In 2003, Charlize Theron made a huge splash with the movie Monster. She was in a position to star in anything after that. One of her next moves was becoming the lead actress for Aeon Flux, an action-thriller romance science-fiction story that Paramount hoped would become a franchise for them, something like The Matrix. Instead, Aeon Flux bombed hard. On a budget of $62 million, this movie earned back $53 million at the worldwide box office. Now, the director of the film is speaking out about what happened to create the movie that did so poorly and nearly wrecked her career. In a revealing interview with Buzzfeed, we’ve learned that there were actually two separate cuts created for Aeon Flux before the one we saw in the theaters. It’s the kind of story that makes you want to fight studios and create hashtags. Here’s what happened.
Before Aeon Flux was a box office bomb, starring Charlize Theron and threatening to ruin people’s careers, it was an animated series on MTV, first on Liquid Television and then with its own series in the early 1990s. Paramount Pictures got a hold of it and had big dreams for their adaptation. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi wrote the script. Director Karyn Kusama had made her directorial debut with Girlfight.
While women weren’t typically brought on for big-budget movies, she’d heard about Aeon Flux and came to pitch for the movie with a storyboard and visual cues. One of the writers says she was the only director to do so and that others popped in saying, “We’ll use Moby for the soundtrack, it will be great!”, which was less than impressive. Originally, the studio had been quoted a $110 million budget for the movie, and they wanted Kusama to make it happen on about half that. She said she could.
Karyn Kusama got the director job and they managed to pull Charlize Theron in for the lead. All seemed amazing. It only got better during the year of preproduction, as Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing was thoroughly supportive of the vision the writers and director were creating.
But then the worst happened. Sherry Lansing left Paramount Pictures and they had a new team of executives show up. Brad Grey and Gail Berman were now in charge. They saw Karyn Kusama’s original take for Aeon Flux. This movie was said to fit the bill for her original vision. The movie was “a challenging sci-fi romantic thriller with the thoughtful pacing of a highbrow Asian martial arts film”. This was no longer the movie that the studio was interested in. They were not having any of it. Hay said he heard it called a $50 million art movie, which Hay replied to with confirmation and enthusiasm, and the executives considered it a nightmare.
They brought someone else in to re-edit the movie and made a second take. This new take of the Charlize Theron film came in at 71 minutes, which barely made it a feature film. The studio executives saw this new, second take—and also hated it. The director recalls that she took a phone call that basically said they hated her original art movie take but they hated this new 71 minute version even more. They asked her to come in again and make a third version of the movie.
Karyn Kusama did not want to do that. They wouldn’t leave her alone with the editor to create the film and were constantly critiquing her work. She was tempted to quit. She wanted her name taken off the movie. But if she left, then she’d be letting down everyone else who worked on the film. How do you explain to Charlize Theron that you directed her in a film for all that time and then abandoned set?
So she kept moving forward, even while executives talked down to her. Kusama said, “The emotional core of things was always being questioned as sentimental, over-romantic, short of literally saying the words ‘female’ or ‘feminine.” They made her cut out a gay supporting character, cut scenes to the point that the following scene didn’t make sense, and generally pulled apart everything she’d done. When Kusama went to the premiere, she drank 10 vodka tonics, went home, was sick for six hours, and then never watched the movie again.
Charlize Theron has called the movie a mistake. She has said that she wanted to work with the director, Kusama, but that things were a real mess. More recently, Theron has starred in Atomic Blonde, which she also produced. She has said she feels that movie went better because of things she learned from the mistakes on Aeon Flux.
But would Aeon Flux have been such a mistake if the director’s original cut had been released? It’s unclear if Charlize Theron ever saw that take of the film. It will be interesting to see if her talking about it now ever leads to a release, but it seems more likely it may be doomed to a future of collecting dust on a Paramount lot somewhere.