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Take Two: Richard Shepard on Redoing The Linguini Incident

A white man and woman smile at each other across a table at a club while another woman stands between and behind them.David Bowie, Eszter Balint and Rosanna Arquette in The Linguini Incident

Back in 2005, I wrote an article for this magazine titled “Escape From Movie Jail” about my years-long effort to break out from under the career-killing shadow of my first film, the oddball comedy The Linguini Incident. The film was stacked to succeed when we shot it back in 1990—after all, it had David Bowie (!), Rosanna Arquette, Marlee Matlin, Eszter Balint, Buck Henry and Andre Gregory in the cast. Robert Yeoman was the DP; Thomas Newman did the score. I was all set to surf the golden wave of indie film adulation, but then the tide turned and I was washed out to sea, forgotten and humiliated. The movie was taken away from me, recut, barely released and opened on the weekend of the 1992 LA riots. Though it garnered some nice reviews, many missed the point (one complained about the number of trees that were destroyed printing the script), and the film soon disappeared to dusty video store racks of unloved VHS tapes and inglorious midnight cable runs. Still, the movie had its ardent fans, but the fact was, I wasn’t one of them. It ended my directing career just as it was beginning—and worse, I couldn’t even really stand by it. My heart sank every time I watched it. I knew there was a better movie in there, but the original producer and I had stopped speaking (at 25, I was arrogant, insecure and not a cinematic wunderkind—a horrible trifecta), and the producer had recut it out from under me. Not that my lost version of The Linguini Incident was some sort of masterpiece, but still. 

When the phone doesn’t ring in Hollywood, it really doesn’t ring. There were many years adrift, but eventually I fought my way back, starting first with tiny no-budget films, then bigger movies: the black comedies The Matador, starring Pierce Brosnan; and Dom Hemingway, with Jude Law; and the gonzo horror film The Perfection with Allison Williams for Netflix. I also started finding some success in television, directing pilots for Criminal Minds, Ugly Betty and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. I also directed episodes of 30 Rock, The Handmaid’s Tale and, through six seasons, a dozen episodes of Girls (where I got to work with Rosanna Arquette again after almost three decades). Occasionally, I was asked what I would remake if I could remake any movie ever. My answer was always the same: my own The Linguini Incident, with the same great script and cast, just with a director who now finally knew what he was doing. 

About three years ago, Sarah Jackson, the film’s original co-producer (and my old roommate) reached out—after many years—and suggested the craziest idea: What if we got the rights back, produced a director’s cut and finally released it properly on Blu-ray?

I was both thrilled and terrified by the thought. Revisiting the movie brought back many painful memories for me, yet the thought of being able to get a cut closer to what I had originally intended was more than intriguing. So many filmmakers have had issues with their movies—films butchered, recut and dumped—but how many had a chance to correct them? Plus, here was this David Bowie film that most people, even his fans, had never heard of, with a romantic, funny performance by him like no other. It was exciting to think of bringing it back for people to check out. Thirty years can be very forgiving. 

But there were many hurdles. The first: No one knew who controlled the rights. The film’s original producer was M.I.A. The company in the United States that financed The Linguini Incident, Academy Entertainment, had gone bankrupt and sold its catalog of films to another company, which ended up selling it to yet another company. Both went bankrupt. The paper trail at the copyright office went dead somewhere in the early aughts. There was clearly no more money to be made by The Linguini Incident, so it just… disappeared. Even if we could find the rights somewhere, other than the old crappy pan-and-scan version of the movie on VHS and laserdisc from 1992, there was no known available negative or print, let alone dailies. How to do a new cut if there was nothing to work with? 

Sarah and I rolled up our proverbial sleeves and got to work. Deep internet searches and labyrinthine journeys through the copyright office and California’s bankruptcy courts—it’s amazing how many film companies go bankrupt (like, all of them)—led to an unusual article in Variety from about 15 years back about how seven movies that hadn’t paid residuals to their actors had their actual copyrights claimed by SAG. One of those was The Linguini Incident. 

Bingo. There was now someone to try to negotiate the rights from. Of course, SAG didn’t have any assets—no negative, prints, trailers, photos, contracts, nothing but the copyright. Rights without a movie to recut and show were useless to us. We had to find a print. 

During The Linguini Incident’s strange life, several versions were made and distributed. An over-long and joyless editorial assembly was released in Europe and Asia. The producer’s cut was distributed in the United States and Canada. Shorter versions ended up on late-night TV for a while. At various times, the film was released not only as The Linguini Incident but also as Houdini & Company, The Robbery, The Restaurant, The Incident and—yes—Shag-O-Rama. 

The European distributor, Rank, had gone bankrupt. The lab that had processed the film originally had also gone bankrupt. (You see a pattern here?) I checked with every lab in the United States and Canada. None of them had even heard of the film, much less had the negative secretly stored in a Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse somewhere. Sarah reminded me that years before, someone had reached out about selling us the film’s dailies. We’d stupidly passed, and now that lab was out of business, too. I scoured eBay, hoping someone would be selling a battered old print, and spoke to a weird assortment of obscure film collectors in Tokyo, Buenos Aires and Paris hoping for a lead. I hit nothing but dead ends. But the thing was, I came from the world of independent films, where dead ends happen every day. I was hardened and fully immune to the idea of giving up. 

I started searching for where the movie might have screened in the past 30 years. Maybe there was a copy out there, somewhere, just waiting to be rediscovered. I knew the movie had shown once, over a decade before, in New York at a museum doing a Bowie show, but they admitted that they had no access to a print so they showed the crappy VHS version. I was hoping another theater somewhere might have projected a real 35mm print. One day, in one of my many Linguini dark web searches (who knew there was a kinky strangulation fetish group obsessed with the scene where Rosanna Arquette’s escape artist character, Lucy, nearly chokes to death in a noose?), I found an art theater in Zurich that had shown it a few years back. On its website, it said they screened a 35mm print. Holy shit—could that be true? Where did they get that from? I emailed them cold, hoping they would remember, and immediately got a response. Yes, indeed they remembered. It seems a distribution company in the U.K. had, somewhere along the line, retained European rights to the film. This was great news, as the European version was significantly longer than the U.S. version. If I could have access to it, I could at least have more footage to play around with to produce my director’s cut. Even better, not only did they have a print—they had the 35mm interpositive. A new 4K transfer of that would produce a gorgeous-looking movie. 

It took months for the English distribution company to track the interpositive reels from deep in their storage facility, another few for the company’s lab to make a transfer of it for me. Things move slowly in England, especially when you’re not exactly offering a truck load of cash. But four days before Christmas in 2022, I got a call, as if from Film Santa himself: The transfer was complete. I had my movie back after more than 30 years. 

Well, I had the film but not the rights. Sarah and I got sucked into a nightmarish wormhole of SAG rules and regulations. One second, they were willing to transfer the copyright to us, the next they weren’t. It was funny, until it wasn’t. Sarah and her awesome compatriot, Iris Engle, kept at them. SAG was asking for an absurd amount of money—all the back residuals owed them by the original producer. We negotiated and negotiated some more. We threatened to walk, but they knew we were going nowhere. Finally, we came to a number we could live with. And just like that, Sarah and I were now the U.S. rights holders of The Linguini Incident.

With the rights now ours and the interpositive in hand, I worked with a savvy post supervisor, Peter Chomsky, and an incredibly helpful lab, MTI, in Hollywood to start the process of the director’s cut of The Linguini Incident. David Dean, who had edited several pilots for me, along with my movie The Perfection, offered his services in exchange for a good—sorry, make that very good—bottle of scotch. We had no access to the dailies, no split tracks (which meant where there was originally music, there would still be music), only this one-hour and 45-minute European version to work with, but that was fine. The movie I wanted was going to be a jaunty 90 minutes or so, with shots reframed, zooms added, sequences re-ordered, dialogue tightened and cool moments added that had never been seen in the U.S. My editor was working on another (paying) job, so we cut on weekends and evenings. We added a few stock shots, digitally fixed a few technical mistakes and one or two creative ones as well. There were scenes that only had three angles in them, but by reframing, it suddenly felt like there were six or seven shots. This improved the pace and helped the humor. Of course, there were things I couldn’t fix: missed comic moments, uninteresting angles and blocking; a bit player whose performance couldn’t be saved 30 years ago or today. Rookie mistakes were forever cemented in celluloid. Would I have loved access to the original dailies so I could look for varied takes, different coverage, more magic? Sure. But I only had what I had. Still, we changed and tightened and noodled and breathed life back into The Linguini Incident. It suddenly felt fresh, funny and unique to me. I knew that there were serious fans of the original film. My goal was to not destroy the movie they liked; it was to just make it a film that I liked, too.

I showed the movie to Tamar Brott, who I co-wrote the screenplay with 34 years ago in various motel rooms in Vegas and Reno. She gave me tough notes and suggestions. I got feedback from Rosanna Arquette, from Eszter Balint, from fellow filmmakers and friends. Thirty years ago, I had been an arrogant, insecure director and had set myself up for failure by not listening to feedback and alienating my producer. I was not going to do that this time. 

Chomsky and the great colorist Steven Porter at MTI worked with me to make the film look even better than it did in 1992. New opening credits were created. We used AI to fix a line of dialogue that had been bugging me for 30 years. After a more- than-three-year journey, my director’s cut edit was complete. It felt amazing—and strange. But mostly amazing.

Sarah and I are excited for the Blu-ray release this summer (from MVD) and are screening it for audiences at various revival theaters across the country. The movie is dated in places, for sure, but it’s also oddball fun, like it was always meant to be. The early ’90s were weird, and so is the movie, which is what I wanted from the very start. It’s not perfect—not a lost masterpiece, for sure. But finally, good or bad, this version of The Linguini Incident is one I can own, both literally and figuratively. 

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