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The Meanest Time Travel Movie Ever Made, 20 Years Later

If ‘The Butterfly Effect’ is remembered for anything, it’s unrelenting cruelty. The thing is, it was almost even crueler.

Jay Torres

In the feverish final moments of The Butterfly Effect, Evan Treborn (Ashton Kutcher) escapes his psychiatric cell, turns on an old home video of his pregnant mother, and magically wormholes his way into her womb. It’s a sacrificial last resort. Over the course of this unrelenting psychological thriller, Evan’s time travel abilities have created numerous alternate realities with disastrous ripple effects for his friends and family. Ultimately, he concludes that killing himself is the only way to ensure that his loved ones survive.

Moments later, floating in his amniotic sac, Evan wraps his umbilical cord around his neck and flatlines.

Cue the credits.

Twenty years later, the movie’s writer-directors, Eric Bress and Jon Mackye Gruber, can’t exactly remember who came up with that horrifying and twisted fade to black. “I think it was your girlfriend,” Gruber tells Bress over a recent Zoom call. Either way, the sci-fi concept, a sort of “anti–It’s a Wonderful Life,” as Bress describes it, was the first image that unlocked one of the bleakest, meanest time travel movies of all time. “I thought the idea was really cool,” Gruber says. “You’re young and you’re being a little punk rock, and at the end of the movie, the audience is gonna sit there and go, ‘Don’t talk to me. I need to absorb what I just saw.’”

Loosely based on chaos theory—the idea that small actions can have unpredictable and extreme consequences—The Butterfly Effect is primarily a cinematic montage of worst-case scenarios. When a college-aged Evan discovers he can portal back to his traumatic adolescence and change the past, each of his well-intentioned alterations makes things worse for those around him. In various time lines, he’s confronted with pedophilia, fatal cancer, and animal abuse. In others, his girlfriend, Kayleigh, falls victim to drug addiction, while Evan commits manslaughter and goes to prison. At one point, he even becomes a paraplegic and nearly drowns himself. No matter how many times Evan returns to the past, everyone around him ends up miserable. His death by suicide tops off two hours of philosophical misery porn.

Except audiences never saw that gut punch of an ending. Despite New Line Cinema’s initial interest in the filmmakers’ extremist sensibilities, the studio got cold feet and requested that Bress and Gruber sub in a more palatable finale. The pair eventually complied, removing the torturous miscarriage and shooting an open-ended conclusion in which Evan never befriends Kayleigh instead. When the movie debuted in theaters, the open-ended coda hit a different emotional note. “I was quite upset at the moment,” Gruber says. “I was so mentally attached to that baby ending.”

Today, the directors still have mixed feelings about it. The theatrical version, which scored big at the box office, offers a respite from the movie’s relentless pain and suffering. But the original ending, which was relegated to the director’s cut DVD, commits to Evan’s ultimate sacrifice and has since provoked ethical debates. Like their time-traveling protagonist, the filmmakers can’t help but imagine how things might have been different had the studio kept their vision two decades earlier. “I think the human mind is geared toward living in regret and what-if,” Bress says. “We’re kind of wired to do it.”

In the mid-1990s, Bress and Gruber were eager to break into Hollywood. Influenced by the decade’s indies like Clerks and Swingers, their scripts defied standard three-act structures and “went all over the place,” Bress says. But they struggled to turn heads: “We were sort of lazy writers who lived in a world of ‘Let’s reinvent the wheel over here in this loft.’”

One late night—while smoking weed—they began brainstorming about the past. At the time, Bress had been mulling over a traumatic experience he’d had with a friend. He wondered how his life might be different if he’d been able to reverse this bit of personal history. “We just played it out. ‘Well, if that had never happened, then we wouldn’t have met,’” he says. “It was just kind of fascinating to think that all these little decisions could have such a huge impact on life.” That’s when the baby ending formed, a climax that could be reverse engineered into a time-travel story. “We were still fighting the Hollywood system,” Bress says. “We just wanted it to be darker and grittier and really interesting.”

Soon, the two of them hashed out a script called Blackouts, a sci-fi drama about a kid who loses his memory at various traumatic points in his life—the moments his future self attempts to change. “We hadn’t structurally cracked the nut yet,” Gruber says. “But we thought there was something there.” The rough draft was so sinister—one scene featured an 8-year-old Evan blowing a guy’s head off with his dad’s shotgun—that it left their manager disgusted. “He was like, ‘You should not be doing this. This is not your thing,’” Gruber remembers. “He made us feel so bad about it, like it was a piece of shit.” The pair put it in a drawer. “We were kind of disappointed because we felt like, ‘Wow, there was something unique in there.’”

Two years later, a mutual friend landed them a sit-down with J.C. Spink and Chris Bender at Zide Entertainment. The two managers liked some of their scripts but asked whether the pair had anything else to share. “We’re like, ‘Well, we have this one thing, but we think it’s probably not very good …’” Gruber remembers. On a flight the next day, Bender couldn’t get over the final pages. “I distinctly remember reading the ending just before getting off the plane, and when I walked off, I called them right away,” Bender says. “I had never seen anything like that before. It’s such a disturbing idea.”

The pair’s dusty draft still needed work—the butterfly effect concept hadn’t been fully developed yet. “We really dove into the rules and logic and tried to make it all work,” Bender says. After Bress and Gruber filled in plot holes and fleshed out characters, they returned with a sanded-off script. But “there was no weight to any of the changes,” Bress says. “There was no real ride to go on.” In a sense, they overcorrected, practically pushing the story into lighthearted rom-com territory. “We wanted to make them like us. We thought maybe it was too dark our way,” Gruber says. “And then we had to realize the reason they brought us in is because they like the darkness.”

Back to the drawing board. Though both Bress and Gruber consider themselves “mischievous, not sadistic,” they also admittedly found disturbing things funny. Over the next month, they sat on their apartment floor and began thinking up the darkest, most dire outcomes and circumstances to push their protagonist over the edge. “It became patterns of just going back and forth and trying to have a progression,” Gruber says. “Each time we had to up the ante.” After tying up some loose ends with producer and writer Craig Perry, they began shopping their script around and taking meetings with various studios. “Everyone kept on saying, ‘It’s too complex, and it’s really dark, and I don’t know if there’s an audience for it,’” Gruber says.

In the face of rejection, Bress and Gruber eventually found a detour. New Line head Richard Brener was looking for writers for Final Destination 2. He’d liked the Blackouts script and thought their sensibility might match a franchise all about killing people in eccentric ways. What are those baby-killer guys like? Brener thought. They seem to have the right temperament. The pair eventually wrote a formidable sequel and in 2002 convinced New Line to sign off on some speculative funding for their script, so long as they secured a major star. At the same time, Ashton Kutcher was looking to pivot away from comedy—what better way to do that than with a time travel movie in which his character shanks an inmate in the groin?

Shot in Vancouver on a tight schedule, The Butterfly Effect and its crew pushed things to their ethical limits. In one scene, Kayleigh’s brother traps a dog in a burlap bag, and it’s suggested that he sets the dog on fire. Gruber remembers his DP shaking his head in the midst of filming an animatronic dog inside the bag. “He goes, ‘This might be the worst thing I’ve ever shot in my career.’” In another scene, a firework explodes inside a mailbox, killing a mother and her baby. “There’s a close-up on the ground of the pacifier falling with flames on it,” Gruber says with a laugh. “There’s a couple of shots that we instinctively knew would never live in the movie, but we shot them anyway, just for our own sick amusement.”

Inspired by Requiem for a Dream and Trainspotting, the filmmakers quickly learned that their sense of humor didn’t exactly translate to the screen. Not everything would be as funny outside their on-set bubble. “Those final seconds are traumatizing,” Bress says of the firework bomb. “There is no joke—there’s no room for humor, no bandwidth for that at all.”

After watching the guys film an onslaught of cruelty, Bender began having second thoughts about the movie’s climactic sacrifice. He remembered what an older line producer told him at the start of filming. “He’s like, ‘I don’t understand why you guys want to make this movie. It seems so dark and without any hope at the end,’” Bender says. As a younger producer, he was thirsty for surprises and twist endings. But doubt was creeping in. “I remember feeling like, ‘You know, he’s not wrong.’”

Near the final days of production, Bress and Gruber started prepping for the finale. They knew that the actual strangling would take place on an ultrasound monitor, and that most of the shots inside the womb would rely on visual effects and a solemn score. Still, wanting to demonstrate Evan’s transference without being cheesy, they put out a casting call for a real newborn. As with some of the other dark scenes they had shot, things got a little awkward. “I remember the casting of the baby and wanting to make sure the baby looked fetus-like enough,” Bender says, “which is sort of a bizarre thing to be casting for.”

Eventually, they landed on a 2-week-old infant whose mother was so eager to have him on-screen that “it almost seems like she signed her baby up for SAG in the womb,” Gruber laughs. With just 20 minutes to work with, they put the baby on a lazy Susan that had been covered in a plain black cloth so that effects could be added in post. Then they draped a prosthetic umbilical cord near the baby’s throat. “The mother’s like, ‘You could put it really in there if you want,’” Gruber remembers with shock. “It was sort of scary.” But the biggest challenge was keeping their equipment dry. “The baby kept on peeing into the camera lens,” he says. “As much as we wanted it, Eric and I just felt uncomfortable.”

As the movie began wrapping up, New Line intervened. The studio had grown concerned about the ending and wanted some backup material in case audiences didn’t respond well. “I think Ashton almost didn’t want to do [the alternative ending]. He’s like, ‘Don’t even give them the option to sabotage your film,’” Gruber says. “Even [cinematographer] Matthew Leonetti said, ‘I joined this film because of that ending.’” But the first-time directors couldn’t sandbag their debut, so Bress and Gruber looked over the studio’s proposed script changes, thought up a few shot designs, and set up cameras downtown.

In the reimagined conclusion, Evan cuts ties with Kayleigh as a kid. The script then portals him back to college, where he learns everyone is unharmed. Eight years later, in New York, Evan is on the phone with his mother when he vaguely recognizes Kayleigh on the street. In the first ending, they pass each other, turn around briefly, and then go their separate ways. “He may not be in her life anymore, but she’s having a happy life,” Gruber says. “There’s resolution. It’s bittersweet, but he’s still honorable.”

But still, the studio wanted a few more options. On the next take, the directors set up the same preamble, but after the cut to New York, Evan walks by Kayleigh, pauses, and begins following her. The directors called it their “stalker version.” “We were definitely like, that is creepy,” Bress says. “It might have come off as hopeful, like he’s giving it another shot. But the angles [looked like] he was following her down the road and sneaking up on her.”

The last take was narratively controversial: Instead of passing each other, Evan and Kayleigh stop to introduce themselves and agree to a cup of coffee. “I don’t even know why we shot that,” Bress says. “The one lesson in the film is stay out of her life. Let her live.” Ultimately, Gruber wasn’t too worried. “Eric and I were still convinced that the baby ending was living,” he says.

After a rough cut of the movie had been put together, New Line began screening the different endings for test audiences. Though the studio preferred the romantic meet-cute version, the ambiguous walk-by earned glowing reviews at the first screening. New Line was convinced enough to keep it. “They’re like, ‘It ain’t broke, why fix it?’” Gruber remembers. “We’re like, what about screening our ending? They go, ‘That’s why you’ve got DVD.’”

Gruber felt as if they’d lost their most valuable asset. The ending that had crystallized the movie—the ending that got Bender to hire them—wouldn’t hit the big screen. “It was heartbreaking for me and Eric,” Gruber says. “We wrote this when I was 25. We were like, ‘That’s just so much fucking better.’”

“It wasn’t a cop-out,” Bender says. “It was still true to the story we told. It was a choice he made. It just wasn’t as dark of a choice.”

When The Butterfly Effect premiered in theaters on January 23, 2004, the lighter ending didn’t prevent critics from scrutinizing its unstructured logic and nonstop cruelty. “There’s so much flashing forward and backward, so many spins of fate, so many chapters in the journals, that after a while I felt that I, as well as time, was being jerked around,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. And yet audiences couldn’t get enough. The movie earned $96 million against its $13 million budget, its ambiguous ending prompting all kinds of theories. Did Kayleigh recognize him? Was she truly better off? Would Evan tempt fate and still try to get together again?

Two months later, the directors experienced the new ending’s power firsthand. Before the movie’s debut at the Brussels International Fantastic Film Festival, a journalist warned Bress and Gruber that the audience would be raucous, screaming, and throwing objects at the screen. “I’m like, ‘This is gonna be a shit show, and I’ve invited my family,’” Gruber says. The two of them started drinking. However, around halfway through the movie, the crowd went dead silent, shushing anyone who raised their voice. “It dawns on me that ‘No, they’re really into the movie, and they don’t want anyone to fuck it up for them by yelling something stupid,’” Bress says. When Evan and Kayleigh eventually passed each other and the credits rolled, the filmmakers became rock stars. “There’s a fucking eruption, like a standing ovation,” Bress says. “People were reaching to find us and touch us. It’s like we’ve made the greatest film of all time.”

That summer, when the director’s cut DVD was released, people finally got the full Butterfly Effect experience. In addition to absorbing Evan’s devastating choice to kill himself, fans were drawn to a deleted scene in which Evan’s mother remarks that she’d had a few miscarriages before giving birth to him. Another dark and depressing wrinkle emerged: Did Evan have previous siblings who had similarly tried to alter the past and killed themselves like him? “How many other possible times has this come full circle before?” Bress says. “We knew that we could drop the hints that this [decision] is coming.” The extra details provided more devastating mythology to Evan’s sacrifice and a better argument for its theatrical inclusion—and it has only continued to feed Reddit board debates full of surprised first-time watchers. In what might otherwise have been a forgotten B-movie thriller with bungled logic, the extreme notes and controversial sequences have kept The Butterfly Effect in the collective memory as one of the most visceral cinematic attempts to tackle chaos theory.

Over time, Gruber has mellowed, seeing the merits of both endings. Bress does too, though after rewatching the movie recently, he’s struck by how much they punished moviegoers. “It does not take its foot off the gas pedal,” he says. “At one point, there’s no more humor. It just goes from bad to worse.” That realization has made him want to return to the past again. Even though the meet-cute contradicts the point of Evan’s entire sacrifice, Bress still thinks about taking a time machine to test the alternate romantic ending. “I’d be really curious to see how that would affect them,” he says of their audience. “I bet a lot of people would watch that and think even higher of the film.”

This provokes another debate between them.

“If we went with a traditional ending, would we have the almost-cult status of the movie?” Gruber asks. “Or would that have ruined it?”

Bress concedes his point. “I’d be like, ‘You fool, why did you go back in time?’”

Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.

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