When Topher Grace has time on his hands, he likes to tinker with and trim down his favorite movies in the editing room and then screen the results with friends. He says it’s therapeutic, kind of like doing woodwork in his garage.
The star of such films as BLACKkKLANSMAN, INTERSTELLAR, and SPIDER-MAN 3 (not to mention THAT ’70s SHOW) first made headlines in 2012 with his clever cut of the STAR WARS prequel trilogy, whittled down to one slam-bang 85-minute movie. In 2018 he compressed Peter Jackson’s THE HOBBIT trilogy into one two-hour film.
And in 2014 on a Thursday night in February, Topher graciously invited me to join him alongside a small group of his pals in a private screening room on Sunset Blvd. to debut his remix of Steven Spielberg’s 1977 masterpiece, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, for one time only.
“There were a bunch of different cuts of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, so this is kind of a truncated, kind of slightly faster version with all the stuff in it; it’s really cool,” an excited Topher told me during an interview for his latest project a couple days before his special screening. “There are three different cuts, and then some outtakes, so we kind of put that stuff back in and it’s cool, man. It’s gonna be a fun time.”
Honored to get a personal invite, I gifted Topher with a vintage CLOSE ENCOUNTERS trading card for good luck before the projector rolled. While introducing the film to his intimate audience lounging in comfy sofa chairs, Topher readily admitted that his CLOSE ENCOUNTERS cut wasn’t nearly as “sexy” as the STAR WARS cut that caught Internet fire, but part of his intention with the grand experiment was to present a post-RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK-styled edit that moved faster, while still maintaining a solid structure and coherence.
His best editorial decision of the night? Removing Spielberg’s specially filmed climactic scene for 1980’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND: THE SPECIAL EDITION theatrical release in which Richard Dreyfuss’ Roy Neary steps into and observes the alien ship interior, an unnecessary indulgence that undermines the power of the audience’s imagination and was ultimately a conceit by studio execs to get more butts into theaters (while allowing Spielberg the opportunity to re-cut the film the way he wanted to the first time around). Incidentally, in 1998, Spielberg re-cut the film for a third time and removed that sequence.
Three footage additions that elevated Topher’s CLOSE ENCOUNTERS REMIX:
-an early scene in which Roy Neary is instantly promoted to take on a task when the power grid goes down in Indiana
-a nice moment showing Roy on the roof of his home with a telescope, watching the skies — before he goes to town on those mashed potatoes
-a scene with Carl Weathers as a suspicious military officer questioning Roy’s intentions during the Wyoming evacuation
Three things that were cut to the detriment of the story (in my opinion):
-Roy’s absence from his job gets him fired over the phone, with his boss yelling at his wife, played by Teri Garr, a crucial element to his psychological unraveling
-Roy and Jillian’s innocent kiss right before Roy hits the tarmac to take a closer look at the alien spectacle, a tender moment cementing the bond these two experienced to get there
-The UFOs taking the shape of the Big Dipper as they fly over Devil’s Tower toward “the Dark Side of the Moon” — a favorite moment of mine in the film
One missed opportunity: I half-expected to hear Meco’s THEME FROM CLOSE ENCOUNTERS integrated into the end credits! Oh well…
Overall, Topher did a seamless job streamlining the film while allowing some great, signature moments to breathe, inventively integrating John Williams music from other projects to cover select scenes without tracks, and maintaining a healthy respect for the source material — which arguably would have a hard time these days pleasing young, contemporary audiences that are used to the hyper Michael Bay/TRANSFORMERS school of storytelling momentum.