What a “director’s cut” meant to directors who re-released movies

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After more than four years of zealous fan campaigning and nearly $70 million worth of post-production edits and VFX additions, the long-touted “Snyder Cut” of Justice League is finally here. Those familiar with director Zack Snyder’s filmography recognize that this isn’t the first time that the Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen director has returned to his work after release to try and pack in more action, more exposition, more violence, more … more into every spare minute of footage left on the cutting room floor.

And who can blame him? Snyder is far from the first to dabble in the indulgences of revisionism afforded through the release of “director’s cuts,” a term used to refer to a director’s preferred version of their film. Filmmaking is a collaborative enterprise, with many authors and producers, cast and crew members working in tandem to bring an idea to fruition. The concept of the director’s cut dates as far back as the origins of the medium of film itself, with cinema legend Charlie Chaplin credited as one of the first to release his 1925 silent film The Gold Rush nearly 17 years later with a new score and a shortened running time. Considering this, it’s worth making note of the self-evident history of those who have more often been afforded the opportunity of creating and releasing a director’s cut (i.e., white male directors, predominantly) versus those who are so often not afforded those opportunities (e.g., women directors, directors of color). Even in 2021, very few mainstream films are directed by women, and there are almost no prominent examples of women being given the chance to go back to their old work.

Still, the director’s cut remains a fascinating exercise, and each one raises the same question: What do these re-edits actually accomplish in the eyes of their directors? To answer that question, we’ve taken the liberty to curate a collection of some (not all!) of the most notable director’s cuts in the history of modern cinema, as we get to the heart of what the filmmakers themselves had to say about them.


Watchmen

From left to right: The Comedian, Silk Spectre, Dr. Manhattan, Ozymandias, Nite Owl, and Rorschach pose for a photo in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen (2009)

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Logline: Based on Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ landmark 1986 limited comic series of the same name, Watchmen is set in an alternate 1985 where superheroes exist, and where the mysterious murder of a former colleague sends rogue vigilante Rorschach on the trail of uncovering a vast and insidious conspiracy that threatens to upend the course of human history as we know it.

Differences in running time:
162 min. (original theatrical release, 2009)
186 min. (Director’s Cut, 2009)
215 min. (Ultimate Cut, 2009)

What was added or cut: Two expanded home video versions were released within a year of the Zack Snyder film’s initial theatrical run: a “Director’s Cut” with 24 minutes of additional footage, including expanded action sequences and more exposition, and an “Ultimate Cut,” which added over 53 minutes of footage, including interwoven segments of an animated adaptation of the Tales from the Black Freighter meta-comic to mimic the role of the story within the story of the original graphic novel.

What the director said: When asked which of the three versions of the film he preferred, Snyder said in a 2016 interview with Collider:

I think the Director’s Cut … Look, I think if you’re a crazy fan, which is fine, the director’s cut with The Black Freighter [i.e., the Ultimate Cut] is really the — you know, for pure comic book freak-out. But for me, the Director’s Cut without The Black Freighter is sort of — because it was never designed; I never designed the movie — like, we did The Black Freighter sort of separately. I wanted to do it. But we didn’t really design it to be intercut into the film, so we kind of had to jerry-rig it in. So it was never 100 — though it goes in pretty nicely, I never felt like 100% that it was, like, completely organic. So for me, the Director’s Cut is really the — which has Hollis’ death and other things like that.


Alien 3

Leonard (Charles S. Dutton) and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) race through a red-lit hall in Alien 3

Image: 20th Century Fox

Logline: In Alien 3, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is the sole survivor of a catastrophic shipwreck that leaves her stranded and weaponless on the bleak maximum-security prison world of Fiorina “Fury” 161, forced to once again survive against the threat of the Xenomorphs.

Differences in running time:
114 min. (original theatrical release, 1992)
144 min. (Assembly Cut, 2003)

What was added or cut: Reworked and extended opening scene; alternate restored scene of the Xenomorph being birthed from the belly of an ox; additional scenes dedicated to character building, including Paul McGann’s psychopathic inmate Golic; alternate take on Ripley’s sacrifice at the end.

What the director said: Alien 3, David Fincher’s debut feature film, and one of the most controversial and maligned installments in the long-running Alien franchise, never received a director’s cut. And if we were to take the director at his word, there likely never will be. In an interview with Vulture last year promoting his then-upcoming film Mank, Fincher offhandedly related his less-than-stellar experience working on the film — going so far as to avoid even mentioning it by name:

Once I had gone to Pinewood for two years and had been through a situation where I was a hired gun to make a library title for a multinational, vertically integrated media conglomerate, I had a different view of how writers and directors needed to work. I kind of resented [my father’s] anti-auteurist take. I felt that what the script really needed to talk about was the notion of enforced collaboration: You may not like the fact that you’re going to be beholden to so many different disciplines and skill sets in the making of a movie, but if you’re not acknowledging it, you’re missing the side of the barn. A script is the egg, and it needs a donor to create the cellular split that moves it into the realm of something playable in three dimensions and recordable in two dimensions and presentable to other people.

Fincher had no hand in writing Alien 3’s script, which, by the time of him having signed on to the project, had gone through several iterations (including one famously abandoned draft penned by Neuromancer scribe William Gibson, which was adapted into an Audible audio drama in 2019 by director Dirk Maggs). He has since disavowed the film as the product of the kind of studio meddling he has resisted throughout his entire career. The closest equivalent to a director’s cut, then, is Alien 3’s so-called Assembly Cut, released in 2003. It incorporates Fincher’s editing-room notes from the time of the film’s post-production and has since gone on to earn a favorable impression among a vocal contingent of critics and Alien fans.


Amadeus

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with hands outstretched, conducting a symphony in Amadeus

Image: Orion Pictures

Logline: Miloš Forman’s epic period drama chronicling the life and times of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) as told through the words of his rival — and alleged murderer — Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham).

Differences in running time:
161 min. (original theatrical release, 1984)
180 min. (Director’s Cut, 2002)

What was added or cut: Thirteen scenes, including two alternate scenes, were added for the Director’s Cut, totaling 18 minutes and 49 seconds of additional footage. (Plus, they replaced the Orion Pictures logo with the Warner Bros. logo in the film’s opening.)

What the director said: You’d think a director’s cut of Forman’s masterpiece would be filled with as many harrowing twists of meteoric drama and high intrigue as the film itself. Well, as it turns out — not quite! As Forman himself stated in a 2002 interview with The A.V. Club:

[The 20 minutes cut from the theatrical release] was a mutual decision, because when you finish a film, before the first paying audience sees it, you don’t have any idea. You don’t know if you made a success or a flop, when it comes to the box office. And in the ’80s, with MTV on the scene, we are having a three-hour film about classical music, with long names and wigs and costumes. Don’t forget that no major studio wanted to finance the film, for these reasons. So we said, “Well, we don’t want to be pushing the audience’s patience too far.” Whatever was not directly connected to the plot, I just cut out. But it was a mutual decision. I wanted the best life for the film myself.


Blade Runner

Rick Deckard trains his service weapon in Blade Runner (1982)

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Logline: In a dystopian future Los Angeles, a grizzled former “blade runner” named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is called out of retirement to hunt down a group of rogue Nexus-6 replicants searching for their creator, Dr. Eldon Tyrell. Deckard meets and falls in love with Rachel (Sean Young), an experimental replicant created by Dr. Tyrell, and begins to question the nature of both his line of work and his own humanity.

Differences in running time:
117 min. (original theatrical release, 1982)
116 min. (Director’s Cut, 1992)
117 min. (The Final Cut, 2007)

What was added or cut: The Director’s Cut of Blade Runner removes the explanatory voice-over performed by Harrison Ford’s character, Rick Deckard. The “happy” ending in the theatrical cut, using footage repurposed from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, is also removed. Deckard’s unicorn dream sequence is added to the film, along with several other minor yet significant changes.

What the director said: The story behind Blade Runner — Ridley Scott’s landmark 1982 neo-noir sci-fi thriller starring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, and Sean Young — and its many “cuts” is as multifaceted and vigorously debated as the legacy of the film itself. Here’s how the broad strokes of the story go.

In early 1982, a test workprint of Blade Runner performed poorly with preview audiences. A second alternate test print, dubbed the “Sneak Peek Cut,” was screened before San Diego audiences in May 1982 and never seen again. The reception to both of these cuts motivated Warner Bros. to request changes intended to elucidate the film’s most understated mysteries; Scott acquiesced. The U.S. theatrical cut (known as the “Domestic Cut”) debuted in June 1982 to a middling critical and commercial reception. Eight years later, in 1990, a 70mm unfinished print of Blade Runner — sans studio-mandated cuts and edits — made its way to a repertory theater in Los Angeles. Unsuspecting audiences in attendance were enthusiastically taken with this “new” cut, and vigorously campaigned for it to be finished and released. This version of the film was released in 1992 as Scott’s “Director’s Cut.”

In 2007, another edition of Blade Runner dubbed “The Final Cut” was released in theaters and on home video. It was billed as Scott’s “definitive” version of the film, the only one over which he had complete artistic and editorial control. In a short video shown before IMAX screenings of the release, Scott said:

This is my preferred version of the film. It’s been completely restored from the original negative and put through a state-of-the-art 4K digital intermediate process resulting in an absolutely beautiful picture. I personally supervised and approved the transfer, along with a new sound mix taken from the original six-track elements. I’ve also made some tweaks and enhancements throughout the film. Out of all the versions of Blade Runner, this is my favorite.


Danny Torrance in Doctor Sleep

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Logline: Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep takes place 40 years after the events of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as a now-adult Danny Torrance contends with a supernatural cult of life-sapping immortals and his own inner demons to protect Abra, a young girl with latent psychic abilities.

Differences in running time:
152 min. (original theatrical release, 2019)
180 min. (Director’s Cut, 2020)

What was added or cut: Nearly 30 minutes of new, alternate, and extended scenes, including an extended opening scene of Violet being hunted by the True Knot; the film’s sequences were divided into six sections with title cards; more polished visual effects and additional blood; expanded scenes between Dan and the ghost of Dick Halloran, Abra’s past, the True Knot preying on the Baseball Boy; and an expanded later scene of Dan confronting the ghost of his father Jack in the Overlook Hotel.

What the director said: In a 2019 interview with Collider detailing the additions and changes made in the director’s cut home video release of Doctor Sleep, director Mike Flanagan said:

I’m really excited that WB let me create this cut, much less release it. They really supported it — to the point that they made sure all of the new material with VFX was fully finished, additional score was composed and orchestrated just for this cut, and we did a full mix as well. They really let us do this right — it’s a finished, complete, fully polished new cut of the movie. […] I was reticent to call this a “Director’s Cut” at first, as I absolutely love and stand by the cut I made for our theatrical release. But there was stuff I actively decided to remove from that cut that I missed, and that I would think about even weeks after the fact. […] There was never any intention to release this cut theatrically, we always knew it was too long. But we worked on it alongside the theatrical cut throughout post[production], and it made it a lot easier to make hard decisions in the edit, knowing that some day this cut might see the light of day. […] All in all, I think this cut is more literary than the theatrical cut. It very much feels like reading a novel… and is even broken into chapters, which gave this cut a very fun structure. I’m very proud of it and so grateful that it’ll be available to fans.


Touch of Evil

Touch of Evil

Photo: Universal International Pictures

Logline: Orson Welles’ 1958 adaptation of Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil stars Charlton Heston as Miguel Vargas, a Mexican drug enforcement agent investigating a car bombing along the U.S.-Mexico border who begins to suspect American police captain Hank Quinlan (played by Welles himself) of a conspiracy to frame an innocent man.

Differences in running time:
93 min. (original theatrical release, 1958)
108 min. (alternate “preview” version, 1976)
111 min. (restoration, 1998)

What was added or cut: Credits removed from opening tracking shot; Henry Mancini’s music removed in favor of diegetic sound effects; several amended and re-edited shots per Welles’ 58-page memo to Universal-International.

What the director said: The 1958 crime thriller Touch of Evil is considered by many film historians and fans of Orson Welles’ work to be one of the director’s greatest films, and one of the great works of film. With minimal studio interference throughout its initial filming, a talented cast of A-list actors eager to work with him, and a formidable creative collaborator in the form of Russell Metty, Orson Welles’ adaptation of Whit Masterson’s novel Badge of Evil was supposed to signal his return to form after a decadelong hiatus since his last American production.

However, tensions flared during the film’s post-production between Welles and Edward Muhl, head of production at Universal-International Pictures, and Welles was subsequently fired off the Universal lot and barred from the cutting room. Extensive re-edits absent of either Welles’ approval or input were applied to the film, as was a new title (which Welles would later deride in a 1958 letter to The New Statesman). The film was released to a middling commercial and critical reception in the U.S., effectively marking the director’s acrimonious split from Universal-International — and the subsequent end of his American directing career.

“I was so heartbroken when it turned out I couldn’t go on with it,” Welles said in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich. “I was so sure I was going to go on making a lot of pictures at Universal, when suddenly I was fired from the lot. A terribly traumatic experience. Because I was so sure […] It’s the only trouble I’ve ever had that I can’t begin to fathom.”

Welles died in 1985. In 1998, nearly 40 years after the film’s initial release, Touch of Evil was re-edited by a team of editors, producers, and historians according to specific instructions Welles had written in a 58-page memo to the studio in 1957; the memosurfaced in 1992. With no new picture elements or outtakes from which to work, and no direct involvement from Welles himself, the 1998 version of Touch of Evil is not a director’s cut in the true sense, but rather a dutiful approximation of one — an earnest attempt to retrace the hand of one of cinema’s great masters in an attempt to do justice by his late wishes and enduring memory.


Until the End of the World

William Hurt and Solveig Dommarti in Until The End of the World

Image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Logline: In an alternate 1999 where an out-of-control nuclear-powered satellite is set on a precariously uncertain course to crash into Earth, a young woman (Solveig Dommartin) accidentally becomes an accessory to a bank robbery, forcing her to go on the run. She crosses paths with Sam Farber (William Hurt), a man evading the CIA on his own intense personal quest. The two fall in love and embark on an epic journey from the outskirts of France to the end of the world.

Differences in running time:
158 min. (original theatrical release, 1991)
287 min. (Director’s Cut, 2014)

What was added or cut: Expanded scenes delve more into the emotional motivations and nuances of Claire’s romantic involvement with Sam, additional scenes in Japan, and scenes in San Francisco with Allen Garfield as an evil car salesman (a nod to his character in Wenders’ 1982 film The State of Things), and numerous other expansions/additions.

What the director said: In a 2015 interview with Vulture, Wim Wenders went into detail about the process behind the production of his 1991 sci-fi road movie odyssey Until the End of the World, and how the five-hour director’s cut came about:

The film was the most ambitious thing I ever did, and also probably the most expensive independent-auteur film ever, at least at the time. It was an epic adventure, and we shot for one year. In the editing process, it became obvious that I could never deliver the two and a half hours that I had promised and that all distribution contracts were based on. The ideal film, the one I had wanted to make, came in at just under five hours. I tried in vain to convince my co-producers and distributors to agree to a two-part release. They all insisted on their contracts. I had to agree to deliver what I knew was going to be a disastrous Reader’s Digest of my film. But I decided [I’d] rather do it myself than let somebody else butcher it. And that was helpful. Because when my editor and I had that ideal version, we kept it, made a contact copy of that work print, and then continued to cut the film to pieces until we got to the accepted length.

[…]

A few years later, we went back to that original work print, fiddled a bit with it, and finally brought it to four and a half hours, and then we could cut the original negative! This way, my “director’s cut” finally saw the light of day. But because the Reader’s Digest had been so flawed and done so poorly at the box office (except for the soundtrack that sold like hotcakes), nobody really wanted to release the longer version. I showed it a handful of times, and that was it. And we just showed it at the MoMA as well. It is, in fact, a whole different ballgame. All the work we invested, my team, the actors, the musicians, finally paid off.


The films of Wong Kar Wai

World of Wong Kar Wai key art

Image: Criterion Collection

Differences in running time: N/A

What was added or cut: N/A

What the director said: While not “director’s cuts” in the traditional sense, the Criterion Collection re-releases of several of Wong Kar Wai’s most critically acclaimed films — and the many significant changes made to said films for these new editions — are substantial enough to merit the collection’s inclusion on this list. Shortly following the announcement of a seven-disc box set collecting seven of Wong’s best known films (As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels, Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, and 2046), the director detailed several changes to the films in question, including a significant alteration to the aspect ratios of Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, and Fallen Angels, as well as new sound mixing and credits. Here’s a statement released by Wong himself explaining the motivation for the changes:

During the process of restoring many of the pictures that you are about to watch, we were caught in a dilemma between restoring them to the form in which the audience had remembered them and to how I had originally envisioned them. There was so much that we could change, and I decided to take the second path, as it would represent my most vivid vision of these films.

[…]

As the saying goes: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” Since the beginning of this process, these words have reminded me to treat these restorations as an opportunity to present new works, from a different vantage point in my career. Having arrived at the end of this process, these words still hold true. I invite the audience to join me in starting afresh, as these are not the same films, and we are no longer the same audience.

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