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

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

  • Chris

    We have to ask the question: why do so many directors not get enough control when their film was originally released, that they feel the need to release a directors cut. And why are the studios happy for the second release but not the first? Either the directors version of the film was not good enough, or it was… always stinks of money.
    For Star Wars, Lucas was right to go back to the ageing film stock and fix some problems. By doing so he would have given the film more life on new formats. eg. Fixing the transparency of fighter cockpits. Tidying up some explosions.
    However, he messed up by adding. We didn’t need the scene between Han and Jabba, and by adding it he hi lighted a problem of changing Jabba. So Han walks behind Jabba, is digitally moved up in the frame, and it looks stupid. So we now have a scene we didn’t need that it poorly executed.
    I like to see removed scenes as extras. It’s interesting to watch them and think about why they are missing – but on the whole they are missing for a very good reason.
    Read the shooting script book version of Shawshank Redemption. It’s a fascinating read about why scenes had to be cut.
    Now, how many films have you not liked, that you have watched a directors cut of and now liked? As opposed to good films made a little better or worse?
    I’d love to see a directors cut of “The Black Dahlia” because that film stinks of being killed in editing.

  • Mark Carroll

    Not being able to get the original cut on DVD anymore, while clearly a related problem, is, I think, morally separable. There are, after all, films or shows that I can’t presently get on DVD in any cut at all, that’s not because of the nasty revisionists. A solution to that probably also solves the problem that you mention.
    It does seem odd that a director’s cut of Close Encounters would have cheated a producer out of their profits. After all, the work of a producer starts well before the editing. I’m not saying you’re wrong, I know nothing of this case, just that maybe the problem there is also morally separable.
    Dragging is perhaps in the eye of the beholder. I notice that a lot of the shows or films I like that don’t do well in the American market are both slower-paced and harder to follow than average American fare. When I watch deleted scenes I usually think they added enough to the film’s plot that I would prefer them to not have been deleted; that they at least tend to make other parts of the film make more sense. Perhaps I am more plot-sensitive than time-sensitive than the average person, but I still like my tastes to be served. I like my more ponderous films even if they’re not well-crafted for the people who are more into action than into paying attention.
    For instance, in the latest what-we’ve-been-watching I mentioned that I watched “Serenity”. The deleted scenes covering more of Inara & Mal’s clever escape help correct the “with one leap, Jack was free” puzzlement, and Zoe’s description of the horror of the battle help to explain a lot about Mal. They don’t add a lot of time at all compared to how much they do for the story.
    It seems worth noting that watching a DVD at home is also a fundamentally different experience to going to a movie theatre. In the cinema you have to try to remain seated and quiet, it’s not as easy to break partway for a stretch and to pop to the loo. At home I’d rather have an intermission for a cup of tea than have material cut that was relevant to the plot or the characters. So I always opt for an “extended edition” where possible, and that’s partly because I’m not confined to a cinema seat for the experience, so the theatrical release may simply have been edited in the assumption of now-obsolete constraints.
    I thought that Star Wars did benefit from many of the special effects improvements. The ones that somehow affected the plot (i.e. were more than, say, redrawing the background and adding more incidental traffic into it), i.e. the ones that were the most noticeable, tended to be the ones I didn’t like, but there were plenty of subtler ones too that I did think were improvements, though perhaps not really worth the effort of a new release given that I don’t mind when films that were made in the seventies look like that.

  • Mark Carroll

    I forgot to mention, I generally don’t like changes that were made to British films that arose from comments from Americas focus groups. I’d like to think that directors’ cuts could sometimes correct those issues. (-: I wonder if I can lump the Blade Runner happy ending in among that thought even though it’s (I assume) wholly American; probably not, though it seems half-relevant to that thought, which is more that I am generally happy to see reversed the things that were done to make a film more appealing to mainstream America.

  • Make as many revisions as you want, I’d tell ’em, just leave us the option to get the original version.
    Another example of revision – the studio-enforced happy ending on ‘Brazil’. So in that case, I’m all for the director’s cut.
    When NYC had a lot more retro movie houses, I went to a showing of “The Magic Christian”. Turned out their print was the edited version that ends after the sequence on board the ship. None of the tank full of free money… and some other stuff. I knew I was getting screwed as soon as John Cleese ended his scene with a belch instead of the word “shit”. We had the TV version!
    I went to the box office afterwards and complained, got my money back…..

  • SK

    Hasn’t Star Wars (the original) been different every time it was released? The original limited-release 1977 version was different from the first general-release one, then there was the second general release one where the ‘Episode IV’ got added, then the TV version was different again, the VHS version was different, the DVD version was different… all before the ‘Special Editions’ were even thought of.
    I think the idea that there can be a ‘definitive text’ is somewhat misplaced, but that’s possibly because I come at it from a bit of a literary background where exactly what is the ‘definitive text’ of, say, Doctor Faustus, or Frankenstein, or Ulysses is a bit up for grabs. So I don’t think I have any great moral objection to ‘tinkering’.
    But of course the real reason behind the proliferation of ‘director’s cuts’ is because it’s a way to sell peopel the same film twice. Or even three times. Or more, if you sell them the VHs, then the VHS director’s cut, then the DVD director’s cut, then the DVD ‘final cut’, then the Blu-Ray ‘final cut’, then the Blu-Ray ‘postultimate cut’…
    And that does annoy me. but then, it’s something we can stop pretty easily: simply refuse to buy the ‘new’ versions. They won’t pump them out if they’re not getting the money for their old rope.

  • Mark Carroll

    Yes, I usually wait until the edition comes out that is the one I want the most out of those I expect to come out. And these days they seem to come out hot on each others’ heels anyway so it doesn’t take much waiting. Any kind of director’s or extended cut usually suffices.
    My main puzzlement just tends to be with boxed sets where there might be more sequels and perhaps I just wait, or perhaps I shouldn’t because the sequels are getting monotonically worse. (E.g., things like Terminator or Underworld.)
    [ Incidentally, some of my typos (e.g., “Americas” for “American”) may surprise — I sometimes use Programmer Dvorak instead of Qwerty so different letters become mutually adjacent. ]

  • SK makes my point, there wouldn’t be different versions after the fact if they weren’t profitable. Still, the original theatrical cut should always be available.

  • SK

    Which original cut? There is almost always a different one for each territory in which it’s released, if not more.
    Honestly, I don’t think the idea of an ‘original version’ is really workable… perhaps DVDs should come with a ‘Note On The Text’, like books?

  • I want the original available wherever possible – territories etc aside. I hate that Blad Runner has been fiddled with so many times, but at least that massive box set gave a chance to get that original voice-over version on DVD…
    And yet… as is noted, TV versions are generally different, Brazil got butchered in the editing phrase and out of the hands of the director. Additionally, I must admit to being really annoyed that JFK is no longer available in the Directors Cut version – one I found massively superior to the ‘that was a weird jump of scene’ original.
    Yes, yes, I know both are stupidly long, but I really REALLY loved the Directors cut and it actually makes me angry when I realise that the version shown on TV is only going to be the original shorter version.

  • Robin Parker

    nice to see you’ve ‘inspired’ this Guardian journo

  • MediumRob

    “nice to see you’ve ‘inspired’ this Guardian journo”
    They got more comments than me, though – they win!