Across an Alternate Universe
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, its 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 Revolutions film product under Joe Roths about-to-end deal there.
Of course, Roth has only himself to blame for the fix hes in. This is just the latest of the many missteps hes made at Revolution, whose mostly piss-poor product has caused Sony to waste countless millions of major marketing moola on his box-office bombs. (Roths latest is Perfect Stranger, a thriller so old-fashioned its 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 Broadways The Lion King, despite knowing her notorious Hollywood reputation for directors 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, Im 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 wouldnt 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, hes 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, Americas Sweethearts (which he helmed) and, most infamously, Gigli. (Theres not a jury around that wouldnt convict Roth for nearly killing Ben Afflecks and J. Los acting careers with that one.)
Meanwhile, left holding the bag of psychedelics is Sony, which in a perfect world would love to get behind Across the Universe because its synergistic. With the films 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 thats still a hot ticket.
Since Taymor doesnt have final cut, I cant understand why she isnt kicked to the curb. So far, Across the Universe hasnt been taken away from her. But Taymor is threatening to walk.
Now the details.
Obviously, Roth and Taymor knew each other during The Lion KingsBroadway 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, theres a reason that Disney hasnt since done a major project with the Tony awardwinning director, even though there was talk of bringing Pinocchio to Broadway under Taymors 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 Studios 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 NYCs Sony Lincoln Square as shocked preview-goers filed past).
It takes a lot to make Harvey look sympathetic, one source close to Roths 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 its only ever a one-way street. She has a narcissistic disorder.
Taymors behavior grew worse, Im 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 Taymors 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, Im not cutting all the black people.
Contrary to the NYTs account, Ive been assured that problems with Taymors version went way beyond length, to the point where the pic simply doesnt 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 thats 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, youre just like no, no, NO.
Despite all this, Taymor again and again voiced unrealistic notions about Across the Universes box-office prospects. Here shed made the worlds 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 movies 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 Taymors agency, CAA, kept lying to everyone concerned. To her, they said theyd take her side against everyone. To the producers, they said theyd take their side against the client, according to a source.
The movies first preview, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was disastrous despite the Taymor-friendly intelligentsia crowd. Everybodys notes were the same: The movies 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 didnt listen and she didnt 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 shed cut the movie. But Taymor still refused. Thats the refrain of everyone: Theres a great movie in there, somewhere. But as it stands now, its so complicated its 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, Im 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 isnt done to the movie, then it wouldnt 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 theyd 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 Roths final projects under Revolutions 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 thats insane.
For more Nikki Finke check out Deadline Hollywood Daily at www.deadlinehollywooddaily.com/
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