My favorite podcast, How Did This Get Made, finally did an episode centered on COLOR OF NIGHT. Since I’d studied the film from an academic perspective, I looked forward to hearing thoughts how the film held up (or didn’t) from some great comedian/screenwriters. Unfortunately, the entire panel watched the film on iTunes, which through an accident of distribution is providing the critically maligned “producers cut” of the film. That version was supposed to disappear forever in 1994. EVERYONE who saw it on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, Netflix, Amazon, or cable tv (where it was a long time staple due to Bruce Willis and the sexual content) saw the Director’s Cut.
The problem here is that the Director’s Cut is a totally different film–it runs 18 minutes longer and adds a great deal of humor, character backstory, and clarity to a very complicated plot. The Director’s Cut of COLOR OF NIGHT has plenty of problems, but it’s memorably bizarre due to the quirky, off-kilter tone created by director Richard Rush. The best episodes of HDTGM is where they celebrate the gleefully demented artistic choices of writer/directors who lack restraint (CRANK, DEVIL’S ADVOCATE), which is why they chose this title to begin with. Then they watched a version where the nuttiness and plot were hacked out of it by a B-team of editors, who by all accounts failed miserably to create a version that anyone was happy with.
Here’s the article I wrote in anticipation of the episode:
About six years after the release of COLOR OF NIGHT, I was finishing up my degree in Critical Studies at USC. I had become a big fan of director Richard Rush’s filmography and did the first in-depth analysis of his entire career as an independent study project. After reading every article and review ever written about his films that I could track down, I spent about fifteen hours interviewing Rush at his home in Beverly Hills.
Since COLOR OF NIGHT is one of my favorite movies and HOW DID THIS GET MADE is one of my favorite podcasts, I thought I’d share some fun facts about the film that emerged from those conversations.
– When it came time to film the love scenes, Jane March changed her mind and refused to take her clothes off. Rush said it was very unpleasant situation–they were in the midst of filming a big budget movie, her contract very clearly stated exactly what she was obligated to do and she simply changed her mind. Rush said convincing her to do those scenes “felt like raping your leading lady.” The odd thing about the situation was that Jane March had been hired based on her previous film THE LOVER, a movie centered around explicit sex scenes with full nudity.
– The actual budget of the film was $37 million. The reported $44 million budget was either an exaggeration or $7 million went to the financier/producers off the top. Because the film was internationally financed with a big star, it was possible the financiers turned a nice profit before the film went into production.
– Maxim named the four-minute interlude as “the #1 sex scene of all time.” That’s what Rush was going for. And yes, the juicy pink steak that is served to Bruce Willis’ character in the middle of the sequence is designed to suggest sexual imagery. (Rush’s FREEBIE AND THE BEAN also cuts away from a sex scene and the next shot is a steak being opened up).
– Rush’s first choice for the role of “Buck” was Steve Railsback but Bruce Willis had casting approval and vetoed him. The role went to Lance Henriksen.
– About 1-in-4 test audience members figured out the twist. According to Rush, they still enjoyed the film as much as those who didn’t see the ending coming. Most critics weren’t surprised.
– Rush had final cut on the film. When the producer wasn’t happy with test audience scores, he had a producer’s cut assembled. Rush agreed to let them use the producer’s cut if it scored higher with test audiences. It did not, so the producers fired Rush. Rush then had a heart attack and in the midst of a PR disaster, the producers quickly agreed to a unique settlement. The producer’s cut would be used in U.S. theaters, Rush’s version would play internationally, and everywhere on cable and home video. The producer’s cut would go away permanently. Unfortunately, most of the reviews you’ll see on Rotten Tomatoes refer to this producer’s cut, which is substantially different than the Director’s Cut. Because of Rush’s popularity as a filmmaker, many critics reviewed the “Director’s Cut” when it was released on video and had kinder things to say.
– The producer’s cut wasn’t just shorter, it deleted the heads and tails of many scenes. In Rush’s eyes, this destroyed much of the craftsmanship and creativity he brought to the project. Rush carefully plans out his shots to connect the end of a scene with the beginning of the next one. For example, after Bakula’s character dies, a helicopter flies by in the background.
The next shot features Bruce Willis being pulled out of a cop car. A helicopter light shines down on him. The sound of a helicopter plays over both shots, connecting the two.
Here, there is a literal/physical object connecting the scenes but Rush’s work also features transitions that create humor (such as the steak) or touch on theme.
– The unrated Director’s Cut is not the filmmaker’s definitive vision. Recovering from a heart attack, Rush had to head back to the editing room and had only two weeks to assemble his version. By that point, the film cuttings were disorganized and some were damaged (this was before digital editing, so the physical editing process where film strips were glued together took a lot longer.) Rush only had time to re-assemble the full plot but did not have time to pare down the scenes, so the movie runs long.
– The producer’s cut ran between 110-120 minutes and included 1 new scene directed by George Cosmatos (TOMBSTONE). Rush’s “Directors Cut” is 139 minutes including opening and closing credit sequences. The “Director’s Cut” features Bruce Willis talking aloud to himself poetically as Jane March enters and exits, a lesbian love scene, and more expository scenes with Reuben Blades’ detective character as well as additional information about the detective’s connection to Buck.
– The bombastic musical score is often mentioned as one of the film’s problems. The music and volume levels you’re hearing are part of the hastily assembled “Director’s Cut”. The film went to theaters with far more restrained temp music (same melody) that was shown to test audiences. Composer Dominic Frontiere performed this temp score on his keyboard. Since they had already paid for the London Symphony Orchestra, Rush and Frontiere went to London to record the Director’s Cut music after the film’s theatrical release.
– One recurring symbol in the film is a keyhole. Early on, Bruce Willis speaks to a patient and responds her approach “is like looking through a keyhole. It’s a very limited view of the truth.” The Malibu house’s gate also resembles a keyhole. And when Scott Bakula’s character dies, the blood splatters on to the wall in a skeleton key shape. I asked Rush how this effect was created. He claimed that he wasn’t aware of it at all. (This was before the DVD was available, so I didn’t have a pic to show him). Maybe I’m overanalyzing. Do you think this looks like a skeleton key or is it just a random blood splatter?
– The original ending suggested Bruce Willis and Jane March’s characters would not end up together. Rush never had time to edit this interaction so it stayed out of the film.
– The first credited writer on the project is Billy Ray, who is now one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters (CAPTAIN PHILLIPS). He claims the final version has nothing to do with his spec script in plot or character. Rush did his own polish before filming.
– In recent years, the only thing Bruce Willis has said about the film in retrospect is that “it didn’t work.”
– Richard Rush’s previous film THE STUNTMAN earned him Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film was nominated for six Golden Globes including Best Picture. He was slated to direct his Vietnam drug running comedy AIR AMERICA with Sean Connery and Kevin Costner when the studio head was fired and jumped on to the project as a producer. He and Rush had a different vision for the film, so Rush left and after other writers came in. A less zany version of AIR AMERICA was produced starring Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr.
– Rush has a wild sense of humor and part of what makes his movies interesting is his willingness to incorporate broad comedy into otherwise serious situations. His style came to fruition with THE STUNTMAN, which is an action/comedy/thriller/love story/roller coaster ride. Many of these traits are on display in COLOR OF NIGHT, which has a lot of great laughs and sharp dialogue.
– As part of his earlier relationship with Cinergi (the company that financed COLOR OF NIGHT) Richard Rush was one of the directors who gave development feedback with an eye to direct ROBOCOP and TOTAL RECALL. When he passed on ROBOCOP, Rush recommended Paul Verhoeven, who had never done an English language film before. Verhoeven got the job and later went on to direct TOTAL RECALL, BASIC INSTINCT, and STARSHIP TROOPERS.
– Rush was also attached to direct Bruce Willis in DIE HARD 3 (with a cruise ship takeover plot) but fell off the project after COLOR OF NIGHT.
– Richard Rush claims to have discovered the rack focus and pioneered the technique with cinematographer Lazlo Kovacs in their late 1960’s low budget films. Rush used this formal technique to help create different perspectives and unveil new information within the same shot.