The 411 On '54'
Thanks to a tumultuous postproduction period, the film that was made is not the one you'll see
Disco sweeps the nation — see it on the History Channel!” proclaimed a billboard beside a Toronto highway last November. On a nearby soundstage, on the set of 54, first-time feature director Mark Christopher was doing his part to bring that history back to life, detailing, in all its sordid glory, the heyday of New York’s infamous nightclub Studio 54. ”We’re not making fun of the time,” coproducer Richard Gladstein (Jackie Brown) yelled above the disco din, as sequined extras, balanced precariously on platform shoes, made their way onto the dance floor. ”We’re being faithful to it and having fun with it.”
But the fun was about to end. Christopher, a 37-year-old novice who’d won the chance to direct his 54 script on the basis of two gay-themed short films he’d directed, knew he had re-created the club to within an inch of its Mylar-coated, mirror-plastered self. He knew, from five years of research and writing, that the activities being played out on the stage — having sex with anything that moved, snorting anything that didn’t — were accurate. What Christopher didn’t know was that he was making two different movies: the one he filmed, and the one that — thanks to dismal initial test screenings, a battle with Miramax, extensive reshoots, and a blizzard of edits — is being released.
The before and after films share a setting, a time period, and a cast. Mike Myers, in his first dramatic role, is club co-owner Steve Rubell; Ryan Phillippe (I Know What You Did Last Summer) is Shane, a naive New Jersey kid seduced by 54’s sex-and-drugs siren call; Breckin Meyer (Clueless‘ hapless stoner) plays Greg, a club busboy; Salma Hayek is Greg’s wife, Anita, a coat-check girl who longs to be a disco queen; and Neve Campbell is a club-going, jaded soap opera actress.
But where Phillippe, Meyer, and Hayek were once the center of the story, the star is no longer a person but the club itself. And much of the action taking place within that space bears little relation to what was originally shot.
Miramax purchased the 54 script in 1997 and, after overseeing minimal rewrites, sent the director and his cast off to Toronto for the two-month shoot last fall. There, Christopher filmed a story about an out-of-control love triangle set against the backdrop of an out-of-control nightclub. After the opening scenes, in which Shane is plucked off the street and escorted into a bartending job at the club, Christopher’s original script has him spiral downward, not only indulging in drugs but also undermining Greg and Anita’s marriage by kissing him and sleeping with her (among others). All the characters engage in tawdry behavior as they claw their way to the top of the heap of creeps, culminating in Shane’s expulsion from the club, mysteriously hand in hand with the couple whose relationship he has all but demolished.
During production, a Miramax executive kept tabs on the set, and cochairman Harvey Weinstein himself flew up from New York to give his blessing. According to the cast and crew, filming was completed without a snag.