UPDATE: After this article was published, director Bryan Singer was fired from the Queen biopic.
After nearly a decade of false starts, it was finally beginning to feel like the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody was on the horizon. And then, last week, production was unexpectedly halted when 20th Century Fox put the movie in limbo due to the “unexpected unavailability” of director Bryan Singer. Then on Monday (Dec. 4), it was announced that Singer had been fired from the biopic. It’s just the latest hiccup in the film’s long, meandering path to the big screen, which has been full of cast and production shuffles, storyline shifts and, now, the bizarre ghosting of its director.
How did we get here? A brief timeline of Rhapsody‘s operatic slow-walk to the multiplex.
2008: Rumblings begin about a film chronicling the life of the flamboyant Queen singer, who died in 1991 following a private battle with AIDS. Among the first names attached to the project is screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), who enters into talks with surviving members guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor.
2010: Borat/The Dictator star Sacha Baron Cohen throws his hat in the ring as the star of the film, with May confirming in September of that year that the project is a go with Graham King executive producing what was then described as focusing on the period leading up to the band’s iconic 1985 show at Wembley Arena. At the time, filming was set to begin the following year. The first inkling that there might be trouble on the horizon comes Morgan tells Cinemablend that he thinks the living Queen band members might not love the direction he and the controversial comedian are going with the story.
“I think they’ll recognize the truth in it, but it’s a series of painful memories for them,” he says.
2011: The expected start of filming comes and goes with no word on any forward progress as May expresses the first of his reservations about the content, telling The Daily Record in Scotland, “we have resisted making this film for a long time and it is only now we feel we have the right people that we have given it the OK.” May says Cohen “does seem perfect” for the role and that the Ali G actor is the one who has been pushing forward on the project, even if the band was approaching the movie with “a certain amount of caution” in an effort to preserve Mercury’s legacy.
By year’s end, King says he’s eager to get going with Cohen as Mercury, adding “Who better to play Freddie Mercury than Sacha Baron Cohen? You never know [if a film will actually come together] until it’s done, but I’m hoping [he plays the part]. He’s so talented, and you see a side to him in Hugo that no one had ever seen before. Very emotional, and very heartfelt.” It was unclear at that point if Morgan’s script was still the go-to, since he was then also working on a reboot of Tomb Raider and the adaptation of the Jersey Boys musical.
2012: Deadline reports that Tom Hooper could reconnect with his Les Miserables star Cohen for the film, noting that King and Tim Headington are producing along with Robert de Niro and Jane Rosenthal with Queen Films. Another director whose name gets in the mix? David Fincher (Gone Girl, The Social Network). One person who is not involved, though, is Katy Perry, who denies she’s being courted to play Mercury’s girlfriend Mary Austin in the movie. By year’s end, May writes on his blog that the movie is scheduled to start filming in the spring of 2013, with a release the following year.
2013: Cohen unexpectedly bails after Deadline reports that he was more interested in a “gritty R-rate tell-all centered around the gifted gay singer” while the band had more of a PG-rated film in mind. The article notes that none of the directors Cohen was keen on were approved by the band and because of the creative differences between the two sides no formal offer could go out to any of them. In September, Morgan tells the BBC the films is “probably not going to happen” without Cohen.
A few weeks later, Taylor reveals to Mojo that the group were afraid Cohen “wasn’t right in the end. We didn’t want it to be a joke. We want people to be moved.” Other names floated to take over the lead role: Dominic Cooper (Preacher) and Ben Whishaw (Skyfall), with the latter confirmed for the role in December, with new director Dexter Fletcher (Kick-Ass) signing up as well.
2014: The worm turns again, as Fletcher bails over his own creative differences when he and King “didn’t see eye to eye on what will be an R-rated pic about Mercury.” While Whishaw is still in place, by mid-year he seems unsure about the film’s status, telling Time Out: “I don’t know what’s happening, it seems to be on a back burner,” citing script issues.
2015: No updates are available for most of the year until November when Anthony McCarten (Theory of Everything) is hired to take a swing at the script, now called Bohemian Rhapsody, even though Whishaw is apparently not contractually locked in yet.
2016: After staying quiet about his departure for several years, Cohen goes on Howard Stern’s SiriusXM radio show to reveal that an unnamed member of the band explained to him that the movie was going to be so great because “it’s got such an amazing thing that happens in the middle.” That thing, according to Cohen, was Mercury’s death, which the band member said is followed by the second half of the story, where viewers will see “how the band carries on from strength to strength.” Needless to day, Cohen did not believe that version of the movie was for him.
Several weeks later May shot back, saying “Sacha became an arse. We had some nice times with Sacha kicking around ideas, but he went off and told untruths about what happened… we decided he wasn’t right for the role for very good reasons, which will become apparent if you watch what he’s done recently. It’s obvious that it wasn’t going to work, him playing Freddie. It wouldn’t suspend your disbelief. We’re hoping Ben Whishaw will do it. He’s fabulous – a real actor.”
By year’s end, Deadline reports that Bryan Singer (X-Men) is in talks to direct, with a new lead actor in the mix, rising star Rami Malek, the Emmy-winning star of Mr. Robot. And, not for nothing, the new Freddie is as much of a dead-ringer for Mercury as Cohen was, maybe more.
2017: Malek confirms he’s going to “sing a little bit” as Mercury. “I’m stoked. I mean, one of the most iconic bands ever, and just to be a part of that is huge,” he says, revealing in a later interview that he watched May and Taylor review his audition tape in person.
In August the rest of the cast began to fall into place, with Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse) playing Taylor, Gwilym Lee (The Tourist) as May and Joseph Mazzello (The Social Network) playing bassist John Deacon, with Allen Leech (The Imitation Game) playing the personal assistant who revealed Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis, Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin and Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) tapped to write the script. The new release date is announced as December 25, 2018.
In a great sign, Entertainment Weekly posts the first official look of Malek as Mercury, proving his uncanny physical resemblance to the singer. “When you’re able to open your eyes and see a different person staring back at you in the mirror it’s a very affirming moment,” he says. Malek also confirms he’s been in Abbey Road Studios, “if that should say anything to you. I’m not working on my acting.”
Rami Malek is Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody first look https://t.co/56TyA1ve9a
— Entertainment Weekly (@EW) September 5, 2017
Filming finally begins in Septembrer in England on a replica of the Wembley stage, with several more names added to the cast: Aidan Gillen (Game of Thrones) and Tom Hollander (Tulip Fever) as the band’s managers John Reid and Jim Beach.
And then, just like that, things are thrown into a spiral once again on Dec. 1 when The Hollywood Reporter reveals that Twentieth Century Fox Film has “temporarily halted production” due to the “unexpected unavailability” of director Singer, after the filmmaker did not return to the set after the Thanksgiving break. While some reports tie the mysterious absence to a health issue, THR reports that producers and Malek had “grown tired” of Singer’s behavior, which reportedly included his frequent lateness to set. Indeed, Singer was fired from the biopic on Monday (Dec. 4).