Over the last several weeks I’ve repeatedly found myself having the same conversation, frequently revolving around Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. “It was alright. I enjoyed it,” someone will say, “but why was it so long?” I entirely agree that Django is about forty-five minutes longer than it should be, but what interests me is why the filmmakers made this apparent misjudgement. For me, the excessive length places Tarantino in the company of directors such as Spike Lee and Oliver Stone. In each case early work exhibited a sure hand and the possession of a valuable set of skills. The progression of their careers, however, exposed filmmakers painfully unable to control their own creative excesses. What is lacking in each instance is someone to say, “That’s a bad idea”.
Disagreements between studio heads, producers and directors go back at least to Erich Von Stroheim and his quarrels over both Foolish Wives (1922) and, more famously, Greed (1924). Heedlessness of any budgetary restraint on the former got the director sacked from Universal Studios, and his eight-hour first cut of the second was reduced by 75% for the eventual release version. In the usual formulation, these two films helped to cement the primacy of penny-pinching producers over visionary directors for the remainder of Hollywood’s “classical” period. According to this narrative, true creative freedom was only restored with the collapse of the studio system (in the mid-Sixties) when directors were released from the Promethean rock of studio oversight, and no longer had to operate under the eagle-eye (and liver removing claws) of pesky producers.
The problem, as always, is that it’s not that simple. The dictates of money-men are frequently cited in discussions of post-production editing. In the last week, in unrelated conversations, I’ve discussed such examples as Cromwell (1970) (shorn of at least 40 minutes of additional footage), The Abyss (1987) (which initially lost the entire original conclusion) and the Chinese film Warlords (2007) (shortened by 15 minutes for American audiences). Sometimes, though, producers point in the other direction. Michael Curtiz’s The Egyptian (1954) is about 25 minutes longer than it should be because Daryl Zanuck’s mistress was cast in a role that should have been drastically shortened. Henry King’s The Country Doctor (1936) includes about ten story-stopping minutes of Jean Hersholt rolling around on the floor with the Dionne quintuplets, simply because they were a huge marketing draw. Either way, the problem is not new, and opinions can vary about the pros and cons of length or brevity in either direction.
What seems to matter most, though, is the tension between the different sides of the director/producer, art/money equation. If a powerful producer can productively butt heads with a strong director, the intersection of their opinions is where the “magic” happens. In many of the Oscar-nominated films this year, however, that tension seems to be lacking. Django is exhibit “A” in this argument. Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to believes that the film should probably end at the conclusion of the crucial financial dealings between the characters of Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DeCaprio – but it doesn’t. Instead, Quentin keeps on rolling through several extended sequences (maybe forty additional minutes of screen time) including the weakest scene of the film (in which the director has a central cameo). My reservations about Tarantino are well-known, but I don’t mean to unduly single him out. Lincoln has about three endings too many, and even something as relatively intimate as Silver Linings Playbook could easily be shorn of twenty minutes to tighten the pacing. In each of these cases a strong director has managed to trump any objections by the force of his personality and reputation (or, more pointedly, by acting as his own producer).
Perhaps the ultimate poster-child for the tendency to filmic loquaciousness is Peter Jackson whose roughly four thousand endings to Return of the King demonstrate a director utterly unable to exercise narrative discipline. I’ve not seen The Hobbit, but I’ve heard nothing about the plans to extend it to three films which mitigates this opinion. The point is made even more succinctly by the fact that Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong (1933) runs nearly twice as long as the original (187 mins. vs. 100 mins.), while having a fraction of the overall effect.
My larger point here is the importance of having someone around who can argue against you. In film-making, and in life generally, it’s important to have a contrarian close by. That doesn’t mean that it’s always good to argue just for the sake of argument, and it certainly isn’t a suggestion that people should fight all the time. But nothing is more damaging than always getting your own way, especially if there are sound and reasoned arguments against your position. Some people never figure this out, and some people just can’t handle it (these are the people who always take disagreement as a personal attack). Hollywood egos are famously touchy, and the way the system works now it’s harder to keep a devil’s advocate on the payroll, but just because Quentin, David and Stevie haven’t entirely figured out that it would be good for them doesn’t mean that it should stop the rest of us. If we keep it in mind, we’ll do better work and profit by it. Plus then we could all leave happy and save ourselves an extra forty-five minutes.