NEW YORK – Matt Damon walked onto the set of “The Martian” one morning to find Ridley Scott speaking into multiple walkie-talkies and directing an army of camera operators.
“He was shooting four cameras at a time. I was skeptical about it, and each frame is, like, a Ridley Scott frame – beautiful,” Damon recalled in 2015. “I said, ‘God, Ridley, each of those shots is perfect.’ He says, ‘They’ve been perfect for a long time!’”
Scott’s madman feats of efficiency have long been legend. Now, the director is attempting what could be his greatest trick yet, and all of Hollywood is eagerly watching.
Scott on Wednesday summarily decided to cut Kevin Spacey out of the already-completed movie “All the Money in the World,” reshoot the actor’s many scenes using Christopher Plummer – the man Scott originally wanted for the role of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty – and still, somehow, make a release date just six weeks away.
It is, to say the least, an unprecedented move that most filmmakers (and studios) wouldn’t even consider. With Spacey suddenly deemed toxic following a flood of sexual harassment and assault allegations, Scott – in one of the more audacious acts of damage control in recent memory – simply opted to be rid of him.
It’s as if the maker of the epic “Exodus” took to heart the Bible’s advice: “And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee.”
Scott even caught the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures, by surprise. But once word got out Wednesday, the studio opted to support the plan. Saying no to Ridley is an unenviable task.
“I’m good at pushing the pace and suddenly everyone is running,” the director, now 79, told the Guardian in 2007. “It’s very easy to do only 10 shots a day. On ‘American Gangster,’ we were doing 50 setups a day. We wouldn’t have got through it otherwise.”
“I was always fast,” he added. “Now, I’m really fast.”
The new film is slated for release Dec. 22, and trailers highlighting Spacey’s role are already in theaters. Its premiere at the AFI Fest this month has been scuttled out of concern the scandal around Spacey would spoil the event.
Can Scott pull it off? That was the question captivating both moviegoers and Hollywood.
Scott has his work cut out for him. Spacey’s scenes were shot over eight days, in multiple locations and a period setting. The movie recounts Getty’s refusal to pay the ransom when his 16-year-old grandson was kidnapped in 1973. The boy’s mother (Michelle Williams) and Getty’s adviser (Mark Wahlberg) work to win his release.
While Spacey donned extensive prosthetics for the role of the elderly Getty, that won’t be an issue for the 87-year-old Plummer. Wahlberg and Williams are set to participate in the reshoots.
It’s unclear if some shots will be digitally manipulated to erase Spacey or if every shot with him in the frame will be restaged. Sony declined to comment on how the reshoots will be carried out. Advances in digital effects have made such image scrubbing increasingly easy for filmmakers, though they come with ethical questions of their own.
“Apparently Spacey’s harassment was well-known, yet he still got big acting gigs,” wrote Jeet Heer, an editor at The New Republic. “To edit him out kind of whitewashes complicity of Hollywood.”
Films are generally considered finished only once they’re released, and tinkering often continues right up until a movie hits theaters. A World Trade Center scene was removed from the 2002 movie “Spider-Man” after the Sept. 11 attacks, even though the twin towers had been featured in a trailer for the film.
But there are few examples in film history that would rival the recasting of a major role of a movie on the cusp of release. Endings have been flipped, scenes removed and lines redubbed, but most major casting changes happen, at the latest, early in production.
Eric Stoltz was replaced by Michael J. Fox after shooting began on “Back to the Future,” and Paul Dano was a late addition to “There Will Be Blood” when the initial actor was judged a poor fit. Harvey Keitel was fired after two weeks of shooting “Apocalypse Now.”
Late switching has more commonly happened in voice-over roles. In Spike Jonze’s “Her,” Scarlett Johansson replaced Samantha Morton during post-production as the computer operating system’s voice. Ben Whishaw took over for Colin Firth to give the lead voice in “Paddington” a younger sound.
More often, post-production creativity becomes necessary because of a death, such as that of Paul Walker of “The Fast and the Furious” movies. When the British actor Oliver Reed died in 1999 during the making of Scott’s “Gladiator,” Scott filmed with a double and digitally mixed it with outtakes of Reed.
The director has also made liberal use of “director’s cuts” and reshaped films like his “Blade Runner” and “Alien” years after the fact – sometimes crafting more beloved versions, sometimes not.