'London Fields': A Near-Record Flop With a Secret Backstory to Die For

London Fields-Mathew Cullen-Inset-H 2018
Screengrab; Inset: Amanda Edwards/WireImage

"This is the story of a murder. It hasn't happened yet. But it will." So began the unreliable narrator in Martin Amis' celebrated 1989 novel London Fields. A death foretold, the passage also aptly describes the Oct. 26 release of the film version, which in its opening weekend earned just $169,000, a near-record worst for a wide release.

"I've read the reviews. I agree with them," says director Mathew Cullen, speaking for the first time about the film, which received a rare 0 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. He and other insiders also revealed to The Hollywood Reporter some extraordinary details of the movie's backstory. For instance, the crucial involvement of a convicted felon — and if that's not enough and unbeknownst to pretty much everyone, there were actually multiple versions released in theaters.

In 2015, the $8 million movie starring Billy Bob Thornton and Amber Heard enjoyed high expectations as it was set to screen at the Toronto Film Festival. But it was pulled from the lineup as producer Christopher Hanley fought Cullen over money and final cut and the stars refused to promote it. Then came a flurry of lawsuits, including Cullen's allegation that his creative vision was hijacked, Heard's contention that racy scenes with a body double had exploited her sexually, and Hanley's claim that directors, stars and agents had conspired to undermine the film.

London Fields spent the next few years in legal purgatory until Peter Hoffman, founder of Seven Arts Pictures, attempted a rescue mission. Hoffman was convicted in 2015 of a tax credit fraud scheme in New Orleans and was sentenced to probation, but in August, an appeals court ruled that the judge had been too lenient under sentencing guidelines. He's now facing roughly 15 years in prison.

While dealing with his personal problems, Hoffman — with his new company, Blazepoint — bought London Fields' distribution rights and financed a new cut. According to registration documents, Blazepoint had $2.4 million tied into London Fields when that debt was leveraged to force the film's production company into administration, a type of bankruptcy in the U.K. The newly appointed administrator (handpicked by Hoffman's company) then set out to settle lingering litigation, essentially pulling back on the Hanley-directed lawsuits. 

Take, for example, litigation over Heard's work for the film.

The actress was sued for $10 million for allegedly breaching performance and promotional obligations after she sided with Cullen in Toronto. She hit back with a countersuit alleging the producer's cut of the film had violated the nudity rider of her contract. In court, Hanley's team pursued a rumor that Heard's rocky relationship with Johnny Depp (who has a cameo in the movie) was a prime factor in what had gone wrong. As the theory goes, Depp got jealous and protective, and that's what caused Heard to draw a hard line on the prurient aspects of the film. Heard was scheduled to give a judge-ordered deposition on the topic when she settled with the new administrator. Through the deal, Heard paid nothing and was given veto power on nudity in the final cut. While Heard has since done promotion for an experience she likely wishes to forget and told AP that she's happy London Fields is finally out and that the issues are "behind us now," Hanley is currently investigating what role if any Heard may have played in Blazepoint's activity, according to one insider. "The suggestion of collusion is nonsense," responds an attorney for Heard.

Although the Heard-Depp angle is a salacious one that's ready-made for tabloids and litigators, there's a different — and probably more straightforward — explanation for the tension between director and rights-holders and the multiple cuts of this picture. It's one provided by Cullen, who points to the difficulty of the London Fields subject matter. "There's a reason why they said that Amis' book was unadaptable," he says in an implicit nod to how other directors including David Cronenberg and Michael Winterbottom had previously tried.

On the surface, Amis' novel is a sexy whodunit murder mystery. But again, this is a book whose narrator isn't always reliable. What's more, the story is meant to be a somewhat satirical take on publishing conventions and the stereotypical femme fatale.

Given this dynamic, it's easy to see a producer sensing that audiences would be confused by the postmodern stuff and reaching for a straight tale that exploited the allure of the film's lead even if the characters consequently became one-dimensional and cartoonish. It's just as easy to imagine a director insisting he's not only remained faithful to the source material but that non-Amis fans will get it.

Throughout this year, Cullen traded contentious emails with Hoffman about the film. Once the production company was put in administration and the obstacles for the film's release started clearing, Cullen realized what was quickly approaching.

"About a year ago, i came to the realization that if my movie was going to be seen, that I just had to finish the film," he says.

So Cullen invested his own money to finish sound mixing, final color, visual effects, and also paid to have his version rated by the MPAA. When Hoffman's attorney reached out to him, Cullen smelled a trap. Nevertheless, negotiations continued, and Hoffman's side made an offer to put his version on 10 screens.

"Mr. Cullen directed every scene in the film and Blazepoint tried unsuccessfully for almost one year to have Mr. Cullen collaborate on the Blazepoint version," says Raymond Markovich, an attorney for Blazepoint who adds that Hoffman acted as a consultant and his "continuing appeal of his unjust conviction is irrelevant to this film."

A few weeks before London Fields came out in the U.S., where it was officially distributed by GVN Releasing, Hoffman's cut debuted in Russia, where it earned scathing reviews. Cullen had the reviews translated and begged Hoffman to take it as a sign to abandon that version. His effort proved unsuccessful, but in mid-October (basically on the eve of the premiere), a deal was finally worked out to allow Cullen's version to play in a select few theaters throughout the nation. That's not the cut being widely exhibited, nor is it the one screened to critics. Despite the odd arrangement to release multiple versions in theaters — and remarkably, Hanley assisting Cullen in achieving this while the two are still in court with each other — Blazepoint filed a new lawsuit against Cullen on Oct. 19 accusing him of slandering title on the film.

Cullen, who views the new lawsuit as an attempt to bully him into remaining quiet, says he understands the harsh reception that London Fields has received even if he's still hopeful that audiences will eventually discover his version.

"Like the darts championship in the film, we would be pleased to have the Hollywood Reporter screen both the Blazepoint version and the Cullen version and provide its own reviews," says Markovich. "London Fields is currently misunderstood by the critics but we feel that it will ultimately be viewed as a cult classic."

In the meantime, Cullen consciously chose to get murdered by critics. He says, "Under DGA rules, I could have used a pseudonym, but in that process, I wouldn't ever be allowed to talk about the film again and I wouldn't have had the ability to release my version of the film."

The story has been updated with comment from Markovich. A version of this story appears in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.