Steven Seagal was all set to direct a Godfather-style drama in 1992 – but the plug was pulled on the $32m movie with just two weeks to go before filming started.

In 1994, Steven Seagal sent into cinemas to date his one and only directorial outing. On Deadly Ground was a mix of martial arts action film and environmental message feature, that Seagal starred in opposite Michael Caine and Joan Chen. It wasn’t a massively well received film, and was notable for having an original ending that contained a 40 minute environmental message, at the conclusion of your otherwise standard Steven Seagal outing.

That ending was something Seagal was passionate about, and at that time, he had clout with Warner Bros, the studio that agreed to pay for the picture. Warners was keen for a sequel to Under Siege, and so agreed to stump up the $50m to make On Deadly Ground, on the condition that it got an Under Siege 2 as part of the bargain.

Test audiences, it’d be fair to say, weren’t best pleased with the environmental epilogue to On Deadly Ground, and it took studio pressure before Seagal bowed to the inevitable and cut the final scene down. It wasn’t enough to save the movie, which did $38m of business.

However, if all had gone to plan, On Deadly Ground wouldn’t have been Seagal’s directorial debut at all. Instead, in 1992 he was trying to get a film off the ground by the name of Man Of Honor. And he got within two weeks of starting filming it too.

The movie would have marked his debut as director, and at point cameras were due to start rolling, the Under Siege box office had just hit. It wasn’t known at that point that it’d be his biggest career hit, of course, and after building up a career off the back of action hits in the 80s, it was felt that his big breakthrough had just happened.

Seagal, then, was seemingly in a position of some clout. But what stopped the film happening wasn’t a problem with the project per se, more some bad luck when it came to the timing, and studio politics.

The star had put together what was shaped into a 118-page screenplay – that he’d written with Jim Carabatsos – and originally Seagal had raised $20m of financing through a man called Joseph John. But Seagal ultimately walked away from that deal and instead, he found Hollywood money. Production company Morgan Creek was interested. It too had just had a sizeable hit with Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves, and it made its movies by sharing the risk with a studio partner.

In this case, the project was taken to 20th Century Fox, whose movie division was then being headed up by Joe Roth. Morgan Creek and Fox agreed to fund the film with Seagal at the helm, and it looked like it was a go project. Morgan Creek put in a third of the money (getting rights to the movie outside of the US), and Fox agreed to stump up the rest. Roth, crucially, was keen on the movie, and was moving the production along within the studio.

The film itself was quite an ambitious one. It’s the story of the son of a Mafia don, one who decides he doesn’t want the Mafia life. Thus, he chooses to reject said life. Variety described it back at the time as a “Godfather-style drama” and a $20m production budget was initially agreed. Filming was set to kick off at the end of 1992.

But just a fortnight before its start date, the production was pulled.

It’d been known for some time that Roth, who had been heading Fox’s movie side since 1989, was getting itchy feet. His contract had expired the previous summer, and he’d only stayed on when his boss, Barry Diller, had abruptly quit as the chairman of parent firm Fox, Inc. Roth agreed to provide some transition time, whilst Rupert Murdoch opted to take on Diller’s former role.

Roth had put together the studio’s Christmas 1992 slate – Home Alone 2, Hoffa and Toys – but wouldn’t be in post to see them released. Instead, a film director originally (he would go on, for instance, to make the Julia Roberts-headlined America’s Sweethearts), he signed a production deal with Disney where he could produce and make films himself. Ironically, he’d end up heading up Disney’s movie division by the time his tenure there ended, but the purposes of this story, he was out at Fox.

In a bizarre statement welcoming him to Disney, the company’s then-chairman Michael Eisner said that “you look at the future landscape of the entertainment business, and I’m convinced more and more that our company’s leverage is in software. Software is managed by people as opposed to machines, and the creation of intellectual product is what we do well. Joe Roth is one of the few people I can think of who can create the product, who is both fiscally responsible and creatively popular”.

“Software”. Hmmm. Nice way to describe films, that.

While this was playing out, those with Fox productions ready to go were inevitably nervous. The new regime at the studio was going to be one of austerity, and whilst the executives had been changing, Man Of Honor had been getting pricier. Seagal had pumped in a reported $1.5m of his own money to develop the project, but with sets built and the film nearly ready to go, the asking price had soared. The budget now stood at $32m.

The exact reason for what happened next remains clouded in some legalities, but the bottom line was that the plug was pulled. Fox initially blamed Morgan Creek for this, arguing that its partner had been reluctant to pay part of the increase. Seagal, though, had offered to make up some of the difference, and the head of Morgan Creek, James Robinson, protested that he was happy to proceed with the project.

Fox, then, seemed more the source of the problem. That this was seen as a Joe Roth-chaperoned project, and pretty much as soon as he was off the lot, the film got canned. That said, Roth too had become concerned about the budget.

Seagal was furious, and threats of lawsuits followed. But what became clear was that the project was pretty quickly dead. It can’t have helped that legal matters needed to play out (although it’s unclear how far they got, or whether they were ever resolved), which meant the project couldn’t be sold to another studio to pick up the about-to-start shoot.

What was clear was that even though Man Of Honor wasn’t happening, Seagal wanted to direct, and thus he turned his attention to another project he’d been working on. It was going by the working title of Rainbow Warrior, and Warner Bros was happy to pick up the tab. Wonderfully, the Alaska-based production of that film hit a delay too, because the studio – as the New York Times wryly observed, “Warner Bros. says there’s not enough snow in Alaska. This came as a surprise to Alaskans: Valdez is buried under almost four feet of snow, while Nome has 10 inches”.

The film got made – and did indeed get renamed On Deadly Ground – but failed to gain traction at the box office. Perhaps with it, any chance of Man Of Honor happening seemed to disappear (the more recent Seagal vehicle, Code Of Honor, is entirely unrelated). The script pops up online from time to time, but to date, Seagal has only been afforded the opportunity to direct one film. It looks unlikely that he’ll get a chance to do another, certainly at a price anywhere near $30m. But history could have been that bit different…

I’ll leave you with the speech from the end of On Deadly Ground. Remember, this is the truncated version…

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