Hippie Hippie Shake remains one of the most expensive British productions of the last 20 years to never actually be seen. Why did Working Title’s film never see the light of day?
One of the problems that director Martin Scorsese faced when adapting Nicholas Pileggi’s book Casino: Love And Honor In Las Vegas to the big screen was that, at heart, it was based on real people.
Scorsese had faced this to a degree when he adapted Pileggi’s Goodfellas for the big screen a few years previously, but there was a crucial difference when it came to Casino: that in this case the film was released first. As such, it was the film that had to be legally interrogated, so that those named or implied in the movie wouldn’t seek expensive legal redress. The work had been done for Goodfellas with the book publication that preceded the movie, so it wasn’t a problem come the film. With Casino, lawyers made several recommendations to Scorsese as to changes they recommended making. You can guess how that went down.
But making films about real people, particularly contemporary figures, comes with real risk. That’s certainly something that Britain’s most successful movie production company, Working Title, came up against when it invested in what looked like a must-see drama, Hippie Hippie Shake.
Return to Oz
The film was the dramatic retelling of an infamous obscenity trial from 1971, centred on Oz magazine (which had begun in Australia and then launched in London). A story in itself, the magazine at this stage was under the stewardship of Richard Neville, Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis. Germaine Greer was amongst its writers.
The magazine found itself in the crosshairs of the Obscene Publications Squad, leading to charges being levelled against Neville, Anderson and Dennis. In the end, after struggling to find representation, the defence was in part overseen by John Mortimer, who would go on to create Rumpole Of The Bailey. Long story short, the extensive trial saw the trio found not guilty of the main charge levelled against them, but guilty of two lesser offences. Felix Dennis would get a shorter sentence than his two co-defendants as the judge felt he was “very much less intelligent” than the others.
It’s worth noting that by the time of his death in 2014, Dennis was a near-billionaire, having started his Dennis Publishing media company and in his later years, become a successful poet too.
Richard Neville ultimately turned the story of Oz magazine and its trial into his memoir, Hippie Hippie Shake: The Dreams, The Trips, The Trials, The Love-Ins, The Screw Ups: The Sixties.
And that’s where Working Title entered the story.
The firm snapped up the rights to the story, just as one of its most successful films, Notting Hill, was heading into production. That movie would be a gigantic hit the year after: it’d be nearly a decade before the movie Hippie Hippie Shake finally got before the cameras.
The journey to that point was a mix of writers and directors coming and going. Screenplays were worked on by the likes of Don McPherson, Tom Butterworth, William Nicholson and Billy Elliot scribe Lee Hall, the latter getting sole credit on the finished script.
Director-wise, Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth) was attached in the early 2000s, then Beeban Kidron (Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason) was linked. She would sign on the dotted line, and filming finally got underway in 2007.
The official synopsis was issued too. It read:
The landmark obscenity trial surrounding a satirical Australian magazine becomes a metaphor for a wild ride through swinging 1960s-era London in director Beeban Kidron’s adaptation of Richard Neville’s memoir Hippie Hippie Shake: The Dreams, the Trips, the Trials, the Love-ins, the Screw Ups: The Sixties. Cillian Murphy stars as Neville in a film that follows the editors of Oz as they relocate to London and are forced to defend a sexually explicit issue of their irreverent magazine after it raises the eyebrows of the Obscene Publications Squad. The resulting legal battle would become the longest obscenity trial in the history of English law. Though the publishers of Oz were initially sentenced to hard labor, a subsequent appeal would find their sentences commuted under the agreement that they cease publication of the controversial magazine.
The first hint of trouble ahead came when Germaine Greer voiced her displeasure at the existence of the film, with Emma Booth cast to play her in the movie. She refused to meet with Booth, although others did meet their real-life counterparts. The ensemble cast had attracted Sienna Miller, Chris O’Dowd, Daniel Mays, Derek Jacobi, Cillian Murphy, Max Minghella and Hugh Bonneville amongst others, and let’s just say that some had more luck than others with their research.
Come the end of principal photography, initially things seemed on track for a release by 2009 at the latest. Yet post-production brought with it problems and wrangles, and to this day most of the exact story of what happened next is squirrelled away somewhere.
What is known is that test screenings of the film took place, one of which was attended by a correspondent for the infamous website Ain’t It Cool News. Notwithstanding the fact that the report of the screening seemed fixated on one of the actors san clothes, the post was generally positive. It’s still available here.
Nonetheless, finding a workable cut of the film was proving problematic. Further location filming took place in London at the end of 2009, so there were clearly reshoots. But by then, there had been changes behind the camera. Both Lee Hall and Beeban Kidron had walked away from the film, citing “creative differences”. Kidron would confirm to The Times that she’d tried incredibly hard to get the film done, but in the end had to quit. She described the process as “very wounding”.
Notwithstanding the fact that the report of the screening seemed fixated on one of the actors san clothes, the post was generally positive
At that time, Working Title was moved to confirm that it still had plans for a cinema release for the movie, and that it wouldn’t – as had been rumoured – be sending the film direct to DVD. Certainly stumping up for reshoots suggested that was its intention too.
Richard Neville also confirmed that the cut had gone through sizeable changes. He would explain to the Sydney Morning Herald that “we saw the first cut of the film – Jim, I and other Oz people – and there was a lot of disappointment”. He added that “we made a lot of suggestions to the producers”, concluding “the final cut was very much better. It wasn’t a work of genius but it was a watchable film”.
While all this was going on, Working Title itself had problems. Richard Curtis’ movie The Boat That Rocked failed to ignite commercially to the level it’d been expected, and the firm would make redundancies in the aftermath of its release.
Furthermore, another expensive production on its slate – Green Zone – was gobbling up resources, with Paul Greengrass directing Matt Damon following their collaboration on two Bourne movies. However, when that film landed in 2010, lightning wouldn’t strike a third time, and Working Title was left with an awful lot of red ink when its box office fell well short of expectations.
What Working Title definitely had though was a finished version of Hippie Hippie Shake. And yet it never saw the light of day. There are a couple of theories as to why that was.
The first is related to the commercial problems that Working Title was having. Universal was, as usual, set to release the film, but there were question marks as to how well it’d play. Neville is one of the few to go on the record about this, suggesting that “Universal Pictures decided to shelve the film and save themselves a lot of tax payments”.
This has proven to be a repeated working theory too. As has the one that in the aftermath of Green Zone’s commercial failure, Hippie Hippie Shake was written off entirely as an accounting move to help limit losses. The rumoured condition from insurers was that the negative of the movie was destroyed. It’d be a genuine surprise of no version of the film is in a vault somewhere, digital or analogue, somewhere.
Nonetheless, the eventual theatrical release that had been mooted for February 2010 had long been abandoned by this stage (effects firm DNEG still lists it for 21st May 2010 here), in spite of a smattering of decent reviews popping up.
Then, in early 2011, Working Title confirmed that the movie – that one estimate suggests cost £20m to realise, although that number is far from ratified – would not be heading into cinemas at all. Mike Baard of Universal Pictures Australia was quoted as saying that he suspected the film was “going to land in the direct-to-video bin”.
But it never even got that far, which is where theory two also comes in.
For there were whispers – again, nothing more than that – that at least one person portrayed in the movie was moved to pursue legal action against the production. That legal action never materialised, and not all the people involved are still with us. However, there was a story that there was an inclination to test the legal waters, or at least a suggestion of that.
Let’s work that hypothetically: if there was something to that, then Working Title – already seemingly looking at a costly film that was unlikely to recoup its investment or win Oscars – would have been more inclined to entirely cut its losses. Just the threat of a legal case, when some very rich people were involved, might be enough to call it a day.
Barely anyone has suggested anything about this on record, although Sienna Miller did pair some fire with the smoke in an interview back in 2017 with Yahoo! Movies. She told the site that she felt the movie would never be released, adding “I did see a rough cut of it and it was a pretty beautiful film, but there was some legal something or other. I don’t know”.
Which would, from the outside looking in, all make more sense.
Going back to the story of Martin Scorsese and Casino, he did eventually have to make some concessions to protect his film from lawyer interest. Was the same option though on the table for Hippie Hippie Shake, where by nature of the project there was no attempt to obfuscate just who it was about? Was a reworking in post-production to shield the film from legal matters even possible? Likely not.
There’s little suggestion that the film itself was a disaster, and by the sounds of it productions a lot worse have made it to the screen. Furthermore, in spite of pretty obvious behind the scenes creative battles – after all, not every film has its director and screenwriter walk away separately in post-production (appreciating that Kidron and Hall are married, they left the project at different points) – the film made it to some form of completion.
Yet it’s destined to never be seen, at least not anytime soon.
Over a decade since it was apparently finished, barely anybody expects Hippie Hippie Shake to magically appear. It may, of course, have been entirely destroyed, a curio resurrected for articles such as this. But if there is a version out there somewhere, why wouldn’t there be a temptation to quietly slip it onto YouTube?
The answer is likely above the pay grade of most of us. But don’t bet against the fact that it involve lawyers, or accountants. Or both…