12 movies (almost) ruined by studio interference
We have spoken about it before and now Alex Garland’s follow-up to 2015’s Ex-Machina, an adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy), is upon us. However, recently, it hasn’t been an easy road for Garland and the folks behind the film, with test screenings bringing about an attempt to meddle with the film’s intended vision, until producer Scott Rudin stepped in.
This is not the first time something like this has happened. Studio interference has been around since the beginning of cinema but has been becoming more prominent in the last four or so decades, after projects such as Sorcerer, Heaven’s Gate and One from the Heart led to the collapse of New Hollywood. Sometimes it’s for the good, but other times it is not. So for this post, we are counting down the top five (plus seven dishonourable mentions) most irritating cases of studio interference. Enjoy.
Blade Runner (1982)
Director: Ridley Scott
The subject of a previous blog post, Blade Runner had a pretty troubled route getting to the big screen. Tensions between the British and American crews and a problematic production schedule were just the tip of the iceberg compared to what lurked beneath.
In fact, Blade Runner and Annihilation share similar post-production conflicts, only with different outcomes. Both didn’t do too well in test screenings, but whereas Rudin and Garland stood their ground against potential executive meddling, Scott was not so lucky.
Warner Bros took the film out of Scott’s hands and added in a tacked on voiceover narration and happy ending (made up of unused footage from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining). The result was a film that met with a mixed critical reception and dismal box-office returns, especially since it came out in the wake of the more uplifting E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and alongside other sci-fi and fantasy features as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian and John Carpenter’s similarly fated remake of The Thing.
Thus, Blade Runner remained in obscurity until the early nineties when Scott released the director’s cut and thus the film was hailed as a lost classic and received a cult following. Hopefully, the same will be said of its less-meddled sequel that was released in similar circumstances last year.
Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
Director: Sergio Leone
After successes in the western genre and making his proper English language debut (dubs of his prior films not counting), things did not go well for Sergio Leone during the making of his passion project Once Upon a Time in America.
Telling the story of two hoodlums as they grew up in New York over four decades in a non-linear manner, the film bowed at Cannes with a running time of around four hours, which is how it remained for international release (USSR excluded).
However, stateside, Warner Bros took the film completely out of Leone’s hands, gutted it of most of its story (bringing it down to two hours and nineteen minutes) and rearranged the film into chronological order. And not to mention failing to fill out the necessary paperwork which cost Ennio Morricone a chance to be Oscar nominated for the film’s magnificent score.
All of this serves as a sad end to the career of a great European auteur as Leone would pass away five years later whilst preparing a movie about the Battle of Stalingrad. But since 2001, the film has been restored to Leone’s original vision and has been recognised as the landmark film that it is, allegedly with more restorations on the way (such as the one premiering at Cannes in 2012).
Director: Terry Gilliam
Yeesh, this is going to be a big case. Terry Gilliam’s Brazil stands as one of the crowning achievements in the director’s oeuvre. A comedic satire of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, filled with nightmarishly surreal imagery and the Python-esque humour that made him prominent (including writing contributions from Tom Stoppard). However, it nearly didn’t end up this way.
The film had two distributors. Universal would be handling the film’s American release while 20th Century Fox would be releasing the film overseas. The international release went without a hitch, however it was a quite a different story at Universal. Unhappy with Gilliam’s original cut, Sid Sheinberg (a man who that same year demanded Back to the Future be titled Spaceman from Pluto) ordered an editor to go behind the director’s back to cut the film down around an hour forty, throw in some rock music to ‘attract the teens’ and replace the original downer ending with a more consumer-friendly one. This has come to be known as the ‘Love Conquers All’ cut.
However, after numerous delays, Gilliam took out a full-page ad in Variety and conducted private screenings, all the while feuding with Sheinberg (often publically). In the end, following Brazil being awarded Best Film at the LA Film Critics Awards (coincidentally on the night Universal’s Out of Africa premiered in New York), Sheinberg relented and Gilliam’s intended version was the one selected for release. If this passage has interested you, you can read further into this in Jack Matthews’s book The Battle for Brazil.
Director: David Fincher
The Alien series has encountered executive meddling in the past, from producers Walter Hill and David Giler giving tweaks to Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s original script to intended genitals of the newborn in Alien: Resurrection being exorcised as ‘too much’.
However, this is nothing compared to the troubled history of Alien3’s arrival to the big screen, which has become the stuff of cinematic legend. After the success of Aliens, Fox blew a large amount of cash getting the script for a third installment developed. But every time a director came aboard with an idea of something, it often ended with most of them departing the project due to creative differences. Among such examples were Ridley Scott and Renny Harlin, whose idea to explore the Xenomorph’s origins was shot down as too expensive (but ultimately led to Prometheus).
In the end, the studio settled on then-newcomer director David Fincher (then a young inexperienced music video director). Original drafts of the script exorcised the character of Ellen Ripley, but she was inserted back in due to Fox’s insistence, and the finished product also shoe-horned in the deaths of Hicks and Newt from the previous instalment (a move which ‘hurt’ actor Michael Biehn).
There was also the issue of the film being shot with on-set rewrites becoming a more constant sight than 2001’s Town and Country, which led to frequent clashes between Fincher and the Fox hierarchy (such as Fincher going behind the producers’ backs to shoot the crucial prison understructure scene between Ripley and the alien against their wishes).
According to actor Charles Dance: “Fincher had the studio on his back the whole time phoning him at all hours of the day and night – not taking into account the time change.”. This led to a hectic schedule, including a three month shutdown due to all the re-writes, a deliberately botched test screening that forced Fincher to return for reshoots and would eventually lock him out of the editing room during the post-production phase.
Screenings of the rough cut led to negative reactions due to the amount of blood and gore (such as uncut death scenes and an extended version of Newt’s autopsy) that nearly earned the film an NC-17 rating. Promotional and marketing was also pretty misleading, including a teaser trailer that stated the action would take place on earth rather than the prison planet in the actual film.
The result was a film that failed to meet the expectations of its predecessors (but is improved on with the ‘Assembly Cut’) and led to its own director disowning it. For more information on this cinematic fracas, the documentary Wreckage and Rage should provide your fix (as well as various others floating around YouTube).
Kingdom of Heaven (2004)
Director: Ridley Scott
Poor Ridley Scott, sometimes he just can’t catch a break. Also, yes, you knew we were going to cover the much-criticised period when 20th Century Fox was under the control of Tom Rothman at some point. And this has to be one of the most infamous cases.
First though, a little information on the film. Kingdom of Heaven is an epic feature film telling the story of the Crusades and the events of the Battle of Hattin (specifically a fictionalised account of Bailan of Ibelin) and featured an all-star cast including Orlando Bloom, Eva Green, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, Edward Norton, David Thewlis, Brendan Gleeson, Michael Sheen and Alexander Siddig.
Originally clocking in at three hours and fourteen minutes, Scott was ordered by the studio to remove large sections of the film, amounting to forty five minutes worth of story, and put a greater emphasis on the action and romantic subplot between Bloom and Green.
They assumed that audiences would not be willing to sit through a film with an over three hour running time, despite the successes of Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, and this assumption played a part in the film failing both critically and commercially.
However, like Blade Runner, Scott released a director’s cut of the film restoring it to its original three hour plus running time and it has been critically reappraised.
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942) – Though a classic, this feature really suffered from the misfortune of being released during the time when Welles’s relationship with RKO was turning sour. Also, we may never see Welles’s intended version since the footage that was cut was ultimately destroyed in a storage fire.
All the Pretty Horses (Billy Bob Thornton, 2001) – Attempting to bring an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed ‘unfilmable’ 1992 novel goes awry for Billy Bob Thornton, courtesy of a petty act of revenge by an individual who, for the sake of recent events, we shall refer to as ‘Darth Scissorhands’.
The Golden Compass (Chris Weitz, 2007) – Removal of the source material’s darker elements, forty five minutes worth of story and throwing in a sequel hook really proved to be New Line Cinema’s undoing.
Spider-Man 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007) – Thanks to pressure from producers and Sony executives, the final instalment of the trilogy became a bloated mess. Similar mistakes were made with The Amazing Spider-Man 2, so let’s hope the MCU takes note of this.
Babylon A.D. (Mathieu Kassovitz, 2008) – Another example of Fox shaving so much runtime off, that the overall product becomes an incompressible mess.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood, 2009) – Repainting the sets and sewing up Deadpool’s mouth. What more could you ask for from an overzealous executive?
Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015) – A most recent example, filled with cut-down running times, a hot-headed director and the blame game in full-swing.
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