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in Filmmaking
on Apr 25, 2009

I’ve been meaning to blog about this interview with director Ti West by Karina Longworth over at Spout for a couple of days now. (I missed it when I first posted but caught up with it through Karina’s Twitter feed when she tweeted that after the interview director West was forbidden from doing press.) You should check out the piece, but, in a nutshell, West alleges that the version of his new The House of the Devil, screening this week at Tribeca, is “not my version,” and that the financiers, Dark Sky Films, excised a four-minute scene in order to tighten up the film’s pacing and make it more commercial.

From the piece:

In the case of Devil, West says, the money guys knew what they were getting into when they hired him, and didn’t seem to have a problem with what they got until recently. “All of my movies, the first half of them are just like regular movies, and then they turn into horror movies. That’s the only interesting element to me, that contrast. So they’re not surprised. It’s just that everyone is terrified, because it’s 2009, so no one’s going to buy anything.” West says the producers test screened his cut without his knowledge, and then showed him response cards. The audience’s answers to the leading questions along the lines of “Were you bored by anything in the house?” were presented as evidence that the audience asked for the specific cuts that Dark Sky eventually mandated. That he had made a film that was even subject to last minute revision based on testing came as a surprise to the director.

“It was in the rough cut, it was in the fine cut, it was in the final cut it was in the sound edit — it’s never changed, and it was always boring the whole time. It’s this whole last minute fear.”

After reading this, I had one question, and it’s one the subject of which I’ve long planned to make a Filmmaker article: who had final cut? The paragraphs above and one of West’s comments earlier in the piece (“I think they’re thinking about it too much like it’s a real movie”) point out the problem with taking industry money for work that artistically warps accepted and defined mainstream film genres: financiers still expect to be delivered movies that play to mainstream audiences of those genres. In other words, if it’s supposed to be a comedy, people should laugh, and if it’s supposed to be a horror movie, people should be scared. I haven’t seen West’s film yet, but I take it the problem is that it’s got a slow-burn art-film thing going on before the blood pours. I actually love these kind of movies, but apparently the financiers, who didn’t seem to comprehend what kind of film they were paying for during production, don’t.

In these situations, it comes down to cutting rights. I wonder what West’s contract said? Did he have final cut? For directors and producers whose financing requires them to give up final cut, their jobs in post-production are often not just to shape the film but to guide the political process involved in reaching that final cut. This is usually an emotionally fraught time of the filmmaking process because, let’s face it, financiers are often induced into film investments by their expectations of not just their money back but big profits. Throw in distributors who feel they know what they can sell and want films that complement their marketing abilities and you can have a perfect storm for directors prizing foremost their artistic integrity.

Suffice to say that I know of a lot of final-cut horror stories out there (and wouldn’t be surprised if, now that the Cannes list has come out, more don’t emerge soon). And while the moral of these tales for directors may seem to be “always get final cut,” a), that’s often not possible and b), even when you do have final cut that contractual requirement often doesn’t do as much as you would think. For example, you may have final cut to a film the distributor or sales agent says they’ll bury or send direct to DVD if you don’t make the changes that they want.

The final cut smackdown currently in the Los Angeles Courts involving Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited Margaret is shaping up to be a doozy, one that makes West vs. Dark Sky seem like a schoolyard tussle. As reports John Horn in the Los Angeles Times, lawsuits are flying between Fox Searchlight, producer Gary Gilbert and his Camelot Pictures, and director Kenneth Lonergan over the delivery of a final cut of Margaret to the studio. In fact, it’s not as much a battle over final cut as it is one about delivery, financing issues, and the length of the process required by an agreement to grant a director final cut.

From the L.A. Times:

Because of the litigation and a confidentiality agreement among the lawyers, all of the principals central to the film declined to be interviewed for this story. But conversations with a dozen people close to or familiar with the production, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, painted a picture of an endless post-production cycle that left Lonergan and Gilbert clashing and Fox Searchlight sitting on what might be an unreleasable movie.

A number of producers and editors — including Rudin, Pollack and Martin Scorsese’s legendary editor, Thelma Schoonmaker — have tried but failed to help Lonergan complete his movie, court documents and interviews show. With his financing from Gilbert and Fox Searchlight cut off, Lonergan borrowed more than $1 million from actor and close friend Matthew Broderick (who has a small part in “Margaret”) in an attempt to complete the editing of the movie, according to a person close to the production. (A Broderick spokesman said the loan was a private matter and disputed the dollar amount but did not provide another figure.)

The film’s lengthy post-production sparked two lawsuits, which are scheduled to be tried in June and September. Last July, Fox Searchlight sued Gilbert and his production company, claiming he failed to pay the studio half of the film’s production costs. Two months later, Gilbert’s Camelot Pictures sued Fox Searchlight and Lonergan, alleging that the studio and Lonergan thwarted Gilbert’s many attempts to finish the movie, forcing Camelot to pay for “a clearly inferior and unmarketable film” that Lonergan, several people say, will not support.

Margaret has been on our tracking list for some time. I loved Lonergan’s debut picture, You Can Count on Me. And aside from my interest in just seeing another Lonergan movie, I’ve been curious about this one because the script that was floating around the production community in New York was long…. as in very long. The article states that it was 168 pages, and that’s on the low end of what I remember hearing. In any case, Lonergan apparently was contractually required to deliver a 150-minute movie, scripts always time out more than the industry standard a-page-a-minute, so a challenging post-production was almost a given. Now, after literally years of editing involving some of cinema’s top editors, no one seems to be able to agree as to whether the delivered film is marketable or even whether it represents Lonergan’s final wishes. The kicker to all this: Lonergan has contractual final cut. Read the article for all the details — and there are many — but suffice to say that Margaret may one day be rediscovered as a lost-masterpiece… or it may never be seen at all.

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