Fresh out of graduate school in 1995, Mark Christopher had a young filmmaker’s dream come true: the opportunity to make his first feature film with studio backing. Miramax, a rising studio at the time, had purchased Christopher’s screenplay about the fabled New York City nightclub Studio 54 and hired him to direct the movie as well. When 54 was released three years later, it was panned for its unfocussed plot and what seemed to be a bland take on the sex and drug culture of the late 1970s. But that was not the movie Christopher had planned to make. Under pressure from the studio, which suddenly got cold feet about the gay-inflected subject matter, he had to reshoot portions of the movie and alter the plotline to serve a wider and less adventurous audience.
Seventeen years later, Christopher has been fortunate to realize another dream: a chance to let the world see the version of the movie that should have played in 1998. After successful screenings at various festivals around the world, 54: The Director’s Cut is now available on Digital HD from Miramax and Lionsgate Home Entertainment. When we spoke recently, the writer-director was pragmatic about the past, but eager to talk about how he was able to restore 54 to its original story, about three young people caught up in a dark but heady moment in American cultural history.
How did the movie come about?
I started writing it when I was in graduate school at Columbia University. My first-year short film, The Dead Boys’ Club, had disco in it. That was when disco was just emerging from the “disco sucks” feeling. And then I made another short called Alkali, Iowa, which Mary Beth Hurt was in. She’s married to Paul Schrader, who was my mentor at Columbia. So when I wanted to make my disco American Graffiti, he was the one who suggested that I set it at Studio 54, because he had gone there a lot. And that was the start of it all.
You were probably too young to have gone to Studio 54 yourself in its heyday. What did the nightclub mean for you?
Here’s the thing, it meant to me what it probably meant to everyone. I just happened to be in the cornfields of Iowa, but you could have been in Queens, Saudi Arabia, or in Paris and it was this beautiful, glamorous, decadent world that we saw in the magazines. I came to New York in 1984, which was a very low point in the city I think. It wasn’t fun, and unexciting. So that might have been a bit of the seed for the film as well—that yearning for a time before, in the late 1970s, when there was this incredible escape into disco. And the emblem of all that was Studio 54. When I went there it was in a different iteration, it was kind of more “bridge and tunnel” and it would open for like a weekend or something. It definitely was not the glamorous thing that it was in the era that I am depicting in the movie.
Did Schrader influence the work in any way?
He started introducing me to people, including producers. That also led to meeting people who worked there, because, obviously, I wanted it to be about the worker bees. So I met a lot of bartenders, coat-check girls and bus boys. He was very helpful with all that. Also, you know, both he and I grew up in the Midwest with all this religion. He was in [what I believe] was a [Calvinist] sect, and I grew up Lutheran, and we wanted to bust out and live the wild life of the city. And then, over the years, every time there was a new draft he would read it. Finally, one day he said, “I think you’re done, I think it’s ready,” which is a great compliment coming from one of our best movie writers of all time.
What prompted the changes that the studio imposed on the movie before the original release in 1998?
My cast was sort of growing up and getting more famous as we were shooting and the studio made a business decision to make it much more mainstream and so it changed quite a bit. This new movie is literally a different movie because we’ve removed about 33 minutes of re-shoots and put back 44 minutes of the original material. It has different character development and character relationships, and different themes.
How does this current version compare to your original script?
It’s very close. The changes from the script were really scenes that didn’t work or which we couldn’t get. For instance, Mark Ruffalo. I found him in a small theater in New York and cast him as Shane’s best friend in Jersey. He had a wonderful scene in the script near the end, but due to budget we didn’t actually get that scene, so that’s missing. And then there were certain things, you know, you shoot an entire scene, but then you realize that a look from one character to another can replace that scene, the usual stuff that you find in the editing room.
And where exactly in the movie did you replace the original 44 minutes of material?
It’s threaded all the way through the entire movie. The opening, as you notice, is completely different and the story is reconstructed. It’s about the love triangle between Shane [Ryan Philippe], Greg [Breckin Meyer] and Anita [Salma Hayek]. And then also it’s very much with Ryan’s performance. We had to find the very short pieces of film and trim them back together to give him the full moments that he needed as the lead character, to give him a richer performance.
You mentioned the love triangle. Is it true that Cabaret was your major influence here?
Cabaret is really one of my favorite films and Bob Fosse is one of favorite filmmakers. I guess I’ve always been interested in worlds that are on the edge of collapse, because the stakes are so heightened for everybody. That was the view with the Weimar Republic in Cabaret: Let’s go to the cabaret and forget your troubles. And at the heart of that film is a love triangle between two men and a woman. With my film this was the end of the 1970s and everything was about to collapse—sex, drugs, etcetera—and there’s this glamorous shining moment right before it does. We shot at Studio 54, the exterior and the lobby, because the space was in trouble and they needed money, and the Roundabout Theatre Company moved in and put up their production of Cabaret. I just love that.