The Movies That Underwent Major Changes After Their Festival Premiere


When films premiere at festivals, it’s not unusual for those movies to go through some fine-tuning before they make their way to general audiences. Maybe a little color-correction still needs to be done—a small tweak here or there is necessary. Most times, you wouldn’t notice the differences. But occasionally, the changes are more substantial. 

Last year, the Bill Skarsgård action film “Boy Kills World” debuted in Toronto’s Midnight Madness section. But when it hits theaters this weekend, it won’t be the same movie, especially in one important regard. Originally, Skarsgård’s deaf, mute character had an inner monologue supplied by the voice from a video game (provided by Skarsgård himself). But the new version replaces his voiceover with that of “Bob’s Burgers” star H. Jon Benjamin.

“I’m a massive fan of [Benjamin’s] and he was actually on top of my list for years,” “Boy Kills World” director Moritz Mohr explained recently. “When we got him it was just a dream come true. In the process of editing the movie, we did two things: We had H. Jon Benjamin and we had Bill, and we just sort of tried it out. For the screening at TIFF we decided that we would try out Bill, and we realized that it’s an amazing performance but it’s more on the dramatic and emotional side. Afterward, we were like, ‘Jon’s funnier.’”

Mohr is hardly the first filmmaker to have a change of heart after a festival premiere. Although hardly exhaustive, I decided to spotlight some of the most memorable instances of movies that went through radical changes in the wake of their debut. To be clear, I’m not including any instances in which a studio or producer demanded cuts—these alterations were all (at least as far as we know) initiated by the director. You’ll notice some commonalities in these stories: For one thing, filmmakers frequently blamed the changes on not being properly finished with their movie before the high-profile premiere. Another is that they found the festival screening to be incredibly enlightening in terms of what wasn’t working with their film. Sometimes, the changes helped—other times, it didn’t make a difference. But for those who saw these pictures at a festival and then caught them at the multiplex, it felt, in some ways, like a brand-new film.

Apocalypse Now” (1979)

This article includes several stories of filmmakers rushing their movie to completion in order to screen them at a prestigious international festival. But none has been as infamous as Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” which was presented as an official work-in-progress when it unspooled at Cannes. 

When it played at the festival, the hallucinatory Vietnam War epic was approximately 140 minutes long and contained no credits, an indication of how last-minute the film’s “completion” had been. Also, it appears the movie’s opening was slightly different: Writing from the festival for The New York Times, Susan Heller Anderson noted, “It has an overture, in quintaphonic sound, of jungle noises—birds singing, mosquitoes buzzing—blended with the whir of helicopters and electronic music.” Does that mean the Doors’ “The End” appeared in a later cut? Perhaps: In 2014, an unnamed “eyewitness” to the film’s making told The Hollywood Reporter, “Francis was drunk, desperate, and rummaging around in garbage cans of film saying, ‘I’ve gotta find an opening scene for my movie!’ The ‘trim’ barrels were filled with film you threw away. Garbage, basically, thrown-away film turned upside down and used to space out the sound on the soundtrack. … [O]ne said ‘The End,’ the Doors music. I said, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if we started the movie with ‘This is the end’ at the beginning?’ So that’s a case of destiny or just chance that helped make the beginning of the movie.”

Coppola, who won the Palme d’Or for “Apocalypse Now” (shared with Volker Schlöndorff’s “The Tin Drum”), continued to fiddle with the movie after the festival, a rare example of a theatrical version being longer than its initial cut, clocking in at 153 minutes. Of course, this film has never seemed “finished” considering that, in 2001, Coppola released “Apocalypse Now Redux,” which was 202 minutes long—only to be replaced by 2019’s 183-minute “Apocalypse Now: Final Cut.” With hindsight, it’s now apparent that Coppola’s Cannes cut was just one of many attempts by this passionate director to realize his vision—a pattern he repeated with some of his other films, such as “The Cotton Club” and “The Godfather Part III.”

The Brown Bunny” (2003)

In the early 2000s, Vincent Gallo was a rising indie auteur. After working with respected filmmakers like Mira Nair and Abel Ferrera, the actor delivered his feature directorial debut with 1998’s well-regarded “Buffalo ‘66.” Then came the follow-up: the story of a lonely man (played by Gallo) who travels cross-country, haunted by the memory of a former lover (Chloë Sevigny). “The Brown Bunny” was to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in the Official Competition, alongside heavy hitters like “Dogville,” “Elephant” and Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s “Distant.” 

The reaction to the film was notoriously poisonous, the most memorable negative reaction coming from Roger Ebert who, at one point during the screening when Gallo’s character was on a bike, started mockingly singing “Raindrops Keep Fallin” on My Head” from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Gallo found out about Ebert’s response, declaring that he hoped the critic got colon cancer. “I am not too worried,” Ebert wrote later. “I had a colonoscopy once, and they let me watch it on TV. It was more entertaining than ‘The Brown Bunny.’”

When the dust settled, Gallo re-edited “The Brown Bunny,” trimming it down from two hours, which was its length at Cannes, to about 90 minutes for its theatrical release. (Or did he? In 2018, the actor-filmmaker claimed he’d lied about the Cannes runtime. “The running time I filled out on the Cannes submission form was arbitrary,” he wrote. “The running time I chose was just a number I liked. … [T]he cuts I made to finish the film after Cannes were not many.”)

Whatever changes were made worked for Ebert, who ultimately gave the new version a positive review. “The film’s form and purpose now emerge from the miasma of the original cut, and are quietly, sadly, effective,” Ebert wrote. “It is said that editing is the soul of the cinema; in the case of ‘The Brown Bunny,’ it is its salvation.”

“2046” (2004)

Wong Kar-wai’s perfectionism and tinkering are well-known. His 2013 film “The Grandmaster” exists in at least three versions—although one of them was due to Harvey Weinstein—but his sequel to the beloved “In the Mood for Love,” “2046,” was an especially fraught proposition. Indeed, its 2004 Cannes premiere had to be postponed to the very end of the festival so that Wong could buy himself a little extra time. Never mind that, by that point, he’d been shooting and editing the project since 2000. “I think it was like being in jail for four years,” the director later declared. “No one thinks it is fun at that moment, but maybe 10 years later, for some romantic reason, they will think of it as fun.”

Opinions at Cannes varied wildly on “2046,” which continues the story of Chow (Tony Leung), the lovelorn protagonist who is now without his soulmate (Maggie Cheung), but Wong wasn’t done yet. After the festival, he reinserted scenes that had been cut out and re-edited other sequences. (At the time, there were also stories that he had gone back and reshot as well, but those rumors proved to be unsubstantiated.) The final version never enjoyed the reputation of “In the Mood for Love,” but it remains an enrapturing experience—in part because Wong’s edits helped make its elliptical storyline a little more crystalline.

“Southland Tales” (2006)

Not many films star Dwayne Johnson, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Justin Timberlake and Wallace Shawn, but Richard Kelly’s ambitious sophomore effort featured them all to tell a story of a near-future in which society is lurching toward becoming a dystopian hellscape. (Such things happen when, in his film’s alternate reality, American cities have been pulverized by nuclear strikes.) 

“Southland Tales” made its debut at Cannes, Kelly rushing to complete his dark comedy/sci-fi parable in time. (In fact, some of the effects shots weren’t completed.) But he was giddy about what he’d pulled off. “It’s a big, epic, political cartoon told with subversive humor,” Kelly said at the festival, later adding, “Well, maybe it’s like someone took mushrooms and read the Book of Revelation and had this crazy pop dream.” 

But for Kelly, “Southland Tales” soon became a nightmare. Clocking in at about 160 minutes, the film received mostly damning reviews, forcing the writer-director, who had established himself as a hot new voice in indie cinema thanks to “Donnie Darko,” to rework the story. Scenes were rearranged, Timberlake (whose character narrates the film) redid his voiceover, and the running time was trimmed to about 145 minutes. For Kelly, the experience was akin to a bad test screening—albeit at the most prestigious festival on the planet.

“Usually when you have a movie, at that point you take it to Sherman Oaks and show it to a bunch of teenagers at [a test] screening,” he said. “We took it to the Cannes Film Festival and showed it to the toughest audience in the world. Was that a good idea? I don’t know. But it happened, and you just sort of take the best from it.” “Southland Tales” bombed at the box office, halting Kelly’s meteoric rise, but the film has earned a cult status—and his original “Cannes cut” still plays on occasion in revival houses.

Outlaw King” (2018)

“I wasn’t really ready, to be honest,” David Mackenzie told IndieWire of his historical Chris Pine action-drama “Outlaw King,” which premiered as the opening-night film at Toronto. Finished just a few days before that gala presentation, the violent portrait of Robert the Bruce sparked two major reactions from critics: (1) “Holy cow, Pine did full-frontal nudity in the picture;” and (2) “This movie feels way too long and convoluted.” Mackenzie, who had previously directed “Starred Up” and “Hell or High Water,” didn’t care if people online got weird about seeing his star’s anatomy, but he was determined to trim his bloated epic.

In the span of about two weeks, the director trimmed approximately 20 minutes out of “Outlaw King.” And as part of his focus on tightening the pacing, he cut battle scenes and anything else that seemed extraneous. “I can’t tell you how glad I am that I had a chance to go back in there and not be stuck in a position where the film was rushed for a festival and that was that,” he said in that IndieWire interview. “That would have been terrible. It feels like a privilege to be able to completely control your own destiny on a film of this scale.” Mission accomplished: The re-edited “Outlaw King,” while hardly a masterpiece, is a gritty, gripping action film. And for the immature who just wanted to see Chris’ Pine … well, that survived Mackenzie’s cuts. 

“Bardo: False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths” (2022)

Four-time Oscar-winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu has wowed audiences with his operatic, humanistic portraits, but along the way his bombastic approach has earned him plenty of detractors, too. No wonder, then, that when “Bardo” was unveiled at Venice, the brickbats were out for the Mexican filmmaker’s sprawling, self-indulgent examination of a Mexican filmmaker (Daniel Giménez Cacho) in the midst of an identity crisis. Even more annoying for his critics, the film was close to three hours long.

The reviews weren’t much better when “Bardo” screened at Telluride soon after, and Iñárritu returned to the editing room to give his film another look. “I finished the film just two days before going to Venice,” he explained to Entertainment Weekly, “so I never had the chance to see it with an audience. The first time that I saw it with audiences was in Venice. So for me, it was very clear in that moment in front of 2,000 people that I had opportunities, without affecting the essence of the film, to make the same film but thinner. I felt that I could make some scenes tighter and get to the point faster, without really sacrificing anything at all.”

As a result, when “Bardo” hit theaters (and came to Netflix), it was 22 minutes shorter. While I’ve only seen the final version, I consider it the best and worst of Iñárritu all in one film. Self-important but also revelatory—unforgivably cringe-y but also quite moving—the picture is defiantly, cripplingly its own creature, no matter its length. “A film never is finished — it’s an endless process,” he told EW. Eventually, though, you have to let it go.

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