Entertainment

9 Weird and Wild Steven Spielberg Movies That Never Got Made

Steven Spielberg
"So long, movies." | Michael Tran/FilmMagic/Getty Images
"So long, movies." | Michael Tran/FilmMagic/Getty Images

A director's filmography tells one story filled with success and failure, but the projects they ditched along the way often provide a bizarre, hypothetical counter-narrative. These can be abandoned dream concepts, like Francis Ford Coppola's long-rumored Megalopolis, or potentially bonkers combinations of famous IP and a loose cannon artist, like Oliver Stone's take on Planet of the Apes. With the possible exception of Stanley Kubrick or Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg might have the longest list of potentially fascinating movies that just never happened.

Given the pacing of Spielberg's output -- his 2018 film, the sci-fi blockbuster Ready Player One, arrived mere months after the Oscar-nominated newspaper drama The Post -- it's unsurprising that he tossed aside some would-be hits and never picked them up again. To become one of only 13 filmmakers to earn the distinction of having an "Unrealized Projects" Wikipedia page, you need to have a dozen projects in the air at once. It takes a unique combination of dedication, curiosity, and a nose for when to say "nah."

But not all leftover scraps are created equal: Below you'll find some of the most compelling examples of Spielberg leaving a project behind like E.T. ducking out for his home planet. (A note: We're not including movies like Interstellar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, or the remake of Oldboy, which Spielberg circled at one point before dropping out and letting another director take the reins.)

Flushed with Pride
'Flushing with Pride' book cover | Amazon

Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper

Can you imagine if Steven Spielberg's career had started in the toilet? In the early 1970s, Spielberg was a celebrated television director, hot off the success of the truck-vs-man thriller Duel, and he was looking to make the transition to the big screen. He trained his eye on a literary adaptation that didn't exactly scream prestige: Wallace Reyburn's Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper. The cheekily titled novelty book was published in 1969 and blended lowbrow yucks with some questionable history. It's easy to imagine young Spielberg discovering it at on the bookshelf of one of his movie brat pals. 

According to Steven Awalt's Spielberg and Duel: The Making of a Film Career, the young filmmaker presented the concept to Universal along with two others, a re-imagining of Snow White in a San Francisco Chinese food factory and an original about a "jazz-age airplane stunt performer and his relationship with his son," but the studio passed on all three. Perhaps it was for the best because by 1974 he helmed The Sugarland Express, his debut feature starring Goldie Hawn, and he was well on his way to becoming the wunderkind of Hollywood. The story of Thomas Crapper was left to languish in the crap-bin of history.

Alien designs for 'Night Skies' by Rick Baker | Rick Baker

Night Skies

The name Steven Spielberg is synonymous with a certain type of spectacle filled science-fiction film -- Close Encounters of the Third Kind established his alien-loving bona fides in 1977 -- but there's one creature-feature that escaped his grasp. In 2014, the makeup master Rick Baker released photos of an extraterrestrial that some fans identified as a prototype for E.T. and others pointed to as an inspiration for Poltergeist. Depending on how you look at it, it was both.

As described in this detailed breakdown of a troubled project called Night Skies, the makeup master was recruited by Spielberg to develop concepts for a Close Encounters follow-up that wouldn't continue the previous film's story, though would "play in the same general sandbox." Piranha screenwriter John Sayles was brought in to pen a script, which you can now find online, but the production stalled. Later lining up production designer and illustrator Ron Cobb to direct it, Spielberg eventually abandoned Night Skies after completing Raiders of the Lost Ark. He ended up using ideas and design elements of the film in both Poltergeist and E.T., but his relationship with Baker, who put hours of work into developing the creatures, soured and the two never ended up working together. (Oddly enough, Spielberg did end up producing a different alien invasion TV series for TNT titled Falling Skies in 2011.)

Blackhawk
Military Comics issue featuring Blackhawk | Quality Comics

Blackhawk

The big-budget World War II farce 1941 often sits at the bottom of any definitive Spielberg ranking, so it's understandable why the filmmaker might have been hesitant to climb back in the cockpit again with Blackhawk, an adaptation of a popular, military comic book created in the 1940s. 1941 star Dan Aykroyd was even considered for the main role, but it sounds like the project had trouble getting off the ground. 

According to an interview with comic book writer Mark Evanier, who penned a run of Blackhawk in the early 1980s, DC Comics was inspired to revive the series by the movie interest from Spielberg, who was considering making it before he turned his attention to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ultimately, Evanier thinks the Aykroyd rumors were "just a pie in the sky," but the comic ran for a few years and was rebooted again for a short run under the title Blackhawks in 2011 as part of DC's New 52 project. Spielberg would go back to the WWII well a few more times with Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, while Dan Aykroyd put on a uniform for a supporting role in 2001's bomb Pearl Harbor. Now, he's probably too busy selling vodka and chasing aliens to trifle himself with something as silly as a comic book adaptation! 

E.T. movie
E.T. -- the Extra-Terrestrial | Universal Pictures

E.T. II: Nocturnal Fears

Even with Hollywood's unquenchable thirst for "expanded universes", E.T. remains one of the few science-fiction blockbusters that will never get a sequel. Maybe that's because Spielberg and E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison took their shot at it with a treatment in the 1980s; according to reports online, the pitch was spectacularly ill-advised.

First, there's the subtitle, Nocturnal Fears, which sounds like name of a forgotten erotic thriller you'd find on Cinemax at 3am. Not exactly family friendly. Then there's the actual treatment itself, which describes the arrival of another group of aliens that "are an albino fraction (mutation) of the same civilization E.T. belongs to." Eventually, these aliens end up torturing poor little Elliott and his friends. Honestly, it sounds more like an Eli Roth movie than the tear-jerking fable we're used to. Keep in mind, this was just a treatment -- it's certainly possible Mathison could've written a great script or that an actual filmed sequel would've had an entirely different story -- but it still feels like a smart move to let E.T.'s ending stand on its own. "Phone home" loses some of its poignancy if the little guy calls back. 

Steven Spielberg
Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

I'll Be Home

Between his special effects-driven blockbusters and his historically-inspired period pieces, it's not hard to learn what interests, fascinates, and worries Steven Spielberg. (Almost all of his films feature a fractured family of some kind.) But for decades, some critics and fans have hoped that the filmmaker would make a more "personal" film that directly looked at his childhood in a more intimate, naturalistic manner. Reportedly, during the filming of Close Encounters, French New Wave innovator François Truffaut urged Spielberg to make his own version of Small Change, the director's acclaimed film about youth. But we know Spielberg doesn't really do "small" anything. 

After abandoning a script titled After School, which was penned by 1941 writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, in the late '70s, Spielberg began talking about making a movie called I'll Be Home, which would be written by his sister Anne and would take a closer look at his early years. "'My big fear,'' he told The New York Times in a 1999 profile, ''is that my mom and dad won't like it and will think it's an insult and won't share my loving yet critical point of view about what it was like to grow up with them.'' Today, Spielberg has four grandchildren and his own father is 101 years old, so maybe now is the time to finally film this passion project.

the curse of monkey island
'The Curse of Monkey Island' video game | LucasArts

The Curse of Monkey Island

Though the film is based on a novel by Ernest ClineReady Player One is probably the closest thing we'll ever get to a Spielberg video game adaptation. But before he made this swan dive into geekdom, the director was rumored to be involved with an adaptation of The Curse of Monkey Island, an adventure game published by his old buddy George Lucas's gaming company LucasArts. (Also, according to the recent HBO documentary about Spielberg, his mother once brought a pet monkey home, so there was a personal connection there, too!)

Of all the projects on this list, this one has the least reliable paper trail. Would Spielberg really consider another pirate movie after making Hook? According to an anonymous source on the unquestionably reliable Monkey Island wiki, Spielberg was a "big Monkey Island fan himself" and had screenwriter Ted Elliot working on a script. Elliot went on to co-write the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and some observers have speculated that elements of that swashbuckling series were drawn from his work on the Monkey Island project.

James Stewart Harvey
Harvey | Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Harvey

There are plenty of major male movie stars that Steven Spielberg has never made a movie with -- Brad Pitt, Will Smith, and Robert De Niro come to mind -- but most of them have had close calls with the director. (For example, Spielberg was at one point attached to the De Niro's Cape Fear remake, which was eventually directed by Martin Scorsese.) Robert Downey Jr., the goateed godfather of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been mostly tied up with franchise fare for the last decade, but in 2009 it looked like he was going to stretch his dramatic and comedic muscles by starring in Harvey, an adaptation of Mary Chase's 1944 play which was turned into a 1950 film starring Jimmy Stewart. It's about a grown man with a giant invisible rabbit best friend; given the amount of time Spielberg has spent directing fantastical creatures that aren't actually there, you can see the appeal for him.  

Spielberg reportedly first wanted his frequent leading man Tom Hanks for the role, but it's likely Hanks didn't want to follow so closely in Stewart's footsteps. According to Variety, Downey and Spielberg couldn't see eye to eye on the script by novelist Jonathan Tropper, and ended up leaving the project behind. It now sits in the scrapheap with another long-rumored late '00s Spielberg project, a film about the trial of the Chicago Seven which the director still occasionally mentions in interviews. Maybe someday he can find a role for Downey in that? 

robopocolypse
'Robopocalypse' book cover | Doubleday

Robopocalypse

In March 2018, Transformers mastermind Michael Bay was named as the new director of this adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson's sci-fi novel, which follows the aftermath of a robotic uprising. The project should sound familiar to Spielberg fans who keep careful watch of his development slate: In 2010, it was announced in Variety that the director would helm an adapted script from Cloverfield writer Drew Goddard, and the movie would arrive just in time for a prime 2013 release date. Clearly, that never happened.

At least it sounds like Goddard, who went on to pen the Oscar-nominated script for Ridley Scott's The Martian, had a good time. "I got to work with Steven Spielberg for a year," he told Creative Screenwriting magazine in 2016. "That’s a dream of mine! It was just a joy to see him in action and learn from him." Don't think of these projects as movies that never got made; they were Spielberg apprenticeship programs.

Indiana jones and the crystal skull
Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull | Paramount Pictures

Multiple Indiana Jones sequels that never happened

No list of abandoned Steven Spielberg projects is complete without a partial reckoning with the numerous Indiana Jones spin-offs and sequels that have been developed, mentioned in interviews, or rumored in the press -- and then disappeared completely. Few franchises have as many skeletons in the closet: There's Indiana Jones and the Haunted Mansion, Indiana Jones and the Monkey King, Indiana Jones and the Saucermen from Mars, Indiana Jones and the Lost Continent, and, of course, a rumored spin-off based around Shia LaBeouf's character Mutt. (When dismissing the prospect of a LaBeouf stand-alone in a 2008 interview, George Lucas joked that it would be titled "Mutt Williams and the Search for Elvis or something.")

Honestly, they're all fun to read about, but none of the hypothetical sequels quite have the same hold on the fandom's imagination as a script written by The Shawshank Redemption director Frank Darabont, who had cut his teeth working on The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones series. In 2002, Darabont hired to write a draft, and turned in a script titled Indiana Jones and the City of Gods, which according to the writer, Spielberg said was "the best draft of anything since Raiders of the Lost Ark." According to interviews with Spielberg himself, George Lucas disagreed. The rest is very complicated (but well documented!) history.

The public goodwill that exists towards Darabont's script, a version of which appears to be available via WikiLeaks, likely stems from how much many people despised 2008's Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. As with all the projects on this list, it's often easier to pine for the movie that never happened than to confront the reality of the movie that actually got made. Maybe the City of Gods is where all abandoned Spielberg projects go when they die?

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.