Posted on Friday, February 21st, 2014 by Peter Sciretta
In May 2012, I was invited to a private screening of the Star Wars prequels that had been edited down into one 85-minute movie by actor Topher Grace. I was one of a couple bloggers that were invited the the screening. My report on the Star Wars re-edit went EVERYWHERE. The actor never expected that news of the screening would have exploded in the way that it did.
“Wanna know how many people it takes to set the internet on fire?” Grace asked Chris Hardwick on a recent episode of the Nerdist podcast. “It’s two bloggers, which we happened to invite. I was trending #1 on twitter [and didn't even have a twitter account at the time].”
It was one of those headlines that had “viral” built into every word. Star Wars fans who were disappointed by the prequels were interested to read just what changes Grace had made to the trilogy. Others were just happy to socially share an article about how some actor took George Lucas’ 7-hour saga and was able to edit it down to 85 minutes.
Last week I received an invite to Topher Grace’s next “remix” private screening, this time a re-edit of Steven Spielberg‘s Close Encounters of a Third Kind. Topher Grace even cut a trailer for his CE3K remix, which you can watch embedded below:
I’m not exactly sure why Topher chose Close Encounters for his second “remix”, but in his introduction Grace said it is one of his favorite movies. Grace called his “remix” a loving tribute to Steven Spielberg. It’s important to note that Topher Grace was not trying to “fix” Close Encounters.
The reason Grace edited the Star Wars prequels down into one movie was missed by most readers and rebologs. Topher wanted to learn how to become an editor; he believed that knowing that side of the filmmaking process would better improve his craft as an actor. He wasn’t an upset Star Wars fan trying to right a wrong. He chose the Star Wars prequels as a subject because the films offered him a bevy of footage to play around with.
Grace joked in the intro last night that Close Encounters “maybe could’ve been a little faster” so he “squashed it” in his remix, shrinking the two hour and seventeen minute running time down to 108 minutes. I’ll even admit that the original theatrical cut feels a bit slow at moments. Screenwriting guru Syd Field famously wrote about the elongated 1:1:1 three-act ratio of Close Encounters. This cut feels shorter but somehow doesn’t feel like it’s missing anything super important. Back in high school, I remember trying a bunch of times to show one of my friends Close Encounters and 2001: A Space Odyssey and he never saw the end of either movie.
But why re-edit a masterpiece? Some of you may have forgotten that the film’s director Steven Spielberg wasn’t satisfied with the film. He asked for another six months to make it right, but Columbia Pictures was depending on its theatrical release. After the film’s huge box office success, Columbia gave Spielberg the opportunity to go back and edit another version of the movie on the condition that he would add a sequence that showed the inside of the mothership.
“The Special Edition” (remember, Spielberg beat his friend George Lucas to the concept by a couple decades) was released in theaters a year later. The new cut included seven minutes of new footage, but also deleted or shortened existing scenes so that the total running time was three minutes shorter than the original theatrical release. Roger Ebert declared “This new version … is, quite simply, a better film … Why didn’t Spielberg make it this good the first time?” The special edition cut became the only cut available on home video until the release of the Criterion Collection laser disc in 1990, which included both cuts.
In 1998, Spielberg returned to the editing room to recut the film once again. The new cut was a mashup of the theatrical cut and special edition but without the interior mothership sequence Spielberg had always regretted including. It’s this version that Spielberg considers his directors cut.
Between those three versions, and various longer television edits and deleted scenes, Topher had a lot of footage to play around with. I’m sure this had something to do with why this film was chosen.
A lot of the changes are more subtle, for example: Grace punctuates some of the humor to make the film feel more like a post-Raiders Spielberg movie. I think my friend and filmmaker Dan Trachtenberg sums it up better than I could:
With a couple nips and tucks @TopherGrace turned CLOSE ENCOUNTERS from a 70s movie into an 80s movie. The most Spielbergiest version so far.
— Dan Trachtenberg (@DannyTRS) February 21, 2014
Grace made a lot of cuts and included a few additions. The biggest compliment I can give the edit is that it was really hard for me to tell you what changes were made. The cut feels almost seamless. Grace even admitted before the screening that this edit is “not as sexy” as his Star Wars prequel reedit.
Topher’s cut includes a couple of the deleted scenes and even footage from the film’s trailer, incorporating the road footage for the film’s opening titles (you can watch that original trailer below). He used John Williams score from The Witches of Eastwick for some of the deleted sequences that didn’t have musical accompaniment.
While I can’t tell you every change made with this edit, I can tell you that Carl Weathers appears in a scene as a military officer. I can also say that Topher’s version is more streamlined, choosing to focus more on Richard Dreyfuss‘ character Roy Neary. I feel like this is a story choice that an older Spielberg might’ve made. Topher also chose not to include the added Collector’s Edition sequence inside the mother ship.
It feels faster paced than the original, it has more laughs but its also less meaty. Would my friend that once bailed before the end have made it through this version? Possibly. However, I can’t say is that Topher’s edit feels any better or worse than Spielberg’s initial theatrical cut. Topher Grace’s Close Encounters remix is just a different experience.
I’ve always been fascinated by re-edits, be it a directors cut, an extended television edit or even a good fan edit. It’s fun to experience a classic film an a new way. Talking with Grace after the film, you can tell he’s having fun playing with this new medium. He enjoyed hearing people laugh in some of the areas he tightened.
As with the Star Wars prequel re-edit, this Close Encounters remix will never be screened again. Grace spent a lot of time working on the edit as an exercise, and the only reason we know about it is because he invited his friends to the one-time-only private screening.
Grace recently created a website called CerealPrize where he shares fun pieces of pop culture he finds on the interwebs and every once in a while something he personally created. He is now on twitter — you can follow and tweet him at @TopherGrace. So if he trends on Twitter again, this time he might even be able to see it. :)