One of the adages Hollywood used to say it lived by is that you don't make films, you remake them. It was true enough, and it meant that you re-shot and reedited a movie until you got it right.
In the old days it may only have been the instincts of the moguls that commanded the re-tailoring. But often the restlessness or the stony silences of sneak preview audiences in Pasadena, Santa Barbara or San Bernardino were more eloquent than the comment cards they filled out.
These days, the remaking of films--and certainly the successful remaking of films--is a less honored tradition than it used to be. But it happens. Actor-turned-director Richard Benjamin noted at lunch a few days ago that "The Money Pit," which had been scheduled for release last Christmas, was pulled back and partially re-shot and reedited to reflect the findings of a series of six sneak previews. It finally opened in late March.
The sneaks are called research screenings now, and interpreting them can be as tricky as predicting the future from burned chicken entrails, Benjamin said.
"You almost always know what you think needs fixing. The great advantage is that you are seeing how it works in front of an audience. And you can tell almost anything by their reactions. You just sit there and feel it all around you.
"The specifics on the cards would sometimes cancel each other out, and that drives you crazy, do you know?" said Benjamin, grinning. "So naturally you only read the good cards. You take what tends to reinforce your own feelings.
"The research screening is also a little special and antiseptic; it's not quite your usual popcorn crowd. You have to weigh that a little."
You also solicit the advice of friends in the audience. Always tricky: They can be too kind, or too eager to trot out their devastating critical perceptions.
(One of the many Samuel Goldwyn stories is that he stood in the foyer of a Pasadena theater after a sneak preview of one of his films, and each of his departing pals cited a scene the movie could perfectly well do without: the parrot, the nuns, the tipsy sailors, the rotten kid, whatever. "If a man listened to all his friends," Goldwyn is said to have said, "he would make very short pictures.")
Sometimes simple narrative clarity is at issue. The basic plot of "The Money Pit" is that a young couple, Tom Hanks and Shelley Long, need to buy a house in a hurry and are conned by Maureen Stapleton into taking a catastrophically collapsing lemon of a place on Long Island.
Subsequent to the first previews, additional scenes were shot making clear that the rush to buy was because they were being evicted without notice from a borrowed apartment.
"That was really basic," Benjamin said. "We needed the motor for the story." Other scenes clarified how it was they could afford the house and why they ended up with such seemingly anarchistic workmen.
The basic story is bookended, so to speak, by a kind of subplot involving Stapleton, her husband, who decamps to Brazil triggering the house sale, and later Hanks' father. There's a fine and zany line: "You live with a man 25 years and think you know him and one morning Israeli intelligence is at your door," Stapleton says.
"I loved the Brazil stuff all the time," Benjamin said. "It was one of the wonderful things in David Giler's script. But we couldn't be sure it worked and we screened it both ways, and once with only the opening sequence. That time one of the cards asked if we couldn't do something with the father, and we waved the card and said, 'That's it'; somebody agrees with us."
Pulling a movie off a release schedule is fraught with peril. The word gets around, especially in critics' circles, that the film is Troubled with a capital T.
"We had to live with that minor cloud," said Benjamin. But the Universal executives and Steven Spielberg and his Amblin Productions, under whose aegis the film was made, were always supportive, he added, and encouraged the extra time and shooting to get the film right.
"The Money Pit" opened to mixed but generally kind reviews and at last count had grossed close to $30 million at the box office, thanks to the attractiveness of Hanks, Long and Alexander Godunov as the principals, and to some spectacular physical comedy.
Benjamin said he has two dreams: "It's written into Woody Allen's contracts that he has two weeks to re-shoot if he wants them. What a wonderful idea. If you needed them, people would say, 'Of course; that's the way he works.' If you didn't need them, people would say, 'It must really be terrific; he didn't need his extra two weeks.' You couldn't lose."
His other dream is to shoot an all-white script. Rewritten pages are inserted on colored paper, blue first, then yellow, pink and beyond, as Benjamin remembered the sequence. "Then one day you say, 'Hey, guys, we're into goldenrod.' They say Hitchcock shot white scripts. How glorious."
Benjamin is working with writer Bo Goldman on what he calls a comedy with content titled "Little Nikita."
"This," Benjamin said, "is the hardest time of all."
It is the time you try to anticipate all the problems you won't have to correct after the sneaks in Pasadena.