It wasn’t all a bed of roses between David Lean and his most famous fan. Chris Evans of The Independent wrote an article in 2008 entitled: “How Sir David Lean had an epic falling out with Steven Spielberg over the filming of a Conrad novel”. The article, concerning Lean’s great unmade epic Nostromo based on Joseph Conrad’s 1904 novel, told of how Spielberg and Lean had a big falling out over the project due to that oft-repeated phrase “creative difference”. The gruelling project, which went from one rewrite to another, was five years in pre-production before finally securing a start date. Sadly, six weeks before the film was due to enter principle photography, Lean died, aged 83, or throat cancer.
It is only now that more details of the production have come to light thanks to memos, letters, notes, and various correspondence sent between production staff being donated to the British Film Institute from the David Lean Foundation.
Interestingly, Spielberg had, briefly, come on board as a producer of the film but then mysteriously left the project.
Lean had a meeting with Spielberg in the US, but came back very annoyed with a load of notes handed to him by Spielberg. He couldn’t believe it. David thought Spielberg’s offer to produce the film was a courtesy, and didn’t think he would actually offer opinions about the script. – Playwright Christopher Hampton
For many, the novel is only known for providing the titles of the spaceships seen in the Alien movies. The title of the book is of course “Nostromo” (the ship seen in Ridley Scott’s Alien) and the story features a town called “Sulaco” (the name James Cameron use for his spaceship in Aliens). Lean said himself he read the book “battling sleep” and felt that if the film was made and people went out and bought book the book afterwards they would struggle to get past page 200. But nevertheless, he saw something in the book that was worth exploring.
At first, he thought Spielberg saw the same thing. But he was wrong.
Evans writes: “Shortly before he began work on Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg came on board as producer, with the backing of Warner Bros. A long-time friend of Lean’s, Spielberg got stuck straight into the script, writing endless notes about what he thought.”
Playwright Christopher Hampton recalls: “Lean had a meeting with Spielberg in the US, but came back very annoyed with a load of notes handed to him by Spielberg. He couldn’t believe it. David thought Spielberg’s offer to produce the film was a courtesy, and didn’t think he would actually offer opinions about the script.”
A memo from Spielberg to Lean (dated 12 February, 1987) reads: “I would love to see Nostromo in scenes like this as a practical hero. It would be a big mistake to see Errol Flynn swashbuckling his way through a Conrad novel (this would be ridiculous), but some heroics, subtle yet justified, I think are a must for making him worthy of his title…”
Hampton adds: “Funnily enough, Spielberg had asked Lean for his opinion of the script for Empire of the Sun, which Lean thought was terrible, but he didn’t think it was his place to say anything.”
Spielberg later pulled out of the project as it became clear the creative dynamic of himself and Lean was not compatible.