1995’s Copycat, and a glimpse into post-test screening movie editing

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The 1995 thriller Copycat – starring Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter – had a fair amount of trouble in post-production. Here’s what happened.

I’ve always been a fan of the 1995 thriller Copycat, a serial killer movie from a major movie studio, that had two woman headlining. One of those three factors was and is a lot more unusual than the others. Directed by Jon Amiel, the film starred Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter, and even at the time, the shadow of movies such as The Silence Of The Lambs hung over it. As such, Copycat did decent box office business, but then seems to have quietly slipped away.


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In fairness too, the film isn’t without problems. As good as its setup and concept is, the air comes out of the tyres a little as it heads to its final act. Still, it’s a terrifically played and mightily entertaining film, and one that’s been covered on the Film Stories podcast before, right here. Furthermore, that final act faced a lot of challenges in the cutting room.

I’ve recently been reading a terrific book from Oscar-winning editor Jim Clark, who took home an Academy Award for cutting The Killing Fields. Clark – who passed in 2016 – detailed his adventures in screen editing in the book Dream Repairman, and he talks about the challenges of Copycat in there. It also sheds a little light on the problems behind the scenes of the film.

Clark’s writing is circumspect and honest about the films he was involved with, and as it turned out, he read the script to Copycat and initially turned down the editing assignment on it. By his estimate, the film basically finished on page 80 and kept going without a decent ending. He instead shot the movie Nell for Michael Apted, that picked up an Oscar nomination for Jodie Foster in the lead role.

He was then intending to take a rest, but – not to his surprise – Copycat was having problems in the editing room. Alan Heim was the original editor on the film, and he’d been fired from the project as it struggled in test screenings. Clark wryly noted that Heim had basically paid the price for the script problem he’d picked up at the start. That whilst Jon Amiel had directed the film well, there was an element of “if it doesn’t work, fire the editor”, something Clark added was “a common enough move in the motion picture business”.

This time around, he accepted the assignment and sat down to watch the latest cut of the film. Returning to the filmmakers afterwards, “I was sad to announce that the film still ended on page 80”. They knew at this stage he was right, and the public screenings they’d held of the film had backed up what he saying. Into the editing suite he duly went.


He set to work trying to fix the final reel or two, noting that he didn’t have to cut much of what Heim had previously done. In the midst of it all, he had dinner with a friend of his – Peter Boyle – who happened to be editing Waterworld at the same time. Given what happened in the post-production of Waterworld, that would have been some meal to be a fly on the wall for.

Back to Copycat though, and what Clark threw light on in his book is the Hollywood process. That he recut the movie, it went before yet another public test screening, and this time the scores from the audience came back even weaker. A further recut of the existing material after that didn’t help either. They were dancing around the fact that the ending just wasn’t working, and Warner Bros had a decision to make: stick or twist. Release the film knowing it wasn’t entirely working, or try something else.

To its credit, it put its hand in its pocket and ordered reshoots. This in turn delayed the film, as schedules for Weaver, Hunter and Harry Connick Jr needed to be renegotiated for a start. On top of that, the sets would have to be rebuilt. Oh, and the new scenes that needed to be filmed hadn’t been written yet.

The original cutting had been taking place in Santa Monica, but there was going to be a gap before the new material was ready. Clark was keen to come back to the UK, and it was arranged that he could finish the movie off in London. The movie was running for 12 reels, and six of those were completed before the reshoots got underway. Clark figured he only really had to worry about the remaining six.

In the midst of all of this, Clark entered negotiations to edit Michael Collins for Neil Jordan, and then wasn’t exactly overjoyed to find out the extent of the required Copycat surgery when he returned. Filming of the new footage had been put back to June 1995, and that meant two things immediately: Clark had to cancel his holiday, and the film needed a new sound editing team, as the existing one needed to move on to Mission: Impossible, that was ramping up at the same time, and to which they were committed.

On top of that, the rewrites were more extensive than had been reckoned. Even the six cut reels of Copycat were now going to need to be looked at again. He had to redo some of what he’d already done, and he got back to work.

Clark had to get a cut together for he and Jon Amiel to take back to America, where test screenings would begin again. The delays to Copycat also ended any chance that Clark could do Michael Collins, but the negotiations hadn’t been going wonderfully well there anyway.


What I wasn’t aware of was that Frank Darabont – he of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile – had been hired to pen fresh scenes for Copycat. Producer Mark Tarlov, who’d lured Clark to the film in the first place, put in a late night call to his editor one night to gauge how he felt about the new footage that was coming in. “He remembers me saying [they] were shit”, Clark wrote. But progress was eventually made, with $1m of reshoots giving the team what they needed to significantly reshape the ending of the film.

And in the end, it worked. The final preview for Copycat took place, and finally the scores were good. Good enough for Warner Bros anyway, which pressed ahead with a full release of the film, even as Clark packed up his stuff and headed off to edit the film Marvin’s Room. Released in the end in October 1995, Copycat though would do unspectacular business, but enough to turn a profit for the studio. It won its gamble to press ahead with reshoots.

Copycat remains a film well worth seeking out I’d suggest, but I’d also put in a recommendation for Clark’s book. It’s not the most upbeat tome, but it’s also very much the writing of someone in the film trenches, and not always having the best of times. You can find it here

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