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The Masterpiece Christopher Nolan Never Made

Before he became the blockbuster whisperer, Nolan had his sights set on a Howard Hughes biopic, armed with “the best script” he’s ever written and Jim Carrey as the star. Then Martin Scorsese came along.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

In a 2014 interview about the movie Interstellar, Christopher Nolan took a minute to gush. "It’s the best script I’ve ever written," Nolan told The Daily Beast. But he wasn’t talking about Interstellar — he was describing a script he wrote in the early 2000s, for a film about eccentric Hollywood tycoon Howard Hughes.

For a long stretch of time after Hughes’s 1976 death, the reclusive billionaire was the subject of several gossipy books, but no movies. A number of filmmakers, including Ed Norton and Warren Beatty, expressed interest in doing a Hughes flick but didn’t get anywhere. (Beatty would finally make one much later, releasing Rules Don’t Apply in 2016.) In 2002, though, Castle Rock bought the rights to a Hughes biography around the same time New Line tapped Michael Mann to direct Leonardo DiCaprio in another Hughes movie, and it seemed like a close race to production. "Given Jim Carrey is confirmed to star in the latter project, and red-hot director Christopher Nolan (Memento) has already signed on to direct, the Castle Rock pic will likely hit the big screen first," Entertainment Weekly reported in 2002.

EW’s prediction was off. Martin Scorsese, not Mann, ended up working with Leonardo DiCaprio, and Scorsese’s The Aviator in 2004 became the first Hughes biopic out of the gate. Nolan’s, meanwhile, never happened, which makes reading through his old interviews about the project a true bummer of an activity, especially since it is obvious how excited he was to work on the film, and how glad he was to have Jim Carrey as the star.

"I think I’ve found the one guy, in the person of Jim Carrey, who can actually do what’s required by the part," Nolan told the A.V. Club in 2002. He went even further with his praise in an interview with ShowbizMonkeys.com the same year. Nolan said Carrey "was born to play" Hughes, and noted that Carrey was even collaborating with him on the script. Carrey, for his part, was also psyched about the project, and saw it as the role of a lifetime, his potential Citizen Kane. He got deep about it. "In certain ways, I probably am him. I want to find out what personal chasm needed to be filled — his Rosebud," Carrey told EW, noting that his own personal Rosebud was his "desire to be seen."

Well, I desire to see Carrey — in this role! He is the perfect person to play Howard Hughes. Leonardo DiCaprio is a fine actor, and his performance in The Aviator is not the problem with The Aviator (length and boringness is). Carrey can convey frantic, careening paranoia better than anyone else. Watching him toggle between bombastic confidence and profound emotional fragility would be a treat. While it’d be hard to age Carrey down to play a young Hughes, I just watched Anthony Hopkins get movie-magicked into a 20-something in Westworld flashbacks. Christopher Nolan’s brother and sister-in-law are the showrunners for Westworld, so why couldn’t he call up their "make-’em-young" guy for the early scenes? Plus, according to a 2011 report from Vulture, Nolan’s Hughes movie was always meant to focus on the later, freakier years of the eccentric’s life. "We’ll meet the Howard Hughes who spent much of 1948 sitting naked in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel with only a pink dinner napkin covering his genitals as he screened movies from his studio, RKO Pictures, and ran up an $11 million tab; the Hughes who — obsessed with food safety — once bought every franchise restaurant chain in his home state of Texas," Claude Brodesser-Akner wrote.

Nolan backed off his dream project for fear of competing with Scorsese, but that shouldn’t have scared him away. "Twin films" are movies made about similar or identical topics which are released around the same time, like Armageddon and Deep Impact. Twin biopics have happened on numerous occasions too, including Jobs and Steve Jobs in 2013 and 2015, respectively. There were also two Yves Saint Laurent biopics in 2014. More incredibly, there were two separate movies about the life of Florence Foster Jenkins released in the past two years. If the world has room for two movies, released in a short time frame, about an old-timey provincial socialite, well, then Christopher Nolan should do whatever the hell he wants.

And besides, Nolan has already come out on the right side of a Twin Film Face-Off. The Prestige is Nolan’s finest film, and it was only enhanced by the fact that Neil Burger’s The Illusionist came out the same year. The world got two moody flicks about anguished turn-of-the-century magicians, and was better for it.

In 2012, Nolan declared his Hughes flick dead, but in the 2014 Daily Beast interview, he was more ambivalent about the film’s future. "Will I revisit it? I have no idea," he said. "I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out, but I wrote it a long time ago." I know I shouldn’t be giving Christopher Nolan life advice, because he is objectively more successful than I am, but why allow the pinnacle of your writing achievement to rot at the bottom of a drawer full of leftover Inception tops!? Yes, it’s been a long time, but here’s my suggestion: Make the dang Jim Carrey–led Howard Hughes movie.