Director Mark Christopher remembers the moment that he decided to restore his original vision for 54, his 1998 movie about New York’s iconic pleasure-dome that was notoriously sliced and diced by Miramax and subsequently pilloried by critics.
“I saw the whole movie strung together when we were doing the final mix of the studio cut, and I thought, ‘Oh no,'” says Christopher, with a chuckle. “I felt I had made a movie that worked, and I could tell that the movie that was playing in front of me did not work. It probably started then, before the movie actually came out. Even if it was just for me and the actors, I wanted a videotape of the movie that we signed on for.”
Christopher had sold Miramax on a Boogie Nights-type story about a clueless New Jersey kid named Shane (Ryan Phillippe) who was drawn to the flame that was Studio 54 in the late 1970s, when good-looking kids could rub elbows—or much, much more—with the rich and famous. Mike Myers played hedonistic owner Steve Rubell, who hires Shane as the club’s eye candy, introducing the gorgeous kid to a lifestyle that is all about excess and indulgence. Shane is welcomed into this world by Anita (Salma Hayek) and Greg (Breckin Meyer), a young married couple trying to climb the same fame ladder while clinging to their vows.
Christopher handed in a cut that reflected the script’s dark and depraved sexual vibe, with an abundance of homoeroticism. When Miramax, then ruled by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, saw it, they decided their all-star young cast, which also featured Neve Campbell as a soap-opera star, had the potential to turn this niche film into a major hit—if only the more unsavory aspects of the film could be eliminated. They supervised the trashing of more than 40 minutes of Christopher’s footage, and then ordered 30 minutes of reshoots that reframed Shane in a brighter, more sympathetic light. But when 54 was released in September 1998, it was ridiculed and ignored, grossing just $16.8 million. “Obviously, that was a really painful time for me, but I am not the first director to have his movie cut by a studio and I will not be the last, unfortunately,” says Christopher. “So I’ve taken the approach of just not looking back. I’m just thrilled with the present and what’s going on.”
What’s going on is a director’s cut of 54 that officially premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February and becomes available on Digital HD on June 2. Christopher culled together his original vision, the darker version of the film that doesn’t flinch from showing Shane’s bisexuality hustling, including the unadulterated love triangle that was sealed with a kiss between Phillippe and Meyer. “There was a part of us that was a little sad nobody ever got to see it,” Phillippe told Vulture in February. “We did something that was relatively bold for two young male actors, and we took pride in the places that the original story went. So, it’s nice that people finally get to see Breckin and me kiss.”
Since Berlin, the reception to the director’s cut has been extremely positive, with some calling it a cult gay classic. You might think Christopher feels vindicated, but the word he comes back to is jubilant. “It was like being on a cloud for two weeks,” he says of his trip to Berlin. “The reception has been so wonderful and it’s been a very sort of emotional experience. [For years], I would get emails all the time out of the blue from people knowing about this movie, because a bootleg had screened at Outfest and a bootleg had screened in Italy. I feel really happy that people get to see what the film was intended to be and that the film that originally came out was just a piece of what the cast and crew were trying to make.”
In an exclusive R-rated scene from the Director’s Cut (above), the only new footage of Myers’ doped-up Rubell, Greg finally succumbs to his boss’s predatory whims and offers himself up in order to get promoted behind the bar. But it turns out that the boss is in the mood for something else, and in describing his crude request, he intentionally lets slip that Greg’s best friend and his wife have betrayed him.