Nostromo, the unfinished work of the great David Lean, who passed away 30 years ago

Nostromo, the unfinished work of the great David Lean, who passed away 30 years ago

Just 30 years ago passed away the great director of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Bridge over the River Kwai”, David Lean. The filmmaker exhausted himself for years in an unfinished film project, Nostromo, which Steven Spielberg was to produce …

Just 30 years ago, on April 16, 1991, the immense director of Lawrence of Arabia and the Bridge of the River Kwai, David Lean, passed away at the age of 83. The filmmaker exhausted himself during the last years of his life trying to put together an ultimate grandiose film, Nostromo, which was to produce a Steven Spielberg, a great admirer of the director, but also particularly intrusive on the screenplay, much to Lean’s annoyance …

A testament film

Nostromo is the project on which the immense British filmmaker was working David Lean. Adapted from the work deemed unsuitable by Joseph Conrad published in 1904, Nostromo, A Tale of the Seaboard, set in a small mining town in a fictional South American country in the 19th century, was to be produced by Warner Bros. and Steven spielberg, who had boundless admiration for the director of Lawrence of Arabia and Bridge over the River Kwai.

“I have great respect for Nostromo, which is a classic of literature. But this respect could lead me to make a film that is too dated and not very good. On the contrary, I would like to use the book as a basis for developing a more modern” wrote David Lean. And to add, quite confident: “If the film is a success, everyone who goes to buy the book will drop the story long before page 200. This is exactly what happened with” The Seven Pillars of Wisdom ” [NDR : le livre écrit par T.E. Lawrence, qui a servi de base pour le film Lawrence d’Arabie], Doctor Zhivago, and to a lesser extent La Route des Indes “.

Developed over more than five years and with the help of the pen of four screenwriters, the project Nostromo had to bring together a Who’s who cinema that made you dream: Steven Spielberg, David Lean, Peter O’Toole, Marlon Brando, Alan Rickman, Paul Scofield, Dennis Quaid, Christophe Lambert (yes yes!), Isabella Rossellini … But the effort to put it on footing proved impossible for Lean, whose mental and physical health declined as the project progressed. Until his death on April 16, 1991 at the age of 83; just six weeks before the scheduled start of filming.

A preparatory drawing for the film “Nostromo”.

Steven Spielberg, a very intrusive producer …

David Lean’s correspondence to the British Film Institute reveals, to the delight of moviegoers, the state of play of the Nostromo project. Lean sent agents accompanying screenwriter Christopher Hampton to scout Mexico, while the Screen-Tests debuted for the title role of Nostromo. This is how a young unknown French actor of Greek origin passed the tests: George Corraface.

It was at this time that Spielberg embarked on the adventure; he who came out of that of the Empire of the Sun. Friend of Lean, Spielberg remained glued to the script, writing endless amounts of notes on what he thought of the characters and scenes. “Lean had a meeting with Spielberg in the United States” says Christopher Hampton; “but he came back very upset from his exchange with him, with a pile of notes under his arm written by Spielberg. He couldn’t believe it. David thought that Spielberg’s offer to produce his film was made to him like a politeness, and didn’t think he would give his multiple impressions and objections to the script “.

In a memo dated February 12, 1987 and filled with notes all over the place from Spielberg, he said to Lean, for example: “I’d like to see Nostromo in scenes like this as a pragmatic hero. It would be a big mistake to see some sort of Errol Flynn swashbuckling in a Conrad short story (that would even be ridiculous); but heroic traits, subtle but justified, in my opinion would allow the character to prove himself worthy of his title … “

Another preparatory drawing for the aborted film.

After spending a year working for David Lean, Christopher Hampton felt that the project had progressed too little. Or not at all. Desperate to want to write the script for Dangerous Liaisons upon hearing that Milos Forman was developing a film on the subject, Hampton took 6 months off from the Nostromo project. “Lean reluctantly agreed” Hampton will say; “then I got a phone call from him several months later, telling me that he was hiring Robert Bolt to write the Nostromo script. “

The ship is taking on water …

Things started to go sour from there. Warner Bros. told David Lean that she didn’t want to fund more than half of the film’s budget, which swelled by more than $ 30 million, it rose to over $ 46 million.

Spielberg meanwhile discreetly left the project which was beginning to resemble the raft of the Medusa; officially for “differences of opinion on the script”, and was replaced by Serge Silberman. The work on the script between Robert Bolt and David Lean was unsuccessful. In a letter from the filmmaker to Bolt dated December 18, 1989, he wrote : “until today I have only been vaguely worried about the script, not up to the many wonderful ideas of Joseph Conrad. Strangely enough, we have a lot of wonderful scenes that are important, but not related to each other. than by a string “.

With Bolt’s health declining, David Lean decided to write the script himself … for several more years, at the cost of increasingly precarious health. So the Warner demanded that the filmmaker be assisted by another director, in case he was unable to complete the film. She even took out insurance for the filmmaker to the tune of $ 4 million. The Major then took out of his wallet several names, such as Peter Yates, John Boorman, Arthur Penn. Lean preferred to be assisted by Robert Altman: the filmmaker and Warner finally agreed on Guy Hamilton’s name.

Lean died in 1991 of throat cancer, frustrated at never having been able to complete the project. Nostromo he had been stroking for years.

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