It’s a story told over and over again in film history: a director fights to preserve their original vision for a film, only for the studio to insist on changes or even seize control. No one knew this story better than Orson Welles, whose follow-up to Citizen Kane, 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons, is one of the most legendary cautionary tales of studio heads meddling with a potential masterpiece. Following unsatisfactory test screenings, RKO removed over an hour of Welles’ original footage and added an unconvincing happy ending against his wishes. The result retains glimpses of greatness but is clearly compromised; the unpreserved initial cut is now considered one of cinema’s most sought-after lost films.
The popularity of “Director’s Cuts” on home video implicitly acknowledges that the filmmaker always knows best. For example, even streaming services are now more likely to feature Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner: The Final Cut rather than the original version, which executives insisted included unnecessary and almost comically indifferent voiceover narration from Harrison Ford. But every once in a while, studio interference actually results in a stronger film. Cinema is a collaborative art form, after all, and sometimes, even market demands can provide a boost of accidental inspiration. Here are five instances that push back against the popular (and usually correct) notion that the director always knows best.
The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks (1946)
Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s crime novel The Big Sleep was originally finished in 1945, with Humphrey Bogart as Detective Philip Marlowe and Lauren Bacall as a general’s daughter caught up in a complex blackmail plot. Before it could be released, however, the film was shelved so that Warner could release its war-themed movies before they went out of fashion. A lot happened in the interim: Bogart and Bacall married, inflaming the public’s interest in the two stars, and Bacall’s solo star vehicle Confidential Agent (1945) bombed. To salvage the actress’ career and capitalize on Hollywood’s biggest “it” couple, Bacall’s agent and Warner insisted that Hawks add and reshoot scenes to The Big Sleep that would emphasize the couple’s chemistry.
When it was finally released in 1946, the film had 20 minutes of new footage and other significantly altered scenes. That included many of its most iconic moments and lines, including the famous scene where Bogie and Bacall trade racy double entendres about horse racing (let’s just say it doesn’t sound like they’re talking about horses). The Big Sleep became the hit the studio wanted, and it remains one of the most acclaimed of all film noirs in no small part due to the stars’ steamy interactions. If you need any convincing that a stronger film emerged, Hawks’ original version was restored in 1997 and is still available— an interesting curiosity, but one that’s failed to replace the established classic.
Little Shop of Horrors, Frank Oz (1986)
The first, much darker ending to Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors was only available on an out-of-print DVD for years. It was the stuff of legend: a 23-minute special effects sequence that cost $5 million and stayed true to the original stage musical’s conclusion. In it, the giant man-eating plant Audrey II goes on a Godzilla-style rampage through New York, unleashing an army of extraterrestrial plants to take over the world. Even more jarringly, the film’s sweet love interests Seymour and Audrey (played by Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene) are eaten alive— a grim fate even in a dark comedy where many characters (albeit less likeable ones) end up as plant food.
Two disastrous test screenings, however, made it clear that audiences were invested in the main characters. In 2009, Oz put it this way to the A.V. Club: “I learned a lesson: in a stage play, you kill the leads and they come out for a bow—in a movie, they don’t come out for a bow, they’re dead. They’re gone and so the audience lost the people they loved, as opposed to the theater audience where they knew the two people who played Audrey and Seymour were still alive. They loved those people, and they hated us for it.” Audience test scores were violently negative, and producer David Geffen insisted that screenwriter Howard Ashman rewrite a happier ending where Audrey II is defeated, and the central couple survives.
The audience-approved climax ended up in the finished film, but these days, the “Director’s Cut” is available on Blu-ray for you to see. And here’s the thing: the cranky test audiences had it right. The apocalyptic sequence is impressively staged, but it goes on far too long and shifts the film’s goofy tone into outright fatalism. Most of Audrey II’s victims are cartoonish caricatures, but Moranis and Greene’s characters are the earnest heart of Little Shop of Horrors; their original, crueler fate ends things on a sour note that spoils the campy fun. Plus, the theatrical ending still closes on an ominous stinger that suggests more horror to come without rubbing our faces in it.
Clerks, Kevin Smith (1994)
Kevin Smith’s debut film was shot in 21 days for less than $30k with help from Smith’s friends and amateur actors who were barely more comfortable in front of the camera than Smith was behind it. Clerks is a plotless day in the lives story of friends Dante and Randall, two convenience store clerks who encounter strange customers, argue about Star Wars, and lament their aimless existence. The ending that we know today is as lowkey and off-the-cuff as the rest of the film: Randall flips over the OPEN sign and goes home, leaving just how long the characters will continue on their directionless path ambiguous.
But when Clerks first played in the Independent Feature Film Market, it had a radically different ending that turned the whole film on its head. The “First Cut”, available on the 15th Anniversary Blu-ray, concludes with Dante being shot to death and robbed by an unseen assailant. It’s an abrupt, depressing turnaround, feeling at worst like a cheaply ironic stab at profundity. Smith stated that he simply “didn’t know how to end a film”, and he was wise to take the advice of producer John Pierson and simply cut Clerks before the crime scene.
The decision accomplished more than tonal coherence. It left the door open for Dante to appear in several of the director’s later films, and it’s hard to imagine either 2000’s Clerks 2 or Clerks 3 without him. Then again, given how Smith’s shtick has aged less than gracefully, it’s tempting to imagine just that.
Alien, Ridley Scott (1979)
The ending that director Ridley Scott originally wanted for his 1979 horror/sci-fi classic sounds perfectly chilling: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver’s signature role), the sole survivor of the Nostromo spacecraft, loses her final battle with the Xenomorph alien and has her head ripped off. According to Scott, the alien would then have made a radio call in a human’s voice, suggesting that a rescue crew would soon meet the same fate.
Not a bad ending for a horror movie, but the downside to killing off Ripley is obvious. There would be no Aliens, at least as we know it, James Cameron’s blockbuster 1986 sequel where Weaver reprised her most iconic role. The rest of the films in the original series— David Fincher’s 1992 Alien 3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s 1997 Alien: Resurrection— also pivot on the character’s continued survival (well, kind of; luckily, there’s cloning technology). While fewer viewers would mourn the loss of those two films, Aliens is still considered one of the best sequels ever made, and in no small part because of the pathos of Weaver’s character returning to face her trauma. Luckily, executive producers rejected Scott’s idea in favor of a more hopeful— and ultimately lucrative— ending.
Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis (1985)
Most films on this list simply ended up with new endings or scenes, but Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future might have been a completely different movie. That’s because it originally didn’t star Michael J. Fox, whose breakthrough performance as time-travelling high schooler Marty McFly made him an unexpected movie star. Although he was the producers’ first pick, conflicts with his hit sitcom Family Ties led to casting someone else: Eric Stoltz, known at the time for playing physically disabled teen Rocky Dennis in Peter Bogdanovich’s Mask (1985). So, for about five weeks of shooting, Back to the Future had a different leading man.
Including this example may be a bit of a cheat since Zemeckis agreed with producers Steven Spielberg and Bob Gale that Stoltz just wasn’t working. In a Hail Mary move, they decided to fire Stoltz, work out a deal with Fox, and start re-shooting much of the film with their new star. The Stoltz footage has never been released aside from a few stills and silent clips. But while we can’t directly compare the two leading men, it’s unlikely that the more brooding Stoltz could have matched Fox’s jittery energy and comedic timing. Even if Stoltz’s version of the film would have still worked, the Back to the Future we ended up with is as close to perfect as blockbuster comedies get. Improving on perfect seems unlikely indeed.
Bui, Hoai-Tran. “‘Alien’ Alternate Ending: Ripley Was Originally Supposed To Die”. Slash Film. 4 April 2017.
Keppler, Nick. “18 Black-and-White Facts About ‘Clerks’“. Mental Floss. Archived from the original on 29 June 2021.
Rabin, Nathan. “Frank Oz Interview“. The A.V. Club. Archived from the original on 5 January 2009.