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The Butterfly Effect at 20: Making cinema’s most disturbing time travel movie

Directors J. Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress look back at their 2004 Ashton Kutcher time travel movie

Ashton Kutcher starred in 2004's Sundance hit The Butterfly Effect. (Alamy)
Ashton Kutcher starred in 2004's Sundance hit The Butterfly Effect. (Alamy)

If you could travel back in time, what would you change? What bad parts of your past would you stop from happening and who might you find when you returned to the present? Each of these weighty questions — plus a whole load of darker ones — inspired 2004’s The Butterfly Effect, the Ashton Kutcher-fronted time travel movie that’s tonally about as far from Marty McFly’s happy-go-lucky time tampering as you can get.

In it, a fresh from That 70’s Show Kutcher swapped goofy comedy for harrowing tragedy playing Evan, a young man with a troubled childhood that saw him endure parental violence, sexual abuse with his friends at the hands of a sadistic neighbour, traumatic accidental deaths and even witnessing the brutal murder of the family dog.

However, when Evan reads from his old journals he discovers that he can travel back in time, inhabit his younger self during blackout periods and stop these horrible events from happening, changing the present for the better for himself and his pals. At least, that’s the plan. Unfortunately, the more Evan changes in the past, the darker his present gets and soon, he starts to believe that his very existence may be the root of the problem.

Co-writer/directors Eric Bress (left) and J. Mackye Gruber review a shot on the set of 2004's thriller, The Butterfly Effect. (New Line Cinema/Alamy)
Co-writer/directors Eric Bress (left) and J. Mackye Gruber review a shot on the set of 2004's thriller, The Butterfly Effect. (New Line Cinema/Alamy)

“The movie has a lot of controversial stuff in it like burning dogs alive, 13-year-olds stabbing other 13-year-olds and paedophilia so it’s not a little daisy in a dull field - but I think our original ideas were even more extreme,” says the film’s co-writer and co-director Eric Bress on the project’s origins. Partly inspired by a real personal trauma Bress experienced as a teenager, the fallout led him and his writing and directing partner Jonathan Mackye Gruber to investigate how pain could potentially inspire a powerful work of science fiction drama.

“We started to discuss how we could tell that story,” he continues. “How do we show a character undergoing traumatic events that he’s blacking out from then later given the chance to go back and fix? There would be sacrifices and unexpected consequences,” says Bress on the idea that removing the bad parts of your past also has the potential to delete the good parts of your present. “We were really taken by that idea.”

Ashton Kutcher with Elden Henson in 2004's The Butterfly Effect. (Alamy)
Ashton Kutcher with Elden Henson in 2004's The Butterfly Effect. (Alamy)

“The darker elements of the script are why the film took seven years to get made,” adds Gruber, reminding us that while The Butterfly Effect was the duo’s first writing project, it wasn’t until after they’d found wider acclaim by penning 2003’s Final Destination 2 that they could actually get it made. “Everyone was afraid - would it be too dark for audiences? We felt we needed to have dark, relatable incidents that people would really want to change; child abuse is something you’d want to change,” he reasons. “We went down those dark routes to secure audience investment.”

Their plan worked better than they thought it would. Initially, Bress and Gruber thought their depictions of suffering were so over-the-top they’d garner laughs from viewers but they soon learned that they encouraged the opposite response. “The darker it was, the funnier it was to us,” remembers Bress.

“It had dark elements because we loved films like Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting. There was no low you could sink to that we wouldn’t giggle at, whether it was an uncomfortable giggle or just because we appreciated that the director was going there.”

However, when the film was released, the pair found that the raw pain they put their characters through had resonated powerfully with audiences. Like in the scene involving Evan travelling back to his childhood self to prevent a mother and her infant daughter from dying in a freak dynamite blast. While Kutcher’s character succeeds in saving their lives, he wakes up in the present to find that he has now lost both of his arms in the explosion.

“We didn’t realise that even a rowdy audience would slowly but surely become so engrossed in the story they would take things more seriously than we expected them to,” admits Bress. “When Evan wakes up without arms, we’re playing it for laughs and even Ashton is playing it for laughs — but people were so connected to the suffering of these characters that it’s not funny to them when someone winds up with no arms and is feeling suicidal.”

Ethan Suplee and Ashton Kutcher in 2004's The Butterfly Effect. (Alamy)
Ethan Suplee and Ashton Kutcher in 2004's The Butterfly Effect. (Alamy)

The duo did show some restraint. The distressing image of a flaming dummy lying on the pavement in the wake of the explosion was deemed “too much” whilst editing. They also took the studio’s advice regarding a sequence involving the torture and death of a dog. “All of the executives were afraid that the CEO of New Line was going to be upset because he was such a dog lover but in the end, he wasn’t,” says Gruber. “He could see that, in the context of the film, it was psychologically motivated and got past it quicker than the executives did.”

Bress adds: “We did not realise to the full extent how seeing the family dog get tortured would be so negatively affecting for the audience. There’s a sequence where Ashton goes back and changes something and for a brief flash you see he saved the dog this time around,” he says. “Our studio executives and producers had to tell us: ‘You need to have at least one shot in there where we save that damn dog or we don’t want to continue making this movie.’ In retrospect, I’m so glad we took their advice.”

Ashton Kutcher and Eric Stoltz in 2004's The Butterfly Effect. (New Line/Alamy)
Ashton Kutcher and Eric Stoltz in 2004's The Butterfly Effect. (New Line/Alamy)

Perhaps most shocking of all is the movie’s original theatrical ending, the climax that helped make Bress and Gruber’s script one of the early noughties’ most talked about unproduced screenplays. After Evan’s attempts at fixing the past continually mess up his present in increasingly distressing ways, he realises that the lives of everyone around him would be better if he didn’t exist. With this solution in mind, he travels back to before he was born inside the womb and strangles himself with his umbilical cord in a last-ditch attempt at setting things right.

“People were blown away by that ending,” says Gruber. “Whether they loved it or it got them sick to their stomach, there was a reaction to it — enough that when the script went out, we had like 67 meetings in one month. It definitely created a reaction.”

Ashton Kutcher (Evan) and Amy Smart (Kayleigh) in The Butterfly Effect. (Alamy)
Ashton Kutcher (Evan) and Amy Smart (Kayleigh) in The Butterfly Effect. (Alamy)

Shocking yet respectfully handled, the scene was filmed but quickly gave New Line cold feet. As a compromise, the studio asked the duo to film a more hopeful ending, one that instead found Evan travelling back to his childhood to burn bridges with his future girlfriend to secure her a better life, only for them to eventually cross paths as strangers years later in a more positive timeline. New Line told the duo they’d test both endings and use the one that scored higher with audiences as the film’s theatrical climax — only that didn’t happen.

“We screened the film without the baby ending and there was just enough shock on the audiences’ faces that the studio decided we may have maximised the level of shock value and the baby ending would just be a bridge too far,” remembers Bress. “Jonathan and I spent the next four days in a deep depression. We felt like it was a personal betrayal from the studio… but in hindsight, I feel it was the right move to make.”

Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber on the set of 2004's The Butterfly Effect with cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. (Alamy)
Eric Bress and J. Mackye Gruber on the set of 2004's The Butterfly Effect with cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti. (Alamy)

Ultimately, four different endings were shot, each offering a differing level of optimism but it’s Bress and Gruber’s original dark ‘baby ending’ that has since become infamous. “The ‘baby ending’ is in the director’s cut,” says Bress. “That’s the one that lives in perpetuity in Europe which makes total sense because Europeans are so much bolder in their filmmaking.

“I’m fine with the theatrical cut even though it was very, very hard for me at the time,” adds Gruber. “I’d say 80% of the people who see the ‘baby ending’ like it better than the theatrical ending. Most people who have seen it love it, they’re blown away by it,” he adds. “I wish we were at least able to test the ‘baby ending’ but I’m glad it’s out there for people to enjoy.”

The Butterfly Effect is streaming in the UK on Prime Video and ITVX.

Read more: Nostalgia