Major directors seem to love spending their promotional tours boasting about how long the early cuts of their films were. “Sure, the released version is two hours, but man, you gotta see the five-hour version we had earlier in the process.” Baz Luhrmann is the latest to pull this out, regarding his new Elvis film, but this happens with nearly every blockbuster film, and even some non-blockbusters. Typically, websites run clickbaity headlines about it, fans fall over themselves clamouring to see the longer version, and if they’re good enough at manipulating opinion metrics, they get their wish.
But it is important to remember what exactly these three- or four- or five-hour versions of otherwise regular-length movies look like. They’re not “extended editions” with consistent quality or polish or even storytelling density the whole way through. They don’t offer an extra hour of storytelling as dense and focused as what’s in the final product. Sometimes they’re barely recognisable as movies, held together by hand-drawn animatics or “TO BE COMPLETED” titles. These super-sized cuts are typically what you get at the end of the production process, before any actual editing has taken place. They’re called “assembly cuts,” and they tend to be, as the industry jargon goes, total pieces of shit.
Assembly cuts are assembled – literally – after the principal photography is done, and before any significant editing work gets started. It varies by production – sometimes editing and other post-production tasks take place parallel to the shoot, and sometimes the assembly process goes differently – but generally speaking, this is the process for coming up with an assembly:
- Some very basic, non-final take selections are made, probably based on notes from the shoot.
- The shots are thrown in a timeline, roughly in order.
- Scenes are edited roughly enough so they basically hold together and give a sense of the scene and what coverage is available.
- Temp music is laid on (or original score, if it’s been composed in advance).
- Maybe some extremely rudimentary VFX or compositing is done, but typically only enough to make scenes comprehensible (because there’s no point polishing material you don’t know will be in the final cut).
- Colour grading probably won’t be done, save for maybe throwing a LUT over the timeline (unless the production had a dailies colourist).
Essentially, the purpose of these cuts is to get into a position as soon as possible where you can watch the movie from start to finish, to determine whether the movie basically “works”.
The additional running time is in part comprised of good scenes that will later get deleted – darlings to be killed, as the saying goes – but a lot of it is simply dead weight. Redundant dialogue; shots that are held for too long or lack a storytelling purpose; storylines that distract from the story; scenes that focus on the wrong things; indulgences on the part of the writer that didn’t get caught before production; and certainly, indulgences on the part of the director.
It’s here that early decisions might get made about additional shooting (a useful process akin to rewriting that usually improves the final product). It’s here that broad-stroke editing decisions are made, typically excising characters or subplots in order to morph the story into a more focused version of itself. It’s also here that areas are identified to be paced up. And some scenes might get cut early because they’re just not very good, for whatever reason. Sometimes jokes don’t land the way you thought they would.
Even good scenes are deleted for a reason. A director might cling to a scene because it’s funny or exciting or holds some sentimental value, but if it doesn’t prove its function in the context of the film, it’s a classic example of a killed darling. The extended Lord of the Rings films are full of these: nice little scenes that are absolutely not vital to tell the story and create a less-focused product for their inclusion. Peter Jackson deliberately does not call them “director’s cuts” for this reason.
The point is: the assembly cut is very much a stepping stone, a working document, and a wholly unglamorous stage in a film’s life. It’s not intended to be viewed by anyone outside the production, ever. It’s a rough draft at best, and to anyone without the knowledge of the work that will later go into it, it’ll play as dull and sloppy. Architects can look at a wooden frame and see the house; regular people just see a bunch of exposed wood. Assembly cuts are frequently so bad that many filmmakers cite them as one of the worst parts of the creative process: the movie in its worst possible shape, an ugly and rough-hewn piece of stone from which a beautiful work of art will (hopefully) eventually be carved. It’s often a dispiriting thing, watching an assembly cut: the assembly of Ghost Shark 2: Urban Jaws was so diabolically awful we took a year-long break from the project to reassess what we even wanted to do with it.
And where does Zack Snyder’s Justice League fall in all this? In a couple ways, it’s a rare exception. WB spent $70 million on extra post-production to finish the fan-favourite boondoggle, giving it the illusion of being a completed product despite substantially hailing from early in the editing process. And it benefits from being more coherent in vision than the theatrical film, which provided ample proof of the dark side of reshoots. But in most other ways, the Snyder Cut suffers from all the same issues as every other early cut does. It’s got lengthy sequences that don’t contribute to story; storylines that feel like separate films instead of subplots; and just a shitload of self-indulgent moments that even Snyder would have have acknowledged as such, had his directorial control lasted further into the editing process. Snyder’s Justice League is indeed better than the theatrically-released version – but you’re delusional if you don’t think it’d be better through a more discerning editorial eye, and it is in no way representative of assembly cuts in a broader sense.
So next time a filmmaker gets up on their press-tour soapbox and announces that a much-longer version of their beloved film exists, don’t take them at their word. They might literally be correct. But they’re omitting to mention that those longer versions are, well – they’re probably kinda shitty.