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How ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Nearly Bit the Dust

When “Bohemian Rhapsody” dances into wide release on Nov. 2, it will arrive encumbered by a number of headline-grabbing issues that threaten to detract from what the film was intended to be: a showcase and Oscar launchpad for Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury and a two-hour rock singalong for American moviegoers. Extensive conversations around alleged sexual misconduct by director Bryan Singer, the circumstances that led to his firing and the aftermath of his termination have thrown a curveball into the film’s trajectory for box office success and awards momentum, numerous industry insiders tell Variety.

“They’re not putting his name on it. He’s not in the backseat — he’s not even in the car — in terms of marketing this film,” said Jeff Bock, senior analyst at Exhibitor Relations, noting that 20th Century Fox is distancing itself from the director (with whom the studio has collaborated several times on huge releases such as films in the “X-Men” series).

Fox effectively shut down production on “Bohemian” after Singer completed roughly 85% of shooting in November 2017. He was dismissed for failing to return to the film’s U.K. set following Thanksgiving break. After his firing, a defiant Singer responded in a statement that he was not permitted to address an urgent family health matter with only weeks left to the movie’s finish line.

Multiple press reports, however, documented a pattern of behavior that has repeatedly been ascribed to Singer on films like “Superman Returns” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” such as disappearing at length, arriving late to set and butting heads with his actors. In the weeks leading up to Singer’s dismissal, representatives from the studio visited the set to investigate a verbal abuse complaint filed by an employee against him, another production insider told Variety. Results of that investigation did not lead to substantial penalties against Singer and were not related to his termination, the insider added. Fox had no comment. “Rumors that my unexpected departure from the film was sparked by a dispute I had with Rami Malek are not true,” Singer said in a statement at the time of his firing, admitting that the pair did have “creative differences” but had set them aside in service of the film. An insider close to the production agreed that Malek felt a lot of pressure to deliver a top performance and occasionally clashed with Singer.

Representatives for Singer and Malek declined to comment on the matter.

Malek worked meticulously to capture Mercury’s physicality. That attention to detail, the insider said, could put him at odds with Singer, whose swift filmmaking style often would not allow as many takes as Malek would like in a given scene.

Malek admitted as much this month at a screening of “Bohemian” for awards voters, recalling a scene in an English boutique with co-star Lucy Boynton. Mercury’s sister, Kashmira Cooke, was visiting that day, and watched on set as Malek asked for more and more takes. Kashmira later sent Malek a letter reassuring him that his requests were acceptable, because “Freddie was a perfectionist too,” Malek said.

Firing Singer led to a wave of new problems, multiple individuals added. As Fox scrambled to find a replacement, the film was spun off its axis, with no clear leadership. Reports said cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel reportedly stepped in and directed scenes in Singer’s absence, though an individual close to the production disputed this to Variety, saying Sigel never independently shot footage without a director present. Sigel and Fox declined to comment. Dexter Fletcher (“Rocketman”), who had been attached to the project at one point, was hired to finish the shoot.

Just a week after Singer stepped down, a Washington state man filed a lawsuit against him for sexual assault over an incident in 2003, when the accuser said he was a minor. Singer vehemently denied the accusations, and the case is ongoing.

Although the suit came amid a firestorm of accusations sparked by the dawn of #MeToo and the fall of Harvey Weinstein, Singer had been sued twice in 2014 for sexual assault against minors. He categorically denied accusations laid out in those suits, and both cases were eventually dismissed
by the accusers.

“Does it complicate things? Sure,” said one Oscar voter, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We’ve seen this in the past few years. But Casey Affleck won. James Franco continued through his campaign for ‘The Disaster Artist.’ This seems like a Bryan-only issue, and the Academy won’t hold it against Rami.”

The film is eyeing a $30 million opening weekend in early box office tracking.

“It’ll be solid because of its release date and the PG-13 [rating],” said Bock. “And if Rami pulls it off, he’ll make or break that film, and it looks like he has [pulled it off]. If nothing horrible goes down, like with ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ and as long as all the skeletons aren’t pulled out of the closet the weekend it releases, they should be fine.”

The analyst said the film could perform similarly to “Walk the Line,” Joaquin Phoenix’s Johnny Cash biopic and an awards player that earned nearly $120 million at the domestic box office on a $28 million budget. The exceptional recent performance of “A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper’s prestige movie musical, doesn’t hurt “Bohemian Rhapsody” either, though Singer still looms as a liability.

It would also be a triumphant end to a grueling process for dogged producer Graham King, who first sparked to the project after writer-director Peter Morgan wrote a spec script about the band in 2008 and approached King to secure life rights. “It’s taken me nearly 10 years to get this piece made,” King told the crowd at the advance screening for voters. He attributed the long road to serving Mercury’s story. “He had a very complicated life,” King said.

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