The stories behind 5 of the most interesting director's cuts in Hollywood history
In the wake of Zack Snyder's Justice League, look back at the long and fascinating history of Hollywood directors battling for their cinematic vision.
After years of advocacy, fans of Zack Snyder's DC superhero films were finally rewarded last month when Zack Snyder's Justice League (the long-awaited "Snyder Cut" of the 2017 superhero film) debuted on HBO Max. The original Justice League had been a critical disaster and not much of a box office player, either; but as the years passed, fans insisted that Snyder's original version was not only better, but very much releasable. So with Warner Bros. in need of subscribers for its new streaming service, the studio brought the director back and gave him $70 million to finish the film his way.
The Snyder Cut is only the latest in a long, colorful history of Hollywood directors battling with studios over the right to final cut on a film. In case the Snyder Cut and the many imitators it has spawned — like the potential "Ayer Cut" of Suicide Squad, or the R-rated version of Mrs. Doubtfire — was your first introduction to such artistic struggles, take a look back at five of the most interesting director's cuts in Hollywood history.
Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980)
Timing is everything. After winning multiple Oscars for his 1978 masterpiece The Deer Hunter, director Michael Cimino had even bigger ambitions for his follow-up movie; he sought to portray the real-life Johnson County War of the late 1800s, when rich Wyoming cattle barons violently oppressed immigrant settlers and laborers. Though he was capturing beautiful footage featuring skilled actors, Cimino was also going way over budget at a very slow schedule. As Peter Biskind wrote in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (his definitive history of the New Hollywood era), “as far as the ambition and budget were concerned, Cimino didn’t do anything Friedkin, Coppola, Spielberg, and Beatty hadn’t done” on previous movies like Sorcerer and Apocalypse Now. But by this point, critics had gotten sick of this kind of bloated-budget director-driven auteur film, and took out their frustrations on Heaven’s Gate (a cynical approach to American labor history and class warfare might have also just been out of place in the cultural zeitgeist of 1980, as the conservative Reagan revolution was dawning).
Cimino’s original three-and-a-half-hour cut was savaged upon its premiere, prompting United Artists to drastically cut it down ahead of wide release. The subsequent truncated version of Heaven’s Gate was one of the biggest cinematic flops of all time, earning less than $4 million against a $44 million budget in a financial disaster that helped end the New Hollywood era and restore power to Hollywood producers over ambitious directors. The discrepancy between investment and return was so enormous that Heaven's Gate is credited with first getting general moviegoers interested in these kinds of business details.
Thankfully, a 2012 restoration overseen by Cimino has made the director’s original vision available in high quality via the Criterion Collection, and critical reevaluations are slowly helping Heaven’s Gate overcome its infamous history and take its rightful place as a staggeringly beautiful American epic for the ages.
Michael Mann's Miami Vice (2006)
These days, grim and gritty reboots of familiar franchises are a dime a dozen; just ask The CW, which released the first images from their grown-up Powerpuff Girls reboot earlier this week. But back in 2006, when Michael Mann returned to Miami Vice to adapt the iconic ‘80s TV show he had produced into a 21st-century film, many viewers were stunned by the darker tone of the film adaptation.
The Miami Vice movie eschewed the colorful “MTV cops” style of the original series in favor of an unsparing look at how generally alienating it feels to live amongst the digital surveillance states of the modern world and how specifically destabilizing it would feel to work undercover in a massive drug cartel on top of that. This sensation of discombobulation was present right from the opening seconds of the theatrical cut, which begins in media res as Crockett (Colin Farrell), Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), and their team try to trap and bust a local pimp (Isaach De Bankolé). But there’s loud music blaring, making it hard to hear what the characters are saying to each other, and most words you do catch are nearly-incomprehensible pieces of police jargon. The movie goes from there, never much caring to catch viewers up on the specific plot intricacies, more interested instead in building out an overall vibe.
Miami Vice baffled most viewers and critics at the time. These days, it is alternatively hailed as a masterpiece or still derided as a disaster, depending on who you ask. Mann himself has never seemed very satisfied with Miami Vice, and had a director’s cut ready to go in time for the film’s home media release. At a glance, the differences between the Miami Vice director’s cut and theatrical version seem like the most minor of any film on this list, since Mann only added less than 10 minutes of footage. But they nevertheless provoke strong reactions among fans, because it all goes back to that opening scene.
Instead of starting in that club, the director’s cut of Miami Vice begins with a beautiful ocean boat race, which Crockett and Tubbs are using to make inroads with De Bankolé’s character and set up the club scene. It comes complete with credits for the director and actors — things normal movies have, but the theatrical Miami Vice eschewed. This makes the director’s cut easier to follow for new or confused viewers, especially since it also fleshes out the romantic relationships between Tubbs and Trudy (Naomie Harris) and Crockett and cartel consigliere Isabelle (Gong Li), making clear that those love stories are the heart of the film.
Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky (1976)
For all the problems opinionated directors can face while trying to realize their creative vision on screen, those difficulties are further compounded when the director in question is female. The ‘70s were a golden age for visionary auteurs who didn’t take no for an answer, but Elaine May had to fight a lot harder to make her films her way than many male contemporaries did during the same period. When Paramount revoked her final cut privilege on her directorial debut, A New Leaf, and cut it down from a three-hour runtime to 100 minutes, May sued unsuccessfully to get her name removed from the film she had not only directed but also written and starred in.
Mikey and Nicky was even more of a struggle. Based on a story May had heard growing up about a hitman and his best friend, Mikey and Nicky was a passion project of hers for a long time. When she finally filmed it around 1973, she wanted to make sure she got her version of a gangster movie just right. May used over 1.4 million feet of film shooting Mikey and Nicky, which is, uh, quite a lot — for comparison’s sake, Gone With the Wind used about 475,000 feet of film. Then she spent years editing it, to Paramount’s frustration; after she missed important deadlines, they sued to take control of the film back from her. May responded by reportedly stealing reels of Mikey and Nicky footage and hiding them in friends’ houses so Paramount couldn’t create a comprehensible cut. Eventually she backed down and Paramount, exhausted by all her pushback, released a badly-edited version of Mikey and Nicky that was full of continuity errors into a limited theatrical run in 1976.
May did get the last laugh, however. In 1978, she teamed up with costar Peter Falk (Mikey himself) and former Paramount executive Julian Schlossberg to buy back the movie rights from the studio. May finally got to screen her cut in 1986, and it was eventually restored and released on home media by Criterion in 2019. To this day, it's one of the most unique and moving gangster movies you can watch.
Terrence Malick's The New World (2005)
Terrence Malick is a perfectionist, which partly explains why the celebrated director took a 20-year break from filmmaking in between 1978’s Days of Heaven and 1998’s The Thin Red Line. But it was only in the 21st century that Malick began producing multiple cuts of his films. Badlands and Days of Heaven, the twin ‘70s masterpieces that launched Malick’s filmmaking career and would guarantee him a spot in the pantheon of American directors even if he had stopped there, both exist in singular versions. Even The Thin Red Line only has one cut, which remains a sore subject for actors like Adrien Brody who were promised a major role only to find all or most of their footage excised from the final film.
The New World, on the other hand, exists in three different forms. Malick’s cinematic tone poem about the founding of the Jamestown colony and the coming-of-age of the young Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) was first shown to viewers in a 150-minute version at the tail end of 2005 to qualify for awards, but when The New World went to wide release in early 2006, it was presented in a new, 135-minute “theatrical cut.” A third version, the longest of all at nearly three hours, was released on home media in 2008.
It would be hard to consider any of these a final or definitive “director’s cut,” since Malick oversaw them all with the help of editors like Mark Yoshikawa. What they are is three different takes on the material, with slightly different emphases and attitudes. The first cut has lots of texture details missing from the shorter theatrical version, which uses quicker edits to present a more elliptical, impressionistic experience. The longest cut gets even more impressionistic, including bits of randomness captured on set, like a bird flying over Colin Farrell’s head in the middle of a scene, and more voiceover narration from Kilcher that makes The New World more similar to Malick’s later films like The Tree of Life (coincidentally, another film that Malick eventually released a longer cut for on the occasion of its Criterion release).
Much like how your understanding of a word or phrase can be enhanced by studying its meaning in multiple languages, the best way to understand what Malick and his collaborators were trying to accomplish in The New World is by watching multiple cuts. Luckily, all three are available in one place from the Criterion Collection.
Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958)
Ever wonder why Citizen Kane is so often recognized as the greatest Hollywood film of all time, to the point that one of this year’s biggest Oscar contenders is a making-of story? For one thing, Citizen Kane is the only time that director Orson Welles had the right to final cut on one of his films — even though it was his very first. The follow-up, The Magnificent Ambersons, was recut by the studio and a significant chunk of Welles’ footage has been tragically lost (though a new TCM documentary series suggests there might be hope for recovering it). Touch of Evil falls somewhere in between those two stories.
The 1958 noir costarred Charlton Heston as young detective Miguel Vargas and Welles as corrupt police captain Hank Quinlan, who are both investigating a bombing at the U.S.-Mexico border. Decades before the Sherlock Holmes archetype fully took over TV culture (with a significant chunk of procedural programs revolving around a super-smart but socially-maladjusted genius who relies on their faithful sidekick to foil crimes), Welles’ portrayal of Quinlan delighted in poking holes in the mystique of the cop who always knows best.
Unfortunately, Welles was forced off Touch of Evil in post-production by Universal so they could make it look like a more conventional film. The director responded with a detailed 58-page memo outlining his vision for the movie. Though unheeded at the time, Welles’ memo was used as a primary reference for a 1998 re-edit of Touch of Evil to get the film more in line with his vision. This “restored” version is now the definitive cut, and certainly a better fate than The Magnificent Ambersons has received.