Friday, April 14, 2006

Can Peyton Reed Fix The Break-Up Without Selling It Down The River?

Sounds like a guaranteed disaster: test screening audiences reacted badly - very badly - to the original, unhappy ending of Peyton Reed's The Break-Up, so Universal sent the director back, with Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Aniston and supporting cast, to shoot a new, happier ending.

Is it possible that the new ending won't be an utter wash out? I was hoping for the best from this film.

Apparently, the test screening audience were so invested in Jennifer Aniston, the public figure, that they couldn't bear to see her character wind up unhappy. Is that enough to diagnose the audience as clinically psychotic? It shouldn't be enough to butcher a movie.

I'd like to maintain optimism, however. I've been there, making a film, the script apparently set in stone, everything flowing along nicely when somebody - a member of the cast or crew, a friend of theirs, even a stranger - points out that something just doesn't work for them. At all.

And then you have to take this criticism on board and see what needs to be done - if anything needs to be done.

I've made some late changes to films, and every time, the film has been better for it. Every single time.

New shots. New scenes. Reshooting old scenes. Recasting. Recutting. New chances to do better than before.

But then again, my changes were never made at the bequest of a film studio feeling a little twitchy about their investment after their target audience of People magazine readers failed to tell the difference between fact and fiction.

What was once billed as an anti-romantic comedy is now going to end up anything but. The late shift in tone is likely to seem unfounded, to come from nowhere and to confound viewers who care about such exotic concepts as integrity, consistency and sincerity.

Unless, of course, Peyton Reed and his scriptwriters somehow found the elusive "perfect answer".

There's an exercise I give to students when I am tutoring film. We look at a series of index cards that plot out all of the key moments in a short film. All of the important ideas are given a card of their own, every little "beat" of the short. Each one conveys important information, and there's nothing left out.

And then I take away the final card, and ask the student to replace it. A new ending that works as well, or better, than the original one. They've got the remaining cards, the body of the story up to that point, to draw upon as inspiration.

And you'd be amazed how creative and inventive the answers might sometimes be. Far far better than the original ending - even though I would deliberately build all of the previous cards up to support that one ending alone, and not to be flexible.

Billy Wilder said that a problem in the third act is really a problem in the first act, that a failed ending comes when the set-up wasn't working. He wasn't wrong. But Wilder knew himself just how much set-up there actually is - how acts one and two could be setting up countless variations on act three. The final scene of The Apartment, the perfect cap, so eloquent and well loved, was conceived and constructed after almost all of the prior sequences had already been shot.

The Break-Up team have a whole feature film's worth of "index cards" to draw upon. Incidents that were once seemingly irrelevant, subplots that could be reincorporated, little narrative building blocks that cluttered the background, unused. They might even be able to work in threads that never were, sowing the seeds of a new climax in reshot scenes for the first and second act. I'm hoping that they have managed to pull it off.

Of course, there's no reason they should even have to try. Universal seem to have dropped the ball here, and it shouldn't be up to Peyton Reed and scriptwriters Jeremy Garelick and Jay Lavender to catch it.

I'm still hopeful. And a director's cut DVD sounds virtually essential.

The Break-Up opens this summer.

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