That night was supposed to be a celebration. After more than five years of work on a rough and rowdy medieval epic several times larger than anything he’d ever made before (including his Best Picture-nominated “Hell or High Water”), and a desperate race to cut the thing together in time for its glitzy debut, “Outlaw King” director David Mackenzie had finally made it to the majestic Princess of Wales Theatre, where his latest movie had been invited to screen as the opening selection of the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
More than 2,000 critics and industry professionals — including Chris Pine, Aaron Taylor Johnson, and the rest of Mackenzie’s extraordinary cast — traveled from all over the world to witness the unveiling, eager for the first look at one of the fall’s most hotly anticipated contenders. The lights went down, the Netflix logo “ba-dummed!” across the massive screen, and the audience was dropped into the tumultuous story of Robert the Bruce and the First War for Scottish independence.
It wasn’t long before Mackenzie realized he had a problem. The film wasn’t working. After the spectacular first shot — an enthralling 8-minute long-take that introduces Robert (Pine) as he reluctantly pledges fealty to Edward I (Stephen Dillane), spars with the king’s psychotic son (Billy Howle), and watches an enormous catapult rain hell on a defenseless castle in the distance — the director could feel the air seeping out of the room. The conflict was slow to come into focus. The story was split between too many supporting characters. A chance encounter between Robert and legendary folk hero William Wallace distracted from the growing tensions between the Scottish nobles and the occupying Englishmen who had seized control of their land. The film’s sweep was as undeniable as its savagery, but when it finally came to an end (some 137 minutes after it had began), some audience members felt as if they had just watched a man unite his country in real time.
The response was harsh, if not quite brutal (as of the time of this writing, “Outlaw King” has a semi-respectable score of 60 on Metacritic). This critic called the film a “gritty but unfocused and interminable attempt to wrest the fight for freedom away from Hollywood myth, and return it to something more primal.” IndieWire’s assessment went on to say that “‘Outlaw King’ begins to feel like a full season of television that’s been squeezed in a vise.” But Mackenzie didn’t need to read the reviews to know what he had to do next. Two weeks after “Outlaw King” premiered at TIFF — and a little less than two months before it was due to bow on Netflix — the news broke that the director cut 20 minutes from the film.
“I think it was 23,” Mackenzie said when he met with IndieWire in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel just a few days ahead of unleashing the new and improved version of “Outlaw King” upon the world. “That’s a fairly sizable chunk.” He’s not wrong. The truncated edit of the movie is a significantly different experience, and a better one in every way. Clear where the previous cut was convoluted, and engrossingly character-driven where it used to feel pulled by the sheer inertia of history, the “Outlaw King” that Netflix subscribers will get to see this Friday — the only “Outlaw King” the public will ever know — is a vivid reminder that good movies are often hiding inside bad ones, like Renaissance statues just waiting to be chiseled from their slabs of stone. Often, filmmakers just need to see their work through new eyes in order to know what to cut. Indeed, Mackenzie’s process would’ve been totally unexceptional if half the film world wasn’t there to witness it.
“I wasn’t really ready, to be honest,” Mackenzie said the 52-year-old Scotsman. “It’s just that being able to premiere the film in front of a large audience at TIFF was something desirable, so we aimed at that target. We hadn’t really put the movie before audiences in that way, so the festival was a rather big and rather public test.” Typically, a $90 million war epic might be processed through several rounds of test screenings, but Netflix’s unique distribution system has a way of leapfrogging tradition. “Outlaw King” wouldn’t have had time for such things anyway; Mackenzie only finished the TIFF cut 48 hours before its gala premiere.
Sitting through that screening must have been an exquisite form of torture for the director, who could only focus on the parts of his movie that he wanted to fix. “Yeah,” Mackenzie said, staring down at the table, “there was an element of that.” He sighed. “I felt what I felt. And then literally the next morning, I went to my producer Gillian Berrie and asked if we could go back into the edit.” Netflix signed off on the decision immediately. “Sarah Bowen, who’s our main executive there, told us to go for it. It was very simple. But I only had two weeks, so we rushed straight back into it and started cutting away.”
Mackenzie was over the moon, fully aware that he had been granted an opportunity that other, more traditional movie studios would never have allowed. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that I had a chance to go back in there and not be stuck in a position where the film was rushed for a festival and that was that. That would have been terrible. It feels like a privilege to be able to completely control your own destiny on a film of this scale.”
His primary task was to smooth out the pacing. Mackenzie sensed a restlessness from the Princess of Wales crowd, a reaction he attributed to a numbing barrage of action sequences. “The film was almost too relentless, and put Robert in a position of vulnerability too often. That’s the kind of thing that can lead an audience to disengage.”
The first things to go were a battle scene, a big confrontation backdropped by a waterfall, and an eight-minute chase sequence: These are the kinds of things a filmmaker dreams of shooting, a financier loses sleep over seeing on the cutting room floor, and this critic honestly doesn’t even remember. Killing your darlings is never easy, but it’s even harder when they’re all riding horses and carrying broadswords.
But Mackenzie, to paraphrase a line from Edward I, has the courage to stand up for his work, and the wisdom to stand down from it. If it hurt the director to amputate on himself, he’s done a fine job of covering up his scars. “I didn’t know if streamlining those elements was going to work,” he said, “but as soon as I did it, it as like — snap! — this is good, this is the way it should be. I didn’t really change the structure too much, it was more about lifting out whole things and going ‘gosh, the story doesn’t collapse when you do that.’ It was quite educational, really.”
Mackenzie, whose average movie runs less than 100 minutes, has never been too proud to learn a hard lesson. “More often than not, my director’s cuts are shorter than how they started,” he said. “People have encouraged me to put stuff back into the movies, so I’m quite capable of being tough on the material. Sitting through the premiere of ‘Outlaw King’ and having a strong sense that it was playing long and all over the place kind of gave me the carte blanche I needed to be more ruthless in the editorial process” (relax, all 12 frames of Chris Pine’s penis are still in the movie).
In this case, it helped that Mackenzie had wanted to cut certain things for a long time, and just needed an extra bit of convincing. “There were all sorts of itches that I needed to scratch,” he said, “and a lot of the things I took out were things that I had my doubts about from the start — things that felt necessary in some way, but ultimately weren’t.”
Chief among them was that scene between Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. “To be honest, it always felt contrived. Robert just accidentally encounters this guy in the woods?” And then there’s the Mel Gibson of it all. “We were aware of the shadow of that character,” Mackenzie said, admitting that “Braveheart” inspired him to cut Wallace out of his film, restoring him to a disembodied folk hero whose name is merely whispered in the wind. “To me, that feels stronger than forcing an actor to play someone who people across the world already know.”
Removing Wallace was symptomatic of the director’s larger effort to balance his film between spectacular entertainment and grounded fact. “We made an effort to be as historically accurate as possible,” Mackenzie said, reflecting on the cold and visceral wedding sequence that highlights the first act of his film. “It was important for me to try and at least attempt to serve that reality. I’ve called this an ‘anti-fantasy film,’ because I think it’s easy to mythologize the past, and it’s easy to be maximalist about some of these things, but it was important for us to serve the history and tell a decent story at the same time.”
Asked if “Braveheart” has a good reputation in Scotland, Mackenzie laughed. “Not really. It’s a funny movie, because it’s got much more of a rabble-rousing, ‘rah rah’ kind of tone, and — in this day and age — I just don’t feel it’s appropriate to be making that type of movie, to be honest. The forces of nationalism are expanding across the world, and I think one has to be very careful about that… even though I’m telling a true story about a national hero, I don’t want ‘Outlaw King’ to be taken too literally as a rallying call.”
Removing Wallace from the story, and trimming some of the action in order to imbue every drop of bloodshed with new urgency, has allowed Mackenzie to better honor the history without romanticizing the violence. “Yes, there was an occupation that forced my people to fight for the existence of their country, but I want to be honest about the material without inciting a certain segment of the population.”
Besides, a war pageant like “Braveheart” was never the kind of movie that Mackenzie wanted to make — his inspirations were more ruminative and mudbound. In fact, the First War of Scottish Independence wasn’t of particular interest to him, as he was mostly drawn to the script because he dreamed of directing a medieval religious epic in the vein of “Andrei Rublev.” He loved the visceral intensity of Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, which grabs hold of you mind, body, and soul, and never lets go.
That’s why Mackenzie was predisposed to making “Outlaw King” shorter, instead of expanding it into an episodic Netflix show; if the Coen brothers were granted permission to shrink “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” from an anthology series to a self-contained feature, surely it’s feasible that someone could do the opposite. Someone, perhaps, but not Mackenzie.
“I’m not really interested in a series,” he said, “I’m interested in films. I’m interested in something that engages you in one sitting, as it were, and doesn’t rely on narrative devices to keep audiences coming back. There’s something about TV that I find a little bit garish, because it’s trying to be addictive. So I’m not really tempted to go in that direction.”
Still, Mackenzie appreciates what Netflix made possible for him, and the director insisted that the freedom to make a film of this scale was worth the tradeoff that most people may end up watching his epic at home. “The theatrical/video thing is a false dichotomy,” he said. “It’s not as if the whole romance of the big screen is what it used to be. When it comes to most chain theaters these days, there’s not a lot of love there, and cinema manners aren’t very good.”
If anything, Mackenzie sees the streaming giant as a potential savior for the cinema experience: “I hope that Netflix buys theater chains, so that films like this might have a continuing life. We don’t have to worry about opening weekend, so there’s no reason why you couldn’t have ‘Outlaw King’ play on an ongoing business — have it run now, and then it can come back a year from now or whenever.”
Two months ago, Mackenzie wasn’t ready for anyone to see “Outlaw King.” Now, he beams at the idea that it will be instantly available to viewers all over the world. “This is a much stronger cut,” he said, shaking his head like he was trying to dislodge a painful memory. “It’s to the point where I no longer have any connection whatsoever to the cut that screened at TIFF. You know the old adage that less is more? There’s less in this film now, but you get more out of it. I think it’s a really strong movie, and I’m very proud of it.” He paused. “I slightly wish I didn’t have to deal with a previous cut that wasn’t so well-received.” As of November 9, he won’t have to.
“Outlaw King” will be available to see in theaters and stream on Netflix November 9.