Sony Screen Gems Owes Hal Masonberg an Apology.

Posted by Peter Hall - January 26th 2009 @ 10:38 am

It is providence that two pieces of media would find their way to me in relative proximity to one another.  The first was the Writer’s/Director’s cut of THE PLAGUE (review of the studio cut).  The second was David Mamet’s sapient book on the Hollywood system, BAMBI VS. GODZILLA.

The first is the still unreleased product of an uphill-on-ice-skates battle between a director, Hal Masonberg, and a bullheaded studio cog, Sony’s Screen Gems.  The other is, well, from the brilliant title one should be able to discern how it applies to the long gestating plight of Masonberg.

A quick refresher.  THE PLAGUE was released in 2006 as “CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE”, starring James Van Der Beek and Ivana Milicevic.  It was a not-quite-there blend of science fiction and horror concerning an alternate world in which adolescents every where suddenly went into a coma that lasted a decade.  Upon awakening, the brood/hive/collective/almost-undead rise against their caretakers, all on the eve of Van Der Beek’s return to free society.  What started off promising never rose above Movie of the Week status.

Almost immediately upon writing a review of the film I learned that what ended up on store shelves was far removed from the intentions of director Masonberg.  In fact, Screen Gems literally removed Masonberg from the project, re-edited it from its first to final and released it with the eye catching CLIVE BARKER moniker.  You can read all about that at SpreadingThePlague.com.  I hadn’t suspected that such shenanigans had gone on behind the scenes, yet was hardly surprised by the knowledge.

Flash forward to a few weeks ago when the director’s cut fell in my lap.  I figured I’d better watch the studio’s cut again so I Netflixed it a few nights prior.  Then I watched Masonberg’s cut.  I was hesitant to do a write up on the matter as I couldn’t quite correlate all of my impressions.  Then on a fourteen hour flight I read BAMBI VS. GODZILLA.  Ever since I’ve been unable to shake a paragraph from the playwright/screenwritter/philosopher/genius’s chapter on “The Development Process”, a paragraph that may as well have been written about THE PLAGUE.  Much to my disillusionment, however, it is a paragraph that applies to an unquantifiable number of films.

In a scant few sentences, Mamet has summed the warring sides of artists and producers; the ones who spend years refining the precise methodology of their craft and the dreaded ones with the check books who think any problem can be solved by, “going in a room”:

“For this desire to “go in a room” is, to the artist, heresy.  It is the reductio ad absurdum of “reality” programming: having determined that it’s not necessary to pay either actors or writers, the deluded additionally discover that it is not necessary even to fee the gods – that insight, idiosyncrasy, inspiration, patience, and effort are the concerns of the weak and misguided craftsperson and artist.

No, the exhortation to “go in a room” is not mere crime but blasphemy.  It is not sufficient to shake one’s head; one most lower the eyes.”

Having seen the intended cut of the film I lower my eyes at you, Screen Gems and Midnight Picture Show.  I do not think that the director’s cut of THE PLAGUE is an unreleased masterpiece, but it is a hell of a lot better than the “in a room” cut released by the same monkey’s on typewriters that pushed the afterbirth that is the PROM NIGHT remake into the world.

I understand that the artist and the bean counter are always at odds.  As someone who has a profound respect for capitalism, I even respect that, but there is a difference between casting an inferior but bankable lead and giving all of the creative talent involved with a film’s creation the boot, bringing in an AVID bot and turning a cohesive vision into the film equivalent of scrapple.

For example, I’d seen the commercial version of THE PLAGUE twice and it wasn’t until seeing the real cut that I realized James Van Der Beek was not returning to his father’s house after being released from prison but his brother’s.  That’s no small detail in the scope of the story.  It explains his relationship with his brother as well as his lack of attachment to his comatose nephew, neither of which made any sense in the released cut.  Now, for all I know the studio’s job may actually feature that little distinction, but even if it did the fact that I didn’t pick up on it twice is indicative of how uninvolved that version is.  If my attention has been divided within 10 minutes, something is rotten in a California board room.

Masonberg’s cut is a nicer, slower draw.  The only enjoyment from the studio end are the eye opening scenes of dozens upon dozens of children having simultaneous seizures – and that is only because they quicken up their molasses editing.  In the real film, there is a build to those sequences, discussions on the repercussions of a world with globally comatose children, lingering shots of a world incapable of moving on, musings of mankind withering on the vine.  Almost all of these poignant moments have been excised like a child pushing all his brussel sprouts to one side of the plate.

I could understand if Masonberg’s version was the inferior of the two.  I could understand if all of this was planned before filming.  I cannot understand why they would abandon important footage without a single gain.  There is not one benefit to booting the entire creative team from the project in post production.  I mean, hell, Masonberg’s cut is exponentially better than the studio’s and he edited without ADR, without proper sound editing, without color timing and sourced entirely from the dailies.  That is just embarrassing, Screen Gems.

Actually, I lied.  I understand why they did it.  I understand why in the same way I understand people who wear popped collars.  They’re delusional.  They have a warped ideal that they know better, that their shit is the shit and those dorky, conniving writers and directors and cinematographers and composers are all thieves, that if the suits just go in a room long enough they can deliver the same thing.  Clearly they cannot.

Look, Masonberg’s assemblage of the matter is not a godsend.  Much of the action later on in the film is still wracked by the lifeless stench of budget constraints, but at least the story has meaning.  It’s not a great movie, but even in its improved/still unfinished state it’s a far cry from awful.  I have a damn hard time believing that his version of the film would have been any less commercially viable than the tripe peddled.  Either way this was not destined for the fiscal history books.  It was a small time passion project.  As it stands it is just small time and passionless.  I wouldn’t even call it a project.  Hal Masonberg’s THE PLAGUE was a project.  CLIVE BARKER’S THE PLAGUE is a deliverable.

Yet here we stand.  There is a piece of crap on store shelves and, if I recall, a million dollar plus price tag on the rights for Hal Masonberg to put that crap behind him and finish the movie as he wanted to.  Real dick move, Sony.  Real dick move.  Just let the man finish his passion project.  There is free publicity in doing the right thing.  Horror blogs across the net may actually talk about your company without invoking the bile demon that is PROM NIGHT 2008.  I’m not saying fans will forgive you for unleashing that kick in the teeth, but they’ll certainly soften if you stop insisting an unheard of director pay you an unheard of sum to complete a movie you already made unpopular and probably unprofitable.

It’s win, win.  Man up, Screen Gems.

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rss 2 comments
  1. RJ Kennedy
    January 26th, 2009 | 3:02 pm | #1

    Well stated. I couldn’t agree more.

    I have been following this closely and it is clear that the geeks who took the film project away from Hal Masonberg not only shat upon him, but essentially (by royally screwing up a decent flick) ripped out his hair to wipe themselves afterward.

    Sony should apologize–then cowboy up and let Masonberg finish the real version of the film he wrote and directed. If they don’t…well, shame on them.

  2. R.J. Sayer
    January 30th, 2009 | 2:03 pm | #2

    you have respect for capitalism?

    sucker.

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