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Question of the week: when should directors leave their movies alone?

Posted on April 6, 2011 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Once upon a time, a movie was just a movie. It got released at that cinemas, shown on TV and then that was that. Even home video didn't change that. But along the way, the idea got out that sometimes producers and 'the studios' messed around with movies and asked for changes to be made against the directors' will. Blade Runner was a case in point, when even the actors rebelled against some of the changes imposed on them.

Then someone had the cracking idea of the 'director's cut' – "Let's re-release the movie the way the director originally intended. That'll be better than whatever the studio wanted." I'm guessing the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition (largely designed to cheat one of the producers out of her profits) might have had something to do with it (allegedly).

Soon, virtually everything started to get a director's cut, from Blade Runner to The Abyss to Amadeus. DVDs helped in this process, because the two-disc set became a lot easier to store than the two video set, and there was always the possibility of 'branching' a movie to include extra or alternate footage at the touch of a button. Now, even the likes of SALT not only get the original cut when released, but a director's cut and an extended cut with even more footage.

Now sometimes these directors' cuts are better, sometimes they're worse than the original. With the director's cut of Amadeus, every single additional scene makes the movie worse and causes it to drag immeasurably. But that wouldn't be a problem, if it weren't for the fact you can't get the original cut on DVD any more.

Something else has started to happen. Directors have started to look at their work and rather than creating a director's cut in the sense of how they originally intended it being released, they're looking at old work and thinking "I could do better than that now." Star Wars has now been recut several times, with new footage, changes to story, extra CGI, extra scenes and more. Does anyone think it's an improvement? No.

But at least that's advertised as being changed from the original print. Manhunter is one of my favourite films, but did you know it's now impossible to get Michael Mann's original cut of it on DVD unless you're prepared to buy an old copy from several years ago? Why does this matter? Because Michael Mann has not only added scenes to the cut, he's taken out some footage.

For example, take a look at this scene:

Yet at around the 45 second mark, the following exchange has been removed:

CRAWFORD: You sympathize with this guy?

GRAHAM: As a child, my heart bleeds for him. Someone took a little boy and turned him into a monster. But as an adult... as an adult, he's irredeemable. He butchers whole families to fulfill some sick fantasy. As an adult, I think someone should blow the sick fuck out of his socks.

[Turns around in his chair to face Crawford.]

Are you uncomfortable with this kind of understanding?

[Crawford pivots to put his back against the wall.]

Now, this is actually kind of important to the story since it's another indicator of how loopy Will Graham has started to become by this point, and he is in some ways identifying with the killer. We also lose out on finding out the eventual fates of Hannibal Lecter's victims, information which was in an earlier scene.

In other words, the director can make their film worse by tinkering. And as with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the release of a new version like this tends to make it impossible to get hold of the original cut. 

So this week's question is:

When should directors stop tinkering with their movies? If they do keep tinkering, should it be advertised? Should it only happen if the original cut is available as well? Will Blu-Ray make a difference to this?

Answers below or a link to your response on your own blog, please

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