Not many filmmakers are as lucky as writer/director Mark Christopher who managed to fulfil a long cherished dream when he got to finally make a Director’s Cut of one of his movies seventeen years after the original was released.
Christopher’s love letter to the New York disco scene in the late 70s about the infamous Studio 54 is a vibrant wonderful movie told from the viewpoint of some of impressionable young employees who were the heart and soul of the place.
For a few short years in the late 1970s this was the Club in Manhattan where all the celebrities hung out and partied whilst all the desperate would-bes were kept outside behind the velvet ropes begging Steve Rubell, the very creepy co-owner and ringmaster, to be let in.
Their efforts were all in vain as you had to have either a certain look or a gorgeous body for him to relent and admit you in to mingle with the stars.
Shane a rather gormless New Jersey boy who was as cute as hell was in the latter group. This is his story, which starts off when Rubell tells him to remove his shirt and after he strips to his waist he’s invited into more than just the Club, and he stayed until the party ended.
A very youthful and then unknown Ryan Phillippe puts in an unforgettable performance as the young innocent who got swept away in a drug and sex-fuelled world in an era that defined the whole disco explosion. Nightlife would never be the same, and Christopher’s new cut restores all the boldness and sheer vitality of what went down then in what will now become a new gay cult classic. I defy anyone to find anything hotter than watching Phillippe and Breckin Mayer, his best friend in real life, locking lips together.
Roger Walker-Dack caught up with a very happy Mark Christopher after the movie had opened to rave reviews at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, and just before the movie had its UK premiere at the BFI Flare Festival in London.
RWD: So why Studio 54, and where did the story come from?
MC: I had been there in the 1980s when it had been resurrected after it had closed when its colourful owner Steve Rubell had been jailed for tax avoidance. Paul Schrader, the writer of Raging Bull & Taxi Driver, was my professor at Columbia when I was in Graduate school. and he introduced me to a lot of the people who were involved in the heydey of 54 which was 1977 to 1979. I started meeting everyone, one by one and interviewed everybody that I could. Whether they were the entertainers, but more especially the bartenders, cloak-check girls and the busboys because as you know that is what the story is really all about.
RWD: You were a real newbie director at the time so how did you get a big studio to give you the green-light?
MC: Well I wrote the script, that took a total of five years, and they liked it. I had made some short films at school that were well received and that Miramax liked very much, and they said that they wanted me to direct. So that part was unusually kind of easy.
RWD: Ryan Philippe went from acting on a TV Daytime Soap and then leapfrogged to be your star. Why and how did that happen?
MC: The producers and I wanted to discover a kid as this part called out for it, so once we had cast Salma Hayek, Mike Myers, & Neve Campbell then I was allowed to get my discovery. The movie took a year to cast so when I first auditioned him he was a real teenager, but by the time the process ended and he came back for his second audition after doing the movie, I Know What You Did Last Summer he was a young man, and we all loved him.
RWD: Did the fact that he was playing an openly gay character on Days of Our Lives make a difference to you?
MC: I actually had no idea at the time he was even playing that as he only told me later. I think his character was the first openly gay teenage character on a daytime soap on US TV.
RWD: Several of your actors were then on the cusp of stardom so is that why the original movie was made more mainstream?
MC: When I cast everyone they were all very promising and the only real established stars then were Mike Myers and Neve Campbell then. As we were shooting they were all becoming more and more well known which was exciting for everybody.
RWD: How did you get all those major celebrities like Michael York, Cindy Crawford, Morgan Freeman etc. to do those walk-on parts as themselves?
MC: Once Mike Myers signed on (and by the way he reached out to us to play what was one of his first dramatic roles) the movie became THE project in town to do. We became a hot subject, and so all these stars were practically lining up to join in.
RWD: Who was your favourite one?
MC: Lauren Hutton was wonderful, although she, in fact, had a couple of lines too, and I loved working with her. I also loved hanging out with Sheryl Crow in her limo on the set because she was so non-disco and so cool. Another person who had a very small part was Mark Ruffalo as Rico who is Shane’s best friend from his New Jersey days. This was one of his very first movie roles ever.
RWD: What are the best parts that you got to restore in this Director’s Cut?
MC: Well the story. It really is a love triangle between the characters played by Ryan, Salma & Breckin and it was so very important to me to restore that story. Secondly, restoring the look of the film that we had shot to be very dark. Shooting a film on film negative in a dark club is very hard to light. My DP (Director of Photography) Alexander Gruszynski did a marvellous job as we worked very hard on figuring out how to light it in a way that I experience a nightclub, which is very dark with flashes of light. I have never really seen a film that has done that to this day and the when the movie came out in 1998, unfortunately, they put a lot of light into it and it did not look like the movie that I had shot. Now we are back to the original look of the movie, which I think is gorgeous and makes me very happy.
RWD: Do you know if Ryan, or Mike Myers or any of the others have seen your Director’s Cut, and if so what their reaction is?
MC: All the actors are very excited and very supportive. Neve Campbell came out to Guadalajara for the screening at the Festival there, which was quite wonderful.
RWD: What are you proudest about this movie now?
MC: Just the fact that it exists and is out there and that Miramax are supporting it. It truly is like a dream come true for me.
RWD: Looking back on that period in time, what memories does it bring back to you personally?
MC: The whole concept of the film is that it is about the worker bees who were the backbone of this fabulous nightclub, so it brings back two things. Firstly reminds me of when I was waiting tables and serving people and all the craziness around that. The other thing it brings back is remembering how very exciting it all was. Even though I wasn’t in NY at the time in the disco era, even in Chicago where I was living I remember how every week an incredible new song would come out and that they all became immediate classics. It was a very exciting wild time and I loved it all. If we can just draw you back into that world for an hour and forty minutes with this movie, I would be totally thrilled.
It was, after all, this one iconic Club that really gave birth to what all clubs are like now, and which is the main reason why that this subject of Studio 54 will live forever.
RWD: There is one line in the movie that had me in hysterics and I have to know if someone really said to you personally “it ain’t the size of the ship, it’s the motion of the ocean”?
MC: (Laughs) That’s a cliché. What I wrote was the response “Who told you that? your lover?” “No, his father!” (laughs).
RWD: I laughed because it sounded so like you (laughs). Anyway, what’s next for you?
MC: I’m working on script for a drama for Warner Brothers called Berlin which is set in 1941. I also have a couple of other TV deals, because working in television is exciting for me now as that’s where I get to do dark character work that I have wanted to do my whole life. I am also looking at other feature scripts but haven’t found the right one yet. I still teach too at Columbia, Drexel and Carnegie Miller.
RWD: Now I always finish my interviews with the same question. If there was a movie made of your life, who would play you?
That’s pretty obvious right?
RWD: Well no, as I wouldn’t have asked if I knew.
MC: Wouldn’t it be Ryan Philippe? (laughs). Don’t tell Miramax, but I already have his entire wardrobe (Laughs).
RWD: Ryan Philippe then or now?
MC: The younger version of me would be Ryan as he has already played me in this movie, and Denis Quaid would play the older version of me. Who would play me now? I guess Madonna!
RWD: (Laughs) You always leave me speechless MC.
For news of future screenings and DVD release https://www.facebook.com/54Movie?fref=ts