In September 2014, veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader was livid. He had recently directed “Dying of the Light,” a grim thriller starring Nicolas Cage as CIA agent Evan Lake, who obsesses over tracking terrorists while suffering from a brain disease and losing his mind. The movie’s financiers wanted a more conventional espionage thriller than Schrader’s experimental, subjective narrative, so they took the movie away from Schrader, who sent an email explaining the conundrum to Cage. The actor struck a note or resignation.
“The unfortunate aspect to my having had so many careers in so many genres is that they can make a case to put me in box b instead of box a for money’s sake,” Cage wrote, in an email shared with IndieWire years later.
Schrader could relate. “Dying of the Light” arrived nearly 40 years after Schrader catapulted to fame with his screenplay for “Taxi Driver” and maintained his stature as one of American’s most provocative auteurs. Now he was at the mercy of producers who could care less about his artistic integrity. Without his knowledge, they sold distribution rights to VOD outfit Grindstone Entertainment, eager to cash in on the genre appeal and mid-level star power that could make the movie profitable. “It was my feeling that I had to go further with it, which meant more time, more money, more everything,” Schrader said in an interview recently. “Since they had already sold it, that was the last thing they wanted.”
Three years later, Schrader has found a wild, unprecedented workaround to make the movie he intended all along — but it will almost certainly never screen in theaters. Now titled “Dark,” the new version has been literally assembled out of fragments ripped from the mangled theatrical cut, and transformed into a kind of post-modern collage that’s closer to the filmed installation art of Douglas Gordon (“24 Hour Psycho”) than a cohesive narrative. Originally 94 minutes, it now runs just over 70, and the climactic showdown has been replaced by an abstract light-and-color show as Evan completes his descent into madness.
The road to this outcome was jagged and messy as the end result. Schrader was contractually obligated to keep his name on “Dying of Light,” and barred from speaking publicly about it. Instead, he mounted a silent protest on Facebook, posting a photo of himself with a T-shirt listing his NDA clause. Cage, co-star Anton Yelchin, and filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn joined him.
Schrader got a second shot with Cage, directing him a year later in the freewheeling gangster pastiche “Dog Eat Dog.” However, he still felt tied to the creative intentions he had for “Dying of the Light,” and found a solution well beyond the industry’s limitations. After completing post-production on his new eco-thriller “First Reformed” with Ethan Hawke in early 2017, Schrader secretly reedited “Dying of the Light” into an entirely new movie, one that hews much closer to his original intentions.
Schrader doesn’t consider “Dark” a director’s cut so much as another feature in his filmography, one that he cobbled together with a mishmash of materials drawn from various “Dying of the Light” DVDs and other media. Because it contains footage that belongs to the original distributor, Schrader is legally barred from releasing “Dark” in a commercial arena. In order to watch it, you’ll have to go to the UCLA film archives or to the Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin, which also has his papers: Both institutions have digital files of “Dark,” and they are available to anyone.
Confident that “Dark” would remain protected by the institutions that accepted it, Schrader felt that his workaround resolved the nagging feeling that he’d lost control of his work. “It’s completely outside of commercial tradition,” he said. “Here was material I’d written and directed. I’d allowed myself to fuck it up, or to get it in a situation where I couldn’t control someone from fucking it up. I wanted to rectify that.”
Schrader has always maintained a challenging reputation, coming into conflict with everyone from initial mentor Pauline Kael (from his film-critic days) to Richard Pryor (on the set of Schrader’s 1978 debut “Blue Collar”) to Lindsay Lohan (on the set of Schrader’s grimy Hollywood drama “The Canyons”). Still, Schrader remained a revered American auteur, with movies ranging from “American Gigolo” to “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters” maintaining his stature as an ambitious dramatist with cinematic flair to spare. He never really slowed down, even as a changing industry made it harder to sustain his provocative and philosophical storytelling approaches. Schrader embraced the challenges of lower budgets, and with “Dying of the Light,” figured he could wrestle with a disorienting take on post-9/11 lunacy by digging into a single deranged mind.
As Evan Lake, Cage portrays an obsessive who survived torture from a Middle Eastern terrorist and refuses to stop chasing his trail when the agency asks him to back down. Fired, and increasingly out of touch with his surroundings, the rage-filled Evan keeps tracking his target in a bleak globetrotting adventure while his faithful partner (Yelchin) begins to wonder whether his longtime mentor has totally lost it. Schrader wanted to give the movie an erratic, viscerally unsettling quality to simulate Evan’s mental downward spiral, but he only figured that out after he’d shot it. “I knew I had to push it further, make it more exaggerated,” he said, citing avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage as a key reference point. “It didn’t feel like it was edgy enough.”
In late May 2014, Schrader shared his work-in-progress cut with executives at Over Under Media and Grindstone. That day, he received an extensive set of notes designed to give the movie a more cohesive narrative. While not every request seems so off base, they provide a window into what can happen when companies intent on creating commercial product work with filmmakers intent on autonomy.
The companies’ joint email, sent by lawyer and producer Gary Hirsch, included guidelines for “focusing structure and story to maximize the intrigue and tension,” and berated Schrader for distracting from Cage’s performance with “gimmicks and sound cues.” They took issue with sequences designed to replicate Evan’s slippery grasp on reality (“we should set one or two rules to the hallucinations”) and found the handful of chases scenes lacking intrigue. “The action needs more creative editing,” read one tip, while another pressed for “more Sergio Leone-style close ups of Cage.” Though Evan had been conceived as an embodiment of the xenophobia in the highest ranks of American security forces, the producers took issue with the character’s racist asides. “The use of the word ‘raghead’ in the film is gratuitous and should be eliminated,” they wrote. “It is not used responsibly here and the film is better than that.”
One day later, Schrader replied: “I’m baffled by the fact that anyone would choose to make a film originated by Paul Schrader, written by him, directed by him and not to have a ‘Paul Schrader film.’ If you exert your will on me, take the film away from me, recut and end up with a film that both Paul Schrader and Nicolas Cage disown, is that a victory to you?” He added, “It will be more commercial. Will it be better?”
He took issue with complaints about the opening of the movie being too morbid, arguing that he intended them to pay homage to Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikuru,” and arguing, “That’s where concept of the script began. A portrait of morality, a dying man. That’s why I wrote it, that’s why I stayed with it.”
Elsewhere, he defended the use of Evan’s politically incorrect language. “The ‘raghead’ references were in the script and part of the spooky originality of the character,” he wrote. “Okay, maybe we went too far, but before we all [get] PC crazy and self-censoring wouldn’t it be nice to know how this actually plays before an audience?”
Finally, the 68-year-old struck a dire tone. “This, I believe, will be the last film I ever make,” he said. “If you want to take it from me, you can — but you will need to pull it from my dying fingers.”
Schrader may have been prone to hyperbole, but it got worse. When the company did take the movie away from him, he had already planned on staying in Los Angeles for the post-production schedule, far away from his family in New York. “I was already in a bad psychological way and I had to sit 10 weeks, the entire summer, in a hotel, not working, getting drunk and watching them play around with the film and not having any input,” he said. “It was a waste of life. So I left.”
According to Scott Clayton, one of the producers, Schrader was perceived as a director-for-hire who morphed into auteur mode after production was completed. Schrader’s straightforward script was the catalyst for the financiers’ involvement. “We had a good experience with Paul during pre-production and principal photography,” Clayton said via email. “He made his days and stayed on budget. Equally important, he shot the script that we hired him to make.”
Clayton said they did test-screen Schrader’s early version. “Unfortunately, as the test results showed, we were correct in our considerable concerns regarding Paul’s cut,” he said. “The results were extremely negative… in accordance with our contractual rights, we had a noticeably improved cut of the movie to deliver to buyers.”
Schrader moved on. However, even as he completed two movies with more satisfying results — “Dog Eat Dog” and “First Reformed,” which scored some of his best reviews ever on the festival circuit — he remained haunted by the experience. “I couldn’t solve this problem, and I’d gotten involved with people and should’ve known better,” he said. “Directors are all alpha beings. Your attitude is always, give me a chair, give me a whip, put me in the cage, and I’ll tame this beast. Well, sometimes, the lion wins. That’s an enormous blow to your alpha ego.”
Schrader characterized the experience as the ultimate wakeup call for a man who came of age clashing with executives in the old studio system. “You could weasel one against the other, work the room, and come up with something interesting,” he said. “These guys, they were all relatively new to movies and they saw this as a good financial model — get a director, talk a star into cutting his price, lowball the production, presell it to VOD. It wasn’t about the film at all.” One week after Schrader realized he would not be able to finish the movie on his own terms, he sent a note to Cage and Yelchin, explaining his decision to protest the outcome “on behalf of film artists, pompous though it may sound. If you treat artists with disdain and duplicity, this is how they will react.”
Later, Yelchin — who died in a sudden accident two years later — wrote Schrader after watching a new cut prepared by the distributors. “I don’t have the words to describe my disgust with the whole thing,” Yelchin wrote. “What can I say? They’re fools. They don’t see the vision that is there… I think the producers’ cut seems fine. Another bland film with the rhetoric of a dairy queen [sic] employee. Elevated only by the material you supplied and the performance that Nic gave.”
Cage was especially frustrated. “I am an A list actor doing A list work who is being forced into B list presentations simply because I had some hits in action films a million years ago,” he wrote. “I am now in a beleaguered movie. It never should have come to this.” (Cage declined a request for further comment on this story.)
A few months later, Hirsch sent a links to clips and the trailer for “Dying of the Light” posted to Fandango in the weeks leading up to its release. Schrader wrote back right away: “Why the fuck are you sending me this you slime ball! You stole my life’s work. I will never forget or forgive.”