Babylon…and On

[27 August 2008]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Mathieu Kassovitz is livid. Not just angry, mind you, but completely pissed off. After five long years of planning and praying, after months of harsh production elements and massive studio interference, his dream project, Babylon A.D. is about to close the Summer 2008 season. Not with a blockbuster bang, mind you, but with the kind of wounded whimper and no preview punishment that comes with abject studio hatred. That’s right—Kassovitz’s righteous indignation is no match for Fox’s fear of failure. The Hollywood heavyweight is purposefully writing off this title, allowing it to tank in the most obvious way possible.

It’s no wonder that the man behind the celebrated La Haine is outraged. Sure, his resume doesn’t wholly redeem his position—after the aforementioned black and white drama about disaffected youth in France, Kassovitz has had little cinematic impact. And no, working with Halle Berry on the worthless Gothika doesn’t count. It all leads to the classic Tinsel Town clusterf*ck—vaunted foreign filmmaker, respected past productions, moderate American success, studio desperate for something new, creator hungry to realize a long gestating ambition. Put them all together and you have the recipe for a big fat juicy (and unexpected) hit… or in the case of Babylon A.D., a Hindenburg waiting to burst into flames.

Based on the book Babylon Babies by French science fiction author Maurice G. Dantec, this Vin Diesel vehicle had an inauspicious start. Kassovitz had long wanted to adapt the material, and finally got commissioned to develop a script back in 2005. While the director had planned to star pal Vincent Cassel (Eastern Promises) in the lead, Diesel eventually signed on. Thus began a series of screw-ups, set backs, and situational traumas that found Fox stepping in to wrangle control. According to published reports, bad weather pushed production over time and budget, and the studio, sensing that Kassovitz was in over his head, was a constant source of on set interference. Originally slated for Thanksgiving 2007, the release date was pushed back—first to February, and then August 2008.

In the meantime, the filmmaker saw his pet project whittled down from an unwieldy two hours plus to what he considers to be 90 minutes of “violence and stupidity”. With a complicated story involving a mercenary (Diesel) hired to deliver a woman from Eastern Europe to a futuristic New York, and a fanatical religious group desperate to get their hands on the ‘host’ of their new messiah, Kassovitz saw a parable for our post-modern world. He wanted to explore the concept of faith, and the human frailty to follow it. He also envisioned something epic in scope, but very personal in perspective. Fox clearly wanted action and aggressiveness. According to the director, the studio cut out all the context (almost 70 minutes worth), leaving him with an unsellable, almost un-releasable mess.

Now, this is not the first time that a ‘misunderstood’ foreign filmmaker has had his or her vision violated by an American company that can’t see the creative writing on the wall. One of the most notorious examples of this ideal was Once Upon a Time in America. Sergio Leone, a then ‘60s icon for his brilliant deconstructionist spaghetti westerns, had spent 10 years nurturing a screenplay based on Harry Grey’s novel The Hoods. He even turned down The Godfather to focus on his own ode to Jewish gangsters in the ‘20s and ‘30s. When it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1984, the 229 minute version was hailed as a masterpiece. But when Warner Brothers tested the film for American audiences, their proposed distaste for its length and elaborate flashback structure indicated the studio may have a bomb on their hands.

Taking the movie away from Leone, a two hour and nineteen minute calamity hit theaters to scathing reviews from most film critics. Gone was the time tripping exposition. In its place were unconscionable trims, missing scenes, and a straightforward storyline that made little sense. The butchery was so great that cultural bellwethers Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert devoted a whole section of their At the Movies show to disemboweling Warners over the decision. When the studio approved cut nose dived, Leone got a chance to refashion the film. While he never did manage a full 320 minute print like he wanted, the original was restored and is today considered one of his greatest achievements.

To listen to Kassovitz talk, the same thing has happened with Babylon A. D. , and while one can forgive a filmmaker for unfulfilled ambitions (and the resulting bitching and moaning), such a suggestion is strong indeed. Since no one has seen his purported 160 minute attempt, it’s hard to say if he even has a point. Much more telling is Fox’s reaction. Clearly they did not get the brain-dead Vin Diesel action romp they expected. With a leading man not known for his subtlety, and a premise that some have likened to a bigger, more brutish Children of Men, an intriguing contradiction occurs. Surely Kassovitz didn’t pull a professional bait and switch. Fox had to approve his script, and his concept for the film. So if they knew what they were getting, why do they now not want it?

That’s always the big question here—why do studios act so shocked when they get exactly, or pretty darn close to, what they initially bargained for. A screenplay is never a wholly singular creation—hired ‘doctors’ diddle with it endlessly, making sure that stars and other outsource concerns are addresses and modified. This is not done in a bubble, mind you, but with full corporate co-op, usually. Also, a big budget always means a version of Big Brother on the set. No filmmaker can cry foul when they get in bed with a known name. Interference is apparently part of the mainstream game—you just have to learn to circumvent it. Finally, most foreign filmmakers face an inherent prejudice that comes from seducing Hollywood. Shakespeare may have argued for the wrath of a woman scorned, but an angry studio is no picnic either.

So where does the sense of wounded pride on both sides come from? Why save face, especially to a media estate slowly dying in both relevance and respect? If Fox hates Babylon A.D., they should offer it up for review any chance they get. Such a slow burn would bury Kassovitz and his whining once and for all. But of course, the studio won’t do this—and we all know why. Call it sheep to the cinematic slaughter, but there are people in the demo who will line up for anything done by certain stars. Slap a name on a marquee and no matter the pre-release provenance, a few million mindless drones will drop their dollars. This is clearly what the studio is hoping for. Diesel may be dull, but he’s still a draw (at least in someone’s eyes). No reviews means no chance of missing out on any of that fluctuating fanbase cash.

Still, it’s always hard to speculate on these situations. Film folk, noticing how Fox systematically cancelled screenings around the country over the last few weeks, simply point to the lack of said advanced word and whistle “disaster”. The whole symbolism suggested by “not screened for the press” is confirmation enough for them. But what was it exactly about Kassovitz’s original cut that was so offensive/off base? Did he really make such a horrible motion picture? The stench of several unsuccessful focus group gatherings is fairly obvious here. Why studios continue to think that everyday people can guarantee them a hit still boggles the mind. The rabble tends to like anything (or hate everything), and their opinion on how to “improve” a film usually revolves around comfort level, not creativity.

Which still leaves the entire question of Babylon A.D. in the lurch. Surely it can’t be as bad as Fox thinks it is (or made it, for that matter). Equally true is the notion that Kassovitz, after seeing his baby disrespected, is merely sticking up for his motion picture principles. Somewhere in the middle of this mess is the truth. Maybe Babylon Babies wasn’t the best book to adapt. Maybe Diesel is a dud as a leading man (his career arc would suggest so). Perhaps both financier and filmmaker bit off more than they could ever possibly chew. Maybe there is no clear answer from either side—an artistic/artificial meeting of the minds that never occurred.  It won’t matter much after this weekend either—that is, until the inevitable “director’s cut” DVD arrives in stores sometime this winter. Then the debate can begin all over again.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/babylonand-on/