The story of the Red Dwarf film that never was

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For many years, there were attempts to get a Red Dwarf film made – we take a look at why they didn’t work out…

Taking a hit science fiction comedy TV series to the big screen isn’t a guarantee it will get made.

Red Dwarf – as many of you know – is a British science fiction sitcom that was first broadcast on the 15th February 1988. It’s set on the huge mining ship Red Dwarf, three million years into the future, with just four inhabitants. Dave Lister (Craig Charles) is the last surviving human as the rest of the crew were wiped out in an accidental radiation leak. Lister was protected because he was in stasis as punishment for smuggling a cat aboard.

Lister wouldn’t be let out until the radiation levels had returned to safe levels – unfortunately, that was three million years later. Over that time, the cat, which turned out to be pregnant, had survived on the lower decks and had families. The last surviving cat on the ship was now in humanoid form and goes simply by the name ‘Cat’ (Danny JohnJules).

For social company, the ship’s computer, Holly (Norman Lovett), recreated Lister’s old bunkmate, Arnold Rimmer (Chris Barrie), in hologram form. Even though Rimmer and Lister were bunkmates, they didn’t get on. And that was your core group at first..

For the next eight series, these four characters, who would be joined by Kryten the mechanoid (Robert Llewellyn) from series three onwards, continued to have many hilarious adventures across the far reaches of space.

In 1999, after the eighth series had been broadcast, one of the show’s creators – Doug Naylor – headed to the BBC with his plans for series nine in hand. However, Naylor was surprised to hear that the BBC weren’t interested and wanted to pursue other projects.

Naylor saw this as an opportunity to try to continue the series as a feature-length movie and they kept the fans periodically updated on the official Red Dwarf website, which still runs today. For a while, it was edited by our much-missed friend and colleague, Seb Patrick

In an interview with the website, Naylor revealed his initial plans for the film. The budget was estimated to be approximately £18-19 million and was to be co-directed with Ed Bye, who had directed a swathe of comedy shows at the BBC including forty episodes of Red Dwarf.

The cast of Red Dwarf in costume.

The cast of Red Dwarf in costume.

With a project such as this, you already have a built-in fan base, but you can’t alienate the general public, so Red Dwarf: The Movie would be an entirely standalone project that didn’t connect to the series. As Naylor told the official Red Dwarf website, “the story begins before the series started, and then goes off in a direction that the series didn’t go off in. So, it’s set up and then has its own story, complete in itself, whilst still being able to assemble the cast that we know and love.

In August 2000, the four main actors were confirmed to be reprising their roles along with Chloë Annett, who joined the show in series seven as Lister’s romantic interest, Kristine Kochanski. Mac McDonald, who played Captain Hollister, would also be returning for this big-screen adaptation. Filming was set for May 2001.

At the start of 2001, it was confirmed that writer Naylor and director Bye had an office at Shepperton Studios and were hard at work on the script for a summer shoot. The aim was to release the film in 2002 with the following declaration, “With new Star Wars, Matrix and Star Trek episodes also due out around the same time, Red Dwarf: The Movie has one trump card to play: of all the major SF movies, it’s the only non-sequel!”

March 2001 rolls around then, and the cast assemble at the Orson Welles Building at Shepperton Studios to perform a reading of the completed script. There were worries that Danny John Jules wouldn’t be able to make it because of his filming commitments to Blade 2, which was shooting in Prague. Similarly, Robert Llewellyn was also busy filming his Channel 4 series Scrapheap – but both were able to make the session.

By all accounts a good time was had and the script was hailed as a success. The entire session was videotaped for reference (I wonder if that still exists? We’ve got a VHS player on standby, just in case) and everyone was now looking forward to making the film a reality.

As 2001 progressed, more details emerged from the official website of the talent that was hired. Many of the original production team of the series made the jump, including editor Mark Wybourn, sound supervisor Jem Whippey, casting director Linda Glover, make-up artist Andrea Finch and series costume designer Howard Burden.

The film’s co-producer, Patricia Carr, was hired and set up her office at Shepperton Studios. Having just recently produced The Mummy, her career had been incredibly impressive, working on such films as the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Alien³.

The splendid staff hiring continued with production designer Allan Cameron, who had designed sets for The Mummy and The Mummy Returns as well as working on Tomorrow Never Dies and the cult classic, Highlander.

Harvey Harrison was hired as director of photography. His previous credits included, you’ll notice a running theme here, the first two films of The Mummy series as well as The Witches, 102 Dalmatians and GoldeneEye.

Storyboard artist Jim Cornish, who worked on Lost In Space and Dinotopia, was already hard at work storyboarding select sequences and was joined by Denis Rich who, amongst other jobs, designed the opening credits to the original 1978 Superman.

It’s March 2001, and with sets still in the design stage, the crew and appropriate stand-ins for those unable to make it rehearse through a new updated version of the script, with tape on the studio floor to mark out set boundaries. Naylor again filmed the entire rehearsal and edited it together with existing Red Dwarf television footage and storyboards to approximate how the film will look. Again, our VHS player awaits.

On Thursday 8th June 2001, Paul Spateri, a prosthetic supervisor who had worked on Candyman and The Mummy, and at this time was also working on an upcoming film about some wizard, came in and covered actor Robert Llewellyn in plaster. For the film, not for sport. Spateri and his team created a full body cast and a separate head cast of Llewellyn so that the design team could use the moulds to create a perfect 1-1 dummy and start to design Krytens new costume for the film.

The special effects crew had already started building some of the spacecraft, and filming tests were being performed with those models. Just one brief shot was included as an extra on one of the Red Dwarf DVD releases.

In July 2001, the official website managed a quick interview with Naylor, who revealed that Ed Bye had unfortunately had to leave the project and he would take on the directing duties himself.

With a signed cast, impressive production team and rehearsals underway, it all sounds happily optimistic – except that was the last recorded update. It all went deathly quiet.

Fast forward three years to July 2004 and it’s the Red Dwarf fan convention known as Dimension Jump. Naylor couldn’t make a personal appearance but he did send a detailed statement about the current status of the Red Dwarf movie.

The original vision was a film budgeted at £15m, and an unnamed company had promised to invest £10m. Naylor got to work on the script but nine months later, when he had finished writing, presumably in the 2001 period when pre-production was in full swing, the aforementioned company's share value had plummeted, and they no longer had the money to invest.

Naylor went on to say that he created a tax incentive EIS scheme that took a year to arrange and a cost running into six figures. This scheme helped riskier companies by giving their investors tax relief, which made them a more appealing investment opportunity.

Unfortunately, at the last minute, the founders got cold feet and the whole project fell through. The impressive list of production staff had to be disbanded. For now, the Red Dwarf movie was back to square one.

Red Dwarf cast and logo

The cast of Red Dwarf. All series of the are currently available on DVD.

Refusing to give up, Naylor travelled the world to find studio space to use, as England was booked up with big American films. He ended up in Australia trying to secure funding.

At the end of 2001 another chance came, with a managing director of another company offering the money and claiming they would be in production two weeks into the new year. However, they rang back in the new year and cancelled the offer. After discussing it with the second in command at the company, the managing director decided against it. As Naylor recalls, “'But I thought you were the boss?’ I said, ‘I am but I have to do what my number two says,’ he replied.

That’s just how it works at this site, too. Lauren is secretly in charge. Don’t tell her we’ve worked it out.

Sometime later, Naylor found a distributor who offered the full amount of cash needed to get going and started selling the film to different countries around the world. In a ‘you couldn’t make it up!’ moment, the CEO of the distributor left and was replaced by the managing director of the previous offer! He slashed the budget in half to £6m which was unworkable and Naylor had to withdraw and find another opportunity.

Naylor kept going. He joined a UK funding body that was going to provide money to a large slate of UK films, which was unveiled to lots of press coverage. But a year later, Naylor discovered that no money had been raised and no one knew that the first film in line was Red Dwarf. The funding body didn’t think it would make any difference telling anyone!

For a short time, the folks at the special effects company WETA were involved. They were huge fans of Red Dwarf and wanted to help work on the film, even offering a discount on their fees. WETA had just finished working on Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King and director Peter Jackson was going to take a break, hence their offer of work. But Jackson then went straight into production on King Kong and the opportunity was gone.

There was even a call from an Australian man claiming to be the Duke of Manchester offering £60m as he had just withdrawn the investment money from a Will Smith film. He was a huge Red Dwarf fan and wanted to help. The Duke of Manchester told them he could fly over the next day for a meeting, but he just needed Naylor to pay the airfare and asked if he could sleep on their couch as well. An alarm bell rang.

Naylor politely asked for proof of his wealth and after receiving a fax with a fake bank account statement claiming to hold £100m, it was time to start the search again.

The list of failed opportunities kept growing, and the reasons became more and more bizarre. Film Four weren’t interested. BBC Films rejected them, saying it wasn’t what they were looking for. How much profit had the show made the BBC at this point in selling the series around the world and with merchandising sales on top as well?

The British Film Council rejected the film for being “too commercial.” “’We’re not in the business’, they said, ‘of helping people turn highly successful TV series into successful feature films.’

Naylor was about to meet some American investors, and was incredibly optimistic that the financing was coming. He even revealed that several years beforehand another American investor would be happy to lend the money if the cast were replaced with American stars. When Naylor baulked at the idea, they compromised and suggested British film stars instead, “Why not have Hugh Grant as Lister? And what’s Emma Thompson doing these days?” The meeting quickly ended there.

This is where any further details of the attempt to get the film off the ground run dry, and as we know today, the film never happened.

Around 2002, a flyer was discovered that promoted the series and was intended to drum up interest from investors in getting a feature film financed. From this flyer, of which scans can be found online, we can read the official synopsis for the film…

RED DWARF THE MOVIE is set in the distant future where Homo Sapienoids, a fearsome combination of flesh and machine, and the next stage of human evolution, have taken over the solar system and almost wiped out the human race. The only survivors are the crews of long-haul space freighters that left Earth before the conflict began. The Sapienoids send forth fleets of Death Ships to hunt them down. One by one – the human ships fall, until only one remains. Its name – Red Dwarf…

In 2015, a 26-page dossier of concept artwork was discovered in a car boot sale, of all places! Most of the artwork contained the name Dominic Lavery, who was contacted for confirmation. There was little he could say due to a still-standing non-disclosure agreement but he confirmed the artwork to be genuine.

The artwork included the Red Dwarf crew in their familiar attire with Kryten getting a new look, a ship called the Rogue Limpit, a creature called a Paradroid and a character called Her Holiness in various revealing costumes.

What miniature models had been built for the film were reportedly held onto by the crew at Shepperton Studios. The model of the Red Dwarf spaceship, as seen in the YouTube clip above, was shortened and repurposed for the Dave television series.

Other models were stripped and broken down, and were used in the creation of the moon base for Duncan Jones’s 2009 film, Moon.

However, for fans, all was not lost. The UK satellite channel Dave, yes there is a channel with that name, commissioned Red Dwarf: Back To Earth, a three-part series, in 2009. This was effectively the series nine fans had been waiting almost a decade for, and that wasn’t the end with Red Dwarf X (2012), Red Dwarf XI (2016) and Red Dwarf XII (2017) to follow.

Elements from the many drafts written for the movie were incorporated into the new series for Dave. How many rewrites were there? In an interview with Den of Geek in 2012, Naylor revealed that “there were so many drafts of the film, 35 altogether, and they all had different stories in them. I was asked so many times to rewrite it to increase the budget, first of all because the backers didn’t feel it was worth their while getting involved unless it was a big budget. When they pulled out, different backers wanted me to reduce it so there were a lot of different budgets and stories. So, I had a lot of bits floating that could be used.

In 2020, you could say we finally got a film when a 90-minute episode entitled Red Dwarf: The Promised Land was aired.  But then again, as Craig Charles told Den of Geek in a 2012 interview, if they were to do a film, he wouldn’t want to leave the TV series because that’s where it works best. Turns out, fate may have been listening…

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