Friday, February 22, 2008

The movie that couldn't be made (updated)

Over the years there have been several plans to make a feature film about the Donner Party but none has ever been completed. Previous flutters about Donner movie projects have followed a predictable pattern: an initial announcement, sporadic follow-up reports, and then a deafening silence. Why? I can't say for certain, but suspect that these projects' demise can be attributed to the ever-tricky issue of cannibalism, the expense of producing historical epics, and/or the overall decline of the Western genre's popularity. And, as has been pointed out, the difficulty of condensing the story into a 2-3 hour movie.

But hope springs eternal. Just about every year since 1995 I've met, been contacted by, or heard of at least one person who's working on a Donner Party screenplay. Some of these folks have become good friends and long time correspondents, others I never hear from again, one or two have sent me scripts to peruse. But never has any movie resulted.

This might be about to change, according to recent reports on the 'net, but you can't believe everything you read. This is the real deal, according to producer John E. Moore: Anacapa Entertainment has a feature film in active development called The Forlorn. It focuses on "the 1846 tragedy of the Donner Party, a wagon train forced by the worst blizzard in recorded history to survive the winter trapped in Sierra Nevada Mountains." ("Worst blizzard in recorded history"?! Tch! That's Hollywood...) Producers are John E. Moore, Mark Costa, and Ted Meyer, with TJ Martin as the writer/director. Negotiations to cast Crispin Glover are underway but not finalized; shooting is expected to begin in March in the Tahoe area. It will be interesting to see what happens this time around.


Jim Chadwick said...

I'm one of those who has been working independently on a screenplay off and on for about the past ten years. But I have continually found the project to be too overwhelming and have ended up always putting it aside. Part of the problem is the sheer scale of it. One thing of which I am convinced is that it simply can't be done as a two to three hour theatrical feature, not if one wants to tell the story in a way that does it justice. Basically, I think to tell the full story, it requires a three part structure: the journey, the entrapment, and the rescue. And just getting them to the Sierras is easily the length of a long movie itself. I sincerely doubt that anyone would bankroll a three part theatrical release, ala the Lord of the Rings. Therefore, it would have to be done as a TV mini-series. A good model for this this might be the series A&E did back in 2002 on Shackleton's adventure to the South Pole, starring Kenneth Branagh. It's called "Shackleton" and is well worth checking out, even though I think the tagline--"The Greatest Survival Story of All Time"--would more appropriately apply to The Donner Party.

At any rate, I too am nervous about this latest venture. Information online seems very sketchy though, and I remain skeptical about it getting off the ground at all, let alone commencing shooting in March.

Kristin Johnson said...

You're absolutely right. I've discussed this with several aspiring screenwriters over the years and we always end up saying the same thing: it would take a miniseries to do the Donner story properly. But nobody seems very interested, although there were rumors of a HBO project a few years ago. The current "Forlorn" project looks pretty dicey and I'm not expecting much to come from it.

Theresa said...

Hi Kristin - as another one of those working on polishing a Donner script, I am naturally curious about this project. Why do you think it sounds dicey?

It is a struggle to condense it all, but not impossible, at least I hope not! Just about finished with my revisions - happy to send it to you one of these days. Thanks! Theresa

Kristin Johnson said...

Hi, Theresa--
I say it looks dicey because when I googled "Anacapa Entertainment" it appeared that the company barely exists. The entire project seems to have "amateur" written all over it, and I don't expect to see it result in theatrical release. But you never know; it might wind up winning an award at Cannes. We'll just have to wait and see.
Kristin Johnson

Anonymous said...

Principle photography is completed. It was an interesting shoot. Oddly enough, whenever the script called for snow, it snowed. Donner Pass was a beautiful place to film. Everyone in the area was very supportive, including The Sierra Club and Sugar Bowl Ski Resort. I will be more than happy to put up a few photos for you all here once shots are approved.