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Some might call it the ultimate director's cut. After Bruce McDonald's Picture Claire gasped and died at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, the director went straight back to the editing room. But instead of a minor nip and tuck, his new film, Planet Claire, is the result of major surgery.

Of course, Picture Claire itself was in critical condition, at least by industry standards. After years of grabbing critical kudos for rough-and-ready, low-budget pictures such as Hard Core Logo, Highway 61 and Roadkill, the Canadian indie icon was finally poised to make his big picture. Robert Lantos wooed McDonald with a bulging $10-million budget, some recognizable Hollywood names (Gina Gershon, Juliette Lewis and Mickey Rourke), and the chance to make his dream movie. But aside from its initial red-carpet run at the film festival, the Picture Claire master is growing dusty waiting for a commercial release.

It's not just that the Toronto filmmaker's rock-'n'-roll-noir sensibilities ran aground, although Picture Claire, a quirky tale of mistaken identity with allusions to The Wizard of Oz, is admittedly conceptually challenging. (It's one thing to embrace faded It-girl Lewis as the French Canadian on the lam in Toronto when the American actress spoke no French prior to filming. But it's downright bizarre when a running joke keeps Lewis's character mute for much of the movie since no one in the city speaks her language.)

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Some blame bad timing -- the film's Sept. 10 screening date resulted in few mentions in the media, which was more concerned with the events of Sept. 11. What few reviews there were were less than kind: Variety magazine called it "an embarrassingly inept attempt at a noirish caper drama." In an issue of Maclean's earlier this year, McDonald was quoted remarking in Planet Claire: "Suddenly I had time to reflect . . . We blew it. We made a shit movie. So where did we go wrong? Let's begin the autopsy."

Financed by McDonald, Planet Claire has the feel of a making-of documentary, following the director on a personal odyssey through the darkly compelling but dysfunctional current that burbles beneath the glossy veneer of the capital-F Film Industry.

It is not intended to be an atonement piece.

" Planet Claire is not an apology or explanation," says one insider close to the production who didn't want to be named. "It shows what happens when you have a lot of money, two or three times what you normally have to make a picture. It has a lot to do with how Bruce felt about being in the position of getting the big break."

And it promises to be a riveting: Although he declined to be interviewed for this article, McDonald told the Canadian trade journal Playback last month that Planet Claire reveals "the stories you really want to hear. Every production is anecdote-filled. This one in particular just had some interesting characters. I don't know what to call it exactly, but it's very funny. I think [it]will be a bit of a jaw-dropper."

While acknowledging his own part in the creative problems of Picture Claire, McDonald also points the finger at "Darth Lantos," as he calls him in the new film.

Lantos doesn't sound altogether too happy with McDonald's current vision, however. While his conversation with McDonald after seeing an early cut of Planet Claire "is not for publication and never will be," he maintains he is still on speaking terms with McDonald.

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"Every story needs a hero and a villain," explains the Toronto-based producer of films such as Ararat and Men With Brooms, "and this piece is being made by Bruce, and he cast himself as the hero. I'm the villain.

"I think it's pretty harmless. It's fanciful -- it's a director's afternotes. Some of it is funny and some of it is not so funny. But it's as fictitious as the original story, in some places as good and others not so good."

It would be a mistake to call the working relationship between the producer and McDonald acrimonious, says an insider. "Robert certainly did show Bruce courtesy and commitment and really, as much as possible, let Bruce's vision emerge."

Lantos also suspects McDonald's new film and the controversy it is generating is really just a marketing ploy to create publicity for Picture Claire. The filmmakers still hope to see the original on the big screen.

Currently, McDonald has a private screening planned at Toronto's Bloor Cinema this Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of its original premiere. But there is some doubt whether or not the public will ever see it.

The problem with releasing the film is that McDonald doesn't own the rights to the footage he used from Picture Claire. And it's questionable whether or not he'll be able to get permission from Alliance Atlantis Films, who have been unable to find a distributor for the original.

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"If Alliance wants to shut it down, they can," says Lantos. "I'm leaving that up to them. The bottom line, is they own this. Bruce doesn't own it, and I don't own it."

Strangely enough, if McDonald can't get clearance or distribution for Planet Claire, the film will be following in the footsteps of Picture Claire.

And that would be the unkindest cut of all.

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