Which Hollywood Studio Hid Its Priceless Papers in an Underground Salt Mine?

COURTESY OF JEFF KLEEMAN; Keith Myers/Kansas City Star/MCT/NEWSCOM; Inset: Presley Ann/Getty Images

Several companies once housed archives in Kansas, where unproduced scripts by Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen and Samuel Beckett were discovered in the '90s: "They had a ramshackle elevator; you’d go down with the shift of miners and come back up with the outgoing shift."

In 1993, Jeff Kleeman, then an executive at United Artists, was summoned to the office of his boss, John Calley, and invited to listen in on a phone call between Calley and one of his closest friends, Stanley Kubrick.

Calley had worked with the director on such pictures as 1971's A Clockwork Orange. Now that he was running UA, he wanted to know about a long-rumored project Kubrick was believed to have written for the studio: a biopic of Napoleon, purportedly designed with Jack Nicholson as the French emperor.

"So Calley called Kubrick and lets me listen in on the calls," remembers Kleeman, now president of Ellen DeGeneres' A Very Good Production. "He said to Kubrick, 'I've got this young executive, and I sent him to find your script but we don't have it. Could you send me a copy?' And Kubrick burst out laughing. He said, 'John, the reason your guy couldn't find it is, it doesn't exist. I made a deal, but I never wrote it.'"

Calley took Kubrick at his word and let the matter rest, at least for a while. But perhaps the studio chairman had lingering doubts, or knew his friend better than he let on, because soon he sent Kleeman on an out-of-state trip — and not just out of state but 650 feet underground, into a cavernous collection of galleries in Hutchinson, Kansas, where UA and several other firms including sister-company MGM held their archives. There, in a still-functioning salt mine, the Underground Vaults & Storage Co. kept innumerable papers and film reels protected by the dryness and the cold.

"There were miles and miles of tunnels, a whole underground city — there was even a 1950s car that had been dismantled and brought down piece by piece and rebuilt in the mine, which they used to drive around," recalls Kleeman. "They sent a group of us to go through everything because nothing was cataloged. So we met at 6:30 a.m. and were [each] given a hard hat, gas mask and flashlight. They had a ramshackle elevator; you'd go down with the shift of miners and come back up with the outgoing shift."

The delegation went through thousands of boxes with only flashlights for illumination. Among the Hollywood gems found amid the 26 acres of storage vaults (and many more acres of mines), buried beneath a 40-foot-thick salt formation, safe from hurricanes, fires and even a nuclear attack, were footage from The Wizard of Oz and 17 minutes of deleted scenes from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Kleeman found all sorts of other collectors' items: canceled checks for Michael Cimino's famed disaster Heaven's Gate (when it was still known as The Johnson County War) and unproduced scripts by everyone from Woody Allen to Samuel Beckett. One screenplay even had three author credits, jaw-dropping for anyone with a literary bent: Beckett, Harold Pinter and Eugene Ionesco. But amid all those boxes, none was marked "Kubrick." Then, just as Kleeman was about to give up, he says, "I open up this one script — and it's Napoleon."

The executive couldn't believe his luck. "I started screaming I was so excited," he says.

As soon as Kleeman got out of the mine shaft and back to his hotel, he called Calley, who couldn't help but laugh at his Kubrick's duplicity.

"He says, 'Fax me the first page,'" says Kleeman. "I fax it. And he doesn't call Kubrick, he just faxes him that page. And when Kubrick calls Calley, he says, 'Stanley! You did write the script! Let's make it.'"

Alas, the discovery didn't thrill the master filmmaker, who, contrary to his protestations, had spent years developing the project, for which he had even compiled 17,000 distinct images of Napoleon (some of which can be seen in Alison Castle's book Stanley Kubrick's Napoleon: The Greatest Movie Never Made).

"I don't want to make it," the director told Calley, "and I don't want it made."

Kubrick never did make his Napoleon, nor would he sanction another director working from his script. And so unmade the project remained until Kubrick's death in 1999.

As to other lost Hollywood treasures, don't expect to find any in Hutchinson, buried 650 feet under. UA no longer keeps its archive in the mine, according to a spokesperson. But other vaults are still there, and the mine itself is still in operation — digging up salt, not Hollywood gold.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.