In the summer of 1998, Mark Christopher’s 54 landed in theaters with a dull thud. Despite a cast of then-hot stars like Neve Campbell, Mike Myers, and Ryan Phillippe, and the fact that it arrived at a time of peak ’70s nostalgia (thanks in part to specials like VH1’s Behind the Music), the film grossed a paltry $6.6 million during its opening weekend and was panned by critics. All of which predicted that 54 would fade into oblivion.
But then, something changed: the actual content of the movie. The version shown in theaters had been heavily tinkered with by Miramax following a disastrous test screening on Long Island. Christopher’s director’s cut began circulating as bootlegs and then on the festival circuit; finally, last year the original version was approved by Miramax for official release. Last month, the cut with 44 minutes of alternate footage was made available digitally. The new-old 54 is more streamlined in terms of plot and more complicated in terms of characterization. Phillippe’s protagonist character Shane is matter-of-factly bisexual and opportunistic. He achieves a complexity that is more suited to modern tastes that have been heavily influenced by post-Sopranos television, as Christopher pointed out to me when I talked to him a few weeks ago.
Seventeen years later, 54 packs a double shot of nostalgia—both the ’70s and the ’70s-obsessed ’90s (and the ’90s, period—Breckin Meyer plays a major role). Below is an edited and condensed transcript of my phone conversation with Christopher.
Gawker: Why was it important for people to see your vision in 2015?
Mark Christopher: I think it was important to see my vision in 1998, so it just never stopped. But the reason I think it has found a place in 2015 is perhaps audiences have changed and perhaps the film was a little bit ahead of its time. Times have caught up with us.
Was 54 something you thought about on a regular basis for the past 17 years?
After the film was released, I went back into the editing room with a different editor and friend and sort of cobbled together a director’s cut, because there never really was one. There was what we called a bootleg that we made from various video sources, and I really made that for me and the actors so that we could all have the movie we set out to make. This bootleg about 10 years later got out to a couple of festivals, including Outfest, where it got a really wonderful response. My wonderful, tireless producer would go back to Miramax every year going, “Can we do it now? Can we do it now?” Finally, we were able to point to some press, point to the Outfest screening, point to the riot the film caused at a festival in Italy and say, “We think there’s a real audience for this movie.” People would find me online and ask about it and beg me for it. I would prod my producer, and my producer would prod Miramax and eventually they said yes. It was like exactly a year ago, so we made it quick.
What held people back the most besides those test screenings on Long Island? The gay/bisexual content?
I think the fact that he was an opportunistic bisexual lead character in what became a large distribution is what became the complication. Nowadays, we expect flawed characters because of television being so strong right now. At the time, lead characters in wide releases had to be very likable. Although I find Shane very likable, maybe people in the suburbs of Long Island did not. Now those people probably have changed their minds.
It’s interesting that him being bisexual was only part of what made this a hard sell.
Look, there are still no bisexual movies.
Yeah, I think the content of 54 is something people could have a hard time with, even today.
I love that. And where it used to be a hard time in an off-putting way, it’s probably not a hard time but something to think about in a good way. Here’s a fun challenge instead of something that we just don’t like. This film has really crossed over—it plays the mainstream festivals and it plays the LGBT festivals just as strongly. I realize as I go around, within the LGBT, [54 is] the only B.
One of the most progressive elements of the movie is how Shane’s bisexuality is treated. It’s not a big deal. There’s no coming out. It’s not something he wrestles with.
It’s my point of view about bisexuality, number 1. Number 2, it was the point of view of those days in that environment. I spoke to a lot of the kids that worked there and it was no big deal. I remember one of the coat check girls talking to one of the bartenders saying, “Hm, I was with a girl last night, I think I’ll go with a guy tonight.” That was sort of the free-loving attitude that was really important. It was a place where anything goes and it was really important not to put any judgement in it. One place I really tried to make that point visually in the film was during what we call the “slut montage.” This song “Spank” plays during it, and you see Shane wake up next to a girl and then there’s a cut to another angle. He’s in the same place, but now it’s a dude. Then the camera cuts to another angle and now it’s another woman and he gets out of bed. In three shots, I’ve shown you his life and his attitude and the attitude of the film.
What do you think about the state of gay cinema then versus now? Society has progressed, but gay cinema was a much bigger creative force in the ‘90s.
Yeah, we had the New Queer Cinema, so it was a very exciting time. It was a wave. That’s when I started making films. But now with the mainstreaming of gay culture, often people have said to me what they love about this movie is going back to see a world where gay culture wasn’t mainstream but it also wasn’t being judged. It wasn’t negative. If you could get through that velvet rope and walk in that secret door, you were in this magical place.