How dare you remake my classic! When directors attack

Woe betide the Hollywood studio that revisits a classic film without the blessing of its original creative team. Because things can get ugly ...

Star Wars (1977)
Not the ’droids he was looking for … the creator of Star Wars (1977), George Lucas, was not impressed with the retro, unadventurous tone of the 2015 reboot The Force Awakens. Photograph: Allstar/LucasFilm
Not the ’droids he was looking for … the creator of Star Wars (1977), George Lucas, was not impressed with the retro, unadventurous tone of the 2015 reboot The Force Awakens. Photograph: Allstar/LucasFilm

Last modified on Fri 16 Sep 2016 15.49 EDT

Dante’s Inferno makes little mention of those who profit from the work of others, but cult indie director Abel Ferrara once predicted a special place in the pit of suffering for anyone who dared to remake his classic films. Upon learning that Werner Herzog, the famed German champion of bonkers romanticism, was making a new version of Bad Lieutenant, his scuzzy 1992 tale of a lost soul on the streets of New York, Ferrara seethed: “I wish these people die in hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar and it blows up.”

At least Herzog’s version, which he cheekily claimed to have made without any knowledge of Ferrara’s existence, turned out to be rather good – at least if you’re fond of peak-crazy Nicolas Cage and phantasmagorical segues starring imaginary iguanas. Dutch film-maker Paul Verhoeven has had to sit tight as two of his best films, RoboCop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), were remade by lesser mortals with all the verve of a Britpop covers band dashing out Wonderwall.

“Both those movies needed the distance of satire or comedy to situate [the stories] for audiences,” Verhoeven told Collider in an interview published this week. ““Somehow they seem to think that the lightness of, say, Total Recall and Robocop is a hindrance. So they take these somewhat absurd stories and make them much too serious. I think that is a mistake.”

The Dutchman deserves praise for taking a measured approach in his criticism of the folies de grandeur of those who followed him. These other venerable film-makers were not quite so kind.

George Lucas on Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Give Lucas some credit. After selling the rights to the space opera in 2012, he tried his best not to meddle, taking Disney’s decision not to use any of his ideas for a new trilogy good grace and promising instead to return to making “experimental” movies like his early trifle THX 1138. But after Lucas saw JJ Abrams’ blockbuster reboot, he was unable to contain his contempt for a film that essentially stole half its plot from his original 1977 movie, failed to so much as mention trade federations or midi-chlorians and featured no scene set in the riveting galactic senate.

Unwisely quipping in an interview with US talkshow host Charlie Rose that he had sold his “kids … to the white slavers that take these things”, Lucas blurted: “They wanted to do a retro movie. I don’t like that.” He pointed out that he had worked constantly to innovate during his six-film run in charge of Star Wars, “with different planets, with different spaceships – you know, to make it new”. Lucas later apologised to Disney for the “white slavers” comment, saying that he had used a “very inappropriate analogy”.

Alan Parker on the remake of Fame

Despite the director of the 2009 reworking, Kevin Tancharoen, having claimed that Alan Parker was on board, the Bafta-winning British film-maker behind Bugsy Malone and Mississippi Burning likened the experience of finding out his work was to be revisited to being mugged. “I have never had a single phone call from anyone – the studio, the producers – about this remake. No one spoke to me about it. To say so is absolute nonsense,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

“I feel very much that Fame is mine. I spent months with the kids at the school then spent a year making the movie. You do the work and make it as good as it can be, and you try to protect it. Then, because the copyright is owned by the studio, as with almost all American feature films, they can do a remake like this. It’s extremely galling. There is no other area of the arts where you can do that.”

Fame (2009)

John Milius on the 2012 remake of Red Dawn

Poor John Milius. He was forgotten by Hollywood for decades, then when the studios did come calling it was only to mess with his stuff. As if 2011’s inferior Conan the Barbarian wasn’t bad enough – despite the best efforts of Game of Thrones’ Jason Momoa as the musclebound Cimmerian warrior – the philistines decided to rework 1984’s Red Dawn the following year. But with Chinese invaders menacing a small midwestern town in the US, rather than Russians.

“I think it’s a stupid thing to do. The movie is not very old,” said Milius after reading the script. “It was terrible. There was a strange feeling to the whole thing. They were fans of the movie, so they put in stuff they thought was neat. It’s all about neat action scenes and has nothing to do with story.”

He added: “There’s only one example in 4,000 years of Chinese territorial adventurism, and that was in 1979, when they invaded Vietnam, and to put it mildly they got their [butts] handed to them. Why would China want us? They sell us stuff. We’re a market. I would have done it about Mexico.”

Milius was partially vindicated when MGM changed the invading aggressors to North Koreans for the final cut, though that move was made to appease the lucrative Chinese market more than to cheer up the original film’s director.

Red Dawn (2012)

James Cameron on Terminator: Salvation

I think [director McG] was almost too referential to the mythos of the first and second film,” said James Cameron in 2009, when asked for his verdict on the third sequel to The Terminator (1984). “He over-quoted them.”

“It didn’t feel enough of a reinvention. The thing we did with the second film is that we reinvented the first film completely; spun it on its ass and made the Terminator the good guy, and came up with a whole new concept for a villain. It felt fresh. I didn’t feel the fourth picture was fresh enough. It also lacked a certain stamp of authenticity because Arnold wasn’t in it. I mean, he was in it briefly, digitally, but that’s not the same thing.”

“I didn’t think it was bad,” Cameron continued. “I didn’t think it was embarrassing. I don’t think he let the franchise down in some huge way, but I did feel some sort of unease.”

If you think that sounds like damning with faint praise, Cameron, the director of 1986’s brilliant Alien sequel Aliens, was less positive about the first Alien v Predator movie in 2006. “They’ve really screwed up the whole franchise,” he told the Daily Habit.

On the other hand, Cameron did quite like recent Terminator effort Genisys, praising its innovation and even contributing a theory about the cyborg ageing process that allowed Schwarzenegger to return as a really knackered T-800. It’s just unfortunate that no one else felt the same way. Bar the Chinese.

George A Romero on the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead

Long before Zack Snyder was handed the keys to the DC expanded universe of superhero movies, the former commercials director began his movie-making career with a remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). But zombie movie guru Romero wondered why Snyder excised all the satirical gravy from the original, in which the undead’s surrounding of a shopping mall is a metaphor for the soulless consumerism of American society.

“The first 15, 20 minutes were terrific, but it sort of lost its reason for being,” he told Simon Pegg in an interview for Time Out in 2005. “It was more of a video game. I’m not terrified of things running at me; it’s like Space Invaders. There was nothing going on underneath.”

Continuing his theme, Romero told the Telegraph in 2013: “I didn’t like it very much. Basically, because I was using the idea for satire. My film needed to be done right when it was done, because that sort of shopping mall was completely new. It was the first one in Pennsylvania that we had ever seen. The heart of the story is based in that. And I didn’t think the remake had it.”

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Robin Hardy on the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man

“I don’t quite understand what they are doing,” Hardy told the Scotland on Sunday newspaper in 2005 when confronted with the news of Neil LaBute’s reworking of his 1973 cult horror classic. “It appears that not only is the lady involved, but there are also attacks by killer bees, which sounds like a really old-style horror film.”

Perhaps the only consolation for the English film-maker, who died in July, is that critics and audiences poured scorn on the remake in equal measure. The film was nominated for five Golden Raspberries, including worst actor for star Nicolas “Not the bees!” Cage, and only “lost out” on best film due to the unfortunate existence of Basic Instinct 2.

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