The plot has thickened concerning the troubled Paul Schrader-Nicolas Cage thriller “Dying of the Light.” Responding to a Sept. 4 Variety story about alleged editing-room tensions between director Schrader and his producers, multiple sources, including Schrader and Nicolas Winding Refn, have now spoken publicly for the first time about the ongoing situation.
As earlier reported, Schrader shot the mid-budget indie (from his own script) in Romania and Australia earlier this year, with Cage starring as a veteran CIA agent who tracks an elusive terrorist while battling the debilitating effects of frontotemporal dementia. Schrader’s script, written as a spec in 2010, initially attracted the attention of Refn, who had hoped to direct a version of the movie starring Harrison Ford that eventually fell apart due to disagreements between director and actor. When the movie finally went into production with Schrader at the helm, the “Drive” director agreed to stay on as an executive producer.
“I signed on to be part of this project solely for one reason, which was to be helpful as much as I could to Paul Schrader,” says Refn. “I always felt that Paul directing this film was the right choice, even though I was at one point going to do it. It’s a beautiful script, but he’s the ideal filmmaker to do it.”
By all accounts, the “Dying” shoot went smoothly, with Anton Yelchin joining the cast as a younger agent who becomes Cage’s protege, alongside French star Irene Jacob and Alexander Karim (“Tyrant”). Then Schrader submitted the first of his two DGA-mandated director’s cuts, and that’s when the trouble began.
According to Todd Williams and Gary Hirsch, who produced “Dying” (along with Scott Clayton) through their Over Under Media banner, Schrader’s first cut resulted in extensive notes from them, the film’s Bahamas-based financier TinRes Entertainment, sales company Red Granite International and U.S. distributor Grindstone Entertainment (a subsidiary of Lionsgate). “It was a typical process in that he delivered a cut, we and the distributor saw the cut and believed there was a better movie there,” says Hirsch, a longtime entertainment lawyer, acquisitions and business affairs exec who made his producing debut on the film. “We made suggestions, which Paul to a large extent didn’t approve of, and so he refused to make the changes that we all wanted, despite the fact that the changes we were looking for were very much in line with the script that he wrote and shot.”
“Paul’s cut of the movie deviated substantially from his own script,” adds Williams, a former Yari Film Group exec whose producing credits include the recent Robin Williams drama “Boulevard” and the forthcoming “Reach Me,” with Sylvester Stallone. “It was a completely different movie from the movie that was greenlit, the movie that was discussed and the movie that was shot.”
Schrader did return to the cutting room with editor Tim Silano (who cut Schrader’s previous “The Canyons”), eventually delivering a second cut that incorporated only a few of the suggested revisions. At which point, say Williams and Hirsch, Schrader effectively quit the picture, leaving an un-scored, un-mixed workprint behind and leaving them with no choice but to finish post-production themselves. They worked with a new editor to make the desired picture changes, and added a musical score by composer Frederik Wiedmann.
But Schrader himself remembers things differently. He did walk away after delivering his second cut, he admits, but only after the producers had fired Silano and told Schrader that he was no longer in charge of the editorial process. Rather than spending the entire summer in Los Angeles watching other hands recut his film, he opted to return to New York. “I was never asked back,” says Schrader, who stressed that he was limited in what he could say on the record due to certain clauses in his contract. “They finally showed me their cut only as they were entering final post-production. It was a fait accompli.”
Like New York Film Festival director Kent Jones (quoted earlier), Refn has seen Schrader’s cut of “Dying” and deems it “absolutely terrific,” with particular praise for Cage’s performance, which he calls “a wonderful showcase of why he’s such a great actor.” Refn further calls the recutting of the film an act of “artistic disrespect” and says he’s puzzled that the producers and distributor would want to be associated with a film whose own director will not publicly support it. “You’ve got to remember this is Paul Schrader. Paul Schrader was involved in two of the most influential films — ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘American Gigolo’ — of generations to come. There would be no ‘Drive’ without ‘American Gigolo.’”
But Williams and Hirsch are adamant that the final version of “Dying” is still very much Schrader’s film. Shot for shot, they say, the two cuts are 80 percent the same, with the primary changes coming in the form of tightened pacing, the recutting of several action scenes, and the removal of a voiceover narration. They also emphasize that, because there was no additional shooting of any kind, all of the material in all versions of the film was shot by Schrader himself.
“Obviously, we read all the articles about ‘The Exorcist’ before we did our movie, and we were well aware of what went on there,” says Williams, referring to Schrader’s protracted battle with Morgan Creek Productions over his 2004 “Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist,” a movie Morgan Creek elected to reshoot in its entirety with a different director (Renny Harlin) after deeming Schrader’s cut too esoteric and not scary enough. “This isn’t that,” Williams continues. “This isn’t even close to that. This is a movie that we shot in February and it’s coming out before the end of the year. There’s not really any drama.”
“The ironic thing here is that, when people see the movie, I think they’re going to say, ‘You know what? This is a good movie!’” says Hirsch. “Nic’s performance is really good, Anton’s performance is really good, Irene’s performance is really good. I think people are going to like the movie and wonder what Paul was complaining about. He shot a good movie. We would certainly hope that all those involved will support it.”
However, another source familiar with both versions of the movie says that the producers’ cut, while outwardly very similar to Schrader’s version, is ultimately a more conventional movie that lacks the iconoclastic filmmaker’s “directorial fingerprints” in subtle matters of rhythm and tone.
Although reps for Cage declined comment for this article, Refn says it’s his understanding that the actor “is very frustrated because, in his mind, he and Paul made a great movie that both of them are very proud of — and for that to be taken away from them, it doesn’t make any sense.”
“What’s wonderful about the Internet is that you can create movements,” adds Refn, citing the anonymous Facebook page, “Save Paul Schrader’s Dying of the Light,” which appeared earlier this month and has since been taken down. “If there’s enough people who want to see this film the right way, the way it was meant to be, hopefully that will be an eye-opener to the people who are expecting to make money on it. It’s just bad business.”
Meanwhile, Facebook may once again be having the last word on the Schrader affair. In a photo posted Sept. 13 to his personal page, Schrader appears wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with the words “No publicity issued by artist or lender, whether personal publicity or otherwise, shall contain derogatory mention of company, the picture, or the services of artist or others connected with the picture” — the standard non-disparagement clause which, presumably, precludes Schrader from speaking more openly at this time.
Reps for Grindstone/Lionsgate declined to comment on the situation except to say that “Dying of the Light” does not currently have a confirmed release date.