Żuławski’s Tiger: The Art-House Action-Adventure That Never Was
Many directors toy with scripts that never end up being filmed, and Andrzej Żuławski, one of Poland’s most controversial and ambitious directors, was no exception. But one script in particular, a madcap adventure featuring action star Dolph Lundgren, remains an enigmatic legend whispered about, but never fully believed. Culture.pl gets the truth from Żuławski’s friend and script consultant during his last years, Daniel Bird.
In his five decades as a professional filmmaker, Andrzej Żuławski (1940 – 2016) directed just thirteen feature films. Nevertheless, he was the author of a great many scripts that remain unfilmed.
During the 1960s, Żuławski adapted Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for his mentor, Andrzej Wajda. Together with Christopher Frank (the author of La Nuit Américaine, the novel upon which Żuławski’s 1975 film L’Important C’est d’Aimer is based) Żuławski wrote an English language globe-trotting gangster flick, The Kingdom Within, a drama that was to begin in Venice and end in Brighton.
Then there was The Invisibles, written immediately after Żuławski’s Possession (1981) together with the American novelist Frederic Tuten. That project bit the dust when its prospective star, Nastassja Kinski, reportedly deemed the script obscene.
During the early 1980s, legendary Italian producer Dino de Laurentiis paid Żuławski to write a high concept revenge film, The Archer, which was at one point to have been shot in the United States with Gene Hackman in the lead. In 1986, Żuławski wrote an epic historical drama, Celle Qui Danse (The One Who Dances), that was to have featured Sophie Marceau in the role of Joan of Arc. Nothing came of these either.
However, perhaps the most outlandish of Żuławski’s unfilmed scenarios is The Tiger, a Vietnam war drama written for Cannon Films, the independent studio that resurrected the career of Charles Bronson and made a star of Jean-Claude Van Damme. As for Żuławski’s project, it was Dolph Lundgren, He-Man from Masters of the Universe (1987), who was touted in film markets around the world as being ‘attached’. Alas, The Tiger remains a tantalising ‘what if…’ But how did Żuławski, a Polish art-house director based in France, come to write a Vietnam action flick for Cannon films?
Moby Dick in the jungle
For me, the story began in 2011, when I received an email from a French writer and filmmaker, Jérémie Damoiseau, who was preparing a biography about Dolph Lundgren. He wanted to ask Żuławski about a script I had never heard of: The Tiger. Żuławski refused. When I asked why, he explained that the script bore little resemblance to his original idea. Żuławski proceeded to recount a tale that began with the brutal realism of Pierre Schoendoerffer’s Indochina war film, La 317e Section (1968), and ended as a sort of magic-realist fable.
At this point in his career, Żuławski hadn’t directed a film since La Fidélité, released in 2000. Nevertheless, I pitched Żuławski’s story to a notable English producer with a hook:
It’s Moby Dick in the jungle.
His interest aroused by the potential of new investors, Żuławski’s agreed that ‘writing a proper Conradian script would be heaven’, and over several months we set out to resurrect this lost story.
Żuławski’s first creative decision? To drop the definite article. For Żuławski, who was fluent in French, ‘Le Tigre’ evoked the nickname of Georges Clemenceau. It was no longer The Tiger, but just Tiger.
Thank you for first whiskers on the TIGER. Too many things to add for a mail. Would be great to have a proper discussion. Are you available next week?
Prior to the discussion, Żuławski issued me a request for the tone of the opening scene:
Pandemonium of cruelty is asked for. Plus mud and tropical rain...
Żuławski pulled history books from his bookshelves for my benefit.
The script should start, I believe, with the night attack on the beleaguered fort-camp… To give time to hunt the Tiger, it could be Hoa Binh, or even better Na Sam, both fell between 51 and 52.
There were times I thought we were writing a very strange buddy film. The script pitted Philippe, a ‘highly intellectual (Mounier, de Chardin) captain, scion of an impoverished Grand Family which – the Family – was of course Pétainiste during the war...’ against a ‘Catholic murderer, discussing God with the Atheist Philippe... in their spare moments between bouts of bloody hunting...’
For Żuławski though, the original hunt for the Tiger began nearly 30 years earlier in 1983, when he was preparing to shoot La Femme Publique. Ostensibly based on an autobiographical first novel by Dominique Garnier, Żuławski had transformed the source material into an erotic-political-thriller that referenced everything from Dostoevsky to the Polish trade union Solidarity. For the lead, Żuławski sought the young French actress Valérie Kaprisky, who had recently appeared alongside Richard Gere in Jim McBride’s remake of Jean-Luc Godard’s debut, Breathless.
Kaprisky’s agent was Myriam Bru. Having won a beauty contest, Bru was ‘discovered’ as an actress and promptly became a star of Italian cinema during the 1950s. She married the German actor Horst Buchholz (one of The Magnificent Seven), and gave up acting to start a family. However, by the early 1980s, Bru had reinvented herself as an agent. Bru had a remarkable eye for talent and beauty. Whether it was Marushka Detmers or Mathilda May, Bru nurtured many of the stars of 1980s French cinema. By 1981, Żuławski was widely regarded as a ‘women’s director’, having directed both Romy Schneider and Isabelle Adjani in César-winning films (L’Important C’est d’Aimer and Possession respectively). Żuławski proposed that Bru act as his agent too.
Desperate for a hit
Cut to 1987. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the proprietors of Cannon Films, had a reputation problem. Their film company’s name was synonymous with shoestring budgets, bad taste and exploitation. In a bid to rebrand themselves as a home not just for low-budget exploitation cinema but also auteur filmmakers, the Israeli cousins gave carte blanche to a rafter of auteur directors: John Cassavetes (Love Streams, 1984), Andrei Konchalovsky (Maria’s Lovers , Runaway Train , Duet For One ), Jean-Luc Godard (King Lear) and Franco Zeffirelli (Otello).
Bru spotted an opportunity for Żuławski. While La Femme Publique had been a domestic hit, its more personal follow up, L’Amour Braque (1985), had not. This modern-day reworking of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot had been a disaster with critics and audiences alike. According to Żuławski, the French financiers, Gaumont, had soon after pulled out of his Joan of Arc drama Celle Qui Danse during pre-production because they were concerned about the response of French Nationalists to the Polish director’s idiosyncratic take on a character that was emblematic of the French nation. Żuławski had also abandoned Maladie d’Amour, a project written with Danièle Thompson over a dispute concerning the casting (the producer, Marie-Laure Reyre, wanted Isabelle Adjani, but the director preferred Béatrice Dalle, who had made a splash with Betty Blue ).
In short, Żuławski needed a hit…
According to Żuławski, Bru arranged a meeting with Golan at the Carlton Hotel in Cannes, where the director pitched the story of a band of French legionaries who escape Vietnamese captivity and find solace in a Hmong village in the mountains. Before returning to the front line, they find themselves being asked by the villagers to hunt a tiger that is proving to be a menace. Along the way, they encounter a beautiful Vietnamese girl who extracts opium from poppies, along with a shaman. Halfway through what at first seems to be a straightforward action-adventure film, things take a left turn into the fantastic…
Golan was sold. He had only one request: could Żuławski make the tiger white? Dressed in a white suit, hairs springing out from between the open collar of a garish shirt, Golan grabbed for a pen to sign a contract, which invariably didn’t work… Żuławski took this as a bad omen of things to come…
Films about his father
It’s tempting to think that Żuławski was merely cashing in on the 1980s fad for Vietnam war pictures. Oliver Stone had directed Platoon (1986), Stanley Kubrick had just released Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Cannon had their Missing in Action Chuck Norris film series (1984–1988). However, Żuławski had a surprising personal connection to Vietnam.
According to Żuławski, Andrzej Wajda had warned him that whatever film he directed as his debut, it would define the rest of his career. Consequently, Żuławski decided to make a film about where he had come from. Ostensibly, The Third Part of the Night (1971) is based on Żuławski’s father’s WWII recollections of the time he spent in Lviv (then Lwów) serving in the Home Army. During the war, Mirosław Żuławski had worked undercover as a lice-feeder in Rudolf Weigl’s institute, producing typhus vaccine for the Wehrmacht while gathering information. After the war though, Mirosław worked as a diplomat in both France and Czechoslovakia.
Following the collapse of French colonial rule at Dien Bien Phu, Mirosław Żuławski was dispatched to write about life in Vietnam under the Viet Minh. In 1956, he published a book in Polish about his experiences in Vietnam, Drzazgi Bambusa (Bamboo Splinters). So much like his debut film, the experiences of Żuławski’s father served as the backdrop to his latest venture.
The Tiger was to be in English, and Golan and Globus sent Żuławski a young American screenwriter to collaborate with him on the script. Peter Cohen was the son of Sam Cohen, who was at the time one of the Hollywoods’ biggest talent agents. Cohen spent time with Żuławski at his house in Fromont, not far from Paris, where the pair worked on the script. French producer Christian Ferry, who had played a key role in the mounting of Żuławski’s film projects, supervised preliminary development work concerning when and where it was best to shoot the film.
Unfortunately, not long after the first few drafts of the script were written, Cannon ran into financial trouble and lost control of the project.
While The Tiger was picked up by another producer, Żuławski went on to direct a trio of films in quick succession: a typically idiosyncratic adaptation of Raphaële Billetdoux’s novel, My Nights Are More Beautiful Than Your Days (1989), an audacious film-opera based on Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1990), and a costume drama about the dying days of Chopin’s relationship with George Sand, The Blue Note (1991).
Nevertheless, Żuławski’s dealings with Golan and Globus inspired an episode in his 1992 novel W Oczach Tygrysa (In the Eye of a Tiger), which recounts the episodic misadventures of an exiled Polish filmmaker in Paris, New York and Los Angeles…
Working with the shaman
But almost twenty-five years later, during that summer in 2011, The Tiger had reappeared. Żuławski returned to the story with new enthusiasm. Both the new and original incarnations of the script would end up reflecting another one of Żuławski’s obsessions: shamanism.
Arguably the defining characteristic of Żuławski’s cinema is his unique approach to on-screen acting. Like the Polish theatre-practitioner Jerzy Grotowski, Żuławski considered acting to be essentially religious, and that the oldest religious practices were shamanistic. In his incomplete science fiction epic, On the Silver Globe (1988), Żuławski featured a religion coming into being with scenes of ritual dance and fire worship. Shamanism also played an integral role in Żuławski’s only Polish film of the post-communist era, Szamanka (1996).
Similarly, part of the plot for The Tiger involved the fantastic world of Hmong shamanism. One of Żuławski’s inspirations were the writings of a Jesuit missionary, Eric de Rosnay, who became a specialist in the practices of witch doctors in Cameroon. A decade before Terrence Malick’s own mystical war film, The Thin Red Line (1998), Żuławski had set out to realise a war film set during the dying days of French colonial rule in Indochina that gradually transforms into a spiritual story about the Hmong.
Script meetings with Żuławski were, however, a manic-depressive affair. One day it would be:
This is very much IT… bravo! The crazier it gets, the better it is.
Whereas the next would be greeted with:
The story seems to grow more and more remote from me, and I don't recognise it anymore…
Once again, it had seemed that Tiger had gotten lost in the jungle…
The French evolution
Żuławski made one last attempt at catching his tiger alone. Deciding to rewrite it afresh, now completely in French, this time he gave the story a reflexive twist: it was no longer about soldiers hunting a tiger in the Vietnamese jungle, but a film director trying and failing to mount a film about soldiers hunting a tiger in the Vietnamese jungle… Żuławski intercut the action and adventure in Vietnam during the 1950s with a personal drama set in Paris and Cannes involving a film director in crisis, his glamorous agent, his famous actress wife, sleazy film producers, and a slick Hollywood scriptwriter…
Many of Żuławski’s films feature a self-reflexive aspect, and this third and final incarnation of The Tiger is no exception. One scene was to touch upon the work of Soviet documentary filmmaker Roman Karmen, specifically his film about the fall of Dien Bien Phu. Like in his previous 1942 film about the siege of Leningrad, Karmen had attracted controversy for re-staging key battle scenes. For Żuławski, the only truth in cinema was to be open about its inherent falseness…
Having re-written the scenario, Żuławski decided not to make the film, which he deemed ‘the maddest thing I ever wrote’. Now in his seventies, he dreaded the prospect of shooting part of a movie in the jungles of Thailand or the Philippines.
For a while, Żuławski considered publishing The Tiger in a collection of unfilmed screenplays, including The Invisibles, Celle Qui Danse and The Archer. Then, in 2014, after a fifteen year hiatus, Żuławski returned to filmmaking with his adaptation of Witold Gombrowicz’s final novel, Cosmos (2015). Interestingly, much like the final version of The Tiger, his last film concerns the birth pangs of a work of art.
Żuławski’s secret hero
While The Tiger remains unfilmed, its ‘ghost’ reveals much about Żuławski’s sensibility, both as writer and filmmaker. Most intriguingly for Polish culture vultures, while reworking the script in 2011, Żuławski referred to the tone of his story as essentially ‘Conradian’.
It turns out that throughout his life, Żuławski’s model as both a writer and filmmaker had always been the author Joseph Conrad. Conrad, who didn’t begin his career as a novelist until his late-thirties, wrote in his third language, English – it was also Żuławski’s third after Polish and French. Meanwhile, his adventure stories drew extensively on his prolific experience as a merchant sailor. Żuławski also considered himself an ‘adventurer’, but his milieu was not the high seas, but rather the world of glamour, finance and sleaze at the heart of the film industry (whatever one thinks of Żuławski’s controversial novel Nocnik , its author characterised Harvey Weinstein as ‘the rutting pig of Hollywood’ long before it was common to do so). These were subjects Żuławski turned to in several of his films, most notably L’Important C’est d’Aimer and La Femme Publique, several of his unfilmed scenarios (The Kingdom Within and The Invisibles) and many of his novels, especially W Oczach Tygrysa.
Most of all, like Conrad, Żuławski had an acute feeling for genre: The Tiger was both war film and personal drama. It was, therefore, entirely fitting that in 2015 the very last screenplay Żuławski wrote, his final unfilmed curio, turned out to be an adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic The Toilers of the Sea, the very novel that inspired Conrad’s own fascination with the sea.
Written by Daniel Bird, Jan 2018