Starting today, a new Western going by the name of Jane Got A Gun has started tumbleweed-rolling into theaters. You may have heard of it. Chances are, however, you didn’t. An official trailer surfaced a few months ago and another at the beginning of this year, but otherwise, promotion has been suspiciously light. Posters emblazoned with period-attired Natalie Portman as the title gunslinger haven’t plastered major cities, 30-second commercial spots haven’t clogged the airwaves, and there’s nary a banner ad to be found when cruising the major movie-news sites. The film never screened for critics in advance of its release today, nor did the moderate number of theaters featuring Jane offer Thursday night preview showings. Neither Portman nor her co-stars Joel Edgerton and Ewan McGregor have hit the interview circuit (excepting an appearance from McGregor on Jimmy Kimmel Live! on Thursday night, a good deal of which was spent discussing the actor’s contributions to The Force Awakens), and what’s more, this film’s premiere date lands just within the cruelest no-man’s-land of wide theatrical exhibition, January. Westerns might not be the most popular genre, but this is still a major-studio project with an A-list, highly telegenic, award-winning actress brandishing a gun. Why, then, does Hollywood appear so intent on keeping Jane Got A Gun secret?
This grand odyssey of dysfunction, incompetence, and failure begins in 2011. That year’s edition of the Black List, an annual Tinseltown lineup of the hottest unproduced screenplays, listed an intriguing oater called Jane Got A Gun (alongside the likes of The Imitation Game and Dirty Grandpa). Talent agency CAA saw potential in the script and began independently assembling a team for the project in the hopes of securing financing at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. The agency landed Natalie Portman in the leading role and Lynne Ramsay, hot off her success with 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, for the director’s chair. Portman’s production house Handsomecharlie Films managed to squeeze an appropriately handsome $20 million out of financier outfit 1821, and just like that, the horses had burst from the stable.
The buzzy production then began amassing additional names at a healthy rate. Michael Fassbender signed on that summer to portray Dan Frost, the ex-lover that Jane reluctantly turns to for help defending her family from the notorious Bishop Boys Gang. The following winter, Edgerton joined the cast as John Bishop, the gang’s head honcho. Though Rodrigo Santoro joined in a minor role shortly after the new year, progress hit a minor snag in March 2013 as obligations to X-Men: Days of Future Past precluded Fassbender from adhering to Jane‘s shooting schedule. A couple of casting switch-ups resolved that easily enough — Edgerton would instead play Dan Frost, and Jude Law stepped in as Bishop — but a trickier problem arose when the first day of shooting arrived and Ramsay was a no-show.
If the whole big FUBAR avalanche of Jane Got A Gun could be traced back to one shifting rock at the top of the mountain, it was Ramsay. The esteemed Scottish filmmaker had reportedly gotten into creative squabbles with the producers and financiers the weekend before the Monday principal photography was slated to start, and abruptly departed the film to the shock of everyone involved. (The producers would later haul her ass to court and allege that Ramsay had been irresponsibly drinking around this time, and was unfit to helm the film. Though if the works of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Samuel Peckinpah, Hal Ashby, or Lars Von Trier are any indication, being neurochemically trashed has never stopped anyone from directing the hell out of a movie.) By end-of-business the next day, the producers had snagged Gavin O’Connor of Warrior to replace her. After Ramsay chucked up the deuce, Jane began hemorrhaging talent. His only interest in the film vanishing with the director, Jude Law was out with Bradley Cooper taking his place, and Ewan McGregor then taking his place when Cooper bailed to star in American Hustle. Cinematographer Darius Khondji, the eye behind the ravishing beauty of The Immigrant and Amour, began to smell the sulfuric stench of development hell on the project and fled directly behind Law. But throughout the mass exodus, team Jane kept pushing the pre-production process through. Months behind schedule and without a frame to show for it, Jane Got A Gun was finally locked and loaded.
If the folks behind Jane Got A Gun were under the impression that they’d be out of the woods once the film was actually purchased, they were sorely mistaken. The producers shacked up with The Weinstein Company and Relativity Media for distribution rights at Cannes 2013 and presumably loosened the shoulders they had kept tensed for the past year. But even after managing to slough off this highly visible quagmire onto a reputable pair of distributors, the troubles were far from over. With the industry watching their every move very closely, the Weinsteins and Relativity set a release date of Aug. 29, 2014 for Jane. A few months later, that was postponed to Feb. 20, 2015. Another few months later, that was postponed to Sept. 4. Even more few months later, Relativity outed the cause of all the delays by announcing that they had officially run out of money and would declare bankruptcy within the week. Elsewhere, Bob and Harvey Weinstein cradled one another and softly wept, realizing that maybe signing that contract with Satan at the rural crossroads at midnight all those years ago may not have been the wisest move.
Jane Got A Gun was still the Weinsteins’ baby, but there was a cripplingly expensive, professionally embarrassing baby that wouldn’t stop screaming and sh*tting itself. The producers had sunk too much time and resources into Jane to let it die, but the Weinsteins also couldn’t afford to spend any more money on a film that seemed doomed to fail. As one final gambit, the producers opted into what’s called a “service deal,” an arrangement where they would actually pay the distributors a flat fee and small percentage of the box-office returns just to get it into theaters, at no additional expense to the Weinstein Company. It’s a bare-bones deal, wherein the distributors have no obligation to pony up any of their own money for publicity and advertising. Agreeing to a service deal is how you know a producer is desperate.
Which brings us to the present day, and the quiet, unceremonious death of Jane Got A Gun. Whether the finished product is actually good is now largely beside the point, unless positive word-of-mouth miraculously lifts this film back into the black. (That seems unlikely, though; The Hollywood Reporter‘s review amounts to ‘fine, not great’.) The content of the picture is destined to be forever overshadowed by its reputation as a sinkhole of time, money, and talent. If the calamitous Jane is to be remembered at all, it will be as a footnote in the Hollywood history books, or for those involved, as the most costly headache they’ve ever survived.