THE MYSTERY, BEHIND THE MYSTERY
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I would like to make it clear as one who has been a consultant for about 20 years, to several companies what you are about to read is unusual and not common. WATCHER has been a unique and unfulfilling experience do in large to the company who produced it. My main goal in presenting and preserving this film was always for the memory of Tom Leetch, the initiator of this film whose vision should have gone unhampered, and courageous – like the company’s foundered vision always did. If I failed, it wasn’t without a fight, but due to the lack of respect by those to now reside to make decisions after Tom left this world.
THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS has been a part of my life in one form or another since its infamous initial release in 1981 till today. But beyond its narrative mystery of a girl’s disappearance is a far greater enigma which continues to baffle.
For those who don’t know, WATCHER was born in the Disney studio’s desperate need to develop beyond its usual fair of films of the day. By the late 70’s family films were not the rage. The studio’s glory days had passed and it was time to forge ahead. So, a slate of PG, more “mature”, projects were planned. The first, THE BLACK HOLE. The second slated for theatrical release would be THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS. After reading the novel by Florence Engel Randall, Producer Tom Leetch (who worked with the studio going back to MARY POPPINS, and Walt himself) suggested to then head of the studio, Ron Miller, “This could be our Exorcist.” Powerful words indeed, but then the studio needed something stronger to prove their point and new direction. In 1980, I was lucky to have known a high-ranking exec. in N.Y.’s publicity department who sent me preview tickets for WATCHER. The audience, mostly made up of critics, were held throughout. They jumped, they gasped and applauded. No one had expected this kind of film. Finally, the film had built up to the point of exposing the “Watcher”, there was silence in the theater and everyone leaned forward with expectation. In a shot where the creature spins toward the camera and growls in a close-up (an alternate version of the scene is shown on the DVD minus the growl) the audience of “mature”, “sophisticated” adults suddenly lurched back into their seats, with a gasp. Upon the exit of the “Watcher” a stunned silence filled the theater… then applause. I had not experienced a preview response like that since ALIEN, when that creature broke out from John Hurt’s chest. It wasn’t until WATCHER IN THE WOODS ended that things went sour. It seems no one understood exactly what had transpired. An explanation offered by Lynn-Holly Johnson’s character seemed too vague. The confusion led to audience insult since this was only a “Disney” film and whatever had transpired in the story was understood by a teen-ager and an 8-year-old kid!
After the film actress Lynn-Holly Johnson was there to answer questions from the press. A young woman stood, and simply asked what was it they had just seen? “What was the Watcher? Where did it go? Did I miss something? The kids in the film seemed to understand, yet I’m in the dark?”, she stated. To which Lynn-Holly responded with an overview of a sequence that was referred to as “The Other World” Sequence.
A press agent quickly covered the mic, pulled Lynn-Holly away, and whispered something to her. Returning to the mic, Lynn-Holly responded with a slight giggle, “But you didn’t see that.” A murmur of disbelief expelled from the audience. In the eyes of the critic’s THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS was dead. Everything that had been built during the past hour and forty mins. had been lost.
Through the years, and after becoming a friend of the Co-producer Tom Leetch, I learned the film was rushed out to be coordinated with Bette Davis’ 50th anniversary in the entertainment field. Because of this, crucial effects shots were not completed for the “Other World” sequence. Indeed, what is now seen on the DVD is only a basic first run of combined effects not fully rendered. Instead of holding back the release until the sequence was completed the studio chickened out and pulled the film. It seems the head of the studio, Ron Miller, who had the right idea of producing PG films didn’t really have the guts or vision to see it through. Upon conducting interviews for the Anchor Bay release booklet of the DVD release I learned from cast members of the tenuous atmosphere which existed during the production. Of course, none of this is referred to by the film’s director in the commentary, he is being cordial, I don’t have be. I’ve never been on their payroll. Besides, even if he were his words would have been edited, as was my writing for the booklet, as per Disney.
I was told how Mr. Miller constantly interfered with the filming of scenes, afraid of their intensity. One scene where Carroll Baker slaps a hysterical Lynn-Holly was re-filmed to a “shaking of the shoulders”. Co-producer Leetch would come head to head with Miller fighting for his vision while director John Hough would step aside. Strangely when I had told actress Kyle Richards about this her response was simply ignorance since she was merely a kid at the time – but while looking through a collection of photographs from the filming she found a B&W photograph which someone had shot of her running around during on the outside shoots. Strangely, in the background were producers Tom Leetch and Ron Miller having it out while director John Hough backed away.
Since Miller was the head of the studio, he won his way. A false reason for the film’s failure was propagated. The blame came down on the special effects firm hired (this was the first time the studio had gone to an outside effect house) blaming them for delivering poor effects, and not within the time frame the studio requested - thus scraping the “Other World” sequence, making the ending unintelligible. They became the sacrificial lamb and WATCHER was recalled, cut 20 minutes and about million dollars later furnished with a new, simplified ending.
Through the years I attempted to strike interest in a home video version that consisted of a “finished” version of the film. I believed, as did Tom Leetch, this was possible and it would result in an acceptable motion picture. Tom and I spent multiple conversations on this and he even approached the studio – but in vain. His last interview appears in the DVD is severely edited. At the time he was filled with remorse and utter failure. He was utterly depressed and down trodden. I choose to edit that one interview as I transcribed it from the audio tape. I couldn’t let his last words be so dire – it would not sell a product. It was after his passing I reaffirmed his cause and never gave up to see his dream realized.
The film was later optioned to Image Ent. for laser release to which I was a consultant for SPACE: 1999. I informed them of the original ending and version to which they inquired Disney. The reply was simple – the elements were destroyed. It was a lie. It was also my first dealings with a Mr. Macqueen, Disney archivist. Image Ent. was supplied with a horrible master filled with color and contrast problems. It was grainy and scratched. IMAGE complained, but Disney insisted it was the best they could provide. This was also untrue going by Anchor Bay’s previous VHS release and current DVD.
Jumping ahead, years later Anchor Bay was given the rights to sub-license DISNEY product. Among the titles, THE BLACK HOLE, and of course WATCHER IN THE WOODS. I worked on a special VHS edition of BLACK HOLE (Anchor Bay’s first tin box release) , but unfortunately Disney wouldn’t allow Anchor Bay to do the same for DVD. In fact Anchor Bay’s superior handling of DISNEY’S product resulted in a strange back lash that infuriating the mouse minds into a childish rage. At this time Disney wasn’t very DVD savvy. (Remember they were banking on Divix). Their releases were poor to say the least lacking in extras, and presentation, - they didn’t even have animated menus at the time. Feeling insulted they threw a clog into the wheel and halted all of Anchor Bay/Disney releases – primarily, WATCHER.
It seems at the time Michael Eisner didn’t even know of Anchor Bay, or the contract allowing them to release Disney product. He had only learned of this when one day he picked up the L.A. Times and read a interview with an Anchor Bay executive in which the writer of the piece applauded Anchor Bay on the excellent handling of the mouse’s product, case in point a musical, THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE (which Anchor Bay had the courage to release in two version, the longer roadshow edition, and shorter wide-release version.) Now for Disney, or rather Mr. Eisner, this was the ultimate insult making the studio look inadequate, especially in the handling of a film Walt himself had produced! The obvious had been addressed, why wasn’t “Disney” doing what Anchor Bay was!
You see, you have to understand that the original version of WATCHER is basically unknown and unseen. No one in the home video department at Disney heard of the film, let alone seen the original version. Truthfully the same held true for Anchor Bay. After I informed Anchor Bay of what they had they immediately saw the potential and we went into full swing to re-edited the film back to its original length, with the director’s approval. Like salmon swimming up stream Anchor Bay, and myself, found Disney both challenging and annoying. They insisted the elements were destroyed upon our inquiry. It was a person in the film archive/restoration department, yep, Mr. Macqueen who had also stated the same to Image Ent. years previous. Why? I don’t really know - which is why I had to resort to extreme measures. I knew someone at the company who had access to the vault archives. On their own free time (lunch) they simply went into the vault and found what we needed. In fact they delivered to me a sheet consisting of a complete inventory run down of the elements for WATCHER. From TV spots, to various languages, to film prints, negatives and sound elements – a whole inventory. There were even separate C,Y,M elements which is why the DVD quality is so good! Ultimately Disney had final say in what was pulled and currently appears on the DVD – that is, except one item. The film originally opened with a pro log and different Main Title sequence. A small girl is seen in the woods playing with a doll. The WATCHER’S presence (a roving camera POV) sneaks up to the girl from behind. She suddenly turns to the camera and screams, dropping her doll and running off. The camera changes it view from the running girl to the doll. There is a growl, the doll floats upward, becoming air borne, and is swiftly launched against a tree where it is struck by a blue beam of light, igniting it. The Main Titles are played over the burning doll face which melts as the credits continue accompanied by striking “psycho-like” musical strings. This important beginning set up a tone for what would follow casting a much darker atmosphere on every scene to come. Also upon the film’s final revelation it procures a simple and basic “Disney” moral – things are not what they always appear to be. Or, “Don’t judge a book by it cover.” This concept of having a horrible looking alien which turns out to be non-hostile, but merely frustrated creature obviously went over Disney heads then, and now. Similarly, UNIVERSAL, though the writing of Ray Bradbury did the same with IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE.
Copies of the footage were sent to me (NY) on tape from California. I contacted the director (in England) and we talked about how to re-edit the footage together. Even with what was found there was still roughly 2 -3 mins. of footage missing that was cut from the body of the film. Disney wouldn’t allow us to look further. They also were paranoid about the tapes they sent me demanding them back within 24 hours. I then spent the night – till 4 am, making notations from the time encoded tapes writing an edit-script with instructions as to how to piece the new footage together with the existing film. This edit combined footage from both alternate endings now seen on the DVD. Which is why the audio commentary has the director referring to now being able to see the film as it was, and the true ending being a compilation of what is on the disc. A more exacting edit would have been better but Disney wouldn’t allow it. I was restricted to only a few cuts. In fact we (Anchor Bay and myself) were always walking on egg shells in dealing with Disney in fear of repercussions – which will be stated later.)
The project was halted and scrubbed due to worry that Anchor Bay was making Disney look bad by release superior product of a film which the company had failed with years previous. Disney then tried to argue the point that Anchor Bay didn’t own the rights to this extended/alternate version. The issue went back to THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE embarrassment. The contract, though open to interpretation, according to Disney said Anchor Bay had the right to the film, not “two” of them. But they had already allowed Anchor Bay to release two versions of THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE - So the same had to hold true for WATCHER. Disney next turned to the defense that the longer version of WATCHER was not a true theatrical edition, thus not available to Anchor Bay. Unlike THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE which had a legitimate roadshow release. But you see, no one currently at Disney knew what they were talking about since they weren’t there at the time of the WATCHER’S release. Luckily, I had the New York Times Ad from 1981 with show times proving the version we sought had a “theatrical” run. Next Disney offered to hand over WATCHER if Anchor Bay would hand back THE HAPPIEST MILLIONAIRE.
Anchor Bay stuck to their guns, said no, being happy to continue their positive consumer response from that title and requested that Disney honor the contract they signed. Disney’s response was a typical PLO-like maneuver of holding the remaining titles in the contract hostage. WATCHER was canceled.
Between this and that, and the years of seemingly endless negotiations between Anchor Bay and Disney there were times when the mouse loosened its grip and, like the Israelis and the Palestinians, peace would be achieved. That is when Anchor Bay announced the release on their website exciting fans. But at the turn of a screw Disney would rescind their stance and break the truce, always referring to the remaining titles in waiting as a ploy and threat. But at this point WATCHER was almost fully realized. So much money was already spent it was either let Anchor Bay have it, or Disney would have to pay for it themselves. Disney toyed with Anchor Bay clamping down on how WATCHER would be released. This ranged between only the shorter version and no extras, or no commentary, or no extras (trailers, TV spots, or no alternate endings. Hell they even complained about Anchor Bay using animated menus!
It reached a point where Anchor Bay felt all was lost, not only WATCHER but the remaining Disney titles promised. That’s when I came up with a suggestion.
I had obtained Roy Disney’s email and fax number so I suggested that I, independently, reach out to him for aid. This would be on a personal level, separate from Anchor Bay, pleading my case. Anchor Bay agreed feeling, “At this point, why not?!” (Link to read the Fax at the end of the editorial)
Well, after sending it, heads rolled. It seems Roy didn’t know anything about Anchor Bay, the agreement with them, the whole deal. Like Eisner he was in the dark, and I don’t think took it too well. I never heard from him personally only dark rumblings from a Disney exec who warned me I would be “getting a call from someone high up”. If that was meant to scare me, it didn’t, and the call never came anyway.
So Anchor Bay won, however –the film would NOT be re-edited as planned. (Originally it was planned to be a double disc version consisting of both versions of the film along with extras.) This went on for almost 4 years. Back and forth, always getting more convoluted due to firings and hirings at the unstable mouse Corporation. (More heads rolled at the company then than during the French Revolution.) Finally, after picking and nit-picking, WATCHER was okayed. Minus one thing – the original Main Titles. It seems a group of execs. felt it didn’t represent the Disney Corporation in the proper way. In fact, one exec. who was assigned as a kind of go between Anchor Bay and Disney voted against this prolog/main title sequence. When she admitted this to me I told her she had neither the right nor artistic judgment to have done so. In fact she didn’t even confer with the film’s director. To take it further she hadn’t even heard of WATCHER until I educated her on its history. Even more amusing – when the initial batch of Anchor’s, THE BLACK HOLE was released it had audio problems. (which I brought to their attention to be fixed). Upon addressing this issue to Disney the technical department they told her the sound was “degaussed” and intended to be that way. For those of you who don’t know what that means – degaussed is when you erase something. Which would mean there wouldn’t be any sound. (The problem with the initial release of THE BLACK HOLE was switched speaker locations.) Basically, the Disney tech’s didn’t want to take the blame for the defect so they in turn took advantage of this exec’s ignorance of the format. I informed her she was being made a fool, educated her on the technical issue enabling her to confront the techs and have the issue resolved. Yet Keef Ferrandini has somehow earned a spot in the booklet I wrote accompanied with the DVD, under “Thanks to the following” along those I interviewed!
Instead of acting as a impartial aid she intervened with others and completely changed the original release concept of what this DVD could have been. Believe me I was shocked to see this addition since she had nothing to do with the production of this release other than being Disney’s lackey to expedite decisions from above. To make matters worse her name has been highlighted in box in the DVD insert. This decision, I believe, was done by Anchor Bay to help placate her and Disney in hopes of receiving the remaining titles in the agreement. Disney kept those titles hanging on string like a carrot keeping Anchor Bay their puppet, while holding WATCHER by the throat with a knife. To sum things up titles promised (JOURNEY OF NATTY GANN, NEWSIES, the ERNEST series and THE PUPPET MASTERS – the latter of which I was suppose to work on) were never delivered, and have since been announced as being released by Disney. Now, remember films are not mastered and prepared over night, these were being done while discussions and negotiations were being conducted for WATCHER. In the interim another Disney acquired title, SPACECAMP was released only with a text interview I conducted with the film’s director – the original plan was to do a commentary but again Disney intervened and wouldn’t allow us to do so. At the time they weren’t even doing 16x9 transfers which is why that release was only given to Anchor Bay in letterbox.
The bottom line is WATCHER seems to have enemies, not to mention the worst of luck - much of which is the studio’s own stupidity. It would seem Disney would rather have newly animated characters talk with the lingo of crack dealers than showing a doll burning. I suppose it was better to hear an African helicopter pilot say “I’d whip the bitch!”, as in the film BABY: SECRET OF THE LOST LEGEND, or for that matter have winged harpies, boldly nude, exposing their pink nipples in close-up as in FANTASIA.
Even now, after over 20 years the WATCHER IN THE WOODS is still a mystery. It is NOT what the director intended, nor that of the initiator, Tom Leetch. In fact Disney never even bothered to consult director John Hough. I offered to connect the two, hell, John even offered to fly in from England to L.A. and sit at an editing table and re-do the film, AT NO CHARGE! But the studio SAID NO – yes another bad decision by the person whose wrongful credit appears in the booklet. But then again lack of logic has been a staple of Disney who originally edited all trailers given to Anchor Bay (on BLACK HOLE and SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES) deleting the WALT DISNEY STUDIO name – notice it doesn’t appear on the packaging as well, even on WATCHER.
It boggles the mind to conceive such a badly run organization – one that showed such promise, and held such standards give way to incoherent decisions.
But against all odds, good and bad, less than more, THE WATCHER is out. It has survived all the poor stupid bastards that have since stood in its way and or, faded away. Oh a few still remain, but, against all odds the film has survived. It’s far from what I and Anchor Bay wanted it to be, but it’s out. Sorry Tom (Leetch), where ever you are, I tried. Perhaps it will yet return complete. Why? Because I know it’s ALL THERE. Tom had told me it was. Besides, I’ve seen the inventory sheet of that vault – the entire un-cut version, it’s there.
Like the WATCHER itself… waiting