Screwed!: Films That Got Done Over

August 14, 2019
Unloved, abandoned, disparaged, ignored or barely released…these films were royally screwed by the often heartless backers and studios that financed them.

Not every film gets the kind of release, attention and appreciation that they deserve from their backing studios or producers, as this collection of films – all of which were royally screwed in one way or another – amply and tragically proves.

THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) “They destroyed The Magnificent Ambersons, and it destroyed me,” Orson Welles – the poster child for auteurs who fought the Hollywood establishment – once said dramatically. This is problematic, however, because much of what is known about Welles comes from the man himself. The director understood the power of myth, so casting himself as the genius rebel battling the Hollywood studio system was a typical self-mythologising flourish on his part. The fable is a familiar one. Welles, having exhaustively assembled Citizen Kane following years in the theatre, produces a masterpiece, but runs afoul of media magnate, William Randolph Hearst, the unofficial inspiration for the film’s title character. Loyal Hearst columnist, Louella Parsons, destroys the film’s reputation, which leads to its failure. Welles was subsequently reduced to being a director for hire on The Magnificent Ambersons, which is summarily cut to pieces by backing studio, RKO, now unwilling to risk further controversy after Citizen Kane. Of course, this is at best an exaggeration of the facts. As Robert L. Carringer reveals in The Magnificent Ambersons: A Reconstruction, Welles continued to enjoy an amicable relationship with the studio, and in fact, agreed to the cuts to his follow up picture. RKO president, George Schaefer, even offered the director another gig during post-production in Brazil. Welles accepted, and made arrangements to edit The Magnificent Ambersons remotely via cable. Rather than being abandoned by the studio, Carringer makes a convincing case that Welles himself is responsible for the film’s fate, delegating the delicate work of editing, and effectively leaving the project at the mercy of lengthy cuts and reshoots. Welles could always tell a good yarn, but perhaps it’s time to revise the legend.

ALIEN 3 (1992) Despite its huge success, the Alien franchise has a troubled history. Following the success of Ridley Scott’s spare and chilling first entry in the series, and James Cameron’s bombastic sequel, Fox have failed repeatedly to recapture the perfect storm of commercial and critical acclaim that those two pictures enjoyed. Even the return of Ridley Scott with 2012 and 2017’s muddled prequels, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, has proved disappointing. But it was with David Fincher’s Alien 3 that the franchise’s fortunes first took a downturn. With a long gestating script, attempts were made by cyberpunk author, William Gibson, to introduce the alien to Cold War conflict, while Vincent Ward’s pass at the story followed on from the themes of his fascinating film, The Navigator. Elements of his more thoughtful treatment of Ripley encountering a group of space-faring monks can still be detected in the “prison planet” concept of the finished film. Production was rushed through by the studio with a patch-work screenplay and a reluctant star in Sigourney Weaver. Debut director, David Fincher, was caught in the middle and treated like a hired hand. The eventual picture has flashes of inspiration, but without the respect that he has enjoyed since his breakout hit, Se7en, the director delivered a film that pleased no one. Unlike Scott (who had an excellent team of collaborators), or Cameron (who frankly put the fear of god into any studio suit who dared come near the set), Fincher was hung out to dry with a botched production. “There’s nothing worse than hearing somebody say, ‘Oh, you made that movie? That movie sucked!’, and you have to agree with them, you know?,” Fincher lamented to AintItCool.com in 2008.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012) This collaboration between Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Cloverfield screenwriter, Drew Goddard, and his mentor, Joss Whedon, was intended as a corrective to the initial glut of “torture porn” horror films. The Cabin In The Woods was intended to be a smart, challenging horror flick, with its protagonists hopelessly outmatched by an unknowable threat. The resultant deaths would not be dependent on the stupidity of these characters, as parodied in the Scream films, which did nothing to curb the trend. Unfortunately, The Cabin In The Woods was shelved due to the bankruptcy of MGM. During this period, the film was clearly an unwanted stepchild, with rumours of attempts to spruce it up by conversion to 3-D resisted firmly by the filmmakers. Two events, however, improved the film’s chances: the acquiring of the picture by Lionsgate (which Whedon has readily admitted is ironic, given that his original idea was such a reaction to their Saw and Hostel franchises); and Marvel Studios making lead actor Chris Hemsworth – unknown at the time of The Cabin In The Woods’ shoot – a star with Thor, as well as choosing Joss Whedon to direct The Avengers. “The delays may have been the best thing that happened,” Goddard told Entertainment Weekly. “We’re now at a studio that really gets the movie, and Chris has become a star. Part of me wants to delay another year, and let all the other actors become big stars, because they will. It’s been real kismet.” The film’s official premiere took place three years after shooting was completed, showing as part of the South By South West Festival in March 2012. It also passed quickly through Australian cinemas, but now has a cult following among fans of smart horror.

THE GOLDEN COMPASS (2007) Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is one of the most imaginative and challenging fantasy series of recent years. Pitched as a rejoinder to C.S. Lewis’ sublimated Catholicism, Pullman imagines a steampunk world ruled by a hegemonic Church. For a kid’s book, it’s heady stuff. Chris Weitz’ (About A Boy) adaptation for New Line Cinema, however, is a dull, trite and truncated affair. The difficulty here lies in determining whether the cause of this is Weitz’ unsuitability as a director, or the interference of a studio concerned by the anti-clerical source material. It’s worth comparing Weitz’ treatment by the studio with Peter Jackson’s, who was left relatively untroubled by New Line due to insisting that the entire shoot of The Lord Of The Rings take place in New Zealand, a much longer plane journey away than the English locations of The Golden Compass. As it happens, the concerns of the studio proved to be correct. The author’s avowedly anti-Christian stance attracted protests from the religious right. “The Catholic church happened to The Golden Compass, as far as I’m concerned,” said star, Sam Elliott. “It did incredibly at the box office. It took $85 million in the states. The Catholic church lambasted them, and it scared New Line off.” It must have been an impossible situation for Weitz, who had already walked from the film once before when the scale of the production became clear to him. The resulting film lost its climactic ending – a gut-wrenching cliffhanger involving the explicit slaughter of children – and the power-hungry Church of the book was renamed the Magisterium to soften protests. Ultimately, New Line invested in a project that they were too anxious about to properly execute.

THE WILD SIDE (1995) 1970’s Performance, starring Mick Jagger and Edward Fox, was a psychedelic crime drama with lashings of sex and psychodrama. It was an astonishing collaboration from co-directors, Nicolas Roeg and Donald Cammell. The former would go on to make Walkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth. Cammell’s career, meanwhile, never recaptured that initial burst of acclaim, with the director producing only three further films over the next two decades. The Wild Side (which came after 1977’s Demon Seed and 1987’s White Of The Eye) was a 1995 film starring Christopher Walken as a philandering husband cheating on his wife (Joan Chen) with Anne Heche’s prostitute, who has a double life of her own. The film is a disturbing work of dangerous sexuality and violent jealousies. The studio reportedly hated it, and cut the picture to shreds. “Reverence for the director of a film as sole creator has been vastly exaggerated, through critical efforts,” Cammell once said. “I’m thinking particularly of the Cahiers Du Cinema ‘author’ concept – I’ve been living in Paris, and have been quite aware of it for a long time. The theory of creativity that’s arisen there, and in a related world in New York, is, succinctly, crap.” Depressed at this latest setback in his career, Cammell took his own life on April 24, 1996. In what could be a tasteless attempt at hagiography – doubly depressing if not – a friend of the director claims that his last words were, while pointing at the fatal cranial gunshot wound, “Do you see Borges?” This reference to the final scene from Performance is a tragic testament to the failed career of a talented director who peaked too early.

EYE OF THE BEHOLDER (1999) Director Stephan Elliott’s follow up to Welcome To Woop Woop was meant to rescue his promising career. The surprise smash, Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert, was still enough to get Elliott another shot, but the story of what went on behind the scenes of Eye Of The Beholder provides a textbook example of what happens when a filmmaker is at loggerheads with a short-sighted studio. With this underrated psychological drama starring Ewan McGregor as a professional voyeur obsessively tracking Ashley Judd’s femme fatale serial killer, Elliott set out to invert expectations about this kind of genre thriller, and told a story focusing unflinchingly on selfish desire. The film was a financial disaster, and it almost killed Elliott’s career. Remarkably, Lizzy Gardiner, the Oscar winning costume designer on Eye Of The Beholder, captured the whole sorry affair in her documentary, Killing Priscilla. “Stephan is a very, very funny and unusual character,” Gardiner has said. “He honestly couldn’t care less what people think about him. He has a heart of gold, but he can cause trouble like no one that I’ve ever known.” One of the most memorable scenes in the doco has Elliott confronted by producer, Mark Damon, who rails against him for the film making no sense, and then drafts in his son, Jon (whom we are assured is a very smart guy), to back up his arguments. Elliott never had a chance. He attempted to restart his career with an American production, but the likes of Mark Damon backed Eye Of The Beholder as a quick cash-in, ignoring what made Elliott such an interesting director to begin with. The film serves as a glaring warning on the dangers of mixing business and art.

THE NEWTON BOYS (1998) A commercial failure on the scale of Richard Linklater’s first big budget studio film (following his groundbreaking indie, Slacker and the low budget Dazed And Confused) would bury most young directors. Instead, the Austin native licked his wounds, and then delivered a number of fascinating films, including Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, and The School Of Rock. Intended to be the second film in a three-picture deal with Castle Rock Entertainment, The Newton Boys was inherited by Fox Studios. Though featuring bankable young stars Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke and Skeet Ulrich, Linklater’s ambitious approach to this true life crime drama didn’t impress the studio, leading to a two-year shelving of the film. Previously showing an interest in the drama of ordinary lives as per John Sayles (who was actually involved in the screenplay for The Newton Boys), this story of four bank robbing brothers in the twenties was a major detour for the director. “I’ve always liked the minds of criminals,” Linklater once said. “They seem similar to artists. You’re talking about outsiders, and how they deal with it, and how they justify what they do. I can relate to that. It’s amazing what you have to do to get a film made.” It’s clear why Fox was frustrated with the finished product. Linklater took a period gangster film and retooled it as a strange, contemplative western. He gave star McConaughey a bank robbery scene that lapses into bemused laughter – and has any other director captured the mercurial charm of the actor as well as Linklater has? These subtleties were lost on the studio, and the film was dumped into cinemas almost as an afterthought.

ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011) Joe Cornish’s inner-city London horror film is a fun and subversive yarn, cleverly touching on English racial and class discrimination in between scenes of aliens rampaging through a block of inner city flats. Despite being a well-made genre film, Attack The Block was poorly served by a US marketing campaign, resulting in underwhelming box office. Misreading the film’s key demographics, the strategy was to replicate the grassroots appeal of the supernatural horror flick Paranormal Activity, with preview screenings in only a handful of locations supposedly designed to spur word of mouth. Whereas Paranormal Activity played well thanks to audiences identifying with the lead characters tortured by unseen demons, Attack The Block was about disaffected London teens battling furry aliens with neon teeth. The cultural differences alone ensured that this marketing approach was a failure. By contrast, the campaign behind Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later – also a horror film set in London that makes few concessions to the American mindset – was a huge success in the US. Attack The Block (which marked the big screen debut of young actor John Boyega, who would go on to star as Finn in the new Star Wars movies) has now, at least, picked up something of a cult following. “It’s a modest British production,” Joe Cornish has said. “It’s true to its roots, and it’s set in a very distinct place. It’s not a massive, blockbuster, big-budget thing, so it’s really quite rewarding that people seem to get it, particularly because it’s inspired by so many American genre movies. It seems like American audiences see that, and they get what we were trying to do.”

SUPERNOVA (2000) Watch the trailer for Supernova. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a comedy. The soundtrack is Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come”, there’s a glimpse of a naked Peter Facinelli (now famous for The Twilight Saga), and there’s Lou Diamond Philips. Unfortunately, the film’s director and screenwriter, Walter Hill (The Warriors), set out to make an intense science fiction tale. Hill was actually the third name attached to the film – William Malone and Romper Stomper’s Geoffrey Wright preceded him, but the former walked before production began, while the Australian native was fired five weeks before production started. After a falling out with MGM over proposed cuts to the film, Hill delivered an ultimatum: if Supernova was screened to test audiences to gauge what scenes did not work, he would walk. The screenings were held, and Hill simply never returned to work. “There was a desperate political situation with a failing administration, and I foolishly got into helping a movie that I thought could turn into something,” the director has mused. “But I didn’t have as free a hand as I had been led to believe.” Journeyman director, Jack Sholder (A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge), was hired to rescue the picture, adding more comedic scenes and throwing out Hill’s “darker” cut. Sholder was then himself let go after a changing of the guard at MGM, and Francis Ford Coppola waded in to the mess. His most memorable contribution was recutting a sex scene between Facinelli and Robin Wright, and superimposing the features of actors James Spader and Angela Bassett over them. The eventual film was a massive failure, and has become synonymous with studio mismanagement.

IDIOCRACY (2006) The circumstances behind how writer/director Mike Judge’s 2006 follow up to Office Space was greenlit in the first place, never mind what occurred during its making, remains baffling. Maybe Fox Studios looked at the enduring success of The Simpsons, which has repeatedly mocked the television channel behind it, and decided that was a formula that could work on the big screen too. For the hilariously prescient Idiocracy (which depicts a future America populated entirely by morons) does not just bite the hand that feeds – it chews it up, and goes for the other appendage. Corporate icons such as Nike and Starbucks are shown to be alive and well in 2505, although the former’s slogan is now “Don’t Do A Thing”, and the coffee giant has branched out into prostitution. “Of all the ideas that I had, Idiocracy was the one that everyone thought was really commercial,” Mike Judge told Moviefone. “That was going to be the big commercial movie. And then, at the first test screening, the focus group was saying, ‘That’s pretty funny, but we were hoping that it was going to be like Office Space.’” Idiocracy has grown in popularity with each year, and is now a bona fide cult hit. But upon its limited release, without any marketing push whatsoever, it appeared that this attack on fast food culture, reality TV, and the celebration of idiocy was dead on arrival. Effectively, Idiocracy was disowned by the studio behind it. Despite this, the film’s audacious attack on every facet of popular culture today, as well as the sorry tale of its treatment by Fox, have ensured that its devoted fan base continues to grow.

ALL THE BOYS LOVE MANDY LANE (2006) It’s one thing for a film to be shelved due to projected commercial losses. But the innovative slasher film, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, had the unusual distinction of being dumped by The Weinstein Company in response to another picture’s failure. Perennial Weinstein golden boy, Quentin Tarantino, had been given carte blanche to realise his video store schlock horror fantasies with Grindhouse. But the film was poorly marketed to the public, and the box office takings delivered a bloody nose to the studio. All The Boys Love Mandy Lane boasts an inventive approach by director, Jonathan Levine (who would go on to make The Wackness, 50/50, Snatched and Long Shot), to familiar material. The film plays on viewer expectations with slasher horror, particularly the enduring idea of “The Final Girl”, as defined by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women And Chainsaws. Despite this subversion of slasher tropes, the relative failure of Grindhouse ensured that All The Boys Love Mandy Lane was dropped, and then sold to Senator Entertainment US, which promptly went out of business. While the film enjoyed a limited run in the UK, for a long time, the only way that US fans could see the picture was by purchasing a copy on DVD from other countries, including Australia. “Is it ever going to be shown in the US? Yes, I imagine that it will be,” Jonathan Levine told Movies.com. “I’m friends with the guys who financed the movie, and it’s in some bizarre, crazy situation. This hedge fund owns it as part of their defaulted assets, and they don’t care. It’s just a line on a spreadsheet to them, and we’re trying to get it back.” Happy ending: All The Boys Love Mandy Lane is now available to rent and buy online in the US and other territories.

THE WICKER MAN (1973) “What hope did we have with an audience who were fucking themselves silly in the back of their parents’ Fords?” director Robin Hardy has said of the failed US release of The Wicker Man in drive-ins. Anchor Bay’s eventual restoration of the film on DVD finally gave fans the opportunity to see the cult title in its most complete form. Marketed originally as a B-movie horror film, it was actually intended as a sincere evocation of pagan culture, and was a work of passion for star Christopher Lee, and director, Robin Hardy. Unbeknownst to the stars and filmmakers, The Wicker Man was to become a bargaining chip in the sale of studio British Lion to EMI, which is where Michael Deeley, the villain of the piece, enters the story. Overseeing the sale of British Lion, he insisted on cuts to the finished print by Hardy, who dutifully delivered a 99-minute version. This was sent to Roger Corman for a proposed US release, which proved fortuitous, as Deeley insisted on an even more truncated version of the pagan shocker, producing the 84-minute version that until recently was the most commonly available print. “This attitude that ‘people wouldn’t understand’ is far too prevalent,” Christopher Lee has said of the cutting of the film. “People should be able to use what’s left of their minds when they watch something.” Ironically, it was only thanks to Corman having a print of his own that the later restoration of the film was possible – for as Lee reveals on the DVD, the masters somehow wound up in a landfill under Deeley’s watch…providing The Wicker Man with the dubious honour of being not just screwed, but literally buried.

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