Cinephiles have been waiting very patiently for Mommy filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s highly anticipated new film The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, but a new development may provide some insight into why we’ve been waiting so long. The star-studded drama stars Kit Harington as an American TV star whose death spurs a young actor to reminisce on the written corresponded he once shared with the now-deceased performer, and Collider exclusively revealed the first images and some plot details last summer. The movie marks Dolan’s English-language debut and boasts a terrific cast that also includes Natalie Portman, Thandie Newton, Susan Sarandon, Kathy Bates, Jacob Tremblay, and Michael Gambon.
You may notice I left out Jessica Chastain there, who most certainly was a part of the cast, but is no longer in the film. Indeed, Dolan took to Instagram over the weekend to offer a lengthy explanation about why, unfortunately, Chastain’s character has now been cut from the movie entirely despite playing a pretty major role in the plot.
What you need to hear from me is Jessica Chastain’s character, after what was a long period of reflection, had to be cut from the film. It was an extremely difficult decision to make. I feel, toward Jessica, a sincere love, and a great admiration. The decision was editorial and narrative, in that it has nothing to do with a performance, and everything to do with a character, and the compatibility of its storyline. This “villain” subplot, albeit funny and entertaining, didn’t feel like it belonged to the rest of the story, which ended up not being on heroes or their nemesis, but rather on childhood, and its dreams. There is, in this film, a conversation on show business, yes, but it was in the family dynamics – and, once again, in mothers and sons relationships – that the heart of this film resided.
Chastain seems to have taken the news in stride, and Dolan says elsewhere in the lengthy Instagram post that he hopes to work with the Oscar-nominated actress again in the future.
Dolan reveals that he’s been working on the movie since May, and last October—when it was clear they’d missed the fall film festival release window—Dolan went back in to work on the edit. The director says the first cut of The Life and Death of John F. Donovan was four hours long, so clearly something had to go.
Chastain played a gossip columnist who discovers the letters, threatening to out Harington’s character’s sexuality. Dolan explains in the Instagram post that when he and co-writer Jacob Tierney first began working on this script, it was fueled by a desire to comment on modern superhero movies:
Back then, I wanted to talk about our fascination for superhero movies. The culture and popularity of DC Comics and Marvel flicks mesmerized me, and so I dreamed of telling the story of an incredibly popular actor, a hero of sorts, but through the paradigm of the Batman or Thor movies. A hero… a villain… a public to protect… For a while – for years, actually – that was the idea behind our story. All sorts of developments unfold during the shooting of a film, as we know. Often, it isn’t before late into production that it finds its tone, when it isn’t even later, in the editing suite. For Donovan, it was the latter.
While it’s a shame we won’t get to see Chastain in action in this thing, I applaud Dolan for being transparent about the film’s changes in post-production, and I can’t wait to see the finished product. Is it too much to hope for a Cannes Film Festival premiere? Hopefully we find out soon.