FILM / Too long on the back-burner: Toys took 15 years and dollars 40 million to make. In six weeks at the cinema it had made only dollars 21m. Barry Levinson tells Sheila Johnston how the dream went sour

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The Independent Culture
BETWEEN 1979 and 1984 American Film magazine ran a series of long features on the 'greatest stories never told'. Today these articles make even more instructive reading, because a number of the 'legendary unproduced scripts' have subsequently been made. Some of them - Total Recall, The Princess Bride and, latterly, The Bodyguard - went on to be commercial hits; one or two - John Sayles's Eight Men Out - even became a succes d'estime.

But the roll-call mostly consists of a glittering cavalcade of turkeys. Roman Polanski's Pirates; Carole Eastman's Man Trouble; Jacob's Ladder; When I Fall in Love; Jackknife; At Close Range . . . It may be a case of carpe diem - an idea peaks at a certain moment; if it isn't made immediately, it loses its bloom. It may be that these scripts were no good anyway. And then again . .

Hollywood isn't in the habit of letting its produce mature quietly like fine wines. A film's long-term fate - its marketing spend and strategy - is often decided on the strength of the first weekend's box-office take (some say before the end of the first evening show of the first day of release). 'Hot' scripts are mandatory overnight reading in preparation for a bidding war the following day. Some books are snapped up in manuscript stage. A screenplay quickly begins to look a bit dusty once it has been around the block a few times. And this is just one of the hurdles confronting directors with a pet dream in their hearts.

Barry Levinson knows a bit about this. His new film Toys started life as a screenplay (by Levinson and his then-wife, Valerie Curtin) in 1978; it was to have been his first film as a director. It was set up at Twentieth Century Fox with a budget of dollars 6 million, but a new broom (Sherry Lansing) at the studio swept it aside. And then, to fill in time, Levinson wrote and directed Diner.

He never exactly put Toys on the back burner - according to David Thompson's book-length interview, Levinson on Levinson, the film popped up again at Columbia in 1987 after Good Morning Vietnam - and out again with the sudden exodus of the then-studio head David Puttnam. It bounced back to Fox, with plans to shoot in England for around dollars 20 million, but the weak dollar sent costs too high. Toys finally surfaced in the States at the end of last year. It cost dollars 40 million.

The film stayed in cinemas for around six weeks, managing eventually to scrape a meagre dollars 21 million at the box-office. The American reviews were excoriating. For the Boston Globe it was 'the most anemic (film) Levinson has directed'. The Washington Post found it 'whiny and simplistic'. The New York Times' review, which called it a 'magnificent mess', almost sounded like a rave by comparison. And Charles Fleming of Newsweek suggested on Moving Pictures recently: 'If there's a project that someone has been trying to do for more than a decade and this person has finally come up so far in his or her career that he can do it, maybe he shouldn't do it, because there might be a reason why the movie hasn't been made . . .'

Levinson is bewildered and not a little wounded by his detractors. 'It became a point with people to say, 'Oh-ho, I hated the movie and this is what he wanted to do for 12 years]' he says. 'The level of the anger is something I don't know how to relate to. That I wanted to make the movie that badly - should they be angry about that? And maybe there is a very thin line between something you really believe in and something that is a self-indulgence. But if you don't take risks then people will just keep turning out the same movies over and over again.'

Some script premises have a limited shelf-life: a number of spy thrillers underwent emergency surgery after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Others benefit from historical serendipity. Phil Alden Robinson's computer-hacking comedy Sneakers (over a decade in the writing) opened here just after the US elections and was promptly hailed as 'the first Clinton-era movie'.

Certainly one would expect a 12-year-old screenplay to have had numerous rewrites in its lifetime, especially a comedy that features such contemporary elements as a mad warmonger with nothing to do in post-Cold War America, video games and a Virtual Reality helmet. Levinson, however, is very vague on this point: 'The original point of the piece has always remained consistent,' he says. 'And the changes that have taken place in the world have probably made it more relevant than it used to be.'

He puts Toys' problem down to the bizarre, surreal tone of the story. 'You cannot do a comedy in America that is not just a sitcom extension. An absurdist sensibility is not something that studios are comfortable with. The only fantasy cinema to emerge in Hollywood is the kind that's already part of American culture. Whatever is going on in the visual design, Batman is an extension of the comic books. The Addams Family comes from the television show. That makes them mainstream film-making in the sense that you have a pre-sold item which America will buy. On the other hand if you take Terry (Gilliam)'s Brazil, or Tim (Burton)'s Edward Scissorhands, that are not based on an existing cultural phenomenon, it's much more difficult for them to succeed.'

That doesn't explain the phenomenal success of Levinson's own earlier Rain Man, which was also years in the pipeline, and which boasted the ultimate in low concepts, an autistic savant. But, unlike Toys, it wasn't his own baby. 'I came to it late; it was having trouble with various directors to make it work. As opposed to a director who wants to make a movie over a long period.'

One suspects, though, that a more complex dynamic is in play in Toys' hostile reception. Levinson has been on a roll, with three big hits in his recent filmography (Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man and, to a lesser extent, Bugsy) and only one box-office failure (Avalon). Unlike the three directors whose dream projects, profiled right, were made at difficult points in their careers, he couldn't count on the underdog factor. On the contrary: Levinson's substantial clout in Hollywood left some critics claiming that Toys was a vanity project that studios didn't dare to refuse.

And his work has always fallen into two camps: impersonal, commercial projects, and the intimate, realist, semi-autobiographical ones set in his home town of Baltimore: Diner, Tin Men and Avalon. It must have baffled people, and quite possibly enraged them, that when Toys finally materialised, it was a stylised high fantasy that had nothing at all to do with Baltimore.

Whatever, Levinson likes to think that, from being a Legendary Unmade Screenplay, Toys will pass into another overstuffed movie category, the Great Misunderstood Movie: 'I think good ideas will ultimately succeed, although they might not succeed in the present moment. When I did The Natural (a baseball drama staring Robert Redford), it got criticised by a lot of people because it seemed such a serious movie. As time has gone on, it has been accepted, because in the final analysis it wasn't meant to be - the woman standing up, hoping he'll hit in the home run, with sun behind her hair, that was the joke. We didn't do it for pure camp. But people won't go with it if you don't give a kind of wink so that everyone can say 'Yeah, I got it.' '

You might think that, in this light, the British distributor is plunging in at the deep end with pastiche Magritte artwork and a copyline that runs 'Open the doors to your imagination'. We shall see the results tomorrow, probably some time before the end of the first evening screening.

(Photographs omitted)