BEFORE SUPERGROUP THE AVENGERS, THERE WAS SUPER-FLOP THE AVENGERS, A SUMMER MOVIE THAT ALMOST DESTROYED ITS DIRECTOR
We revisit the terrible tale of a terrible tale: the notoriously awful
The Avengers. Not that one, the other one.
AFTER THE AVENGERS failed in 1998, Jeremiah S. Chechik fled Hollywood. Not to a beachside retreat to drown his sorrows in margaritas and escape the deafening silence of box-office tills. Not even back across the border to his hometown of Montreal. The director, deemed responsible for a hot mess that scraped in only $48 million against a $60 million budget, felt so profoundly battered by the experience he disappeared into the literal wilderness.
“I went across the Gobi desert to the edge of Western China,” he tells Empire. “I travelled through West Africa, through all these war-torn areas. The most dangerous places.” Now 62 years old, Chechik is reluctant to share details of his self-imposed exile, saying only that he had “plenty of dangerous experiences”. Though none so harrowing as his Avengers trauma. “I was so damaged. I felt I couldn’t direct anymore.
So I went walkabout for several years: just endless roaming through the world. To get in touch with what’s real again.” ❯
IT’S HARD TO find something more out of touch with what’s real than the 1998 Avengers. Based on a beloved espionage series broadcast on ITV from 1961 to 1969, it is an action-adventure comedy set in an eerily unpopulated England where the ’60s never ended. An England where a weather-controlling villain played by Sean Connery machinates from the fuzzy depths of a teddy-bear costume. Where Uma Thurman uncomfortably struts in kinky boots opposite a killer-brolly-wielding Ralph Fiennes, and has fight scenes against herself as an unexplained clone. Where giant robot bees attack.
And where virtually every third scene involves the drinking of tea.
After its 14 August release, San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick Lasalle described it as “a bad and weird and strangely off picture”. He, like most critics, winced at the awkward, stiff-rather-than-steamy banter between Fiennes’ dapper secret agent John Steed (Patrick Macnee in the original) and Thurman’s Emma
Peel (previously rendered so iconic by Diana Rigg). There were no preview screenings, so the lack of faith its studio Warner Bros. had in it was palpable. Warner even refused to put on a premiere — unheard of for a big summer movie.
It was such a calamity, few could fathom the decision to make it in the first place. But, as Fiennes pointed out to The Guardian in 2011, “You don’t go to work thinking you’re making a bad film. I went to work thinking, ‘Great, let’s reinvent The Avengers,’ which I loved as a kid. It’s only now, because of the way it was received, that we look back and groan.”
The blame was laid most heavily at Chechik’s door, but the project pre-dates him by several years. Music tour manager-turned-hollywood producer Jerry Weintraub, the cigar-puffing raconteur behind Nashville and The Karate Kid, had secured the remake rights and was keen to pull a viable movie script together. He, like Warner Bros. co-ceos Bob Daly and Terry Semel, reasoned that if kooky ’60s TV show Batman could be turned into a cool modern blockbuster, then wasn’t The Avengers similarly ripe material? The movie first properly took shape in late 1993, when British screenwriter Don Macpherson was brought on board. The former Time Out film critic had impressed Warner Bros. with his work on projects as diverse as A.S. Byatt adaptation Possession, a never-made Tim Burton take on Frankenstein and Terry Gilliam’s stalled attempt to do Dickens with A Tale Of Two Cities. He was surprised they’d come to him, but had loved the show as a kid and still appreciated, as he now puts it, its “mix of pop art, low budgets, Alice In Wonderland and Hammer horror.”
So in 1994 he delivered a script which focused squarely on the character of Peel. It was a “dark thriller” in which, unhinged by grief, she sets out to avenge the mysterious murder of her scientist husband, accompanied by secret agent Steed, who has secret orders to kill her if needs be. It had the teddy bears, the Peel clone and weather-controlling tech, but Macpherson’s logic was that ‘Avengersland’ is a reality essentially viewed through Peel’s trauma — “a twisted, broken mirror of a place”.
Weintraub seemed to dig the result and began meeting with directors whose dark-tinged sensibilities might match the material well. “The first they got interested was Jean-jacques Beineix, who made Betty Blue,” Macpherson recalls. “That seemed really smart. But he pulled out before visiting LA.” David Fincher was next on the list, which excited Macpherson as he’d worked with him on his agonising debut, Alien 3. But the studio baulked when Fincher announced he wanted to shoot The Avengers in black and white. Alex Proyas, director of The Crow, came close, but then, two years after Macpherson delivered his screenplay, Nicholas Meyer, of Star Treks II and VI, signed on. Or so the writer thought.
“A few months later, I got a call from Jerry Weintraub,” Macpherson recalls. “He said he had a surprise for me. Indeed, it was. It turned out a new director, Jeremiah Chechik, was attached… Et voilà!”
THE FILM-DIRECTING career of the man who made The Avengers began with a phone call from Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy. In June 1987, the pair read a New York Times interview with Stanley Kubrick in which he praised a Michelob beer commercial as one of the best things he’d recently seen. The ad’s director was revealed as one-time Italian Vogue photographer Jeremiah S. Chechik. Spielberg and Kennedy sought him out and, says Chechik, “invited me into the realm of Hollywood” where he was given an office at their production company, Amblin, and started developing a film for Warner Bros..
That project never came to be, but the studio did offer him silly seasonal comedy National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, which after its release in 1989 became the Vacation series’ most successful entry. Over the next eight years, Chechik’s output included the quirkily charming Jonny Depp romance Benny & Joon and Sharon Stone thriller Diabolique. It was hardly like he was a crazy choice for The Avengers.
The director admits being initially wary, though. “My reticence about making it at that moment was doing what I would consider a very expensive art film for a studio,” he says. “But as someone who grew up in Canada, part of the colonies, I grew up with The Avengers and loved them. And I couldn’t very well turn it down, just because the visual opportunities were great. As soon as I read the teddy-bear scene I was like, ‘I’m doing this.’”
But not before making it a condition that Macpherson rework his script. The teddy bears stayed, but Peel’s rampage of revenge had to go, requiring the removal of her husband from the story, a change in villain (from her face-changing brotherin-law Valentine Peel to the broader, more Bond-villain-esque Sir August De Wynter), and an overall lightening of the tone. Macpherson considered quitting, but Weintraub — who passed away in 2015 — talked him into seeing it through. While he might have disagreed with Chechik, the
writer remains reluctant to criticise him. “I don’t want to dump on Jeremiah,” he says. “He’s had way enough of that. He’s a very sweet, talented guy.”
Chechik had no reason to think the rewrite was a mistake. He’d sent the script to original Avengers Rigg and Macnee (who’d cameo in the film as an invisible archivist), as well as the show’s top writer, Brian Clemens, and received their blessings. The actors he was keen to cast loved it too: Ralph Fiennes, who he’d known since trying to do a “dark medieval project” with the Oscar-winning star called The Monk; Nicole Kidman, up for playing Peel; and Sean Connery, who he’d sent the script despite Semel warning, “We’ll never make a deal with him.”
Undeterred, Chechik flew to Malaga in Spain, and met with Connery at his home. The former Bond wasn’t put off by the idea of wearing a teddy-bear costume (“Oh fuck, he loved it!” roars Chechik). But as Connery walked the director out, he still hadn’t committed. So Chechik turned to him and said, “I would really like to know now, because on Monday I’d like to send the script to Michael Caine.” Connery looked him in the eye and said, “I’m in.”
Kidman was a different story, unable to extricate herself from the over-running shoot for Eyes Wide Shut. “I was happy to push the movie [back],” sighs Chechik,
“but Warner Bros. wanted Uma Thurman. I had loved Uma’s work, so I met with her, we got on, and she committed.”
The remaining roles attracted some prime British talent: Jim Broadbent as wheelchair-bound boss-man Mother and Fiona Shaw as his blind right-hand-woman Father. Stand-up star Eddie Izzard signed on to play laconic thug Bailey after Chechik saw him on TV, and drug-frazzled Happy Mondays front-man Shaun Ryder was, perhaps riskily, cast as De Wynter goon Donovan (“It was kind of a nuts choice,” laughs Chechik, “but we never had any problems with Shaun. Of course, he had three minders and two drivers…”)
Chechik’s crew was also impressive, including production designer Stuart Craig (the Harry Potter films), cinematographer Roger Pratt (who’d worked with Terry Gilliam and Kenneth Branagh) and editor Mick Audsley (The Grifters, Twelve Monkeys). With his A-team assembled,
The Avengers finally rolled at Pinewood Studios on 12 September 1997.
THE SHOOT, AS Chechik remembers it, was mostly joyous and hitch-free: working with “an amazing team and one of the great producers”, playing with big set-pieces, having a laugh with Connery — who one day even filmed a birthday greeting for Fiennes in character as 007 (“So I got to direct him as James Bond!”). Chechik does confess he realised the chemistry between Fiennes and Thurman was just “not happening”, but thought he could muscle it through. “I was wrong. I blame myself. I thought the movie was bigger, at least in terms of its visual entertainment, than that chemistry.”
Not big enough for Warner Bros., it turned out. Summer ’98 presented a nightmare for a studio that had already suffered a risible previous year with flops like Batman & Robin and Kevin Costner’s The Postman, while Tim Burton’s mooted Superman Lives and the Schwarzeneggerstarring I Am Legend both collapsed before cameras rolled. Aside from the fourth Lethal Weapon, Chechik’s “very expensive art movie” was now its biggest summer hope. He was told to dial up the action, and grudgingly added in the robotbee sequence. Then, in April 1998, his biggest supporter at the studio, production executive Billy Gerber, was fired, leaving The Avengers in the hands of people who, according to Chechik, “never wanted to make it, didn’t get it, hated it”.
When Chechik delivered his director’s cut, it did not go down well. The studio promptly arranged a test screening, in Scottsdale, Arizona. “I was there,” says editor Mick Audsley. “I shall never forget it.” At the end, the audience, who Chechik feels were chosen to have minimal cultural connection with the source material, just silently shuffled out. Curious to know what they thought, Audsley headed into the gents and eavesdropped on the punters as they emptied their bladders. “Well, that was terrible,” someone muttered. It was, the studio would later tell him, one of their worst-ever preview screenings.
The next morning, Weintraub and Chechik were summoned to Semel’s office in Burbank, California. They were ordered to re-cut the film to emphasise the action and make it shorter — ultimately by around 20 minutes. The greatest casualty was the entire opening scene, which introduced Peel ahead of Steed, arriving at an airfield where she gains access to a secret lab and proceeds to blow it up. The teddy-bear scenes were pared back. But, worst of all, the film lost what Chechik calls “the connective tissue”, leaving it feeling overly brisk, confusing and lacking
fundamental context. “I only saw the end product once,” says Macpherson. “And I was just in shock. It was like watching a kind of MTV version of it. It made little sense to me.”
As the one wielding the scissors, even under duress, Audsley felt awful.
“In reducing the film and trying to bodge it into something it wasn’t, it went off the rails,” he says. “By cutting it, we made it worse. And I take responsibility for being a part of that. With the experience I have now, 20 years on down the road, I would have said, ‘We need to preserve what this film is.’ But back then I didn’t know how to position myself to say that.”
Chechik remains deeply frustrated. “I’d never had any interference in anything I did before. My movies, whether you liked them or not, were mine. But when you know you’re gonna take the heat for something you know is gonna fail, you can’t own it. I can’t say, ‘Hey! I know you didn’t like it, I know nobody liked it, but fuck you! It’s my movie!’ I literally cannot watch The Avengers. It breaks my heart.”
AFTER HIS YEARS travelling war zones, finding inspiration in places as far from the Dream Factory as imaginable, Chechik returned to directing in 2004. “I got to make a movie for FX, which was one of my best creative experiences,” he says. “Super-gritty, shot in 21 days. It was called Meltdown. It was about nuclear terror. One of the darkest things you’ve seen. But it brought me back as a director.”
Since then, he’s found his creative home in TV, working on the likes of Gossip Girl, Chuck and, most recently, X-universe spin-off The Gifted. He’s also written a feature he may make this year: “A throwback to ’70s filmmaking like Bullitt and French Connection. Pure cinema!”
But The Avengers has never entirely gone away. “I continue to get mail, asking, ‘Is there any way to get your cut out?’ And I keep saying, ‘I don’t own this movie. There’s no way for me to put it back together.’ But I would do it, and I’d do it for free.” In December 2015, website Nerfed Llamas wrote an open letter to Warner Bros. beseeching it to release Chechik’s cut. The studio responded only to state, with polite finality, “There are no current plans to revisit this property.”
Of course, “never say never” remains one of Hollywood’s most overused phrases. This January, Shane Black revealed he was working on a fresh (kinky) reboot for Warner Bros. television. What advice, we wonder, does Chechik have for him?
“Have final cut, because it is a singular vision, not a collective vision,” he reflects. “And make it for as little money as you can: the equivalent of what they spent on the TV show. The creative risks must be bigger than the financial risks. Otherwise this is what happens. You have a failure.” The kind that Chechik, quite clearly, wouldn’t wish on anyone else.