As threatened in my post about what constitutes a movie’s birthday, I will now discuss “directors’ cuts,” both so-called and actual. Before we get into the topic, though, a quick discussion for those who aren’t entirely familiar with the term.
What is a Final Cut?
A final cut of a film is what you see in the theater while you eat overpriced snack food as you lounge on your lazy buttocks, or streaming at home eating affordably-priced snack food as you lounge on your lazy buttocks. It has gone through the usual
It has typically been accepted that the director is the final arbiter of what a final cut is, if anyone gave it a passing thought. Most don’t, and are likely happier for it. The director enjoys the praise, and the director takes the blame.
However, it’s not always the case. Producers exert a tremendous amount of influence on the final cut of a film. Harvey Weinstein, before the wall of silence around his execrable behavior crumbled, was notorious for taking a movie and editing it as he saw fit. Someome producers trust their directors and let them work. Some producers only see a bottom line and obsess about what will bring in the highest gross amount at the box office. Some producers want to fiddle with specific projects in hopes of winning acclaim.
Halloween II is a complicated sequel to consider. The final version released theatrically is different than the version released on television, but not just in terms of the gore shown onscreen. It juggles aspects of the story and the ending.
In the behind-the-scenes documentary about the film, the director talks about how “everyone” has a cut of the film. The producer has a preferred cut, and the director has a preferred cut, and so on and so forth.
It’s why so many directors become producers on their own projects, and especially an Executive Producer. It’s their way of subverting the hierarchy by exerting control over it.
The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi have always been producer’s cuts. George Lucas admitted that his goal of having different directors was to have them do the day-to-day work that was an unlikable chore for him after three draining experiences. However, the stories were his and he was going to be darn sure that what made it to the screen was what he wanted in order to get it told.
To move away from Star Wars, Robert “The Kid Stays in the Picture” Evans came to claim that he “saved” Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather from disaster when he sat down and recut the picture. For context, Evans was sort of the Harvey Weinstein for his day in terms of working on a film – manipulative, controlling, and absolutely convinced he knew best.
So the version of The Godfather we saw was – if Evans is to be believed – a producer’s cut. Ironically, its success gave Coppola the cachet to get final cut control until he burned every professional bridge possible with Apocalypse Now.
So What Does That Have to Do with Director’s Cuts?
The nature of a final cut is what makes director’s cuts so dicey. Film is, by its very nature, a collaborative effort. Directors are, by their very nature, controlling people. What you typically see is the product of intense collaboration.
The default for many is to presume that director’s cuts are always the version of the film that should be watched and regarded as authoritative. I know that for myself, I always prefer to watch a director’s cut when it’s available. Sometimes producers make dumb cuts and alterations that are unwarranted and the director’s vision is a more cohesive picture of the film.
Only rarely, or after a notably successful career, does a filmmaker have the ability to control everything from start to finish like Hitchcock did in his masterworks. For every Nolan there’s a journeyman director just trying to make it work so they can continue doing what they love. Heck, Zack Snyder had a film taken away from him and half of it reshot by a completely different person; the resultant reactions are going to result in him finally getting to release some version of his vision years later.
But sometimes the director’s cut is indulgent and bloated. Sometimes it has some good things included, but it’s at the expense of pacing. As an artist, you have to be willing to make painful choices for the sake of the whole. Sometimes you have to concede that the shortest possible cut of Highlander 2: The Quickening will always be the best by default, because the pain ends more quickly.
Some directors are just really good project managers. When the right people are around them, they know how to execute a plan to get things finished on time, on budget, and entertaining enough to justify the investment.
The Ultimate Point
The ultimate point would be that, director’s cuts should be approached with an air of optimistic skepticism. Because whether an alternate cut is better than the version you saw originally is going to depend on a lot of factors outside of a director’s control.
I loved Blade Runner when I first saw it. The director’s cut released in the 1990s wasn’t even a director’s cut technically speaking, but it became accepted conventional wisdom that it must be more respected because it was labeled as a director’s cut.
The Final Cut of Blade Runner is much more a “director’s cut,” and it is better, but it earns that regard by virtue of a director recutting and tweaking things to get it closer to a vision in the first place, and to account for the missing narration. But it could have gone either way.
So the next time you get into a discussion and someone insists that the director’s cut is the way to go, it’s okay to disagree. If you preferred the other cut, that’s fine. Someone else did, too, and it’s OK if you agree with them instead.