[24 June 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He has a reputation for being a savvy entrepreneur, a tough negotiator, and a true cinephile. Many believe he’s done more for the independent and arthouse scene in the US than any studio tycoon before or since. He’s backed numerous Oscar winners, guided several actors and actresses to their own Academy glory, and is constantly on the lookout for new talent both at home and abroad.
So why does Harvey Weinstein also have one of the worst standings in film? Perhaps the nickname “Harvey Scissorhands” can provide some enlightenment. Over the decades he’s been in the business called show, Weinstein has made more than a few enemies, usually with his actions both outside and inside the editing room. Notorious for taking films and fiddling with them (both with and without their creator’s consent), he’s becomes a blight to some, a savior to others.
Few question his creative intuition. Many are confused about when and how he chooses to use it.
Take the film opening this week: Bong Joon-Ho’s dystopian sci-fi spectacle Snowpiercer. When it was announced, the latest from filmmaker responsible for The Host, Memories of Murder, and Mother was greeted with fascinated fan anticipation. Then the news came that Weinstein’s company would be handling distribution in the West and all those smiles turned upside down.
Sure enough, old Harvey Scissorhands made it very clear that Bong would have to trim material from the movie, or he would. A publicity war ensued, which eventually saw a confusing compromise emerge. Weinstein has supposedly taken his micromanaging mitts off the film, but now Snowpiercer will only see a “limited” release, meaning fewer in our market will get a chance to see it.
This is just part of an ongoing pattern that’s placed more than one high profile director in Harvey’s editorial crosshairs. Following are ten other examples of when the man went manic over run time and subplots. A few times he lost, but in most instances, “the Scissorhands” struck again.
Director Jim Jarmusch is one of the few filmmakers to vehemently stand up to Weinstein. In 1995, his revisionist Western Dead Man starring a pre-superstar Johnny Depp, was about to be released by Miramax when Big Harv demanded cuts. Angry, Jarmusch refused. In response, Weinstein merely dumped the film in a few markets before letting it languish in home video.
At a New York Film Critics Circle Award gathering two years later, the director unleashed his wrath on the company, claiming that Weinstein “showed (Dead Man) in more press screenings than theaters.” While Miramax claimed otherwise, Harv’s reputation was already being built.
This beloved Oscar winner (for Best Foreign Language Film) was initially a flop. Audiences just didn’t understand what director Giuseppe Tornatore was on about outside the sweet and nostalgia fueled relationship between little village imp Toto (Salvatore Cascio) and his projectionist mentor/friend Alfredo (Philippe Noiret). No one really cared about a subplot involving the now adult boy and the girl he once loved.
So Weinstein took nearly 30 minutes out of the film and VOILA! Paradiso took home the Jury Prize at Cannes, the Academy Award, and millions in box office receipts. Recent home video releases have reinstated Tornatore’s cut, but for many, Harvey’s edit is the clear favorite.
Nobody expected a Spanish language film to make a dent in the Western box office, but Harvey had faith in this effort based on a book by first-time Mexican novelist Laura Esquivel. In a highly unusual move, he spent nearly $75,000 of Miramax’s money to trim the final cut by nearly 40 minutes.
The director, Alfonso Arau, was not happy about the edits, but no one could argue Weinstein’s commercial instincts. That version went on to become the highest grossing Spanish language film ever released in the United States, at the time, vindicating Weinstein’s vision and setting the stage for even more post-production manipulation.
This is a recent example of how Harvey’s instincts can undermine artistic intent. After a less than successful premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Weinstein wanted changes to this adaptation of the famed play. So a tug of war began, with producers George Clooney and author Tracy Letts (whose work was the foundation of the movie) going to the media to assure them that everything was all right with this potential Oscar bait. But Weinstein, citing poor test audience reaction, still wanted the ending altered.
Out went the bleakness of the original, in went a two minute sequence of star Julia Roberts smiling amidst sun-dappled vistas. Huh?
Long before non-Hong Kong cinema became a hot property in arthouses, the Weinsteins bought this surreal Western by director Wisit Sasanatieng. It was a big deal at the time, since no major motion picture from Thailand had every been bought by a US company for distribution.
Of course, Weinstein hacked away at the project (over the filmmaker’s complaints) and released his version to Sundance in 2002. It was a disaster. Having changed the formerly happy ending to reflect the more doom and gloom mood of a post-9/11 America, he completely altered Sasanatieng’s intent. As a result or the poor performance, Weinstein shelved the film.
Perhaps no filmmaker before or since has tussled with Weinstein and “won” like Billy Bob Thornton. Desperate for something to guarantee his end of the year Awards season showing, Harvey ‘overpaid’ for this Southern Gothic classic, then immediately got nervous and was struck with a massive case of “buyer’s remorse.” He demanded 20 minutes be taken out, but Thornton had already negotiated final cut.
An epic standoff ensued, with Sling Blade eventually going out unaltered and winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay. Some who saw Weinstein’s ‘secret’ revision of the final film, however, reluctantly admit that it might actually have been better than Thorntons.
Asian auteur Stephen Chow was a relative unknown when Miramax bought this brilliant martial arts sports comedy cartoon special effects mash-up. Fewer got to see the filmmaker’s final cut once Harvey and his typical “20 minutes” mandate started interfering. In fact, many believe that said stated time frame is a go to move for the man looking to “please Peoria”. As a result, some subplots were excised and the film redubbed into English.
While it was a minor hit in America, Shaolin Soccer would soon be surpassed by Chow’s masterful Kung Fu Hustle, which would also be edited (not by Weinstein, however) for home video release.
Otherwise known as Harvey’s revenge. Thanks to an option in his deal for Sling Blade, Miramax had a stake in Billy Bob Thornton’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed All the Pretty Horses. While Columbia was actually the main studio involved, Harvey’s hands were in the mix, as well.
When Thronton delivered a near four hour cut, everyone went ballistic and Weinstein stepped in to “support” the filmmaker. Then he got his payback, citing a clause in the contract that make it clear that Thornton’s “final cut” could only be two hours or less. The final version is 116 minutes and is considered a travesty by all involved.
Wong Kar-wai is considered a major international movie figure. His films 2046, Chungking Express, and In the Mood for Love are often hailed as modern classics. So naturally his movies would make it to the big screen without Weinstein’s meddling, right? Wrong.
After viewing the director’s 130 minute edit and then a 123 minute version that played at the Berlin Film Festival, Harvey hacked away, turning the narrative more linear and adding explanatory text for ‘clueless’ American audiences. Wong went on the defensive, saying he just wanted what was best for the movie, but critics complained that Weinstein’s “watered down” version destroyed the original’s vision.
After the one-two punch of Goodfellas and Casino, audiences were eager to see Martin Scorsese return to his crime film roots. So when Gangs of New York was announced, everyone got excited. Then they learned it was an epic period piece about the influx of Irish immigrants to New York in the mid-19th century and the political corruption of the time.
After delivering a staggering three hour and 36 minute cut to Weinstein, the battle ensued. Release dates were missed and negative buzz began building. Harvey eventually hacked an hour out of the run time, feeling vindicated when the movie went on to earn ten Oscar nominations. However, it didn’t win a single one.