Let's jump back in time to a little over 16 years ago. It's the summer of 1998 and if you hit a gay bar or club in the continental United States, you could not miss Stars on 54's dance remake of Gordon Lightfoot's “If You Could Read My Mind.” It was simply everywhere. The track was the promotional single for “54,” a movie that promised a sexy look at the infamous New York City nightclub Studio 54 but couldn't ultimately live up to the marketing hype surrounding its release.
The Miramax production was generating a ton of publicity because of its subject matter (one of the most legendary clubs of all-time), young up-and-coming stars such as Ryan Phillippe and Salma Hayek, the participation of Neve Campbell, who was coming off four straight hits (the first two “Screams,” “The Craft” and “Wild Things”). Most buzzworthy of all, it was the first dramatic role for former “Saturday Night Live” star Mike Myers, whose last film just happened to be the iconic “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” When the studio moved the release date from July to a “dump” date of August 28, many in the industry and the media became suspicious that something had gone terribly wrong.
“54” was the directorial debut of Mark Christopher, an openly gay filmmaker who had made two acclaimed short films including “Alkali, Iowa,” which won the Teddy at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival. Christopher had spent years researching “54” and felt he had fashioned a film that reflected the notorious nature of the club and the elite Manhattan scene that fueled it. Unfortunately, the studio discovered that Long Island test screening audiences weren't ready for some of the film's many gay moments (somewhat ridiculous since Paramount's “In & Out” was a smash hit a year earlier) and took control of the production and the film's final edit, an example of the kind of tinkering that led to Harvey Weinstein's “Harvey Scissorhands” moniker.
Watching “54” in a local LA theater, I remember being profoundly disappointed. The film had a blown-out look that made the club scenes appear like they were shot on a sound stage and therefore felt incredibly fake. There was very little gay content, which seemed strange considering the director, subject matter and distributor; while Studio 54 was a mixed club, it had a large gay clientele, while Miramax was after all the studio that released the gay-friendly “Muriel's Wedding,” “The House of Yes,” “Chasing Amy” and edgy fare such as Larry Clark's “Kids” and “Trainspotting.” The storyline also made very little narrative sense and the whole endeavor felt like a Hollywood executive imagining what Studio 54 was like and dumbing it down for the masses.
Why had Christopher put on a brave face for the press after he was forced to do reshoots? Why had he even gone through with any of the changes at all? (Of his thinking at the time, Christopher now says “I was a tad dazed.”)
Critics eviscerated the studio's cut, which ended up with a 13% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and they barely praised Myers' performance as the club's real life owner Steve Rubell. At the box office, the results were grimmer with the $13 million movie taking in just $16 million domestically. In the long run, of course, Miramax no doubt broke even on “54.” It hit the home entertainment market just as DVD sales and rentals were booming, but it was also a something of a sore point for the actors involved and for Miramax's overall legacy. Even more so because of the pre-release hype.
Now, in 2015, Mark Christopher and the cast of “54” are about to experience some long-awaited redemption. Miramax is no longer owned by the Weinsteins or the Walt Disney Company and after some prodding from one of the film's original producers, Jonathan King, the company's current management agreed to fund a restoration of Christopher's original directors cut. Thirty minutes of reshoots were removed and 40 minutes of original footage were added back. For a film that runs one hour and 46 minutes, that's incredibly significant.
Watching the new version with some initial skepticism, I can tell you Christopher wasn't exaggerating when he voiced his displeasure with the changes over the years. It really is — for the most part — a different movie. More importantly, it's a good movie, with fine performances from Phillippe as a young man who has no problems using his bisexuality to his advantage, and Breckin Meyer, whose character was never a villain, but a husband trying to support his wife's dreams of being a pop star. The club scenes feel much, much more like a real dance club thanks to the editing, the properly color timed footage and a sound mix that actually brings added depth to the picture. There is much less Campbell (she was never intended to be a major character) and the film's original tone proves Myers' performance was much more subtle than it appeared in the studio cut (more on that later). Does the ending still have some problems? Absolutely, but overall it's a much better movie.
This new director's cut of “54” is so different that it was chosen to screen at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival Tuesday, Feb. 10. Audiences in the U.S. will eventually be able to catch it on DVD and digitally later this year. Still, watching this restored version only prompted more questions, which Christopher was finally and happily willing to answer when we jumped on the phone earlier this week.
HitFix: I saw it “54” in theaters and I remember catching it on cable probably a couple years later and I remember it vividly for a number of reasons. However, I wasn't able to watch the original cut again before I watched your restored version. For someone who may be in my position, what would be the first thing you think they would notice is different?
Mark Christopher: Well, that it is the original story. That's very simply the story of the coat check girl (Hayek), the busboy (Meyer) and the bartender (Phillippe) and their love triangle. That had been completely cut out of the studio cut and then it was replaced with the reshoots with a Neve Campbell/Ryan Phillippe love story. So in the studio cut, it sort of veers off suddenly in that direction, but when you see the director's cut, it is a consistent movie. It tells one story, which is the original one that I mentioned.
Tell me if I'm wrong, but I remember the original cut being very studio-esque. It looked like a Hollywood movie studio making a movie about 54. When I saw your cut it came across, and this is meant as a huge compliment, as much more of an indie film, especially in the first hour or so and in how you were depicting what was going on inside the club. Did you feel like a lot of that was removed in the studio cut?
Yes, and thank you. The three major changes in the studio cut was that the story was cut out, which is a huge one. That the gay material was cut out — most of it — and then also [when it] was transferred they pumped all this light into it so it became this big, bright television-looking thing. The DP and I had tried very hard to take you into the '70s and into this dark, flashy nightclub. One of the greatest things about doing the director's cut for me and doing the restoration was to restore it back to its dark beauty, do you know what I'm saying? It's very hard to shoot darkness on negative film. It's much easier now on video, but on negative it's very hard to shoot and I'm really happy with how that came out and we were able to restore that. You have darkness literally when you look at it and it's also very much in line with the story of these flawed characters.* And my lead being sort of an opportunistic bisexual [was] far ahead of its time in '98 for a big studio movie, but right up the alley of HBO and Showtime these days.
*For a sample of the restored look check out this clip on the film's Berlin Film Festival page.
Maybe being a gay guy who is from New York and spent most of my time working in the entertainment industry in LA, I wouldn't have thought that was that ahead of its time, especially for a Miramax movie. It felt like dance music was jumping, “Will & Grace” would debut the following month and all these sort of gay-themed stories were in the media. Clearly the studio knew what you were shooting. They knew what the movie was going to be. When did you realize that what you created was not going to be acceptable for release?
So here's what happened. We had a small budget for such a big movie. It was $8 million, right? Then my cast started getting huge [i.e., more famous] when we were shooting and then the studio saw the dailies and loved them. So, already they started planning this as a bigger movie than it was ever meant to be. I think they actually loved my first cut, but then they tested it out in Long Island at malls. What you get are people like you that loved it and would score it 100, but all of these other people from the suburbs in 1998 who really gave incredibly homophobic feedback. And I think that was scary to the studio.
Had the budget increased past $8 million or was it just based on their projections that they could make a lot of money off it?
Well, the reshoots cost another $5 million, so that's the irony of the whole thing. So it ended up being $13 million once it was reshot because again, 40 minutes of the movie was cut out. This is very important, too. It's not just the director's cut, it is a different movie.
It is. It felt very different.
Forty minutes of the movie was cut out. You were wondering what I might tell an audience, it's that. That it's not just a director's cut; it is really a different movie. So after they cut those 40 minutes out then we reshot 30 minutes, which was this new love story that was put in there* — they're very different movies. In fact, my producer Dolly Hall liked to say that the movie that we made originally was called “54” and that the reshot version was called “55.” So that's how we refer to that.
*Note: In a follow-up conversation, Christopher reveals that he had no hand in writing the new storyline. “Ryan, Breckin, Neve and I met one day and polished up the pages that we were given as much as they'd let us, but some polishing was rejected.”
You did direct the reshoot, however. What were your feelings at the time? Were you feeling like “this is my break I've got to do what I've got to do?”
Well, I was under contract.
So you felt like you didn't have a choice?
All of us, yeah. And, plus, I wanted to finish the job. There are a lot of fans of that movie of “54” and I don't want to disrespect them. One of the reasons I think I'm in this position right now is because that movie stayed alive, because it has a lot of fans, even if it wasn't my original vision and what a lot of critics and gay men and other people want it to be.
I did not realize that that new voice over at the beginning is a recent recording of Ryan. Has he had a chance to see the new cut of the film? Has anyone else who was in the film been able to see it and do you have any feedback from them?
Well, so here's the timing of the whole thing. We just got the screener link. You just got it yesterday, right?
So you're one of the first people to get the new link. I just sent it to Neve today. I'll send it to Ryan and Breckin and Salma right away. So they haven't even seen it yet. But Ryan had seen the cut even when it was long and chunky and, obviously, he loved it. It's an entirely different performance and character, etc. Ryan had seen that. I don't know if Salma saw that way back when. And I reckon that Breckin saw it way back when. So I'm very excited for them to see it and they're really excited that it's coming out, all of them. We've been in touch quite a bit, it's just that we just got the link done.
It also felt like Mike Myers' work feels like a much different performance than what I remember in the original film. Is that correct?
I love that. You know why? It's exactly the same performance almost down to the very last frame except it's a different movie. And so since it's a different movie, you think it's a different performance. I think there's maybe five seconds more in this cut than there is in the studio cut of Mike.
So there's not less cut out or there's not new scenes of him put in?
I'm going to have to talk to Mike because here's the funny thing, and I'm not being disingenuous, I honestly don't remember if the studio cut that much [of his performance] and [the movie] kept getting cut so much that I'd lose track of exactly what it was. I don't know what's on Netflix. I saw it maybe 10 years ago or so. Now, having been through the restoration, I'm much more familiar with what this cut is, but I do know that they didn't really cut Mike's performance. I know what it is. We reshot the scene where he comes back from jail. So that's [not in the director's cut]. By having that sort of sentimental ending of Mike's performance gone, what you're left with is him saying, where Shane runs up at the end and says, “Steve, you got to get out of here. Ain't you going to get out of here?” And Stevie says, “Where would I go?” And that's what you're left with. And that's very important. Like that's a powerful moment as opposed to coming back for some sentimental party in 1982 or whatever the studio cut was.
It's remarkable that one scene can leave such a bad impression on a performance. I remember seeing the movie and thinking that Myers' performance was sort of over the top and in this cut it's much subtler than I remember.
I'll say one more thing, as I'm thinking about it because this is why you would have that impression also. The ending of the [studio cut] also had this big explosive moment of throwing Mike out of the club and him kicking and screaming. It was almost comedic and I cut all that down in this cut to him just being pulled out of the club and put in the car. So you would have been left with a much bigger what you think was “over-the-top” performance that has been trimmed down to something more real. And that's one of my goals in the movie is to take you into 1979 and into that club and pare way the sort of bigger things that were happening in that studio cut.
I had a thought that I don't remember thinking the first time, which is that Myers' character is doing that as a show for the press. When he's getting kicked out he really isn't like that upset about it because you've given that “where would he go” moment. I also thought the scenes where he's sort of flirting with the guys, it felt more real than some dirty guy at the club. Maybe it's just time, but it's a unique perspective.
Well, it could be time, but I'll tell you I think it's also Breckin's character and story are completely different. Not only was the film so recut and Ryan's performance completely reshaped and Neve's, but Breckin's was as well. As you might have noticed, Breckin is sort of the heart of this movie. If Shane or Ryan is the vision and the soul of the movie then Breckin's really the heart. The studio cut turned that all around and kind of made him this sort of criminal and we were aghast. He's going to be thrilled that this is back and since he's a full-fledged complex character, then Mike isn't [playing] some predatory weirdo, do you know what I'm saying? I think that has an effect. The same things with Ryan. Ryan's character is much more complex and layered.
Absolutely. One of the other things that popped while I was watching it was, and this could be completely wrong, are there more songs of the era in this cut than were in the original?
Such a good question because that was really hard. No, I tried really hard to buy this one song by Thelma Houston called “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,” but we had such a tiny budget to do the restoration that to buy one new song would have basically cost us a third of the entire budget. What you have is every single song that's in the original is in the movie. Although there were a couple of them that would have been so squished down as background music that I've pulled them up so you can actually hear them. I don't know if you're a fan of “Saturday Night Fever,” but I'm a huge fan and “Saturday Night Fever” is sort of a musical without being a musical. The songs kind of inform the characters and inform the story without [a character] breaking into song or being too on the nose. I've worked very carefully with where those songs go and sort of who they relate to and how they relate to the story.
Well, you have a great example here for a future sound mixing class because I think that compared to the studio mix it helped shape the club scenes tremendously. For example, Ryan's character is entering 54 for the first time, the experience of it felt, especially in the first hour, more like a club and the music is a big part of it.
That's part of it and it's also just the length of the music and letting these themes really play out and what's happening visually. Also, I must say we did the original mix at Skywalker and they were great, of course. We did this mix at Deluxe here in Hollywood and had the best time. I think it's the best time I've had since I actually shot that movie in the entertainment industry. We had to do it really fast, too, man. We did it in five days, I think, or four days. And when we were done it was very late at night and we put on that loud song “If You Could Read My Mind” and we were like dancing on the ping-pong table. It was crazy. It was amazing. It's also now Dolby 7.1, so that gives it a richer sound. I mean once you see this in a theater you'll really feel it. That was one of the important things about the movie for me, was to take you inside that nightclub, not just visually in that sort of dark, flashing way, but also with the sound all around you. How we experience it as we walk through the lobby and then toward the dance floor and what it would sound like on the dance floor as opposed to being up in the balcony, etc.
I was going to ask about “If You Could Read My Mind.” One of the things that I remember is that you could not go to any gay club without hearing the Ultra Naté and Amber version. It was everywhere. And it's funny, I can't believe that song only went to number three on the dance charts, because I swear I heard it for six straight months. What were your feelings about all that at the time? Was it hard not to just get sucked into the excitement of it all? Did you feel like it was becoming something you hadn't hoped it would be?
You know, I've got to tell you I'm really thrilled with this soundtrack in the studio cut. And I think, to be very honest, [it's the one thing they] just completely left me alone with and I'm one of the producers on the CD along with Sue Jacobs and Coati Mundi, who are fantastic music supervisors. So the three of us produced all those songs and created that double CD set. The blue one is better than the orange one, I don't know how you feel. [Laughs.] So we're producers on that. I can't remember who was our main producer on “If You Can Read My Mind” but that was brought to me actually by the studio or by Sue, [wondering], “Would I be interested in making it with these singers?” I remember the Viola Wills remake in 1980 and I said, “Yes, absolutely.” Not to diss Viola Wills, but I love our remake. And it's funny, it was everywhere. In fact after the film came out I decided I definitely needed a break and so I flew to Barcelona with some friends and I have to tell you, we were thousands and thousands of miles away and that song was playing constantly in every club we walked into. You could not escape it. It was really funny. But I love that song and I love that soundtrack. Hopefully it would be great if Miramax re-releases it. I don't know how you do it on iTunes or whatever, now…
I'm sure someone in the music business will jump on any opportunity for uncatalogued releases to make money. I don't mean to dwell on it, but what were your thought at the time when all this was going on? You talk about how you were under contract and you needed to do this. Was there any regret? Was there “I'm making the best case out of a tough situation” or “I knew what I was getting into with Harvey Weinstein?”
Well, I was raised on a farm and you always finish the job you begin no matter what happens, even if a tornado goes through. That's sort of my work ethic. It was painful, but what are you going to do? I mean what is painful is for the critics to blame you. That's painful. But what are you going to do?
Well, let's talk about how this restoration came about then.
Oh, it was a dream come true. I have to give super props to Jonathan King, my producer, who is just the most tenacious, loyal person in the world. He's the head of production at Participant Media now, but he has stuck by this movie for years trying to get it out there. Every time the library would change hands, [he would try]. First it was with Weinstein and then it was with Disney and now it's with the new owners. At every opportunity Jonathan would be in there trying to convince them. And then finally Zanne Devine at the new Miramax said “yes.” They're my heroes. It's amazing.
How did you reference the original cut? Had you kept any sort of notes on what the original cut was or did you guys literally have to try to put it back together from memory?
What existed was this thing we call a bootleg, which was a cobbled together, VHS, grungy-looking thing that had no time code and no EDL, which is an edit division list. Basically we had to find the dailies and then put those dailies over the 40 minutes of the missing movie. My editor, David Kittredge, had to do that very painstakingly. Now finding the dailies was difficult because it's a 17-year-old movie and the library has changed hands three times. So, my post production supervisor, Nancy Valley, who we've nicknamed “The Goddess,” at one point was actually crawling [to find it]. Nancy found the VHS dailies marked to be destroyed because there's no reason to keep VHS dailies. They're old. They degrade. If she had been there a day later there would have been no director's cut.
Oh wow. That's lucky.
So finding those made the whole thing possible because from then you could slide them into place, you could find the dailies, you could find the time code, you can make the movie.
You've got the Berlin premiere and I know it's coming out on digitally, but are there any other plans to screen it publicly? Is there any chance it will be at the New Beverly Cinema or at Cinefamily in LA?
Well, we have the Latin American premiere in Guadalajara in March, we have the UK premiere at the BFI at the end of March. Then we'll have a big LA screening and a San Francisco screening. It's going to have a big festival life, which is great.
Last but not least, I know it must have been tough because of the critical reaction at the time and it must have felt out of your control, but did you feel like that experience hurt your career or did you feel like it helped in any way?
Well, so I sort of went back to my indie roots after that because that movie sort of pulled me out of the indie world and I went back to my indie roots. I did a thing for IFC inDigEnt. I went back to short films, which is my first love, and also writing pilots for television. I've done several of those, which is another love of mine. I think I now feel like I've grown up and I would love to do another studio movie, but at the time I didn't feel like it.
[Check out images from “54” in the photo gallery below]
“54: The Director's Cut” will be available digitally sometime this year.
[Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted the Berlin premiere date as Feb. 7. Additionally, Miramax has clarified they only plan on releasing a digital version at this time.]