Blog Directory CineVerse: Director’s cut DVDs add value & vision to memorable movies

Director’s cut DVDs add value & vision to memorable movies

Thursday, July 9, 2009

by Erik J. Martin

Watch enough episodes of “The Simpsons,” and you may start believing that there’s a hidden director’s cut to every major film that the movie studios just won’t let you see.

In various episodes of the animated cult-favorite show, audiences are treated to spoof snippets of “alternate endings” and directors cuts—from “Casablanca” (Ilsa jumps off the plane and parachutes back to Rick, but not before neatly doing away with a weapon-toting Adolph Hitler hiding in Sam’s piano) to “Fr
ee Willy” (while attempting to jump to freedom, the killer whale falls short and ends up squashing his smallfry sidekick on the way down).

The truth is that, while every motion picture leaves some footage on the cutting room floor prior to theatrical release, only a few lucky features get the benefit of revisitation by the director at a later stage. When a film is being edited, a battle for control over what viewers will see is typically waged between studio executives and directors. In most cases, the Hollywood suits win, usually because they want to shorten the running time and tack on audience-friendly endings to make more money. But sometimes the director is given full creative freedom to edit the film to his liking, in particular the second time around.

When a director is allowed to return to his film, restore cut footage, and reedit portions of the movie to better reflect his artistic vision, the end result is usually called a “director’s cut,” considered to be the definitive version of the film that he or
iginally intended for audiences.

Most often, we are treated to director’s cuts a la home video in a first or second print of the movie. Today, thanks to the universal popularity
of DVD, film lovers are able to enjoy more filmmaker-fortified versions of their favorite flicks than ever before. Indeed—look closely at the DVD boxes on the retail or rental shelves and you’ll see that nearly every other title includes the words “director’s cut” in its list of features and bonus materials.

The mark, in fact, has become somewhat of a consumer expectation—a stamp of approval of quality, if you will, that DVD and Blu-Ray renters and buyers have come to demand of their home video releases. And, since DVD's introduction in the late nineties, serious movie fans and home theater aficionados have lapped up these value-added flicks like thirsty Labradors.

So, what exactly make
s a director’s cut so special? That depends on the movie and to the extent that the filmmaker tinkers with his product. Some directors given a second chance to enhance their labors of love simply add in a few new special effects, snippets of gratuitous sex or violence, and throwaway scenes that do little to advance the story or its characters.

Good examples of this include the “Lethal Weapon” series and the “Star Wars” Special Edition trilogy on DVD. Die-hard fans may appreciate the new eye-candy explosions and digitally altered restored sequences peppered throughout these type of re-releases, but to call them “director’s cuts” is an abuse of the term to cinema purists. (The lesson learned here? Beware of false advertising—not all “director’s cuts,” “special editions,” and “restored versions” are quite the revelations you’d expect.)

Other directors are either fortunate enough to have more leftover
footage and alternate shots to work with or have the resources required to tweak the image and sound enough to dramatically improve the finished product. Like mad scientists given unrestricted access back to the laboratory, these visionaries build an even better beast that can leave audiences in awe.

Two movies that greatly benefited from this type of reworking are “Das Boot” and “Blade Runner.” With “Das Boot,” director Wolfgang Peterson managed to completely reedit the film from more than six hours of original footage, restore the negative, and improve the sound, resulting in an enhanced masterpiece that now has an extra hour of footage added to it. Ridley Scott revamped his cult classic “Blade Runner” by removing star Harrison Ford’s voiceover narration, reinserting deleted scenes that amplify mood and suspense, and replacing the original ending with a more ironic denouement. “Titanic” director James Cameron was given the green light to create special edition versions of his “Aliens” and “The Abyss” for DVD. The former now features an extra 17 minutes of restored footage that add significant color to the character of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and tighten the suspense. The latter off
ers a new version of the film with a bonus 28 minutes of restored scenes, including Cameron’s original tidal wave ending that completely changes your perspective of the movie.

Likewise, Oliver Stone spiffed up an already riveting “JFK” by putting an extra 17 minutes of cut scenes into the DVD version, and Richard Kelly added an extra 20 minutes to "Donnie Darko" for his director's cut, improving on a theatrical version that was enigmatic at best, incomprehensible at worst.

Arguably, some of the greatest examples of outstanding movies that became even better after the filmmakers reinserted additional scenes are the "Lord of the Rings" films by Peter Jackson; the extended edition DVDs of each of his three films run an extra 20 to 50 minutes longer, but enhance the viewer's enjoyment by fleshing out certain scenes, adding extra color to favorite characters and staying more faithful to Tolkien's original text. Iron
ically, Jackson refers to the theatrical versions of his "Rings" films as the true director's cuts, but acknowledges that the extended editions were created as a gift for the fans.

If you really want to appreciate the differences between a director’s cut and its predecessor, free up a few evenings, stock up on the microw
ave popcorn and make an effort to watch both home video versions of a movie, if they’re available (preferably the original theatrical version first). Some changes may be subtle or negligible—others quite dramatic, giving you a newfound respect and admiration for the film.

Ten must-see director’s cuts

  • Aliens
  • Almost Famous
  • Blade Runner
  • Brazil
  • Das Boot
  • Donnie Darko
  • JFK
  • The Natural
  • Terminator 2
  • The Wild Bunch

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