Why There’s A #ReleasetheAyerCut Campaign
Or, the Test Case for Taking a Movie from its Director
Thus began the frantic tinkering with writer/director David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, which would release in late 2016 to tepid reviews yet a solid box office of $746 million. The story of the vast amount of the rushed conception, publicized re-shoots, and editing and tone changes Ayer was pressured to make to the original script and footage of that movie is also a legendary tale of woe for that movie’s director, as summarized at the time of release by the Hollywood Reporter in their article ‘Suicide Squad’s’ Secret Drama: Rushed Production, Competing Cuts, High Anxiety.
With the success of the #ReleasetheSnyderCut campaign culminating in the release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max, a similar campaign has spring up to release David Ayer’s original edit of that movie represented by the #ReleasetheAyerCut hashtag. An Inverse.com “Codex” article summarizes this effort and the original unmodified film it seeks to unearth. The version of the film that was released in theatres was controversially commissioned to be edited by the same trailer company, Trailer Park, that assembled Suicide Squad’s popular trailer set to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
This final development led to a veritable squad of editors on the film, breaking the traditional arrangement of a director working closely with his editor and assistant director on the final edit. Edits of Suicide Squad now appeared sans director from Trailer Park themselves, with Ayer pressured into smiling public assent at release, but clearly unhappy with results after some time to think.
“This [Comic-Con] trailer nailed the tone and intention of the film I made. Methodical. Layered. Complex, beautiful and sad. After the BVS reviews shell shocked the leadership at the time, and the success of Deadpool – My soulful drama was beaten into a ‘comedy.'”@DavidAyerMovies
I think it’s reasonable to speculate that this development was ominous and chilling to the community of directors in professional film. It wouldn’t be the last DC Film to send that impression to the filmmaking community.
I don’t know that the Ayer cut of Suicide Squad would improve the movie, or its function as a chapter in the longer DCEU story-line, the way Zack Snyder’s Justice League clearly has since its release. If the greatest sin of the DCEU in general, and specifically 2017’s Justice League, was to fail to take the time to properly introduce its characters then Suicide Squad was born with that as its Original Sin. Once again, the problem traces back to the studio scheduling titles of movies as products on a calendar. In a serial story-line that makes sense, or at least is vaguely similar to the way the comic stories operated, Suicide Squad is a title uniting the anti-hero versions of the villains already introduced in individual hero movies. In the DCEU as released, the team-up of antagonists from other titles is instead Chapter 3.
In fact, it’s very telling that the motion-graphics animated-text character introductions are one of the clearest and most obvious insertions into the film on behalf of the promotional media company that took over the editing. It’s practically the BvS “Metahuman Thesis” QuickTime playlist of this movie. To my mind, it places an obvious day-glow animated tag on the clear problem area of the entire DCEU: rushed character introductions. This movie, as it was released in theaters, just lets you see WB again try out a cynical collectible digital trading-card approach, throwing it up there on the Big Screen with splashier logo design to see if it sticks.
Yet it’s also hard for me to imagine the Ayer Cut, not purported to have hours of unused footage in the can like ZSJL did, would do a better job at what amounts to be an impossible task.
And with Warner Brothers already revisiting that property in a semi-sequel/semi-reboot handed to James Gunn already getting glowing advance reviews, the #ReleasetheAyerCut is unlikely to succeed. More new characters are coming, and perhaps playing with the disposable nature of characters in this series is its best direction to move forward. I remain hopeful for The Suicide Squad, despite the bitter fact that WB poaching James Gunn from a run of success at Marvel is practically the same tactic as subbing Joss Whedon in for Zack Snyder on Justice League.
As the advance notes come in positively for The Suicide Squad, typical social media pking and prodding about its predecessor has prompted David Ayer’s likely final word on the subject, via Twitter on July 29, 2021:
“I put my life into Suicide Squad, I made something amazing—My cut is intricate and emotional journey with some bad people who are shit on and discarded (a theme that resonates in my soul). The studio cut is not my movie. Read that again.
And my cut is not the 10 week director’s cut — it’s a fully mature edit by Lee Smith standing on the incredible work by John Gilroy. It’s all Steven Price’s brilliant score, with not a single radio song in the whole thing.
It has traditional character arcs, amazing performances, a solid 3rd Act resolution. A handful of people have seen it. If someone says they have seen it, they haven’t…”
“…I’ve never told my side of the story and I never will … I keep my covenants. I’m old school like that. So I kept my mouth shut and took the tsunami of sometimes shocking personal criticism. Why? That’s what I’ve done my whole life. Real talk I’d rather get shot at.
I’m so proud of James and excited for the success that’s coming. I support WB and am thrilled the franchise is getting the legs it needs. I’m rooting for everyone, the cast, the crew. Every movie is a miracle. And James’ brilliant work will be the miracles of miracles. I appreciate your patience. I will no longer speak publicly on the matter.”@DavidAyerMovies
The Wondrous Win of Wonder Woman
After the dust settled on the late 2016 release of Suicide Squad, in early 2017, the focus on Justice League intensified feverishly at the behest of the new voices contributing to the chorus of producers on the project. The influence of Geoff Johns as producer had risen steadily over the months, coming from DC Entertainment’s arm of the corporation and many years of successfully writing for multplie DC comics titles, empowered by the studio’s amazing full-body flinch to the critical response to Batman V Superman.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the movies, until recently, had very little influence from the core DC Entertainment team, who had done so well elsewhere. “It took some work for us to earn our stripes, I think, with the rest of the studio and filmmakers,” says the company’s boyish chief creative officer, Geoff Johns, sitting at a long table alongside a clutch of DC executives in a San Diego Marriott on the first day of this July’s San Diego Comic-Con. But in the past 16 months, they’ve gained significantly more influence on the movie operation, and that change is already bearing fruit. “It’s not chaos,” DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson assures me, seated near Johns. “It’s intentional.”Abraham Resiman, Vulture – “DC Rethinks Its Universe” – July, 2017
With Justice League’s scheduled slot coming at the end of that same year, all the hand-wringing focus at the studio was on the upcoming team-up movie. As a result of this timing and the work of director Patty Jenkins holding the studio at bay, Warner Brothers would allow its second DCEU hero origin movie to release largely in the form in which it was originally conceived, and would seemingly be caught be surprise by the success of the movie.
Wonder Woman released in 2017, and was initially stated to be largely unchanged from its original shooting script, as reported by the Hollywood Reporter shortly after its release. Yet it’s clear how much of the press and PR surrounding the movie’s release was tightly controlled: three years later in the run-up to the release of the follow-up Wonder Woman 1984, Jenkins revealed in an interview with IGN that the studio had indeed pushed for a rework of the third act of the character’s origin film.
“The original end of the first movie was also smaller but the studio made me change it at the last minute. And so, that’s always been a little bit of a bummer that that’s the one thing people talk about because I agreed and I told the studio we didn’t have time to do it, but it was what it was. I ended up loving it, but that was not the original ending of the movie.”Patty Jenkins, heroichollywood.com – Patty Jenkins Reveals Warner Bros. Changed ‘Wonder Woman’ Third Act – Dec., 2020
Despite confirmation of this long-suspected revelation, the original Wonder Woman was too far along in production as of the release and reception of Suicide Squad for significant tinkering by the new leadership squad of Jon Berg and Geoff Johns. This DC superhero origin movie would come a full four years after the last one in the connected universe of movies, 2013’s Man of Steel, but would earn what would be the second highest box office haul of the entire DCEU to that point, pulling $820 million at the global box office, behind only the “disappointment” of Batman V Superman in its haul.
Set against the grim backdrop of the First World War, Wonder Woman finally balances a darker tone and a “real world” setting with moments of humor and heroic inspiration to achieve a union of both critical and audience acclaim. The movie even comes close to saying something about the nature of war, mankind, and violence in its exploration of its themes before its splashy pyrotechnic third act, which was the change mandated at the last minute by the studio.
So, It pisses me off now because sometimes I’ll read the reviews, and the only thing we unanimously got some shit about was that end pyrotechnics… It’s like [fans always say], ‘DC always does this!’ and the truth is, it was them. The studio did make me do that and it wasn’t right, but that’s ok.Patty Jenkins, theplaylist.net – Patty Jenkins’ Reveals Her Original ‘Wonder Woman’ Ending Was Focused On Human Ares And Less Rushed VFX & “Pyrotechnics” – Jan, 2021
Regardless of any critical dings the movie took due to mandated changes, it was an unqualified success in the eyes of Warner Brothers and the rest of the industry. To quote Scott Mendelson, a contributor at Forbes who often tracks and compares box office takes, whom I’ve often quoted to highlight his ongoing insight into WB’s variable border between satisfaction and disappointment with its DCEU releases:
Yes, the film is the first female-directed live-action movie to cross $400 million domestic and $800m worldwide. And yeah, it’s the first film directed by a woman sans a male co-director (sorry, Frozen) to so likewise as well. But you’ve heard these stats a bazillion times. Here’s one I want to bring up yet again: Wonder Woman is now Warner Bros./Time Warner Inc.’s third-biggest domestic grosser ever not adjusted for inflation behind Chris Nolan’s Dark Knight sequels. It is also the biggest domestic grosser not released by Walt Disney or Universal/Comcast Corp. since Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire ($424m in 2D) in late 2013.
And, again speaking entirely in North America for the moment, it’s the biggest 3D grosser not released by Disney or Universal since James Cameron’s Avatar back in late 2009.“Box Office: ‘Wonder Woman’ Ends Summer By Topping $800M Worldwide” Scott Mendelson – Forbes
By the time I last wrote an article exclusively about a Zack Snyder DCEU movie, I ended my article about BvS with hopes that the in-production Justice League would stay true to the now-more-successful tone and story-line set by its predecessors, despite the fact that it was announced suddenly as I was finishing the article Zack Snyder had stepped down due to a family tragedy and Joss Whedon was to step in and finish up the production.
In truth, by that time, I was far too late. Also, I’m fairly certain no one at Warner Brothers reads this particular blog.
Warner Brothers was already $20 million and several months into re-shoot production, having Whedon reshoot nearly all the connective tissue around the Justice League footage that Zack Snyder had shot the year before. If there was any indication that Geoff Johns as part of the new team of advisors on the DCEU might be in the midst of folly by “lightening up” the tone of Justice League with Joss Whedon’s work, the studio kept all messaging about it tightly controlled. Publicly, every press release from Warner Brothers cynically used Zack Snyder’s horrible family tragedy, the death by suicide of his daughter Autumn, as cover for their “polish” of the movie. Privately, his distraction with that tragedy and need to withdraw to deal with it allowed them to gut and rework the movie completely while leaving Snyder’s name on it.
This is just manipulative and awful, as it is. I also will speculate it represented a new level of injustice for the Hollywood director community.
But the story of the re-shoots themselves–and the story of the content chosen to be cut–unfold into a complete disaster colored by racism, sexism, abusive work environments, and the most soul-less of Hollywood mercenary work and forced press tours.
The Real-World Disaster of the “Josstice League” Redirect
Autumn Snyder, Zack’s daughter, died of suicide on Mar 12, 2017. This horrible blow to the Snyder family came directly during the closing of Zack Snyder’s production of Justice League, in the months scheduled for any needed re-shoots, post-production, and editing.
The production of Justice League had labored under fevered studio oversight from well before its 2016 London production. After the movie was already trimmed down from two releases to one in pre-production and conception, the actual shoot of JL would be subject to daily input from the new team of overseeing producers, Geoff Johns and Jon Berg.
The edict was clear: At least one of them had to be on the set every day.
Berg, who’s now production president at Stampede, recalls that duty as a low point. “It was really tricky and not a position that I loved, to be honest,” he says. “I tried to be forthright about what I thought creatively. My job was to try to mediate between a creator whose vision is instinctually dark and a studio that perceived, rightly or wrong, that the fans wanted something lighter. I was respectful of the director and didn’t pursue things that were coming at me from the corporate side that I thought weren’t in line with what would make the best movie.”Anthony Breznican, Vanity Fair – Justice League: The Shocking, Exhilarating, Heartbreaking True Story of #TheSnyderCut – Feb. 22, 2021
Of course, some of the less beneficial ideas coming from corporate bosses still had to be executed during the shoot. A set visit with a cadre of online bloggers and critics was even arranged to attempt to manage the pre-release perception of the movie’s tone and direction. We can hear about that now, and much more, from Zack Snyder himself in an interview on ‘Life is Short’, an podcast with Justin Long.
After Snyder departed the project, the extensive nature and expense of the re-shoots couldn’t be hidden, including the very public story of the additional expense incurred by Henry Cavill sporting a moustache for a Paramount Mission Impossible entry and not being allowed to shave it for the re-shoots. This, combined with a Collider article reporting some scuttlebutt from a retiring entertainment reporter, led to the persistent rumor that Zack Snyder was fired from the set of JL in February or March of 2017, far ahead of the May announcement of his departure. The author cheekily asks for official comment in the article… still up, still unedited:
It’s a sad story all around, and I hope that Snyder, when he’s ready, will give his side of what happened during his time overseeing the DCEU. I’m sure we’d all like to hear his perspective.Matt Goldberg, Collider – Zack Snyder Was Reportedly Fired from ‘Justice League’ – Feb. 12, 2018
Well, we have Snyder’s side of what happened at the end when he departed Justice League, and it wasn’t a dismissal in February or March despite the rumor mill and poorly updated articles that continue to feed it. In an extensive interview with Vanity Fair, Snyder lays out very clearly that the production of JL included an extended series of battles with the studio over the direction of the film, and that after the unfortunate death of his daughter he felt he could no longer successfully wage those battles when his focus and dedication were needed on his family.
The Snyders tried to keep going for two months after Autumn’s death, finding solace in finishing Justice League. But by then the situation with Warner Bros. had imploded. The official story was that the Snyders were voluntarily leaving the movie due to their family tragedy, and that Zack had handpicked Whedon to complete the movie he had planned. Only half of that was true…
Reports that Snyder himself asked Whedon for help were false. Johns, one of the studio-appointed babysitters, had been planning a Batgirl movie with Whedon, and Snyder and others say Johns recruited him to do rewrites for Justice League. (Johns’s representatives didn’t respond to a request for comment.) Once again [as he had been with Berg and John’s oversight of the original shoot], Snyder was gracious and even hopeful: “I thought maybe he could write some cool scenes. I thought that would be fun.”
Soon, it became clear that Warner Bros. was giving Whedon more and more power. He would not just advise during reshoots, but also do some directing himself. Snyder says he only had one conversation with Whedon, about the studio’s notes. Reeling from Autumn’s death—and finding anguish in their work rather than relief—Zack and Deborah quit. “We just lost the will to fight that fight in a lot of ways,” says Zack. “All of us, the whole family, we’re just so broken by [losing Autumn] that having those conversations in the middle of it really became…I was like, ‘Really?’ Frankly I think we did the right thing because I think it would’ve been either incredibly belligerent or we just rolled over.”Anthony Breznican, Vanity Fair – Justice League: The Shocking, Exhilarating, Heartbreaking True Story of #TheSnyderCut – Feb. 22, 2021
What had been a manageable scene during the initial shoot of JL with Berg and Johns assigned to be present in a “babysitter” role over Snyder became more heated as the studio notes in response to an internal cut screened for Kevin Tsujihara led to the scheduling, planning, and writing of re-shoots. The timing of the involvement of Joss Whedon in the scriptwriting comes in at this point, seemingly prompted by the calling of a writer’s audition to prompt for new mercenary talent, as covered by Screenrant in June of 2018:
In a response to today’s news that Geoff Johns is stepping down as DC’s CCO, Vulture‘s Kyle Buchanan revealed that Johns was a key figure in the Justice League script drama early on. Apparently, it was Johns who spearheaded the script changes for Justice League as production continued – something that didn’t set well with original writer Chris Terrio. Furthermore, WB allegedly set up a “footage summit” where they met with other writers about the film, Whedon included….
It was already known that Whedon had begun work on Justice League prior Snyder’s departure, but it appears he consulted much earlier on. This may also be how Whedon got his foot in DC’s door and was originally set to direct Batgirl (a film he has since stepped away from as well). Whedon isn’t the only notable name that was summoned though, regardless of when it happened. Seth Grahame-Smith was once set to direct The Flash solo movie for WB, before he stepped down over creative differences. Similarly, Heinberg cowrote Wonder Woman and Berloff wrote Straight Outta Compton (and an unused Wonder Woman script draft, according to Buchanan).Cooper Hood, ScreenRant – Rumor: Justice League Script Drama Started Long Before Joss Whedon – June 11, 2018
Another article on Comicbook.com delves into the issue at the time, and quotes the (now deleted) tweets by Kyle Buchanon, which seem to also indicate the failure of Johns’ rewrites to allay the fears of management, leading to the involvement of Whedon:
“I remember hearing that Geoff Johns rewrote so much of Justice League when Zack Snyder was still directing that Chris Terrio would complain, ‘Maybe try using some of my pages?’” wrote Vulture senior editor Kyle Buchanan on Twitter.
“WB was allegedly so unsatisfied with how the Johns/Snyder version was shaping up,” Buchanan wrote in a subsequent tweet, “that they convened a footage summit for other writers including Joss Whedon, Allan Heinberg, Seth Grahame-Smith, and Andrea Berloff to offer feedback. Then they hired Whedon.”Cameron Bonomolo, ComicBook.com – Rumor: Geoff Johns’ ‘Justice League’ Rewrites Caused Issues With Chris Terrio, WB Execs – June 12, 2018
What might have been a cynical yet simple and direct tactic to add some mitigating name appeal to the writing credits by bringing aboard Whedon—whose name at the time carried a lot of clout with comic-book movie fans and industry insiders both due to his work on the MCU Avengers films—actually had started much earlier in the writer’s room, and eventually transformed into a coup d’etat that the weakened Snyder couldn’t repel.
Joss Whedon, of course, had been poached directly from his MCU run on The Avengers, but Whedon had been an industry veteran with decades of writing, producing, and direction for movies, comics, and television.
My own knowledge of Joss Whedon and his work extends back decades as well. Two decades ago I was working at a television station in Denver that was a UPN affiliate. For those that don’t remember, UPN was the short-lived broadcast television network launched by Paramount in the mid-90’s, at about the same time as Warner Brothers launched a fledgling network, which at the time was known as The WB. It was on The WB that Whedon made his fame with the series he wrote and produced for Fox, aired initially on The WB: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
My time at the UPN affiliate in the late 90’s and early 00’s created a sense of deja vu when WB poached Whedon from the MCU. In the year 2000 Whedon’s Buffy series as well as Roswell were both big hits for the WB, both produced by Fox. That year, Whedon and the production company of Fox raised the price for the renewed contract for the final two seasons of Buffy and the continuation of Roswell. WB balked at the ask, and Fox would sell the two series to UPN, leading to Buffy to jump networks for its final two seasons. Even at my lowly position in a local affiliate in a mountain state far away and remote from either network’s management, I heard rumors about how upset Warner Brothers had been at the unexpected development. This is now 20-year-old scuttlebutt, remembered multiple ways in articles from the time. There were accusations of greed and mercenary disloyalty leveled at Joss Whedon. Paramount also accused Fox of self-dealing: making the move in order to add Buffy to the lineup for some of its owned-and-operated stations, that were also UPN affiliates.
Joss wanted more money for Buffy, TheWB didnt want to fork it over and thus cancelled the show. Since they gave up the rights to the show by cancelling it, it started a bidding war between networks and UPN won. Angel was still licensed to TheWB. And when it was cancelled, UPN didnt want to look like the network that picked up leftovers (since they picked up Buffy/Roswell from WB). Plus TheWB wouldnt cancel Angel since then they knew that UPN would have probably picked up it and aired alongside Buffy. TheWB was known for being cheap in its later days, it cut costs for just about every one of its shows.Primal Slayer, Buffy-boards.com – “Network change” – Aug. 25, 2010
Whedon would proceed to produce Firefly for Fox, following that up with his feature film directorial debut in Serenity. In the intervening periods he would also write for comics, penning a celebrated run of Marvels’ Astonishing X-Men. Following this, he would contribute in the role of writer to many films in the fledgling “Phase 1” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directing the very successful debut of The Avengers to film would turn out to be his “big break” as a director, and he would follow it up directing the next in the series in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, to also stellar, if somewhat lesser, box office results in 2015.
Therefore, to me, the 2017 move for Warner Brothers to hire Whedon away from Marvel Studios struck me as predictably mercenary and cynical. Not only had Whedon sold his efforts to the competition of the organization that nurtured him into the director’s role, but he was working again with the same competing organization that he had himself sold out years before. Of course, this was is all just business in Hollywood, and it was years later, negotiating with a different division, managed by different executives, in an organization with significant turnover before and since.
But the tactic of turning coat on the part of Whedon, and of buying out the talent of the competition on the part of the studio, were both familiar.
After Snyder stepped down from Justice League, Whedon along with the assistance of Berg and Johns would re-engineer the film extensively, and the re-shoots would expand in scope and intent. Publicly, the re-shoots were still the subject of jokes about Henry Cavill’s moustache and speculation about Zack Snyder’s departure. Behind the scenes, they had become a pressure-cooker wherein Berg, Johns, and Whedon would alienate the actors and crew with heavy-handed tactics that would later draw accusations of racism, abuse, and unprofessional behavior, that would spark outrage.