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Friday, March 19, 2021

‘The Crow’: Cliff Dorfman and F. Javier Gutierrez Resurrect the Reboot That Never Took Flight [Phantom Limbs]

phantom limb /ˈfan(t)əm’lim/ n. an often painful sensation of the presence of a limb that has been amputated.

Welcome to Phantom Limbs, a recurring feature which will take a look at intended yet unproduced horror sequels and remakes – extensions to genre films we love, appendages to horror franchises that we adore – that were sadly lopped off before making it beyond the planning stages. Here, we will be chatting with the creators of these unmade extremities to gain their unique insight into these follow-ups that never were, with the discussions standing as hopefully illuminating but undoubtedly painful reminders of what might have been.

For this entry, we’ll be focusing on one of the iterations of the long-in-development remake of 1994’s The Crow, itself an adaptation of James O’Barr’s beloved graphic novel of the same name. Telling the story of Eric Draven, a man who rises from the grave to avenge the murders of he and his fiancée Shelly, The Crow was a considerable success for Dimension/Miramax, becoming a cultural touchtone that would go on to spawn three sequels, a television series, and several more comic books. The inevitable remake was put into development in the aughts, with some fans decrying the decision to revisit the original character as an affront to the memory of Brandon Lee, the young actor who lost his life in an accident during the filming of the original movie.

Blade/The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen director Stephen Norrington wrote an early draft of the remake to helm, with alternative rocker Nick Cave penning a rewrite. Sadly, in what would become the first of many such instances, the project fell apart and the filmmakers moved on. Numerous creatives would find themselves attached to the project over the years, with such names as Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, Alex Tse, Mark Wahlberg, Bradley Cooper, Channing Tatum and Ryan Gosling flirting with the film to varying degrees over the course of the next decade.

One of the attempts that very nearly took flight was a version to have been directed by F. Javier Gutierrez (Rings), with a screenplay penned by Warrior scribe Cliff Dorfman. Messrs. Dorfman and Gutierrez were kind enough to chat with Bloody Disgusting to provide their insights into how this particular take on The Crow came about, their approach to the story, and why it ultimately didn’t happen.

“Around 2002, I released a short film called ‘Brasil’,” Mr. Gutierrez begins, describing how it was he came aboard The Crow. “It won the Sitges Film Festival. It came here to the U.S. in the AFI Film Festival, and it was preselected for the Oscars. Ed Pressman contacted me. He is a legend, one of the best producers in the business, and he was responsible for the original Crow. He contacted me to talk about reimagining another movie he did in the 70s with Brian De Palma, The Phantom of the Paradise. Unfortunately, because of legal complications, it didn’t work out. So we lost contact for a while, and I went to do my first movie Before the Fall.”

That film, concerning a massive meteorite and its impending destruction of Earth, garnered much acclaim for the filmmaker and earned him more than a few admirers. Among them was Wes Craven, who sought out Mr. Gutierrez to not only remake Before the Fall, but potentially reboot Craven’s The People Under the Stairs as well. Unfortunately, neither ultimately happened with him.

“Ed Pressman saw my movie, then called me up and said, ‘Hey Javier, do you remember me? I’ve been doing this movie for a while, and we’re trying to figure out a new take, and I thought of you. What do you think about The Crow?’ ‘Of course!’

‘The Crow’ – artwork by James O’Barr

“I love the original movie. I don’t think you could make another like it. You couldn’t just literally translate the original movie to the current day. If you feel the passion for the character and the project, you have to bring it to your own [sensibilities], and be able to give something different to the audience and not just repeat the same experience, because it’s impossible. The original movie is very unique. I watched it as a kid and cried, I loved it. It was so beautiful and powerful. I could not replicate exactly the same movie. It had to be something different.

“So Ed and I talked about it, and he brought me to the studio at the time, Relativity, who was doing the movie. The producers there were very excited about the project. They had already been through some versions, including the one written by Nick Cave. I didn’t get to know Nick, but they told me about those versions, and the other directors before me. They were trying some different directions. Through that first year, I got to know the comic book. I thought that was the thing. All of these other versions, these other directions – they were fun, but we may lose the essence of the movie. In an attempt to do something very original, we were going to lose the heart of the movie. At the end of the day, it’s a love story. The graphic novel is very powerful, and very dark. Darker than the original movie, even. It’s full of symbolism, and a lot of pain, and rage, and grief. So I thought we needed to bring the soul [of the graphic novel] back into this project. So that’s when I started to look for James O’Barr…”

“I’ve had a few rabbis in my life,” Cliff Dorfman tells this writer. “One of them was Tucker Tooley. Tucker was the head of Relativity right underneath Ryan Kavanaugh. The project had landed there with Ed Pressman, who is legend. I got a call from Tucker, he said ‘What’re you doing right now?’ ‘I dunno, what’s up?’ ‘Come over to Relativity right now in Beverly Hills and meet Javier Gutierrez. He’s from Spain, he’s a really great director…’ I said, ‘I know who he is. I saw his movie, with the killing of the kid. He’s fuckin’ sick, let’s do it!’ It was basically that day. He said Javier had some really interesting ideas [about The Crow]. We’re both very much purists. We’re both big James O’Barr fans, we’re both fans of the original graphic novel. It was always our intent – separately, before we ever got together – to do this in the way that it has to be done.

“Let’s be fair. What Alex Proyas and Ed did in the original, the first Crow … basically, to me, it’s a perfect movie. So that immediately begs the question: aside from money, why are we doing this, as artists? So I went in that day, and I had a long meeting with Javier. And you know how it is sometimes, it’s like an immediate love affair. That’s how it was with Javi and I. He became a big fucking champion for me.

“I had heard that Nick Cave had done a draft earlier on. They weren’t looking to go from there and do rewrites. They wanted a page one, ‘What is your idea, how are you going to do this?’ take. So Javier and I conspired on it. It came down to me and this other writer, Jesse Wigutow. So I went in on a meeting – it was me, and Tucker, and Robbie Brenner, the president of production at Relativity, and Javi. I was standing in front of them, it was almost like an acting audition, and I remember Ed looking at me. He’s like, ‘What are the trailer moments?’ That was like an ‘A-ha!’ thing. In all my time of doing this, I had not even thought of something like that. For me, I didn’t really know what the trailer moments were. I had talked to Javi about story points, plot points, character ideas, but we hadn’t delved into those ideas of like, ‘What makes this movie flashy? What moments make this movie cool?’ I had some ideas, but I felt like that was the weakest point of my pitch. So I ended up losing it to the other writer.”

Six months passed before Tucker Tooley phoned up Mr. Dorfman yet again. “He’s like, ‘Well, we wanna talk to you about The Crow. I really want you to read what’s there, take the weekend, and get back to us on Monday. Let us know what you’d think, what you’d do, how you’d revamp it. But you can’t talk to anybody about it.’ I said okay. ‘And if we’re gonna do it with you, if we pick you, we’re going to make you sign an NDA. It’s not gonna be for The Crow. They’re gonna call it like Angels and Demons or something.’

“So they sent me the script. And look, I’m not going to sit here and disparage somebody’s work, but what I’ll say is … by page four, there was a moment where someone got out of a car and took out a bazooka. That’s it, that’s all I’m going to say. Now again, this was not a purist version. So I came up with my ideas, and went back to what Javier and I had discussed. Come Monday, I got on a call with Robbie Brenner. She produced Dallas Buyer’s Club, she’s one of the best producers in the business. This woman is just fierce. Robbie is very character- and story-driven. She’s someone who really gets in there and understands what it is to make a great movie.

“I get on the phone, and I start telling them my ideas, but also the problems with the script and why it doesn’t work. I stayed very pure to the O’Barr graphic novel with the ideas that Javier and I had put in. We thought betrayal, we thought best friends. We thought there was something we could do along the lines of another famous movie in the 90s [which, at the behest of Mr. Dorfman, will go unnamed in this interview] … that will still track and parallel with Mr. O’Barr’s graphic novel, his idea, and all the ethos that he had put forth in these characters, etc. And they agreed with me!” So Mr. Dorfman boarded the project, signed the NDA, and got to work on the script, keeping in lockstep with his producers by sending in his pages act by act during his writing process.

When discussing what exactly their take would have entailed, both Mr. Dorfman and Mr. Gutierrez are reticent to reveal too many details. “Because the project is still alive, it’s very tricky,” Mr. Gutierrez notes. “The best way to explain what my approach was – just read the graphic novel. People relate to the graphic novel’s emotional levels. The story of love, and passion, and the loss of a loved one. Everybody relates to that. That’s why it’s very powerful. It’s not just a revenge story, or a vigilante/superhero story. This is not a superhero story.”

Mr. Gutierrez points out here that, while his eventual version would have been faithful to Mr. O’Barr’s graphic novel, the earlier attempt he’d worked out had strayed a bit from the core concept. “Jesse Wigutow was not credited, but was a very good writer. This was the time that the studio was trying different things. Not necessarily doing an Eric Draven-focused movie, but more original. ‘What if we go in this direction? What if…?’ We were talking about the idea of, ‘Okay, if we go too far from the original, maybe we shouldn’t call the lead Eric Draven.’ We talked early on about different options, but I said ‘No, no. We’re going to do Eric Draven, but we’re going to do him properly.’

“I understand, putting myself in the shoes of the execs, that they want to explore. They know what they have, but they want to explore different options. They go in different directions, toying around with the core idea of the movie and seeing what is better. But they weren’t afraid of saying, ‘We’re going too far from the original.’ So they were very open to going back to the original concept. That was part of the process. I thought that was a reasonable approach.”

‘The Crow’ – art by James O’Barr

Nevertheless, the version that Mr. Dorfman began penning did go back to O’Barr’s work, something that was important to both he and Mr. Gutierrez. In fact, the director went even further than simply staying true to its source – he wanted the blessing from its very creator. “I had heard there was some bullshit rumor somewhere around that [Mr. Gutierrez’s eventual successor] Corin Hardy was the one who had gotten James O’Barr involved,” Mr. Dorfman says. “That is absolutely untrue. The entire time, Javier had been campaigning to Relativity, day and night, ‘Let me get James O’Barr. Let’s get him involved, let me get his approval.’ Because if we got his stamp of approval, we’re going to get all the people who were going to be hating us – their stamp of approval. He was fucking relentless! I believe he paid to fly himself to convince James to come aboard the project.”

“I started through social media, and I finally found James,” Mr. Gutierrez reveals. “I talked to the studio, I talked to Ed Pressman, and said ‘I think this movie makes sense as long as James is involved.’ It’s a very unique story. It comes from somebody who has a very specific sensitivity.” Mr Gutierrez refers here to Mr. O’Barr’s primary inspiration for writing the original graphic novel, which was the death of his own fiancée due to a drunk driver. “I thought it would have been a lack of respect to the original creator [to not have him involved]. I thought it was the right thing to do.

“I took a flight and went to Dallas, where James was. I spent a couple of days there. He’s super talented. He’s a bit tough and dark, but he’s a super sensitive, big hearted artist. He was surprised that I showed up. He was not keen on the idea of making another movie, and I totally understood why after I got to know him.

“We talked about it. The next month, James came to L.A. The studio at the time were all very excited, too. It was very encouraging for everybody. He’s the soul of The Crow. I don’t think you could make the movie unless he’s a part of it. Not only his blessing as creator, but his input as a person.

With James on board, I started to push more and more in the direction of the graphic novel. There was more emotion and uniqueness in some of the storytelling that was not used in the original film … which I have great love and respect for. There is a lot of symbolism about the afterlife, and grief, and human connection that weren’t fully explored in the original movie.”

“The biggest mandate for Relativity and, I think, Ed Pressman, was that this has to be a franchise,” Mr. Dorfman reveals. “This was going to be Relativity’s tentpole. That’s a big nut to crack, because you’re not just writing one movie. You’re writing a movie that’s going to set forth a universe. So how do we do that? With a lot of headbanging, and being so well-versed in the graphic novel, and being a purist.

“Everything I do, I go back to Greek mythology. First of all, it was my favorite to read as a kid. Second of all, it basically gives you every hero’s journey you’re ever gonna need, in the highest stakes way, in the most non-grounded worlds. And you could put it in any form you want. I started rereading all these different myths, and I came across the story of Eurydice and Orpheus.”

This particular Greek myth tells the tale of Eurydice, whose beauty and grace drew the attentions of the god Aristaeus, who chased after the woman (and, in some tellings, raped her). As she fled, she happened across a viper, was bitten, and died. Upon hearing of her death, her husband Orpheus sought to descend into the underworld to once again see his wife. Having been gifted with a magical lyre by his father, the god Apollo, Orpheus used his abilities as a musician to skirt past Cerberus (the three-headed hell hound which guards the gates to the underworld), and to eventually play a beautiful song for Hades and Persephone, the king and queen of the underworld, convincing them to release their hold on Eurydice.

“Eurydice was this beauty who was raped, and killed, and went to Hades. Javi, Ed, Relavity and I agreed … rape culture is not okay, and I was not into having [the Shelly character] raped. I felt that didn’t need to happen. What needed to happen was that she needed to die. And he [Eric] dies, but what is he going to do? If he’s a pure soul, he would do what Orpheus did. Orpheus went to Hades, and played him a beautiful song. So let’s just let you imagine that. And I felt that the Skull Cowboy was the way to the underworld.”

The Skull Cowboy

It’s a bit of a surprise for this fan to hear that this indelible character from Mr. O’Barr’s graphic novel would have made an appearance in the remake, given that he was shorn from the ’94 film after the role was essayed by The Hills Have Eyes star Michael Berryman. “I love the Skull Cowboy,” Mr. Gutierrez exclaims. “The train thing was one of my favorite things, I have to say. That sequence with the horse in the barbed wire, and the train … it got me so excited to show audiences. On many levels, but an artistic level, too. Sometimes you can’t use the word ‘art’ when you are working with Hollywood studios, because they think it’s going to be weird and not commercial. But that’s not the case. This graphic novel was very artistic in those moments.

“It’s a journey, an emotional trip about the darkest areas of the human soul, and the brightness and beauty of it as well. I was exploring the same themes in my first feature, Before the Fall. I was lucky that they gave me the okay to go in that direction and explore that. It’s not necessarily just a depressing drama, right? You have to find a balance.”

Given the fidelity to the source material and the fact that the Skull Cowboy was due to make an appearance, this writer can’t help but ask if the titular bird was going to speak, as in the original graphic novel, or be more of a silent force in the form of a bird, as with the ’94 Proyas film. Mr. Dorfman admits: “It was a force that appears as a bird. We didn’t feel as though, in movie language, that [the bird speaking] would’ve translated. But we did add an element to the bird, and how it related to [Eric’s] powers.”

Mr. Gutierrez concurs. “The bird was more of an element of Eric’s subconscious. If you see the original movie by Alex Proyas, it’s very cool, but it’s more like a fantastic element. But if you read the comic, it’s more like the alter ego of Eric.”

“What I didn’t know at the time,” Mr. Dorfman continues, “when I finally did get to sit down with Mr. O’Barr, that the Eurydice/Orpheus myth was what he based the graphic novel on. So it wasn’t like I was reinventing the wheel. It was there in the subtext, I was just astute enough to nitpick it out and then reverse engineer it. That gave me a very good way to incorporate all the ideas Javi and I had, and all of the things Mr. O’Barr had in the graphic novel. Once I had that, this idea that he had to go back and request to get her back – that’s all I’m going to say, there’s a lot more to it – but that was the beginning of the franchise.” Mr. Dorfman also notes here that he left the film’s script open-ended in such a way that any follow-ups could either continue to follow Eric, or go the anthology route and focus on different heroes with each outing, much as the original film franchise elected to do.

After sharing pages with his producers and incorporating their notes along the way, Mr. Dorfman finished his initial draft. “We finished, and it went to Ed and Tucker and Ryan. I was very nervous. It finally came back, I got the call from Tucker. ‘Okay, we’re greenlighting this. Now I see a reason why to make this movie.’ From what Ed said, it was the best draft of The Crow he’d ever had. This is not ego at all, this is super humble, but it’s one of those things that I hold with me for bad days. So that’s when the real work started.”

Tom Hiddleston in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ (2013)

Upon the completion of this draft, which addressed both the project’s artistic and commercial concerns (“Imagine if I took the graphic novel and melded it with what Alex Proyas did.”), this iteration of The Crow secured its leading man. “We went out and immediately got Tom Hiddleston, right off the cuff,” Mr. Dorfman tells us. Mr. Gutierrez reveals that he’d met with numerous actors beforehand, from the very moment he’d boarded the project: “This was not a typical process for a movie. We were working with actors from day one. I met actors when I arrived on the project. We considered James McAvoy for a time. He was one of the more ‘name’ choices the studio was exploring. I met with every single actor in town, it was insane. Down the road, I talked with Tom Hiddleston, who was an actor I loved. He was not that well known at the time. He had just made the first Avengers movie. He was really passionate about the role.”

Beyond casting, Mr. Gutierrez was looking at pulling together the various facets of the production as well. “I approached Rick Baker to do the makeup, and the Skull Cowboy. I love Rick Baker. I approached Bo Welch as production designer, who did Batman Returns, Edward Scissorhands, and others. And I approached and had a very cool dinner with Atticus Ross, because I was excited about bringing the songs of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to the movie’s soundtrack. I was trying to do something very dark, but very good, and Rated R. There was no way this could be a PG-13. Just make another movie. But the producers were very supportive of this. We were scouting in different areas, like New Orleans, and then later the U.K. Unfortunately, the process was very long…”

“I’m not sure why Hiddleston dropped out,” Mr. Dorfman says, discussing the actor’s exit from the project. “But immediately after, we had Luke Evans. We were just thrilled. Dracula [Untold] was just coming out from Universal. Luke is a very special actor. I think he would’ve been the absolute perfect Crow. He had the precise amount of vulnerability versus power, love versus hate. He had all of those emotions at the tips of his fingers, and right behind his eyes. Wasn’t like Tom wouldn’t have been great, he would’ve been amazing. And then we thought, ‘Oh shit! Luke! We’re lucky again!’ Like, ‘Maybe this project isn’t cursed! Maybe this project is really supposed to go!’”

Mr. Gutierrez agrees. “I got to know Luke Evans. What I love about him – not only is he a talented actor, but he was very sensitive. He’s a beautiful soul. I thought that would make him a good match. And he was a fresh face at the time.”

Luke Evans in ‘Dracula Untold’ (2014)

“And then the secondary casting started,” says Mr. Dorfman. “We were looking at Forest Whitaker for one of the main bad guys.” This character, named Mulligan in Mr. Dorfman’s script, would have been the equivalent to the graphic novel’s main villain T-Bird, the character who murdered both Eric and Shelly and eventually becomes the main focus of Eric’s vengeance.

Mr. Gutierrez continued juggling these various aspects of pre-production on the film, even as the development process began to lag. Mr. Dorfman is quick to sing the director’s praises here, noting: “This guy is fantastic. Javier had so many great ideas. His vision was so clear. He is a true artist. He’s not just seeing the storyboards. He’s seeing the storyboards, he’s seeing the characters’ arcs, he’s seeing how to shoot those arcs in a visual narrative. He’s seeing how to connect those with the emotionality. He’s seeing trailer moments. He’s seeing all those things at once. He’s really good.”

Unfortunately, no matter how passionate and well-suited to the material he was, Mr. Gutierrez eventually had to drop out of the project when it became clear that it wasn’t going reach production any time soon. “I had been approached by Paramount after Before the Fall. They were trying to put together a sequel to the original Ring. I’d signed for that one, and because The Crow needed me for 100 percent exclusivity of my time, I couldn’t commit to do that. Paramount was being very kind, and very generous with me. I had to either move with both projects, or let The Crow go. So I helped with the transition with the studio, with James and Ed.”

“So Javier left to do Rings at Paramount,” Mr. Dorfman says. “Something happened with the option expiring, Luke had dropped out, and unbeknownst to all of us Relativity was staring down the barrel of a bankruptcy. But The Crow was something they really believed could save the studio, so they were really doing their best to keep this thing together. So I don’t hear anything once Javi goes to do Rings. Everything went radio silent, but I’m still close with everyone at Relativity and all of the producers, but I was also doing a lot of shit.

“Somewhere along the line, they found [Corin Hardy]. He’d done this movie The Hallow, which had played Sundance. Then they said, ‘The [writer] he wrote The Hallow with, he wants to bring them on. But we’re really asking him to meet with you.’ I go, ‘…this guy won’t meet with me? The script I wrote got greenlit three times, he doesn’t wanna meet with me, even?’ They’re like, “No. He refuses to meet with you.’ I said, ‘Okay, alright. That’s his prerogative.’ He said he wants to take this writer who wasn’t in the Writer’s Guild, who cowrote The Hallow with him, to rewrite [The Crow]. I think Javier told me at some point that it was called The Crow Reborn? But let me be very clear – it was my script that was going around. It was my script that got Jason Momoa. It was my script that got Andrea Riseborough [who was slated to play Reborn’s main villain]. Every version that was sent out was mine. There was no Crow Reborn. If there ever was, which I’ve done copious research to find out, no one has seen a draft.

“When Jason Momoa was cast … and this is nothing negative about Jason, he’s absolutely a movie star, but he’s the absolute worst choice to play this character because he’s huge. He doesn’t need to get superpowers to rip a bunch of guys’ heads off. He can probably do that right now! So how does that work? Where is the vulnerability? I’m not saying that he can’t play that as an actor. I’m saying that his brute force and size automatically makes it that he doesn’t need help from the gods, he doesn’t need help from the underworld, he doesn’t need a crow to give him supernatural powers to avenge the death of Shelly. Right then, and I hated to say it, but I said ‘This thing’s not gonna go.’ And it didn’t.” Indeed, in May of 2018, it was reported that both Corin Hardy and Jason Momoa were stepping away from the project. As of this writing, no replacements have been named, though Bloody Disgusting reported last year that the project was back in active development (

Jason Momoa in ‘Conan the Barbarian’ (2011)

So why is it, after well over a decade and several filmmakers, that this remake has been unable to make it to the screen? Mr. Dorfman weighs in: “There’s a part of me, honestly, that thinks it’s cursed. There’s a part of me that thinks that Brandon [Lee] doesn’t want it to get made. But I also think it wasn’t right. I think that Brandon would’ve been fine with it when it was Javi, and Ed, and Luke. I think that if Relativity hadn’t gone bankrupt, that would’ve been the movie that had gotten made. Once that didn’t happen, the universe was like ‘This is not right anymore.’ And that’s why we haven’t seen it again. And all I wanna see at this point is it go back to Ed Pressman, and let him do whatever he wants. He’s the one who knows what the right thing to do is.”

Given how close it came to fruition, one wonders if the Dorfman/Gutierrez version might yet be produced some day. “Well, what I do know is, Ed and Javi are very close,” says Mr. Dorfman. “And if the planets align like they should, and Mr. Pressman can shake off all the deadwood … it’s his movie. He owns the rights. This is his baby. That’s what I think everyone has to really respect, that Ed Pressman is the man. No matter what studio it is, Ed is the one. He’s kinda the guiding light. And if he gets it back, I have a really strong feeling that we will see Javier back in the director’s chair.

“I love this movie. I really would love nothing more than to see Javier come back and direct this. Out of all the directors I’ve worked with, and I’ve worked with some great ones, this is a guy who has such a solid, strong vision that is so in line with Ed, with Mr. O’Barr, with what Mr. Proyas did while paying homage, that I think that all the fans would be very, very happy if this was something that Javier would be able to sink his teeth back into and give them what he had started to try and give them when this whole process began.”

Mr. Gutierrez weighs in with his own thoughts, noting: “With all my love and respect for Corin, who I think is super talented, I feel like it’s unfinished business for me as a director. I would be open to keep fighting for it and building something that would bring justice to the fans, and for James. I talk with Ed sometimes. We’re good friends. I would be open to going back, if it was felt that it was the right move. But it will happen, with or without me as a director. I would love to see somebody [make the film] who feels the respect and love for the original material, and for James. And for Ed, who’s been trying for so many years.”

Mr. Dorfman concludes with his final thoughts on this project: “I really wish, as an artist, that we got to bring that forward in the world. That my kid got to go see it. That it was a new generation that could now go experience The Crow in this real purist form with Mr. O’Barr involved. What I would love to get across to all the fans is how much Javi, and myself, and Mr. Pressman respect and love them, because we are them.”

Very special thanks to Cliff Dorfman and F. Javier Gutierrez for their time and insights.

Brandon Lee in ‘The Crow’


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