For months, Fox’s publicity department had been running constant damage control on its disastrous Fantastic Four reboot. Josh Trank wasn’t a young director so spectacularly in over his head he’d had the film taken away from him and finished by Simon Kinberg and several of the other producers! Oh sure, the production had hit some bumps in the road, but nothing out of the ordinary for a big movie like this. Everyone in the media was just conspiring against Trank, twisting truths and half-truths into insane allegations because how dare a young, white kid like that get a big budget movie after having only made one small film (Chronicle). Once this new Fantastic Four arrived, though, everyone would get to see the product of what had been a healthy partnership between Trank, Kinberg and the studio. Good or bad, this was the film they all wanted to make.
And then with a single, quickly deleted tweet the whole façade came crashing down. Faced with a barrage of insanely negative, often mean-spirited reviews, Trank blinked and completely abandoned the company line, tweeting, “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”
That’s the sound of the captain abandoning the sinking ship, but not before he pushes a couple of his crewmen further under the water.
Keep in mind that Fox gave Trank his big break in Hollywood. Before he was handed $12 million of their money to make Chronicle, he was sleeping on friends couches, struggling to find work with a resume built around a short YouTube video, a series of webisodes for a Spike TV mini-series, and editing as well as assistant directing on Patton Oswalt’s indie comedy Big Fan. His parents made him promise that if he hadn’t scored a directing job by the time he was 27 he’d look for a full time job as a film editor. Fox greenlit Chronicle two weeks before his 27th birthday! Then they liked his work so much they offered him The Fantastic Four before Chronicle was even in theaters.
Things clearly went south from there, and others in Hollywood have since expressed some degree of sympathy for Trank. His Chronicle screenwriter Max Landis tweeted, “Being honest in this business is incredibly hard. There’s a lot of illusion, there’s a lot of politics. There’s also a lot of frustration.” Landis further explained that he was unprepared for the realities of big budget Hollywood after breaking in with the fluke that was Chronicle, and Trank must have learned this the hard way on Fantastic Four.
Not that Trank’s experience is new. If we are to believe that his tweet verifies all the rumors of studio-mandated reshoots to up the action and producers pushing him aside to take over production, he is far from the first director to have a movie essentially taken away from them by a studio. Most of them don’t blab about it on that movie’s opening day, though:
1) Sam Peckinpah / Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973)
Maybe if we wait 15 years we’ll get to see Trank’s version of Fantastic Four because that’s how long it took for Sam Peckinpah’s version of Pat Garret and Billy the Kid to be uncovered. Pat Garret was meant to be the unofficial conclusion to Peckinpah’s influential trilogy of revisionist westerns, Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969). However, the project had a rocky birth when Peckinpah reworked Rudy Wurlitzer’s script in ways which enraged the screenwriter. Things didn’t get much better from there as the head of the studio, MGM’s James Aubrey, squeezed Peckinpah on budget and rushed him to meet an early release date. The acrimony between studio and director grew to the point that Peckinpah and crew took to working on the weekends in secret to get the shots Aubrey had ordered them to abandon. Still, the film finished way behind schedule and over budget, and after Peckinpah resisted Aubrey’s notes during the editing process he was removed from the project. Peckinpah understandably disowned the theatrically version of the movie, and his original director’s cut was not made publically available until 1988. That version of the film is far superior, yet it actually deletes the one element of the theatrical version everyone always remembers: Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” which was written specifically for the movie. There is now an entire book all about Pat Garret and Billy the Kid‘s troubled production.
2) Dennis Hopper / Catchfire (1990)
Full disclosure: I’ve never seen Catchfire nor had I even heard of it before now. It’s apparently more famous for its controversy than its merits as a movie. The actual movie is a thriller in which Jodie Foster is relentlessly pursued through witness protection and beyond by an eventually lovesick hitman (Dennis Hopper, doing double time as co-lead and director) since she witnessed a mob hit perpetrated by, who else, Joe Pesci. John Turturro and Charlie Sheen even show up. The controversy is that when Hopper showed the distributor his 3-hour original cut they kicked his ass out the door, and edited the movie down to 98 minutes. Incensed, Hopper took his name off the movie meaning it was technically credited to “Alan Smithee.” Several years later, Hopper got the chance to re-edit it into a 116-minute movie he called Backtrack, but those who’ve seen both cuts argue, “None of the versions makes the film itself really good because the story remains unchanged and that’s the thing. The weird love story of the killer and the victim is still the same.”
3) David Fincher / Alien 3 (1993)
You could write an entire essay about Alien 3’s legendarily troubled production history. In fact, someone already has. You could write an essay specifically focused on David Fincher’s time with Alien 3. In fact, someone already has. In truth, I don’t know that Alien 3 was taken away from Fincher and completed by the studio (although others have said as much). However, Fox definitely ran roughshod over Fincher and bent him to their will. By the time he joined the production, making his directorial debut after a career in music videos, multiple scripts had come and gone and several directors (Renny Harlin, Vincent Ward) had either quit or were let go during pre-production. As Fincher told a BBC Reporter in 1993 in what might possibly be his only interview about the movie:
“I probably should have walked away from the first week of shooting when there wasn’t a script but there are extenuating circumstances. They were 15 million dollars into just the production, not including all the money they spent on earlier versions of the script, other directors, sets and designs. To walk away from something like that, in this town at least, at that point is more detrimental to your career than to plow on with something you think needs a lot more work. We really only had four or five weeks prep with the script that resembled what you saw. A lot of times we were fitting scenes into sets that we had aleady constructed. It was not the optimum way to make a movie.”
“The lesson to be learned is that you really can’t take on an enterprise of this size and scope if you don’t really have a movie like The Terminator or Jaws behind you,” he added. It’s one thing to be Spielberg coming off Jaws, but “it’s another thing when everybody’s wringing their handkerchiefs and sweating and puking blood because of the money that’s being spent and you’re going ‘Trust me, this is what I really believe in’ and they turn around and say ‘Well, who the fuck are you, who cares what you believe in?’” He wanted the movie to be around 144 minutes long; Fox wanted it to be under 2 hours so they could fit in an extra showing per day. He wanted Ripley to die at the end; Fox eventually agreed but insisted that the alien queen burst from Ripley’s chest moments before her death in the lava pit, forcing Fincher to finish that shot 4 days before the premiere.
Fincher has since refused to talk about the movie, and when Fox called a mulligan and created new director-approved cuts of the first four Alien movies for a DVD box set Fincher was the only one who refused to participate.
4) Paul Thomas Anderson / Hard Eight (1996)
In 1993, Paul Thomas Anderson dropped out of college to make a short movie, Cigarettes & Coffee, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival Shorts Program. That got him into Sundance’s Feature Film Program in 1994, at which point he scored a deal with Rhyser Entertainment to direct his first full movie. What he gave them was a neo-noir thriller about an elderly Vegas gambler (Philip Baker Hall) who befriends a young man (John C. Reilly) and sets him up with a troubled cocktail waitress (Gwyneth Paltrow). Anderson called it Sydney, after the main character. Rhyser re-titled it Hard Eight, and re-cut the film.
Here’s where this story is a little different than most on this list. Anderson still actually had the workprint copy of the movie. Rather than lie down and go away quietly, he submitted the workprint to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was so successful Rhyser struck a new deal with him. They would release his version, not their’s, but he had to the new title, Hard Eight, and he had to pay the $200,000 needed to finish the movie. Thankfully, everyone in the cast kicked in to help him pay off the fee. He didn’t know that happy ending would happen, though, when he wrote the script for Boogie Nights, his opus about the adult film industry, while filming Hard Eight. As such, the difficulties on Hard Eight likely influenced Boogie Night’s ever shifting power dynamics between star (Dirk Diggler), director (Burt Reynold’s character) and producer (Philip Baker Hall’s character), and probably emboldened him to experiment even more with his camera, utilizing several impressive continuous shot sequences throughout Boogie which can be read as him shouting, “Screw you, Rhyser. I’m a damn good director!”
5) Tony Kaye / American History X (1997)
Before American History X, Tony Kaye was a notorious perfectionist from the advertising world, working with top brands like Guinness and Volvo. After American History X, his directorial debut, he was but the first of many to despise working with Ed Norton. However, Norton is too often blamed for supposedly taking American History X away from Kaye, who is the man who ran a full-page ad in London’s Evening Standard in the mid-80s proclaiming, “Tony Kaye is the Greatest English Director Since Hitchcock” even though he was actively unemployed at that moment. New Line Cinema finally gave Kaye the chance to follow through on that promise, embracing his idea to tell the story of a former skinhead struggling to save his younger brother from following in his footsteps. When he shot 200 hours of footage, delivered a rough cut, and begged for more time to tweak the movie, New Line gave him another eight weeks.
This is where it gets good:
During those two months, Kaye did virtually no editing. Instead, he went to a Caribbean island to consult with poet Derek Walcott, who plied the director with a few vague ideas about how to improve the film. Upon returning, Kaye decided to add in footage of actual neo-Nazis, but he had no idea how long that would take. Exasperated, the studio execs eventually pried the movie out of Kaye’s hands, and New Line released an earlier cut of the film.
At that point, Tony Kaye lost it. He sued the studio for $200 million and demanded that Humpty Dumpty be credited as the director. He also spent $100,000 on print ads that trashed the movie. In interviews, he badmouthed the script and claimed that actor Edward Norton had been wrong for the lead role.
Everyone was super confused when the movie actually turned out to be pretty good, earning Norton an Oscar nomination.
6) Arthur Hiller / An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn (1998)
This is a strange example of life imitating art. Arthur Hiller wanted to make a film industry satire about a director named Alan Smithee who has his movie taken away and re-cut by the studio. When he requests to have his name taken off of the movie, he’s informed that the standard Hollywood procedure would be to assign him the commonly accepted pseudonym “Alan Smithee,” but since that’s his actual name it won’t make any difference. So, he decides to steal his movie and burn it.
Trust me, if you worked in Hollywood at the time that all sounded hilarious.
Eh, maybe not. Absolutely no one seemed to like Burn Hollywood Burn when it came out. It won multiple Razzies (Worst Picture, Screenplay, Supporting Actor, New Star). But it wasn’t technically an Arthur Hiller movie anymore because when Burn Hollywood Burn got into the editing room its writer and producer Joe Ezterhas took over. Hiller objected and asked to have his name taken off of the movie, thus turning into an actual “Alan Smithee” movie. The controversy actually led to the Directors Guild of America officially putting an end to the “Alan Smithee” pseudonym.
7) Louis Leterrier / The Incredible Hulk (2008)
If you believe the scuttlebutt, pretty much all Marvel Studios movies are taken away from their directors and finished by the power trio of Kevin Feige, Louis D’Esposito (Marvel Studios co-president who runs physical production) and Victoria Alonso (the executive vice president of visual effects and post production). What’s more likely is that those directors who fail to properly execute the producers’ original vision for the project will inevitably be nudged aside a little in post-production. Those who manage to hit it out of the park (Joss Whedon on the first Avengers, James Gunn with Guardians of the Galaxy) will thrive as will those accustomed to working in a producer-driven model (Winter Soldier’s Russo Brothers).
However, Feige, D’Esposito and Alonso were still figuring everything out back in 2008, forging a good working relationship with Jon Favreau on the first Iron Man while hitting consistent challenges with Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk. For starters, Ed Norton inserted himself further and further into the production side of the film, tearing up Zak Penn’s script and performing massive uncredited rewrites. He even sat in on the editing process with Leterrier. When Marvel insisted that the final film be under two hours long and end with a one minute cameo from Tony Stark, Norton and Leterrier countered with, “What if we make it 135 minutes long and include more flashbacks to Hulk’s origin?” Mavel likely sighed, thought, “These fucking guys,” and moved forward with releasing a 112 minute version of the movie which Norton practically refused to promote. That forced Leterrier to carry a larger load and smile politely on the press tour all the while likely thinking about how much his soul was dying on the inside. He’s since explained, “Incredible Hulk was was my first Hollywood movie and I really wanted to work with Marvel. And they were like, ‘Great news, Louis. We just got a release date. It’s a year from now.’ I’m like, ‘Fantastic. We have to go. Where’s the script?’ They said, ‘Actually, that’s the problem. We don’t have a script.” Then again, the same was true of Iron Man, and that worked out okay.
8) Pete Travis / Dredd (2012)
A longtime British TV director, Pete Travis transitioned to feature length movies with 2008’s Vantage Point (about an assassination attempt on the President of the United States) and 2009’s Endgame (about the final days of apartheid in South Africa). Dredd was meant to kick off a potential new action franchise, hopefully helping us forget Sylvester Stallone’s “I am the law!” Judge Dredd from the 90s. That didn’t really happen. Dredd pretty much bombed, but if had been successful it’s doubtful Travis would have been asked back. He was actually barred from the editing process as novelist-turned-screenwriter-producer Alex Garland took over to such a degree that he briefly applied to be credited as a co-director, although he later abandoned that. Travis and Garland eventually released a statement claiming everything was cool and going according to an unconventional plan they’d agreed to prior to production, though not everyone believed them. Either way, Garland has since directed this year’s Ex Machina.
9) Carl Rinsch / 47 Ronin (2013)
Oh, poor 47 Ronin. A remarkably loose adaptation of the legendary Japanese samurai story, Universal gave 47 Ronin to a fading movie star (Keanu Reeves) and untested TV commercial director making his feature-length debut (Carl Rinsch). For some reason, that combination seemed worthy of a $175m budget. Predictably, things did not go well. They started filming in early 2011, but it was such a troubled production the release date was pushed back twice, first moving from November 2012 to February 2013 and then to Christmas Day 2013. The studio increasingly pushed the movie to something closer to a Lord of the Rings fantasy epic with an increased focus on Reeves’ character, and by the re-shoots Rinsch was drowning in studio notes and a runaway budget. Universal couldn’t simply fire Rinsch because the “Directors Guild of America requires that if a director completes physical production he must also take part in the reshoots.” However, Universal’s chairwoman Donna Langely stepped in to micromanage the re-shoots, and completely pushed Rinsch aside during the editing process. Still, the writing was on the wall. Shortly before 47 Ronin’s actual release, its fate as a box office bomb was so pre-ordained that Universal, jumped out in front of the story to assure investors that earlier ’13 hits like Despicable Me 2 and Fast & Furious 6 left the studio fully prepared to absorb an expected $175 million loss on 47 Ronin.
10) Alan Taylor / Thor: The Dark World (2013)
While Trank is the “career suicide” director of the moment, earlier in the summer it was the surprisingly frank and likely far too cavalier Alan Taylor, who deemed it suitable to promote Terminator: Genisys by trashing his former employer (Marvel Studios) and acknowledging his own confusion over Genisys’ convoluted plot. But let’s stick to The Dark World. What exactly did he say? From Uproxx:
I’ve learned that you don’t make a $170 million movie with someone else’s money and not have to collaborate a lot. The Marvel experience was particularly wrenching because I was sort of given absolute freedom while we were shooting, and then in post it turned into a different movie. So, that is something I hope never to repeat and don’t wish upon anybody else.
Elsewhere, he specifically pointed out that many of his scenes with the villain Malekith were cut, and they added in far too much exposition in the first half. Plus, back when The Dark World first came out he wanted it to be made perfectly clear that he had nothing to do with James Gunn’s mid-credits scene setting up Guardians of the Galaxy, claiming he didn’t even know that was going to be there.
What have we learned? First-time directors transitioning from commercials or music videos probably shouldn’t be handed big budgets, not every director is cut out to work for Marvel Studios, and some directors who suffer through nightmare productions at the start of their career grow up to be practical legends like Paul Thomas Anderson and David Fincher.
This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, and I have purposefully omitted some more famous examples like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil in favor of including a couple of lesser known entries (e.g., Catchfire) as well as more recent examples. Still, if you have other examples you think I should have included please let me know in the comments.