In the mid-1990's, Bob and Harvey Weinstein hit upon the idea to create a new science fiction anthology.
HBO's "Tales from the Crypt" had made the concept cool again, and what they had in mind was take top young filmmakers familiar with the Miramax/Dimension brand and have them each direct a 30-minute segment. Gary Fleder, who had made "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead," would direct "Imposter," based on an appropriately loopy Philip K. Dick story; the "Trainspotting" team of director Danny Boyle, producer Andrew Macdonald and writer John Hodge, would contribute sci-fi comedy "Bizarre Love Triangle" (Miramax had distributed "Trainspotting" stateside and turned it into a counterculture hit); and Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican filmmaker who had recently turned in the micro-budget art-house hit "Cronos," was tapped for "Mimic," a tale of evolutionary insects in New York.
Except it didn't work out that way.
The executives tapped two of the projects for expansion into feature length films. Meanwhile, Boyle's contribution would only have a single public screening in all the years since its inception. "Imposter" would be padded to a feature length runtime, while del Toro's buggy "Mimic" project would ultimately go through a number of changes before arriving in theaters in a compromised version that neither the filmmaker or the studio were happy with.
The story of how "Mimic" wound up the way it did is a fascinating one; it highlights the disadvantages a foreign filmmaker is presented with when attempting their first English-language feature and reinforces the countless stories from that period about the endless meddling of the Weinsteins -- especially when it came to final cut. Still, while he deems the film itself "imperfect," del Toro has stated on numerous occasions that the experience of making "Mimic" was one of the most important of his entire life.
Del Toro clashed with studio brass almost from the beginning. He and Matthew Robbins' original screenplay had the bugs being beetles that nested in Central Park. They were carriers of a disease and needed to be controlled. An executive producer suggested that the bugs be cockroaches, since the story took place in New York. To del Toro's thinking, making the movie a giant cockroach movie would condemn it to B-movie obscurity, something that they could never wriggle out from under. The filmmaker lost this argument and, as he says in the commentary track, was "condemned to doing the best giant cockroach movie ever made." A modest goal but one he handily achieved.
Although Robbins and del Toro received final screenplay credit, a number of writers came and went on the project and a number of ideas were proposed by the filmmaker only to be rejected. It's been widely reported that John Sayles, a legendary figure of the American independent movie scene who also has a history writing above-average creature features ("Piranha," "Alligator"), penned a draft of the screenplay (one that del Toro will tell you was his favorite version) but little of that version made it into the final movie. Apparently the studio wanted more of an explanation for the bugs, while Sayles and del Toro wanted something ethereal and mysterious. While Sayles' involvement wasn't highly publicized, he did have a history of working on these types of movies, so it's not exactly shocking to hear he was a part of the project.
More shockingly (and something that most people might not be aware of) is that Steven Soderbergh (above), then working on the "Nightwatch" remake for Miramax, turned in his own draft of the screenplay. Del Toro talks about this version of the movie on the commentary track, saying that he loved it and called Soderbergh to tell him how brilliant the dialogue was. It's just that Soderbergh's "truly deranged" vision didn't align with what del Toro was trying to do. Still, one flourish from that script did wind up in the final movie: the scene early on with the priest getting pulled through a small opening was all Soderbergh's.
That isn't the only famous collaborator who is buried somewhere beneath the towering pile of bug bodies on "Mimic;" none other than Robert Rodriguez (a favorite of the Weinsteins) was hired to direct one of the film's additional photography units. There were several additional units on the crew and -- of that footage -- del Toro liked Rodriguez's the best. Still, he credits that experience with being the reason why he has no second (or third) units on his films, even the big ones like "Pacific Rim." Good or bad, it's all him.
But these kind of luxuries weren't afforded him back then. Nearly everything he was attempting with the movie -- from his abundant use of religious iconography to casting choice (he wanted Andre Braugher for the Josh Brolin role, but the studio was uncomfortable with an interracial couple, forget the fact that the character was gay for at least a draft) -- was nitpicked, watered-down or flat-out rejected. At some point, very late in the game, even his designs for the new cockroach-like bugs were disassembled, with the studio feeling they were too insect-y. They demanded the antennae be removed and asked if they could appear scarier and more alien. (Forget the original climax, which included, and this is 100% true, an insect orgy.) Even though they had been working on the designs for almost two years, del Toro relented.
As the film neared completion, the final edit was taken away from del Toro, and all of the shoe leathery additional material shot by the second unit was inserted into the movie. This beefed up the exposition and robbed the film of key visual motifs that del Toro had labored on. He was able to sneak in a sly reference to his experience on the movie when, during the film's opening credits, his name appears next to the image of a butterfly being pinned to a board. Del Toro talked about this joke during the commentary track, saying, "It can finally be revealed why that image is there."
After the movie opened in 1997 and was a disappointment both critically and commercially, it looked like that was the end of it. "Mimic" turned into an obscure midnight movie; the home video releases were badly formatted and transferred (the poor treatment of the movie continued even after its theatrical life). Finally, in 2009, the filmmaker said that he had begun work on an expanded, director's cut version of the film, which would be released whenever he finished it. In 2011, that version was finally released along with the warts-and-all commentary track heavily referenced here.
This new version of "Mimic" runs a whopping six minutes longer, with most of the additional photography units' contributions removed. In this new version, a lot of what are now, in hindsight, obvious studio contributions (jump scares, fake-outs, etc.) have been removed. The pace is more luxurious and the chunky exposition taken away (for the most part).
Del Toro seems happier with this version of the movie and relieved that he can finally share the experience of making the movie, fully aware of how it shaped him as a filmmaker. "Mimic," at least, has reached its final evolutionary stage.