Not every ‘director’s cut’ is director approved – we take a look at the times studios went ahead with making them without the director’s involvement.
The director’s cut. Despite just being three simple words, it’s a phrase that conjures up the complex and long-standing paradox at the heart of the Hollywood machine. Art versus profit. It’s the war for the soul of Hollywood that has been waged by creators and executives for over a hundred years: the shining vision of cinema as pure expression, ensnared by the grubby paws of dollar-eyed studio moguls.
It’s no surprise, then, that the idea of a director’s cut has long been revered as that rare ideal, a filmmaker free to realise their creative vision, undiluted by such crass encumbrances as studio notes, test screenings or audiences getting deep-vein thrombosis from sitting in one place for far, far too long.
From the mythical six-hour David Lynch cut of Dune to the fabled five-hour version of Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, whispered rumours of such cuts, hidden away somewhere in a studio storage facility like the Lost Ark of the Covenant, form an integral part of Hollywood folklore.
The Snyder cut of Justice League is one of the rare occasions where one of these prized unicorns actually made its way into the world. After all, the toll of franchise filmmaking has resulted in the director suffering a slow erosion of power; instead it is the commercial potential of marketable intellectual property and four-quadrant marketing that shapes the cinematic landscape today, far more than any single filmmaker.
Even the aforementioned re-release of a Justice League director’s cut has resulted from its commercial potential rather than its artistic merits: shifting much-needed subscriptions for the HBO Max streaming service and tapping into what appears to be widespread fan demand.
Of course, none of this is new. The corporate juggernauts that comprise the Hollywood machine have always been slickly adriot at accumulating capital. In the case of re-released director’s cuts for example , what does it even matter if the film’s originally helmer isn’t involved in the process? Too busy with new projects? Find it too painful to revisit a bitter experience? Vehemently opposed to a re-release of their work?
If there’s money to be made, Hollywood doesn’t tend to dwell on the inconsequential details, such as whether a film’s director actually approves a cut attributed unequivocally to them.
Take Blade Runner for example. Ridley Scott famously lost final cut over the 1982 theatrical release of his dark, dystopian cyberpunk noir. A happy ending and largely derided Harrison Ford voiceover were tacked on at the behest of the film’s producers, dispelling much of the movie’s fascinating ambiguity. When a 70mm workprint, that had been cut together for early test screenings of the film, was discovered by Warner Bros asset manager and film preservationist Michael Arick in 1989, the studio slowly awoke to its fresh commercial potential.
By 1991, it would have booked a deal with the Landmark cinema chain in the US to exhibit to audiences what was essentially a rough cut of the film. Despite being shorn of almost all of the voiceover and the happy ending, the workprint contained visible spliced edits, placeholder music and a reduction of visual fidelity owing to a third-generation negative duplication.
Nonetheless, Warners promptly launched a print advertising campaign touting it as ‘The Original Director’s Version of the Movie That Was Light Years Ahead of its Time!’ Unsurprisingly, Ridley Scott happened to disagree. When he discovered that what was essentially a ‘rough draft’ of his film, never intended for widespread public viewing, was being screened across America (and doing great business, too), he was alarmed to the point that he paused helming duties on 1492: Conquest of Paradise to fly to L.A. and express his concerns to the studio. (This encounter, just one fascinating episode in Blade Runner’s absorbing history, is exhaustively chronicled in Paul M. Sammon’s brilliant and recommended book Future Noir).
Here, the dichotomy between art and profit became nakedly obvious. Scott refused to lend his name to the cut whilst Warner Bros was reluctant to pull such a hot property at the commencement of a profitable theatrical run. Ultimately, a compromise was reached where the work print would be pulled from circulation and Michael Arick would work on a newly restored, Ridley Scott-approved director’s version.
However, due to missing footage, tight timelines and Warner Bros developing its own ‘director’s cut’ in tandem with Arick’s, the 1992 version released in cinemas (and later home formats) as Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut would be a somewhat diluted version of Scott’s ambitions, to the point that he almost denounced that cut, too. In fact, he would later go on to disown it as his true vision (replacing it with 2007’s director-approved Final Cut), stating in Future Noir that “the so-called Director’s Cut isn’t, really, but it’s close.”
Despite enduring a tumultuous experience shooting Blade Runner (he was briefly fired from the director’s chair at one point), at least Scott was prepared to revisit his project several times to fully realise his initial vision.
The same can’t be said of David Fincher, who when given the opportunity to restore Alien 3 to something resembling a director’s cut for the Alien Anthology 2003 box set re-release, declined.
Fincher doesn’t talk about Alien 3 much, but when he has he’s never been shy about expressing his distaste for both the 1992 theatrical cut of the film and his experience of making it. Whilst he has said he’s not embarrassed by the film, he told The Guardian in 2009 that “I had to work on it for two years, got fired off it three times and I had to fight for every single thing. No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.”
Fincher’s refusal to seek redemption in a reworking of his troubled first production left Fox in something of a quandary. Eager to capitalise on the DVD and Blu-Ray boom which was almost at its peak in 2003, it had a four-film box set with only three director-approved ‘special editions’. The lack of a Fincher Cut would be a glaring omission.
The answer would be simple: an earlier cut of the film had been recovered, including key plot lines that the studio had forced the director to omit following an unsuccessful screen testing. Fox decided to release this without the blessing or involvement of Fincher, billing this version as ‘The Assembly Cut’, a clear reference to the film being initially assembled by the director, without using the ‘D’ word and all of the legal baggage that may have entailed.
The Assembly Cut would ultimately be put together by Charles de Lauzirika, a filmmaker who had made lot of ‘making of’ documentaries for Ridley Scott, director of the original Alien. de Lauzirika has stated that he did not seek to give the recut film the designation of an Assembly Cut, nor was he privy to those conversations. In fact, he claims that he even questioned the naming of this cut, but was told that it was locked in due to packaging deadlines.
(Although this version of the film is popularly known as the ‘Assembly Cut’, UK-based Alien fans may know that the region 2 versions of the completed box set went out with the alternative cut titled instead as a ‘Special Edition’.)
According to de Lauzirika, the one pained response he got from Fincher (via an answerphone message) laid bare just how uncomfortable the director was even talking about the project.
It can be difficult to imagine just how painful it can be for a creator to birth something, only for it to be unceremoniously ripped away from them. Fincher’s blunt response to a director’s cut in all but name, approximating his creative vision without his explicit consent, is typically raw. “I don’t know who did it; I’ve never seen it; I can’t comment on it.”
Likewise, Richard Donner is a director who knows a thing or two about the loss of a beloved creation. When the Salkinds, producers of the Superman films, fired Donner after a spate of creative differences during the back-to-back shooting of Superman I and II, Donner had already completed most of the principal photography on the sequel.
Yet Richard Lester was brought in and he promptly reshot much of the sequel in a more comic tone, with only around a third of the ultimate final cut consisting of Donner’s original footage.
Lester’s Superman II released in 1980, but interest in Donner’s lost cut continued, reaching fever pitch at the turn of the millennium, as interest in the character surged. This was in part thanks to a restoration of Donner’s original Superman and the promise of the series’ long-gestating reboot finally beginning to take shape, in the form of 2006’s Superman Returns.
However, when Donner was approached by Warner Bros about returning to the franchise to assemble his original vision, he was less than enthused: decades later, the director was still stung that an epic saga he had given life to had been reduced through successive films into campy schlock. Even when he agreed to give the project his blessing, for much of the film’s reconstruction, whilst editor Michael Thau oversaw the project, Donner wasn’t present. He told Ain’t It Cool News in February of 2006 that “Michael… he asked me come in every once in a while, and I do… but it’s his picture… If I were going to redo it, I’d do it totally different… so it’s not my cut. It’s not really my film anymore at all.”
Fan backlash at the thought of Donner not being involved with the release of his original vision was swift and, perhaps at the behest of the Warner Bros marketing department, as the film rolled towards release, Donner’s involvement appeared to grow. Watch the glossy, making-of featurette that adorns the disc release and you’ll see shots of Donner perched alongside Thau, giving direction on the project. Whilst it seems that, unlike Fincher for example, Donner was happy for his vision to be reconstructed, how hands-on he was throughout the project is certainly open to speculation. Especially since Thau has admitted that Donner was busy completing his work on 2006’s action thriller 16 Blocks at the time. (Film Stories did reach out to Thau for comment, without response.)
Whether Warner Bros would have released The Donner Cut of Superman II with or without Donner’s blessing is a moot question: if that had been the case however, the firebrand director wouldn’t have accepted it lightly. Not so for Irvin Kershner, director of 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, who, in 1997, found himself in the unenviable position of having his hugely popular, darkly operatic Star Wars sequel being tinkered with by the film’s producer, George Lucas, for the original trilogy’s Special Edition re-release.
More akin to a ‘producer’s cut’ than the true vision of the director, the retooled film featured what would become the hallmark of the Special Edition trilogy, a series of unnecessary changes and questionable CGI ‘enhancements’. Worse still, these versions became canon, banishing Kershner’s original film into celluloid purgatory. Of the three Special Edition films, Lucas made the fewest changes to The Empire Strikes Back, perhaps out of respect for Kershner’s achievements. The same courtesy would not be applied to Richard Marquand who directed the third instalment, Return Of The Jedi (although rumours persist that Lucas himself ghost- directed the film).
A series of further CGI additions were made, to create what Lucas argues is the definitive cut of the movie. Marquand would sadly pass away just four years after Jedi’s release, so his perspective on these hotly debated ‘improvements’ remains unknown.
In practice, the release of so-called ‘director’s cuts’ following the death of a director aren’t entirely uncommon, and can sometimes be contentious, given that a film’s helmer is no longer alive to assent to or reject a newly cut version of their movie as being their true vision, fully realised.
In 2012, when Martin Scorsese recut Sergio Leone’s final film, the 1984 gangster classic Once Upon A Time In America, Leone was no longer alive to appraise the reconstituted 245-minute version that his family say represents his original vision. Likewise, Fritz Lang’s future dystopian silent-era epic Metropolis is a film that inspired several of the filmmakers above, yet what is widely considered to be Lang’s definitive cut was only released decades after his death in 1976.
Although those two director’s cuts are widely acknowledged to be indicative of their respective director’s intentions, this isn’t always the case. 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut was released four months after director Stanley Kubrick’s death, with Warner Bros altering what it claimed was the legendary filmmakers ‘first cut’ following his sudden passing.
Intrigued audiences worldwide were presented with a film said to be Kubrick’s complete and final vision, with both studio and stars (Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman) presenting a united front in this regard. Twenty years later, though, other Kubrick collaborators still swear the director considered his delivered cut to the studio as the ‘final cut’, rather than a rough assembly to be tampered with. (It was the sexual content that got toned down, among other elements).
Still, at least Kubrick was no longer around on this occasion to see a film attributed solely to him undergo changes with his approval, although this wasn’t the first time that this had happened to the director. For the 1991 restoration of Spartacus, scenes were added to Kubrick’s 1960 multiple award-winning epic, yet he was only actually informed of the project because of an intervention by Steven Spielberg.
Perhaps the most egregious example of a director’s cut being disowned by the filmmaker comes, somewhat surprisingly, from the house of Weinstein. Although Miramax touted itself in the 1990s as the “kings of the indie,” champion of filmmakers retaining authorship over their work, in reality (and despite its promises to the contrary) none of its directors was privileged enough to retain final cut (that is, unless their name happened to be Quentin, of course).
One such director was Tim Pope, whose 1996 film The Crow: City Of Angels had been completely recut by Miramax to resemble a carbon copy of its 1994 predecessor, The Crow, a cult smash.
Whilst Miramax reworking a director’s film against their wishes was nothing new, Pope was particularly hurt to receive a phone call in 2001 from Miramax, asking the director if he’d like to view the soon-to-be-released home format director’s cut of the film, despite him having no knowledge of such a project, much less being invited to undertake it.
As he puts it: “tell you how ridiculous it was – a studio head rang me in London to say did I wish to see the director’s cut of the movie, which I (im)politely declined!”
So with even the director’s cut, that shining ideal of cinema, susceptible to the avarice of studio money monsters, is nothing truly sacred?
In short, no, but with stars being resurrected or de-aged using CGI, we’d figured that out long ago. After all, Hollywood needs those dollars from re-releases, authentic director’s cuts or not, to pay for all of those explosions and four-quadrant-targeted script rewrites that we flock to cinemas to see.
Want a true director’s cut? The truth is that if it comes out of Hollywood, then no matter what it says in the credits, on the packaging or in the press releases, unless the director themselves has explicitely stated and approved their involvement (after the fact), then you, too, may have just gotten yourself ensnared in the knotty, inescapable paradox that is art versus commerce. Good luck getting out of that one…
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.