A new zombie movie called World War Z starring Brad Pitt and budgeted at $150 million won’t be coming to your local multiplex anytime soon, even though it was originally supposed to premiere this Christmas. Nor will the sequel to the G. I. Joe movie I’m sure you didn’t see, which cost $125 million and was due for release in June. And there’s a martial arts film with Keanu Reeves called 47 Ronin, which no sane person over the age of 9 would choose to see, originally set for theaters this year—and not in theaters this year.
Evidently, the studios that made these movies took one look at the finished, or nearly finished, product, screamed in horror at the results, and then chose to do something rare in the annals of Hollywood: Rather than slapping them together, making some good commercials, putting them in the marketplace, and watching them die, they decided to try to fix them.
The studios pulled them from release, committed major new money to their budgets, and began retooling. World War Z will reportedly have an entirely new 45-minute ending drafted by an entirely new set of screenwriters. In the case of the G.I. Joe sequel, the powers that be belatedly realized that it might have been a mistake to kill off the movie’s sole box-office draw—Channing Tatum, who had had a leading role in the first one before becoming the first newly minted male star in years with Dear John, 21 Jump Street, and Magic Mike—in the first 10 minutes. So the studio took out a checkbook, asked Mr. Tatum what his number would be, filled it in, and decided on a redo that would fit his schedule.
As for Keanu Reeves, reports are they needed to hire a special-effects firm to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to come up with a second expression for his immobile face. (I kid. Or do I?)
This is all very interesting. It has long been the case, particularly with high-budget films, that Hollywood will pay to add or reshoot a scene or an ending after it shows a movie to a preview audience—although such reshoots are often acts of desperation meant to shore up a sinking ship.
The problem is that, while there are isolated incidents in which such an action has supposedly turned around a movie’s fortunes—most notably, Fatal Attraction, which reshot its climax and turned Glenn Close’s desperate character into a horror-movie villainess who rises from a bathtub like a ghoul—it is almost unheard-of to subject a mostly or entirely completed movie to a thoroughgoing revision. Animators do it, especially at Pixar. But when Andrew Stanton, one of Pixar’s premier directors, tried the same approach with the live-action would-be blockbuster John Carter, he laid an egg—for the problem wasn’t with the scenes but with the picture itself.
Stanton could do this, even though it raised the budget of the movie to $250 million, because he was working with unknown actors whose schedules he controlled. That’s not a luxury for many filmmakers and studios, who have stars and their commitments to work around. Of course, Stanley Kubrick had Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman entirely under his demented sway as he spent 14 months filming Eyes Wide Shut, at one point throwing out 10 minutes of footage because he didn’t like the paint on the wall in a certain scene. What resulted was a movie so unimaginably awful that one can only wonder how bad it would have been had he not reshot it.
Woody Allen once trashed a whole movie and remade it with a different cast. The movie is called September. There’s a reason you’ve never heard of it. It’s terrible. (On the other hand, one of Allen’s best films, Crimes and Misdemeanors, was extensively reshot and reconceived as he was making it. That was the one in which a faithless character played by Mia Farrow breaks Woody’s heart. Talk about your anticipatory justifications!) As for World War Z, evidently Brad Pitt and the movie’s director, Marc Forster, got along so badly that, rather like Achilles (whom he played in Troy), Pitt spent much of the movie sulking in his trailer and refusing to come out and mumbling his lines and complaining about the whole thing.
But when you decide you need to revise the entire final third of your movie, the question that arises is this: Who made the decision to go ahead with it in the first place if no one knew how to end it? There are stories galore about movies that go into production without a completed script (Men in Black 3) because the cast and crew are ready and the studio already has a release date in mind—and so they hope against hope they’ll somehow fix it as they go.
And they do it, of course, because once the movie gets going, the money flows like the Nile—hundreds of millions washing over hundreds of people. And the only people who suffer, eventually, are the stockholders or investment bankers who take a beating when none of it comes back.
In the history of movies, though, there is only one case I can think of in which a movie without a finished script and a catastrophic set proved to be not only a box-office triumph but a classic to boot. That was Tootsie, one of the three or four best American comedies. If you could get a Tootsie once every 20 tries, that might be worth it. But there is only one. Somehow, I doubt that World War Z will be its equal. It will more likely be the movie on cable you surf away from when somebody tells you that Tootsie is on another channel.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.