TORONTO • Will Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, Billy Bob Thornton and Jim Sturgess show up at the Toronto International Film Festival tomorrow to introduce their movie London Fields? Festival organisers are nervously waiting to find out.
Based on a noir novel by Martin Amis, London Fields, set for its world premiere at the giant festival, has become the centre of an unusually fierce, behind-the-scenes dispute over the control and content of the movie.
None of the film's biggest stars have publicly declared a boycott. But all four have written letters to their producers, objecting to a provocative cut of the movie - its narrative is now laced with violent imagery in what might be dreams, or flashes back and forward - that was overseen not by its credited director, Mathew Cullen, but by one of the producers, Chris Hanley.
Some of the actors have considered being elsewhere when the movie has its premiere, according to people with knowledge of their thinking. Cullen certainly will not be on hand, according to them.
Film-makers' conflicts are hardly new. For years, the Directors Guild of America assigned a humorously anonymous "Alan Smithee" credit to troubled films such as Let's Get Harry (1986), directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Cullen, for whom London Fields is a first feature, has been recognised principally for his commercials, video work and a business association with Guillermo del Toro in their Mirada Studios. Hanley (Spring Breakers, 2012, and American Psycho, 2000) is a prolific indie film-maker who often pushes the edges. His wife Roberta Hanley wrote the script for London Fields.
The festival's artistic director Cameron Bailey said on Monday: "We're aware that the team that made the film is coming to agreement, and we're looking forward to launching it."
Hanley said he did not know whether the actors would appear, but noted that Thornton and Heard - Depp's wife - had contractual commitments to support the film.
At an early press and industry screening on Tuesday morning, London Fields proved to be a sexy love quadrangle centred on the themes of clairvoyance and the decay of a London in an undefined crisis. In its present form, the narrative is intercut with images of a predatory drone, nuclear blasts, a person tumbling from a World Trade Center tower and what appears to be a gathering in Mecca.
Some of those moments were said to have outraged Cullen according to people briefed on his response, and he explored taking his name off the film. But he found that he had missed his opportunity to do so under complicated rules enforced by the Directors Guild of America.
Jovan Ajder, a sound mixer who worked on London Fields, said Hanley's version was "radically different" and "more puzzling" than Cullen's more straightforward tale.
Even more puzzling, Adjer said, was a production process in which Cullen edited one version, while Hanley edited another, with actors on call to provide dialogue in postproduction for both.
By May this year, the actors were largely united in an unusual appeal for the restoration of Cullen's cut (though Heard urged a merger of the versions, Hanley said).
Depp, who had accepted a small role as a gesture towards his wife, was by then said to be voicing wariness about any attempt to use him in an effort to market the movie, people briefed on the situation said.
The infighting disrupted a postproduction process that was supposed to be completed in time for last year's Toronto festival, then for the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
NEW YORK TIMES