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The Legend of Harvey Scissorhands

He wins Oscars, but does Harvey Weinstein actually make movies better?

No one seems to know who first coined the phrase “Harvey Scissorhands,” the shorthand for Miramax cofounder and current Weinstein Company boss Harvey Weinstein that stems from his notorious tendency to require movies he’s produced or acquired to be shortened, re-scored, and/or fundamentally restructured to his liking for theatrical release. The phrase apparently emerged out of the ether and became common parlance sometime after a Village Voice article cited the cuts made to early Miramax successes like The Thin Blue Line and Scandal. As many have noted, unusually severe editing has been a signature of Harvey Weinstein’s work ever since the first Miramax hit he had a hand in shaping, 1982’s The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, a 90-minute concert film spliced together from footage shot at two different Amnesty International benefits. Harvey himself has suggested that his knife-handed alter ego was born out of sour grapes; as he told Rolling Stone in 1997, “Harvey Scissorhands was a comment by our competition to say, ‘Hey, filmmakers, don’t go there, it’s a scary place — they’ll hurt your movie.'” But according to producer Stephen Woolley, quoted in Peter Biskind’s 2004 American indie-film exposé, Down and Dirty Pictures, Weinstein embraces the legend. “I don’t think Harvey for one minute sees it as being derogatory or negative, because he got results from doing it. ‘Harvey Scissorhands’ is a compliment.”

Earlier this month at the Toronto Film Festival, Weinstein hogged headlines twice for the work of his dark half. At a public conversation moderated by Tina Brown, Weinstein boasted of his role in the editorial process on Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York:

Marty presented the final cut of the movie and it’s three hours and 36 minutes. If you thought there was action in Gangs of New York the movie, you should have seen that editing room! But we got the movie down to two hours and 36. The end of the story is that the movie was a big success, 10 Academy Award nominations and grossed $200 million dollars [sic], it revived his career after a couple of mishaps, and he says, “Harvey would always say to me, ‘I want the director’s cut put out.'” So he says in the DVD commentary, “You think I’m that fucking stupid that I’m gonna put out the director’s cut at three hours and 36 minutes? That would prove Harvey’s a genius!” So, that’s how final cut works.

That cocktail-party-perfect happy ending was contrasted by news of an editorial tug-of-war still ongoing between Weinstein and the director of one of the Weinstein Company’s key awards season horses, August: Osage County. After the adaptation of Tracy Letts’s play, starring Meryl Streep, premiered in Toronto, director John Wells acknowledged that its ending — which differs from the conclusion of the play and was inserted under the watchful eye of Weinstein after test audiences reacted badly to a more faithful version — continued to be a subject of debate. “I’m not sure I’m OK with doing it that way,” Wells admitted to the L.A. Times. When the film opens theatrically, Wells added, “it’s possible you’ll see something different.”

The differences in the positioning of Weinstein’s editorial interference in the two stories reminded me of a quote from Ken Auletta’s massive 2002 New Yorker profile of Harvey, who felt he was then at a moment of personal transition. After promising that 2002 was the year he planned “to go out of my way” to change his abusive behavior, Weinstein watched a cut of would-be awards contender The Hours and mused, “Do I be the good Harvey or the bad Harvey?” As documented by Auletta, Harvey went on to wage full-on war with producer Scott Rudin over the film’s music, its premiere date, and its final cut. After Weinstein kept his promise to hold The Hours back from premiering at the Venice Film Festival, Rudin conceded to making some of the requested changes to the music and editorial tempo. Still, Rudin fumed, not over the changes themselves, but over the manner in which Harvey demanded his way, without even trying to collaborate or compromise: “[Harvey] has never been willing to discuss anything with me related to the finishing of this film.”

2002 was not the first time Weinstein promised to turn over a new leaf and then didn’t — in 1994, when asked about how he might change his style in the wake of Miramax’s acquisition by Disney, Weinstein told Variety, “I’m hanging up my scissors” — nor was it the only time a producer or director publicly complained of suffering Weinstein’s abuse and then came back for more later. Rudin famously worked with — and again bitterly fought — Weinstein in 2008 on The Reader. Why would someone like Rudin subject himself to this repeatedly? Because for all the tsuris involved in working with Harvey, the power games and his infuriating, sometimes seemingly arbitrary need to exercise creative control, he gets results. Both The Hours and The Reader won Best Actress Oscars for their stars, and those two statuettes are but an infinitesimal fraction of the dozens of Academy accolades that Harvey has helped procure for stars and filmmakers through his savvy marketing and relentless seduction of voters. Last season alone, Harvey was thanked in acceptance speeches more often than God.

If there’s one trope that comes up again and again in the field of Weinstein studies, it’s that even people who hate Harvey admit that he has great taste and is generally the world’s greatest at finding ways to get mass audiences and Oscar voters to swallow films that, to one degree or another, defy traditional notions of commerciality. You don’t have to be the worst breed of Hollywood asshole to want to communicate to a lot of people and be recognized for your work, and in many cases, for everything he’s done that’s self-serving or misguided or totally despicable, Harvey Weinstein has given great filmmakers those opportunities on a scale that they probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Gangs of New York The tall tale of Harvey Scissorhands continues to spread through the land because there’s a lot of truth to it. This year, much chatter has surrounded Weinstein’s role in the restructuring of two Asian films with crossover potential, Wong Kar Wai’s historical romance/martial arts epic The Grandmaster and the upcoming Snowpiercer, directed by Bong Joon-ho and starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton. For his part, Wong has insisted that he was a willing participant in creating a second version of his film for non-Chinese audiences, who “don’t have much information or knowledge about the background and history, [so] you have to give enough information for them to get into the story.” Bong, too, has suggested that reports that Weinstein has demanded he cut 20 minutes out of his English-language sci-fi extravaganza have been overblown. “Weinstein is actually being pretty soft toward editing, probably because it’s noticed how critics have praised the film and know how angry movie fans get over new edits,” Bong said in August. “They even asked me which parts I want to include in the film.”

Is a filmmaker expressing gratitude that a distributor would consult with him before recutting his movie so that it “will be understood by audiences in Iowa … and Oklahoma” sort of like an abuse victim rationalizing scars as marks of love? Is “artistic integrity” necessarily a fixed thing? Does asking an artist to change his vision — even if it means that an exponentially larger audience will see a work than would be the case if it were left in its original form — violate that vision, selling it out to the extent that it might as well never have existed?

Even if the truth is that every filmmaker who works in commercial film (and a lot of quasi-commercial/independent film) makes compromises, often based on the promise of saving money or making money for someone or some entity who will give the artist the wherewithal to connect to an audience, to most cinephiles the notion of the “director’s cut” is sacrosanct. Consider the argument made by Mr. Beaks at Ain’t It Cool News, who bashed Weinstein’s “laughably arrogant” assumption that he knows better than Bong and other internationally renowned filmmakers whose movies Weinstein has drastically altered. “[If] you really love movies, how can you in good conscience shave a Zhang Yimou film down to its most salable elements?”

Of course, “shorter” doesn’t necessarily equal “better” or even “more lucrative,” but then again the Zhang Yimou film in question is the Jet Li–starring Hero, which Weinstein delayed and then released as a 20-minutes-lighter cut that opened at no. 1 at the U.S. box office in 2004 and is the third-highest grossing foreign-language film ever released in North America. And while I think the recut of The Grandmaster is pretty much a travesty, the fact that it has so far earned more than $6.5 million in the U.S. — more than twice the tally of Wong’s previous biggest hit here, In the Mood for Love — maybe means that what I think doesn’t matter.

Plenty of filmmakers have lambasted Weinstein for his savage butchery — Luc Besson, Mike Leigh, James Ivory — while others have praised Harvey for helping them find their film in the editing room. Scorsese himself told Roger Ebert that the 168-minute version of Gangs — which was Scorsese’s most successful film in the decade since Cape Fear — is his director’s cut, which might be true. But it’s definitely true that any discussion of the editing of Gangs of New York always calls to mind, as critic Peter Bradshaw put it, “a butcher — an unprincipled villain who cuts and slashes, mangles and chomps: Harvey Weinstein.”

Sling Blade Harvey “The Butcher” Weinstein regularly upstages the stars and makers of the movies he distributes, and that is apparently intentional. “Using a baseball analogy, we’re player-managers,” Harvey’s partner and brother, Bob Weinstein, told the L.A. Times way back in 1989. “We don’t want to be managers. There’s no fun in it for us if we’re not involved in the day-to-day activities.” In other words, according to the Weinstein way it’s not enough to exercise strategy behind the scenes. They also have to be out there on the field, publicly saving the game.

Here’s a theory: Maybe Harvey is able to hold that spotlight because he always puts on a show that’s unlike any other in town. He’s a full-on emotional animal, one who seemingly — for better or, usually, for worse — makes no effort to contain his organic responses in a field in which most people with power cultivate a façade based on falsehoods and totally fake camaraderie. “Let me translate brutality in the movie industry: honesty,” Harvey told Auletta. “They say it’s brutal. Yeah, it’s brutal to tell the truth in an industry where everyone lies.” Through all the bad behavior, the flashes of genius and the horrible errors in judgment and spending, Harvey’s motives are always transparent: Even when it’s being couched as commerce, everything he does seems to stem from how he feels and his anxiety over how he thinks he’s being perceived. His insatiable Oscar hunger is maybe just a means to an end, a quest to surround himself with physical objects to attest to his dominance — over Hollywood, and over his own inferiority complex.

My favorite example of this is probably what happened with Sling Blade. According to Biskind’s book, Billy Bob Thornton’s directorial debut came along when Harvey was feeling particularly angry and impotent after having lost a bidding war for Shine, for which Geoffrey Rush would win an Oscar. Thirty minutes into watching Sling Blade, Harvey was convinced he was looking at “an American classic.” He got on the phone with sales agent Cassian Elwes and allowed himself to be conned into bidding $10 million — then considered an absurd overpay for an indie — in order to take every other potential bid off the table.

This was January 1996, two months before an Oscar ceremony in which the only Miramax films to really contend would be Mighty Aphrodite (two nominations, one win) and Il Postino (five nominations, four losses). This must have felt like a step backward after the 1995 ceremony, in which Miramax had five films competing in the major categories at an event that was defined by the dichotomy between the bloated, square Hollywood status quo and the cool, Euro-inflected alternative represented by Team Miramax. Pulp Fiction vs. Forrest Gump was just the tip of the iceberg: There’s getting a Best Picture nomination for the first indie film to gross more than $100 million, and then there are real baller moves like getting two nominations for Krzysztof Kieślowski and helping to invent Kate Winslet and Peter Jackson by forcing Heavenly Creatures into the conversation. Less than a year later, Harvey must have felt like he was falling behind in the dick-measuring contest that was mid-1990s indie-to-mainstream crossover film; he smelled Oscars on Sling Blade and pounced.

He also had gotten out his checkbook — and had agreed to give Thornton final cut — before he finished watching the movie. The very next day, feeling a wave of overspender’s panic if not flat-out buyer’s remorse, Harvey tried to rescind this untested director’s final cut and asked Thornton to cut 20 minutes. Thornton refused, so Weinstein refused to accept delivery of the film — and thus refused to pay for it — until the running time was truncated. According to Elwes, at one point Weinstein called Thornton at home in the middle of the night, and the following exchange ensued:

HARVEY: I’m a big, fat, hairy Jew worth $180 million and I can do whatever I want! I’m gonna sell the picture to HBO. You’re not gonna get a Best Picture.

BILLY BOB: Ah don’t give a sheet. Ah made the movie fo’ me, not fo’ anyone else, ah’ve seen it and I’ve enjoyed it, so fuck yuh. Ah’m going to stick a fork in yo’ neck, motherfucka. Yuh not so tough, ah’m Billy Bob, ah’m gonna kick yuh ass, take yuh out to the wagon and whup your butt!

HARVEY: You’re a redneck, an ignorant piece of shit!

BILLY BOB: Ah’m gonna cut off a horse’s head and put it in yuh bed.

HARVEY: This is because I’m Jewish, right? Tell the truth, Billy.

This is about as convivial as threatening banter between two self-loathing narcissists gets, no? In the end, Thornton wouldn’t budge.

Back then, Harvey Scissorhands wasn’t flaunting his shears. In April 1997, Harvey told Rolling Stone, “We have never, ever cut a movie behind a director’s back.” By 2002, speaking to Auletta, Weinstein massaged that stance, now claiming that he had never screened one of his cuts without getting the director’s permission. One can imagine those permission-seeking conversations went a lot like his late-night exchange with Thornton, or maybe more like the time Julie Taymor dismissed Harvey’s request to re-edit Frida and the mogul in turn threatened to “beat the shit out of” Taymor’s partner. Though no one could argue in favor of his methods, Sling Blade may have been one case where Harvey Scissorhands’ instincts proved spot-on: Thornton would win the Oscar for Best Screenplay in March 1997 and later, in a documentary on the Weinsteins, Sling Blade producer Larry Meistrich would admit that Weinstein’s edit was better than Thornton’s.

The success of Sling Blade changed the indie-film acquisitions market, sparking a boom atmosphere that would sustain well into the next decade. Thornton won a rejuvenated career in front of the camera and a $50 million budget from Columbia Pictures to adapt and direct Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. Because the Sling Blade deal had included a Miramax option on Thornton’s next three films, the Weinsteins were roped into Thornton’s Western as equity partners. When Thornton and Columbia’s Amy Pascal butted heads over his original, three-hour-and-40-minute cut, Miramax stepped in to take over domestic distribution, with Harvey promising Thornton he’d work his usual Oscar-positioning magic to “get you all these Academy nominations.” It was an empty promise: Still smarting from their feuds over Sling Blade, Weinstein got revenge by enforcing the contractual stipulation that Thornton had final cut only if he was able to deliver a version that clocked in at or under two hours. All the Pretty Horses — or at least, the 116 minutes of it that Miramax released — bombed at the box office and earned zero Academy nominations, and those close to the project cast the blame on Harvey Scissorhands. The unlikely prophet in this case was Ben Affleck, who, according to Biskind’s book, had defended Thornton’s prerogative against overcutting with a warning of what would happen should he give in: “The critics aren’t gonna respect the artistry, the genius of it, because you’ll have truncated the movie, and audiences are not gonna pile in, because there aren’t gonna be any Wookies or Hobbits.”

Affleck’s succinct summing-up of the paradox of drastic recutting would seem to apply to both of Weinstein’s recent reported editorial scandals — ending August: Osage County with a potentially redemptive shot of Julia Roberts isn’t exactly going to suddenly allow an adult drama to do Avengers business — but particularly to Snowpiercer. The report that Bong was asked to cut precisely 20 minutes seems particularly suspect: It’s the exact same number of minutes Harvey reportedly insisted be shorn off of a number of other films, including Sling Blade, Hero, and Shaolin Soccer. “Twenty minutes” might be something of a magic number for Harvey, like an obsessive-compulsive tic. It’s one thing to insist that a three-plus-hour film be shaved down to around two — that’s at least financially logical in that it allows for more daily screenings — but it’s another to ask multiple filmmakers to cut 20 minutes from very different films, as though a single reel (in old-school celluloid terms) has the power of panacea. In a world in which the top-grossing films of the past three years have all been over two hours, maybe it does nothing to make the movie more commercial — but it does make Harvey feel like he’s the one who really has the power by undercutting the filmmaker’s signature, and that’s what he needs emotionally in order to work his magic in a film’s favor. And maybe, just maybe, part of that magic is creating this spectacle in which Harvey Scissorhands is the villain in conflict with the innocent auteur. Weinstein gets his publicity and the filmmaker gets his own reputation bolstered by the sympathy of fans and journalists who continue to be shocked — shocked! — that a director’s prerogative could be anything other than inviolable. Maybe Good Harvey and Bad Harvey are working to the same end after all.

The former film editor of the L.A. Weekly, Karina Longworth (@karinalongworth) has contributed to The Guardian, NPR, Vulture, and other publications. Her book Al Pacino: Anatomy of an Actor is out now.

Filed Under: Celebrities, Harvey Weinstein, Movies

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