Final cut tussles between directors and studios

We head back to the 80s and 90s to look at eight famous battles between directors and studio executives over a movie's final cut...

If filmmaking is a compromise between art and commerce, then the final cut is often the point in the process where the tug-of-war between the two becomes the most intense. In their desire to make a film more profitable – often after feedback from preview screenings – studio executives will sometimes request re-edits or the shooting of additional scenes. And occasionally, when directors attempt to resist those changes for whatever reason, the resulting tension between director and studio can reach breaking point.

To illustrate the different ways these tussles over a film’s final cut can play out, we’re heading back to the 80s and 90s. In some instances, the films that emerged from the editing room were considered to be influential triumphs. Others were commercial failures, while one or two were later reassessed as cult classics…

Michael Cimino – Heaven’s Gate (1980)

The production of the western Heaven’s Gate is so infamous that it has since become the subject of numerous articles and books. By the late 1970s, Michael Cimino was riding high on the success of Thunderbolt And Lightfoot and the Oscar-winning The Deerhunter, and he promptly wielded his new-found status to make an expensive, broad-canvas movie set in 19th century Wyoming.

Cimino was given a huge amount of latitude to make exactly the film he wanted, and as the cans of film piled up and the movie drifted further and further over budget, executives at United Artists began to grow nervous. Stories began to circulate of Cimino’s obsessive attention to detail, from waiting in the middle of a field with his cast and crew until just the right cloud rolled into view, to building elaborate underground water systems to give the grass just the right shade of green.

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When Cimino returned from the editing room with a rough cut of the movie running to almost five-and-a-half hours, a horrified United Artists demanded a tighter edit. Cimino duly went back and, having changed the locks on the editing room, cut his behemoth of a film down to a slightly less ungainly (yet still punishingly long) three hours and 39 minutes.

That cut, which premiered to critics in November 1980, was met with almost universally scathing reviews, and the film was duly postponed. Desperate to save the situation, United Artists had the film cut down drastically to two hours and 29 minutes, but it was too late. Poisoned by the initial reviews and bad press, Heaven’s Gate made a disastrous $3m from its huge initial investment, which IMDb puts at a colossal $44m.

The film left United Artists teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, and the studio was later sold off to MGM. Cimino may have enjoyed unprecedented creative freedom (there was even a clause in his contract which meant that United Artists were powerless from stopping him from going over budget), but it came at a cost to other filmmakers: in the wake of Heaven’s Gate, few directors would be granted the same level of freedom again.

Ridley Scott – Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner’s production was fraught from beginning to end, with Ridley Scott repeatedly clashing with his American crew and leading man Harrison Ford. Scott’s obsessive attention to detail also landed him in trouble with co-financers Tandem Pictures, who’d agreed to partly fund the movie on the proviso that, if the production went over budget, they could assume creative control over its final cut.

As the gruelling night shoots wore on, Blade Runner inevitably did go over budget by around $6m, Tandem producers Terry Perenchio and Bud Yorkin stepped in, fired Scott, and took over the project themselves. Although Scott was later reinstated, Perenchio and Yorkin retained overall control, and a negative reception to an early cut of the film merely added to their opinion that it was too “arty” and difficult to follow. The resulting changes were far-reaching and well documented: an explanatory voice-over was laid over the top, and a ‘happy’ ending (famously cobbled together using off-cuts from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining) replaced Scott’s original ambiguous conclusion.

Fortunately, common sense would ultimately win out: later edits of the film restored Blade Runner to Scott’s original vision, and it’s now rightly regarded as an artistic and hugely influential triumph.

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David Lynch – Dune (1984)

Fresh from the successes of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, David Lynch was offered the chance to direct an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi tome, Dune. Lynch duly accepted, despite his lack of particular interest in the original novel; in a later interview, Lynch said, “I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in.”

Working from a 135-page script, Lynch began shooting Dune in the spring of 1983, and ended up with a rough cut that amounted to around five hours. It required tightening up, for sure, but Lynch and his creative team were confident that they could pare it down to their originally-intended three-or-so hours. Lynch appeared to be unaware that Dune’s producers had entirely other ideas.

“I think we started the film without David having any real idea what it would be but intending it to be two hours,” cinematographer Freddie Francis later said, “but it worked out to be much, much longer.”

With Universal having final cut over the movie, the producers duly demanded that the finished film be no longer than 150 minutes. Production illustrator Ron Miller said of the decision, “What [the studio] wanted cut was plot development, character development and exposition in favour of action, there was little left that made sense […] Once David handed over the final cut of Dune, he washed his hands of the entire project being understandably disappointed and disgusted.”

The resulting film was widely panned by critics, and Dune underperformed at the box-office. Although regarded as a cult classic, Lynch has remained distanced from it, and has, to date, refused offers to oversee a restored, longer cut.

Terry Gilliam – Brazil (1985)

More often than not, the battle over the content of a movie’s final cut is discussed behind closed doors, with only vague hints  escaping into the wider world through rumours and insider gossip. But in the case of Terry Gilliam’s blackly comic sci-fi dystopia Brazil, the disagreement over the final cut spilled out into an ugly and very public display.

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Having first appeared in European cinemas in the spring of 1985, Brazil was doing relatively well, particularly in France. Yet its US distributors, Universal, were strangely about how to market it in America – in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Sidney Sheinberg (president of Universal’s parent company MCA) predicted that Brazil‘s chances of making money at the US box office were “precisely zero”.

To this end, Sheinberg began preparing his own cut of the movie, whittling the 142-minute duration down to 90 minutes, changing the soundtrack, and adding a new, upbeat ending. In the face of this studio meddling – and unable to intervene, having lost final cut privileges when Brazil came in over its agreed duration – Gilliam did something rather unusual: he went public.

An open letter appeared in an October edition of the Hollywood trade paper Variety – a full-page advert which simply read “Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my film, Brazil?”

That ad served as the first shot in an unpleasant battle. Sheinberg went to the LA Times with his side of the story one month later, and petulantly said, “If this movie is so perfect in its present form, get somebody else to buy it. We’ll take a loss on it.”

Gilliam stuck to his guns and, after secretly showing the uncut version of the film to the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, finally managed to get Universal to release a 132-minute version of Brazil. From a financial point of view, Sheinberg’s predictions weren’t entirely wide of the mark – Brazil didn’t make its money back at the US box office. Yet from a creative point of view, Gilliam secured a victory: Brazil was nominated for two Academy Awards, and is now regarded as a genre classic.

Universal’s 94-minute edit, since dubbed the Love Conquers All Cut, survives as an extra on the Criterion DVD release of Brazil. It’s unlikely that this bowdlerised version would have been a hit in cinemas, either.

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David Fincher – Alien 3 (1992)

Alien 3 began development almost immediately after the release of Aliens in 1986, yet thanks to constant changes in story ideas, scriptwriters and directors, the movie didn’t even begin shooting until the start of 1991 – and there was only a little over a year left before the prearranged May 1992 release date landed.

By the time first-time director David Fincher clambered aboard (having replaced outgoing director Vincent Ward), gigantic sets had already begun to be built at Pinewood Studios in the UK – in spite of the fact that David Giler and Walter Hill were still writing the script. Fincher, then still in his 20s, found himself in the middle of a filmmaking battle zone, with his own ideas and approach constantly overwhelmed by studio executives desperate to keep the film’s budget from spiralling further out of control.

In an interview with Empire, actor Paul McGann put the pressured atmosphere thus: “There are more producers around here than actors. I wondered who the hell they were at first. It’s like having an extra fucking audience for every scene. You can’t get a clear picture of who wants what, it gets changed as we go along. I don’t know what they’re doing here. Rewriting some of the script? Getting in the way? Fuck knows…”

Worryingly, worse was to come. 93 days into the shoot, Fox executive vice-president Jon Landau had the production shut down. The unfinished film was re-edited, with several key scenes excised and new ones shot, such as a scene where the infant alien emerges from a dog instead of an ox.

The whole sorry production was captured in the documentary Wreckage And Rage: The Making Of Alien 3, and it’s a sobering document of what happens when a movie shoot descends into chaos. The resulting cut of Alien 3 proved to be a hit, and although flawed, the movie contains obvious signs of the brilliance Fincher would later bring to films such as Seven and Fight Club.

Guillermo del Toro – Mimic (1997)

Like David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro found himself at the mercy of Miramax bosses (not least Bob Weinstein) who challenged his ideas at just about every turn. During the pre-production of the sci-fi monster movie, del Toro initially intended to have his giant creatures be mutated tree beetles, before he was pressed to make a film about outsized cockroaches instead.

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More worryingly still, del Toro’s original idea of having a mixed-race couple at the film’s centre was also nixed at the planning stage – on the commentary track for Mimic‘s 2011 Blu-ray release, the director revealed that, “They said, ‘America is not ready for a mixed-race couple in a major motion picture.’ I was absolutely horrified and felt I had been bombed back into medieval times.”

The studio meddling persisted throughout filming, with second unit directors despatched to shoot additional jump-scare scenes to a movie they were concerned was too low key, and a potentially brilliant, down-beat ending ditched in favour of a happier one.

Inevitably, the resulting film was something of a compromise, but a hugely entertaining one. Fourteen years later, del Toro finally got a chance to bringing Mimic a little closer to what he’d initially intended – those pesky cockroaches will always remain, but his director’s cut removes the cheap jump-scares added in by the studio, helping to restore a sense of atmosphere and foreboding.

Jeremiah Chechik – The Avengers (1998)

“What happened to the middle?” film critic Mick DeSalle asked of this adaptation of the 60s spy series of the same name. “Clearly, this wasn’t just edited but gutted. No doubt they did us all a favour, but it doesn’t help.”

As it turned out, DeSalle was right: although the shoot of director Jeremiah Chechik’s knockabout action flick had gone smoothly, a changing of the guard at Warner Bros had meant the exit of one sympathetic studio executive, who loved the script, and the appointment of another, who hated it.

“It began a cascade of disasters for me,” Chechik recalled in a 2008 interview with this very site, “because I knew then that the studio, by the time I got to the cutting room, politically it was not very supportive.”

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Following unfavourable test screenings, Warner had the film cut down from 115 minutes to just 87 minutes, sacrificing much of the story’s coherence – plus a darker score from Michael Kamen – in the process.

“All of the absurdity of it was connected in its own logic,” Chechik said. “You could understand it. But by the time the studio was done with it, they had cut out all the internal logic, and it was chaotic and absurd, I thought.”

The aftermath of The Avengers left Chechik reeling. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to direct any more’, Chechik said. “I really questioned my own worth, or if my instincts were so wrong. I couldn’t manage the politics, because, ultimately, that’s me. And I had no place in the movie industry.”

Although Chechik did bounce back – he’s since directed episodes of Chuck and Burn Notice, to name but two TV gigs he’s been involved with – the film itself is widely remembered as a flop. A director’s cut could prompt a critical reassessment for The Avengers, but sadly, none has surfaced so far.

Tony Kaye – American History X (1998)

After Brazil, American History X is perhaps the most infamous example of a director falling out with his studio from recent times. It was the debut of British director Tony Kaye – previously known as a director of music videos – and by his own accounts, the shoot for this hard-hitting drama about racist skinheads in California went perfectly smoothly. It was during editing that the strain in Kaye’s relationship with both star Edward Norton and studio New Line began to show.

After the first screening, the studio handed Kaye “pages and pages” of notes, and although irked, Kaye began crafting a new edit which was just 95 minutes long – some 40 minutes shorter than the initial version. Arguments over what should and shouldn’t appear in the final edit began, and Kaye was reportedly “locked out” of the editing room while the producers and Norton worked on a new cut.

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Incensed, Kaye tried to have his own name removed from the movie, and wanted ‘Humpty Dumpty’ added to the credits instead.

“I went into a kind of mania,” Kaye later said of this period, which might explain why he turned up to a meeting with New Line executive Michael De Luca with a priest, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk in tow.

“It sounds preposterous now,” Kaye later reflected, “but I was looking for some help from God – anything that would give me the 10 extra weeks I needed to recut the picture.”

When face-to-face meetings finally broke down, Kaye tried to do everything he could to derail the movie’s release. He spent $100,000 of his own money on putting Terry Gilliam-style full-page ads in Hollywood trade papers like Variety, which contained angry messages aimed at Norton and New Line, or quotes from John Lennon. Michael De Luca responded by putting out a full-page ad with a quote from Dr Seuss on it.

Kaye’s aggressive reaction to American History X‘s editing is all the more sad because it was so self-defeating. He may not have approved of the final edit (“Of course, Norton had generously given himself more screen time,” the director recalled, bitterly), but the film remains a brutal, admirable piece of work. Norton was nominated for an Oscar for his commanding performance, and despite Kaye’s best efforts, American History X more than made its money back at the box office.

Instead of being able to bask in the critical success of his debut, Kaye was left alienated from New Line and the film industry at large. Four years later, Kaye expressed his regret at his actions, which left his promising career all but hanging in the balance.

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“Deep down, I was fighting myself,” he wrote, “and that’s a battle that no one is equipped to win.”

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