Development Hell: THE GREEN HORNET - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Development Hell: THE GREEN HORNET

A swam of Hornets, countless Katos and two decades of development hell. We chart the long gestation of 2011's The Green Hornet.

Arriving in cinemas on January 14th 2011, The Green Hornet premiered to generally unfavourable reviews with its star Seth Rogen going so far as proclaiming the production to be a "fucking nightmare", saying that Sony executives paid little attention to the most expensive portions of the film, and its inflated budget. Personally, I don't think it is a terrible movie - there have been far worse superhero adaptation, The Green Lantern came out in the same year and that's far less enjoyable - but it does certainly feel like it's a draft or two away from a more polished product. Ten years on from its release we look back at The Green Hornet's long journey to the big screen with nearly two decades of development hell!

Having first appeared in 1936, quickly making the jump from radio to serialised chapter-plays, then resurrected in the ABC television series of the 1960s, starring none other than Bruce Lee, it's quite a surprise to think that The Green Hornet had not received a full length movie adaptation earlier. It wasn't until October 1992 when the first news of a big screen take on the character was reported by trade paper Variety, with Universal Pictures aquiring the rights in the wake of a big buy-up of comic book/classic characters, fueled by the success of the Tim Burton Batman films. By September 1993, Chuck Pfarrer (who also penned the screenplay for The Jackal, Virus and Red Planet) had finished a screenplay, with Rich Wilkes (Glory Days, XXX) hired to rewrite portions of the script.

At this time, Universal wooed George Clooney with a pay-or-play contract to star as Britt Reid, the wealthy newspaper publisher and the masked crime-fighter known as the Green Hornet. But Clooney was destined to wear another mask and dropped out in December 1995 to star in Batman and Robin. I think this was a terrible shame as I can imagine that Clooney would've made a far better Reid than Bruce Wayne (I'm thinking potential echoes of Warren Beatty's take on Dick Tracy). Still, the production was very much an active concern for Universal and this was one of the closest points throughout the long development of The Green Hornet of it entering viable pre-production.

As a replacement for Clooney, Entertainment Weekly reported that Greg Kinnear was being looked at for the title role, with Jason Scott Lee signed on to co-star as Kato. Universal hired music video director Michel Gondry in January 1997 for what would've been his feature film directorial debut (that would end up coming in 2001 with Human Nature, but remember his name as we come back to Gondry later on). Gondry rewrote the Pfarrer/Wilkes screenplay with Edward Neumeier, and Mark Wahlberg was offered the lead role. Again, all seemed as if it was going to plan for a Summer 1999 release date, but behind the scenes Universal were having a wobble, likely fueled by the desperate reception to Clooney's Batman & Robin. Gondry later revealed that "after one-and-a-half years, it was shelved by the studio. ... We already had the designs for the cars, the weapons" and so toward the end of 1998 Gondry left the production.

It seemed that as the millennium approached the big screen adaptation of The Green Hornet had been firmly swatted! But then in April 2000, Universal entered early negotiations with Jet Li to star as Kato for a mighty $5.2 million plus 5% of the film's gross. Not a bad pay day at all, thank you very much. Christopher McQuarrie, he of the later Mission: Impossible films, was reported to be writing a script, but when it was not completed by the October 2000 deadline, Li moved on to work on The One, and so after spending about $10 million in development hell since 1992, Universal put The Green Hornet in turnaround in November 2001.

Both Paramount and Columbia Pictures showed interest in picking up Universal's option on The Green Hornet, but Miramax Films won the bidding that month with what Variety reported as "a deal approaching $3 million." Two years later and there had been no progress on an actual script or casting announcements, but fear not as Miramax had been busy working with automobile companies on product placement opportunities for the Black Beauty. Priorities, right? As part of the deal, Miramax would receive its "hero car" and $35 million in additional marketing, and the car company that would have landed the deal would be given the chance to help develop The Green Hornet, since a script had yet to be written and no director was attached to, what was at the time, a planned 2005 release. Variety noted that this figure would have tied the record $35 million deal between Ford Motor Company and MGM that featured the company's Aston Martin Vanquish, Jaguar XKR and Ford Thunderbird in the James Bond film Die Another Day.

Whether Miramax secured their product placement deal is unknown but almost two and a half years after acquiring the rights they finally made some actual progress on nailing down a story and creative team for the film when, in February 2004, the studio hired cult filmmaker and comic book writer Kevin Smith to write and direct The Green Hornet. Smith revealed...
"I always said I'd never do a superhero film, based on my limited experience writing on Superman Lives and having to answer to the studio, Jon Peters, the comics company and eventually a director. Then there's a fandom that gets up in arms if you even try to stray from their character. Here, there is simplicity in the character and the situation."

"I dig the fact that he kicked off a run of billionaire playboys who decided to put on a mask and fight crime and that he was Batman before there was a Batman."
Yeah, tell that to George Clooney! Still, it looked like we were actually on track for a big screen take on The Green Lantern, after all, surely lightning couldn't strike twice for Kevin Smith after all the disappointment surrounding the cancelled Nicolas Cage (remember him for later too) starring Superman Lives, right? Plus Miramax were making positive moves, with Jon Gordon and Hannah Minghella now onboard as producers, and Harold Berkowitz and George Trendle, son of the character's co-creator, as executive producers.

Smith approached Jake Gyllenhaal for the lead role and by mid-November of 2004 had written about 100 pages, and estimated another 100 to come. Once again, everything was on track for a Winter 2005 release date and then.... nothing! The proposed release date came and went with no new developments on The Green Hornet, that is until February 2006 when Smith's official website noted, "Kevin officially no longer has anything to do with the Green Hornet." (Although Smith did then go on to write the Dynamite Entertainment comic book Green Hornet in 2009)

With the rights to the character of The Green Hornet now having expired, producer Neal H. Moritz obtained them through his Sony-based production company Original Film (most known for I Know What You Did Last Summer, I Am Legend, and the Fast and Furious franchise, and the television shows Prison Break and The Big C.) in March 2007 and optioned them to Columbia Pictures, in a deal which would eventually, finally, bring the character to the big screen. Four months later, in July 2007 Seth Rogen, in addition to starring in the lead role, was hired to co-write the script with frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg and named as an executive producer for The Green Hornet. At the time Rogen stated he had not begun writing the screenplay yet, but anticipated the tone would be that of "a buddy action movie" with humor, like Lethal Weapon and 48 Hrs..".

In September 2008, Columbia Pictures announced a June 25th 2010 release date for The Green Hornet and revealed that Hong Kong star Stephen Chow had signed to both direct and to co-star as Kato. Chow, a fan of the TV show as a kid, explained,
"The idea of stepping into Bruce Lee's shoes as Kato is both humbling and thrilling, and to get the chance to direct the project as my American movie debut is simply a dream come true."
Chow stepped down as director the following December over creative differences, although he still intended to portray Kato at this time, and was replaced in February 2009 by one of the earlier choices for director, Michel Gondry. After a decade of the project, and now very much in-demand thanks in no small part to Eternal Sunshine For The Spotless Mind, Gondry was back at the helm. By the summer of 2009, Chow had also dropped out as Kato over scheduling conflicts with other projects, replaced by Taiwanese singer-actor Jay Chou. After 17 years, the key players were all nearly in place and principal photography on The Green Hornet was scheduled to begin on September 2nd 2009, but the movie still hadn't cast its villain.

Columbia were very keen to bring Nicolas Cage on board, and he had indeed been in advanced talks to play the role of Benjamin Chudnofsky, the paranoid Russian gangster who plans to join all of the crime families of Los Angeles together to organize a "super-mafia." Christoph Waltz would eventually be cast in the role, but Cage came very close to signing on the dotted line, as he later revealed...
"The Green Hornet was something I wanted to do. I think Michel Gondry is very talented and I had hoped it would work. But I think Seth Rogen and Michel had a different direction for the character totally than the way I wanted to go. ... I wasn't interested in just being straight-up bad guy who was killing people willy-nilly. I had to have some humanity and try to give it something where you could understand why the character was the way he was. But there wasn't enough time to develop it."
Finally, on January 14th 2011 The Green Hornet opened in US cinemas. Was it worth nearly two decades of development hell? Critics would largely say no! The New York Post found it "an overblown, interminable and unfunny update (in badly added 3-D)", and called star Rogen "miscast". The Guardian said, "Almost everything about the film is disappointing. Christoph Waltz is under-par as the villain with nothing like the steely charisma of his Nazi in Inglourious Basterds", and Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times gave the film just one star, calling it "an almost unendurable demonstration of a movie with nothing to be about. Although it follows the rough storyline of previous versions of the title, it neglects the construction of a plot engine to pull us through."

Not all reviewers were entirely negative. The New York Daily News gave The Green Hornet 31⁄2 stars out of 5, and commented that the "irreverently funny" film had "a vibe so casual you half expect star Seth Rogen to amble off screen and put his feet up on the seat next to you," and praising director Gondry's "sense of humor and acute visual skill", although they did call the movie "cheerfully unfocused". In a more recent poll of the greatest superhero movie of all time, it placed 88th, which if you think of just how many superhero movies there have been, ain't too bad.

The Green Hornet did actually double its $110 million budget, so it certainly wasn't a flop, and pre-release the idea for a sequel was certainly mooted. Why that didn't come to pass, producer Neal Moritz explained...
"[The Green Hornet] did almost $250 million and was actually very well liked, but we made the movie for too much money. One, we made it in L.A. for certain reasons, and two, we decided to go to 3D—that added another $10 million. If I had done it in a tax-rebate state and not done 3D, it would have been considered a huge financial success for the studio. So for that reason we're not making a sequel right now."
Yeah, I'm not sure I entirely buy his company line response either, but although a sequel never happened, like so many other superheroes who have made the leap to the big screen, it wasn't long before talk of a reboot came around.

In 2016 Paramount Pictures and Chernin Entertainment acquired the film rights to the Green Hornet, with developments for a rebooted adaptation. Gavin O'Connor (best known for directing the films Miracle, Warrior, The Accountant, and The Way Back) signed on to produce and direct, and a whole cycle of development hell began all over again! As of 2020, Universal Pictures and Amasia Entertainment had snapped up the rights in turnaround, announcing they are partnering on a film based on the classic characters The Green Hornet and Kato, which is also the planned title. When and if it comes to the screen is anyone's guess at this stage, but hopefully it doesn't take another 20 years!

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