Movies

Mad Mad Director Almost Mad Sagan’s Book

Jodie Foster listening to audio in Contact.

Contact could have been a George Miller movie, if a few things went differently.
Image: Warner Bros.

Hollywood is filled with fascinating “What if?scenarios. So and so director almost made so and so movie. Actor X was the second choice for role Y. It’s an infinite rabbit hole and director George Miller is often a big part of it. He famously got very close to making a Justice League movie long before anyone else would attempt such a feat and he also got very, very close to adapting Carl Sagan’s landmark book, Contact.

This fact has been covered in media before but a new oral history of Contact celebrating its 25th anniversary Over at Vulture dives much deeper into Miller’s journey. The director of Mad Max boarded the project in 1993 and, a year later, read the adapted screenplay by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. He loved it and began developing a movie that, according to eventual star Jodie Foster, was much different from the eventual film director Robert Zemeckis would make.

“The George Miller movie was very different,” the Oscar winner told Vulture. “It was an incredibly long script—like, 200 pages. It was crazy. It felt a little bit more like Lorenzo’s Oil or had even moments of, like, Eraserhead.” Druyan, who created the story along with Sagan, echoed those sentiments. “It was stranger—because that was the idea,” she said. “The universe is strange. There were scenes with, like, roadkill that you wouldn’t think were right on the path of the story but which I felt had the power to expand the viewer’s consciousness.”

Several writers worked with Miller on various versions of a script, adding relationships and characters along the way, but Miller never quite felt it was right. “[Writer Michael Goldenberg’s] script was terrific,” producer Lynda Obst said. “Then I gave it to George, and he liked it, but he wanted to keep working on it. So we had our big contretemps: ‘George, are you going to make this movie this year?’ And George was like, ‘Probably, if the script is there.’ And the studio executives said, ‘Well, we think the script is there.’ And he says, ‘Well, I don’t think it’s there yet.’”

Obst explained that because the studio and Miller were not seeing eye to eye, they held a very important meeting. “He came into this meeting with a very complicated diagram about what he wanted to do with the script,” she said. “They said, ‘George, will you commit to shooting this movie by Christmas?’ This was the do-or-die moment. We were all praying he would say yes. He said no. I remember sinking into my chair.” Robert Zemeckis was hired the next day and the rest is history.

So what was the issue? What about Contact did Miller think was not quite there? Obst thinks she knows. “George Miller couldn’t commit to the movie, I think, because he couldn’t figure out 100 percent what he wanted for the ending,” she said. “Everybody had their own idea about what it should be.”

Miller didn’t comment on Vulture’s excellent story but, a few years ago, did talk to collider about his version of Contact which got within one meeting of becoming a reality. “One of the peak moments of my life was to spend a year with Carl Sagan, because he and Ann Druyan wrote that screenplay, and it was just absolutely wonderful to meet those scientists and talk about the movie,” the Fury Road director said back in 2015. “But as time went on, it was clear that Warners weren’t prepared to do the movie that I was interested in making. It was gonna be safer, so we agreed to part ways. Then somebody sent me the screenplay they were going to make, and it basically regressed into a much safer, more predictable thing.” He believes his movie would have been more like Interstellar than Contact.

Now, if you found that story interesting, we urge you to head over to Vulture and read the whole oral history. It’s filled with excellent nuggets like this, such as the ending Steven Spielberg pitched on the film, actresses who were trying to get the lead, the problems with casting Matthew McConaughey, and so much more. It’s a fantastic read. (Also, cheap plug for io9’s look back at the film on its 20th anniversary at this link!)


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