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Most of us have seen a film and said, “It could have been better.” Not many of us have seen a film and said, “It will be better.” But some people have. Predominantly male, predominantly American, predominantly in their 20s and 30s, a growing band of proudly geekish cinephiles have decided that a film isn’t finished just because a studio says it is. It’s never finished, in fact, because it can always be refined to suit your own personal tastes. If you chop out a sub-plot here, or stick another song on the soundtrack there, you can create a fan edit. You can turn “Moonraker” into a tough, serious-minded Bond movie. You can make “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” a worthy sequel to “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. You can even make “The Matrix Reloaded” vaguely comprehensible. A practice that would have been unthinkable before the 21st century is turning the feature film into a malleable and interactive artform—a collaboration between its director and its viewers. And it’s all thanks to one of the most loathed fictional characters ever conceived: Jar Jar Binks.
In 1999, when this bumbling, bug-eyed, alien Stepin Fetchit lurched onto the screen in George Lucas’s first Star Wars prequel, “Star Wars Episode One: The Phantom Menace”, he was instantly detested. Many critics decried him as a racist caricature of a servile West Indian; others saw him as an irksome time-waster. Either way, Jar Jar jarred, and while most Binks-o-phobes contented themselves with murderous fantasies involving lightsabers, one of them took action. In 2000 a film editor in Los Angeles named Mike J. Nichols pieced together an unauthorised alternate edition of “The Phantom Menace”, known as “The Phantom Edit”, which left most of Jar Jar’s buffoonery on the cutting-room floor. Not that this was Nichols’s only change. George Lucas’s other attempts at comedy were excised, as well as some of his more impenetrable dialogue. The egregious Anakin Skywalker was shunted into the background, and Queen Amidala’s waffling courtiers were gagged. This “Phantom Menace” was a leaner, faster, more tolerable film than the official one.
Lucas himself could hardly complain. In 1997 he had set the re-editing precedent by plastering his original “Star Wars” trilogy with incongruous computer-generated effects. So-called Director’s Cuts had been seen before, but this kind of intrusive digital tinkering was new, and it had an influence. In 2002 Steven Spielberg bowdlerised his own “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial” by swapping the federal agents’ guns for walkie-talkies, only to replace the guns the next time the movie was reissued. The message being sent to viewers was that films were no longer untouchable artefacts, carried down from the Hollywood hills in steel canisters. Even long after their release, they could be rejigged, and rejigged again.
“The Phantom Edit” was even more influential. This was several years before the launch of YouTube, and even DVDs were a novelty: Mike J. Nichols’s source material was a VHS tape. At the time, it was positively revolutionary to think that the man or woman in the street could have the skills and equipment to do a better job on “The Phantom Menace” than its own rich-as-Croesus producers. Before long, affordable software was enabling Binks-o-phobes everywhere to transfer the film to their hard drives, and to fashion their own new, improved versions.
“I can still remember clearly how and why I started my first fan-edit project,” says one film fan. “I was frustrated that my wife and I were unable to enjoy the ‘Star Wars’ prequel trilogy, so I grabbed my computer one evening after dinner, searched for some simple editing software, ripped my DVDs, and then began editing some scenes, willy-nilly.” Other fan editors tell a similar story. Their dissatisfaction with one particular film—often, but not always, “The Phantom Menace”—prompted them to set about revising it. But then, having sampled the pleasures of DIY film-making, they moved onto other projects. And so it was that fan editing was born.
“It’s become a huge creative outlet for me,” one fan editor says. “It consistently presents challenges that I’m forced to solve, such as making a scene work in a completely different context, and I feel a rush of excitement every time I do it. The second motivation is that I’ve always wanted to be involved in the film industry in some capacity. Fan editing gives me an opportunity to play not only editor, but also director.”
There are websites devoted to the discussion and promotion of this nascent pastime, among them fanedit.org and digital-fanedits.com. Fanedit.org started life as an offshoot of a “Star Wars” fan site, originaltrilogy.com, which ran a Nichols-inspired contest in 2005 to see who could come up with the best versions of George Lucas’s prequels. It has since logged 928 different fan edits; 94 of them were registered in 2013 alone, and the number is rising year by year.
They are sorted into four main categories. The simplest are Extended Editions, which slot in all the deleted scenes that can be found to make the longest possible cut of a movie. Then there are Shorts, which do the opposite, boiling down an entire series of “24” or “The West Wing” into a coherent couple of hours. Third are FanFixes, like “The Phantom Edit”, which tidy a film up by snipping or extending the scenes, revamping the soundtrack or adjusting the colours.
FanMixes go further. “21 Grams Rebalanced” does away with the shuffled chronology that Alejandro González Iñárritu favoured for “21 Grams”. The “Jack Edit” of James Cameron’s “Titanic” concentrates on Leonardo DiCaprio’s roguish adventurer, so there’s no sign of Gloria Stuart’s aged Rose, and no scenes featuring the crew or the First Class passengers unless Jack is in the vicinity. Its editor describes it as a “courageous attempt to create a version of ‘Titanic’ that is bearable for men”.
A recent “Star Wars” mash-up is even more radical, weaving in footage from “A Bridge on the River Kwai”, “Force 10 from Navarone” and “Rasputin: The Mad Monk” to draw comparisons between the Galactic Empire and the Axis powers.
The website, its administrators stress, does not host any of these edits itself. Keeping on the right side of the studios’ lawyers by being stringently anti-piracy, fanedit.org has rules insisting that anyone who wants to watch an edit should already own a DVD or Blu-ray copy of the parent film, and that edits should never be bought or sold. But if fan editing has to stay strictly amateur for legal reasons, that doesn’t mean that fanedit.org’s users stand for any amateurism when they’re assessing each other’s handiwork. As courteous as the user reviews are, every last flaw in the narrative is spotted, every technical element scrutinised. “The crossfade at 0:16:30 doesn’t seem natural,” goes a typical comment, “and there’s a flash frame at 0.25.15.”
Some edits are knocked off in a week, but most take months. There’s a polish of “The Empire Strikes Back”, consisting of 208 alterations, which has been a work in progress for six years. Is it slightly crazy to pour so much time and effort into tweaking a film that remains someone else’s property, when you have no realistic chance of knocking the original off its perch?
Perhaps. But fandom is slightly crazy, whether it’s directed at films or football or fashion. It tends to involve the delusion of ownership: the conviction that a beloved movie franchise will always meet your expectations, or that your team will win if you cheer loudly enough. When that team manage to win despite your laryngitis, or that franchise is marred by a colossally annoying alien, that’s when you realise just how crazy such possessiveness is. Except that now it isn’t so crazy, after all. Football fans can only affect the outcome of a cup final marginally at best, but film fans—like DJs, a generation ago—have seized the means of production. Discovering fan editing, one enthusiast says, was “like Dorothy going from black-and-white to Technicolor”. He goes on: “I realised that I didn’t have to settle for someone else’s vision of a film. I could make my own.”
And that is why he wouldn’t want to turn his hobby into a career. “It would be great to be paid to do something I love so much that I do it for free, but it would certainly come at a price. I’d no longer be able to approach it from a purely artistic point of view. At the moment, because I have no studio head or shareholders to satisfy, my creativity is left without limits.” Not even Jar Jar Binks would be stupid enough to object.