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Tales From Development Hell: Simon Says

By Ryan Fleming

Who else?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The success or failure of a film often comes down to its script. There are myriad other factors that can make or break a film, but the script is the component that a production is sold on. Most cases of development hell involve the script being constantly rewritten. Even in a successful film, however, the script is largely provisional right up to filming. So, whilst a script can often take the blame, or praise, for a film, what happens when the finished product bears very little resemblance to the original version? We consider this when looking at the history of Simon Says or, as it was eventually released, Die Hard with a Vengeance.

It is a quirk of the Die Hard series that, of the five films released, only one of them began production life as a Die Hard film. The original 1988 holiday classic began life as Roderick Thorp’s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever. That novel was itself a sequel to Thorp’s 1966 novel The Detective, which was filmed in 1968 under the same name featuring Frank Sinatra as its main character: NYPD detective Joe Leland. 20th Century Fox had adapted The Detective with Sinatra and had purchased the rights to the novel’s sequel more than a decade before it was written. In fact, when Fox finally began work on adapting the more high-concept Nothing Lasts Forever in 1987, they were obliged to offer the lead role to the original Joe Leland: Frank Sinatra. The septuagenarian crooner declined, and television star Bruce Willis landed the lead, renamed to John McClane, after muscle-bound 80s action stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone amongst many others passed. A controversial choice when there was still seen to be a major distinction between film and television actors, but perhaps more than any other, the right choice that made Die Hard the enduring success it became on release.

A hard man is good to find. Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The success of Die Hard led to a sequel being rushed into production for a 1990 release. Like the original, it was adapted from an unrelated novel: Walter Wagner’s 1987 thriller 58 Minutes. There seemed to have been at least some self-awareness at the unlikelihood of McClane going through a very similar that he did in the first film. Including its full marketing title (Die Hard 2: Die Harder) and McClane’s famous line: “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

Die Hard 2 surpassed all projections by actually outperforming the original at the box officer during its first release. Another sequel was commissioned, but there was an issue. In the years since the original film’s success, the Die Hard formula of a lone action hero trapped in a single location had been in many variations. There was Die Hard on a mountain in Cliffhanger, Die Hard on a plane in Passenger 57, Die Hard on a bus in Speed, Die Hard on a battleship in Under Siege. The second sequel to Die Hard went through numerous ideas and script treatments, but most ideas veered too close to their imitators and were rejected by none other than Bruce Willis himself.

Elsewhere in early 1990s Hollywood, screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh had written a script under the title Simon Says. Hensleigh was a newcomer to the industry, with most of his credits being episodes of the television series The Young Indiana Jones. Simon Says had been written on spec, that is non-commissioned and unsolicited, with the hope of having it optioned and purchased by a producer or company. Fox purchased the film with the intention of turning it into a vehicle for up-and-coming star Brandon Lee, son of the legendary Bruce Lee. The younger Lee had a star-making turn in 1992’s Rapid Fire, and Fox had begun planning not only sequels to that film, but also other starring vehicles. Lee was meant to play Alex Bradshaw of the NYPD, who becomes embroiled in a revenge plot across the city accompanied by Angela Bassett as a community activist. That Rapid Fire was not well-received aside from Lee’s performance speaks to the potential the actor had at becoming a major star. He was already in the midst of filming his next headlining performance while Fox was preparing multiple scripts for him, when tragedy struck.

Whilst filming the 1994 superhero film The Crow, Brandon Lee was shot and killed due to negligence whilst filming late in production. The revolver used in the scene had been loaded with improvised dummy rounds, done to show regular looking ammunition in close ups. Lee’s mother, Linda Lee Cadwell, sued the filmmakers which was settled within months for undisclosed terms. Paramount Pictures bowed out of distributing the film, which had been rewritten and completed using a stand-in. Miramax brought the distribution rights and released the film, which attracted a cult following with particular praise being directed towards Lee’s performance. Lee had also been due to marry his fiancée the week after he had completed filming on The Crow. The filmmaker whose negligence led to his death dedicated the film to his memory.

Bruce and Brandon Lee. The young Brandon was tragically killed while filming The Crow.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Simon Says went back to a list of available scripts owned by Fox, but before it joins Die Hard history, it has a brief detour to another 1980s originating action series. The script was well-regarded within Hollywood, and word reached Warner Brothers who made overtures to Fox to purchase the script. Their intentions? To turn it into the fourth film in the Lethal Weapon series. They presumably would have replaced the NYPD cop and activist leads with series stars Danny Glover and Mel Gibson as Roger Murtaugh and Martin Riggs. As much as there is hope that in some universe somewhere there exists footage of Glover and Gibson bickering over how to get 4 gallons of water using only 3- and 5-gallon jugs, the longstanding legend that Lethal Weapon 4 became Die Hard with a Vengeance is just that: a legend. Much like the other one that the original Die Hard was originally meant to be a sequel to 1985’s Commando starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The purchase of the script by Warner Brothers was never completed, and Lethal Weapon 4 spent several more years in its own troubled development before being released in 1998.

Back at the Die Hard offices, the most recently submitted script put McClane on a cruise ship where he surprisingly winds up battling terrorists. It was originally titled Troubleshooter and was rejected for being too close to Under Siege starring Steven Seagal. It had made it far enough into production that in November 1992, the Los Angeles Times was able to report that it had been scrapped so as not to be seen as riding Seagal’s coattails or, as phrased in the headline: “Blown Out of the Water.” Then attention was finally turned to Simon Says, whose revenge theme informed the eventual title. Alex Bradshaw became John McClane, the criminal seeking vengeance became the brother of the first film’s villain, and the third act was updated to turn the revenge plot into a smokescreen for the villain’s real motive. Another change was Bradshaw/McClane’s partner in the film, who was changed from female to male, eventually played by Samuel L Jackson.

Die Hard with a Vengeance went on to become the highest grossing film of 1995 and is considered by many fans and critics to be the best of the Die Hard sequels. It cemented Samuel L Jackson’s status as a bona fide movie star after his breakout performance in 1994’s Pulp Fiction (coincidentally also starring Bruce Willis, though they shared no scenes). It also changed the model for future Die Hard sequels. Whereas previously McClane had been trapped alone in a single location, subsequent films like Live Free or Die Hard (adapted from a 1997 Wired article “A Farewell to Arms”) and A Good Day to Die Hard (the only film of the series to have begun as a Die Hard film) McClane has a partner for the action which moves between numerous locations. Samuel L Jackson in 1995 gave way to Justin Long in 2007 and Jai Courtney in 2013. New York City was swapped for Washington DC, and then both Russia and Ukraine.

Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Had Brandon Lee not been killed on the set of The Crow, then it’s likely that Simon Says would have gone into production with him starring instead of being available to become the next Die Hard sequel. However, the attention for that world deserves to be on how Lee’s career might have gone rather than on either Simon Says or Die Hard. Instead, let’s consider what would happen if Warner Brothers had bought Simon Says when they tried to in 1993.

Fox would therefore no longer own the script that became Die Hard with a Vengeance. They would still be looking for another sequel to their successful action series, but they would not have the one that not only made it the highest grossing film of its year, but also a worthy follow-up to the original.

There are numerous action movie scripts that floated around Hollywood and became sequels to existing films. The one we know for sure at one point was intended to become the third Die Hard film, Troubleshooter, was eventually filmed. It was repurposed to becomes 1997’s Speed 2: Cruise Control, a film that received largely negative reviews, only barely turned a profit from its $160 million budget, and was nominated for eight Golden Raspberry Awards, the parody award show honouring the worst of Hollywood cinema. Would Die Hard 3: Cruise Control have suffered the same ignominy? A major complaint of Speed 2 was the non-return of Keanu Reaves, star of 1994’s Speed, so perhaps as long as Die Hard 3 has Bruce Willis, it would have an advantage over Speed 2. Another elephant in the room is that Troubleshooter had already been rejected, specifically by Willis, for being too similar to Under Siege. If he is forced into filming a script he has no faith in, then it might translate to his performance and Die Hard 3 might still suffer unfavourable comparisons to the Steven Seagal picture. Willis already had a troubled relationship with the producers of the first two Die Hard films, Joel Silver and Larry Gordon, leading to their replacement with Andrew Vajna for Die Hard with a Vengeance.

Suffice to say, without the script for Simon Says, Die Hard 3 might end up being a poorly received film with a troubled production. So much so that returning to the role of John McClane for a fourth might not be desirable to Bruce Willis, and without the box office success that was Die Hard with a Vengeance, the studio might not want to pay what he wants. Would they dare recast John McClane? It would be a courageous move. Perhaps the Die Hard formula is recognised as played out, but there would still be successful examples of it throughout the 1990s including Executive Decision (Die Hard on a plane), Con Air (Die Hard on a different plane), and Air Force One (Die Hard on... you guessed it).

What of Simon Says? There is a chance that it does become Lethal Weapon 4, but there’s an equal chance that it just falls into a pile of scripts that studios keep around. If it had become Lethal Weapon 4, then it probably would have been more successful than the version of that film that we received historically in 1998. The interplay between Willis and Jackson in Die Hard with a Vengeance in some respects is more typical of the Lethal Weapon series than the Die Hard one. There is another possibility too, one that it is difficult to believe it was never considered historically. There is in Simon Says, a well-respected spec script about a criminal mastermind that runs the hero across a city with riddles. Warner Brothers are interested in that script as the second sequel to one of their most successful series, but it’s not the one to Batman and Batman Returns that in almost all of its versions featured as its main antagonist a supervillain called the Riddler?

The spec script Simon Says, from Jonathan Hensleigh, was strong enough that its plot and core concepts survived adaptation into Die Hard with a Vengeance. The script was well-respected enough that another studio at one point considered buying it to become the next Lethal Weapon film, and had they bought it then it’s possible someone at that studio might have been smart enough to connect the dots between a script featuring an antagonist providing riddles and a supervillain they want to use called the Riddler. It possibly extended the life of the Die Hard film series; it could have done the same for the Lethal Weapon and the original Batman film series. It could also have become a star-making turn for Brandon Lee alongside The Crow. Some scripts have such strength in their core concepts that you would have to try really, really hard to make them fail.

Not that this has ever stopped Hollywood from trying, of course.

Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by Sealion Press, a collection of short stories set in an independent Scotland.

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