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Across an Alternate Universe 

A Beatles cover-music movie needs straitjackets for all involved

Wednesday, Apr 11 2007
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What a mess surrounds Revolution Studios’ Across the Universe, thanks to the idiocy of hiring director Julie Taymor. She may be lauded as a visual iconoclast in the snooty pages of The New York Times, but within the industry she is also being outed as a cinematic loon. Based on what veteran Hollywood sources tell me, it’s because of her bloated, incoherent, glorified art film, which she hallucinates will be the next Titanic. So now this musical-romance pic has dissipated into two warring versions and a creative-vs.-commercial squabble, while its scheduled September opening hangs in limbo. Meanwhile, Sony Pictures is tiptoeing around the threat of not releasing the movie at all, even though the studio is contractually bound to distribute all of Revolution’s film product under Joe Roth’s about-to-end deal there.

Of course, Roth has only himself to blame for the fix he’s in. This is just the latest of the many missteps he’s made at Revolution, whose mostly piss-poor product has caused Sony to waste countless millions of major marketing moola on his box-office bombs. (Roth’s latest is Perfect Stranger, a thriller so old-fashioned it’s prehistoric, starring Halle Berry and Bruce Willis and in theaters this weekend.) He is, after all, the moron who hired Taymor in the first place because of her Tony-winning direction of Broadway’s The Lion King, despite knowing her notorious Hollywood reputation for director’s cuts that result in noncommercial movies. “Pretentious and indulgent” is how people describe her impossibly artsy-fartsy cut of Across the Universe, which test audiences dislike. Its problems, I’m told, include its length, its lack of narrative, its weird flights of LSD fancy (one laughable one with Bono, another with dancing puppet heads).

When Taymor wouldn’t listen to reason, Roth (himself a pretty lame film director) went in with an editor to cut his own version, which is not just shorter but considered more box-office friendly. But, then again, what does Roth know? Once upon a time a highly touted studio topper at first Fox, then Disney, he’s not even a good picker of films anymore. Except for Black Hawk Down, his Revolution has spewed crap like Hollywood Homicide, Daddy Day Care, Christmas With the Kranks, Little Man, America’s Sweethearts (which he helmed) and, most infamously, Gigli. (There’s not a jury around that wouldn’t convict Roth for nearly killing Ben Affleck’s and J. Lo’s acting careers with that one.)

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Meanwhile, left holding the bag of psychedelics is Sony, which in a perfect world would love to get behind Across the Universe because it’s synergistic. With the film’s story told mainly through numerous Beatles tunes performed by its characters, Universe takes advantage of that Sony/ATV music publishing catalog, co-owned with Michael Jackson, that boasts some 250 Fab Four songs. It also takes advantage of the current Beatles chic evidenced by projects like the Beatles’ Love, the Las Vegas musical in collaboration with Cirque du Soleil that’s still a hot ticket.

Since Taymor doesn’t have “final cut,” I can’t understand why she isn’t kicked to the curb. So far, Across the Universe hasn’t been taken away from her. But Taymor is threatening to walk.

Now the details.

Obviously, Roth and Taymor knew each other during The Lion King’sBroadway production, when Roth was head of Walt Disney Studios, and Taymor had a rep in the New York theater for creating eccentric, but visually stunning, productions of often hard-to-stage material. But it was really honchos Tom Schumacher and Michael Eisner at Disney who worked closest with her on the Great White Way. Uh, there’s a reason that Disney hasn’t since done a major project with the Tony award–winning director, even though there was talk of bringing Pinocchio to Broadway under Taymor’s helm: She started calling herself “the Steven Spielberg of the theater” and Schumacher began calling her “a loon.”

Insiders tell me that Roth put Taymor on his Revolution Studio’s Across the Universe “because he had a relationship with her and thought she had a vision for it.” I say neither is a good enough reason to overlook the fact that she gave new meaning to the Hollywood definition of a “difficult” director on both Titus (with producers and the MPAA over a possible NC-17 adults-only rating for too much sex and violence and gore, and with Anthony Hopkins, who threatened to walk) and on Frida (with Harvey Weinstein, culminating in a loud, expletive-filled fight in the lobby of NYC’s Sony Lincoln Square as shocked preview-goers filed past).

“It takes a lot to make Harvey look sympathetic,” one source close to Roth’s production quipped to me.

Right from the start, everyone on the movie expected trouble with Taymor. And there was. By some accounts, the film was flawed even before a frame of film was shot. “She went into production on the movie without a good script. Instead, she went into production on just a great idea,” one insider told me. And, during production, one producer described the process this way: “You try to help her, but it’s only ever a one-way street. She has a narcissistic disorder.”

Taymor’s behavior grew worse, I’m told, after she delivered a cut of the film last October clocking in at two hours, 32 minutes, and started receiving critiques about the film. Without giving details, Roth himself made reference to Taymor’s “hysteria” to the NYT. Such as? “I gave her a note to cut two supporting characters, one white and one black,” a source told me. “And she starts screaming, ‘I’m not cutting all the black people.’ ”

Contrary to the NYT’s account, I’ve been assured that problems with Taymor’s version went way beyond length, to the point where the pic simply doesn’t work. “It is visually a really interesting and arresting movie,” says one insider, “but, as usual with her, it veers off into the absurd.” While an insider explains, “The visuals get in the way of the narrative, which makes no sense. And the pacing is all wrong. They have a scene with Bono that’s psychedelic, and goes on and on, and has to be cut down.” Still another source chides, “By the time the dancing puppet heads come out, you’re just like no, no, NO.”

Despite all this, Taymor again and again voiced unrealistic notions about Across the Universe’s box-office prospects. “Here she’d made the world’s most expensive art film. Yet she kept claiming it was ‘the next Titanic,’ a movie that did $1.8 billion worldwide,” a source told me. (While Revolution puts the movie’s budget at $45 million, sources tell me the original budget was $77 mil and has ballooned from there.)

Sometimes agents can broker peace in director-producer-studio wars like this. But Taymor’s agency, CAA, “kept lying to everyone concerned. To her, they said they’d take her side against everyone. To the producers, they said they’d take their side against the client,” according to a source.

The movie’s first preview, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was disastrous despite the Taymor-friendly intelligentsia crowd. “Everybody’s notes were the same: The movie’s too long,” an insider explained.

So then Taymor delivered a second, shorter version, this time two hours, 15 minutes. “Still, the previews said it was too long. But she was now refusing to take any more out of it,” a source told me. “Everyone was very frustrated by the fact that five months had gone by and she didn’t listen and she didn’t care.” At one point, Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal took Taymor to dinner and diplomatically told her “how good it could be” if only she’d cut the movie. But Taymor still refused. “That’s the refrain of everyone: There’s a great movie in there, somewhere. But as it stands now, it’s so complicated it’s just a bad movie,” a source explains.

So, finally, a frustrated Roth handed the movie to an editor, who cut it to one hour, 45 minutes. That version was shown in Phoenix, Arizona, this month to a test audience packed with young girls who are perceived by the conventional wisdom to be the primary audience for romantic musicals. The pic suddenly scored 86 percent in the top two “recommend” boxes. Taymor immediately had a meltdown, I’m told. Roth offered to preview both cuts of the movie side by side to a more demographically balanced audience. She refused.

“Sony has made it clear that if something isn’t done to the movie, then it wouldn’t support it,” an insider explains. The problem here is typically Hollywood: No one wants to be the bad guy. “Both Amy and Joe are running away from a confrontation with Julie because they’d rather be popular than take a hard line,” a source says.

Meanwhile, this pic has further soured Sony Pictures’ relations with Roth, which have gone from good to bad to awful. There are audible sighs of relief at Sony that Across the Universe is one of Roth’s final projects under Revolution’s too-autonomous arrangement. “In the old days, Joe would have said to Sony, ‘You need to release this.’ And Amy Pascal would have humored him. But now, Amy barely tolerates him,” a source says. Few know it was Sony czar Sir Howard Stringer who deserves blame for bringing in Roth. And for reasons that defy logic, Roth will have a new deal with Sony, albeit a very small one, just so he can save face in Hollywood. Now that’s insane.

For more Nikki Finke check out Deadline Hollywood Daily at www.deadlinehollywooddaily.com/

Email at deadlinehollywood@gmail.com

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