UPDATE: So by coincidence I stumbled upon Folding Ideas’ deep dive into Suicide Squad’s editing the same day I wrote this up. What his video highlights is that ...well, I’ve over-simplified this discussion by a long-shot. While I don’t say it directly, the implication in this is that a lot of the onus lies at the feet of the director, which ignores the efforts of the rest of the team both for good and ill. However, based on the interview with the editors of Rogue One, I think some of the ideas written below are still valid, and thus will leave the article untouched. However, it is a topic I clearly need to research more, and once I’ve been able I may revisit it in the future.
After a long, hard day of failed attempts to sell milkshake machines, Ray Kroc — played by Michael Keaton — dejectedly places a record onto a player. “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence,” begins the recording of Calvin Coolidge. “Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is filled with educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
The quote is essentially the thesis to The Founder, a 2017 film about Ray Kroc and his underhanded methods of turning the McDonald brothers’ fast food creation into a franchise empire. Kroc himself dreams of a greater life, though that vision is limited to swimming in a vault of money like cartoon Scrooge McDuck. Venture after venture is met with failure. The McDonald brothers failed at a couple of businesses before they began cooking burgers, and even then they met with failure several times before finally finding the secret to fast food success. The positive lesson here is that failure is not the end, and persistence in the face of failure is part of what leads to success.
This is only the first act of the film, however. As it continues onward, we are met with the darker side of persistence. The cunning and merciless desire for more and the sacrifice of empathy to obtain it all.
It’s a film that’s worth rewatching because of how well it implements this theme into every minute of screen time. Never once does the film feel inconsistent with itself, never does a character feel weak, and never does a scene jar the viewer out of the experience.
Like a lot of films, The Founder had undergone reshoots. It hasn’t made headlines, but a Google search can reveal casting calls in the Atlanta, Georgia region for pick-ups to be done. There’s no Internet outrage because such a film is not under the scrutiny of Internet fandom. No one is going to worry about clueless executives getting in the way of “creative vision” with a smaller, lower budget biographical drama.
I don’t know what the story behind the reshoots are, and as the film is excellent as it appears in theater, there’s obviously little call to see what the film looked like prior. The assumption, then, is that the reshoots were done to improve the film. The greater assumption is that they were carefully implemented so as to keep the core themes and goals intact.
That is the real fear of reshoots, and one of the reasons that even I had been nervous to hear about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s call for pick-ups and changes. Friends invested in film assured me that reshoots are a common thing and that the Internet hate machine is just griping about something they don’t know about. While I agree that the aggressive response is overblown and largely uninformed, I also think that there can still be cause for concern. Scouring the Internet for some information on the subject, it seems the perspective on reshoots has been divided into one camp or the other.
Worse is that each of those listicles seems to play loosey goosey with what a reshoot actually is.
The truth is there are some instances a film was improved by going back and reshooting parts of it. The Jaws example — where Steven Spielberg studied the audience himself and gauged their reactions to certain scenes — is good because the changes are being applied by an artist with a comprehension of his craft. He treated the test screenings as a software developer does focus tests, rather than a corporate executive trying to crunch all of that “data” into easy to PowerPoint metrics that can serve as broad, pointless demand to the film’s creative team.
Similarly, the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World ending was saved by its test audience screening. Unfortunately what works for one film doesn’t necessarily work for another. Test audience screenings also gave the film Suicide Kings a tonally inconsistent ending that was much more harsh and dark than the film’s overall tone (in a really weird switcheroo, the original ending was happier than what test audiences desired).
In the past several years, Hollywood films have become an expensive gamble. While an entertainment and culture writer such as myself is often condemning the allegedly clueless business suit, in reality it is completely understandable to want to minimize the risk of your financial bets. When a film turns out horrible, it’s easy to point the finger at the suits and condemn them for their meddling and ignorant ways. Is it ever really so simple?
Fox’s recent The Fantastic Four had a widely praised first half, but once it becomes a generic superhero film the temptation is to blame Fox executives and their demand for reshoots. However, it is widely know that director Josh Trank was a first-class asshole that was rightfully pulled away from the reigns of a high profile film like Star Wars Episode VIII. So the blame rests on the shoulders of the eccentric asshole of a director, right? Well, asshole directors are nothing new, and some of the biggest assholes have also produced some of the best films. Is it possible that the good parts of The Fantastic Four were due to his efforts? Was the latter half of the film always as doomed as its antagonist?
Then comes a film like Suicide Squad, a movie that left the worst taste in my mouth in 2016. Even Batman v. Superman, a film that had corporate ignorance and interference spread all over it like raspberry jelly, was less of a dumpster fire than Suicide Squad. Tonally inconsistent, haphazardly assembled character logic, completely inaccurate character dynamics, and paced like the dying battery of a Walkman, one has to wonder what the reshoots actually were since it’s hard to imagine things getting worse. Or is it more that a troubled and rushed development couldn’t be saved by a second attempt?
While I enjoyed Rogue One and find it to be a very enjoyable film, I think it is also a victim of reshoots. However, not in the same way as the others. Whereas The Founder is a tightly knit construction whose reshoots did not inhibit the impact of its core themes, I feel that the attempts to fix Rogue One approached the task in too modular a fashion. The editors and Gareth Edwards have discussed the film’s protagonist, Jyn Erso, being modified so that her character is “less abrasive”. Her iconic rap sheet and “I rebel” line in the original teaser were part of the change, and in the final version of the film the character seems… to be more of a blank check.
Not to say that she is without character, but I feel like her meeting with Saw Gerrera — played by Forest Whitaker — had a much more deep character purpose. “What will you do if you continue to fight? What will you do if they break you? What will you become?” He asks Jyn these questions more dialogue left abandoned to an earlier edit of the film. To me, the implication in that first trailer was that Jyn was a lot more pro-active in her attitude and actions towards the Empire. In the final cut, Saw asks her if she’d be okay with seeing the Imperial flag waving across the galaxy. She retorts that it’s not a problem if you never look up.
It’s a move that puts Jyn into a more accessible mindset, that feeling of being hurt so much that you’d rather go numb and ignore all the wrong surrounding you. However, the relationship with Saw feels incomplete, awkward, and his actions erratic. Jyn’s character arc also feels predictable with less agency of her own journey. If instead she had been a much more violent and angry character, finding Saw for the rebellion only so that her rap sheet might go away as opposed to a vague sense of “going free”, then her encounter with the old mentor would have more meaning. Saw is becoming paranoid and mentally broken by years of violent insurrection. If we further consider his questions from the very first trailer, we can imagine that Jyn’s true arc was finding a cause that could ground her, establish a moral compass, and define her reason to fight. Say, for hope rather than for anger or vengeance. His message to her a plea to change her path before she becomes as physically and mentally broken as Saw.
Conjecture. The problem with this is that it is all conjecture. There’s not enough information out there to prove or assert that Jyn really did have such a story arc in the original Rogue One. So there is no evidence one way or the other that the film is better or worse. Rogue One is also not a binary example, as I feel a multitude of the discussed changes certainly did improve the movie, even if others maybe made it lesser.
Which is what brings me back to The Founder. Everything in The Founder feels perfectly intentional. No minute is wasted, no minute is extraneous, and every word spoken and image shown reflects the thesis outlined early in the movie.
Like any tool, pick-ups and reshoots are not a definitively bad thing. Like a surgeon with a scalpel, a careful film director, writer, and editor can make modifications that improve the film. Not just in simple audience pleasing ways, but in tightening its structure and keeping the intended themes and atmosphere intact. For Jaws, a lot of that turned out to be removing the shark from multiple scenes. The animatronic was a frequently broken puppet that looked too fake to be convincing. Spielberg modified the final footage so that the intended feeling of dread and uncertainty could be maintained.
Films like The Fantastic Four and Suicide Squad feel too disjointed. Any themes that begin to arise are never capitalized on, a consistent tone is never struck, and the end result feels artistically tone deaf. Most audiences will never understand why these films are less satisfying than what Marvel can offer, but anyone with an inkling of artistic appreciation and understanding will be able to pick out a variety of flaws and misdirections that reshoots are supposed to fix.
As all of film-making, however, reshoots are an art. You have a completed product already, but select parts need to be redone and replaced without creating more continuity errors. Most of all, that tone and those themes need to be maintained. In most instances, it seems that there’s nothing to worry about.
But all you need is one executive with a fat wallet, big mouth, and absolutely no understanding of how to tell a good story…