IV. BEYOND THE EDGEJune, 1989 - Unfortunately, life did not imitate art in the actual history of Life on the Edge, which turned out to have a bittersweet ending at best.
Many of those involved with the film began to lose the courage of their original convictions when distributor screenings only proved what I thought everyone already knew: That we had one weird little film here. Regrets and scapegoat-hunting followed as one distributor after another turned the film down, although in the case of several of the major studios, it was only after three or four screenings.
Part of the problem has been something Marty Crabenck would recognize only too well: Timing. In what is expected to be the biggest summer ever at the box-office, there's simply no room for small films. How could little Life on the Edge hope to compete against the likes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, Batman, and - yes - The Abyss?
Still, the film generated a great deal of interest wherever it was shown, and sometime in February we received the news from Linden that a deal had been made with a smaller, "art-house" distributor…only to discover, several weeks later, that no such deal existed. Then in March we were told a company called The Movie Store would be the U.S. distributor for Life on the Edge - and again found the deal in question. As of this writing, the only thing I can say for sure is that there is no date of release for the film in this country.
The story was somewhat different in other parts of the world. United Media Film Sales, the British company acting as our foreign sales reps, have been solidly behind the film from the beginning, doing everything from producing beautiful promotional material to entering us in film festivals. The prestigious Avoriaz festival in France was our first, and even Tom, who was flown to the festival (with Richard Portnow), was astounded by the overwhelmingly positive response to the film. United Media has done well selling the film to certain foreign territories like Germany and Japan, where Tom Burman is something of a cult idol; but the lack of a U.S. distribution deal and the current disinterest in small films has slowed down overseas sales as well.
In this country, Linden has continued their closed-tight policy on promotion and publicity, with the exception of a few science-fiction conventions and several magazine articles, notably those in American Cinematographer and Cinefantastique, which I had helped coordinate (and for which, incidentally, I received an inexplicably upset phone call from Linden).
Although Linden began to talk about re-cutting the film the day after the cast and crew screenings in December, it wasn't until March that we began to hear whispers about the new cut, which had been done without the inclusion of the director of the film. It was amazing to me that Linden not only re-edited the film without Tom (or, since a new narration was written and added, without me), but that they seemed to think we wouldn't find out; obviously, both Tom and I retain close ties with a number of key people from the film, who called us to ask about the new cut they were doing work on. We were at least granted a screening of this new cut recently, and were stunned at both the addition of three new songs (including an unbelievably inappropriate rap song over the opening credits), as well as two bizarre opticals in the last reel (a sped-up Mr. Crabneck crawling across the floor, and a freeze frame for the final shot). Subtitling Anne Ramsey - whose speech difficulties were a result of the cancer which finally killed her - was both unnecessary and completely offensive.
We also discovered second-hand that, some time in January, Linden conducted test screenings, informing Tom neither of the screenings themselves nor of the results (when I asked a friend of mine who's a top-notch marketing expert if it was normal to conduct a test screening without the director, he told me the only other time he'd heard of it being done was on - coincidentally enough, given the tubes - Terry Gilliam's Brazil). When Tom and I questioned Linden about all this in a lengthy letter, the response we received was that the results of the tests were disastrous, and that Tom was "the most informed director on the planet".
While Linden's re-edit indicates that they obviously blamed the film itself for the failure to generate fire with distributors, I've attended too many screenings where people have actually stood in line to shake Tom's hand and tell him (sometimes at length) how brilliant the film was, or how much they enjoyed it. I've had virtually every Edge crewmember I've spoken to tell me it was the best film experience of their lives (in the case of effects leadman Tim Wiles, he told me that the opportunity to work on a film like Life on the Edge was the whole reason he got into this business in the first place).
No, Tom and I have different regrets. Tom's are mainly editorial - since he never really had a director's cut (when he wasn't ordered to "cooperate", that is), he's never had the chance to show the ideal version of his film. My own regret is actually more along the lines of bewilderment, at how our relationship with Linden has deteriorated since the film was finished. If (as Linden insists) it's standard operating procedure to exclude a film's key personnel from the final decisions, I don't accept it but rather question the entire industry.
At this point, Tom and I have been forced to do that one thing I always swore I wouldn't do: Forget all about Life on the Edge and move on past it. The latter has been easier than the former. Tom's agent has had no trouble securing interviews for Tom as a director, since response to Tom's direction of the film has been phenomenal (even while Tom has never been busier as a make-up artist, due in large part to the Academy Award nomination he and Bari received for Scrooged); there's also been considerable interest in our other projects, including Stone Cold Alive and a newly-completed black comedy script entitled The Living End. Although I myself remain unrepresented by an agent, I have recently been offered a job developing a feature project for a good company (and good money) on the basis of Life on the Edge, and I have also just completed a short promotional film for one of my other projects with another wonderful first-time director, Ron Cobb. Meanwhile, Tom and I content ourselves with believing that we got what we most wanted out of our first film: We got our calling card, and a successful one for us it's turned out to be.1
But still, nagging forever at the back of my mind is knowing the film Life on the Edge could have been. Tom and I both feel it's all there in the raw footage, but unfortunately we'll never get the chance to prove it. The new cut (the one with the songs) is about 70% of what we feel it could be. As it is, probably only two people have ever visualized that ideal version of Life on the Edge - Tom and I, the two original creators. All we can do now is remain hopeful that some day audiences will see any version of Life on the Edge, and find something in it they enjoy as much as we did.
June, 2003 - The rest of the story…
Under its atrocious new title Meet the Hollowheads (and in the final cut), Life on the Edge did finally receive a U.S. theatrical release later in 1989. Reviews were mixed; the film's very first review (and my first review for anything) in Variety remains the worst review I've ever received, but other reviewers praised the film.
After all the wonderful artwork generated for the film, the final poster was a recent photo of a sultry Juliette wrapping a pipe around a gagging Matt Shakman; it was ridiculous, in other words.
It played other film festivals; in 1994 British friends told me it had won the top prize at a London festival.
It was released on videotape and laserdisc in the 90s, and in 2002 it appeared on the infamous DVD, which may or may not have been a legitimate release.
Unfortunately, there's a lot about the film's history I don't know. By the time of the film's theatrical release, Tom and I were officially persona non grata with Linden; my final blow-out with them came when, after I expressed dismay over the new title and new cut of the film, they said I had never shown them any "gratitude". I had the audacity to suggest that gratitude was a two-way street.
So: I don't know if it was ever shown in any other U.S. theaters. I don't know what foreign countries it played in (theatrically, that is). I don't know if it ever generated posters or lobby cards in some other language. I don't know what other film festivals it played in (I've heard the Tokyo Film Festival may have been one). I don't know all of the cable or pay-per-view outlets it's played on (although I know a few more now than I did when I first posted this, thanks to a bunch of YOU!). If you know something I don't, please - drop me a line.
1. I have no idea why I thought it was a "successful" calling card in 1989; I did get Adventures in Dinosaur City largely on the basis of a recommendation from Glenn Jordan (thanks, Glenn!), and I was able to bring many of the key Edge personnel onto Dinosaur City, but otherwise Life on the Edge never led to a single other job for either Tom or me.
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