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The best films never made

David Lean's Nostromo? Michael Powell's The Tempest? As Brighton's Cine City film festival celebrates the best movies that never made it to the screen, Emma Love explores why some projects just don't get finished

Can you imagine if The Godfather had never been made? If Star Wars, E.T. and Pulp Fiction had never graced our cinema screens and become classic movies of their time? It's hard to think of cinema history without films like these and yet it could all have been so different. For every film that's made it to the silver screen over the years, there are plenty that could have been equally as good, equally as successful if only they'd got off the ground. It's not often that those "if-only" films are given any thought, especially at a film festival – until now. This Thursday, for the first time, the annual Cine City Brighton Film Festival is introducing a "never-mades" strand – a dummy film programme that reveals the British films that won't be playing at the cinema.

Take the film director Michael Powell. After he made The Red Shoes in 1948 with Emeric Pressburger, which producers hated and most critics panned, he began to have problems getting other films made. Both The Golden Years in 1952, a proposed autobiography of the composer Richard Strauss, and later, The Tempest in the 1970s, are just two films from Powell's rather long list of "never-mades" that have been included in the festival's fantasy programme. Powell became obsessed by The Tempest; there were several scripts written and it had a stellar cast lined up, including Mia Farrow, James Mason, Topol, the comedian Frankie Howerd and the cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, who was going to work on the sets. So what went wrong?

According to Greek-born, London-based Frixos Constantine, the managing director of Poseidon Films who was the producer on The Tempest, it was a clash with the powers-that-be that put the kybosh on the film. "We almost got it made but the Rank Organisation, who were a force in film-making, had some sort of problem with Powell," recalls Constantine. "They made sure it was never made. We had very good actors, a great script and it was a tragedy for the film industry that it didn't take place. I had no money to pay the actors or for post-production, it's as simple as that. I still think it was one of my biggest failures. A lot of rubbish films have been made and there are a lot of good films that were never made."

The "never-mades" programme, essentially a virtual festival of the imagination, is laid out in the same way as the programme for those films that are actually showing, complete with the year it should have been made, the director, cast details of actors who would have starred in it, and a synopsis of what the film would have been about. There are even pretend double bill pairings, such as Joe Orton's 1967 Up Against It – his unproduced screenplay about The Beatles which their management feared would destroy their image forever – with Nicholas Ray's 1966 adaptation of the novel Only Lovers Left Alive, set to star The Rolling Stones.

All the films on the bill were due to be made post-1945 and according to the festival co-director, Tim Brown, represent some of the most interesting decades in the film industry. "There's an element of the boom-and- bust cycle that we're used to with British cinema. In the 70s, there were dark days when a lot of American money pulled out," he explains. "The idea of the programme is to show that the films that don't get made reveal just as much about the state of the film industry as those that do. Some were too ambitious or there was an element of sheer folly. Sometimes acts of god got in the way."

In the case of Terry Gilliam's 2000 epic The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, it was illness, torrential rain and various other unavoidable disasters that caused filming in Madrid to be abandoned after four disastrous weeks. Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, Miranda Richardson and Jonathan Pryce were all on the cast list. Among the problems which dogged the director were fighter jets flying overhead (they were filming near a military base) and a flash flood on the second day of the shoot which washed away vital equipment and changed the face of the landscape rendering the first day's work unusable. In addition, Jean Rochefort, who was cast as the lead after a two-year search, and who spent seven months learning English for the part, was diagnosed with a double-herniated disc, making his many horseback scenes impossible. The cursed shoot of the "film that didn't want to be made" was itself the subject of a critically acclaimed, award-winning documentary, Lost in La Mancha in 2002. Filming is now due to start again next spring with Gérard Depardieu, Michael Palin and Depp variously mooted for the cast.

High Rise, J G Ballard's novel, was nearly made into a film directed by Nicolas Roeg in the 1970s but it fell through due to lack of funding, while David Lean's Nostromo was stalled in 1986 after fears that the director wasn't up to making such an epic on location in South America. The project was moved to this side of the Atlantic but people began to lose confidence and it was permanently halted when Lean died in 1991.

For Stanley Kubrick – who has two "never-mades" on the programme, Napoleon from 1969 and Aryan Papers from the early 90s – there were rumours of casting issues, too much obsessing over the fine details, and with Aryan Papers, about the Holocaust, a feeling that the subject wouldn't appeal to audiences.

"There was a distinctly Napoleonic side to Kubrick; he definitely thought big," says the film historian Ian Christie, whose illustrated lecture on Britain's Lost Cinema will take place on 30 November as part of the "never-mades" programme. "Although he managed to get his way on lots of projects, his absolute obsession with Napoleon and casting issues meant that people didn't want to back him."

Kubrick eventually gave up on the Aryan Papers, finding the subject matter too depressing and declaring that it was not possible to make an accurate film about the Holocaust. The release of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List in 1993 also contributed to its downfall. Earlier this year the Turner Prize-nominated artists Jane and Louise Wilson tracked down the Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege who was originally cast to star and made an elegaic new video artwork about her and the abandoned shoot.

With many of these uncompleted film projects, there is no simple, straightforward explanation as to why they haven't worked, when in theory most of them certainly should have done. Richard Attenborough has had the rights for These Are the Times: A Life of Thomas Paine for years, but has yet to get the film process started (Trevor Griffiths has since adapted his original screenplay and turned it into a play, which premiered at Shakespeare's Globe in September). Birdsong, based on Sebastian Faulks' hugely successful novel, has had several directors in the frame for over a decade, including Michael Mann, Paul Greengrass and Peter Weir; as has D M Thomas's controversial book The White Hotel, which has had more near misses than most since the first attempt at a film in 1982 (at least seven directors and various big Hollywood stars have been lined up). "No-one can understand why Birdsong hasn't been made, but many films that do get made are passed around a lot before they finally see the light of day," says Christie. "If a script has done the rounds with everyone having a go at it, films can begin to seem jinxed. Then there might be casting problems, a chunk of money falls out, the production falls apart and someone has to try and piece it back together until you end up feeling that its moment has passed. It's a strange thing."

The historian, who has decided to focus a significant section of his lecture on Michael Powell and his collaborative "never-mades" with Stravinsky, Dylan Thomas and the painter Graham Sutherland, will also be showing a section of The Tempest which was specially created for a tribute edition of The Late Show on Powell in 1992. Powell wrote the scene in a Shakespearean style as a new opening to the film. "Most film-makers spend time working on projects that don't get made and never get talked about. What I'm trying to do is bring those films alive," says Christie. So while we will never see Powell's full vision of "the one that got away", we can at least glimpse what he was trying to achieve.

Cine City Brighton Film Festival, Thursday until 6 Dec. The never-mades programme is available at the Duke of York's Picturehouse and online at www.cine-city.co.uk