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Ever since Sergio Leone made his pair of ‘Once Upon a Time…” movies (a masterful pair of films at that) other writers and directors have cribbed the title for their own work. Jet Li gained popularity with Once Upon a Time in China. Robert Rodriguez obviously nodded to Leone with Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and Quentin Tarantino did the same with the title card and early tagline for Inglourious Basterds. (“Once Upon a Time in Occupied France…”) Now Lee Shipman and Brian McGreevy will be able to add their script, Once Upon a Time in Hell, to the list. After being listed on the 2009 Black List of popular unproduced screenplays, their work has been bought by Phoenix Pictures. The big question is: how has a movie not already been made with this title?

The story is based on the classic revenge story by Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo. THR says that the film “updates the story to modern London’s organized crime underworld.” That suggests that the script has been changed a bit, as the logline when the script appeared on the Black List was “A gritty, contemporary retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo set in the underworld of the Hell’s Kitchen Irish mob.” Big difference between London and New York — different style of mob, different style of movie. Set in Hell’s Kitchen, the title is grounded; moved to London it could just be lurid.

Now, many of the Black List loglines end up being somewhat lousy; I’ve talked to a couple of listed writers who weren’t too impressed with the one-line representations of their script. I can’t find a script review of the Black Listed draft, but I doubt that a logline would be so bad that it gets the location completely wrong.

Phoenix’s David Thwaites points to Heat and Collateral as indicators of the tone of the film they want to make, and says, “We want to do a very slick, Hollywood-style underground gangster film.” Now, if I had to break down that sentence into columns, slick and Hollywood-style would be in one and underground would be in the other — they arguably cancel each other out. Matter and anti-matter as far as style goes. Given that that’s what they want to do, Collateral is a great touchstone, as it did unify the Hollywood and underground impulses to some degree. We’ll see what Once Upon a Time in Hell manages. Will it be better than the 2002 direct adaptation of Dumas featuring Jim Caviezel and Guy Pearce? Guillermo del Toro has also talked about wanting to adapt the novel into a gothic western, but he’s got so much to do already…

[Note: the illustration for this article is a still from The End, Nicola Collins’ documentary about gangsters in London’s East End.)

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