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Donald Cammell
The Last Picture Show

Donald Cammell committed suicide after Hollywood ruined his final film. Now, at last, the director's cut of Wild Side has come to London

Donald Cammell's singular approach to film-making frequently brought him into conflict with studios. So when, in 1996, he committed suicide in a manner that horribly mirrored Mick Jagger's death-by-gunshot in Performance - which Cammell himself had codirected - some saw it as the act of a man crushed by a movie industry more interested in making money than art. It looked like they had a point. Cammell's final film, Wild Side, had been wrecked by its American producers Nu Image.

But the Edinburgh born painter turned filmmaker had suffered from depression for years, and often spoke about killing himself. "He always knew that he would die by his own hands," insist China Kong, "and he was very aware of his work being continued after his demise and planned accordingly." Now Wild Side has been resurrected as arguably the most fully-fledged Donald Cammell film since Performance.

Based on a short story by Kong called The Grey Area, Wild Side was intended as an intense and funny exploration of power, sex, identity and love. It involves a crooked financier (Christopher Walken), his wife (Joan Chen), a banker/hooker (Anne Heche) and an undercover cop (Steven Bauer). But Nu Image stripped the film of its subtlety, humour and of Cammell's signature touches, turning it into an almost surreal travesty of what he had envisaged.

Cammell was probably naïve to hook up with a production company best known for cheap exploitation movies. But, says Kong, he was introduced to Nu Image by Elie Cohn, with whom he had worked on the unmade film Jericho. Nu Image was also familiar with Cammell's work, and appeared to like Kong's script. So he had no reason to think his relationship with the production company might become so turbulent.

The relationship quickly turned sour. First, the company tried to prevent the casting of the then relatively unknown Anne Heche as Chen's lover. Then they questioned Cammell's working methods, sparking a battle of wills between him and Cohn. When Cammell delivered his rough cut, the producers were horrified. They fired off a memo ordering the film's editor Frank Mazzola to remove all flashbacks, flash-forwards and jump cuts. They then sacked him, and recut Wild Side themselves. When NU Image's version of Wild Side eventually surfaced as a sleazy erotic thriller, Mazzola says he was so horrified he "literally experienced a primal scream".

"They said Donald's version was a disaster," says Kong. "They thought Chris Walken was too weird and too homoerotic and they basically cut him out. Their interest in the women at that time was obvious - they put in loads of footage of Chen and Heche in bed that had nothing to do with anything. Donald was disgusted."

The battle over Wild Side might have ended there were it not for Hamish McAlpine, head of Metro Tartan distributors in London. McAlpine successfully negotiated with Nu Image for the UK rights to Wild Side, and gave Mazzola an opportunity to reconstruct the film. Using a video cut prepared by Cammell as a template, and working from various different sources of footage, the editor set about what must rank as one of the most intricate and thorough restoration jobs in cinema history.

The "director's cut" of Wild Side was screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival last year. Cammell's stylistic and thematic fingerprints are all over this new version, while a reinstated mentor/pupil relationship between the Walken and Heche characters reflects Cammell and Kong's own relationship. It was Cammell who encouraged his young wife to start writing, perhaps, as she now reflects, as part of his "master plan".

"It is like he ensured that his own story would be written, and he was very aware that he wanted me to write it," she says.

In an eerily apposite coda that blurs the line between life and art, the last script Cammell and Kong wrote together, Thirty-Three, was about a man who hires a writer to write about him. Kong and McAlpine now intend to produce the final work together. And the continued interest in Cammell means that his other unproduced screenplays - including one about a traumatised Gulf War veteran (The Cull) and another about the American bank robber Machine Gun Kelly - are now being prepared.

After a career mired in frustration, it seems, Donald Cammell just might have the last laugh after all.

Source: Evening Standard 22/06/2000
Article written by Tom Dewe Matthews