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Todd Philips & “Unrated” Editions: Directors Above All?

Todd Phillips, the director of Due Date and The Hangover, has come out blasting Warner Brothers for releasing extended “unrated” cuts of his movie without his input or consent. He makes a strong case, and threatens to take it to the DGA:

Warner Bros., they’ll make your movie; your movie does well, and they want to create an unrated version, which is entirely against DGA rules because it’s not your cut. And they can’t call it the ‘Director’s Cut’ — they’ll call it ‘Unrated’ or some ridiculous term. Really all it is, is about seven minutes of footage that you cut out of the movie for a reason.

I’ve stuck for directors’ visions in the past – I mourned the passing of Del Toro’s Mountains of Madness or hoped that someday Frank Darabont’s Fahrenheit 451 might (against all odds) make to screen. Studio interference on films like Brazil, for instance, is almost unforgivable – and I was delighted to see justice was eventually done to Blade Runner. However, I can’t find myself entirely agreeing with what Phillips says here.

Let me tell you a spiel...

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We live in a world where, to quote Pixar, films don’t get finished – they just get released. You see several versions of films like Watchmen released (a theatrical cut, a director’s cut and an “ultimate” cut). Ridley Scott got the chance to go back to a classic film from his filmography and help restore his artistic vision two decades after it was released. George Lucas is always tinkering with his Star Wars films. Even a depressingly mediocre film like Daredevil can get a shot at a “Director’s Cut” at some point down the line.

Cynics would argue, and they’s perhaps be right, that this is all a money-making ploy. And it is, to an extent. However, everything Hollywood does is a money-making ploy. The distinction is between money-making gimmicks which don’t offer any material value (3D in general, I would argue) and those that might actually be worth spending money on. If you’re interested in a film, then surely a director’s cut or an extended edition might possibly be worth a little extra money in the same way that a “super-duper special edition” packed with insightful making-of documentaries and audio commentaries might be deemed worth a little extra cash up front. It’s ultimately your call – at least with DVDs (and increasingly unlike 3D) you generally have choice (unless the company is a dick and staggers release dates).

Sometiems directors shoot themselves in the foot...

The reason I support it is one divorced entirely from quality. Quality is highly subjective and varies massively from person to person, at least in the case of films. I preferred the “extended” cut of The Town, but I’m in the minority. I liked The Matrix Revolutions over The Matrix Reloaded, but I accept I’m in a very small group. The key to why I like the notion of releasing many alternate cuts of a movie is simply a matter of giving the consumer more choice.

I love my five-disk collection of Blade Runner. It has everything on it from the workprint to the director’s cut to the final cut. Equally impressive is my copy of Brazil, with the original theatrical cut, the television cut and the director’s cut. I’ll ultimately come to favour one particular edition of the film over the others, but it’s nice to have the option. DVD and blu ray “branching” means that it’s possible for a disk to house more than one version of a particular film.

Don't get Snyde(r) about it...

In the examples that Phillips cites above, his films are sold in “extended” editions, but the disks also include the original theatrical cut as well. The audience at home has the choice of which version of the film they want to watch. It’s just another way of including more material and giving viewers more “bang” for their buck. Truth be told, I’ve watched both the theatrical and extended cuts of The Hangover – and I can’t tell you the difference between the two.

However, what Phillips’ comments betray is a fairly obvious bias. It’s his film, because he’s the director. I understand the director’s importance to a film, but I’ve never understood, for example, why they manage to tower over the people who write the scripts or the people who put down the money to finance the film – particularly when the director isn’t an established commodity, like Phillips wasn’t going into The Hangover (as big a cult film as Old School was).

The issues around Lucas' cuts aren't always black and white...

Spielberg, Jackson and Nolan have the power to stop studios doing stuff like this, because they’ve earned it. Phillips makes it clear that it won’t happen with The Hangover 2, so perhaps he’s earned it too. Freedom from the studios is typically earned – either by making the film outside them to stay true to your vision, or working so damn hard that they’ll give you $200m to make whatever you damn well want. Yep, they can be dicks – and are frequently – but they are giving you the money to make the film.

Still, the director – as a concept – is not infallible. I would, for instance, be much more interested in “a writer’s cut” of The Incredible Hulk, based around Norton’s vision of the character (as unlikely as it seems now). Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut is basically the film recut by the guy who was booted off the film halfway through – he cuts out something like 80% of director Richard Lester’s theatrical Superman II – and it’s far stronger than the stuff Lester actually shot. I know a lot of people who would happily ignore George Lucas’ Director’s Cuts of the original Star Wars trilogy. People weren’t exactly impressed with the director’s cut of Donnie Darko.

I’m not diminishing the role of the director here. I’m just making the observation that there have been more than a few cases where the Director’s Cut of a classic film isn’t exactly an “upgrade.” However, there are plenty of examples where it has vastly improved the film. There’s honestly no way to know what particular footage will do to a film, which is why choice and availability are a good thing. That’s what the modern era is all about – we’re in the age of open-source code, variety, change, new, choice. That’s what it’s all about. The more you can offer a viewer, the more likely they are to find something they like.

Maybe we don't know Jack(son)...

I will generally avoid supporting a studio consciously strong-arming a director to compromise their vision, but I honestly have very little problem with them including their own cut of the film alongside that of the director – in the same way that many films come with the director’s preferred version as a supplementary feature. This won’t make me the most popular person on the planet, but I wouldn’t have minded a PG-13 theatrical release of Del Toro’s Mountains of Madness if he was allowed to have an R-rated cut on blu ray. Naturally, I would have preferred to see his version in theatres, but any chance to see his version of the film is better than not seeing it at all. Maybe I’m cynical.

So, what do you think? Should the director always be the supreme arbitrator of what makes it into the movie, or is it fair to offer their vision alongside that favoured by the studio? I’ll concede that in most cases, I’d prefer one over the other, but there’s not any definitive trend that one version of a film is intrinsically stronger – and, given the evidence on both sides, I’d rather play it safe and have both. But maybe I’m just greedy.

2 Responses

  1. I could see his point. But at least they aren’t screwing with what comes out to the theatre.

    • Yep, and my perspective is simply that as long as his version is still intact in some form. I’m all for variety.

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