Unpopular Opinion: Maybe Harvey Weinstein Should Cut 20 Minutes From ‘Snowpiercer’

Features
by Rodrigo Perez
February 14, 2014 2:30 PM
23 Comments
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In case you’re not a totally dialed-in geek for this one, a battle has been raging in the press for several months over a movie that few journalists have actually seen. That film is South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s upcoming sci-fi graphic novel adaptation, “Snowpiercer,” featuring an international cast that includes Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Alison Pill, Ed Harris, Ewen Bremner, Korean actors Song Kang-ho, Ko Ah-sung and many more. And the drama percolating over the last few months has been pitted as a classic David and Goliath story of art versus commerce.

The bad guy: The Weinstein Company’s notoriously bullish CEO Harvey Weinstein, often dubbed “Harvey Scissorhands,” who has a reputation as a tyrannical honcho who has battled with several of his filmmakers over their cuts. The familiar narrative is that Weinstein is a despot and the filmmakers are the oppressed artists that he persecutes. TWC contractually owns U.S. rights and final cut to the ambitious sci-fi movie, but because of its length (125 minutes) and pace, he reportedly wanted to trim the movie down by 20 minutes or so. In most cinephile and journalistic circles, this news was tantamount to heresy of the highest order. The good guy: Bong Joon-ho, the modern auteur behind the beloved monster movie “The Host,” masterful crime procedural “Memories Of Murder,” and the creepy psychological thriller, “Mother,” among others. 

But the point of the battle has become somewhat moot, as after months of back and forth in the press, Weinstein and Bong came to a "settlement" late last week (in quotations because legally TWC is within their right to do whatever they want per the initial distribution deal) over the film). Just as "Snowpiercer" was screening in Berlin (a hot ticket that a lot of international press were eager to make sure they got into), Weinstein agreed to put out the director’s cut of “Snowpiecer,” but with a catch: the film will on be available on the big screen in limited release, and it won't go wide. (Likely, the studio will wait and see how the film does in New York and Los Angeles before determining how much of a rollout the film will get and/or it will be on VOD not long after it hits theaters.)

Certainly, Weinstein’s reputation precedes him: "All The Pretty Horses," “Sling Blade," "The Hours," "The Reader" and "Frida" are just a few films where Harvey and the filmmakers fought acrimoniously over final cut. If you’re the “right” kind of filmmaker—Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, those with near unimpeachable status—Weinstein is more of a godfather than a hindrance, but even that was tested when Weinstein and Martin Scorsese butted heads in the early aughts over “Gangs Of New York.”

But at the end of the day, Weinstein is running a business and while it’s an unpopular opinion, one could argue he might know what’s best for his bottom line. After all, this is a man known for routinely owning the Oscars through his sheer force of marketing will. So is he a butcher or a patron? The evidence doesn’t support the latter, but believe it or not, he may have a point with “Snowpiercer,” Bong Joon-ho’s sprawling, ambitious, but uneven sci-fi film.

While the cinephile masses (and fanboys) have pre-approved the movie as a masterpiece sight unseen, “Snowpiercer” is actually a strange creature. Less a Hollywood blockbuster than a South Korean tentpole with an international cast, and while that sounds (and often is) awesome on many levels, “Snowpiercer” also has issues that arise from this marriage of styles. It’s broad, it shifts in tone frequently, it jumps from genre to genre haphazardly and its Neo-Marxist socio-political commentary about class, the 1% elite vs. the 99% unwashed masses, transcending (or staying put in) your station in life, etc., isn’t exactly subtle (and while it’s akin to “Elysium” and its unsophisticated worldview at first, it does undeniably progress beyond that eventually).

And admittedly, it’s brilliant in spots too, particularly in the way it reveals itself layer by layer, train car by train car, even narratively being “blind” in the first act before the entire big picture is revealed. Tilda Swinton is fantastic in the movie, as is the brief absurdist, satirical section that includes a hilarious Alison Pill. The movie almost functions as a flip-through comic book, cycling quickly through genres as it advances forward through train cars. It’s arguably rather simpleminded in its first car, but as the movie moves forward building terrific momentum, it becomes more complex and sophisticated (until it doesn’t—oh, those third act villains).

The fact of the matter is that “Snowpiercer” is very good, but unlike the narrative carried forth by Tilda Swinton and several journos, the movie isn’t quite a “masterpiece”—whatever that word means—and I respectfully disagree with one of our own early reviews that says touching a hair on its head “would be something close to vandalism.”

For once, Harvey might be right, in this writer’s estimation, to want to shorten the movie by 20 minutes. The movie functions like a tentpole, and is often fast and furious, but it also has almost arty and pensive starts and stops that kill its pace. From a business perspective, if you’re trying to sell and market a blockbuster, you want to actually have something resembling a blockbuster in form. And audience considerations aside, “Snowpiercer” is a little baggy and saggy in spots and regardless, you could get away from shaving some of its passive moments and an overall tightening wouldn’t hurt. IndieWire’s Eric Kohn sums it up well by calling it “unquestionably cluttered and meandering” but also an “inspired work in tune with its innovative milieu” (you can find a range of varied takes on it here).

Point being, I know it’s somewhat inconceivable to anyone who follows the simplistic narrative that the guy wearing black is always the villain (or in “Snowpiercer” the guy in the sharp dark-gray suit), but this is an instance where Harvey Weinstein isn’t quite insane. He knows his intended target audience (this is of course a movie he once wanted to release in the summer and that still could happen this year), and even though what he has on his hands isn’t quite a typical blockbuster movie—it’s too weird, dark, absurdist and odd to be just that—you can understand why he’d want to trim the more wandering and jumbled sections of the movie in favor of keeping the advancing thrust.

You should see “Snowpiercer” when it (hopefully) comes out later this year. The movie's skewed vision and overtly subversive politics will remain—they're deeply knitted into its DNA—but if losing 20 minutes would've helped Bong Joon-Ho find a wider U.S. audience (and those cuts, judiciously made, just might) and arguably make a tighter picture, then maybe—just maybe—it would've been for the best.  

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23 Comments

  • viewer | February 25, 2014 5:27 PMReply

    I saw the film recently without any knowledge about the story at all and I found it very gripping and entertaining - it didn't feel long at all! I'd say if anything had been cut I might not have understood the story properly.
    Also, I totally agree with @Mehrine: the "slower" parts have to be there to be able to process what's happening and to have a break from the action scenes. There's also quite a lot of (dark) humour in those scenes that shouldn't be lost.

  • Mad | February 24, 2014 6:40 AMReply

    wow, just wow. Well, this is the proof why "critics" are just critics.
    Why watch movies then?. Better, someone cut me the unnecessary parts and just tell the good ones, to not lose time.

  • Lou | February 24, 2014 4:07 AMReply

    Let those that defend Weinstein's view actually tell us which scenes they suggest should be cut.
    I for once felt that some subjects were a bit too hastily treated, and would have liked more details here and there.

  • Feiy | February 24, 2014 1:19 AMReply

    NO.

  • Josh | February 23, 2014 4:52 AMReply

    I mean seriously, is film an art form? In what universe could you consider Harvey Weinstein an artist? I'm not sure Perez understands how badly this article undermines his credibility as a film critic.

  • Josh | February 23, 2014 4:48 AMReply

    It's astonishing that a professional film critic at such a reputable site would claim that Harvey Weinstein knows better than Bong Joon-ho how to make a film. Astonishing and tremendously disappointing. I would trust Perez to know how to cut the film before I would trust Weinstein, but I would also assume that Bong and his creative team made the film they wanted to make, for better or worse.

  • Alex | February 21, 2014 1:28 PMReply

    You left out the part where Weinstein said he wanted to trim it down because people in the mid-West wouldn't get it.

  • Bill Thompson | February 18, 2014 2:41 PMReply

    It all comes down to artistic vision, and Mr. Weinstein has nothing to do with that. Maybe Snowpiercer will be too long and could use some cutting, but it's not up to Mr. Weinstein to decide to cut the film. The artists who were actually involved in the film have a say, it's their artistic product, and this article misses how important the right to produce the art you want to produce is to the artistic process.

  • THeplaylist sold out for 30 silver coins | February 16, 2014 1:45 PMReply

    Judases.

  • JOHN | February 15, 2014 7:13 PMReply

    I saw it. The middle part foreshadows the last parts of the film, and is very important essentially to entire storytelling and allegory although it seems boring and unnecessary. (and that part doesn't exceed 20 minutes.) It shouldn't be cut even one seconds. Besides, adding voiceovers? Oh Jesus.

  • Rick Mexico | February 15, 2014 6:52 PMReply

    It seems like you don't understand the term Neo-Marxist.

  • Mark | February 15, 2014 10:08 AMReply

    I saw it. The middle part is somewhat boring and basically unnecessary as far as the storytelling and allegory go. It could certainly be cut by at least 20 minutes.

  • Andrew F. | February 15, 2014 2:03 AMReply

    So now we have two people -- one a bloated businessman looking out for his wallet, the other a third rate movie dilettante -- who have never made a movie in their lives agreeing that one of the best filmmakers on the planet (by jury of his peers) should cut his movie by 20 minutes to "fix" it's excessive artfulness and idiosyncrasies.

    It's one thing to be a critic and, right or wrong, feel that a movie should have been cut -- you state your case and try to persuade people and if you're insightful maybe you even persuade the filmmaker. But it's outright Weinstein ass-kissing when you write a piece saying Bong Joon Ho's money machine of a movie ought to be cut to help Harvey's precious bottom line. F*** this piece, f*** this website and f*** Harvey Weinstein.

  • Gabe Toro | February 16, 2014 1:49 PM

    Then go to Aintitcool or some geek site like that. Don't hang around here.

  • JOHN | February 14, 2014 9:29 PMReply

    A proven filmmaker should have control over the final cut of their own film. If TWC were onboard from day one this may be a different story, but the film was acquired by the company. They should leave it as they saw it when they made the buy.

  • Mark T. | February 28, 2014 12:45 PM

    I fail to see what was geeky about anything Andrew said. "Don't hang around here" is super geeky though and you should feel bad for actually writing that. Also, this entire article is trollin' trollin' trollin' down the river.

  • Russell | February 14, 2014 9:09 PMReply

    Well, I've already seen the movie, uncut. In my opinion, there is nothing should be trimmed in Snowpiercer. Which scene on earth? Ok, some people may think that personally, but if one scene is chopped up, instead, this film will be ruined and lose its meanings and values completely.

  • Neil | February 14, 2014 3:40 PMReply

    I saw the movie a few months back. I personally loved the film, but if we're going to talk about trimming it, maybe trim it by 2-5 minutes? 20 minutes seem a bit much.

    Also, one of the things that admittedly even I found frustrating at first was the sound mix. I do not know if it was the screening room's problem but the film's dialogue, while audible, seemed as if recorded from a much further distance than it normally would be. After I thought about it though, I think the weird sound mix(if it was not a problem with the theater's audio) actually added to the alien nature of the environment depicted in the film. At the same time though, I can understand if this particular quality of the film ends up frustrating an English-speaking audience.

    If Weinstein really wants the film to sell, he should tell Bong to change the sound mix, not cut the film.

  • cineman | February 14, 2014 3:26 PMReply

    Weinstein has effectively been trying to stylise himself as an arthouse Roger Corman. But whereas Corman funded his movies from Day 1, so really had the right to do so, Weinstein buys in already finished movies and reshapes them, often based on egotistical whim. Film-makers have to learn to stay away from the flatulent toad, no matter how much money he promises (especially as historically he's frequently neglected to pay up).

  • Dane | February 14, 2014 3:00 PMReply

    Snowpiercer is being dumped in English speaking territories by Weinstein Co.
    Even if he gets his way and cut 20 min from the movie, he will still find another excuses to delay and make it limited release.

    CJ(the South Korean producing company of snowpiercer) will lose a lot of money from Snowpiercer.

  • Mehrine | February 14, 2014 2:59 PMReply

    "it also has almost arty and pensive starts and stops that kill its pace"

    Letting the audience breath between action scenes doesn't mean killing the movie's pace.

  • RUSSELL | February 15, 2014 8:24 AM

    I agree with you completely.

  • Gordon | February 14, 2014 2:35 PMReply

    Hell. No. A distributor overriding the intentions of a works' creators is NEVER "for the best," even (hypothetically) if it makes the work better from anybody's opinion. Artists should always, for better or for worse, have the final word.

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