• Breckin Meyer and Ryan Phillippe in '54'. (Miramax)Source: Miramax
With SBS VICELAND screening the director’s cut of '54', we look at the times a re-edit made a filmmaker's film better.
David Michael Brown

19 Dec 2017 - 1:07 PM  UPDATED 19 Dec 2017 - 1:07 PM

It’s rare for a director to get final cut. For every Stanley Kubrick or Martin Scorsese who has the film studios at their mercy, most filmmakers run a constant battle with studios, censors and test audiences to ensure their vision reaches the silver screen intact. Even maestros like Sergio Leone, Ridley Scott and Quentin Tarantino have all seen their original films truncated or re-edited.

Often, it’s the case that the director is contracted to deliver a film of a certain length and something has to go, but nowadays, in this information rich society, it’s rare that the shorn footage doesn’t find a home. Just look at Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Kiwi‘s expanded Tolkien adaptations took on a life of their own, increasing the length of the bum-numbing trilogy by hours.

Not that every director’s cut features such massive additions. For some it’s just a tweak here and there that satisfies the filmmaker’s creative urges. Now, as SBS VICELAND prepares to screen the director’s cut of 54, here are some of the greatest director’s cuts ever released.

One of the first high-profile director’s cuts was Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of the Third Kind. When the film premiered in 1977, it ended with Richard Dreyfuss’s everyman, Roy Neary, being led by extra-terrestrials into the giant mothership before it took off and flew away to the strains of John Williams's sweeping score while a dewy-eyed François Truffaut looked on.

The director saw his film as a work in progress and still wanted his audience to experience what Neary does, so he filmed an FX-laden new ending showing the inside of the mothership. Spielberg also took the opportunity to add a scene when a ship is found in the Gobi Desert. The vessel in question was the SS Cotopaxi, an actual tramp steamer that went down in the Bermuda Triangle in December 1925. Spielberg’s additional footage cost an extra two million dollars and took three months of re-shooting, and received a cinema release.

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Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was a film surrounded by mystery, the shoot becoming as famous as the film itself and featuring in the brilliant making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness. What was also widely known was that Coppola shot hours of footage, and much of that ended up in Apocalypse Now Redux.

An extended scene where Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard visits the de Marais family's rubber plantation and a further flirtation with some Playboy bunnies in Vietnam to entertain the troops formed the bulk of the 49 minutes of new footage that only adds to the insanity of Coppola’s war. The director also removed the incendiary final moments of the film that played out as the credits rolled, and replaced them with a black screen and ambient music from the Rhythm Devils.

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Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill was originally planned as an unwieldy four-hour epic. The result? His film was split in two by Miramax and released in two multiplex friendly volumes – the first, a breathlessly fun gore fest that pays homage to the Japanese samurai movies; the second, a more studied take on the spaghetti Western.

Watched separately, the films are polar opposites. Viewed together, in the rarely seen Kill Bill: The Whole Bloody Affair, the second part becomes a welcome respite to the bloody carnage that has preceded it. That's especially the case as Tarantino’s preferred cut features footage previously only seen in Japan, including the complete, full colour House of Blue Leaves battle massacre, plus additional Gogo Yubari (Chiaki Kuriyama) violence and moments in the stunning anime sequence.

James Cameron was one of the directors whose work helped revolutionise the way we watch films at home. Back in the days of laser discs, the director’s cuts of The Abyss, Aliens and T2 all finally showed audiences footage that had previously only existed in magazine articles and dodgy bootleg tapes. Thanks to the 12” shiny discs, everyone could see the fabled tidal wave at the end of The Abyss, the ILM-generated natural disaster that split test audiences.

The extended version of Aliens, Cameron’s sequel to Alien, was also cut down for its theatrical release. Sequences including the xenomorph’s attack on the colony of humans, the aliens being massacred by sentry guns and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) discovering the cocooned body of Paul Reiser’s slimy company man were reinstated by Cameron in the director's cut. This final scene parallels a moment in Ridley Scott’s director's cut of Alien where Ripley discovers Dallas (Tom Skerritt) in a similar predicament.

Talking of Ridley Scott, two of his films exist in numerous forms after disastrous test screenings and bad box office. Blade Runner now exists in seven versions: the Workprint prototype version (1982), San Diego sneak preview version (1982), US theatrical release (1982), international theatrical release (1982), US broadcast version (1986), the Director's Cut (1992) and the Final Cut (2007). Which one you prefer depends on how much you like Harrison Ford’s enforced voice-over and if you want the true nature of Harrison Ford’s police replicant hunter to remain ambiguous. What everyone agreed is the studio-sanctioned happy ending had to go.



The big moment that Scott reinserted was a weary Deckard falling asleep and dreaming of a unicorn, thus leading audiences to believe he is also a replicant. Why? Because Gaff (Edward James Olmos), a cop who makes origami figures, leaves a paper unicorn in Deckard's apartment. Proof he knows what has been programmed in Deckard's mind. Interestingly, when the director needed footage of a unicorn, he used an outtake from his own film Legend – a movie that also suffered the indignity of studio interference.

When originally released in 1985 in Europe, Legend, starring Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry and The Tin Drum’s David Bennent, was a sweeping fantasy, running for two hours with a lush Gerry Goldsmith score. The fantasy failed to deliver at the Euro box office, so the film was re-edited to make the film snappier and to introduce Curry’s Darkness to audiences earlier in proceedings. The final change designed to excite US audiences was the introduction of a new score by German electronic music pioneers Tangerine Dream, then hot thanks to their soundtrack work on Thief, Risky Business, Firestarter and William Friedkin’s Sorcerer.

Friedkin felt the need to edit his film The Exorcist for a director’s cut re-release. Apart from a few extended scenes and artistic tweaks, two scenes, much rumoured but never seen, were re-inserted into the film, both featuring Linda Blair’s Regan. In the first, the possessed teen is taken to hospital to be given an examination, and in the other, we witness Regan’s infamous "Spiderwalk" as she crawls backwards and on all fours down the stairs and spits blood.


Frank Oz’s musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors also reinstated some legendary special FX that were removed before the film’s release. So affecting were Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene in the lead roles that when they were killed in the original cut of the film, replicating the storyline of the Alan Menken and Howard Ashman off-Broadway smash, the test audiences were traumatised. Warner Brothers panicked and ordered a new happy ending be filmed.

The result: the scenes of the alien plant Audrey II and her spawn destroying New York City were removed, and the sight of a giant plant bouncing on the Brooklyn Bridge was lost until grainy black and white footage of the sequence appeared on DVD in the early days of the format. Now remastered, the original version has been released, proving once again that test audiences cannot be trusted.

There are some films, however, that are taken from the director’s hands for the final theatrical cut. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, now viewed as a classic of the gangster genre, was the Italian maestro’s final film after an illustrious career that saw the great director helm such masterworks as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dynamite and Once Upon a Time in the West. Despite his legendary status, The Ladd Company, without Leone’s participation, re-edited the director’s audacious non-chronological plotting and rearranged the film in chronological order.

To add insult to injury, the American censors trimmed the film of excessive violence, neutering Leone’s almost four-hour masterpiece and shoe-horning it into a two-hour incoherent mess. The film was a box office failure. Luckily, it has been restored to its former glory and is justly hailed as a masterpiece. Leone sadly did not live to see it.

Mark Christopher’s 54 suffered a similar fate. Despite a cast boasting Ryan Phillippe, Salma Hayek, Neve Campbell and Mike Myers as Club 54 co-founder Steve Rubell, the studio got cold feet after less than successful test screenings and forced a begrudging director to re-shoot scenes. A love triangle and much of the film’s gay subtext were removed, a ridiculous move considering the film’s name and setting.

The film received less than favourable reviews and lacklustre box office – bagging two Razzies in the process – proving the director right. Now, removing the re-shot scenes and returning to his original vision, 54: The Director’s Cut is not only an eye-popping, foot-tapping good time, but the serious issues Christopher wanted to depict, albeit covered in sequins, are now back on the dance floor.

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Watch 54: The Director's Cut  on Sunday 24 December at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND.

Please note: the film will not be available after broadcast for catch-up viewing at SBS On Demand. 

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