Two months before opening and half of the film was just gone.
An extreme example in the life—and death—of a Hollywood movie, but ask any director and they’ll tell you that the best bits of film are often the ones laying on the cutting room floor, or -in today’s world of digital editing—the deleted items bin. But rarely does a director get to pick up those pieces and reassemble his original vision. Drexel’s Mark Christopher, an assistant professor in the Westphal College, is getting that chance; and telling his story—unadulterated—about Studio 54, the legendary nightclub at the center of New York’s disco scene.
Christopher’s “54: The Director’s Cut” debuts at the Berlin International Film Festival on Feb. 10 and will make its way to the British Film Institute in London and Mexico’s prestigious Guadalajara International Film Festival, before coming to the U.S. later in 2015.
While “54”’s theatrical debut, in August of 1998, was met with mixed reviews and mediocre box office returns due to the cutting of the film, the director and Miramax now see this as a film whose time has come.
“54,” Christopher’s directorial debut, premiered in 1998 with a massive cast including established headliners Mike Myers and Neve Campbell, and rising stars like Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Sela Ward, Breckin Meyer and Mark Ruffalo, and amid a late-90s disco renaissance—of sorts.
In “54,” audiences saw a glittery 89-minutes of sex, drugs and disco driven by the love story of Phillippe’s character (Shane, the bartender) and Campbell’s (Julie, the soap star). What they didn’t see was 45 minutes of Christopher’s original footage that told a much grittier, true-to-the-era story of Studio 54 from the eyes of the kids who worked there: a bartender (Phillippe), a coat check girl (Hayek) and a bus boy (Meyer) —who, of course, found themselves in a steamy love triangle.
That storyline was cut by the studio—just two months before the film debuted. In its place, 25 minutes of plot-altering new footage and a voiceover by Phillippe put the finishing touches on what audiences saw in theaters.
Why these changes were made is a matter of some speculation. It’s no secret that movies are edited to appeal to broad audiences, softened to get a certain rating, or trimmed to manageable viewing times. Maybe it was a little too gritty, perhaps the characters were too complex, or could it have been that kiss between male leads Phillippe and Meyer?
“The studio felt that it was ahead of its time,” Christopher told the Newsblog. “Both in its portrayal of gay and bisexual characters and the fact that it was a drama with flawed leading characters—you didn’t see much of that back then. It was too edgy, so they rounded the edges for the theaters.”
The critics took notice. A review in The New York Times suggested:
“The movie might have worked had it decided which story it wanted to tell and stuck to its guns. But instead of exploring the hearts and souls of its urban dreamers, it feels like a crudely patched-together collection of notes for a project that got lost on the cutting-room floor.”
Since then, Christopher and associate producer of the original release, Jonathan King, have been lobbying Miramax to let them reassemble the film as it was originally intended. Christopher cobbled together a longer version that screened at Outfest in 2008 to a warm reception—helping to make his case.
King, who’s had many successful credits since “54” including “Dreamgirls,” “Lincoln,” “The Help,” and this year’s highly touted “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” finally secured Miramax’s assent for a director’s cut of “54” in the summer of 2014.
“The cult following helped keep the project alive,” Christopher said. “The movie always had a big following among the gay community and in Europe and Latin America. But now it’s acceptable to have gay leads and flawed characters in movies —it’s fairly common. So it seems like this is the right time.”
“In a lot of ways it was harder making the director’s cut than the original,” Christopher said.
That’s no small assertion coming from the one-time Iowa farm boy, who caught the eye of Miramax executives with two shorts that he made in film school at Columbia, then spent five years scouring libraries and interviewing former patrons in order to write and direct “54.”
“It was my first feature film with a big cast that included movie stars, several hundred extras, and a dance club that we built in a warehouse in Canada,” Christopher said. “It wasn’t a small undertaking.”
But neither was its restoration. Filming in the 1990s meant using 35 mm film. A feature-length picture, like “54,” would come together from several pallets of 35 mm film negative. And Christopher’s team needed to track down all of it to make the director’s cut.
“The trouble is, we never finished the movie,” Christopher said. “The studio’s cutting had started before we had the entire thing together, so it wasn’t like we could just splice back in the 45 minutes that were cut out. We had to get all of the original negative and start from there.”
This quest sent post-production supervisor Nancy Valle climbing through Miramax’s storage facilities and warehouses in sweltering July heat to rescue a pallet of VHS tapes that was marked “to be destroyed.”
Since there was no reason for a studio to keep old VHS dailies—the previews made after each day of shooting for directors to review—Valle’s discovery was a small miracle. It was essential to recover all of the dailies because the studio’s late editorial intervention left Christopher with no record of how the film was to be finished.
The final step in the cinematic scavenger hunt was Christopher’s friend excavating in his basement to unearth tapes stored there for safekeeping.
Working with the negative of the original film and the salvaged dailies, Christopher’s team once again wove together the story of the bartender, the busboy and the coat-check girl at New York’s Studio 54.
Long Live Disco!
The finished product is 105 minutes long. It’s a lot darker than the original, both literally—part of the edits to the theatrical version included turning up the light in the scenes—and figuratively—showing the demise of the club and of Rubell sans redemption.
It has now been digitized in its gritty, glittery glory, for HD screening. And it includes a voiceover introduction recently re-recorded by Phillippe, now 40, looking back at what it was like to be 19 years old and at the center of New York’s disco scene.
“The odd thing about this director’s cut is that most director’s cuts are of movies that were originally very successful,” Christopher said. “Films like mine, where people knew about them, but they weren’t huge successes in theaters, don’t often get the chance for a director’s cut – so this is very exciting.”
Christopher unveils his “54” at the Berlin Film Festival on Feb. 10. It will also be screened at the Guadalajara International Film Festival on March 13 and at the British Film Institute on March 27-28 with several international film festivals to follow.
For media inquiries contact Britt Faulstick, news officer, Drexel University at firstname.lastname@example.org.