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The journey that a movie takes from script to screen is a long, drawn-out process and for big budget Hollywood pictures this can become even more arduous. Story meetings, interfering executives, rewrites, on-set confrontations, reshoots, an assembly cut and then numerous edits to receive approval from the studio. If the film is part of a franchise then there is a target demographic to appease, box office expectations and the concerns of matching the quality of the previous instalments.
But one aspect of the creative process that many filmmakers have described as frustrating and even unnecessary is the test audience. ‘They show movies to a test audience before the movie is released, then change the movie depending on how the two hundred random yahoos liked or didn’t like it,’ explained the late comedian Bill Hicks in his 1993 show Revelations. ‘As if we are all the same. As though we share the same taste. I think a quick perusal of my video collection will tell you many of us walk to the beat of our own drummer.’
The comment from Hicks is a valid one; what one person may find amusing, offensive or arousing may cause the opposite response from another viewer and a mere two hundred individuals should not represent the entire population. Therefore, if the majority of an audience fail to laugh at a joke then it may be cut, but like most things humour is subjective and can also be lost in translation. Regardless, test screenings have been a tried and tested technique in Hollywood for decades and while some filmmakers accept this necessary evil others have argued that unwarranted changes cheapen their product.
One of the most notorious victims of the test audience was Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne’s 1987 erotic thriller in which a married man embarks on a brief affair while his family are out of town, only for his jilted lover to develop an unhealthy obsession with him. While the script had ended with the antagonist slitting her throat so he would be accused of her murder, test audiences felt this climax was too downbeat and so reshoots were ordered to deliver a more action-oriented slasher finale. While this allowed the movie to become a box office sensation, the somewhat underwhelming conclusion would become a focal point of criticism in many of the subsequent reviews.
‘In fact, there are two types of advance screenings: testers and talkers. They are vastly different, but share one common element – audience feedback,’ explained the Guardian’s Ivan Radford in a 2008 article on the process. ‘And testing is a risk. You have to keep your nerve, especially if you’re not willing to make any changes, whatever anyone says. Negative reaction to Se7en was ignored, leaving David Fincher’s dark masterpiece intact. On the other hand, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle went completely unscreened, leading to disaster, at least as far as most critics were concerned.’
One of the many motion pictures to undergo the test screening process was Deadpool, the highly-anticipated R-rated superhero flick adapted from the popular comic book series that depicts a mercenary-turned-superhero with the ability to heal at a rapid rate following scientific experiments at the hands of his nemesis, Ajax. Taking place within the universe of the X-Men, the character had made his big screen debut in the 2009 spinoff X-Men Origins: Wolverines, in which he is depicted as an antagonist.
Rumours of a Deadpool adaptation began to circulate as early as 2000, the same year that the X-Men changed how comic book movies were perceived with Bryan Singer’s blockbuster picture. In an article published by Variety it was revealed that Artisan and Marvel were to collaborate on numerous motion pictures based on the latter’s comic book back-catalogue that would include Captain America, Thor, Antman and Deadpool. Four years later New Line Cinema were in negotiations to develop a Deadpool character with Ryan Reynolds – then currently at work on the comic book sequel Blade: Trinity for the studio – in the lead role.
When the project fell through 20th Century Fox incorporated the character into their Wolverine picture with franchise star Hugh Jackman once again in the lead, while Reynolds successfully remained in the role of Deadpool. ‘Ryan Reynolds is, I think, the only guy who can play that character,’ producer and comic veteran Jeff Katz told MTV in 2008. ‘I have to say it’s one of the proudest things I’ve done in my career and took me five extra years to do it, but to finally get him into that role and get it done is something I’m very proud of.’
Both X-Men Origins: Wolverines and the depiction of Deadpool were largely ridiculed by critics and fans of the source material but Reynolds was determined to play the role and after sixteen years of the project travelling through development hell from studio to studio it finally made its way to the big screen in February 2016 with Reynolds utilising all the charm and wit that had been underserved in his previous comic book movies – which included Green Lantern and R.I.P.D.
Earning over $780m at the worldwide box office and unanimous critical acclaim, overshadowing the arrival of the latest X-Men flick Apocalypse and proving that an R-rated comic book movie can become a phenomenal success, a sequel to Deadpool was inevitable but FX artist Tim Miller, who was largely responsible for the success of the first picture, had revealed that he would not participate in the follow-up. Yet despite the risks that came with a violent and foul-mouthed superhero film, Miller was given artistic freedom throughout the creative process and when it finally came to previewing the end result to test audiences the first-time director welcomed the opportunity.
‘Here’s my theory on this and it’s partially taste but also a commercial consideration,’ he recently told CG Garage. ‘I feel like there are people that like that extreme violence – I’m not one of them – but those people are going to come and see Deadpool anyway because it’s a genre film. And so if I made it more violent they may like it a bit more but all these other people, which is probably ninety per cent of the audience, would not. And I don’t think this is a gender-based issue but when you test the movie I could literally see it in the cards where we had more violence in the cuts you see the scores go down with women, you see the scores go down with other sections of the audience too and so the point is why would you lose those people, why would you make them enjoy the film less so you could get a little more shooting blood and gore?’
Miller revealed that his main issue with pushing the violence too far was how it could dilute the humour of what was ostensibly an action comedy due to the audience’s reaction when the camera dwelled too long on the darker aspects of the story. ‘There’s a big torture sequence in the middle and you found out that the longer that sequence was – there was a longer cut of that – the harder it was for people to laugh. Like the bar scene on the end of the torture sequences was one of the funniest scenes in the movie and people weren’t laughing because they’d spent so long in the darkness it was really hard for them.’
While many filmmakers are dismissive to the process of test screenings and using the feedback from the audiences to make changes to a movie, Miller enjoyed the experience and found that taking these opinions on board helped to make Deadpool a stronger motion picture. ‘We did four,’ he reveals on the amount of screenings the picture went through. ‘The first one was friends and family and then screenings on the lot. Which was fucking great! I don’t know why directors don’t like it but basically people come in and tell you what’s wrong with your movie.’