“His job was to catch outlaws, and to collect taxes. And that’s a pretty shitty gig, you know? In our version, the Sheriff was basically a decent guy, a civil servant and a war hero.”
In January 2007, Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris took the chance that most aspiring writers only dream of: they sent their spec script out to Hollywood.
Their dream was carved from Nottingham, an upside-down take on the Robin Hood legend. The eponymous Hood would be a villain, and the Sheriff a hero; a 12th-century star of CSI: Sherwood Forest, saving society from a medieval terrorist menacing the respectable population.
Hollywood immediately bit; names like Warner Bros., New Line and DreamWorks threw themselves into the mix. And who was that on the phone? Only Russell Crowe, Oscar-winner and $20-million-per-movie star, asking to be their Sheriff.
Within 48 hours of hitting “send”, Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment were producing, and Reiff and Voris had sold their spec script to Universal Pictures for more than a million dollars. By April, Ridley Scott would be attached to direct, almost as much of a legend as the characters he would be bringing to life for them. It was a true Hollywood fairy tale; the stuff that dreams are made of.
Or at least, it would be, if Hollywood worked like that.
Reiff and Voris were not struggling artists writing from a Los Angeles garret – they were seasoned professionals whose Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated show Sleeper Cell had only just been cancelled – but spec script sales are rare, and seven-figure price tags (with another $500,000 upon going into production) are even rarer. It was the script – and its concept – which had Universal, DreamWorks, Warner Bros., New Line, and Columbia hooked. But for Ridley Scott, the script – the million-dollar-plus spec that producers had been crawling over each other to acquire – was the problem.
18 months later, in August 2008, Nottingham was faltering. The decision to fast-track the script had fizzled into nothing. Ridley put his director’s foot down, halted production, and ordered rewrites.
Perhaps sensing that a collective WTF was brewing, Universal Chairman Marc Shmuger told the Los Angeles Times that Nottingham was “really well written, but Ridley’s interest took him in a different direction.”
That “different direction”, as Shmuger and Universal were finding out, was another six million dollars in screenwriting fees and the systematic stripping-out of every unique element in the script. Shmuger refrained from explaining to the LA Times that Reiff and Voris were allegedly no longer having their calls returned; now it was the job of, firstly, L.A. Confidential Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland and then, when his version didn’t satisfy Scott, of British playwright Paul Webb, to try and pummel the director’s new version of the script into shape. “[Nottingham] was a hot screenplay,” Voris would recall. “And, ironically, I think the only person in Hollywood who didn’t seem to like it was Ridley Scott.”
Speaking much later, once the carcass of Reiff and Voris’ story had become just another Robin Hood, Scott deployed less diplomacy than Shmuger and Voris had. “It was fucking ridiculous,” he told the Sunday Times. “It was terrible, a page-one rewrite.”
So why had Scott signed on in the first place?
His connection to the film did not begin with the director’s chair. Scott had been at the heart of the bidding war for the “fucking ridiculous” script, trying to take Nottingham to 20th Century Fox as a producer before it was grabbed with both hands by Imagine and Universal. In failure, he had capitalised on his relationship with Brian Grazer at Imagine and signed on to direct instead. For a page-one rewrite, Scott seemed intensely keen.
The whisper on the wind was archery. A (disclaimer: rumoured) obsession had been brewing in Scott, and it’s no stretch to imagine that a Robin Hood story would have been the perfect bearer of this particular fruit. The seeds had been sown in public consciousness as early as Shmuger’s LA Times lunch in 2008. In trying to describe the “very visceral, very physical” film his director had turned his very expensive script into, the Universal Chairman simply mimed shooting a longbow.
The (disclaimer: rumoured) archery obsession chimed with the gritty, history-soaked direction Scott was rapidly steering his production in. Entire medieval villages were constructed; orchards were planted; new rivers were laid down. A French castle appeared in Surrey, and everything was covered in mud. “It’s kind of scary,” executive producer Charlie Schlissel admitted to the Telegraph. “But we’re taking one of the greatest British filmmakers and giving him one of the most classic British tales, so you expect him to bring some life to it.”
Life – but not as Reiff and Voris knew it. The vision being founded on the $130 million budget was Scott’s, and Scott’s alone. Theirs, of a Sherlock Holmes for Sherwood Forest, fell away, and three rewrites later, the Sheriff of Nottingham had been reduced to a bit-part in his own film. Helgeland’s unsuccessful pass had at least tried to pitch Nottingham and Hood as one person, but this medieval Fight Club did not survive, and by the time Tom Stoppard was brought in for on-set “dialogue polishing”, the original caped crusader was back at the centre of the action. The Leonardo Da Vinci-esque protagonist, with his anachronistic forensics and his appreciation for properly paid taxes, was ditched. Nottingham was dead.
Its date of death might be pinpointed to March 2009, when Robin Hood (or rather, at that stage, An Untitled Robin Hood Adventure) finally rolled into production with Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride, a common archer in Richard the Lionheart’s crusading army. The spec script’s killer might be considered Ridley Scott, in the Hollywood production office, with a bow and arrow. As far as Scott was concerned, he knew best. “[With Gladiator] everyone sniggered because they thought I was going to do a sandal and toga movie. But I knew exactly how to do it. And I know how to do Robin Hood.”
But in truth, Nottingham was doomed almost as soon as Reiff and Voris had sent it out in January 2007. “When I read that particular script, and no disrespect to the guys who wrote it, but it kind of read like CSI: Sherwood Forest to me,” Crowe told the same Sunday Times article during production in Bourne Woods, approximately 140 miles away from Sherwood Forest and where, 10 years earlier, he had been fighting Germanic tribes as Maximus Decimus Meridius. It turned out the million-dollar movie star who had attached himself to Nottingham within days “just wasn’t into doing that”. The first piece of the fairytale puzzle had been the exact thing which killed it.
Ten years after such an ill-fated birth and death, Nottingham‘s descendants are living on to tell the ever-told tale. The studios which fought and lost the bidding war are promising at least five – yes, five – future Robin Hood projects. Lionsgate’s own (imaginatively titled) Robin Hood drops in March 2018 with Taron Egerton as the new Russell Crowe. Warner Bros. are quietly grinding out a detail-free, as-yet-untitled script. Disney acquired the spec Nottingham & Hood from first-time writer Brandon Barker, and Sony find themselves juggling one Avengers-style Merry Men caper and the much more serious Margot Robbie vehicle, Marian.
The echo of Nottingham lives on in the sale of Barker’s spec and the re-imagination of Marian, rather than the Sheriff, as the character worth paying attention to. But for Nottingham itself, the legend ends. Eventually released as Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood in May 2010, three years, three rewrites, and $6.7 million in scriptwriting fees later, Nottingham is not even really a Best Film Never Made; its real tragedy is that, technically, it’s been produced. The combined forces of Hollywood – studio, star, and director – let their project mutate until it was too late, and now Reiff and Voris’ original script can only languish in perpetuity on the internet; not so much a fairy tale as it is a cautionary one.