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Hilarious Notes on Modern Classics From Clueless Studio Executives

The image of non-creative types mucking about with (and screwing up) movies and television shows is nothing new — we’ve seen it in everything from Barton Fink to The Player to The Larry Sanders Show — but we got a rare opportunity to observe a real-life example of it recently, when a memorandum of notes from the suits at Tandem Productions to the makers of Blade Runner started popping up online. Those hilarious criticisms and suggestions got us wondering about other classic movies that came close to ruin thanks to studio interference. We’ll take a look at Blade Runner and several other examples after the jump.

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Blade Runner

Tandem Productions was one of several entities that made Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi cop picture, now regarded as a classic but mostly dismissed by audiences and critics upon its initial release. Come to find out, they weren’t the only ones that didn’t care for it; recently unearthed notes from Tandem execs (including Bud Yorkin, the auteur behind the Peter Sellers-less Inspector Clouseau and the immortal Arthur 2: On the Rocks), after an early 1981 screening of Scott’s third cut, reveal some pretty intense hostility from the suits. “This picture gets duller every time we see it,” writes one. “The synagogue music is awful on the street, we must use Vengelis,” insists another. And then there’s this: “They have put back more tits in the Zhora dressing room scene.” (Complaint or observation? You decide!) In general, the execs write that “Up to Zhora’s death the picture is deadly dull,” and that the “voice over is an insult” — doubly funny, since Scott and star Harrison Ford added the narration under duress, reportedly at Yorkin’s insistence. “He sounds drugged,” writes one of the suits. “[W]ere they all on drugs when they did this?” The voice-over was dropped, and several other modifications made, when Scott had (multiple) opportunities to recut the picture in subsequent years.

Groundhog Day

Harold Ramis’s Bill Murray vehicle has become one of the most beloved of modern comedies, and one of its most welcome touches is that the gimmick at its center goes utterly unexplained. At no point in the film are we told why Murray’s Phil Connors is being forced to relive the same day, over and over — it’s just what’s happened to him, and that’s that. Unsurprisingly, the powers that be weren’t wild about that kind of ambiguity. Ramis has since revealed that the studio insisted screenwriter Danny Rubin add in a scene in which an ex-lover had a gypsy put a curse on snarky weatherman Phil. Ramis, to his credit, refused to even shoot the scene.

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Brazil

Terry Gilliam’s battle with Universal Pictures over his 1985 dystopian fantasy Brazil was the stuff of Hollywood legend. Gilliam made the dark sci-fi film for Embassy International Pictures, and its international release was handled by 20th Century Fox. But domestic duties were handed to Uni, which balked at the film’s 142-minute running time and downbeat ending. Sid Sheinberg, head of the studio, backed a radical altering of the film, which chopped it down to a mere 94 minutes, emphasized the secondary romantic angle, and stopped at the end of a fantasy happy ending, making that the actual conclusion instead of the downer Gilliam had originally shot. This cut, dubbed the “Love Conquers All” version, was quickly disavowed by the director, and the studio and filmmaker came to a stalemate. Brazil went unreleased for nearly a year, finally prompting Gilliam to take out a full-page ad in Variety. The ad/open letter read, in its entirety: “Dear Sid Sheinberg, When are you going to release my film, ‘BRAZIL’? Terry Gilliam.” When no response was forthcoming, Gilliam began arranging a series of “clandestine screenings” for critics and potential supporters, resulting in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association giving their award for the year’s best picture to a movie that had not yet been released. Sheinberg finally relented, and Gilliam shaved ten minutes off the film to get it down to 132 minutes for its long-awaited theatrical release in late 1985.

Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino’s original, nearly one-million-dollar deal for writing and directing Pulp Fiction was brokered, via Danny DeVito’s Jersey Films, with TriStar Pictures. But when they got a look at Tarantino’s screenplay, the folks at TriStar got nervous. It wasn’t the fractured structure or free-wheeling violence that got their dander up; it was the set piece in which protagonist Vincent Vega shoots up heroin before his big date with Marsellus Wallace’s wife. They told the director it had to go. Tarantino insisted that the scene would work (would be funny, even), but studio head Mike Medavoy wouldn’t hear it. Ultimately, Medavoy determined that Tarantino’s script was “too demented,” and they put the project in turnaround — freeing it up for acquisition by Miramax, which saw the film gross over $200 million worldwide, rack up seven Oscar nominations (and one win), and put Tarantino on the map.

E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind had been a big hit for Columbia Pictures in 1978, so when he told them he wanted to make another alien movie, the news was well received. However, when the director and his screenwriter Melissa Mathison delivered their script (then titled E.T. and Me), the studio was lukewarm. According to Joseph McBride’s Steven Spielberg: A Biography, the studio’s marketing and research department “concluded that it had limited commercial potential.” Marketing head Marvin Antonowsky figured it would only appeal to family audiences, and the studio reportedly dubbed Spielberg’s project “a wimpy Walt Disney movie.” Columbia put the film into turnaround, and Spielberg took it to Universal, where it grossed $359 million domestically (and that’s just in its initial release). “Limited commercial potential,” indeed.

Back to the Future

Robert Zemeckis’s 1985 time travel comedy is one of our favorite ‘80s movies, but the director and his co-writer Bob Gale had a hell of a time getting a studio to believe in it. They started shopping it around clear back in 1981; at that time, it was a change of pace for Zemeckis, best known for the ribald R-rated comedy Used Cars. Columbia Pictures (again!) was initially interested, but thought it was (get this) too wholesome. “They thought it was a really nice, cute, warm film, but not sexual enough,” Gale would later say, recalling that when the studio put it into turnaround, they suggested shopping it to Disney. The Mouse House, unsurprisingly, had the opposite reaction: “They told us that a mother falling in love with her son was not appropriate for a family film under the Disney banner.” So one studio wants it sexier; the other wants it squeakier. Ultimately, the pair just had to wait it out. After Zemeckis’s Romancing the Stone was a monster hit in 1984, he was able to make whatever he wanted, and Back to the Future was set up at Universal, which presumably found their sex porridge “just right” in this particular Goldilocks scenario.

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Fawlty Towers

A brief foray into the world of bad notes on series television: John Cleese’s post-Python hotel comedy, which debuted on the BBC in 1975, has long been recognized as one of the finest sitcoms in all of television, a tightly constructed, uproariously funny ensemble piece featuring some of the finest work (both as writer and actor) of Cleese’s distinguished career. But Ian Main, “comedy script editor” for the Beeb, was not impressed by the pilot script submitted by Cleese and Connie Booth. “I’m afraid I thought this one as dire as its title,” he wrote, in a memo to BBC Television’s Comedy and Light Entertainment division. “It’s a kind of ‘Prince of Denmark’ of the hotel world. A collection of clichés and stock characters which I can’t see being anything but a disaster.” Luckily, the powers that be didn’t listen. Years later, Cleese mused, “It just goes to show you people have no idea what they’re doing.” Amen.

The Passion of the Christ

Okay, fine, this one’s entirely fictional — but too good not to include, and a particularly juicy parody of clueless suits. In spring 2004, as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was filling theaters across the country, Steve Martin wrote up a brief piece for The New Yorker in which he imagined “Studio Script Notes on ‘The Passion’.” Among them:

  • Love the Jesus character. So likeable. He can’t seem to catch a break! We identify with him because of it. One thing: I think we need to clearly state “the rules.” Why doesn’t he use his superpowers to save himself?
  • Also, could he change water into wine in Last Supper scene? Would be a great moment, and it’s legit. History compression is a movie tradition and could really brighten up the scene. Great trailer moment, too.
  • Love the idea of Monica Bellucci as Mary Magdalene (yow!). Our creative people suggest a name change to Heather. Could skew our audience a little younger.
  • Merchandising issue: it seems the Cross image has been done to death and in public domain — we can’t own it. Could the Cruciifixion scene involve something else? A Toyota would be wrong, but maybe there’s a shape we can copyright, like a wagon wheel?
  • I’m assuming “The dialogue is in Aramaic” is a typo for “American.” If not, call me on my cell, or I’m at home all weekend.
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