What a mess surrounding Revolution Studios’ Across the Universe thanks to the idiocy of hiring director Julie Taymor, who may be lauded as a visual iconoclast in the pages of The New York Times but also derided as a cinematic loon based on what Hollywood sources tell me. So now this musical romance pic has dissipated into two warring versions, and its scheduled September playdate hangs in limbo. (See the trailer here.) Meanwhile, distributor Sony Pictures is tiptoeing around the issue of not releasing the pic, especially with a full frills marketing campaign, unless Taymor compromises; the studio is supposed to distribute all of Revolution’s film product under Joe Roth’s about-to-end deal there. In a perfect world, Sony would love to get behind Across The Universe because it’s synergistic. Told mainly through numerous Beatles tunes performed by the characters, it takes advantage of that Sony/ATV music publishing catalog owned with Michael Jackson that boasts some 250 Fab Four songs. Of course, Roth has only himself to blame for his fight with Taymor. This is just the latest of the many missteps he’s made at Revolution whose films have mostly bombed at the box office despite expensive Sony marketing campaigns. He is, after all, the one who hired Taymor in the first place even knowing her notorious Hollywood reputation for directorial pretension and indulgence, which is exactly how people describe her impossibly artsy-fartsy cut of this pic which audiences dislike. When Taymor wouldn’t listen to reason, Roth (himself a pretty lame film director) went in with an editor to cut his own version which is not just shorter but more commercial. So I can’t understand why Taymor isn’t kicked to the curb since she doesn’t have final cut. And I’m perplexed why The New York Times took Taymor’s side in this squabble and ignored the terrible truths people have told me about what a disaster she was on this project. Today’s article compares Taymor to Orson Welles. Ridiculous. The article fails to mention Sony’s Beatles biz synergy. Good grief. And there’s not a word about Taymor’s history of awful fights over length and content as the director on Titus (with producers and the MPAA over a possible NC-17 adults-only rating for too much sex and violence and gore, and with Anthony Hopkins who threatened to walk) and on Frida (with Harvey Weinstein, culminating in a loud expletive-filled fight in the lobby of NYC’s Sony Lincoln Square as shocked preview-goers filed past.) The NYT must have let its Nexis research account expire. Also, the paper of record implies that Across The Universe has been “taken away” from the director. Not yet. Now the details.
So why did Roth hire Taymor in the first place? Obviously, they knew each other during The Lion King stage production when Roth was head of Walt Disney Studios, and Taymor had a rep in the New York theater for creating eccentric but visually stunning productions of often hard-to-stage material. But it was really Tom Schumacher and even Michael Eisner at Disney who worked closest with her to bring Lion King to Broadway. (Sources note that Disney hasn’t done a major project with the Tony award-winning director since. There was talk of bringing Pinocchio to Broadway under her helm. Then she started calling herself “the Steven Spielberg of the theater” and Schumacher began calling her “a loon.”) Insiders tell me that Roth put Taymor on his Revolution’s Across The Universe “because he had a relationship with her and thought she had a vision for it.” I say neither is a good enough reason to overlook the fact that she gave new meaning to the Hollywood definition of a “difficult” director on both Titus and Frida. “It takes a lot to make Harvey sympathetic,” one source close to Roth’s production quipped to me.
I’m told everyone began the movie with Taymor expecting trouble. And there was. By some accounts, the film was even flawed from the very start. “She went into production on the movie without a good script. Instead, she went into production on just a great idea.” As one insider described the process: “You try to help her, but it’s only ever a one-way street. She has a narcissistic disorder.”
But her behavior reportedly grew worse after she delivered a cut of the film last October at 2 hours, 32 minutes,and started receiving criticism about the film. Without giving details, Roth himself made reference to Taymor’s “hysteria” to the NYT. “I gave her a note to cut two supporting characters, one white and one black,” a source told me. “And she starts screaming, ‘I’m not cutting all the black people.'”
Unlike the NYT portrayal, I’ve been assured that problems with Taymor’s version went way beyond length to the point where the pic simply doesn’t work. “It is visually a really interesting and arresting movie,” says one insider, “but as usual with her it veers off into the absurd.” Says another source: “Her cut is indulgent and pretentious.” Explains an insider: “The visuals get in the way of the narrative, which makes no sense. And the pacing is all wrong. They have a scene with Bono that’s psychedelic, and goes on and on, and has to be cut down.” Still another source chides: “By the time the dancing puppet heads come out, you’re just like no, no, NO.”
Despite all this, Taymor again and again expressed unrealistic notions about Across The Universe‘s box office prospects. “Here she’d made the world’s most expensive art film. Yet she kept claiming it was ‘the next Titanic,’ a movie that did $1.8 billion worldwide,” a source told me. (While Revolution puts the movie’s budget at $45 million, NYC money guys tell me the original budget was $77 mil and has ballooned from there.) Another insider says: “She told Sony her movie was going to be ‘so much bigger than Bond. We have the Beatles.’ A Sony exec replied, ‘It’s not like you have the Beatles performing. You have Beatles cover songs.'”
Sometimes agents can broker peace in wars like this. But Taymor’s agency CAA “kept lying to everyone concerned. To her, they said they’d take her side against everyone. To the producers, they said they’d take their side against the client.”
The movie’s first preview in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was disastrous despite the Taymor-friendly arty crowd. “Everybody’s notes were the same; the movie’s too long,” an insider explained. So then Taymor delivered a cut that was 2 hours, 15 minutes. “Still the previews said it was too long. But she was now refusing to take any more out of it,” a source told me. “Everyone was very frustrated by the fact that five months had gone by and she didn’t listen and she didn’t care.” Said another insider: “We were dealing with a woman who has absolutely no sense of commercial potential. At one point, Amy Pascal took her to dinner and diplomatically told her ‘how good it could be’ if only she’d cut the movie. But Julie still refused. Indeed, that’s the refrain of everyone: there’s a great movie in there, somewhere. But, as it stands now, it’s so complicated it’s just a bad movie.”
So finally a frustrated Roth handed the movie to an editor and cut it to 1 hour, 45 minutes. That version was shown in Phoenix, Arizona, last week to an audience packed with young girls who are perceived by the conventional wisdom as the primary audience for romantic musicals of this ilk. Sources told me the pic suddenly scored 86% in the top two boxes. Taymor “immediately has a meltdown,” I’m told by insiders. Roth offered to preview both cuts of the movie side by side to another audience, but Taymor refuses.
Now insiders tell me that “Sony has made it clear that if something isn’t done to the movie, then it wouldn’t support it.” So the question is: who’s going to blink first? Sources say the problem here is that no one wants to be the bad guy even though Taymor doesn’t have final cut. “Both Amy and Joe are running away from a confrontation with Julie because they’d rather be popular than take a hard line.” All this brouhaha has further soured Sony Pictures’ relations with Roth: they’ve gone from good, to bad, to worse, to awful because of all the major marketing moolah the studio considers wasted on Revolution’s mostly piss-poor product. There are audible sighs of relief at Sony that Across The Universe is one of Roth’s final projects under that too-autonomous arrangement. “In the old days, Joe would have said to Sony, ‘You need to release this.’ And Amy Pascal would have humored him. But now Amy barely tolerates him.” After all, it was Sony czar Sir Howard Stringer who deserves blame for bringing in Roth in the first place. And for reasons that defy logic, Roth will have a face-saving new deal with Sony, albeit a very small one.
As for Taymor, one insider told me, “I can’t imagine anyone giving her another shot. Nobody would make a movie with her after this.” Well, that’s what people said about Michael Cimino who brought down United Artists. And still Hollywood hired him to direct pics even after that.