you're truly curious about the inner-workings of the industry or have any desire to be a screenwriter, Tales From Development Hell will be an engaging and informative read. But if you're the kind of person who prefers to simply eat the sausage instead of learning the messy process of how it's made, you might be better off sticking with the offerings at your local multiplex.

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