After a lot of bad buzz and reactions, Brad Pitt’s ‘World War Z’ released right in the middle of the highly competitive summer season and surprised everyone by not only getting very positive reviews and word of mouth, but also standing tall at the box-office with a hefty $65 million opening weekend. The momentum followed as the film continued to make impressive box-office numbers for weeks to come and became the number 1 film worldwide for weeks. Currently, it’s made a grand total of $517 million and counting! The bad buzz mentioned earlier was about the film’s production woes, mainly the very costly seven week reshoot that was done by Paramount and Brad Pitt which included an entirely new third act written by Damon Lindelof when the studio and filmmakers realised that their third act flat out doesn’t work. Though reshoots are slowly becoming a very common occurrence in tentpole summer films, one that shoots an entirely new third act to an already finished film admittedly raised a lot of eyebrows. But it only took one viewing of the film for audiences and critics to embrace the restrained third act that World War Z provides. And here’s why it’s a classic example for us filmmakers of why it’s never too late to go back and fix your film.
Filmmaking is a process, and throughout the years everything is expected to happen in a certain order – writing the screenplay, shooting the film, editing and grading the film. That has always been and still is the way a film is supposed to be created. The way the process works is very linear and focuses on getting things right every step of the way. Problem is, it doesn’t always turn out so perfect. You see, there’s a reason we have so many terrible films. Yes, most of them have terrible screenplays and direction to begin with and it logically led to a terrible film. But sometimes, you’re baffled by seeing an underwhelming film made by actors or filmmakers that usually are associated with good work. So what gives? Well, there’s a good chance that something messed up somewhere along the way and the filmmakers never had the chance to go back and fix them. The release date was set or the money was over and even though the director and crew were probably aware of the flaws in the film, there wasn’t much you could do about them.
So why does this happen? Because sometimes, an idea, subplot or scene that so perfectly fits and makes sense in the screenplay doesn’t always translate as well into the actual film. As a filmmaker, there have been a few times that I’ve written scenes that I felt would be amazing for my short film. It’s only on set when I’m actually shooting them is when I realize that they’re not translating on screen as well as I envisioned them to. It could be because of a lack of resources, difference in my directorial style versus the way I wrote it, or because the actor isn’t going to fit doing the scene I imagined in my head. Many times, I’ll realise this on set itself and find a way to rewrite the scene on the spot or come up with an alternate way to do it. But there are times when I realise something is not working when I’m in the editing room cutting that scene together and looking at it in context of the rest of the film. Sometimes, this has even happened to entire subplots. Hell, my upcoming short film Scrambled had one full day of shoot, and then I went ahead and scrapped it all for a much better spin on the premise and reshot the whole thing (more on that in a future article).
Spoilers for World War Z from here.
This is exactly what happened with World War Z. Details of the original third act hit the Internet soon after the film’s release, and everyone would agree that it would be a terrible direction to go after two promising acts and would ruin the impact of the film. You can read all the details here, but basically it involved Brad Pitt landing in Russia where they end up killing all the elderly and sick people and enlist Pitt into a zombie killing army. Cut to a few years later as Pitt has become a hardened warrior, we are treated to the siege of Moscow which is an epic showdown between the military and zombies. After seeing victory, Pitt calls his wife who is now off the ship and in some sort of a body trade, is now living with a soldier (played by Matthew Fox) who asks him to forget about her and not come back. Pitt does the exact opposite, taking him and a crew to American shores in hopes of revenge. Cut to black.
Let that silence seep through you. It’s the sound of resounding failure if you’ve seen the rest of the film. Though it would undoubtedly be interesting to see this version as an extra on the DVD, there’s so much wrong with this entire third act. After some solid action sequences in the US and then Jerusalem (which is the highlight of the film in terms of epic action), the original third act tries to outdo what came before it by going even bigger and in turn destroying what made the film before it so engaging to watch. Brad Pitt’s character resonates with us because he’s a normal family man stuck in a situation he isn’t prepared for, but can help in his own unique way for a chance to cure the zombie apocalypse. Instead, his character turns to a zombie killing Rambo out of the blue and loses all the humanity attached to him. The tone of the film turns abruptly dark with all the mass murders, while the film seems intentionally unresolved with a frustrating cliffhanger for the sequel that would have never happened if this ending was actually kept in place.
When Brad Pitt, Paramount and director Marc Foster realised the failure of their third act at the first private screening, they had two choices – let the film release as is and face the negative reviews and word of mouth. Or take the time and money out to fix the ending. Hence, writer Damon Lindelof was hired to watch the film partially and pitch a new third act. Hate the guy all you want, but I think he really nailed this assignment. His suggestion was to ditch the entire Russia plotline and instead of trying to go ‘big’ once again, the new third act could be a smaller, much more suspenseful finale that actually resolves the central conceit of the film and not leave it hanging for sequels. It was a tough choice for a money making studio to make, but they went ahead and made it. The result was an ending that works on an emotional and visceral level, and is the rare blockbuster ending that scales down instead of blowing up towards the end. Brad Pitt’s character becomes so much more likable when he volunteers to sacrifice himself to try the potential cure on him and it actually works. Though it leaves the franchise without an easy direction to go with the sequel which is in production, a sequel would have never happened without the positive returns and healthy word of mouth that the film received. Best of all, the studio actually weathered the bad media buzz regarding the troubled reshoots and ended up being one of the biggest hits of the summer.
End of spoilers.
So the takeaway here is to realise when something in the editing room or after your first screening clearly isn’t working the way you thought it would. Once you are in agreement that it’s something that alone will prove detrimental to the enjoyment or impact of your film, you should never think it’s too late to change it. There may be negative connotations attached to the very term ‘reshoot’, but you have to remind yourself that you’re taking efforts to make your own film better. And at the end, the final film is all that will matter.