The history of the “Untitled Milli Vanilli Movie” has been almost as much of a roller coaster ride as the duo’s infamous career. The latest roadblock for the biopic, which dates back to a 2007 screenplay by fan Jeff Nathanson, who wanted to direct the film himself, was the demise of Brett Ratner’s $450 million co-financing deal with Warner Bros. for his RatPac Entertainment, which the studio officially announced it wouldn’t renew on April 10. The company was responsible for some of the studio’s biggest hits last year, including “Wonder Woman,” “It,” “Dunkirk” and “The Lego Batman Movie.”
Ratner was set to take the director’s chair for the proposed $20-30 million production, helming his first project since 2014’s “Hercules.” Shooting was planned for both Berlin and Los Angeles, but once Ratner became the subject of sexual harassment accusations late last year, the momentum stopped.
Milli Vanilli’s epic rise and fall began when Fab Morvan and the late Rob Pilatus met on the German dance scene, their worldwide breakthrough engineered by then-powerhouse Euro producer Frank Farian. After signing to Clive Davis and Arista in the U.S., Milli Vanilli’s 1989 debut album, “Girl, You Know It’s True,” produced five Top 5 pop hits (including three #1’s and a #2) and spent eight weeks at #1 on the Billboard 200, ultimately selling 14 million globally. When a sound system mishap while on an MTV-promoted tour revealed the twosome to be mouthing to pre-existing vocal tracks – lip-synching — the duo publicly returned their Grammy for Best New Artist.
Nathanson’s screenplay was originally optioned by the husband/wife team of Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall for Universal before Kennedy left for LucasFilm in 2012, with Marshall still retaining the rights, for which he could be asking as much as $1 million. When Ratner originally dropped out, Kennedy tapped Oscar-winning German director Florian Gallenberger, who took home an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2001 for “Quiero Ser (I Want to Be).” At one point during the process, French actor/comic Omar Sy – who starred in the worldwide comedy hit “The Intouchables” — was considered for one of the leads.
Before he abruptly lost his deal at Warner Bros., Ratner reportedly told people he had Oscar winner Christoph Waltz lined up to play the villainous Farian and was set to cast Les Twins – identical twin brothers Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois – as Rob and Fab. The pair, already famous in France for their YouTube videos, finished first in Jennifer Lopez’ 2017 reality competition TV series “World of Dance,” earning a $1 million grand prize. They also served as back-up dancers for Beyonce, Meghan Trainor and Missy Elliott, and have modeled for Jean Paul Gaultier as well as several high-profile TV advertising campaigns, which fit in perfectly with Milli Vanilli’s fashion roots.
Nathanson, an avowed Milli Vanilli fan, first contacted Morvan’s manager (and the movie’s executive producer) Kim Marlowe through the band website, and subsequently penned the treatment. Shortly afterward, Ratner, also an admirer of the duo, attached himself to direct what he described as a “passion project” for him. The screenplay offered a revision to the conventional narrative, with Rob and Fab portrayed as sympathetic victims of rampant greed and exploitation at the hands of the record industry machinery.
An early version of Nathanson’s treatment also deals with the class action consumer fraud case, which wound its way through the courts, as the label was ultimately forced to compensate buyers who claimed to be duped.
Milli Vanilli’s Pilatus died in 1998 of a suspected drug overdose, while Morvan has continued his solo career in Amsterdam, where he has become part of the local dance music scene.
With rights reverting back to executive producer Marlowe, who has remained steady as the film has traveled its winding path and is confident the movie will find a new home. “This is a compelling story that has yet to be told,” she says. “The movie has all the elements for success, including vintage MTV style, great dance sequences and a narrative that has both triumph and tragedy.”
Adds leading entertainment attorney Eric Greenspan, partner at L.A. firm of Myman Greenspan Fineman Fox Rosenberg & Light, who represents Marlowe on the project: “As George Santayana once said, ‘Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it…’ There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the Milli Vanilli story that still resonate today.”
Speaking to Variety by phone from Amsterdam, Milli Vanilli’s surviving member Morvan is ever-optimistic the movie will get made one day. “We made history once,” he says. “We’re ready to do it again.”