Director's Cuts: Do They Make the Cut?

Article by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1998


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This article appeared in the February/March 1999 issue of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine

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In the recently released satire "An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn", director Alan Smithee and his studio bosses wrangle over who gets 'final cut' on a finished movie. The director finds the final eedit on the film truly repulsive and wants to re-edit the picture more to his liking. On the other hand, the producer, who oversaw the editing process, disagrees with Smithee's assessment of the finished product and suggests that he take his name off the credits by using the Writers' Guild-approved pseudonym, 'Alan Smithee'. Of course, that solution is of no use to him, and the hapless director is left with no choice but to do the unthinkable: he burns the only print of the movie to spare the audiences from what he believes to be a cinematic abomination. Fortunately, most real-world disagreements over the final cut rarely result in such drastic measures being taken. However, the dispute over what audiences will see on the screen is a common post-production conflict, as directors and studio execs battle over control and ownership of the finished product. Most of these disputes are often resolved amicably, but sometimes they are not.

Fortunately, some directors are now given a second chance to showcase their original vision via the 'director's cut'. While most of these special editions are released directly on video or laserdisc, some have been unveiled in the theaters first, such as the special editions of "Das Boot" and "Blade Runner". Through this new venue, directors are able to re-insert footage that was left on the cutting room floor in order to meet running-time constraints or studio imperatives. Director's cuts also give audiences a chance to see what the director believed was important in the film, which is sometimes in sharp contrast to the studio-approved release.

However, the quality for director's cuts can vary tremendously, and can be placed in one of three categories:

The Marketing Ploy

The first category is the 'marketing ploy', and director's cuts of this caliber essentially try to sell audiences the same old film with a few new bells and whistles attached. Fortunately, this kind of director's cut is not as prevalent. With the explosion of the home video and laserdisc ancillary markets for films, studios have learned to extend the shelf life of their libraries by encouraging audiences to pay for what they have already seen before. This is often done with the promise of extra goodies, such as extra footage or 'making-of' documentaries. However, the majority of these special editions have only minor changes-- an extra special effects sequence, or an extra scene of violence that was cut out to avoid an 'R' rating.

He's not a farmer... he's got too much of his father in him.
That's what I'm afraid of.

The Battle of Yavin

The most blatant example of this type of director's cut is the re-release of the "Star Wars" films. While I am an avid fan of the 'Holy Trilogy', the changes in the special editions were merely cosmetic, using the most up-to-date computer graphics to punch up the dated special effects of the originals. Thus, moviegoers were treated to seeing a busier Mos Eisley spaceport, a larger fleet of X-Wings in the Battle of Yavin, and the victory celebration on the Empire's home planet. However, these morsels of eye candy, no matter how tasty, did not provide any additional insight into the machinations of the story or the characters. In fact, according to some pundits, some of the enhancements actually damaged the integrity of the original films, and has been equated with the blasphemy of colorizing old black-and-white movies.

Han, my boy, I'm only doing this because you're the best and I need you. But if you disappoint me again, I'll put a price on your head so large that you wont' be able to go near a civilized system again for the rest of your life.
I'll pay you Jabba. But not because you threaten me. I'll pay you because it's my pleasure.

Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Jabba, and Boba Fett

For example, in the cantina scene of "Star Wars: The Special Edition", Greedo shoots first before Solo shoots back and kills him. In the original film, Solo shot Greedo in cold blood, which gave the Solo character a dark edge-- you weren't really too sure if you could trust him, since he was always looking out for himself and he would probably sell you out if the price was right. This slightly sinister character of Solo would then undergo a transformation by sticking around to help Luke destroy the Death Star. With Greedo shooting first, the maturation arc of Solo is weakened, and in turn lessens the impact of his return to help Luke in the Battle of Yavin.

I'm not going to wait for the Empire to draft me into service. The Rebellion is spreading, and I want to be on the side I believe in.
And I'm stuck here on Tatooine.

Approaching the Death Star

The only saving grace of the new enhanced trilogy would be the inclusion of the short scene before the Battle of Yavin where Luke runs into an old friend from Tatooine, Biggs Darklighter. In the original film, Luke only communicates with Biggs during the battle, and there is little significance when Biggs X-Wing is destroyed. With Biggs being introduced earlier, there is at least more emotional resonance to his death. However, it would have been nice if Lucas had also included another deleted scene: Luke and Biggs watching a battle raging high above Tatooine. This scene not only establishes the friendship between the two characters, but it also presents Luke's dilemma of choosing between staying planetside to help his uncle or seeking a life of adventure by joining the rebellion with Biggs.

Click here to order Star Wars: The Special Edition from Reel.com

Natural Born Killers: The Director's Cut

There are numerous other director's cuts that fall into the 'marketing ploy' category, though they have not had the runaway commercial success of the "Star Wars" re-release. Paul Verhoeven had to make extensive cuts to "Robocop" in order to avoid an 'X' rating. However, seven years later, a laserdisc special edition was released that re-integrated a couple of minutes of footage deemed 'excessively violent', including a lingering shot of the dead executive killed by the berserk ED-209 and a full-minute of Officer Murphy's death at the hands of Boddicker's gang (including an elaborate tracking shot of Murphy's coup de grace). Another so-so director's cut would be "Lifeforce", the vampires from space movie that stars a pre-ST:TNG Patrick Stewart. The extra footage amounts to little more than additional violence and nudity, which do not significantly enhance the viewing experience. Likewise, "Natural Born Killers", Oliver Stone's indictment against the pervasive influence of the media, has a few more minutes of ultraviolent mayhem tacked on, but is redeemed by a supplemental documentary which includes a discarded courtroom scene starring Ashley Judd and a much darker ending.

Click here to order Natural Born Killers: Director's Cut from Reel.com

The Enhanced Vision

The Mariner (Kevin Costner)

The next level up would be the 'enhanced vision', in which previously edited-out footage is re-inserted. In the 'enhanced vision' director's cut, the re-inserted scenes are most often 'character moments' that were shed in favor of action sequences in order to cut down an excessively-long running time. When this lost footage is re-instated, new aspects of the characters are brought to light, which tends to enhance the emotional arc of the story. One example of this type would be the extended version of "Waterworld" that was shown on American television in early 1998. This version contained forty minutes of footage that had been removed against director Kevin Reynold's wishes, including material that further developed the relationship between Mariner and Helen, and also revealed Dry Land to be the peak of Mt. Everest.

My mommy always said there were no monsters. No real ones, but there are.
Yes, there are.
Why do grown-ups say that?
Because usually it's true.

The Alien Queen

The prototypical example of an 'enhanced vision' would be James Cameron's sci-fi war movie, "Aliens". Cameron's shooting script was rich with character development and a stronger arc for the protagonist, Ellen Ripley. However, the first cut came in too long, and Cameron was ordered to excise twenty minutes in order to increase the commercial viability of the film, most of which were the character-building scenes.

Well that's great, that's fuckin' great man. Now what the fuck are we supposed to do? We're in some pretty shit now man! That's it man, game over man, game over, man! Game over!

The daughter Ellen Ripley left behind

"Aliens: The Special Edition" re-introduces the lost 'motherhood' story arc excised from the theatrical release. After her rescue by a salvage ship, Ripley learns that she has been drifting for 57 years, and that her daughter, who was eleven years old when she last saw her, has already grown up and passed away. This makes Ripley feel remorse for not fulfilling the promise of returning home for her daughter's twelfth birthday. This in turn explicates the significance of Ripley's attachment to Newt, the young girl that survived the alien infestation of LV-426, and why she risks everything in order to save her in the climax of the film. By showing Ripley's strong maternal instinct, not only is her character's redemption arc strength, but it also serves as an excellent set-up for the confrontation against the Alien Queen. Cameron also restores footage that shows the colony before the infestation, and a brief glimpse into Newt's parents, who are sent on company orders to investigate the alien ship. The ominous role of the company in the fall of LV-426 also increases the tension of Burke's presence as the official spokesperson of the company.

The War Against the Machines

Three billion human lives ended on August 29th, 1997. The survivors of the nuclear fire called the war Judgment Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare... the war against the machines. The computer which controlled the machines, Skynet, sent two Terminators back through time. Their mission: to destroy the leader of the human resistance, John Connor, my son. The first Terminator was sent to strike at me in the year 1984. It failed. The second was set to strike at John himself when he was still a child. As before, the resistance was able to send a lone warrior, a protector, for John. I was just a question of which one of them would reach him first.

The T-800 (Arnold Schwarzennager)

With a penchant for making long and involved movies, it is not surprising that another James Cameron film belongs to the 'enhanced vision' category. "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" was the follow-up to his 1984 breakthrough film, and like "Aliens", its length was in need of some trimming in order to increase its commercial prospects. In the Special Edition, fifteen minutes of must-see footage has been restored.

You don't know what it's like to try and kill one of these things. If something goes wrong this could be our last chance... so move!
Look Mom, if I'm supposed to grow up to be some great military leader then maybe you should listen to my leadership ideas once in a while!

One pivotal scene that is restored in the Special Edition is the young John Connor and Sarah Connor reprogramming the Terminator so that it could learn to become more 'human'. This complicated scene, which required the services of actress Linda Hamilton's twin sister, had the Terminator's head being opened up and the computer chip being removed. However, Sarah's instinctual reaction is to take a hammer and smashing the chip, thereby destroying the Terminator. Fortunately, John stops her and shows the first signs of the leader that he is growing up to be.

Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) was cut from the theatrical version of Terminator 2

Other interesting scenes found in the special edition include more background on Miles Dyson, a dream sequence in which Sarah sees Kyle Reese, a hilarious sequence with John teaching the Terminator how to smile, the T-1000 malfunctioning in the steel mill, and a more definitive ending of a graying Sarah spending time with Senator John Connor in a park.

Mr. Neary, what do you want?
I just want to know that it's really happening.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

After the success of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", Columbia Pictures wanted to turn the film into a franchise, which Steven Spielberg was against. In the end, a compromise was reached: Spielberg would be allowed to re-shoot some footage that he had wanted in the original film, as long as he shot new footage of Roy Neary's experience inside the Mothership. With a budget of $2 million and most of the original cast on board, Spielberg created "CE3K: The Special Edition" which debuted in theaters 3 years after the original. This Special Edition was actually three minutes shorter, since Spielberg also cut out sixteen minutes from the long middle stretch of the film to make room for the new footage. Some of this new footage helped build on Neary's character development, whereas the rest was of questionable value, such as Neary's experience inside the mothership and a UFO stopping to examine the Golden Arches of a McDonald's restaurant.

However, eighteen years later, this film was recycled once again as "CE3K: The Collectors Edition", which Spielberg labels as his definitive vision. In this latest version, Spielberg excises the light show of Neary's trip inside the mothership and keeps a few key scenes from the "Special Edition": the brief glimpse into Neary's dysfunctional family life, scientists discovering a ship in the middle of the Gobi Desert, and Neary going nuts and locking himself in the shower. Spielberg felt that it was important to illustrate Neary's dismal family life to establish why he chooses to leave everything behind at the end of the film.

Click here to order CE3K: The Collectors Edition from Reel.com

I'm sorry Will.
No, Admiral. I don't think you're sorry. Not one damned bit. I remember when you recommended me for this command. You told me how envious you were and how much you hoped you would get a starship command again. Well sir, it looks like you found a way.

The New and Improved USS Enterprise

"Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was a disappointment to many Star Trek fans. Though this first feature film reunited the characters of the original television series, the studio execs at Paramount felt that eye candy was more important than watching the well-loved characters interact with one another. The end result was a lifeless and overly-long light show that bored audiences-- how interesting could it be to watch Kirk, Spock, and McCoy stare at dazzling lights for minutes at a time?

For us?
No, Captain. For V'ger. I weep for V'ger as I would for a brother. As I was when I came aboard, so is V'ger now. Empty. Incomplete. Searching. Logic and knowledge are not enough.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Fortunately, the video release of this film re-inserted twelve minutes of character-building scenes, making this novice effort a little more bearable-- it's still not a great film, but it is better. The little snippets of character interaction that were restored in the Special Edition include Uhura demonstrating her loyalty to Kirk to a grumbling crew member, Sulu being enamored with Lt. Ilya, Kirk surmising the identity of a crew member refusing to step into the transporter, and Spock shedding a tear when he realizes that his own emptiness is in many ways similar to V'ger's desire to find the 'Creator'. One interesting production goof found in this longer version has Kirk suiting up and going outside the ship to retrieve Spock-- however, with the way the shot was framed, you can clearly see the scaffolding for the set on the edges of the screen.

Click here to order ST:TMP Special Edition from Reel.com

There are numerous other director's cuts that fall into this category, but are too numerous to mention: "Stargate", "Das Boot", "Bullet in the Head", and "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country". However, each one is worth a look.

Click here to order Das Boot: Director's Cut from Reel.com

The Value-Added Vision

Finally, there is the 'value-added vision' which re-inserts footage that fundamentally changes the direction of the film and is often in marked contrast to the original studio-approved version, a dramatic illustration as to how business decisions can affect a film's narrative core. Often, this kind of director's cut improves on the film, revealing new nuances that were removed from the theatrical release. For example, when "Highlander II: The Quickening" was originally released, it made absolutely no sense with the established story in the first film, as it implied that the Immortals were from another planet. "Highlander II: The Renegade Version" takes out all references to the outer space nonsense, and restructures the film into a more easily understood narrative.

Click here to order Highlander II: The Renegade Version from Reel.com

Decker (Harrison Ford)
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Rachel (Sean Young)

"Blade Runner", originally released in 1982, brought the 'neo-noir cyberpunk dystopia' into vogue, profoundly influencing the look and feel of science fiction films from then on. However, director Ridley Scott was forced by studio executives to make significant changes to the theatrical release. The prosaic voice-over by Harrison Ford was added to alleviate concerns of audience confusion, and a more traditional 'happy' ending was used instead of the one that Scott had intended.

Blade Runner
The light that burns twice as bright burns half as long. And you have burned so very, very brightly.

Ten years later, Scott finally had the last word when he released "Blade Runner: Director's Cut", which removed the voice-overs and some of the excessively violent scenes of the original. Furthermore, Scott restored an existentialist ending that had Decker learning that he too was a Replicant. How ironic it was for Decker to realize that his own survival instincts were no different than those of the Replicants that he had gunned down in the line of duty. It is for this reason that "Blade Runner" purists consider Scott's alternative version as the definitive cut.

Click here to order Blade Runner: Director's Cut from Reel.com

God, I hate that bitch.
You probably shouldn't have married her then.

James Cameron appears once again, only this time it is for "The Abyss: The Director's Cut". When I first saw "The Abyss" in 1989, I left the theater thinking that something was missing. The film had been building up with Bud Brigman risking his life to get to the bottom of the ocean, where the underwater aliens were located. However, once he got there, all he did was wave to the aliens-- there was no great moment of epiphany in this final scene. Something was clearly lacking.

So raise your hand if you think that was a Russian water-tentacle.

The Abyss

This sci-fi underwater movie was plagued with numerous production problems and an escalating budget that made it one of the most expensive movies of the time at $65 million (sound familiar?). When production was finally wrapped up, studio executives demanded that Cameron trim down the running time by half an hour, in a similar fashion to the work he did on "Aliens". In the original incarnation, the film had a Cold War subplot, but it was dropped in favor of giving more screen time to the emotional core of the story, the relationship between Bud and his estranged wife, Lindsey. Unfortunately, in its trimmed form, the story felt incomplete.

Goddamnit you bitch! You never backed away from anything in your life! Now fight! Fight! Fight!!!

Fortunately, the Cold War subplot and a fantastic effects-packed climax are restored in the Director's Cut, giving "The Abyss" a more cohesive narrative. As the underwater drilling team were trying to figure out how to get back to the surface, the fleets of the American and Soviet navies begin butting heads over responsibility of the destruction of the Montana, the nuclear submarine that Bud's crew was sent to help salvage. As the situation becomes more desperate for Bud and his crew, the world above races towards a nuclear confrontation. When Bud finally meets the underwater aliens, they communicate by showing Bud newscasts of the impending nuclear war. This is then followed by a spectacular special effects sequence that has tidal waves being sent towards coastal cities. However, after the aliens see Bud's reaction to the impending destruction, they stop the tidal waves, satisfied that they have sufficiently warned mankind of its destructive ways.

We all see what we want to see. Coffey looks and sees Russians. He sees hate and fear. You have to look with better eyes than that.

The Director's Cut also restores footage that provides more background on the Bud-Lindsey breakup (most importantly the fact that Bud is still wearing his wedding ring) and fleshes out the secondary characters that populate the deep-drilling rig. Though the Cold War subplot seems dated now, given the breakup of the Soviet Union, in restoring "The Abyss" to his original vision, Cameron has brought back the emotional intensity and thematic elements that make this film a classic.

Click here to order The Abyss: Director's Cut from Reel.com

A New Hope

The future looks bright for more director's cuts coming to your local video store. With the advent of the new high-capacity DVDs, studios are putting extra goodies onto this new medium, including deleted scenes and special editions. Hopefully this will encourage other directors to re-evaluate and restore their films to their intended vision, as there are still many films deserving of a director's cut. "Independence Day" is rumored to have had twenty minutes of character moments and a 'crop duster' ending cut out. A director's cut for "Titanic" is almost a given with Cameron's penchant for director's cuts. And with "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me", David Lynch was rumored to have filmed at least four hours of footage for this film. One can only hope.


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