Recent news Harvey Weinstein’s ordered Korean director Bong Joon-ho to cut 20 minutes from his already relatively lean 126-minute “Snowpiercer” so that it can be clear to “audiences in Iowa…and Oklahoma” (the reasoning paraphrase according to critic Tony Rayns should come as no surprise. Speaking to the Associated Press in 1993, Weinstein made his views on running times clear: Addressing a recent “trend” of lengthy releases (the article notes that for example “Hard Boiled” clocks in over two hours, a far cry from today’s blockbuster season), he growled “I hope it’s not a trend, for trend’s sake. Nothing’s worse than putting an audience through hell for indulgence sake.” By the ’90s, Weinstein’s unrepentant tampering had gained him the title “Harvey Scissorhands,” and some filmmakers flat out wouldn’t work with him. “I literally break into a cold sweat when my producers discuss doing business with certain American distributors,” Mike Leigh said in 1997. “If a distributor doesn’t like a film or will only like it if he can cut it, then he shouldn’t take it.”
The first Miramax release to really make a splash was 1982′s “The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball,” a spliced-together version of two separate concert films documenting two of the titular Amnesty Internal benefit shows. The Weinsteins bought the first film and promptly cut it down to 55 minutes — scrubbed for American consumption, but too short to release. As the show’s producer Martin Lewis recalled last year, when the Weinsteins found out he’d soon have a sequel, they badgered him to deliver it as soon possible. Editing the two films together took six weeks and “got pretty bloody at times,” Lewis said, but the result was a surprise breakthrough hit, establishing a pattern for future acquisitions.
According to Peter Biskind’s entertaining if not entirely trustworthy “Down and Dirty Pictures,” the “Harvey Scissorhands” nickname stuck to Weinstein after an Elliott Stein article about his recutting practices appeared in the “Village Voice.” The article named specific films Weinstein had tampered with, including prestige titles such as “Pelle The Conqueror.” Biskind recounts that Weinstein was furious but unrepentant. His tampering still yielded profitable results: “Cinema Paradiso” was a flop that became a global hit after Weinstein cut half an hour out of it.
Sometimes his methods yielded audible protests. In 1993, Weinstein purchased Chen Kaige’s Palme D’Or winner “Farewell My Concubine” and chopped it down a bit to get it under three hours. Cannes jury head Louis Malle was furious. “The film we admired so much in Cannes is not the film seen in this country, which is twenty minutes shorter — but it seems longer, because it doesn’t make any sense,” he complained. “It was better before those guys made cuts.” “I defy Louis Malle to tell me what was cut,” Weinstein shot back in an October 1994 Lynn Hirschberg profile in “New York.” The very next moment, he mentioned with pride how he’d personally “retitled, reshot and rearranged” the quickly forgotten 1993 French comedy “A la mode.” Regarding the latter, Weinstein snapped, “I’ve actually put some footage in. Do you think that will ruin my reputation?”
That’s not to diminish Weinstein’s sometimes uncanny commercial instincts: after purchasing “Like Water For Chocolate” and spending $75,000 to cut 38 minutes; the result was the highest-grossing Spanish-language film released in the US up to that time. But for every “Water For Chocolate,” there’s another useless “A la mode,” tampered with just for the sake of asserting control. “They call me D’Artagnan because I want to take my sword and cut the film,” Weinstein told Hirschberg. Department of bitter ironies: that same year (as recounted in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s “Movie Wars”), Weinstein purchased Bertrand Tavernier’s “D’Artagnan’s Daughter” and demanded cuts. Tavernier refused, and Weinstein eventually released the film — five years later, under a different title, direct to video.
Passive-aggressive punishment of filmmakers with final cut was standard. When Jim Jarmusch refused to alter 1995′s “Dead Man,” the Weinsteins effectively dumped it. Two years later, a fuming Jarmusch interrupted a speech at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards dinner to snipe that Miramax showed “Dead Man” “in more press screenings than theaters.” (“Wow,” responded Albert Brooks. “It is my fondest hope that Jim Jarmusch wins an Academy Award just so we can hear that speech.”)
Some movies were meddled with, then not released anyway: Weinstein purchased Wisit Sasanatieng’s bizarre 2001 camp Thai western Melodrama “Tears of The Black Tiger,” recut it, showed the butchered version at Sundance in 2002 and then locked it in the vault. “Everybody was excited,” Sasanatieng told Dennis Lim in 2007. “It was the first time a Thai film had been sold to a big U.S. company.” Among other things, the Weinsteins had changed the ending from happy to sad in deference to post-9/11 gloom. “I was furious at first because not only did they not show the movie as agreed, they edited the movie so that it does not represent what I had in mind,” he reflected. “It was bad, and I have heard that this has been done to many movies.”
“Tears” was eventually acquired and released by Magnolia, as was another dust-gathering Miramax acquisition, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 horror near-classic “Pulse.” And some films (like Abbas Kiarostami’s 1994 “Through The Olive Trees”) never made it out of the vaults for any kind of official release at all — because, as Edward Jay Epstein documented in 2005, the Weinsteins’ bonuses were based on grosses of films released in a year, with expenses for as-yet-unreleased acquisitions not counting towards their rewardable bottom line.
Weinstein’s heavy hand continues to this day, sometimes with filmmakers’ voluntary collaboration. In a recent interview about putting together a different international cut of his most recent film “The Grandmaster,” Wong Kar-Wai stated no reluctance about working closely alongside Harvey Weinstein to produce a more linear film with more expository title cards.
“‘The Grandmaster’ is very specific,” he said. “Because [non-Chinese viewers] don’t have much information or knowledge about the background and history, you have to give enough information for them to get into the story.” But not all filmmakers are so satisfied, and it’s probably always best to keep in mind Sasanatieng’s takeaway lesson from his experience: “We were too innocent. We believed that they would respect our work. They told us again and again that everybody at Miramax loved the film so much.”