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[Article] – Studio Interference: From Best To Worst

 

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Posted October 8, 2017 by

 
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Kathleen Kennedy and the people at Lucasfilm have caused a bit of a ruckus recently, with their particularly hands-on approach to the continuation of the Star Wars franchise. Several people have been fired for not aligning with the overall vision for what Star Wars should be, and if anything, all this reminds us that the producers are king, very few can fight the power of the studio.

Ever since Erich Von Stroheim pushed Universal Studios and Irving Thalberg to their limit, leading to his firing in 1922 – a then unprecedented move – studios have claimed control over pictures, with artistic control removed from directors and the final cut in the hands of the powers that be. Needless to say this has caused a little controversy between filmmakers and studios in the intervening years, with the studios gaining reputation for being ‘money-men’ only concerned on turning a profit. But while money is always going to be a concern, artistic merit is not always overlooked, and creative decisions made on the part of the studio can often be for the better, believe it or not.

The Big Sleep

Bogart and Bacall, perhaps the original power couple, it all started on To Have And Have Not, and it was their simmering chemistry that sparked changes from the original version. In the initial cut of the film, Bacall was not so prominent, in fact her performance was overshadowed by her on-screen sister Martha Vickers, this version – pre-released in 1945 – was not hugely well received. The film was based on Raymond Chandler’s famously hard to follow shaggy dog story, which allowed restructuring without destroying the narrative, as it did not make total sense in the first place, with several plot lines left unresolved. Changes were not wholesale; mainly it was building on the relationship between Bogart and Bacall, at the expense of Vickers performance, new scenes were written for the pair, most notably the incredibly suggestive racehorse discussion, which skilfully avoided the wrath of the Hays code, which forbade against any themes of a sexual nature. The new cut, released the next year went on to be much better received, now sizzling with the kind of razor sharp back and forths that was expected from a Chandler adaptation, and benefitting from tighter pacing that didn’t outgrow the films pulpy nature. The Big Sleep represents the best kind studio interference, where a clear problem is addressed to create a better film, test audiences and screenings can often be the scourge of a directors vision, many arguing it is not a large enough pool of viewers to warrant a valid decision, but in this case the issues were highlighted and reworked, the Bogart and Bacall angle was the final piece of the puzzle, even if the puzzle didn’t fit together properly.

Gone With The Wind

Gone With The Wind wasn’t as much interfered with as dominated, having acquired the rights to the Margaret Mitchell phenomenon, producer David O Selznick (the ‘O’ was merely for visual impact) went to the lengths of forming his own studio in order to get the film made. Selznick spent years in pre-production trying to bring the novel to life, employing several writers and even contributing himself to condense the 1000+ pages into a comprehensible screenplay. Casting almost took as long to complete, with hundreds of actors considered for the leading roles, competition being particularly fierce for the part of Scarlett O’Hara, Selznick was no less involved with this process, providing scathingly honest notes for every audition. Once production finally commenced, Selznick did not scale back his involvement, if anything it was the opposite, he made his opinion known on every decision from every department, from sets, to costumes and to the performances themselves. Despite being friends with director George Cukor, tensions began to grow with Selznick concerned with the pace of the filming; he fired Cukor after only a few weeks, replacing him with Victor Fleming, despite the protests of Leigh and De Havilland, cinematographer Lee Garmes was also fired, his style deemed too dark. Selznick ruled with an iron grip, ruthlessly making sure everything was up to scratch; he even fought tooth and nail to use the word ‘damn,’ after putting so much time and effort into Gone With The Wind, failure was not an option, he had put his reputation on the line. But the film was certainly not a failure, now the highest grossing film of all time – adjusted for inflation – and recipient of eight Oscars, arguably Selznick’s determination made Gone With The Wind what it was, he became the driving force in bringing the film to life. Often when a producer takes such huge creative interest, it can be cited as monetising, engineering the product for greater profitable potential, but Selznick’s contribution came from a love for the project, and whilst being a hard taskmaster, his role remains one of the great examples of non-creative interference.

Easy Rider

Dennis Hopper’s psychedelic road trip – trip being the operative word – was clearly aiming to be something different, on the coattails of films like Bonnie And Clyde, The Graduate and 2001: A Space Odyssey it was ushering in a new wave of Hollywood films, and Hopper expressed this with an initial 220-minute cut. Not only unwieldy in length, Hopper’s cut featured displayed more experimental editing techniques, in particular the use of ‘flash-forwards’ where moments from further on in the narrative are spliced into the present time of the story, serving as premonitions of the future. This made for a rather hard to follow experience, especially when you throw in the LSD fuelled madness that ensues, unsurprisingly Hopper was relieved of editing duties and sent on holiday so a new cut could be worked on, uninterrupted. The film was trimmed down to 95 minutes, most of the flash-forwards were excised and Jack Nicholson’s role was expanded – a wise move given his rise to fame with Five Easy Pieces the following year – but the new edit didn’t lose sense of the psychedelic experience.

Much of what Hopper had envisioned for Easy Rider remained, the fractured nature of the film remained intact, but was much more easy to digest and Hopper conceded that the new version was superior. Easy Rider was a runaway hit grossing $60 million off of a $360,000 budget and earned a best supporting actor nomination for Nicholson, the film is now one of the defining entities of new wave Hollywood, but nothing remains of Hopper’s initial version, it would no doubt to see what madness he had originally envisioned, even if it wouldn’t be superior.

The Force Awakens / Rogue One

Plenty of (digital) column inches have been devoted to the recent hierarchical actions over at Lucasfilm, with multiple firings in a short space of time, seeing Lord & Miller and Colin Trevorrow being relieved of their directorial duties, but creative shake-ups have paid dividends in previous efforts. Perhaps the best thing Disney did when acquiring Lucasfilm was to oust George Lucas and appoint Kathleen Kennedy as Czar of the Star Wars franchise, despite having birthed one of the most famous and lucrative franchises in history, Lucas had also being responsible for its demise, killing it stone dead with the leaden prequel trilogy, removing his creative input the shot in the arm the franchise needed. Disney has taken a similar approach moving forward with Star Wars as it has with the Marvel cinematic universe, excising staunch control veiled in secrecy, with Kennedy taking the role of Kevin Feige, grand overseer and high commander, it is arguably an approach that has proved successful. The two Star Wars films so far overseen by Disney and Kennedy – The Force Awakens and Rogue One – have been huge successes, and constant creative nit-picking on their part has helped them aim for a higher standard. Writer Michael Arndt was released after being unable to deliver on schedule, instead of waiting, Lawrence Kasdan – an old Star Wars hand – was brought in, no doubt helping to bridge the gap between old and new. Kennedy and co. kept firm control over proceedings, even assigning personal trainers to Hamill and Fisher, but also indulged Abrams desire to recreate the feel of the originals, excising the digital workflow Lucas had pioneered for the prequels. The Force Awakens was an unbridled success, now the third highest grossing film of all time, its sense of physicality and familiarity helped recapture what Lucas had lost, but also with the promise of a new direction, this success continued with Rogue One.

Reshoots can often feel like a bad omen, the first signs of a project spiralling out of control, but in Rogue One’s case it was tweaking to improve the final product, the largest inclusion being the climactic corridor showdown between Vader and unfortunate rebel troops, the film was also tightened up by bringing in Dan Gilroy to supervise the editing. Disney’s desire for diversity also led to a multicultural cast of characters, which became one of the film’s best received elements, a welcome breath of fresh air what has been in the past a white-washed male-centric franchise. These successes have created a clear direction for the franchise, and anyone who isn’t on the same page is deemed surplus to requirements, often cited as ‘creative differences.’ It may seem like a fairly hard-line approach and only time will tell if the recent firings were the right call, but the ball is in Kennedy’s court as for now, she brought in a renewed vigour to an ailing franchise and will expect that to continue.

The Trial

Orson Welles had one of the most tortuous experiences throughout his career at the hands of studio cuts and alterations; film after film of his was tinkered with, often whilst he was out of the country, unable to protest. The most famous example of this is with The Magnificent Ambersons, his follow up to Citizen Kane, 45 minutes were cut from Welles original version, changing it beyond recognition of his intended vision, his trials at the hands of the Hollywood studio system led a disillusioned Welles to take refuge in Europe where he spend the latter stages of his career. Though his European exploits were not bereft of problems, some were actually, in hindsight for the better, particularly with The Trial (1962.) After shooting exteriors in Yugoslavia, Welles had prepared to shoot interiors at the Bois de Boulogne studios in Paris, but Producer Alexander Salkind had not been able to deliver the promised funding, this let to Welles shooting in the – then abandoned – Gare d’Orsay (now a world famous museum)

this development led the Welles having to improvise most of the set designs and work on the fly, but the film is all the better for it. The trial opens with a with a parable about a man trying gain entry to ‘the law,’ the narrator concludes this by saying “the logic of this story is the logic of a dream… a nightmare.” The spaces offered by the incredible d’Orsay pay dividends in visually embellishing this dream logic, juxtaposed with the cold soviet exteriors, the films jumping from location to location make little to no geographical sense, but rather that the logic of dreams, environments that follow an emotional development not spacial reasoning. A rather fortuitous turn of events for Welles it seems, where often forces have conspired against him, a threat to the production actually turned in his favour for once.

ALIEN³

A project that moved forward without Ridley Scott or James Cameron, Alien 3 seemed doomed from the start, the film went through development hell, not to mention production hell taking five years form conception to release. Problems concerning the films plot and the direction it should take caused all manner of delays during development, with Ripley’s involvement constantly increasing and reducing, Weaver also had power of veto over some decisions given her importance to the franchise. Scores of different writers delivering different ideas, with names such as William Gibson, Renny Harlin, Eric Red, David Twohy and Vincent Ward all contributing at various stages and after many comings and goings, new-to-the-game David Fincher was hired to direct, but even then after so much development, a finished script still didn’t exist. Hopes of focusing the film in production were fragile; Fincher now famously laments his experience, with his ideas constantly being shut down and the films direction still seemingly undetermined. Editing also brought more problems, the ending had to be reworked to quash similarities between the recently released Terminator 2: Judgement Day, a film that had been able to be developed and released during the whole of Alien 3’s protracted journey. Fincher disowned the film and his experiences are the classic tale of a director who cannot carry out his vision, but everything was certainly stacked out of his favour, as a first time director, Fincher has later stated he didn’t have the clout to be taken seriously, and some of his ideas – such as dressing a whippet as a quadrupedal alien – don’t sound like his best day at the office, fortunately he has moved on to better things and the film hasn’t hampered his career. Perhaps even Scott or Cameron couldn’t have saved Alien 3, a project that seemed like the continuation of a franchise rather than a film in of itself, and as time has shown, Scott hasn’t been entirely successful in trying to put the Alien franchise back on track.

Greed

The tortuous production for Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) served as an unfortunate foreshadowing, The film’s budget doubled and Stroheim shot over 85 hours of footage, pushing himself and his crew to their limits, most notably whilst filming in Death Valley where temperatures reached 51°C, but worse was still to come. The initial 8-hour cut of Greed was only ever seen by a handful of people – they declared it the greatest motion picture ever made, but with such a gargantuan running time, cuts were inevitable. Indeed Stroheim was co-operative in cutting it in half, but began to struggle; studio – The Goldwyn Company – became wary of this. Multiple cuts were worked on simultaneously, by Stroheim, friends of Stroheim and employee’s of Goldwyn, and to make matter worse during this process, Goldwyn merged with Metro Pictures – creating MGM – and forcing Stroheim to work with Irving Thalberg again. Under MGM’s direction, relationships became even more strained, with a meeting over editing between Stroheim and Louis B. Mayer reportedly ending in a fistfight, the film was getting away from Stroheim and MGM oversaw editing which eventually completed a 140-minute theatrical cut. Greed was a flop on release, dividing critics and Stroheim disowned the picture, decades later a restored 239-minute version was created, but nothing close to his original vision remains. It remains a shame that no footage of the original cut has survived, but given Stroheim’s reputation at the time, the events surrounding Greed are not unsurprising, any studio would feel they had the right to cut down an 8-hour picture, many critics praised MGM’s actions, and perhaps it was naive of Stroheim to think he could pull it off. Nevertheless, even in its shorter, restored version, Greed is still regarded as one the greats of the silent era, that so many films from that era have been lost, Greed’s existence at all is a miracle.

Blade Runner

Blade Runner wasn’t always held in such high reverence, now hailed as one of the most influential films of all time, and able to boast being one of the few science fiction films on the AFI top 100 list, it has only been through Ridley Scott’s relentless tinkering that Blade Runner has eschewed a more disastrous fate. After a hectic production, where Scott clashed with everyone from cast to crew trying to realise the incredibly dense visual styling of the film, Blade Runner encountered even more turmoil in post-production. Financers The Ladd Company, balked by tepid test screenings decided to insert a happy ending and voice-over narration by Harrison Ford in order to make the film easier to follow. All this went ahead without Scott and with a hugely reluctant Ford, who was extremely dissatisfied with the quality of narration provided, and without Scott to direct the new ending, unused helicopter footage from the beginning of The Shining was retooled. Blade Runner flopped on release, barely earning back its $23 million budget, and was destined to be forgotten, but a project that was very personal to Scott was one that he wouldn’t let die. Now famous for his ‘directors cuts,’ Scott has revisited the film many times since over the years, finally succeeding with bringing it to his original vision in 2007 with the Final Cut, 25 years after its original release. This version removes the narration, happy ending, alongside general tidying up of the films visuals and original edits, and most notable, the inclusion of the unicorn dream, suggesting at Deckard’s Replicant status, which was actually footage he shot on Legend, his Blade Runner follow-up. The film can now bask in its iconic status, and revived interest in the wake of sequel Blade Runner 2049, but it is a position that has been hard fought for, if it were not for Scott’s determination, Blade Runner could have easily ended up as a B-movie curio, probably still only available on VHS.

Once Upon A Time In America

Sergio Leone’s 229-minute epic opened to rapturous applause at the Cannes film festival, but did not fare so well in North America, lukewarm critics screenings made distributor The Ladd Company (them again) nervous about a wide release and they began to cut, without Leone’s involvement. The U.S. theatrical cut saw a staggering 90 minutes excised from Leone’s version, with the violence toned down and event arranged into chronological order, needless to say it was nonsensical. So much of Leone’s version was structured around memory and flashbacks, with many visual triggers drawing back to events of the past, that the edited version lost any semblance to Leone’s vision, with his mournful nostalgia destroyed in straightforward banality. The Ladd Company cut was a disaster in the U.S. making only $5 million and received scathing reviews from critics, many whom had seen the international version, but in the days before home media and a smaller international market meant Once Upon A Time In America was to be remembered in its worst iteration. It was only after Leone’s death that his original version was brought back in to the limelight, and as it turns out that even then that the 229-minute version wasn’t his complete vision. Over the years, more extended cuts has been released, with the latest – supervised by Leone’s children and with help from Martin Scorsese – running at 251-minutes, dubbed the Extended Director’s Cut, claiming to be as close to Leone’s original vision as possible. Time has fortunately done away with the interference the film originally suffered from, after being subjected to the cinematic wilderness; Once Upon A Time In America is viewed as Leone’s best and one the greatest Gangster films ever made. Perhaps a fitting narrative for a film that itself covers so much time, its story was never going to be short lived.

Brazil

Terry Gilliam does not have the best of luck when it comes to making movies, The troubled productions of The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen and The Brothers Grimm, his many, many failed attempts at making Don Quixote (finally, and hopefully completed) and the tragic events involving Heath Ledger and The Imaginarium Of Dr. Parnassus, but Brazil represents his Magnum Opus when it comes to butting heads with the powers that be. Having shot the film with relative ease, given Gilliam’s reputation, and releasing his intended cut of the film via 20th Century Fox internationally with no concerns, American release via Universal did not prove so simple. Gilliam was contractually obliged to deliver a cut under 2hrs 5mins, his cut ran at 142mins, Universal were adamant that the film could be easily cut to reach the agreed running time, including removing the sucker-punch of an ending, but instead of backing down Gilliam took – what he described as – all out war on Universal, in particular studio head Sid Sheinberg.

Gilliam went public with his battle, going on Good Morning America with Robert De Niro, after being asked “I hear you’re having trouble with the studio, is this correct?” he responded “No, I’m having trouble with Sid Sheinberg, here is an 8×10 photo of him.” Gilliam didn’t stop there, spending thousands of his own money to take out an ad in Variety, which simply stated “Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my film? Signed: Terry Gilliam.” Alongside the public approach, Gilliam organised underground screenings of his version garner interest from L.A. critics despite being prohibited to do so by Universal, only allowing clips to be shown as educational purposes, Gilliam got around this by deeming the film in its entirety to be a ‘clip.’ These screenings led to the L.A. critic’s awards honouring Brazil in the best film, director and screenplay categories, beating out Universal’s other contender Out Of Africa. Gilliam’s guerrilla tactics proved successful, he and Universal agreed upon a 132-minute cut, original ending in tact. The extent of Sheinberg’s intended alterations were later revealed in the now infamous ‘Love Conquers All’ cut, which was initially shown on U.S. television. Cut down to 94-minutes, focus is heavier on the love story, with the more darker and satirical elements reduced or removed, most notable is the happy ending which make much of the preceding action seem illogical, as it only makes sense in the imagined state implied by the original cut.

Brazil flopped commercially on release, but it’s protracted publicity did do it some favours, and it definitely fared better than Sheinberg’s hack job would have done, despite financial failure, Brazil went on to be nominated for two Oscars and has become on of the biggest cult films of all time. Unlike in the film, Brazil eventually didn’t suffer the same fate as its protagonist, driven insane by the system, Gilliam risked his reputation by making his battle public, but secured the happy ending it deserved.

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