When Mark Christopher’s “54” came out in the summer of 1998, the film had been so heavily reshot, re-edited and retooled that producer Dolly Hall took to calling it “55.”
Now, almost 17 years later, Christopher has finally managed to complete the version of “54” that everyone signed up to make in the first place: the story of three friends — a busboy (Ryan Phillippe), a bartender (Breckin Meyer) and a coat-check girl (Salma Hayek) — and the sordid love triangle that nearly tore them apart, set against the glittery excess of New York’s Studio 54 dance club. That was the version everyone shot, until a set of disastrous test screenings changed the film’s fate forever.
“It was a movie ahead of its time,” Christopher mused, his back to a giant screen on which a shirtless Phillippe stands bathed in blue light. He spoke to Variety at Chase Sound by Deluxe in Los Angeles, less than three weeks before the world premiere of his director’s cut at the Berlin film festival, while scrambling to finish the sound mix in time. “First of all, the gay subject matter, that’s a huge thing,” he continued. “But we have a flawed lead character, which was really tough at the time for people to deal with. Now, you expect flawed characters, you expect lots of edge and a certain darkness.”
That’s how Christopher conceived “54”: It’s the story of Shane, a gorgeous New Jersey mouth-breather played by Phillippe, who discovers almost by accident that his body is his entry ticket to New York’s decadent and highly exclusive disco party scene. Plucked from the behind the velvet ropes outside Studio 54 by the club’s lecherous gay owner, Steve Rubell (Mike Myers in his first and best dramatic role), he leverages his sex appeal by flirting with any and everyone — and sleeping with most — to land a job at the club, work his way up to bartender and leverage that for a short-lived place among Gotham’s upper-class elite.
Except that by the time Miramax released the film, the menage-a-trois plot between Phillippe, Meyer and Hayek had been snipped, along with nearly all traces of Shane’s bisexuality. Instead, the movie played like a watered-down “Wizard of Oz” — or perhaps more to the point, a cross between “Cabaret” and “Saturday Night Fever,” with afterschool-special-caliber morality grafted on.
“We made a specialty film geared toward the metropolitan market, the cosmopolitan market, right? And then my cast blew up and got enormous,” Christopher recalled. The film had been budgeted at $8 million, but according to the director, Miramax had been loving the dailies and happily gave him another $1 million to work with. “For a year, I fought for that cast,” he said. Now, their popularity became the film’s greatest liability, giving Miramax hope that their specialty film might have mainstream appeal. Once Christopher had submitted his cut, they held test screenings to gauge how it would play. “But they didn’t test it in the cities (where the audience for a dark, edgy indie movie would be); they tested it out in malls in Long Island and places like that, and that audience was split between the cool people who loved it and the homophobes in the audience.”
At this point, Christopher turned to the Miramax rep silently eavesdropping on our interview to make sure he was allowed to say “homophobes.” He’s been burned by this process before and had to put on a good face back when the film — the compromised version his producer called “55” — originally came out.
“Our movie scored higher than ‘Boogie Nights,’” he explained. “We had a dark movie, so I didn’t expect a high score.” But Miramax was spooked. Of course, this was a different time — and a different Miramax. Owned by Disney and overseen by Harvey and Bob Weinstein at the time, the distributor had released its share of edgy pics, including those that pushed the sexual envelope (“Chasing Amy,” “The House of Yes,” “Muriel’s Wedding”), but the test screenings resulted in “some heartbreaking cards,” and Harvey Weinstein took them to heart, ordering changes.
In Christopher’s cut, Shane steals money from the club. That subplot was rewritten so that Meyer’s character (the purest soul in the film) was responsible. Originally, Shane’s fuddy-duddy dad disapprovingly remarks several times about his son hanging out among “negroes” at the club. Miramax snipped those comments. They wrote an upbeat narration that amplified the awe factor and explained things for those incapable of figuring it out for themselves (e.g. “Steve was so fucking smart. I mean, you’d have to be some kind of genius to take a dirty, wet basement and turn it into a VIP room celebrities would kill to get into”). They shot new scenes of federal agents building evidence to bust Rubell, even going so far as to change which character ratted him out, and then they tacked on a happy ending — a cheesy one-night-only reunion party back at the club after Rubell gets out of prison. And they expanded a subplot featuring Neve Campbell’s character, Jersey gal turned soap star Julie Black, into a full-blown love interest for Shane, eliminating any of the character’s same-sex trysts along the way.
After the test screenings went down, Christopher was given pages that he and the cast were contractually obliged to shoot — all at a cost of an additional $4 million, raising the total budget to $13 million. Though he had directed everything, the film became something else entirely, and because it was his first feature and the final say wasn’t his, Christopher went along with the process. No official director’s cut ever existed. The earlier version that had tested was still in relatively loose form, and yet, Christopher became obsessed with trying to recreate “54” as originally intended. He’d managed to hang on to high-quality videotape copies of the dailies, stashing boxes of Digibetas and D2s under a friend’s house.
But there was no EDL (or “edit decision list”) to go by. Instead, working with various friends and editors, Christopher assembled an uneven bootleg version of what “54” was supposed to be. In 2008, the Los Angeles-based LGBT film festival Outfest hosted a secret screening of Christopher’s bootlet. “I don’t know how Outfest got it,” the director teased coyly, but that screening sparked fresh interest in what the film could have been. At that point, the Weinsteins had already left Miramax, and Jonathan King (who’d been an associate producer on “54” early in his career) had landed at Participant Media.
“The Miramax library has changed three times: The Weinsteins had it, then Disney had it, and now the new Miramax has it. My goddess there is named Zanne Devine,” Christopher beamed. While King served as producer of the director’s cut, Devine gave Christopher the go-ahead to finally finish the film as he’d intended, earmarking a modest budget for the project. The new version eliminates 25 minutes of reshoots, preserving just a single disco shot that Christopher liked: “So from the 25 minutes of reshoots, we have 5 seconds left, and we’ve put back 36 minutes of the original material,” he said. Working with a skeleton crew, Christopher recruited editor David Kittredge and post-production supervisor Nancy Valle to help him do the job.
“Three people made this movie, whereas something like 80 people made it the first time in post. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Christopher said. “All of our material was spread out across two countries, stored in various labs and warehouses.” At one point, while visiting a warehouse up in the Grapevine, Valle found the film’s VHS dailies piled on a shrink-wrapped palette marked with signs that read “To Be Destroyed.” Without an EDL, they needed those VHS dailies, which featured the slates and timecode needed to locate the original negatives once Kittredge had matched up the footage by eye with Christopher’s bootleg cut.
But Christopher is the first to admit that his bootleg was “a clunky rough cut that was cobbled together from various video sources” — longer overall, but with fewer scenes, made without a proper sound mix or access to the original negative. “Now it’s a fine cut, including a couple scenes that we found when we were cutting it.”
The love triangle is back in the movie, including a scene in which Phillippe comes on to Meyer in the club’s basement, shortly after having sex with his wife. Where “55” had featured Shane sleeping with a montage of sexual partners, all of them female, he now alternates between men and women. Here, it’s Shane who steals the money that gets Rubell’s longtime accountant fired, and it’s that accountant who ultimately turns him in to the authorities, who swoop in and arrest Rubell — all of it capped, a bit inexplicably, by Ultra Nate and Amber’s hit disco-style cover of “If You Could Read My Mind.”
While not exactly a lost masterpiece, “54” finally reflects its director’s intention: the story of an ambisexual opportunist at work in one of New York’s most notorious party spaces. Following the earlier version, Christopher went on to make one other feature, the ultra-low-budget “Pizza,” along with a short called “Heartland” and a handful of TV assignments. Christopher tackled “54” the year before “Queer as Folk” debuted on British TV, before shows like “The Sopranos” and “Breaking Bad” made antiheroes fashionable. But given the direction television has taken, Christopher is excited to be working on the smallscreen, where he’s just sold the pilot of a new series called “Berlin” (set in the decadent German capital in 1941) to Warner Bros. According to Christopher, “It’s very dark. In this movie, we can say that Shane is flawed, but in ‘Berlin,’ (the protagonist) is a real antihero. He is trouble.”
Looking back, Christopher swore, “I’m holding no grudges. I wouldn’t still be working in this business if I was still so wounded as that. Bad things happen to everyone in Hollywood, so you have to just keep moving.” Instead of taking on Weinstein directly, Christopher patiently waited his turn, ultimately getting the rare chance to scrap the so-called “55” and restore “54” to its intended form. “What I think is so fantastic about the new Miramax is that directors’ cuts either come from very famous movies, like ‘Blade Runner,’ or from very famous directors, like Orson Welles. We aren’t either, so the fact that we get to do this, it’s a testament to the fans and the people who have shown interest in this movie for so long,” he said.