Remember 54, the fictionalized look at Studio 54 that came out in 1998 and was filled with cream o’ the crop 90s stars like Neve Campbell, Ryan Phillippe, and Breckin Meyer? The film was universally panned—but it also wasn’t what director Mark Christopher had envisioned.
After Christopher’s original cut, which was intended for wide release, received a negative reaction from a test audience back in 1997, Miramax demanded that the film undergo drastic alterations: 40 minutes were cut (including a kiss between Phillippe and Meyer) and 25 minutes of new footage were filmed and added. Phillippe was stripped of his bisexuality, the whole thing was de-gayed, and the sanitized studio version only hinted at the ménage à trois that the original centers on. To really highlight the film’s heterosexual aspects, Campbell’s smaller role was transformed into that of a primary love interest.
The critical reaction to the studio cut was “painful,” explained Christopher. “But that’s water under the bridge now.” Because after 17 years, Christopher has finally gotten the green-light from Miramax to release 54: The Director’s Cut, which premiered at this year’s Berlinale. We caught up with him in Berlin to discuss how he made it happen.
It appears some so-called “director’s cuts” had already made their way out there prior to this premiere.
Back in the nineties, you’d transfer the film to videotape to do screenings, and that tape could get out. There was a bootleg floating around. I had no control of it. I’ve always been really surprised when people called me and said, “Saw your film.” And I would think … “How?”
I heard they put a naked Ryan Phillippe getting beer poured all over him on the posters when they screened the bootleg at Outfest, and the rest was history.
Not naked, he’s in his jeans—all the bartenders were shirtless. That’s all they did to advertise it, just put that image up and the word “Uncut” and it sold out in like an hour.
Did you have to persuade Miramax to release an official, authorized director’s cut?
My producer Jonathan King and I have been very tenacious in trying to get the director’s cut released since the day after the movie came out. I didn’t think it could happen. But every week for, oh, seventeen years, people contacted me and asked about it. The interest never flagged. That’s what kept this going—if it had just been an artistic endeavor or for my ego, I probably wouldn’t have done it. So with Miramax, we’d been politely bugging them for seventeen years and finally, maybe just to make us go away, they said yes. I think they also knew the time was right.
How come now’s the right moment?
The film was ahead of its time: The flawed characters, Ryan’s character, this sort of opportunistic bisexual … that was a little hard for a wide audience, and this was an 1,800-print release. It’s the simple story of a bartender, a coat-check girl (Salma Hayek), and a busboy, and their love triangle, and how they become family in a weird way. Now it’s a cliché, but I hadn’t seen that in 1998. At the time, a love story between a boy and a girl made more sense for a bigger movie. It’s also, you know, a very sexy movie. We expect that now, especially on premium cable. But at the time, we did not.
I hear you had Ryan Phillippe re-record his voiceover, which kind of gives it this Boyhood feel: He’s 40 now, looking back on a younger version of himself. So it seems the project has evolved a bit. Has it changed a lot from your original vision?
I wanted to honor what the actors and I had made, so the vision didn’t change, it just became clearer. The original director’s cut was never fully finished. For this director’s cut, I was able to cobble something together from video sources. It was chunky and clunky, and then in the past 6 months I finessed it. I could say, “Nope, don’t need that shot. Need a little something more there. Ooh, that transition, that needs help.” That sort of thing.
Were you at Studio 54 when you were younger?
Well, I would have been a child—but that wouldn’t have been a problem, because Steve Rubell loved to let children in, and teenagers and garbage collectors and old ladies. It was part of “tossing the salad,” as he called it. I was Iowa at the time, but I did get a taste of disco in Chicago when it was such a huge phenomenon: It was the music, it was the questionable fashion, it was board games, it was everything. Every week an incredible dance song would come out. That was so exciting for a teenager. And then when I moved to New York in the early eighties, 54 was constantly opening and closing. I went several times between ‘84 and ‘86.
How did you know how to recreate the atmosphere?
It was a synthesis of my memories of the disco craze, going to 54 after its heyday, and speaking to a lot of people. We did a ton of research finding actual material that was shot there. At the time that was actually very difficult. We would hear, like, an NYU student had made a film in 54 and now lives in Miami, so we’d go all the way down to Miami just to get it. Now you can just go on YouTube.
My DP Alexander Gruszynski had been there, as had a lot of my cast. Lauren Hutton hadn’t been there a lot, she was a good girl, but she would tell me how decadent the place was. Sela Ward, who was a model, remembered the glamor. Dolly Hall, my producer, was a teenager who went there all the time. She doesn’t remember a thing about it except dancing. That’s what people say: If you remember being at 54, you weren’t there.
Some original reviews questioned why the film focuses on a fictional story even though so many legendary real-life things happened there.
Here’s the thing: At the time, there were many Studio 54 projects, and my way into it was through the kids who worked there. Which was no surprise, since I’m part of the hoi polloi and had loved being a waiter. At Columbia, Paul Schrader, who was my teacher, really liked a short film I’d made that had disco music. He said, “What are you doing next, kid?” I said, “I want to make a disco American Graffiti.” And he said, “Put it at Studio 54.” He’d gone there a lot, so he introduced me to people: celebrities, bartenders, busboys, coat check girls, one person led to another. Everybody was excited to tell their stories.
So it kinda wasn’t fictional.
A lot of stories and anecdotes were true. But what’s funny is that once you do enough research, you can create things within the boundaries of that world and truth can happen accidentally. People come up to me after the movie and say, “That happened to me!” And I think, “Yeah, I made that up.”