The Greatest Scifi Screenplay Never Produced. (1)

“The Tourist has always had incredible supporters and incredible detractors. Right from the beginning it aroused strong feelings one way or another. People were either taken by it or felt it was the Antichrist. 

I still don’t, to this day, really comprehend what all the fuss was about.” — Clair Noto


by Bryn Tilly

Clair Noto’s The Tourist

There is a screenwriter’s nightmare known as “development hell”. Clair Noto experienced the Dante’s Inferno version of it with her script The Tourist. It was written thirty years ago and came tantalisingly close to getting the green light for production, but despite its imaginative concepts and provocative ideas, and several attempts by respectable filmmakers, the screenplay has never made it to principal photography, instead remaining stalled in a ravenous snake pit where most of its original material has since been devoured by other movies.

Development Hell

At any given time there are more unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood than hot lunch dates, but none have had a history as notorious and frustrating as The Tourist. It seemed like the perfect adult science fiction tale of morality and corruption, humanity and xenophobia, of human vs. alien struggling to co-exist on Earth.

Clair Noto’s script was wholly original, but her approach was unconventional, and she was fiercely protective of her baby. Ultimately it was Noto’s refusal in allowing her original work to be compromised that lead to The Tourist’s undoing.

It seemed like the perfect adult science fiction tale
of morality and corruption, humanity and xenophobia,
of human vs. alien struggling to co-exist on Earth.

Noto began drafting in 1980, and Universal – whom she was contracted to – immediately demanded re-writes. She was delivering the studio head, Sean Daniels, fifty pages at a time and he would edit them. A first draft was completed this way, but Daniels was too busy to work on it further, so the revision job was handed to a woman named Renee Missell.

Noto and Missell had little contact, and when they did their personalities clashed making the progress difficult. Missell stepped up as producer and Englishman Brian Gibson (Breaking Glass) was attached as director. Suddenly Noto found herself ejected from the project, much to her exasperation and chagrin.

The Tourist was fast becoming a curse. Missell and Gibson struggled with it, yet maintained harsh treatment of Noto, keeping her at arm’s length from the project and belittling the screenplay. This hypocritical attitude wasn’t serving them well, and the project was proving unwieldy. Dan O’Bannon, still enjoying the success of his Star Beast (which had become the critical and box office hit Alien), was brought on board to do a re-write.

The Tourist was fast becoming a curse.

Missell refused to go back to the original draft because she didn’t want Noto receiving a screenwriter’s credit. Characters’ names were changed and the city location was changed from New York to San Francisco. They were attempting to bastardise the screenplay so significantly that Noto would simply curl up and die in horror.

Influences

Noto had various influences for The Tourist; a deep admiration of the classic sf movie The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Noto loved how the alien pilot abandoned his space suit and walked around Washington in a suit and tie and wasn’t recognised as an alien. “The idea of a human being who wasn’t a human being had been in my mind for a long time,” explains Noto.

Another key inspiration was a 1973 photograph by Helmut Newton which depicted a model, Lisa Taylor, running across a lawn wearing a semi-transparent chiffon dress, apparently frightened by something, with a motel-like building behind her, lit up by neon. “What is she running from?” Noto mused.

“I wanted to create a science fiction movie for adults,” Noto further explains, “I wanted to combine what I considered a serious dramatic story with the fantastic effects of science fiction – especially in terms of sex, romance and love. I wanted to portray sexual agony and ecstasy in a way I’d never seen before, and science fiction seemed like the arena.”

I wanted to create a science fiction movie for adults

The Story

Noto’s The Tourist takes place in Manhattan, circa 1980, during a sweltering summer. An executive, Grace Ripley, works at Seaman & Seamans, a successful building firm. She is strong-minded, very attractive, and 30-something. She is also an alien from another planet, one of thousands of exiled aliens living incognito on Earth, having adopted human form in order to assimilate into human society. But Grace is desperate to escape Earth and return to her home world. The alien prisoners view Earth as a cesspool, “one hell of an exile planet.”

The alien prisoners view Earth as a cesspool,
“one hell of an exile planet.”

On her home world Grace was a huge worm-like creature. “I come from a planet of information and erotica,” she explains to a human she has befriended, “I was a healer. I was sent away in an execution ship. It was supposed to explode, but it didn’t.”

In human form Grace is still able to demonstrate extraordinary otherworldly powers, most notably in the act of sexual foreplay and intercourse, which she can use to her advantage, but her active libido also places her at risk.

On Earth in human form she is weakened by tactile sensuality and so avoids touching people or being touched. When she is aroused a perilous cocoon-like process begins to envelope her body.

When she is aroused
a perilous cocoon-like process
begins to envelope her body.

Grace lives in a perpetual state of curiosity and frustration. She is on a mission, determined to find a man called John Taiga, whom she believes may have constructed a spacecraft that can successfully leave Earth and travel across the cosmos. But she must find him first. Much of The Tourist’s narrative has Grace pursuing information she has gleaned from human and fellow alien.

She descends into the New York underground beneath an establishment that calls itself The Manhattan Grief Clinic, but in reality is a front for a kind of concentration camp hideaway full of cubicles known as The Corridor, housing “the unwanted of several galaxies.”

a kind of concentration camp hideaway
full of cubicles known as The Corridor,
housing “the unwanted of several galaxies.

Grace eventually makes contact with John Taiga, but not without collateral damage to human and alien alike. It turns out John Taiga is the extra-terrestrial adversary Grace battled with in a prologue scene set on Grace and John’s home planet. They are different species, each other’s nemesis it seems; needing to feed off each other to survive, but at the other’s peril.

John reveals to Grace his flying saucer, but he’s not giving her a passport so easily. The hustle and bustle survival amidst the sleazy grime of New York City leads to an intense final struggle – in primordial form – between Taiga and Ripley at an abandoned gas station under a turnpike in New Jersey.

Arthouse Appeal

Director Gibson described Noto’s original screenplay as a rather gloomy, existentialist film noir with a resonant, but depressing view of the human condition. However it’s art-house aesthetic appealed to him, and he saw a challenge to make a movie that would work for a wider audience.

Universal wanted a big budget movie, whereas Gibson saw it essentially as a lo-fi production. However it quickly became apparent that The Tourist as either a high concept mainstream science fiction adventure or a darkly comic adult fantasy thriller was as likely as hell freezing over.

(Next week: Final nail in the coffin; my version of The Tourist)

-Bryn Tilly

BRYNSTARBryn Tilly Bryn Tilly is a cinephile, freelance writer, and pro DJ who spends his daytime hosting Horrorphile and Cult Projections. He also provides a monthly movie list for lifestyle website FreshMag. At night, as Brynstar, he spins deep funk for jazzed souls at some of Sydney’s bar hotspots.


15 Comments

  1. Mac April 25, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    The article stated that “Missell refused to go back to the original draft because she didn’t want Noto receiving a screenwriter’s credit.”

    Why do you believe that this is true? Missell had a job – to make a commercially successful film with widespread appeal. Isn’t it quite possible that this job wasn’t served best by that particular version of the screenplay? After all – there were many versions – including one by the guy who penned the huge hit ‘Alien’. Why believe that a draft by an unknown writer was more commercial than the one by the creator of ‘Alien’?

    I’m not doubting that the original draft could have been a cult success like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’. But the buyers of the script didn’t want that … they wanted to adapt it into something with mainstream appeal. And they had paid the original writer good money for the right to adapt it.

    Plenty of the changes make perfect sense. For example – they wanted Coppola’s company Zoetrope involved. That means changing the city location to San Francisco. (That’s one of the things Zoetrope is known for).

    Yet somehow these changes get described as ‘they were attempting to bastardise the screenplay so significantly that Noto would simply curl up and die in horror’

    Seriously ?

    Mac

  2. Bryn May 5, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Of course Missell was wanting to make a commercial movie and was attempting to tailor the drafts to best suit her own vision as a producer, and I’m not suggesting that Clair Noto’s original script was commercial. The personality clash and animosity between Missell and Noto had filtered through into the professional process, as often happens, call it “creative differences” or whatever, and as such Missell was keen for Noto to let go of her baby altogether. Perhaps Missell thought the more frustration she created for Noto the more chance Noto would relinquish all control of her intellectual property. The truth of the matter is the producer and would-be director WERE trying to bastardize Noto’s original vision. They felt it was for the better and Noto felt it was for the worse. I was being dramatic in my description of their actions, but I felt it called for it.

    • Renee Missel March 3, 2014 at 9:18 pm #

      I came across your article after finishing reading the novelization of the script by a British writer who sent it to me.
      I would like to correct history here. I worked with Clair Noto on her first script and we got along fine. With the Tourist, it was clear that she was unwilling or unable to do a rewrite to fix problems with the script. The studio was refusing to go ahead without these rewrites. So we went to other writers.
      But the script was so original that no other artist was able to crack the structure without hurting the uniqueness of the concept. We never conspired to shut her out. That is ridiculous. She simply did not understand that optioning your work to a studio entitled them to creative control during the
      life of the option. Giger did beautiful work for us and Gibson’s vision, or Roddam’s would have served the piece well . The script sits in limbo and by now time has passed and money has accrued. It is not that universal would be embarrassed if another studio
      made it. It is that they have taken a tax loss on it and so it stays.
      We all wished Clair had been open to the revisions that would have hopefully straightened the problems with the script. No producer wants to replace the creator of a screenplay if they don’t have to. And Clair’s writing cannot easily be rewritten by another artist. I have only come across two such unique writers, Clair and Nancy Dowd.

      • Bryn March 5, 2014 at 6:45 pm #

        Hi Renee,
        Thanks for that clarification. My article was based on a variety of published sources, both online and offline, but there’s always the likelihood of fact and fiction being blurred when you don’t have first-person access to the actual people involved.
        I would love to read the novelisation of Clair’s screenplay. Who is the author? Is it easy to acquire?
        I still hold out hope that one day Clair Noto’s The Tourist will find its way into a decently budgeted feature production with a good director at the helm.

        • Lee McGeorge March 12, 2014 at 8:32 pm #

          Hi Byrn,
          I’m the author of the novelisation. It can be downloaded freely from http://www.thetouristnovel.com

          • Bryn March 14, 2014 at 9:08 am #

            Hi Lee,
            That’s fantastic! I’ve downloaded the pdf, and I will read it as soon as I’ve finished my current book. Thank you very much for the free link!

        • Lee McGeorge March 12, 2014 at 8:52 pm #

          Bryn (not Byrn, sorry)
          When I put the novelisation out I was contacted by Clair Noto which led to a 45 minute telephone conversation. If you’re familiar with the Fred Szebin article, you can read that Clair had some very strong feelings about this project back then and she discussed other artists involved in less than flattering terms. On speaking with her, I would say her feelings have intensified over the last thirty years. I realise now that much of what is published online about The Tourist is Clair’s version of events and that version is poisoned with a lot of harsh emotions.

  3. Philipkavanagh June 16, 2012 at 6:57 am #

    I know this discussion is pretty old but does anyone have any information on where I can get the original tourist script?

  4. joe velikovsky January 9, 2013 at 11:15 pm #

    Hey Bryn

    Great article. (including Part 2!)

    Though reading it, (I haven’t read the script of The Tourist) I was struck by the similarities to the `SPECIES’ series of movies. ie – a Female alien on Earth, the whole erotica/sex thing, taking on a cocoon form, etc…

    It may be coincidence but feels like SPECIES may have been influenced by The Tourist… I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that. (Do you know if that is the case?)

    As for Development Hell – I’ve had some features produced but many more of my screenplays are still bogged in Development Hell, LOL

    Makes me think of this stuff:

    “Story Notes From Hell”

    http://storynotesfromhell.tumblr.com/

    ie its funny cos its true…

    (also: deeply deeply sad – cos its true, LOL)

    Anyway great article – shows what can happen when the vision of a screenwriter isn’t shared by those financing that screen story idea. i.e. A Nightmare.

    I’ll also comment on Part 2 now, but – a great analysis, thank you for this.
    Loads of brilliant lessons for aspiring screenwriters here, I would say.

    Cheers

    JT Velikovsky
    High ROI Film/Story/Screenplay Consultant
    http://storyality.wordpress.com/

    • Bryn March 5, 2014 at 6:47 pm #

      Hi Joe,
      cheers for that!
      I will check out your Storyality as soon as I have a chance. Who knows, I may need your services sooner than later!

  5. Robert Morello April 13, 2013 at 4:55 am #

    Wow, i worked on concepts for this project under the request of Gibson and Missell. I never thought i’d hear about it again, as it spiraled into a mess under the bad management of a science fiction art rep who conned me into having him represent me and then proceeded to threaten to sue Universal over pay, which was the death knell of any involvement I had in the project. But I tell you my concepts were tight, and I dare say more on-target than Giger’s, who Missell and Gibson sited as the artists they wanted to head up the project. Hey Clair, Universal, I’m still out here if you still want to do this thing.

    • Bryn March 5, 2014 at 6:48 pm #

      Hi Robert,
      is it possible to see any of your concept art for The Tourist?
      cheers

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