The fractious production history of “And the Band Played On,” HBO’s adaptation of Randy Shilts’ controversial book on the early years of AIDS in America, took another sharp turn Thursday when its director accused the head of the film division of “arbitrary and censorious behavior.”

In a letter from director Roger Spottiswoode to HBO chief executive officer Michael Fuchs, the filmmaker took a multifaceted broadside at HBO Pictures’ Robert Cooper. Spottiswoode said Cooper fired him following a successful research screening presumably to “cut the film his way.”

Citing the sensitive nature of the material, he criticized the company’s decisions to fire his editor, engage another director/editor to create new sequences and yet another director to complete the film.

He also took exception to the presence of a security guard who removed the film from the editing rooms so it could not be screened for Cannes Film Festival officials, who reportedly were interested in screening the film at the fest.

“An enormously sensitive subject has become hopelessly politicized by a studio that appears to be terrified of its contents and now seeks to bowdlerize them,” Spottiswoode said. “AIDS is too important a subject to be trashed in this cynical fashion.”

Cooper responded by characterizing the situation as “a disagreement which I always thought honorable people could have without being impugned for malevolent intentions.”

He stressed that the film was not “locked” and that ultimately everyone will work toward producing the adaptation on a very important subject.

“As best as I can figure, they must have gone into the cutting room while I was on an airplane,” Spottiswoode told Daily Variety from London.

“We were having a discussion which began with HBO making about 40 cuts to the film that ranged from a gay rights speech to references to (Ronald) Reagan. I managed to reinstate most of them prior to the preview screening.

“It’s my understanding that its 78% recommendation is the highest ever recorded for one of their films. At the meeting which followed, we both wanted changes made, but I assumed we were on the same track. They wanted to bring in Chuck Workman to do montages and I said that was fine.”

Spottiswoode said Cooper told him he was off the picture a week after the meeting. It is his understanding that HBO has hired Bill Couturie, who made the Oscar-winning docu “Common Threads,” to complete the film.

“It’s regrettable this has gone public,” said Cooper. “We think the film can be enhanced, made more provocative, more relevant by the inclusion of some video footage from the period.”

Cooper steadfastly maintained that neither Spottiswoode nor his editor Lois Freeman had been removed from the film. However, the director’s letter would now force Cooper to examine Spottiswoode’s future involvement.

Couturie was brought in as an editorial consultant because of his past work with the company, Cooper said, adding that the film’s producers continue to supervise “Band.”

“We are very happy with the film,” Cooper said.”We had great previews. This is our movie event of the year (scheduled for September broadcast); there are things we still want to try with the film and so didn’t want the premature pressure of presenting less than the best version in Cannes.”

Freeman was unavailable for comment but an assistant said the editor had been told to take “a two-week hiatus.” He said that while producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury were involved in editorial meetings, HBO executive Richard Waltzer was directing the post-production.

Another source claimed that Couturie’s involvement is “definitely hands on.”

Published in 1987, “And the Band Played On” had been optioned and languished at the networks prior to producer Aaron Spelling successfully selling HBO on its potential two years ago.

Several different writers and directors had been attached to the project. When it finally went before the cameras in November 1992, the $ 7 million film attracted an impressive cast, including Matthew Modine, Ian McKellen, Richard Gere, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, Anjelica Huston and Alan Alda.

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