The reel thing

It used to be about the righting of wrongs, a film-maker putting his vision back together after the studio had hacked it to bits. Now the director's cut is little more than a DVD marketing tool, says Mike Higgins. But is that necessarily a bad thing?
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The Independent Culture

In a couple of weeks, Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut will be released in a number of UK cinemas. That's to say, Richard Kelly, a 29-year-old American film-maker, will be inviting us to pay to watch his first feature film all over again; and, thanks to that commanding subtitle, "director's cut", to "reconsider" it. When I mentioned this to a high-profile film writer, he said: "Richard Kelly? It's coming to something when a director I've never heard of gets to release a director's cut."

In a couple of weeks, Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut will be released in a number of UK cinemas. That's to say, Richard Kelly, a 29-year-old American film-maker, will be inviting us to pay to watch his first feature film all over again; and, thanks to that commanding subtitle, "director's cut", to "reconsider" it. When I mentioned this to a high-profile film writer, he said: "Richard Kelly? It's coming to something when a director I've never heard of gets to release a director's cut."

But what does the term "director's cut" suggest? The frustrated auteur who has wrested his chef-d'oeuvre from the studio to deliver his film to the world as he meant it to be seen? A cheap marketing ploy that sells the same old film with a couple of extra scenes that never should have left the cutting-room floor? Whatever the truth, if you've browsed the extra features on the back of the DVD boxes at your local video store, you might have noticed that Richard Kelly joins an increasing number of film-makers being accorded this honour.

At first glance, the term "director's cut" may seem redundant. With the obvious exception of the editor, who else shapes the ultimate structure of the film but the director? Plenty of people, as it happens. In the history of mainstream cinema, the exclusive right to final cut - the edit of a film that will be released theatrically - has rarely gone to the director. In Hollywood, particularly, it is the producers, the men representing the money and the studio, who have had the last word.

Thus, 80 years ago, Irving Thalberg reduced Erich von Stroheim's Greed from over 10 hours to two and George Schaefer even had a new ending shot for Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942. The tradition persists - just ask Martin Scorsese about his dealings with Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein on The Gangs of New York four years ago.

Notoriously, the original versions of Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons are lost. Neither Welles nor von Stroheim had the opportunity to undertake what we understand to be a director's cut. The term has only been in popular usage for about 20 years, a leftover from the golden age in postwar American film, the 1970s, when the likes of Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman temporarily wrested creative control from the studios.

By the early Eighties, the studios were back in charge. Blade Runner, released in 1982, established the trajectory of the classic director's cut. The film was an adaptation of Philip K Dick's science-fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Its director, Ridley Scott, had shot it as a futuristic neo-noir. Too noir for Warner Bros, as it turned out: the studio thought Scott's cut excessively gloomy, and its ending too ambiguous for a theatrical release. Warner Bros had it re-edited, added an explanatory narration by the main character, Deckard, and stuck on a happy ending. (The studio's cut came with a couple of nice rumours in tow: that Harrison Ford, who played Deckard, had purposely slurred his narration in the belief that the studio wouldn't use it, and that the "happy ending" had been cut together using outtakes from The Shining.)

Ten years later, Ridley Scott oversaw a re-release of Blade Runner that came to be known as the director's cut. Out went the narration and the happy ending; in came a couple of short but important sequences to suggest that Deckard wasn't all that he appeared to be. Although Scott wasn't content even with the 1992 director's cut, it's widely, and rightly, agreed by critics and film-goers that Blade Runner: The Director's Cut was the better film.

Unfortunately, when the film industry in the early Nineties took some notice of Blade Runner: the Director's Cut, it didn't see a radically improved film; what it saw was a rejigged sci-fi flick that had been re-released to commercial success. As Jeremy Thomas, the long-time producer of Bernardo Bertolucci, puts it: "Directors' cuts are normally about money - how can we recycle the film to make more cash?" The result was a steady stream of "director's cuts", "special editions" and "collector's editions". At best these were indulgent, at worst they were exploitative. James Cameron's director's cut of Aliens added 17 minutes to the excellent original version, most of which was needless scene-setting. Steven Spielberg wasted his time (and our money) tinkering with ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, both perfectly good films the first time round. By far the most culpable of these high-profile directors, though, is George Lucas. In 1999, Lucas re-released what amounted to director's cuts of the original Star Wars trilogy; he updated the sound and visual effects, cluttered the films up with more computer-generated space ships and aliens and tinkered with the editing of key scenes.

"Some films aren't improved by the director's cut, especially for directors in the Hollywood system," says Edward Lawrenson, deputy editor of Sight and Sound magazine. "That tension between the studio and the director can be quite a creative process. When a director is allowed unchecked creative control, the results can tip into self-indulgence."

The subsequent Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, would seem to prove the point. The box office success of the "director's cut" Star Wars trilogy not only indicated to Lucas the potential public appetite for the Star Wars prequels, it also, disastrously, gave him the money to make them entirely independently. The result was Jar Jar Binks.

And yet, interestingly, the fans of sci-fi horror and fantasy films appear largely content to be exploited by these pointless extensions of their favourite films. Why? Perhaps, in being longer, director's cuts of films such as Aliens, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings (more of which later) answer a peculiar need of their devotees. They don't seem to want a radically altered version of their favourite film; rather, the inclusion of previously deleted scenes, with new monsters or outlandish spaceships, nourish the fans' own vision of the world suggested by the film in the first place. "It's that Tolkien thing," says Lawrenson. "These directors are creating a world and the fan boys want to get as close to the source as possible. They're real completists."

There is also another, more high-minded, approach to the "director's cut", where the intention is to restore a film as closely as possible to the director's original vision. Scott's director's cut of Blade Runner was such an exercise, as was the version of Brazil that Terry Gilliam eventually won the right to distribute years after the 1985 theatrical release (his preferred version finally appeared on triple DVD along with the theatrical cut and TV cut that he had fought against).

When the directors in question are dead, the status of a director's cut becomes tricky. Typically, a posthumous restoration is undertaken by historians and supporters, working from documents left by the director. There have been several projects in this vein - the 1995 restoration of Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and the forthcoming fully restored cut of Sam Fuller's war film The Big Red One - but perhaps the best-known posthumous "director's cut" is Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958).

The film remains one of Welles' most celebrated, but he didn't have much to do with its final edit. After a dispute with Universal, Welles was barred from the cutting room. A 58-page memo that he wrote to the studio and which apparently indicated his vision of the film was subsequently discovered; it led in 1998 to a restoration of Welles' last American film, in accordance with the memo (a project paid for, ironically, by Universal). While admirable in many ways, this new cut tampered with some of the film's most famous moments. "In the original Touch of Evil, the terrific Henry Mancini score is brilliantly integrated with that stunning opening scene [a long crane shot over a Mexican street, at night]," says Lawrenson. "In the restored version there's no music at all, just street sounds. In many respects, I prefer the original."

The existence of a lovingly restored "director's cut" alongside an affectionately regarded original gives rise to a problem, then: which, if any, should we take to be the definitive version of a film? Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now Redux (2001) poses the same question; it contains nearly an hour of extra footage (including, notably, a long scene with a French family left over from the French occupation of Indochine). "Redux was interesting," says Gilbert Adair, the novelist, screenwriter and former film critic. "But my own conviction was that he had been right to cut the scenes in the first place. The film has this ambiguous status now. I don't know what Apocalypse Now is any more."

Geoff Andrew, a programmer at the National Film Theatre, agrees that the issue is difficult, but isn't so sure that we should see Redux as a director's cut in any conventional sense. "Coppola never said that he was wrong to make the cuts he did [in the original film] - he was just having another go at it, as the word 'redux' suggests. If we had a Coppola season we would try to programme both versions." But what about the director's cut of Blade Runner, which would seem to be Ridley Scott's preferred version? "Again, we would probably programme both films."

In an interesting aside to this question, Gilbert Adair admits that he was never satisfied with his 1988 novel The Holy Innocents, despite the fact that it formed the basis for Bernardo Bertolucci's recent film The Dreamers. "I conceived this notion that I would rewrite the novel as I wrote the script for The Dreamers. During the production, Bernardo would decide that there would be something he wanted to cut, a line, a scene. But much of what was discarded from the film found its way into the novel [which is also called The Dreamers]. The result is a novel with outtakes, like a DVD with bonuses."

Appropriately, Peter Jackson's epic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings advances this debate about the director's cut. Each of the theatrical releases was followed by an extended cut of the film on DVD (The Return of the King's extended cut is over four hours long, nearly an hour longer than the theatrical release). On the The Fellowship of the Ring DVD Jackson explained his strategy: "I'm not a huge fan of the term 'director's cut' because that implies the preferred version of the movie wasn't the one released in the cinemas, and in this case it certainly was. I'm a huge fan of special-edition DVDs and I really think it's a great opportunity to restore about 30 minutes' worth of extra footage." (And, should Jackson's loyalty to DVD be doubted, it's instructive that the distributors of The Lord of the Rings declined the NFT's wish to screen all three extended versions of the trilogy in a single day.)

Extra footage - deleted scenes, alternative endings and, above all, directors' cuts - are what attract DVD buyers. "When DVDs first came out," says Lawrenson, "the distributors had to come up with a reason for us to buy DVDs beyond the fact that the quality of the image was better than video - and that reason, thanks to DVD's increased capacity, was the idea of 'additionality'." Yet the production, marketing and distribution costs of a DVD, even one well stocked with bonuses, are a fraction of the costs of a theatrical release. X-Men (2000) earned more money on the first weekend following its DVD release than it did on its theatrical opening weekend (the film went on to gross over $100m in the USA). This gives rise to the topsy-turvy situation in which, occasionally, a theatrical release of a "director's cut" can be used as a loss leader to drum up publicity for the later DVD release - at a guess, the forthcoming limited cinema release of Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut is such a case.

Many directors, therefore, have half an eye on the DVD release of their film even before it has begun principal photography. Javier Soto is the producer of the forthcoming director's cut DVD of Hellboy, directed by Guillermo del Toro: "In pre-production, Guillermo gathered up all the gallery images, he made sure that we kept all the lighting and make-up tests... he wanted to save stuff for the director's cut of the film."

For every DVD that is worth your money, of course, there are many "director's cuts" and "collector's editions" that are nothing more than the theatrical release along with a couple of extra scenes and a production photo gallery. As Gilbert Adair puts it: "In the same way that Microsoft brings out a new version of Windows, DVDs [of feature films] are often released with little worthy extra material."

Nevertheless, the more worthy DVDs might be educating a wider viewing public that there is no such thing as the definitive cut of a film. "I wonder whether DVDs are going to create a new kind of film appreciation," says Adair. "Different cuts and deleted scenes used to be the preserve of scholars of cinema and film historians but no longer, and I think that's a good thing."

"In the same way that a rock concert promotes a record," says Jeremy Thomas, "so cinema is becoming in relation to DVD." Javier Soto agrees: "DVD is where a film lives. In the States, films are in and out of theatres so quickly now. DVD is where people get a chance to view the film over and over. And soon DVDs will link to web content, and you'll be able to look at everything: dailies, screen tests, things that are now held back."

Oliver Berry, editor of the film website, reminds us that many, mostly small, film-makers are foregoing theatrical releases. "Besides the huge costs of making a film for distribution on 35mm film, there is the self-constraining nature of theatrical distribution: a limited number of theatres, seats and screening times. Directors can bypass this altogether, if they want, by filming digitally and releasing digitally, on DVD or on the web." This gives rise to a daunting prospect: as many director's cuts as the director wants.


Blade Runner

Ridley Scott's 1982 neo-noir was a ravishingly shot vision of a dystopic future - all he needed to do 10 years later to make it smoother and bleaker was to remove the studio's happy ending and voiceover (and re-insert a unicorn).

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Peckinpah waged a perpetual war with his studios, and his 1973 elegiac western (above) was no exception. A posthumous 1995 cut restored the film's celebrated framing device and much more. It also took Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" off the soundtrack.

Das Boot

Not so much a director's cut of Wolfgang Petersen's dramatic 1981 account of life on a U-boat, as a deserved elevation from its original form as a TV series. The most tense and certainly the grubbiest submarine film (above).

Apocalypse Now Redux

More Playmates, more Colonel Kilgore and a haunting French dinner party. Fascinating stuff and, even if it doesn't improve on the original, at least it shows what a superb job Francis Ford Coppola and editor Walter Murch did in 1979.

The Big Red One

In 1980, Sam Fuller's loping Second World War epic (above) was cut from four hours in length to less than two. Fuller himself died in 1997, but a forthcoming restoration is said to return to the film about an hour's footage and a lot more sense.

'Donnie Darko: The Director's Cut' is released on 27 August and the DVD comes out on 4 October; 'Hellboy' is released on 2 September and is out on DVD later this year; 'The Dreamers' is released on DVD later this year; 'The Dreamers' by Gilbert Adair is published by Faber