MEGA-FRUSTRATING FILMOGRAPHIES #3

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john cribbs

CHAOS HAS THE BALL: thomas lee's SUPERNOVA

 

Hill and MGM seemed to agree on one thing: the movie didn't work and required re-shoots. However, the studio was worried that what they wanted to re-shoot and what Hill wanted to re-shoot were not the same thing, and tried to convince him to screen the movie for a test audience to glean what was working and what wasn't. Hill absolutely refused to allow the movie to be tested, giving MGM the ultimatum that if that happened he would leave the film and take his name with him. The studio set up the screening, and Hill neglected to show up for post-production work the next day. After a week of absence, the studio officially terminated him.

"I don't know what was going through his mind," said Jack Sholder, the filmmaker Frank Mancuso hired to direct the studio-approved re-shoots. "My opinion, personally, is that he needed a payday, he did the movie, and he never really cared about it. I know he said he never liked the sets or the costumes. He basically shot the whole movie in close-ups, which actually made it very nice in terms of re-editing it, because you can take any shot and use it anywhere, because they are all wearing the same outfits and the whole set is gray. He had two cameras at all times. One was a tight close-up, and the other was a loose close-up. Certain people said that he said that he shot the whole movie in close-ups because he hated the costumes, but he shot his previous film all in close-ups, too. I think that, as far as him getting kicked off the movie is politically kind of a smart move, because if the movie did well, he could say, 'Well, gee, I made it and they threw me off,' and if it failed, and he certainly at that point in his career did not need another failure, he could say, "'Well, they kicked me off. I had this great movie and they kicked me off.'" 

Like William Malone, Sholder was involved with the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, directing the second and infamously gay-themed entry of the series, and also ended up helming a "Tales from the Crypt" episode. In between, he gained a cult following for directing the alien parasite conspiracy thriller The Hidden and some critical notice for the science fiction adventure 12:01, a straighter version of Groundhog Day that just happened to come out the same year as the Bill Murray comedy. Both of those films, and his Nightmare movie, have enough weird moments that make up for the unremarkable filmmaking, and their director has always interested me (I haven't seen his debut horror film Alone in the Dark, but from what I've heard it's supposed to be pretty good). However he does come off as more than a little flippant in interviews, and has betrayed an obvious dislike of several of the movies he's made. Sholder, who had worked with Lou Diamond Phillips on the movie Renegades as well as Extreme Prejudice veterans Powers Boothe and Rip Torn in 1990's By the Dawn's Early Light, famously clashed with Hidden star Michael Nouri, resulting in a reputation for not being much of an actor's director. Which I guess is not a requirement anyway for someone who's just showing up to re-shoot another director's movie.

 

Sholder, who has been the most candid of anyone involved about the Supernova production in interviews, has stated that Mancuso called him in after Hill left the picture to "salvage" what had been left. He claimed that the last version Hill had worked on was humorless, with characters everybody hated. His job, as Sholder saw it, was to make the movie less bleak and more easily enjoyable. He threw out the soundtrack (which he likened to music played when you have surgery to put you to sleep), did away with a subplot involving an ex-junkie boyfriend of Angela Bassett's (Karl/Troy Lawson?) and tried to add scenes to lighten the movie's tone. He added lines with characters mocking Flyboy so that the audience knew the robot looked stupid on purpose. Significantly, he claimed that the autopilot's voice in Hill's cut was only a dull monotone, which leads me to wonder if the "Sweetie" character, opening chess scene, and genuinely good moment where Wilson Cruz is trying to get the computer to save his life, are all thanks to Sholder.

But did he really "improve" the movie with his post-production efforts? One specific scene he's discussed in interviews: "They do this time jump at the beginning and Robert Forster gets fused into this pod thing and basically Spader then has to step up. And they are in this meteor storm, and they are getting sucked towards this black hole. You have this situation where you have Angela Bassett desperately trying to save Robert Forester while James Spader is definitely trying to save the ship. While in Walter's version, the autopilot saves the ship and Spader gets there just after the autopilot finishes saving the ship. I mean, it's like, lame. Is this really happening? The autopilot saves the ship and the hero gets there after the computer just saved the ship? It was actually written that he saves the ship, and it was shot that way."

Well it's true, it does make more sense from a narrative point of view to have Spader be the hero in that situation. However, the scenario with the ship "getting sucked towards this black hole" was such an unremarkable moment in the movie I didn't even think to include it in my review. And although it's more exciting and has more character potential to have Spader save them all, why couldn't the autopilot steer the ship clear of the hole? Isn't that what a futuristic A.I. would logically be programmed for? Sholder's claims that he fixed the scene are a little dubious, and his theory that Hill simply didn't care about the movie and may have purposely sabotaged it during actual production just seem like bullshit. Why would Hill offer to take over the film five weeks prior to production just to fuck it all up? If he didn't care about the finished product, why did he argue with MGM over the way the movie should be re-cut? Is being fired from a film really a "smart move?" What about the harm it does your reputation, not to mention the fact that - even if it's considered good - studios and audiences alike will ultimately criticize the director for coming to blows with the studio and having trouble delivering a final product. I don't know, maybe I'm giving Hill more credit just because he's a much more successful and prolific filmmaker than Sholder, but it seems like if Hill didn't like the costumes, even with only five weeks left before shooting started, he most likely could and would have had them altered to something he found more aesthetically pleasing. The behavior Sholder attributes to Hill sound more like that of a man contractually obligated to finish a film, like if Geoffrey Wright had been compromised but found he had to make the movie regardless. The unprofessional approach just doesn't fit Hill's profile.

Sholder states that his cut on the movie scored a "70" with test audiences compared to the "25" that Hill's final cut received. "Frank Mancuso said, 'Jack, you saved the studio, we're erecting your statue in front of the studio. What do you want to do next?' And then, about two weeks later, he was out. Then the head of UA was out, then they disbanded UA, a whole bunch of new people came in and they said, 'Gee, why is this movie only getting a 70?'"A director who believes in the shady art of studio test screening? Now I know how much faith to put into what he says about Walter Hill. Sholder once stated "I never set out to be Wes Craven - I set out to be Jean Renoir." And while I see the obvious parallels between The Crime of Monsieur Lange and The Hidden, I don't think Renoir ever agreed to come in and do re-shoots on somebody else's movie. Seriously, Sholder...Renoir did famously muse, "Is it possible to succeed without any act of betrayal?" but I guess Sholder's involvement with Supernova proves you're just as likely to fail after betraying a fellow filmmaker.

We now come to the strangest aspect of this whole business, the god-like intervention of MGM board member Francis Ford Coppola. The Godfather director had managed to stave off financial ruin and save his Napa Valley vineyard with the box office success of his 1992 adaptation of Dracula, but had since delivered a critical bomb (1996's Jack) and commercial disappointment (1997's The Rainmaker) which would turn out to be the last movie he would direct for a decade. In the interim, Coppola used his clout to get some television projects off the ground and produce daughter Sofia's directorial debut The Virgin Suicides, but mainly stuck to handling business at his Zoetrope company, which would get into bed with MGM/UA to make 2001's Jeepers Creepers and its later sequel. Whether he was just bored or thought too much time had passed since he had screwed Wim Wenders over on the production of 1982's Hammett - banishing the director from his own set and re-shooting 70% of the movie himself - Coppola decided to throw his glove into the ring. On August 10, 1999, Variety reported "Francis Ford Coppola has turned his attention to saving MGM's troubled Supernova. Coppola, along with MGM vice-chairman Chris McGurk*, is overseeing a re-cutting of Supernova at his American Zoetrope facility in Northern California."

With Coppola's involvement, the trades became abuzz with optimistic possibilities, including a rumor that Walter Hill might consider leaving his name on the movie if he approved Coppola's cut. The irony that the studio would hire the director of Apocalypse Now, one of the most turbulent productions in the history of American film, seemed to be lost on absolutely everyone. Then again this wasn't the jungles of the Phillipines: Coppola could sit back in his air-conditioned office at Zoetrope and dictate his ramblings on fixing the movie to an assistant. Sholder hasn't reported what Coppola might have changed from the last version he turned into the studio, but the bearded maestro's most notorious contribution has become very well known...

It has to do with that weird shot of Spader and Bassett floating around the back of the ship entangled in naked bliss early in the film. The fact of the matter is: that's not Spader and Bassett in the shot, it's Tunney and Facinelli. Convinced that the love scene between the two leads wasn't "sexy" enough, Coppola allegedly insisted they steal an unused shot from Tunney and Facinelli's nude crawl later in the movie, place the back of Spader's head over Facinelli's, and digitally darken Tunney's skin to make it look like them! With a phony sun flare added to cover the trick, the fifth director to add his imput to this unworthy film figured that this incredibly strange decision was what the movie needed to give its characters the depth the were sorely lacking.

 

 

So, to review, Francis Coppola's achievements in the 1970s include directing The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, producing American Graffiti and winning five Academy Awards. His achievements in the 1990s: giving Gary Oldman butt hair, turning Robin Williams into an intolerable man-child, directing the universally-hated Godfather Part III and a generic John Grisham court drama (one of the few to fail at the box office) and digitally darkening Robin Tunney's skin so she would look more like Angela Bassett in a zero-gravity sex scene.

(In an interview years later, Robin Tunney claimed to have received a letter from Coppola after production was wrapped. She doesn't mention its contents, but I have to assume it was something to the effect of: "Dear Robin, Francis Coppola here. Just wanted to say I really enjoyed your 'performance' in Supernova and replayed your scenes numerous times on the Zoetrope editing tables. One night my friend and I were goofing around after hours and put some whip cream on the screen right where your nipples were, it was hilarious! You have a natural ability to make my 60-year-old Italian blood boil, and that nipple thing really cut us up, they should call you Robin Funny! Anyway seriously kid...I hope you don't mind, but in the 'floating sex' shot I have authorized our effects guys to tint your skin dark so you look more like Angela Bassett. Not that you'd have any legal recourse against us if you raised any objections of course, you're just an actor after all. I killed Vic Morrow and it would be just as easy to kill you! Or was that John Landis? Doesn't matter, point is - to protest would be racist. What, you're saying you don't want to be a black woman? I find that highly demeaning, in the name of all African Americans, many of whom have served as extras in several of my films. I think I even made the movie A Soldier's Story starting your boy Denzel, although I may be confusing it with Gardens of Stone. I think it was Gardens of Stone, Robin, the title is much more pretentious - whatever, they both have military uniforms and nobody remembers either movie in any case. Anyway, gotta go...since there are no directors whose work I can crush like a grape in the palm of my massive hand today, I'll just have to make do with crushing grapes at my vineyard. If you want a good part in your next movie you know how to reach me and what you have to do. If you can imitate Brando while we're getting it on, so much the better. Your pal, FFC.")

 

 

Needless to say, simply shifting footage around and changing actors' skin colors was not enough for Coppola to encourage Hill to keep his name on the movie. Years later, Hill had this to say about the experience:

Ah, what did I learn the most? Oh, I think there was a desperate political situation with a failing administration, and I foolishly got into helping a movie that I thought could turn into something, but I then discovered I didn't have as free a hand as I had been led to believe, and when I was taking the movie along the lines that I thought would make it a credible movie, they did not share that vision, so we had a rather angry breach, and the movie was re-cut by two or three directors. I won't say there's no recognition of what I did, but the ending's much different, and much of the setup is different. Mine was a much darker vision. I can honestly tell you that I have yet to have seen it, but it's on cable a lot and sometimes I'll be surfing about and I'll sit there and watch about 4 minutes just to see what they've fucked up, but James Spader's performance is still, I can see is quite interesting in it, I thought Jimmy did a good job.

Hill's insistence that his was a "darker vision" than the finished film makes me wonder if the outtakes from the dvd release are mostly expunged footage from his final cut. For one thing, the deleted scenes are much more graphic than most of the stuff in the movie: there's an autopsy performed on an unidentified crewman with his chest plate missing and organs exposed, a survivor Spader runs into on the moon who has freakishly mutated due to exposure to the object (which sets up the deleted finale) and - instead of merely being tossed out the airlock - Lou Diamond Phillips gets his eyes gouged out (albeit quickly). There's an slightly-different ending where Facinelli survives the explosion, hangs on to the ship and sneaks back onboard to get revenge, only to be torn apart when they go back through the space vagina. Spader and Bassett, apparently unaware of Facinelli's re-entry, learn that the supernova WILL in fact burn up the universe, is burning it up as they speak, and will get around to burning up their galaxy and home world in a little over 257 years. Nice one guys! Good thing you answered that distress call. Also the voice of the computer in these outtakes is different, which seems at least to back up Sholder's insistence that the "Sweetie" personality came from his involvement.

Whatever Sholder changed and Coppola re-edited, Supernova remained a mess of ideas and excess of special effects in service of a story that simply didn't warrant such attention. It wouldn't be the only botched and bloated philosophical space thriller released that year: Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars, a subject for a future Frustrating Filmographies entry, came out two months later and similarly failed to interest critics or pack 'em in the theaters. In Touchstone/Spyglass Entertainment's defense, at least they didn't ostracize De Palma and bring in four other directors to try and fix something that obviously had no chance of being any good. Both movies, direct descendants from what is arguably MGM's most iconic post-50's release, 2001: A Space Odyssey, seem to have been released in an attempt to save face for their respective studios. For their part, MGM probably figured there was a sporting chance of the movie doing reasonable box office: they had already tried to do Alien underwater (Leviathan) and Alien on earth (the Species franchise), so maybe they figured a return to the formula "Alien in space" would prove marketable. Besides that, 2000 was an uncharacteristically unproductive year for the studio. Besides Supernova, it distributed only three movies: the David Duchovny-Minnie Driver romantic comedy Return to Me, the DJ Pooh screwball comedy 3 Strikes (the only screwball comedy I know of with a gay rape scene, although it's been a while since I've seen The Philadelphia Story), and the cheaply-animated, direct-to-video Tom Sawyer.

Supernova was given a wide opening (2,000 theaters) but was not screened for credits and opened in a mid-January death slot, its early year non-confidence release mirroring the unenthusiastic debuts of science fiction "crew in jeopardy" flops Sphere (Warner Brothers, Feb 1998) and Virus (Universal, Jan 1999). The theatrical trailer tried to succeed where Sholder had failed by giving the movie a lighter tone, even using - I'm not kidding - Sugar Ray on the soundtrack (a huge missed opportunity: setting the shot of Tunney being blasted out the airlock into space, a big spoiler featured in the actual trailer, right as the lyric "Eyyyyyyyyyyyye just want to fly!" plays over the image). The second half of the trailer was set to Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not to Come," as Don LaFontaine's cheeriest "they just forgot one. little. thing..." voice booms over micro-second shots of the cast looking collectively beguiled. The ploy to have the preview disguise the movie's slow pace and deadly serious mood didn't attract audiences, and the film would go on to recuperate a mere $14 million of its $60 million price tag.

On the preview, the movie's direction is credited to "Alan Smithee." The name had been invented by the DGA in 1968 when the great Don Siegel refused to take credit for the 10 days of work he put into Death of a Gunfighter, a movie whose original director had angrily disowned and walked away from. It became the standard alias for disgruntled directors, writers and producers over the next three decades, ultimately coming to stand as a banner for trouble productions (Smithee's credits in the 90's included the similarly disastrous space epic Solar Crisis and 1996's Hellraiser: Bloodline, aka "Hellraiser in space"). In 1998 Arthur Hiller had his name taken off Joe Eszterhas' satirical disaster An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, thereby giving credit for the film to "Alan Smithee." Suffice to say the name's pop cultural meaning had gotten a little too meta for the DGA and certainly lost the anonymity which was its original purpose, and they officially retired it in 2000. In light of this decision, the name that ultimately appeared on the final credits as the director of Supernova instead of Walter Hill's was "Thomas Lee."

(Amusingly enough, in 2000 another Tommy Lee was affiliated with a disappointing space movie: Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys. Also the picture on the right that I selected to represent Thomas Lee is one I found by googling the name. The real guy is Thomas Lee Jolly, a scary-looking convicted felon. I thought it seemed somehow appropriate).

A supernova is a luminous stellar explosion that causes a burst of radiation that often outshines an entire galaxy before fading from view over several weeks. There's something else called a "supernova impostor," a much less powerful explosion that fails to reach the class of its famous big brother. And the movie Supernova was definitely of the "impostor" class, all flash and bang with no trace of anything that would interest any viewer beyond those curious to see why so many directors thought they could work their magic and make it shine. Each director wanted to start his own supernova, convinced that the ensuing wave would purify and improve what previously existed. But each new hand only tainted the varnish, made the whole thing shine a little less. Glancing at the manifest of the good ship Nightingale, which lists as many people onboard as the movie had directors attached to it, it's tempting to equate members of its crew with those involved in the film's various stages of production. Phillip's Penalosa, seduced by the almighty glowing orb and quick to blame others for the mission's failure, is kind of a stand-in for Jack Sholder. Geoffrey Wright isn't at all unlike Tunney's Danika, excited at the prospect of bringing something new into the world/universe until his/her dreams are literally blown out the airlock (well, not so literal for Wright - also his hair is longer). You could just as easily compare him to Forster's Captain Marley, killed before anything actually happens and therefore largely blameless for the chaos that ensues. Then again maybe Marley better represents Hill: when faced with the horror ahead he goes ahead and throws himself under the rails, leaving his ship and crew to fend for themselves. Or is he Coppola, a seasoned veteran who shows up but doesn't really help anything, just mashes everything together into one big mess the viewer, like Marley's fellow crewmen, can't look at without feeling queasy.

In the movie Facinelli's Karl Larson assures that "the only real sin...is regret." Obviously the crew of the Nightingale regret picking Larson up, or even jumping dimensions in the first place. I wonder which of the involved filmmakers has the most regret over spending so much of their time and talent on such an underwhelming failure. In the end the saddest thing about the plight of Supernova is that none of the directors could work together, couldn't even compromise on one mega-pseudonym made up of all their names, like Jawalt Wrightford Willhill, or Geoff Shohill Coppone. If there had been some kind of cooperation maybe they, like the members of the Nightingale crew, could have taken the project to its potential glory, borrowed each other's eyes, and shared one magnificent space baby.

 

Summation:

The directors (in order of involvement): William Malone, Geoffrey Wright, Walter Hill, Jack Sholder, Francis Coppola, Thomas Lee 

The movie: Supernova (2000)

Why so out of place in directors' filmography?: An effects-laden science fiction action-thriller-space sexcapade from Walter Hill, who's more at ease with homegrown character studies with lots of guns in a contemporary or turn-of-the-century period setting. A big studio step-up for indies Malone and Wright, not enough interesting horror or weird science fiction for Sholder, and too safe and standard a corporate Hollywood genre picture for Coppola, who was apparently only interested in that kind of thing in the '90s. Also, not a very respectable debut for Thomas Lee.

Why the directors strayed: Walter Hill - trying to use his own successful Alien franchise formula to his own creative advantage (and, according to him, trying to save a story he thought was worth telling). Jack Sholder - an attempt to play in the big leagues for a change and make some money. Francis Coppola - reason for involvement remains a complete mystery...boredom? Smug sense of superiority against directors who don't have a mantle occupied by multiple Academy Awards? 

Scale of embarrassment for the directors: Considering they bailed early, no harm no foul for Malone and Wright (who, let's face it, had very little to lose anyway). Since the exact measure of contribution from Sholder and Coppola is unknown, but the movie still turns up on their filmographies, we'll say a recoverable 3/10 for genre director Sholder but a more painful 9/10 for the guy who made The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. Thomas Lee, who ain't sweatin nothin, goes 0/10.

As for Walter Hill, who can't avoid the film's production woes and critical failure being brought up in interviews yet has arguably made less successful and more embarrassing movies over his 35 year career as a director? 7/10 

Their triumphant return to form:

After his involvement with Supernova came to an end, William Malone continued working in television until being given the opportunity to remake one of his favorite movies, William Castle's House on Haunted Hill, for Dark Castle Entertainment. That film, released the same day as Wes Craven's Music of the Heart, was a modest hit for Dark Castle and led to Malone directing the Ringu-esque Feardotcom.

Geoffrey Wright recovered from the Supernova experience and directed a mini-masterpiece called Cherry Falls.** Sadly, that film was also plagued with studio interference: it was subjected to five different screenings for the MPAA before being approved for an R rating, at which point it was removed from its theatrical release slot and dumped on video. In the ensuing ten years Wright has seemingly had trouble getting projects off the ground, helming only one movie, a revision of Macbeth set in modern times, which has never ever been done before.

Jack Sholder's contribution to the "evil genie" series Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies*** (which was also his first writing credit since Bruce Malmuth's Where Are the Children? in 1986) was released straight-to-video the year before Supernova's debut; it was followed by the straight-to-video horror film Arachnid and straight-to-video crime thriller Beeper. He worked on the "Tremors" tv series and directed the tv shark movie 12 Days of Terror in 2004, and has done nothing since then, opting instead to direct the Motion Picture and Television program at Western Carolina University.

Francis Coppola returned to the director's chair after a 10 year absence with 2007's Youth Without Youth and 2009's Tetro, but both films received mild to hateful responses from critics. He has yet to remind moviegoers of the Godfather years...in fact, he hasn't really managed to remind them of the Peggy Sue Got Married years.

Walter Hill took a stab at returning to what he knows best with 2002's sweaty prison boxing movie Undisputed, to mixed reviews. His career and reputation were rekindled when he brought the western back to TV, first by helming the pilot episode of HBO's "Deadwood," then the Emmy-winning miniseries "Broken Trail." Following a failed attempt to remake John Woo's The Killer, Hill finally has a new one due out next year: St Vincent, his first feature film since Undisputed.

For his part, Thomas Lee has not made a movie since.

 

* No relation to Coach John McGuirk.

** I'm still waiting for the uncut version Lloyd Kaufman swears is even better than the released version to start making the bootleg rounds. If anyone has any info on the sequel that's allegedly filming this year (Cherry Falls: Come to Bed) please email me at maninphonebooth@thepinksmoke.com

*** This could be considered Sholder's second "part 2" in a Wes Craven series, except that Craven - a producer on the first Wishmaster - didn't lend his name on any of the sequels.

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