In 2001, Alec Baldwin began filming a $25m production that was to be his directorial debut – but it was just the start of a whole host of problems.
Stories of actors having the opportunity to direct their own film? Well, they’re pretty common. Just recently, I was listening to the excellent Team Deakins podcast, where Josh Brolin was a guest. He revealed that Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions company had sought him out with a piece of material, that he’s now going to be directing as part of a deal with Amazon Prime.
Blumhouse in particular has been keen to help actors break into directing, with the likes of Zoe Lister Jones, Joel Edgerton and Patrick Wilson taking on projects.
Even before this current drive from Blumhouse, many actors had tried to direct a project. Quite a few didn’t get to make a second, and there’s a bunch of high profile names who shot their own movie, only to see it pretty much disappear. Nicolas Cage, Johnny Depp and Ryan Gosling amongst them.
However, it’s hard to find another high profile actor who directed a movie, and then saw it, well, impounded.
Yet that’s just what happened to Alec Baldwin.
Come the turn of the millennium, Baldwin may not have been the box office draw he’d been a decade earlier, but he was still in demand. He’d be in the ensemble for Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, David Mamet sought him out for State And Main, and he would be freaking out small children as part of Thomas And The Magic Railroad. A host of voiceover and television work was heading his way too (although 30 Rock was still a few years away).
It was against this backdrop that he was drawn towards a project called The Devil And Daniel Webster.
This was a story that had been filmed before, with the basis of it being a short by Stephen Vincent Benet that he wrote in 1936.
In 1941, a movie was made of it (from director William Dieterle) that RKO released. The story endured, and was then turned into a play by Archibald Macleish called Scratch.
By 2001, Baldwin was all set to start shooting his own take on it all, based on Macleish’s play. This was to be his directorial debut, an effective remake of the 1941 original.
Bill Condon (who would go on to make Dreamgirls and had by this stage won an Oscar for Gods & Monsters) would co-write the script with Nancy Cassaro and Peter Dexter. Baldwin managed to raise a budget in the region of $25m from a series of investors, and he raided his contacts book to assemble an impressive cast.
In particular, Anthony Hopkins – who Baldwin had co-starred in The Edge with a few years prior – agreed to jump aboard. Jennifer Love Hewitt signed up in the role of The Devil, whilst amongst others agreeing to take on roles were Dan Aykroyd, Bobby Cannavale and Kim Cattrall.
The film attracted a big cast, and a New York shoot got underway in 2001. Full steam ahead.
It was in post-production when the problems began to mount.
Funds ran out before Baldwin could finalise his cut of the film, and into limbo the movie went. By the time a rough cut was debuted at a handful of film festivals starting in 2003, the film felt some way away from release. By November 2003, Baldwin was openly resigned to the fact the film was unlikely to ever see the light of day. In fact, the film ended up at that time being seized by American authorities as part of a bank fraud case.
As he told The Guardian, “some of the film’s investors are being investigated for bank fraud. They claimed they had the money to make the movie but it turned out they didn’t, so while we were making the movie they were bouncing cheques all over New York”.
“The movie is never going to be released. It taught me a lesson”, he lamented. Interestingly, the whole project doesn’t warrant a single mention in his memoir.
Baldwin would sue original producers Cutting Edge Entertainment, alleging unpaid fees. A settlement was ultimately reached, but Baldwin was losing control of the movie.
In the years that followed, banks and insurance companies would do battle over the film. Attempts to find distribution weren’t going well either, hampered by the lack of funds to lock down a final cut. Lots of editing was nonetheless going on, and several different versions of the film were cut. But none that could unlock it.
Baldwin eventually walked away completely.
The movie did eventually see the light of day though.
By 2007, six years after the film had been shot, there was finally a way forward. A man called Bob Yari had a company called Yari Film Group Releasing. He’d produced films such as Crash and The Illusionist (and is currently executive producer of the Kevin Costner-headlined TV show Yellowstone), and he decided to take a gamble on the movie. As such, he acquired the rights, and immediately planned a change to the film’s title.
No longer would it be The Devil And Daniel Webster, and instead he called it something a little more upbeat: Shortcut To Happiness.
He then backed the movie with a promotional campaign, and it finally got a US release on July 13th 2007.
By that time, Baldwin’s involvement had long ended of course. Yari’s company also did a further re-edit to the film, and Baldwin took his name off the picture (resisting any overtures to get him back involved), with the movie carrying the pseudonym Harry Fitzpatrick as its director instead. In fact, Baldwin would go still further, and ask people not to watch the film.
Not that it would have been easy for them to do so. Yari planned to mirror the kind of platform release he’d enjoyed success with on the movie The Illusionist. As such, Shortcut To Happiness was released on a smattering of screens, fulfilling the contractual obligation for a theatrical outing. Then, Yari sent the film to cable and home formats where it’s lived ever since.
Reviews for the final 105 minute cut was screened were at best middling, and the film died a quick death at the box office. Furthermore, even accepting that Baldwin’s star was on the rise again at the time courtesy of 30 Rock by the time of the film’s release, there wasn’t a fat lot of interest in the home release.
You can still see the movie, as it sits on Netflix at the time of writing. Baldwin’s name, whether he likes it or not, is now listed as the director. But he’s never been tempted back to the director’s chair since.
Given the battle of his debut directorial feature, that’s not really surprising…
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