Every great western has a duel, and there's a showdown at the center of Brad Pitt's new movie about gunslinger Jesse James. The struggle hinged on the film's tone and length -- at one point its running time was more than three hours -- according to several people close to the production.
But running time wasn't the main issue. The thornier challenge was to come up with a cut of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" that satisfied audiences and Warner Bros., the studio making and distributing the film. At one point there were competing versions -- one from writer-director Andrew Dominik and another from producer and star Pitt, according to a person familiar with the making of the movie. It's unclear which version of the film will be released.
Warner Bros. only recently announced a Sept. 21 release date for "Jesse James," about two years after it was filmed. (In the time since, Pitt has had daughter Shiloh Nouvel and completed two other movies, "Ocean's 13" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." "Ocean's" will be in theaters more than three months before "Jesse James.")
Adapted from the novel by Ron Hansen, the film follows the last heist committed by James (Pitt), and Ford's (Casey Affleck) devoted and then vengeful relationship with the legendary outlaw.
Dominik, a New Zealand filmmaker who rose to prominence with the 2000 crime drama "Chopper" starring Eric Bana, wanted to deliver a dark, contemplative examination of fame and infamy, in the spirit of director Terrence Malick ("The New World"), according to several people familiar with the production. The studio, on the other hand, wanted less contemplation and more action, closer to Clint Eastwood's filmmaking style, sources said. (Dominik, Pitt and Affleck declined interview requests.)
Various versions of the film were assembled and tested, with Pitt, producer Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") and editor Michael Kahn ("Saving Private Ryan") either overseeing new cuts of the film or suggesting revisions, according to people familiar with the process.
Early test scores were poor, but some who have seen the film say the performances by Pitt and especially Affleck are among the best in their careers.
One otherwise favorable review of a research screening posted on the website www.aintitcoolnews.com said, "I see one serious problem with this film. A major studio made it. This film isn't for everyone. This isn't 'Tombstone,' it's not an action-packed Western."
In a statement last week, Warner Bros. said that the version being released this fall "is true to the source material and in keeping with the creative vision of its filmmakers. We do not comment on the internal creative process of bringing a picture to the screen, but the goal of both the studio and the filmmakers is to deliver the best film possible.... We are all very pleased with the picture we are bringing to theaters this fall."
Modestly budgeted at around $30 million, "Jesse James" is one of several Warner Bros. films facing problems in the editing room. Some half-dozen different cuts of the $50-million Bana-Drew Barrymore romantic comedy "Lucky You" have failed to wow preview audiences, and the studio is now cutting back on its marketing push for the film, which opens Friday opposite "Spider-Man 3," according to a person familiar with the production. The studio also has reshot approximately 50 pages for the Nicole Kidman movie "The Invasion," replacing original director Oliver Hirschbiegel with James McTeigue, with new screenplay pages written by Larry and Andy Wachowski ("The Matrix").
Yet as Warner Bros. knows, difficult productions do not always mean death at the box office. The studio (and some cast and crew) clashed with "Lake House" director Alejandro Agresti, but when it came out last summer, the $40-million film grossed more than $100 million worldwide.