”I want everyone to know that whoever is involved in the sequel is jumping on board a poison ship. It will be a terrible film, with a horrible reason [sic] d’être: to make money off someone else’s creativity.”
James Franco on Spring Breakers 2: The Second Coming
The fable of the scorpion and the frog goes like this: a scorpion needs to cross a river and asks a frog to take him. The frog, reasoning that the scorpion will sting him, refuses. “Come on,” the scorpion argues, “If I sting you, we both drown.” The frog, therefore persuaded, agrees to take him. And so, midway across the river, the scorpion stings the frog and they both begin to drown. The frog, dying, gasps, “Why?!” to which his erstwhile passenger, similarly sinking, replies, “What did you expect? I’m a scorpion!”
James Franco displayed a similar lack of nous while decrying the proposed sequel to Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012). “This is not being done with Harmony Korine or my consent,” he explained. “The original was wholly Harmony’s creation and these producers are capitalizing on that innovative film to make money on a weak sequel,” the star of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) continued, shocking precisely no-one.* Most sequels are unnecessary. Many are unfortunate, others simply unlikely. Some are, at best, of dubious legality. But, inevitably, some of the most ill advised, ill conceived and ill fated are in fact entirely legitimate.
That’s because anyone, (though first time writer-directors are probably the most susceptible) going cap in hand for funding, distribution or both will find themselves signing away all their rights – merchandising, sequels – just to get the thing made. If your film does well, the safe-playing moneymen are likely to want all of the band back together, the better to repeat the trick exactly, while if your film does no business, you’ve got nothing to worry about anyway. And, regardless, no matter how many cautionary tales you hear, no matter how hard your spider-sense is tingling, they’ll always get you with the “What’s 100% of nothing?” rationale. And if you’re a fledgling auteur proposing a singular, self-contained statement of intent for your directorial debut, it’s probably furthest from your mind that anyone’s going to want to exploit what is after all just a standard contract clause – right?
However, Hollywood doesn’t know how to leave well enough alone when there’s a potential franchise to be sown. Not even such self-evidently one-and-done films as Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942), Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) and Gladiator (Ridley Scott, 2000) are safe from the ongoing threat of sequelisation (see Nick Cave’s Gladiator 2). The very existence of Titanic II (Shane Van Dyke, 2010), tagline “100 years later, lightning strikes twice,” shows that there really are no depths studios won’t sink to chasing a buck (however tongue-in-cheek the Asylum’s production is). A Blade Runner sequel actually seems more likely than ever, given the participation of Ridley Scott, posing conflicted fans a difficult question: might it be good?
The common theme, of course, with what I’m calling cheeky sequels is that without exception they’re awful – travesties that insult audiences and the original creative team in equal measure, and which exist only, as Franco was so keen to point out, to wring as much money as possible out of an original property. Unlike straightforward sequels, they can’t or won’t get the old team back together, usually because the original has no obvious sequel potential or quite often because the main characters died at the end of the first story.
For example, who could blame Donnie Darko (2001) director Richard Kelly for failing to predict his esoteric teen time-travel suicide movie doing so well that S Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale (Chris Fisher, 2009) would be given the green light? “To set the record straight,” Kelly told Slashfilm, “I haven’t read this script. I have absolutely no involvement with this production, nor will I ever be involved. I have no control over the rights from our original film, and neither I, nor my producing partner Sean McKittrick stand to make any money from this film.” And who would possibly expect a sequel to Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), the seminal standalone saga with the famously grim ending? Nobody, but Easy Rider: The Ride Back (Dustin Rikert, 2012) exists nonetheless, thanks to lawyer Phil Pitzer, who sued, somehow successfully, original producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider in order to write, produce and star.**
Clearing the decks is often necessary simply because the creative team has moved on, reluctant to repeat themselves or to be typecast. Such is the case with Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004), really the brainchild of writer Tina Fey, who said of the proposed follow-up, “Paramount was very generous and solicitous with me for several years, saying, ‘Would you like to do it?’” Fey didn’t, believing a sequel was unwarranted. “I should have done it,” she concluded, “because now it’s happening anyway!”***
Then there’s perhaps the most cynical of the cheeky sequels, those where even the second-rung sophomore crew don’t know what they’re getting into. For example, when Mila Kunis signed up for a project called The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die, she couldn’t have predicted it would be retitled American Psycho II: All American Girl (Morgan J Freeman, 2002). It’s not terribly unusual for original films to be retitled as sequels to otherwise unrelated films, but Kunis’ folly might be the definitive cheeky sequel. Original American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis bemoaned, “I’ve sold the rights, but I really don’t know how they ended up with all of these rights.”
“I’m speaking up for Harmony and his original vision,” concluded James Franco, “and for any creative person who cares about preserving artistic integrity.” And, of course, it’s hubris indeed to undermine the famously ambiguous ending to the successful adaptation of a seminal novel. However, as Ellis pointed out, “Basically, the book really kind of survives… So far, none of these movies has blotted out the book for the reader.” Kunis, Franco’s co-star in Oz The Great And Powerful (Sam Raimi, 2013) – itself “inspired by” the L Frank Baum book series and the 1939 film – feels differently. “Please, somebody stop this,” she was quoted, after hearing of a third American Psycho in production, “Write a petition.”
* Continuing his Spring Breakers 2 rant, James Franco appealed to our common sense: “Can you imagine someone making the sequel to Taxi Driver without Scorcese [sic] and DeNiro’s consents? Insanity!” He’s right, of course, though he clearly hasn’t heard of The Bronx Bull (Martin Guigui, 2014), which first entered production as the Jake LaMotta-approved Raging Bull 2, before rights-holders MGM objected.
**As horrendous as that sounds, it’s not the first time an Easy Rider sequel has been mooted. In 1992, a dispute over ‘lost’ outtakes footage led to the report of a sequel, of which producer Harold Zuker suggested, ”We would love Dennis to play his own father, as the grandfather who explains everything.” The Entertainment Weekly report at the time ended, drily, “Like Fonda and Nicholson, Hopper declined to comment.”
*** Like Mean Girls 2 (Melanie Mayron, 2011), lots of unlikely sequels are made for television, or at least end up there. Some are repurposed pilots for failed TV shows, e.g. The Jerk, Too (Michael Schultz, 1984) and Cruel Intentions 2 (Roger Kumble, 2000), which was original shot as the launch of a TV series called Manchester Prep. Alongside the risible The Birds II: Lands End (Rick Rosenthal, 1994) in the made-for-TV category are Another Midnight Run, Midnight Runaround and Midnight Run For Your Life.
This article is excerpted from the zine Physical Impossibility #3: Copywrongs. Pick up a copy here!