Features and Columns

Talking Heads: Can Studio Meddling Ever Be a Good Thing?

By  · Published on March 25th, 2011

Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as OutofFoucault23 and RockRockRockRocknRollHS in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.

This week, the pair digs deeper into a question plaguing all of mankind: can a studio interfering with the artistic process actually create positive results? What happens when a director’s cut is worse than the initial release?

They put their heads together to come up with just about every single example (take “single” literally) of a movie saved by studio intervention.

Landon: ? ?So conventional wisdom tells us that filmmakers are the visionary artists and studios only have the bottom line in mind, and artistic merit is always a battle between the two.?

?Cole: ? ?There’s no way that’s not true. Unless it’s not.?

Landon: But I’m not sure it’s that simple, so i ask you: is studio interference always a bad thing?

Cole: I’ve thought a lot about this, and the answer is no. Studio meddling isn’t always a bad thing, but it seems to only have the potential to be good when it involves reigning in indulgent directors.

The prime example is Donnie Darko.

??In a sea of director’s cuts that make us slap our foreheads and finally get it, the director’s cut of Donnie Darko proves that first-time director Richard Kelly would have smothered his own movie without guidance from whomever at NewMarket sat down to help cut it.? So that’s one.

What do you think?

?Landon: ? ?I agree completely on Donnie Darko. It’s the clearest modern example of the studio making the better decisions. But in a way it’s the exception that proves the rule. Newmarket isn’t typically what people think of when they mean “studio,” and is it really enough to make up for the initial butcherings of, say, Blade Runner??

?Cole: ? ?Well, exactly. When it comes to big studios, there are more Hancock’s out there than Whatever Movie Would End Up Being the Iconic Symbol of Positive Studio Meddling If It Existed?.

I have another argument, though.

?Landon: ? ?Damn?.

?Cole: ? ?You’ll listen and you’ll like it.?

In search of the positive studio meddling, what about meddling that kills a movie? There was a lot of meddling (and other problems) on Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, but UA should have meddled it into non-existence because it ultimately destroyed the studio. Had UA meddled more, it would have killed the film and saved the company.

And, you know, prevented the most boring Western in history from hitting the eyeballs of fans.

?Landon: ? ?I personally think Heaven’s Gate is a beautiful, albeit flawed, film, but I can’t help but agree that the existence of UA mattered more than the existence of that film. Total artistic control from the auteur and the disasters it wrought in the late 70s/early 80s is culpable for the studio control today?

Damn you, Coppola!

?Cole: ? ?Wow. That’s an interesting claim. Artists are the reason for the vice-like grip of the studios now??

?Landon: ? ?There’s a difference between studio control now and studio control of the “studio era.” Studio control then meant discipline, and from that we got movie stars and the solidification of genre and some very, very good films because of the studios rather than despite them?.

But at the same time, actors and directors were cattle, there was strict censorship, studios owned movie theaters, and Orson Welles could barely get a movie made.

?Cole: ? ?That’s because he refused to love the baby weight.?

Oops. Typo. I meant “lose the baby weight.”

Everyone loves the baby weight. That’s a given.

?Landon: ? ?To put it briefly, the 60s and 70s (or, when Welles looked like a giant super baby with a beard) were the complete opposite, but when that failed we got a different type of consolidated studio control?. So I think the studios were a good thing, but it’s difficult for me to make the same claim now.

??It’s not about discipline of content. The few directors who have final cut now (like the Coens) have that discipline. They won’t pull a Cimino, so to speak?

?Cole: ? ?I think I pulled a Cimino last week on the racquetball court.

?Landon: ? ?I hope that doesn’t mean shooting yourself in the head. Was the court called the Hanoi Hilton?

Cole: That’s the only club that would accept me.

Did you find any examples of positive meddling??

Landon: ? ?Donnie Darko was the best example I could find, too. But I think there needs to be a distinction made between studio meddling and what typically happens when a movie is made in a studio.? Meddling to me is when the studio locks the creative team out of the editing bay. That’s rarely good for anybody. What typically happens is negotiation, which I can’t outright say is a bad thing.

?Cole: ? ?That’s a pretty strict definition. I think it also applies to the day-in day-out situation where notes just become overwhelming.?

??Imagine someone loving your script, but wanting to change everything about it.? Now imagine that they love your script, give you a bunch of money for it, and then want to change everything after you’ve already shot.

?Landon: ? ?It would be heartbreaking, but unsurprising?.

I do think that studios playing it safe is a bad thing, and perhaps “interference” is a good word for that, but “meddling” seems like a strong word that doesn’t understand what the name of the game is. I’m not trying to be an apologist here though. There are many things wrong with Hollywood.

?Cole: ? ?But meddling evokes an image of the studio as Scooby Doo’s helpers trying to unmask an old man scaring people away from a theme park.?

Well, and there’s one thing to lament a studio placing limitations on the MPAA rating, the content, the amount of love interests, etc.

It’s another to point out the lose-lose situation of interfering with the filming process after the green light has been given. It’s the buyer’s remorse panic mode of filmmaking.

?Landon: ? ?Good point.?

?While I often feel Hollywood is the enemy of the good, I think the studio v. artist narrative squeaks by too often unquestioned. Studio interference butchered Blade Runner and Brazil, yes, but studios also meddled with David Lynch’s Dune and Jonah Hex. And as much as I love Sting, I don’t think we’re being denied artistically superior masterpieces there?

?Cole: ? ?That’s fair too. As simply a numbers game – the amount of average crap that’s made into unwatchable piles of flaming hatred spawned from a hellish kitchen with too many cooks far outweighs the amount of truly masterful movies that get destroyed.?

And then, there’s Kingdom of Heaven. In a decade, hopefully mash ups will join reboots, and we’ll see Kingdom of Heaven’s Gate.

Landon: And that will be meddled with too.

Cole: I think we failed in trying to find any good examples.

?Landon: ? ?Or there just aren’t any good modern examples of vast improvement through studio interference beyond Donnie Darko?. The issue between the classical era and now is quality interference. David O. Selznick was a dictator, but the man knew how to make a great movie made.

?Cole: ? ?If only there were more benevolent dictators out there.? Or studio heads who knew what the hell they were doing and not just chasing Burger King cups.

?Landon: ? ?Or maybe we just found a good way to convince Gaddafi to leave Libya?.

Cole: ? To make Big Muammar’s House?

Landon: ? ?And then the director’s cut?.

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