by Brad Brookes |
Unless you’ve been living under a Hollywood shaped rock, then the chances are that you will have heard about the Snyder Cut. For those who haven’t, allow me to explain while you kick off that bolder and dust yourselves down.
2017’s Justice League was intended to be much more than just another comic book superhero movie. It was envisaged as the first landmark in a series of films from DC’s Extended Universe to rival Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Like The Avengers of the MCU, Justice League brought together an ensemble cast to depict the biggest super-hero team up the DCEU could offer. Featuring characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, this multifaceted, franchise-defining production had ‘Blockbuster’ written all over it. However, the film failed to live up to its own hype and numerous titles in the planned franchise were either delayed or canned altogether.
Although it was one of the most expensive movies ever made, this wasn’t just a Waterworld sized overreach. The production was mired by studio nerves, unmanageable levels of script fiddling and finally personal tragedy before the film was completed. The director, Zach Snyder, lost his daughter as post-production began. He stepped down and was replaced by Joss Whedon, who had already been on board for rewrites, and $25 million of reshoots commenced. The final cut of the movie was disjointed, bloated with CGI and at odds with the tone of the rest the franchise.
Changing creative direction while filming can often cause issues with the pace and structure of a movie. But changing the director all together can at times be a curse that will leave a film languishing in history as a box office bomb. Justice League is certainly in the bomb-like category, missing its break-even mark by nearly $60 million. But with a following of relentless fanatics, thoroughly invested in the source material, the film could simply not be laid to rest. As stories of the troubled production became more talked about than the film itself, it came to light that only a small portion of the original Snyder directed movie had been used. After a two-year campaign lead by fans, they were granted what they desperately desired – The Snyder Cut. The studio has now released a further $30 million for Snyder to finish his version of the film. This record-breaking director’s cut is an unorthodox and so far untested method of changing the fortunes of a poorly received production. But this is certainly not the first film to have its fate reshaped by changing its jockey after the gates had already opened.
Another similarly doomed production was that of Solo: A Star Wars Story. After the critical and commercial success of Rogue One, the spin-offs from a galaxy far, far away seemed to be destined for greatness. Not being tied to the formulaic tone of the original trilogy seemed to give these films a new freedom within the much-loved Star Wars universe. However, in the case of Solo, this heightened level of creative licence was the main reason behind the studio forcing a directorial switcheroo, mid-production.
The directing duo, Lord and Miller, were fired from the movie with less than 4 weeks of principal photography remaining. The pair cited numerous instances of micromanagement and interference from the writers and producers, while the studio’s line was that Lord and Miller were making the film too tonally comedic and would constantly go off-script. Whatever the truth in the story was, the film was far from finished and needed a veteran director to get it over the line. A veteran they certainly got, bringing in Oscar Winner and Lucasfilm alumnae, Ron Howard. Although there would now be a team player with a steady hand on the teller, the issue with bringing in a well-known visionary, is that they will bring their own vision. With the remaining days left on shoot and the five weeks scheduled reshoot time, Howard reshot over 70% of the film and the budget ballooned to more than $275 million, making it the seventh most expensive film ever made. When released, the film was received relatively well by critics and many fans loved it (myself included). Nevertheless, the seams where the production had been sewn together, were somewhat visible. Most reviews praised the acting, action sequences and direction, while also pointing out problems with the structure and screenplay. The film made $393.2 million, falling almost $80 million short of its required gross. Its underperformance matched by its well-documented production problems lead to it bombing and affecting future planned instalments in the Star Wars universe. An Obi-Wan Kenobi spin-off starring Ewan McGregor was shelved, only to be slated as a new Disney+ TV show, following the success of The Mandalorian. Conversely, the Star Wars Story banner seems to have been mothballed indefinitely.
There are many stories of director swaps killing what should have been a solid movie. But there are also plenty of instances of a new auteur breathing life into a production that may have been cursed otherwise. During its development, Jaws was originally helmed by little known director, Dick Richards. The production team grew tired of Richard’s habit of referring to the shark as “a whale” during pre-prod and dropped him. They then took a chance on a 26-year-old Steven Spielberg who only had a low budget feature and a TV movie under his belt. The final film not only smashed box office records making the equivalent of over $1 billion in ticket sales (at current prices) but went on to become one of the most loved, quoted and influential movies of the modern era. It also launched Spielberg into the stratosphere with 3 of his next 4 movies being Close encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.
Other notable classics that had similar success after changing their directors were Spartacus and The Wizard of Oz. The latter changing its director, a wickedly toe-curling 4 times.
The fact that all the success stories covered here were made over 30 years ago is not a coincidence. The Hollywood studio system-of-old, although inflexible, was often much more elegant and considered than the commercially driven corporate environment of today. Modern-day studios are more likely to throw money at a production in order to solve a problem, rather than push back a release date. This can expose films to a greater threat of flopping as their break-even point moves further away with every minute of extra footage shot. Also, the world media, both traditional and social, are much more prevalent at circulating Hollywood scandals and rumours than they were in the past. With scoops now more sought after than ever, a well-publicised creative feud between star and director can encourage people to cast judgement on a movie and even its cast and crew before the final product has even hit theatres.
A spectacular example of this is the troubled post-production of American History X. The film itself was a critical success and had the cutting room spats remained private then the world would have been none the wiser. This was unfortunately not the case. When the film went to edit, lead actor, Edward Norton, stepped in to make his own cut. The director Tony Kaye was incensed when the studio chose Norton’s version over his, and a very public meltdown began. This included unorthodox ads in Variety Magazine chastising the producers and a bizarre studio meeting where the director brought a rabbi, a priest and a monk with him to request more time to complete the job. Both actor and director’s reputations were damaged; Norton being labelled difficult and Kaye as unstable.
With an endless casserole of flavour combinations as far as a film’s component parts are concerned, it can be hard to discover a recipe for success when switching out such an important figure mid-production. Furthermore, working within the movable feast of Hollywood can see methods and strategies succeed one year and fail the next.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League will premiere on HBO Max in 2021. This new type of hybrid movie isn’t a reshoot, a reboot or a remake, but all of them at once. Bringing back a director to finish their film after the theatrical version was completed by someone else, is certainly a first at this level of production. With a heavy embargo on footage until its release, those of us without x-ray vision will have to wait until the premiere to see if it pays off.
(Image copyright: Warner Bros, Walt Disney Studios, Universal Pictures)
Brad Brookes is a screenwriter and award-winning copywriter based out of the UK. You can follow his latest work at bradbrookes.co.uk.