April 25, 2011
On Friday, April 8, I had the privilege of discussing Alexander Revisted: The Final Cut with director Oliver Stone. This ultimate version of the film, which played on the big screen for the first time last month at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, is now available on iTunes. A Los Angeles big screen event, I’m told, is in the works.
Mr. Stone undertook a major overhaul of Alexander more than two years after its 2004 theatrical release. He restructured the film, made it longer (by more than 40 minutes) and added an intermission. The result is an epic motion picture with much more clarity and resonance than either the theatrical release or the original “director’s cut.”
By editing strictly for home entertainment media, Mr. Stone avoided the costs and constraints that come with wide studio distribution. Not only was he able to make Alexander as long as it needed to be -- 3 hours and 34 minutes plus a break between acts -- he could restore explicitly sexual material that would otherwise have resulted in an NC-17 rating.
Mr. Stone explained: “The extra scenes and the intermission were added to make the film more clear to the public. It was always difficult to understand.”
But the final version of Alexander isn’t just easier to grasp; it packs a more powerful emotional punch than the first two cuts. I was moved to tears several times while watching it. So the first question I asked Oliver Stone was, “Do you see a relationship between narrative clarity and emotional impact?” His response:
Of course. Very much so. The older films I studied as a young man surely gave me that insight. By cutting pieces of film together, you trigger emotions in viewers. As you know, actors sometimes rise to the occasion, in part, because you make them look good with the cutting you do. Their emotion is manufactured; you create it on the stage -- with lighting, with the script, with their craft... But it’s a simile of what happened in life, just a version of it. We see it, respond to it and go back to our routines. Yet when a great story is told with clarity and focus, it can become a model for your life. The other night, for example, I was looking at what you could call a classic, The Best Years of Our Lives -- a very well-made film, very well-edited by (director) William Wyler and his editor (Daniel Mandell). (The film won 7 Academy Awards in 1947, including Best Picture and Best Film Editing.) It manipulates some very strong emotions, and it works as a film. It always has. You mentioned crying. You cry when you see it the first time. As you get older -- 20 or 30 years go by -- you cry about other things in the film. It’s all manipulated.
At this point in reading the interview transcript, my inner Kevin Costner/Jim Garrison admonishes, “Ask the question, ask the question!” That being, “Are you considering an adaptation of this classic about three World War II veterans and their painful return to civilian life?” But I merely commented, “Today, studio executives would cosider The Best Years of Our Lives’ 3 hour running time excessive and would probably pressure Wyler to trim the movie." Oliver Stone continued:
Dana Andrews’ character gets screwed over by his shallow wife. Does he “get the girl” who will love him in the end? You might not even remember, and it’s not important. Because the movie’s not about that. It’s about the return of the veteran and the heartbreak of not being accepted... and it’s about not understanding the new life; to which they’ve returned that's the keynote of the movie.
Alexander’s life, to me is one of the great stories. I’m very touched that you were moved to tears by it because that’s exactly the emotional effect I wanted. When I saw the movie at the Museum of the Modern Image (in Astoria, Queens) last month, with an audience of 300 people -- it’s the first time I’ve watched the final version on a large screen with great sound -- we could see the agony, the difficulty, the sheer tenacity in his life. Alexander is one of the few movies today that, because of its length, can fully explore the journey of a man’s life. And, of course, even there, I left out many events. There were 15 to 20 more battles... just an enormous amount of things that had to be cut. Probably the greatest military defeat he suffered was coming back from India through the Gedrosian desert, and we dispensed with this in 7 or 8 shots The idea being, as Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) says, he should have died in India. And when I watched the movie, even in its reconstructed form, I thought, “What a great exit point!” You could wrap it up there and have1 movie instead of 2. Because he achieved his greatest goals in India and, in a sense, he did die there -- at the battle of Multan, where he sacrificed himself for his men, sustaining greivous wounds.
But we had the issue of going on. And that ,to me, is where the movie really has to work from the beginning. Because you have to care about the man and his fate. Emotional attachment has to be built up througthout the movie. Alexander’s journey was one of the most original and amazing ever made by a human being -- he went to unexplored lands with a fucking mobile empire! Given my limited budget, I could only hint at the enormity of it Yet I think we were successful.
But we didn’t succeed with the original release of Alexander. Frankly, that version was badly cut by me, badly structured. I had time limitations in editing because Warners wanted the movie for November 2004 and we didn’t finish shooting until early that year. So it was a rush to get it together and to make it under 3 hours. And I was limited in what I could say about Alexander’s sexuality because of rating constraints.
When did you realize these limitations resulted in a cut that was less clear and, therefore, less emotional than you wanted it to be?
That took time. Editing, as you know, can be very self-deluding. You work your ass off and, sometimes, the more you work, the less you see. You become blinded by the fatigue, the hours and the pressure. We were rushing just to make the release date.
I had spent a long time on the script, much of it doing research, because I loved Alexander. And you fall in love with so much of the detail. The research guides you on questions of what to leave out of the story and what to keep in. What ended up in this final version is pretty much what we decided to shoot back then. But when we had to whittle it down to 3 hours, we seemed to have too much movie... too much story. That’s when I came up with the disastrous idea -- not in the script, which opened with the Battle of Gaugamela -- the disastrous idea of cutting from a truncated version of Ptolemy’s description of Alexander as Promethean to Alexander’s birth in Macedonia. I was so in love with Alexander I thought the audience would just go with watching this kid grow up... that they would go with his lifestyle. I was so “into” the story I forgot that viewers weren’t knowledgable about the mores of this pre-Christian era -- about the general acceptance of homosexuality or the kind of mother/son relationship in the movie . Not to mention boys wrestling! I was just a lover of history making a movie about what he loved, trusting that I could tell the story in a chronologically narrative form. But my script started with the battle.
So in the final version of Alexander, you restored what was in the script?
I not only restored the script, I went further. By the time I began to work on this cut, I had clarified, for myself, the idea of the story as a twofold journey. There’s the “outer” part, where he goes to the edge of the world as it was known then -- what Aristotle called “the end of the world.” And there was, at the same time, Alexander’s “inner journey.” The idea was to pace it so the journeys were parallel. He’d go out, then go into his source -- his origin -- which was his mother/father. And mother/father would be explicated. Was Alexander the son of a god, as Olympias told him, or was he his father’s son? Was there a harmony available to him? Could he unite his (inner) father and mother?
The script evolved with that in mind. But I don’t know if it was all there in that form. When to go back and forth in time is crucial to the movie. For instance, when do you go to the revelation that Alexander’s mother may have paticipated in his father’s murder? It's a big issue. We do it very late in this version.
Maybe that’s why this section of the film is so moving now. Right before Philip is murdered, he turns and tells his son he wants the people to like him. It’s quite poignant. Seconds later, you see Olympias watching with a subtle look of approval, as Philip is killed. So it does seem she was complicit.
The idea is she had to be... well, maybe not complicit, but she was exalted and she benefited from the assassination, and so did Alexander. And because of his mother’s behavior and attitude, he had to live with that stain on his honor; he didn’t want to benefit from his father’s death.
You’ve said that the classical, Oedipal mother/son relationship was difficult for Alexander’s early audiences. Let’s discuss the other tricky subject you mentioned: homosexuality. You’re no stranger to exploring homosexuality and political power...
(Laughs.) They’re tied.
You make that point in Nixon, in the scenes with Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover, and in JFK, which depicts some of the conspirators as part of a 1960’s “homosexual underworld.”
It’s just the way life is. Alexander definitely had “a thing” with Bagoas (a eunuch, played by Francisco Bosch). We know this from history because of what he willed to Bagoas. We’re less sure of what Alexander’s relationship was with Hephaestion (Jared Leto), but we know they were close. “Soul mates,” I call them. You never see them together in bed, whereas you see Alexander in bed with Bagoas and with several women. I would say Alexander was tri-sexual. Bagoas was transformed into another gender altogether; a third gender -- a man/woman -- which was done in those days to make great lovers. Their relationship makes me think of Alexander as being close to the “god state.” Because he was willing to travel to where Prometheus went and, at the same time, he treated Bagoas well. In Mary Renault’s fictionalized account, The Persian Boy, you see that relationship.
But the Bagoas sub-plot was completely bowdlerized in the original version. When I showed a cut of the film with those scenes to Warners executives they were aghast. They couldn’t stand that part of the movie. So I wound up showing Bagoas only minimally in the 2004 release, which undercut the whole concept of Alexander’s love for mankind.
The relationship is a powerful part of Alexander Revisited. Bagoas and Alexander’s kissing scene -- passionately and unselfconsciously played by both actors -- was stirring...
The kissing scene was great. So was the scene at the end -- which really moved me -- where Bagoas tends to his dying lover, propping him up, holding his hand. Alexander says, “You have given me all, Bagoas.” Bagoas responds that Alexander has given him his happiest times. The great warrior reflects on how fleeting those moments have been and Bagoas says, “Still, you have given me much happiness, Alexander.” I’m a sucker for this stuff because I love the old “road show” movies. I love Hephaestion’s death and Alexander’s, too. And I hacked away at both of them in the original version beccause I thought I was overdoing them -- because of the running time element. But you have to allow these kinds of scenes to unfold and to breath... to oxygenate themselves.
In the final version, Hephaestion’s death is cut differently. It’s an interesting editing exercise. In the theatrical release, I cut to Alexander at the wrong time, and I showed Hephaestion in the background dying too overtly. Also, the music was too sentimental. Each change was subtle, but all together, they made a huge difference. Audiences watching the earlier cut would snicker, but there was no snickering the other night (at the Museum of the Moving Image).
I also went full out with Alexander’s death in this version, restoring everything that had been in the earliest assemblies. The death was elaborated. In reality, it took 9 days, so I wanted to give a sense of a man lingering on the edge. I did everything I wanted to do with Alexander’s death, which, to me, was great.
Another thing I feel good about was that I let loose with Ptolemy in the final version. Critics had slammed the theatrical release for using Ptolemy as a narrator, saying this was an old-fashioned technique -- stodgy and boring. But Anthony Hopkins’ performance, for me, was absolutely stunning. Only by allowing him to speak what was written could I finally make that come across. By cutting the words, or trying to find ways to make it less grandiose, I inadvertantly created the impression that I was ashamed of or embarassed by this tour de force. So in this new version I used all of what was written.
With complete success. The new version of the epilogue, in which Ptolemy eulogizes Alexander, is the third instance, for me, of being moved to tears while watching the film.
I love that, too.
In the final version, you feel a genuine personal connection between Ptolemy and Alexander. And there’s a sense of deep regret, on Ptolemy’s part, that readers of historical accounts will never really know Alexander.
Yes. The scene is about how history gets transmitted. And about Ptolemy’s own role in things. He implicates himself, saying, “I was partly responsible for the murder. I consented by silence.” He was Alexander’s chief body guard, you know, and they did divide the kingdom... they did get rich. So there was a lot of motive. It was like the JFK killing; at the end of the day, you have to ask, “Cui bono?” We know who bono’d here. (Laughs)
At the same time, Ptolemy does put the lie to it. He recounts this lengthy, complex and glorious history to a scribe and then says, “Oh, throw all that away, Cadmus. Write that he died of a fever, in a weakened condition.” And on top of that, as we point out in a title card at the end of the film, Ptolemy’s library -- containing his memoirs of Alexander -- were destroyed in a fire. So we don’t really know what he wrote.
The scene with the scribe resonates for editors. It’s always a bit of a shock -- even when it improves the narrative as a whole -- to delete an entire scene, as the scribe is more or less told to do.
Also, an editing student can see the huge difference in the Ptolemy scene because of dozens of small changes made after the first 2 versions. And, of course, that’s true for the whole film. Obviously, the theatrical release bothered me for years. I feel like an ancient Greek talking about it. It wasn’t what I set out to achieve, what I paid so dearly for. And on top of it, to be ridiculed and mocked, or have Alexander ignored in biographies... it was a stain on me. So I had to go back in there and do it the way I thought was right. And I could do it on dvd in a way that was impossible on film because of MPAA restrictions and all that. It was gonna be an unrated, full-length road epic in the best tradition of DeMille. Which is to say shameless.
It’s been decades since the studios released 31/2 hour motion pictures with intermissions. Did you approach Warners’ with the idea of an act break while editing the theatrical version?
They wouldn’t have done it.
And yet you rightly point out that Alexander is the kind of film that needs an intermission, because of the complexity of its story and its large number of characters. You need a pause, at an appropriate midway point, to digest what you’ve seen. It’s a delightful way to watch Alexander, the way you watched the road shows you loved as a kid.
They did allow that with the old movies. There wasn’t the incessant screaming about grosses and (how they’d be adversely affected by added) running time. I grew up in New York, and we had beautiful elaborate movie palaces, and many, many shows with intermissions, up until the early sixties. With a well-made movie, you really do need that second part.
Oliver Stone and I continued to talk about the importance of Alexander’s intermission, about the dvd format per se, about thematic elements that connect many of the director’s films, and more. But since this post is already twice as long as most on Filmmaker’s Diary, we’ll pause here to digest the above. Be back in a day or so with more of the insights Oliver Stone so graciouosly shared about his work we fimmaker's diary!