What happened to “54”? Director Mark Christopher’s glitter bomb of sex, drugs and debauchery in New York’s 1970 party scene vanished almost as quickly as it dropped in 1998. It turned out that Christopher had directed two films: his version, and Miramax’s version.
Now, we get to see his version, which premiered in Berlin this year. “54: The Director’s Cut” is indeed a new gay cult classic, a glorious, hedonistic revelry that transports us to an underground utopia of sexually liberated freak flyers, only to plunge us into its inevitable ruination. We follow gorgeous-bodied Shane (Ryan Phillippe) out of his dingy New Jersey life and into the titular Studio 54, where he hustles and parties with aspiring 54 singer Anita (Salma Hayek) and her busboy husband (Breckin Meyer) while selling his body and soul for the club’s desperately pathetic owner (Mike Myers). Shane, who’s almost exclusively in his undies, works his way up to being a bartender, which leads to his downward spiral we didn’t get to see in the 1998 version.
“Let me use all the cliches I can,” Mark Christopher told me on the phone when asked how it felt to return to his film nearly two decades later. “It’s kind of a miracle. It’s a dream come true, except I couldn’t have dreamed this would happen.”
This a darker, grittier, more Scorsese-like “54” than the badly mangled original version that few saw and less liked. “The movie was meant to be about this decadent world on the edge of collapse,” Christopher said. “What was lacking in the studio cut, the themes and the look, are now there.” For the Director’s Cut, 30 minutes of reshoots that were forced on the production by Miramax have been cut and replaced with 44 minutes of Christopher’s original, preferred takes.
When he initially brought “54” to Miramax in 1995, “‘I remember saying, I’ll just write it and don’t have to direct.’ One of my mentors was Paul Schrader, who said, ‘Write your first three screenplays then direct.’ I was taking his advice but Miramax encouraged me to direct it.”
The studio was supportive of Christopher’s vision of a New York underground, hard-partying urban drama from the beginning. “It was in the air to do disco movies,” he said, “and I had a unique way into the movie which was through the kids who worked there — the bartender, coat check girl and busboy. It got made because it was about the worker bees. It was sexy and true to the world but in an accessible way.”
“54” was conceived as a specialty film but, as it happens, the hot young cast exploded. Miramax happily gave Christopher another $1 million on top of the film’s budget, already at $8 million. Things were going well. “We were both very hands on in casting, which took about a year. In the shooting, Miramax were very hands off, and were thrilled with the dailies.”
But inevitably, Miramax became the author of their own misfortune when the film’s indie edge — its fluid sexuality, ravenous drug use and challenging characters — flopped at an early test screening in a suburban Long Island mall, which is the last place to position a gritty independent drama meant for metropolitan moviegoers. “This became another business decision altogether,” said Christopher, who had originally advocated for Miramax to gauge early audience reaction.
Thus, Miramax took to rewriting Christopher’s vision into a more commercial-seeming, sanitary package. At the studio’s behest, the cast and crew hauled back to New York for three weeks of reshoots just two months shy of the film’s August 28 release. The film was ultimately slashed down to a messy, muddled 100 minutes.
The theatrical version was a disaster, critically and commercially. All edges were sanded down. Gone was the bisexual menage-a-trois subplot (which is really more of a main plot, when you look at the film now). Gone was the criminality and corruption of Ryan Phillippe’s Shane, who in the Director’s Cut falls from grace in an unexpectedly tragic way, and in his place we saw a more conventionally likable (i.e. heterosexual) sex cypher. And gone, of course, was the awkwardly sexy lip-lock Phillippe plants on Meyer in a moment of desperation.
After the film came and went in theaters that Summer, a bootleg VHS of the Director’s Cut — whose existence to this day Christopher can’t explain — started circulating. In 2008, New York’s LGBT Outfest presented a sold-out secret-screening, which was the first time anybody had seen this definitive version since it test-screened.
So after a decade or so of lobbying, Christopher and his co-producer Jonathan King convinced Miramax to greenlight “54: The Director’s Cut” in July 2014. They finished in time for the film’s February 2015 Berlin premiere “by the skin of our teeth. Finding the material took several months, and that is what made the schedule so harrowing. We were still pulling in negatives in December, and we were mixing the first week of January.”
After “54” production supervisor Nancy Valle found the dailies in a warehouse in the California desert, reportedly labeled “to be destroyed,” the gang was back together again. But the restoration was not easy. “We shot the film to be very dark in the way you would experience a nightclub, through flashes of glitter and bubbles,” Christopher said. “That’s hard to shoot on film in negatives, and much easier in digital” (which is the present format of the Director’s Cut). So he called upon his cinematographer, Alexander Gruszynski, whom Christopher calls “the second prince of darkness because he did such a beautiful job.”
Christopher said that the studio deemphasized the film’s “dark beauty” and instead “pushed a lot of light into it. So many nightclub movies looked like high noon, or somebody’s kitchen. So we worked very hard to restore the look we wanted.” The atmospheric visual style of the Director’s Cut now more closely resembles William Friedkin’s “Cruising” or Bob Fosse’s “Cabaret,” one of Christopher’s favorites.
Besides basking in the redemption of a once beleaguered career, Christopher is keeping busy. He now has television projects on the docket with Warner Bros. and, yes, Miramax. “Doing the festivals, I’m bitten by the bug again,” he said.
Looking back, would he have done it all differently? “I’m proud of my battle scars,” Christopher said. “Obviously it was very painful, but I am not the first director to have his film recut by a studio, and I will not be the last.”
Ryan Lattanzio is the staff writer for TOH at Indiewire. Follow him on Twitter.