Scarlett and Sam are Kubrick loonies

The reverence with which Stanley Kubrick is regarded in the film world is such that, even a decade after his death, any property to have once passed through his hands is adjudged an instant hot ticket. Just such a ticket is the luridly titled Lunatic at Large, which now has some big name acting talent attached to it, in the form of Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson.

It does not seem completely unreasonable to put Kubrick forth as the most universally admired filmmaker of all-time. Obviously the movies themselves help in this regard, but his commitment to maintaining his privacy and the glacial workrate of his later years have also helped foster the image of an enigmatic, alchemical genius – a director who operated on a stratum beyond that occupied by the majority. The vast archive of index cards and boxes left behind by Kubrick on his death in 1999 further reinforce this public image of him as a kind of scholarly celluloid sorcerer, and since the director passed on there has always existed the tantalising possibility that a plethora of projects developed and left abandoned by him would come to light.

A.I Artificial Intelligence was the first to surface in 2001 – although the coating of sentimental fairy dust so liberally chucked over the finished film was enough to make you wish it hadn’t made it to the multiplex. In fairness to Steven Spielberg who ended up directing it, Kubrick’s own summary of A.I. as a ‘picaresque robot version of Pinocchio‘ set the sick-making tone eventually struck by the unforgivably rubbish film.

Hopefully Lunatic at Large will deliver greater pleasures when it finally makes it to the big screen; that being a development which – as chronicled by The New York Times back in 2006 – has been very long in coming about.

Stemming from an idea of Kubrick’s own, the movie treatment for Lunatic at Large was penned back in the ’50s by Jim Thompson, the pulp crime writer who collaborated with the director on The Killing and Paths of Glory, and is best known to film fans as the author of the books on which The Grifters and Michael Winterbottom’s forthcoming The Killer Inside Me are based. Though the Thompson treatment was turned over to Kubrick, its greater progress was first waylaid by the latter’s firing from One-Eyed Jacks, before being discarded completely when the mammoth success of Spartacus opened up new artistic avenues for him, as well as convincing him to turn his back on Hollywood in favour of living and working in the United Kingdom.

The treatment languished till it was turned up by Kubrick’s son-in-law Philip Hobbs in 1999. Hobbs is quoted as remarking, “When Stanley died, he left behind lots of paperwork. We ended up going through trunks of it, and one day we came across Lunatic at Large. I knew what it was right away, because I remember Stanley talking about Lunatic. He was always saying he wished he knew where it was, because it was such a great idea.” According to The NY Times, Hobbs subsequently linked up with producer Edward R. Pressman (Wall StreetAmerican Psycho), with British scriptwriter Stephen R. Clarke working the Thompson treatment into a full screenplay.

Lunatic at Large is described as ‘a dark and surprising mystery of sorts, in which the greatest puzzle is who, among several plausible candidates, is the true escapee from a nearby mental hospital.’ Clarke is quoted as calling Thompson’s prose treatment both “a gem” and “pretty basic”, meaning that while he endeavoured to retain what The NY Times calls the ‘authentic Thompsonian pulpiness’ of the piece, he also added a fresh subplot of his own devising.

Apparently the completed script is ‘set in New York in 1956, it tells the story of Johnnie Sheppard, an ex-carnival worker with serious anger-management issues, and Joyce, a nervous, attractive barfly he picks up in a Hopperesque tavern scene [referring to the painter of Nighthawks, Edward Hopper we imagine]. There’s a newsboy who flashes a portentous headline, a car chase over a railroad crossing with a train bearing down, and a romantic interlude in a spooky, deserted mountain lodge. The great setpiece is a nighttime carnival sequence in which Joyce, lost and afraid, wanders among the tents and encounters a sideshow’s worth of familiar carnie types: the Alligator Man, the Mule-Faced Woman, the Midget Monkey Girl, the Human Blockhead, with the inevitable noggin full of nails.’

Aside from a rumour that Colin Farrell was offered the lead role, not too much more has been heard about the project since the 2006 unveiling. That was till yesterday, when Production Weekly tweeted (and thanks to Cinematical for drawing my attention to it) that Sam Rockwell and Scarlett Johansson are now attached as stars. Presumably taking the lead roles of Johnnie and Joyce, the duo are already due to bust all manner of blocks in just a few weeks time when they appear together as naughty industrialist Justin Hammer and catsuit advocate the Black Widow in Iron Man 2. Back in 2006, British ad director Chris Palmer (he made that Skoda one where they bake the big car cake) was scheduled to wield the megaphone of power on Lunatic at Large, in what would have been his feature debut. It is not clear if he is still attached to the project, though his mooted adaptation of fantasy novel A Spell for Chameleon for Warners does look to be very much off, so he could well be available.