Why Lucasfilm canceled Spielberg’s Curse of Monkey Island movie

Over the almost 50 years that Lucasfilm has been a company, some notable projects have fallen by the wayside — from games such as Star Wars 1313, Project Ragtag, and Star Wars: First Assault to films including George Lucas’ original sequel trilogy. In this graveyard of scrapped and forgotten projects, you’ll find the story of The Curse of Monkey Island, an undeveloped animated film named after the third game in the popular video game series. Not only was this an attempt to bring the Monkey Island games to the screen, but it signaled one of Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic’s first attempts to enter the world of digital features (a feat ILM wouldn’t manage until a decade later with Rango). In addition, there were some high-profile names in the world of film attached, with Steven Spielberg even linked to the project as a producer.

Lucasfilm has not shared many details publicly about the film since its cancellation in 2001, when the company shut down ILM’s digital story department, the division working on the project. But that hasn’t stopped people from speculating over the decades on what happened to it — one persistent rumor being that the project eventually morphed into the first Pirates of the Caribbean film, 2003’s The Curse of the Black Pearl.

Lucasfilm didn’t publicly confirm the Monkey Island film’s existence until 2011. That was when the Monkey Island Special Edition Collection came out, containing storyboards of the film that the project lead for these games, Craig Derrick, had located and cleared for release.

In the years since, many questions about the film have lingered. Who was involved? How far did it get to completion? Why was it canceled? Recently, we were put in contact with the director of this long-forgotten project, David Carson, who had previously never commented publicly on his connection to the film. Carson had been a visual artist at ILM for many decades, working on films such Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, The Goonies, and Jurassic Park, before becoming part of the digital story department tasked with developing concepts and treatments for computer-animated features in the late ’90s. Together with former members of ILM, he gave us new insight into the making of the Monkey Island film.

Frankenstein and the Wolfman

When Carson talks about Monkey Island, he begins with the tale of another canceled ILM project: Frankenstein and the Wolfman.

Pixar originated as a group within Lucasfilm’s computer graphics division; it was spun out of the company as a separate corporation in early 1986. Carson, who was working as a visual effects art director at the time, says that Lucasfilm felt it had achieved all it could with the computer graphics division, and wanted to focus on its own film projects, as well as its famous visual effects company, ILM. ILM typically worked with real materials, such as plastics, rubber, and foam core, to produce effects for movies, but as the ’80s gave way to the ’90s, the company began experimenting more and more with computers, pioneering industry-leading digital effects for films such as The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Jurassic Park. Despite the success of these films, Carson says that ILM executives harbored fears about how digital effects would impact the visual effects industry.

“Doug Norby, the president of Lucasfilm, feared what might happen if computers were increasingly used to create visual effects,” Carson tells us. “Computers were constantly becoming more powerful but cheaper. He feared a future where small groups of people with modest amounts of money could use computers to create effects similar to what ILM was currently providing, but at far less cost. And he feared that the studios would gladly hire them.”

Then, in 1995, Toy Story happened. When Pixar’s film about sentient toys became a critical and commercial hit, many of Lucasfilm’s competitors rushed to develop similar computer-animated projects to capitalize on the new innovation in digital effects. Not keen on missing out, ILM’s then-president, Jim Morris, established a team of eight people to develop ideas for CG-animated feature films. The plan was that ILM would develop concepts for animated films, and then offer their services to other studios to help develop these projects further. According to Carson, this was a potential way for ILM as a company to diversify and future-proof itself against the potential erosion of the visual effects business.

The first result of this was Frankenstein and the Wolfman, a collaboration between Universal and ILM that hoped to revive Universal’s horror properties of the 1930s. There were two directors: Carson was attached to co-direct the project for ILM, with Universal Pictures chairman Casey Silver selecting Tremors writer Brent Maddock to be Universal’s representative. Over the next few years, the team produced multiple scripts, as well as animatics and artwork from those who would later be involved with Monkey Island’s film adaptation. But the story was canceled before it ever made it to the screen, with the main problem being Universal’s approval.

During development on the project, there had been a shake-up at Universal, with Silver resigning after the failure of Babe: Pig in the City at the box office. The new heads of production at the studio then conducted a review of the project, the outcome being that Universal removed Maddock from it, believing his script with Tremors collaborator S.S. Wilson to be “too dark.”

Universal allowed ILM to pick Maddock’s replacement, and the company chose the project’s animation supervisor at ILM, Tom Bertino. Carson and Bertino continued working on Frankenstein and the Wolfman, with The Mummy director and screenwriter Stephen Sommers coming onboard to develop a treatment prior to starting production on The Mummy Returns. Sommers was soon distracted working on that sequel, however, and there was a period of silence, with Carson requesting to leave during this time, turning the project over to co-director Bertino.

“I was just getting no feedback from Universal,” Carson says. “We would have shots in progress. We would have models of the creatures in progress, and there was nobody to show them to, nobody to approve them, and a sense of ‘Is this all going to be disapproved later?’ I just felt like the film needed somebody who was actually in charge and who had the power to make decisions. And I didn’t feel like I had that power.”

“I met with Stephen Sommers a couple of times,” says story artist Tony Stacchi, who worked on Frankenstein and the Wolfman and Monkey Island at ILM. “He had a very different vision. So he came in and he gave his thoughts. But none of his thoughts really jived with what Dave wanted to do. He was a really nice guy, but he was very into modernizing the myth and not being [beholden] at all to the old Universal thing. […] So [Universal] were trying to find somebody to sort of take the ball and go forward with it and own it, and I don’t think he was interested until after he finished [The Mummy Returns].”

Carson’s departure turned out to be the silver bullet for Frankenstein and the Wolfman, which was canceled only a couple of months later. But ILM was not done with feature animation just yet.

Guybrush Threepwood, mighty pirate

Guybrush and friends in movie concept art, via 2011’s Monkey Island Special Edition Collection
Image: ILM via @eisnerguy1

Shortly after leaving the Frankenstein project, in 1999, Carson was on a weekend break with his 15-year-old son Neal for the Fourth of July, out in the mountains near Clear Lake in Northern California, when the conversation turned to the two’s shared love of LucasArts adventure games. One of the perks of working at ILM at the time was that Carson was able to get copies of the latest LucasArts games at a heavy discount, so he would often play LucasArts point-and-click games with his kids when they were growing up.

During this conversation, Carson asked his son whether he thought Monkey Island might make a good feature film, and his son enthusiastically said it would. Then, little more than a week later, Carson was in Morris’ office at ILM talking about his idea for a film about grog, ghouls, and the adventures of a wannabe pirate named Guybrush Threepwood. Morris was unfamiliar with the games, but he suggested taking the idea to Amblin Entertainment, Steven Spielberg’s production company.

The original treatment that Carson wrote for the film was a rough adaptation of the first game, 1990’s The Secret of Monkey Island, with some changes here and there to the plot. One of the drafts, for instance, starts with a new scene with Guybrush, described as “at most, twenty years old,” bumping into a local pirate at a seaside market. After a brief conversation in which Guybrush expresses his hopes of becoming a mighty pirate, the pirate character tells Guybrush about Melée Island and informs him of a supply boat that he could hitch a lift on. The opening credits are then written as follows:

From high above, we watch as the boat heads out into deeper waters and stronger waves. The Monkey Island theme music starts, and the head-credits roll. In a series of cuts, the small boat makes its way to Melee Island, and in the final shot, we see the supply boat pulling away from a sandy beach at dusk. On shore, Guybrush happily waves to the uncaring crewmen. He turns and begins to make his way up a steep winding trail into the cliffs above. Night has fully fallen when we cut back to a wide establishing shot of Melee Island, and the theme music ends.

The next scene segues into the opening of the first game, with Guybrush standing on the cliffs overlooking Melée Island, where he meets an old lookout who directs him to the SCUMM Bar.

Other changes from the game in this version of the script include whittling down the three trials Guybrush must complete in order to become a pirate to just one. In addition, the scrapes with the local pirates on Melée Island are condensed into a single fight with the villain LeChuck’s undead skeleton crew. And Murray the Talking Skull makes an appearance, despite not being introduced in the games until the opening of the third entry in the series. Murray figures into the final act of this script, where he works together with the island castaway Herman Toothrot and a band of wild monkeys to rescue Guybrush from being thrown into a river of lava from LeChuck’s ship.

After Carson wrote this initial treatment, Patty Blau, who was becoming head of digital features at ILM at the time, paired Carson with a couple of young writers named Corey Rosen and Scott Leberecht. Rosen was a CG artist at ILM and Leberecht was an art director, but they were also both filmmakers in their spare time, producing films for festivals as well as animated comedy shorts such as The Spirit of Spawn. These two wrote another treatment for the film, in order to pitch it to Spielberg, and served as screenwriters on the project.

Rosen and Leberecht’s treatment deviated even further from the game. It followed Guybrush searching for the treasure of Monkey Island in order to pay his union fees and become a mighty pirate. As he leaves the SCUMM Bar, he bumps into Elaine Marley at the docks on Melee Island, and the two begin to talk. Marley is setting off to find her younger brother Kitt, who was shipwrecked on Monkey Island, and Guybrush needs a ship to take him to the treasure. Elaine is reluctant at first, but then some henchmen appear, on orders from LeChuck, who has been tracking Elaine to make her his undead bride. The two escape, and the rest of the film follows Guybrush and Elaine exploring Monkey Island and evading LeChuck and his crew: They find Kitt among a tribe of monkeys, Elaine is kidnapped, and Guybrush defeats LeChuck, dousing the pirate in molten lava. This was the script that ILM pitched to Spielberg.

“[We] flew down to Amblin with Patty Blau and we met with Steven,” says Carson. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘I told George years ago that he should make Monkey Island into a film,’ so I knew I had a pretty easy pitch ahead of me. After [that], Steven suggested that Patty meet with two of the Amblin producers to see if we could work something out.”

“The meeting ended the way you want those meetings to end,” Rosen says. “It was like shaking hands, like, Let’s make the movie. I remember very clearly Dave Carson, as we were getting back in the car, goes, ‘You can trace the decline of your entire career from this moment. It’s never going to get better than Steven Spielberg shaking your hand.’”

Asked who he had in mind for the voice of the characters, Carson says, “We were far from voice casting on Monkey, but I would have definitely considered those who voiced the characters in the games.” That would’ve been Dominic Armato and Earl Boen, who voiced Guybrush and LeChuck, respectively, in 1997’s The Curse of Monkey Island, the first Monkey Island game with voice acting.

Charting a new course

The plot changed significantly as the project progressed, with Carson and the two writers working with the rest of ILM’s story department to develop the treatment further. This story group included Steve Purcell, the creator of adventure game series Sam & Max, who was a background artist and collaborator on the first two Monkey Island games, as well as storyboard artists such as Delia Gosman, Garett Sheldrew, and Tony Stacchi. Around this time, other LucasArts employees also started to hear news of a Monkey Island film.

“The first I heard of it was when I saw some people I hadn’t seen before in Sean Clark and Mike Stemmle’s office,” says Bill Tiller, background artist on the game The Curse of Monkey Island. “They were working on Escape from Monkey Island at the time. I guess management figured they should consult, though I’m not sure why they didn’t bring Larry Ahern [co-project lead and art director on the game The Curse of Monkey Island] and I in too.” In fact, ILM’s story department only held one meeting with LucasArts.

“Sadly, I have only vague, whispery memories of rumors of a Monkey Island movie over at ILM,” says Escape from Monkey Island co-director Mike Stemmle. “I’d be hard-pressed to even recall when I heard such rumors. I do remember seeing some Steve Purcell concept art at one point or another, but that’s about it.”

“In retrospect, there should have been a lot more interaction,” Rosen says of the relationship between his team and the game developers at LucasArts. “They know this world. They love this world. They were deeply steeped in Monkey Island, and we were Hollywood types. We were dicks. We were taking their idea and making a movie of it and we weren’t including them. That’s stupid. That’s not how anything should be done. When you are using source material and you have access to those people, that’s dumb that we didn’t do that.”

The one major connection they did have, however, was Purcell, and he proved important. Purcell worked closely with Tony Stacchi throughout development of Monkey Island, giving him unique insight into the games.

“I think Steve Purcell was a little frustrated with me, because I was like, ‘I don’t play video games at all, but I love pirates,’” says Stacchi. “I like Defoe and Robert Louis Stevenson, so I was really into the pirate thing. […] But I thought everything that I learned and read, and the little I played of the game, I thought was super clever, taking from all that stuff.”

Under this story group, the film changed to an original story about the villain LeChuck trying to unite all pirates, living and dead, under a single, terrifying flag. In this version of the story, Guybrush is portrayed as a Chum-Bait fisherman, living with his pet monkey sidekick, Sam. Much like in the earlier scripts, it’s his dream to become a mighty pirate, so when LeChuck shows up at the local SCUMM Bar recruiting pirates for his ship, Guybrush volunteers to join and accidentally becomes embroiled in a plot involving dancing monkeys, blood rituals, and pirate armadas.

“The story started to take on a different quality,” says Rosen. “It became more of a crew, more of a gang of pirates that Guybrush recruits […] so it became less of a solo adventure. Our original script was basically Guybrush and Elaine on a journey, and LeChuck [was the bad guy]. It was really simplified; it was like Romancing the Stone. [The new story] was about a young, idiot Guybrush Threepwood [who] wants to be a pirate, but he doesn’t really know what that is. So our chin-scratching analysis of that for the story was, ‘What does it mean to be a pirate?’ Guybrush thinks of piracy as this fun adventure, [but then] he crosses over with LeChuck, who is actually a demon … pirate.”

“That’s the part that really resonated with me — to have such a blinkered character who really wants something,” says Stacchi. “That’s what I got out of it. And you read the Defoe book on pirates, and that stuff is sort of in there. There are all these interesting stories about these guys who were straight-up thugs who turned into pirates, but then there’s all these noblemen who became pirates [too]. And that was Guybrush in a fun, cartoony nutshell.”

An illustration shows pirates approaching the cove of an island

Pirates arrive on the island in movie concept art, via 2011’s Monkey Island Special Edition Collection
Image: ILM via @eisnerguy1

The Pirates of the Caribbean ‘connection’

Two of the most pervasive myths about the Monkey Island film are that Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio were writers on the project and that they later recycled many of the elements from the unfinished film for their Pirates of the Caribbean movies. The truth, however, is much less straightforward.

While the story department was putting the finishing touches on this third draft of the story, one of the producers at ILM, Kim Bromley, started a series of lunchtime interviews where she hosted various professionals from across the film industry. ILM employees were invited to attend and ask questions, and the guests would often receive a tour of the offices afterward. According to Carson and Rosen, the screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, who later worked on Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and its sequels, were among those who visited the studio during this period, with Amblin helping to arrange the visit, hoping that the two would want to work on a new script for the project.

“They toured ILM and came over to the story group’s offices,” says Carson. “We talked with them about films they had developed, and we showed them the artwork we were working on for Monkey Island. What we didn’t know was at that time Ted and Terry were developing a script for Disney based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. They weren’t the first writers to tackle this assignment. Disney had, several times in the past, assigned writers to develop a script based on their ride, but no one had achieved a script that the studio put into production.”

Tony Stacchi adds, “We pitched them Monkey Island, which had artwork for every sequence and there was artwork for all the beats. […] All I remember from their response was like, ‘Look, you love pirate movies, we love pirate movies, nobody in Hollywood is going to make a pirate movie.’ […] Later, [when they announced Pirates of the Caribbean] I remember talking to Jim Morris about it and saying, ‘Hey, those guys are making a pirate movie, and they told us that nobody would make a pirate movie.’ And Jim went, ‘Yep, and we have all the special effects, so it’s a win-win.” ILM went on to win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest in 2006.

Some online have misinterpreted this pitch meeting as proof that the Pirates of the Caribbean writers were involved with the Monkey Island project, or that they later transformed it into Pirates of the Caribbean. But this simply isn’t true. The screenwriting duo, however, has been bombarded with questions about the connection ever since, with fans highlighting a resemblance between the films and the games. The pair have always denied any similarities as pure coincidence. For instance, in August 2006, Ted Elliott responded to a question on the duo’s screenwriting website, Wordplay, about whether they had played the Monkey Island games with a forum post titled “Nope”:

But wasn’t the Monkey Island game itself inspired by the Pirates of the Caribbean ride? I recall that after the first movie came out, someone said we ripped off the “prisoners calling dog with keys” from the game.

Terry Rossio waded in not long afterward, addressing other comparisons people were making between Monkey Island’s Voodoo Lady and Tia Dalma, a character introduced in the second Pirates of the Caribbean film:

Wow, people are strange.

I read through some of those posts made by people who are familiar with the game (I’ve not played it, but then, I’ve not played ANY video game … I couldn’t get past the first challenge of MYST).

Anyway, in several posts listed, people said stuff like, “Wow, look at the voodoo lady, man, that is so similar, taken directly from the game.”

It seems as though (from what I can glean) that the only similarity between the two characters is that each is a Voodoo Lady. Actually I did always feel less than brilliant on that character — like how Stephen King felt about Abigail in the STAND, writing a kind of standard black mystic character from the south, a gypsy queen, swamp lady, voodoo queen, etc). The character always felt a bit ‘stock’ (though we worked to make her as unique as we could).

Anyway — who would have thought that the choice to create a Voodoo Lady in a pirate film would lead a number of people to think we had to steal that idea from somwhere?

I was going to write a horror film with a witch character, but now I’m not so sure …

Despite these protestations, the rumor has refused to die, with fans and even some former members of LucasArts bringing it up when referring to the canceled Monkey Island film. Asked what he thinks about this, Carson makes it clear he doesn’t believe that the visit the writers paid to the studio had any great influence on Pirates of the Caribbean and its future success as a film franchise. Instead, he stresses how much he admires the writers and what they accomplished with the character of Jack Sparrow, before talking about the joy of getting to meet them and how important their advice was for learning the basics of screenwriting and story structure.

“Their website in those days — we were learning anything we could about story structure,” says Carson. “At least, I remember reading it all the time. I liked what they had to say, and it was great meeting them.” He goes on to echo Elliott’s sentiment: “I also don’t think it really matters. The games were inspired by the rides, so if a movie based on the ride is inspired by the games, it all seems like good fun to me.”

Tony Stacchi agrees: “The fundamental thing is that the inspiration for all these things is some people were really into the old pirate movies, but everybody was inspired by this odd ride at Disneyland that mixed living dead pirates with real pirates and skeletons, and it was just this strange little thing. We all just were taking from the same place, and honestly, any writer who starts working on a pirate movie […] all these themes of signing your name over, signing your soul over, that kind of stuff, is in the literature, so you’re going to end up there.”

Monkey business

LucasArts released the storyboards for this later version of the film in 2011, as part of the Monkey Island Special Edition Collection, a retail package containing the modern remakes of the first two Monkey Island games. These storyboards primarily show the art of Tony Stacchi and Steve Purcell, with some additional pieces from Garett Sheldrew, Delia Gosman, and David Carson. But arriving at this story layout had been difficult for the team.

“[Developing the story this far] did not go as smoothly as I would have hoped,” says Carson. “Story development is often contentious, and it was rare that we all saw things the same way. But we eventually managed to hash out a story that was a good start. The main character [Guybrush Threepwood] was one of the biggest challenges. While his character made a great avatar for the player of the game, it was harder to get a lock on who he was as the hero of the film [because he’s not typically heroic and much of his background is left unexplored].”

Beyond the problems of adaptation, there were also more troubling concerns. This included a second meeting with Spielberg. Jim Morris, Patty Blau, Rosen, and Tom Bertino (who was going to act as animation supervisor) were all present at this meeting.

“The first meeting was just this little table, but now Steven wanted to make the project the table … [imagine] this cartoonishly long conference room where Steven is sitting at one end, Tom Bertino is sitting at the other,” Rosen recalls. “The funny thing about Hollywood meetings and creative projects when you come up with ideas is, you’re like, ‘Oh, I have this great idea,’ and then the committee assembles. All of a sudden, this story that everyone was shaking hands on becomes, ‘What if we change the main character to a monkey?’”

“We gathered in Steven’s office, and the first thing he said was that we shouldn’t have the main characters be human,” Carson says. “Instead, he suggested we should make the movie be about the monkeys on Monkey Island. Everyone just nodded, but my heart stopped. What the heck? We had worked for several weeks on a story that was based on the charm and humor of the games, and Steven wanted to throw all that out and make some new story about monkeys? I was completely confused.

“The next week I met with Jim at ILM and told him I didn’t know where to go with the project,” Carson continues. “I didn’t have a script where the monkeys were the main characters, and I didn’t really believe that Steven would be interested in financing such a movie. Certainly, people who came to see the film because of their love for the games would be disappointed. And it was clear Steven wasn’t ready to finance a film based on our current story.”

Morris told Carson to keep improving and developing the existing treatment, realizing that the director was reluctant to make Spielberg’s suggested changes, but the project quickly lost steam. The story department continued working on it, developing artwork, and Rosen finished a screenplay, but it never entered production. Instead, ILM put the project aside, while waiting for the next financial steps to make the film a reality, with the team conceptualizing other ideas in the meantime.

“The [Monkey Island] story was in a good place […] so we just had an open season on pitching ideas,” says Rosen. “I had a heist movie that I pitched and developed into a beautiful pitch deck. We had a Tintin project. We just had a really great sort of bench of things.”

“We fell into a routine,” Carson says. “We would develop potential story ideas [for different animated feature films] and pitch them to each other once a week. The best ones would be fleshed out with more detail and some art, and once a month, those would get pitched to the ‘story advisory group.’ We had a number of stories that I think showed promise. I developed a story based on the Arabian Nights. There was a story that involved a number of rats that escape from a lab and meet up with rats living in the streets of New York. There was an idea for a story based on The Five Chinese Brothers. I even pitched A Princess of Mars as an idea. Any of these could arguably be developed into an entertaining film, but there was never an idea that the entire advisory group agreed was a surefire hit.”

“I like to think it wasn’t the project [itself] that didn’t go through,” says Stacchi. “I think it was just figuring out, ‘Who is going to pay for this?’ I think George Lucas and Jim Morris were very willing to do a very decent rate for anybody who wanted to finance the movie, just to get in the game of making digital features, but it was just too much of a risk.”

With the story department failing to produce a project that anyone had any confidence in, ILM dismantled it in 2001, and the Curse of Monkey Island film slowly passed into legend among fans of the game. Lucasfilm offered those involved with the project the opportunity to work elsewhere within the company, though some people departed to pursue other opportunities. Among them was Carson, who left Lucasfilm and ILM for the chance to work as an art director on a number of James Bond games for Electronic Arts.

Ten years later, ILM finally released its first digital feature, Rango, in 2011, in collaboration with a number of other studios. Ironically, Pirates of the Caribbean series director Gore Verbinski helmed the film.

With time behind them, many who were attached to the Monkey Island project, as well as individuals who worked on the games at LucasArts, say they are disappointed that the film never reached the screen, bringing the series to a new audience. But, they say, it wasn’t for a lack of effort.

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