Paul Schrader’s “Dying of the Light” arrived in theaters and on VOD to little fanfare but a lot of sad shaking heads. Schader claims that his film was taken away from him from the producers, who had a more standard Nicolas Cage action movie in mind. The current version has been reedited, rescored and remixed, according to Schrader, while cinematographer Gabriel Kosuth wrote a guest column in Variety claiming that that the film’s planned visual palette – expressionistic colors using filters on lenses and colored lights – has been totally removed, replaced with a duller, flatter look to make it look “normal.” Now, someone else has spoken up about “Dying of the Light,” though we’re not quite sure who.
Writing for FIlm Comment under the pseudonymous name “Lankester Merrin” (a priest from “The Exorcist” and, notably, “Dominion,” Schrader’s “Exorcist” prequel that was famously taken away from him), the mystery person writes that the film was originally just a work-for-hire gig for Schrader, who wrote the script for Nicolas Winding Refn to direct and Harrison Ford to star as a CIA agent trying to track down a Bin Laden-esque figure while battling dementia. Apparently the seeds of doom were sewn when Ford and Refn dropped out (the former wanted script changes, the latter did not) and a man named David Grovic (aka David Haring) came on board.
A new version of the project comes together, this time with a comeback-minded Nicolas Cage as Lake and Schrader himself directing on a $5 million budget (of which $1 million is Cage’s salary) and a location shoot in Romania (where much of the film is set) and Australia (doubling for Kenya). The money behind the movie is being supplied by one David Grovic (aka David Haring), a mysterious Bahamanian businessman whose prior film credits include the ludicrously bad John Cusack–Robert De Niro thriller “The Bag Man,” which Grovic directed and acted in too. Perhaps it could be argued that the writing was already visible on the wall, but an indie filmmaker like Schrader, with a willing backer before him, knows better than to ask too many questions.
Now Schrader has accused his producers of taking away his film after he refused to change it, while the producers claim their version is stronger. “Merrin” claims to have seen both versions, and while he argues that neither version is a masterpiece, Schrader’s original workprint has the soul to elevate it above being a modestly effective thriller.
The principal stylistic concept of Schrader’s version (which exists only in workprint form) was that we would see the world through Evan Lake’s increasingly unreliable eyes, with distorted camera angles and sound effects used to suggest his weakening grasp on reality. Those effects have been jettisoned here in favor of a more conventional strategy of having Lake’s periodic head pains trigger jagged flashbacks to his torture at the hands of Banir (a scene Schrader originally dispensed with under the opening credits). Also removed: a prologue in which medical scans of Lake’s brain were accompanied by voiceover narration explaining his condition, a tip of Schrader’s hat to the stomach X-ray opening of Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (a film, and filmmaker, one doubts Schrader’s backers have ever heard of).
Schrader’s story isn’t a new one; “Merrin” makes reference to the famously botched reedits of “Heaven’s Gate” and “Once Upon a Time in America” as a way of saying that it could have been worse, given that those versions rendered their stories incomprehensible. John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage” was famously hacked up, resulting in a striking but noticeably damaged film with herky-jerky pacing caused by missing scenes (on the films he cared about, Huston almost never shot anything he didn’t feel was essential). Orson Welles had to spend most of his later career fighting with backers or scrambling for financing to get his versions of his movies made.
What is new, however, is the increasingly diminishing routes for mid-budgeted filmmakers to take. One of today’s Daily Reads comes from Jason Bailey of Flavorwire, who wrote that the difficulty of getting together money for anything that’s not going to be a tentpole is keeping a lot of major filmmakers (David Lynch, John Waters, Francis Ford Coppola) from making movies. Schrader is increasingly becoming one of those filmmakers: his previous film, “The Canyons,” was his first in five years, and even that needed Kickstarter to get funding. The experience with “Dying of the Light” isn’t going to help him much. Merrin also makes reference to “The Immigrant,” which was dumped into theaters earlier this year by The Weinstein Company after James Gray supposedly refused to make Harvey Weinstein’s cuts, and “Margaret,” which Fox Searchlight dumped in 2011 after a six-year battle in which Kenneth Lonergan wouldn’t turn in a version shorter than 150 minutes.
Both of those films have at least been championed by critics and are on their way to finding a second life. Schrader’s version of “Dying of the Light” likely won’t have a chance to see the light of day, making it another casualty to studio mandates and producers who don’t support their directors’ visions. “Something is dying here, indeed, and Paul Schrader’s career is the least of it,” writes “Merrin.” He’s right: it’s a sign that independent filmmakers have even fewer avenues to choose than they did before, and that their choices are sometimes limited to mangled movies or no movies.