Redemption is coming for the Ryan Phillippe and Mike Myers drama '54'
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.