“Ishtar shall rise again!” Those were the words uttered by Dustin Hoffman when he presented actor Warren Beatty with an AFI Lifetime Achievement award in 2008. The actors had been friends since bonding over their shared experience on one of the most derided, critically reviled, and openly vilified films of all time: a 1987 Elaine May directed comedy where the duo played a pair of incompetent singer-songwriters from New York get embroiled in political intrigue in a Middle Easter nation.
At the time, the film was dragged through the mud even before it saw release. Delayed due to post-production woes and budget overruns way too large for a comedy to logically contain, the film bombed horrendously in its early summer release slot en route to become a punchline for decades to come whenever anyone needed to describe something as a terrible idea. Next to Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and the Kevin Costner action flick Waterworld there has never been a film so relentlessly dragged through the mud before anyone had ever seen a single frame, something that undoubtedly coloured the public perception of the film as a complete turd before it was released. New York magazine buried the film before release with a scathing and possibly unfounded article full of unnamed, insider sources from the set who suggested the production was a nightmare, even much later on Time Magazine would hyperbolically call Ishtar one of the 100 worst ideas of the 20th century.
But what if Ishtar wasn’t that bad of a movie in the end? What if it was ahead of its time and people simple weren’t ready or willing to listen to the joke in 1987? It’s a question that has plagued filmmaker John Mitchell for quite some time. He often found himself taking flack for liking this reworking of the old Hope and Crosby road movie formula. He decided to channel his love of the film and its misperception into a documentary titled Waiting for Ishtar.
Filmed over the course of seven years or so, Toronto based writer and filmmaker Mitchell (who was, himself part of a cult comedy musical duo Brock & John) and co-director Jonathan Crombie has worked on creating a greater understanding of the film through reanalysis and interviews with fans and some of the people closest to the production. Now, the award winning Second City alum (who is also finishing up his first feature film, Portrait of a Serial Monogamist) has started an IndieGoGo campaign to help finance the post production of the film and make it release ready.
We sat down with Mitchell over coffee and tea this past weekend in Toronto to talk about the fundraising campaign, the sordid history of Ishtar’s production and release, and why the film might have been “too hip for the room.”
Dork Shelf: I’ve always been excited about Ishtar, even though I’m not the hugest fan of the film. I do think it’s a lot better than people give it credit for, but the history of this film is just fascinating, especially where it fits into the history of the cinema in the 1980s.I had seen Ishtar before and I knew about its kind of infamous production history, but I only really got a closer look at it when I went to write a piece about Ghostbusters 2, which was coming out 2 years after Ishtar, and I saw how deeply the sting of that film hurt Columbia Pictures in the long run and how the mistakes on that film informed their future decision making.
John Mitchell: That must have been just after the brief David Puttnam regime.
DS: It was because Puttnam was very anti-sequel.
JM: And he always thought that movies cost too much to make, which was one of the biggest problems with Ishtar. He was very much against big budgets, the rising salaries of stars, and those sorts of things.
DS: But at a certain point his corporate overlords at Columbia’s then parent company of Coca-Cola would always sort of force his hand into giving them something to work with. I always found it fascinating because for better and worse, Ishtar really changed the thought process when it came to financing big budget star vehicles.
JM: Right. Did you see it when it came out?
DS: No, I saw it sometime in the early 90s. Maybe ’93 or ’94.
JM: So you knew everything at by that point.
DS: It was definitely several years after everything had happened. But it is important to address a few things about the history of Ishtar. I think even moreso than the overall price tag of Ishtar that I think should have been a bit of a red flag to the studio was that the three core components of the film were all notorious perfectionists. Dustin Hoffman is definitely a perfectionist, but he’s not really the one who took the brunt of the damage from this one…
JM: Yeah, he was sort of the hired gun on this particular project.
DS: …and if you’re going to be a hired gun, then why not do it with a role you probably wouldn’t have been offered otherwise? But you also have Elaine May who notoriously spent ten years editing together a film for Paramount called Mikey and Nicky that the studio released a version of very quietly in 1976, but that she never actually said was finished until she screen her own version of it in 1985. She takes forever with these sorts of things. Then you add Warren Beatty to the mix, who hadn’t appeared on screen since Reds almost 7 years before this. Even Hoffman hadn’t been on the big screen since Tootsie in almost 6 years by that point.
JM: Well, Beatty really hadn’t made a lot of movies. Throughout his career he always made movies very sporadically, so that wasn’t too unusual.
DS: But from Reds onward, every movie he made became “a big deal” because he had this reputation as a hard to work with businessman that dogged him through films like Town and Country, Bulworth, and Dick Tracy. He never shook it.
JM: At that time of Ishtar, though, he had a pretty spotless reputation as a producer and star, though. All of his films, including and especially Reds, had been huge successes either artistically or commercially. What I remember was that Guy McElwaine, who was the executive at Columbia who signed off on Ishtar, had once been Warren Beatty’s press secretary at one time in the 1960s. I don’t want to say that this was his direct quote, but I think it was him who said “You have to be very careful saying no to Warren because of his record.”
DS: I think it was him who said that.
JM: Elaine May also did some uncredited work on Reds and she worked on Heaven Can Wait. So they had this working relationship already in place and he wanted to offer her a vehicle. That’s how that came about, and he felt that he could protect her from the studio because she never had that protection before. I think that was the idea behind it. He said she could do whatever she wanted and she had this script or idea for a script to do an update of the Hope and Crosby road pictures, which was kind of an interesting idea, and to update the politics to make them a bit more threatening. You had these bumbling Americans in the desert. It was also right in the middle of the Reagan administration, too, which I think might have contributed to why it was not accepted by audiences.
DS: It was a very liberal movie in a very conservative climate, and the film’s underlying theme of people who are terribly unqualified at their jobs getting involved with geopolitics and being given a lot of unearned responsibility.
JM: Absolutely. That’s totally right. It’s a funny concept. Jonathan and I went to see Elaine May a few years ago when they had a screening of Ishtar, and she kind of looked at Ronald Reagan and said “He was this nice man from Hollywood, so is it possible that all he knows about the Middle East was what he learned in those road movies.” That was the genesis of the idea, I think.
But in terms of them being perfectionists, that’s definitely true, and I guess I can see how that was kind of a red flag. I approached it from another angle, though, I guess. When I first heard about it I was really just excited that the three of them were getting together to make a movie. I saw it either the first or second night it was in theatres and I thought it was a good thing. But for Hollywood and for the press at the time, I can see how they might flag that.
DS: If were an executive and I heard your rationalization of that now given Beatty’s track record, and if I hadn’t heard everything about how troubled the film was going into it, it would seem like he could have offset any of the risk. But once the production of the movie started, he just seems like he left May to her own devices and he couldn’t be asked to keep her in line like I think the studio wanted or thought that he would do.
JM: I don’t really know what happened on set, and I don’t think anyone outside of the people who were there really know.
DS: For what it’s worth, the shoot itself doesn’t seem that contentious.
JM: I don’t think it was. The most was made out of the fact that the release was delayed. It was originally supposed to be a Christmas of ’86 release and it got pushed to the summer of ’87. A lot was made of that, and for the Hollywood press that seemed to set off the flags that said this was a troubled production. They needed to do some reshoots and they needed more time in the editing suite. Most of those delays were post-production.
DS: Ishtar was also a comedy that cost a lot of money, which is one genre that leaves people scratching their heads to figure out how it could have cost so much. It’s also a very big budget film being made in the post-Apocalypse Now and post-Heaven’s Gate era where for the first time, the troubles on a film start to become national news items.
JM: Yeah, that post-auteur period. We spoke to George Anthony, who worked at the CBC for years and he worked as the entertainment editor at the Toronto Sun back when Ishtar was released, and he said that there was this time when you never saw the box office receipts. I don’t know exactly when it started, but Variety started to publish how things did at the box office. You’re right, people suddenly started paying attention to the business side of the industry, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. It was a different thing. I think Ishtar was certainly right there at the point where people suddenly needed to know what things cost.
DS: It doesn’t seem like the general public on those films could really be asked to qualify or quantify the worth of an Elaine May and Warren Beatty production should be.
JM: That’s right. Stepping back, I think one of the biggest problems for Ishtar at the time was that Elaine May makes her own style of comedy, which I think is brilliant and fantastic, but it’s not necessarily commercial in the sense that it could sustain a blockbuster budget. I think in a way, Ishtar was somehow miscast as an action picture and a summer blockbuster. I think the people like us who appreciate it don’t necessarily appreciate or think all that much about that aspect of the movie. It’s more the Elaine May styled comedy that draws us in; that stuff with these two singer-songwriters together at the beginning. It’s that gentle humour and relationship that’s kind of specific to Elaine May, and in a way is almost sort of old fashioned. If people were expecting this film with two of the most bankable stars in Hollywood that’s going to be a big movie, I can totally see where people would be let down by that. It was just a kind of uncomfortable fit in some ways between what the movie was and what people saw it as being on the surface.
DS: And you look at what Columbia put out in the 1980s, and specifically in 1987, and Ishtar isn’t even the worst thing they put out that year. That was the year of Leonard Part 6, which Bill Cosby would talk openly about in public appearances on talk shows about how terrible it was before it was even released.
JM: (laughs) That’s right!
DS: It’s an interesting point of comparison because the people who made Ishtar were actually and still are proud of their work. Beatty never promotes his own films, but he broke that rule to promote this film. Hoffman rarely promotes his own films. May never really promoted anything. They all really stood together and stood by the project rather than distancing themselves from the buzz surrounding it. Leonard Part 6 has rightfully become this object of mockery and scorn from anyone who has seen it, but it didn’t become hyperbolically synonymous with shitty movies and was never named to Time Magazines’s list of the 100 worst ideas of the 20th Century.
JM: Yeah, that’s a little over the top and definitely more than a little unfair when you do think about it. Don McKellar is a friend of ours, who’s in our movie, and he said that it’s true that the movies that are often pegged as the worst movies quite often AREN’T really the worst movies. The gigantic and famous flops are far more interesting. The worst are those generic films that you can’t even remember the names of them or who was in them. Those are so obviously worse than films like Ishtar, or even Leonard Part 6 or Heaven’s Gate or New York, New York, or whatever gets reviled at the time. And it is such an interesting film to talk about because it’s placed into the 80s and made by this 70s auteur director in a time when blockbusters and more formulaic films were taking over the box office. It’s fascinating on that level.
DS: Do you think that today something like Ishtar would have fared better or worse if something like the internet had been around? In some ways the internet has been able to make flops out of sure things like Green Lantern and they have been able to make huge successes out of perceived flops like Titanic.
JM: You mean as a $200 million dollar comedy or artistically? (laughs) I think that people would certainly understand the politics of the film more and fewer people would blink at the finances. There have been plenty of films that have taken things like the war in Iraq and taken a satirical view. I think there’s a greater understanding. I don’t know who you would get to be in that film or make it, but I think it could be done and it would probably go over a lot better with people.
But part of the problem for Ishtar that I know was that people were not able to accept Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman as comedic actors, and those are the kinds of casting choices that generally get talked to death about on the internet. They didn’t want to see people play against type at the time, especially with Beatty who had this womanizing reputation playing a nerd who can’t get a girlfriend and a serious actor like Hoffman playing a horny lothario.
I mean, Hoffman was comedic and terrific in Tootsie, and unless you consider him playing a comic like Lenny Bruce or you saw The Graduate as a comedy, you wouldn’t necessarily think he could help anchor this massive comedy.
DS: Even taking the satire out of it, the core joke of the film seemed to be ahead of its time, which is that these are two characters that are terrible at their jobs that are being played by very smart actors. I think that would go over a lot better today. You can draw kind of a direct line from Ishtar to something like Anchorman or the TV show Brooklyn Nine-Nine where that’s the joke.
JM: Absolutely, and that’s part of why the film has been getting a bit of a reappraisal today. I think people would have a greater sense of appreciation for that sense of humour and irony today. I mean, This is Spinal Tap came out before Ishtar, and that was really the start of these kinds of send ups, but today without Ishtar or Spinal Tap, these kinds of movies and TV shows with Will Ferrell or these SNL veterans wouldn’t have been made. These kinds of films and their bread and butter. These kinds of characters who suck at their jobs and still do it with a straight face.
DS: It was really a joke that people weren’t ready for. There really aren’t any comedies that you could have compared Ishtar to in the 1980s.
JM: No! There’s nothing. It is its own beast. It may have been better had it been done in the 70s and had it not cost $40 million and had those two stars or today with an even bigger budget. It probably would have been seen as being more subversive in a really good way. I could see it being quite successful in either era. Just taking the movie as it is, I think people would appreciate it today, but back then people really made it a point of staying far away. It was about 20 years off in either direction. (laughs)
It had to make a tremendous amount of money on its initial run to make back its budget. I don’t know the exact figures as to what that could have been. I read that the budget was anywhere from $25 million to $55 million. No one actually seems to know for sure, which in and of itself is a pretty terrible sign for any movie. (laughs) I think Richard Crouse told us that unless Hollywood wants you to know what a movie cost, you’ll never find out. The perception is nothing compared to what a movie actually costs.
J. Hoberman also put it really well when he said that people only liked seeing disasters where you could see the money that went into it on screen, and Ishtar really isn’t that kind of movie, so it looks like all that money was spent on something frivolous. But really, what makes one thing more frivolous than another?
I’m sure you know this, as well, but there were rumours and suggestions that the studio itself was not behind the picture because the heads of the studio were changed midway through and that some of this stuff was being leaked to the press. The studio could have been suggesting to the press that this was a disaster waiting to happen. That can’t help. What I remember at the time was that it was supposed to be a bomb and that it hadn’t even been released yet. People were suggesting that it was going to be this massive failure, and that perception is really hard to overcome. It was pretty dire.
There was this article that came out in New York magazine a few months before the film’s release titled “The Road to Ishtar” about the making of the film, and it was all about the excess, and the ego, and all these stories. It included that kind of infamous camel story. I don’t know if you heard of that.
DS: Oh yeah! The one where some people from the production were sent to find a camel and the first one they found was great, but they didn’t want to tell Elaine May that their first choice was best because they were afraid she wouldn’t believe them. So they continued to look for camels before looping back to the first guy only to find that while they were looking the owner had killed the camel and eaten it before they could hire him.
JM: (laughs) “Yes, sorry. I ate it.” Things like that. Things that didn’t paint the picture as the most flattering of productions. Things that made it seem like Elaine May had lost control of the set. That was really unfortunate, and in our eyes that was what really started that negative ball rolling. Suddenly everyone was making Ishtar jokes and trying to sink the film.
DS: We also now know that almost all of the problems and delays were in post and not on the actual production. Everything that came from the set was kind of all delivered by shadowy “insiders” involved with the production.
JM: There were a whole lot of unnamed sources. Who are these people? Anyway, the camel they got was awesome! (laughs) That camel steals the show sometimes. It’s a great B-squad camel.
DS: You sort of look at the history of films that have flopped, there has always been this deathly buzz about the production. Good examples of that are Heaven’s Gate and Waterworld.
JM: Waterworld got called Fishtar!
DS: It also got called Kevin’s Gate.
JM: (laughs) I hadn’t even heard that one. But I sure knew about Fishtar. That’s pretty much just Mad Max on the water, but yeah, that film got the brunt of that post-Heaven’s Gate harping. I know there have been books and documentaries about Heaven’s Gate and… I don’t know. I’ve seen it and I don’t understand all the fuss about it was. Sure, it’s a well made movie with problems. There are also problems with Ishtar, there’s no question.
DS: But these movies that are made out to be debacles are often really tough films to sell to mainstream audiences to begin with. So when you research and look at the release of Ishtar is there anything you think could have been done better to help promote the film?
JM: It’s hard to say what they could have done better. They probably had a certain market that they had in mind sewn up. Maybe they should have made less of an attempt to appeal to everybody and more of an attempt to cater to people who were already fans of the two starts and to fans of Elaine May rather than trying to sell it as an action picture. That’s really self defeating in a lot of ways. It seemed like once the decision had been made to release it when they did as one of the first big summer blockbusters of 1987 and given the budget and the overruns they were trying to sell it at a penny a pound. That was really the only thing that I think could have been done. If they could have gotten more word of mouth from the people who would have been inclined to like it and appealed to those people, then perhaps that sort of grass roots effort would have led to other people thinking it might have been funny and they could have given it a chance.
DS: Even the film’s opening weekend has that great anecdote about how it almost gets beat for number one at the box office by the Canadian horror film The Gate, which is a movie that has a busy opening weekend, makes $14 million in one weekend, which is massive for the 1980s, and has a built in audience.
JM: Yeah! It’s this thing where Ishtar became a bit of a brushfire. People reacted so strongly against the film for all they thought it represented. And none of that was particularly fair or true. For me, I always knew that I was going to go and see it and I didn’t care. I thought it looked really funny and I was excited to see it, so I was never a part of that machine that was trying to make it something less. It never really mattered to me at the time. Maybe it still doesn’t to a degree. It’s not my money that made it, so I never really cared where that went. When I saw it all I cared about was my $5 ticket and if I felt like I got my money’s worth. And that bought me a ton of laughs.
But it’s also really easy to root for a film like The Gate…
DS: And in a way, this is also kind of a backhanded way to deride the success of The Gate, which in any other weekend would have been heralded as a success story instead of a cynical punchline that somehow grades it on the same level as Ishtar and makes it out to be an inferior film.
JM: Exactly! That’s an alright movie, too. That was a good weekend at the box office.
DS: Even today when looking back on the film, Beatty and Hoffman and May still really stand by their work with very little regret or extreme reflection on anything that might have gone wrong.
JM: No! I think they absolutely stand by it. They had a blast. That’s something you can’t disguise. When you see them on screen together their chemistry is undeniable. They’re having a ball together. It absolutely read, and today they still defend it. I don’t know if you saw it, but when Warren Beatty got his AFI lifetime achievement award, Hoffman came out and they had a whole exchange about Ishtar where they said “Ishtar will rise again!” At the time, they were talking about other vehicles for those characters. That was how much affection they had for them. It’s too bad that would never happen, but they really thought that they had something.
In this case, I couldn’t really answer that question. I think only they could really say if there was anything they could have done differently. I know Dustin Hoffman at the time said that part of him wished that the film had stayed with them in New York and the friendship between the two songwriters and that they never went to Ishtar, but that’s a completely different movie.
Beyond that, I think there were lots of things that were tough for all of them at the time, but they all recovered and went on to do other good work. It’s just one of those things. It was the perfect storm at the time.
DS: For your film you talk with a lot of the people who got sucked into the middle of that storm, and we’ve talked about all of the major players, but what about the people around the periphery that you talked to? What are their feelings on the film looking back on it now?
JM: There’s definitely some mixed reaction there, for sure. Carol Kane, who we talked to for the film when she was doing Wicked on Broadway and on tour, and there was a particular member of the crew who used to introduce her to people by saying, “Hey, this is Carol Kane. She was in Ishtar!” And she said that always got a laugh. She never really understood why but that always got a laugh.
And Charles Grodin said similar things, but it certainly didn’t hurt his career or really anyone else’s in the long term.
DS: I’m sure Charles Grodin is the kind of guy who really wouldn’t give a shit what film does what to his career.
JM: (laughs) Probably not, but what he said was that Ishtar was “too hip for the room.” And you really consider the source when someone says something like that. Who is saying this and why are they saying it?
DS: A quote like that really speaks to why I think the film plays better today because that’s the kind of humour that sells well today.
JM: Yeah. I absolutely agree. That’s why the people who I know love the film ended up loving it. It IS too hip for the room in many ways. It’s smarter than people give it credit for today. It’s a very smart movie. No one in the 80s was really up for that. It was a really conservative time where young people had their minds elsewhere and adults wouldn’t have gotten the jokes, necessarily. There’s an edge to it that people just didn’t get. Then there was the problem of taking this concept of guys who are bad at their job at face value. People looked at it and said “But that song is terrible!” No one really realized the genius that Paul Williams brought to the film. He realized the process of songwriting completely and he knew how these guys could go about composing a song and make it seem absolutely credible. They weren’t great songs, but they’re not great entertainers that are producing them.
DS: I saw the clip with Williams that you guys put on line from your talk with him, and he really seemed like he put a lot of thought into making songs that were functionally credible and abjectly terrible at the same time.
JM: That is a very hard thing to write. I know because I’ve tried to do it. I was in a musical comedy troupe in the 90s and one of our main influences was Ishtar. We wrote in that style at times, and it’s a lot of fun to write, but very hard to get it right. Paul Williams put it best to me when he said it really was a method thing. You really have to get inside these characters so that what you write isn’t gags, but you’re writing from a certain perspective. That perspective just happens to be slightly off. That’s what Paul Williams did.
He wrote 55 complete songs for the film. Then Elaine May chopped them up and said she could use that bit from this song and this bit from that song. And that kind of detail and prolific approach really appealed and worked well for someone like Elaine May. She must have had a great time picking up those little bits, and what makes them work so well is how they are cut together. There are two lines from one song and three from the other, and that’s what makes it so hilarious. And I think musicians that see the movie, or at least ones that I have talked to, can find something they can really identify with in that.
Paul Williams has been associated with tons of underground and cult films. The Muppets, Bugsy Malone, which didn’t do well commercially, Phantom of the Paradise. He’s a fascinating guy and he was definitely one of our favourite interviews, I have to say. He’s a very funny guy, very warm, very generous with his time, and very committed to Ishtar. He loved Ishtar and his work.
DS: Well, you can’t write 50 songs for a film that you don’t understand or you don’t like.
JM: No! Exactly! That just shows the affection that he has for those characters.
DS: In terms of your film, when did you start working on it and how long have you been working on it?
JM: Much like Ishtar, we have been in post-production for a while…
DS: But I’m sure your film cost a lot less.
JM: It cost A LOT less, but it has taken us about 7 years to get to this point. It was a conversation about guilty pleasures that got us to this point. We were all taking turns naming of TV shows, bands, and movies that you aren’t supposed to like, but you do. Then when I said Ishtar, I was almost immediately accused of mocking the conversation because nobody loves Ishtar, but none of them had actually SEEN the film so I ended up defending it to them.
It started off with the idea of writing a freelance article. A friend of mine said I should write something about loving Ishtar. I went to the Toronto Public Library to try and get a copy of the film on VHS and there was this waiting list of 47 people waiting to get this one and only copy of Ishtar that they have in their system. I found that odd given that someone might be willing to wait upwards of 47 weeks to see this notorious box office bomb.
So the concept was that I would track down and interview someone on that waiting list as a way in. (laughs) Then the discussion would start from there. So my friend Jonathan Crombie and I decided to do this together. We thought about approaching it financially from a bunch of different angles and asked if we should apply for grants, and we finally just decided to do it all ourselves. We didn’t know what kind of scale this would be on at first, so we bought a camera and a microphone and said “Let’s go. Let’s do it.”
At first we thought it might be a very small project, but then Elaine May had that screening of Ishtar in New York and part way through while we were shooting we thought we might have the chance to interview her. We went down and watched the Q&A and she was there with Mike Nicholls to talk about Ishtar. That led to us getting in touch with someone who was a friend of Elaine May’s who was able to set us up with interviews with people like Charles Grodin and Carol Kane. Suddenly the scope got a little bigger and larger in scale.
We were making it ourselves, and Jonathan is part time in New York and I’m in Toronto, so it has taken this long to get to this place. We produced a rough version of the film that we submitted to some festivals a couple of years ago. The feedback was that they all liked it, but technically it needed some work.
So that’s what we’re doing now. We’re trying to raise some money to help with the post-production because we need to raise the production values a bit and make the film that we want to make.
DS: How much more do you think you have left to do?
JM: We need to do some reshoots on a few things and to shoot some new stuff because this has taken place over such a long course of time. We need a little more context, so we have some really simple things that we want to shoot. We brought in an animator who’s going to add some stuff that’s going to create this countdown aspect as I wait for this copy of the movie from the library. He’s a beautiful animator, this guy. We need to bring in another editor for an extra set of eyes and to work in any new footage and see how it changes. We also need to do some colour correction because when we started we were shooting in standard definition. We want to give it all a uniform look. It’s still very much a hands on, do-it-yourself kind of project, which is where it started and where we’re going to take it. We’re looking at a couple of festivals that we can take it to. And online I think it’s the kind of film that does well. It’s really a VOD, iTunes, Netflix kind of film that I think people would be interested in seeing. We also want to talk to Sony Pictures, as well, because there are no bonus features on the Blu-Ray for Ishtar. Who knows?
And we have our Indiegogo campaign going right now to help with that. People can go there and find our site and we have lots of great perks. The best of which, I think, is for Broadway fans is that our friend Lisa will write you a song or you can give it to a friend.
DS: Can it be purposefully bad like the songs in Ishtar?
JM: YES! Lisa is great at that. She gets Ishtar and she’s one of the funniest people I know.
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