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Film School on Your Couch

Film School on Your Couch

Articles - Directing


It’s sad how easily one can become jaded, isn’t it?
In the DVD format’s infancy only a few years ago, the special supplementary
features contained on certain releases (commentary tracks, deleted
scenes, "making of" featurettes, etc.) were valued and
savored almost as much as the stellar transfers of the films themselves.
A legacy of the laserdisc era, these extra features soon became
a critical factor in a release’s market appeal, as even casual DVD
buyers began to appreciate the insight into the moviemaking process
afforded by these bonuses. But now–as most DVD manufacturers have
subsequently made the inclusion of extra features
orthodox practice–many hardcore DVD-philes are beginning to
find these "special editions" not very special at all,
and one is tempted to cry "Enough!"

Silence-laden commentary tracks with bored directors
narrating on-screen action; "behind-the-scenes" documentaries
that play out like Entertainment Tonight-type studio puff pieces; endless
trailers and TV spots (weren’t those 19 commercials on the Hannibal
DVD fascinating?); and insomnia-curing storyboard galleries are
all enough to make one appreciate the minimalist approach that directors
like David Lynch and Michael Mann have adopted toward DVD features.


But navigating through hours of supplementary features
doesn’t have to be an unrewarding chore. When these added items
are assembled with care and an eye toward genuinely illuminating
and elucidating the moviemaking process, they can be both enthralling
and educational.


In fact, when used properly, the instructive element
in some supplementary features is perhaps the format’s greatest
contribution to film culture. Prospective moviemakers would do well
to study some of the best extras as living room tutorials. Indeed,
many recent rookie directors have remarked that they learned their
craft partially through other moviemakers’ commentary tracks. If
it’s true that certain liberal arts university courses amount to
little more than great reading lists, then maybe film students should
grab a digital video camera and a few lessons from the best DVD
extra features, and start shooting. One can even go step-by-step
through various facets of the film industry–from pre-production
to shooting and on through post-production–using certain DVD supplementary
features.

So take note, kids–it’s film school on your couch, in 10 easy lessons:


1. Cinema History


Those who don’t know history will never get the opportunity
to plagiarize from it, will they? A healthy knowledge of cinema
history is inarguably essential for anyone who plans to embark upon
a moviemaking career, yet the lasting cultural importance of many
canonical works may be lost on younger viewers who see classic films
without the benefit of historical context. The audio commentary
tracks on the DVDs of Welles’ Citizen Kane (by Roger Ebert
and Peter Bogdanovich), Kurosawa’s Rashomon (by critic Donald
Richie), Antonioni’s L’Avventura (by film historian Gene
Youngblood) and the Maysles brothers’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme
Shelter
(by the moviemakers and others) help to provide a background
which conveys why these films are such significant landmark works.
(Citizen Kane is from Warner; the other three are Criterion
releases.)


2. The Writer-Director Collaborative Process


The conversation between director Steven Soderbergh
and writer Lem Dobbs on The Limey DVD (Artisan) may very
well be the most riotously entertaining commentary track yet recorded.
But it also happens to be among the most revealing in its insights
into the collaboration between writers and directors, as Dobbs and
Soderbergh argue and debate over the final film’s many deviations
from the original script. A warmer, but no less rewarding, view
of the working relationship between screenwriter and director can
be found in the video interview reminiscences of Buñuel collaborator
Jean-Claude Carrière, on the Criterion DVDs for Diary
of a Chambermaid
and That Obscure Object of Desire.


3. Designing Cinema


The process of developing a production design/art
direction overview for a film’s visual style is not one that has
been generally well represented on DVD features, despite the possibilities
that still-frame display allows for artwork analysis. Yet several
deluxe special editions of Hollywood genre fare have managed to
convey the importance of the design element in a film’s execution:
the DVDs of Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s sequel
Aliens (both Fox) contain a wealth of production design sketches
and artwork that illuminate how the visuals of those films evolved.
A similarly thorough exploration of a film’s production design can
also be found within the commentary tracks and documentary
vignettes on the DVD of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (New Line).
Criterion’s lavish two-disc edition of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the
Mood for Love
also provides a rich, albeit less traditional,
examination of the design process, with a compendium of bonus features
that highlight the care and precision involved in duplicating 1962
Hong Kong.

Warner’s DVD release of Howard Hawks’
The Big Sleep (1946), starring Lauren Bacall and
Humphrey Bogart, proves the importance of the editor.

4. Scrimp and Save, Scrape and Shoot


They may have been the most difficult to make, but
low-budget movies invariably seem to provide superlative commentary
tracks from their makers. The production anecdotes have a more personal
appeal than those by big-budget directors, and shoestring auteurs
contribute unique words of wisdom regarding realizing your cinematic
dream on a nightmarish budget. Bruce Campbell’s commentary on The
Evil Dead
is both amusing and enlightening (even more so than
the alternate commentary track from that film’s director, Sam Raimi),
and the same can be said for the observations of the cast and crew
behind the original Night of the Living Dead (both from Elite).
Other economically conservative tips can be found in Robert Rodriguez’s
commentaries for El Mariachi and Desperado (both Columbia).
But if genre fare isn’t your area of interest, then seek out the
Anchor Bay discs of director Werner Herzog’s German masterworks,
including Stroszek, Nosferatu, Heart of Glass and Aguirre:
The Wrath of God.
Herzog contributes commentaries that document
the production hardships (and perseverance) he had to endure to
realize his visions.


5. A Visual Medium


The process of communicating a story through carefully
chosen issues/47/images is perhaps such an organic endeavor for moviemakers
that it is rarely a topic discussed in commentary tracks or "making-of"
documentaries. However, the Canadian director Atom Egoyan speaks
very eloquently about his visual approach–camera placement, lighting
choices, visual symbolism–on commentaries for The Sweet Hereafter


Werner Herzog’s commentary on Nosferatu (1979),
starring Klaus Kinski and Isabelle Adjani documents the production
hardships he had to endure to realize his vision.

(New Line), Calendar, Family Viewing, Next of Kin
and Speaking Parts (all Zeitgeist). Generally though,
one’s interest in film grammar and technique is best served by listening
to analytical commentaries provided by film theorists on several
Criterion releases, most notably scholar Casper Tybjerg’s audio
essay for Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Marion Keane’s
analysis of the cinematic language employed by Hitchcock on Notorious.


6. Fear and Self-Loathing in a Canvas Chair


Plagued with feelings of anxiety, doubt and inadequacy
as you embark upon your moviemaking endeavors? Well, others have
been there before you and have managed to still create great films,
so perhaps their recollections can offer some solace. Coppola’s
commentary tracks for The Godfather and The Conversation
(both Paramount) provide refreshingly guileless and revealing
portraits of an artist in crisis. And his stories of studio battles,
disloyal crew members and general internal creative struggles are
all the more heartening when you look at the masterpieces that he
was still able to produce. Paul Schrader offers a similarly candid
overview of the director’s chair in the commentary for his debut
Blue Collar (Anchor Bay), while Three Kings helmer
David O. Russell provides a video production diary on that film’s
DVD (Warner), which also allows one to appreciate his creative struggles.


7. The ABC’s of CGI and FX


Behind-the-scenes glimpses into the process of creating
special visual effects for a film are rather common on many DVDs
of contemporary Hollywood blockbuster titles. But not all FX featurettes
are created equal. Many FX "making of" extras do little
to contextualize the contributions of visual FX artists, or provide
a readily understandable examination of the FX process. However,
Universal’s DVD of The Mummy remake offers a fascinating
breakdown of CGI techniques through a series of five narrated sequences–presented
in four different forms–which illustrate precisely how the FX are
integrated into the original production photography. The elaborate
two-disc set of Terminator 2 (Artisan) also documents the
use of FX with meticulous clarity.

David O. Russell shares his creative struggles
on the
DVD of Three Kings (1999), starring George Clooney,

Ice Cube and Mark Wahlberg.

8. A Film is Made in the Editing Room…


…or so the saying goes, and there are a few DVD
releases which certainly validate that adage. Warner’s DVD of Howard
Hawks’ 1946 noir classic The Big Sleep provides an opportunity
to view the film in two distinct versions: the theatrical release
print we’ve all seen for decades, as well as a newly-discovered
1945 pre-release cut. For the final release print, Hawks minimized
the narrative exposition of the earlier version, in favor of newly
shot scenes emphasizing the Bogart-Bacall chemistry–and the differences
make for fascinating viewing. Leaping forward to neo-noir, John
Dahl’s recent thriller Joy Ride (Fox) comes to DVD with no
fewer than four (!) alternate endings, supplemented by commentary
that elaborates on the factors behind the re-shoots and re-edits.
Finally–whatever one thinks of the film–the second "special
features" disc of the Hannibal (MGM) set offers an instructive
multi-angle editing gallery which allows the viewer to examine the
multiple camera footage involved in assembling an action scene.


9. Surviving the Studio System


If you should ever be lucky (?) enough to gain employment
within the American studio system, be aware that making your film will probably
be the simplest part of your workload. Many directors have
battled studio interference for the artistic purity of their work,
and some of their struggles have been chronicled on
DVD releases of their films: Orson Welles’ detailed memo to
executives regarding the changes in his masterpiece Touch of
Evil
are reproduced on Universal’s DVD of the restored version
of that

Paul Verhoeven’s unique style comes
through on Criterion’s RoboCop (1987), starring
Nancy Allen and Peter Weller.

film. But the definitive saga of artist and studio
warfare is relayed on Criterion’s exhaustive three-disc special
edition of Terry Gilliam’s cult favorite Brazil (also a Universal
production), which contains a documentary on the infamous battle,
as well as both Gilliam’s original cut and the studio-edited version.


Not all tales of moviemaker and studio relationships
are so dire, though. Paul Verhoeven’s commentary tracks on Starship
Troopers
(Columbia), RoboCop (Criterion, though sadly
out-of-print), Basic Instinct and Total Recall (both
Artisan) are testaments to the ability of a subversive, visionary
artist to integrate his unique thematic and stylistic content into
big-budget Hollywood fare.


10. And the Grand Prize Goes to…


While all of the above releases offer educational
insights into specific areas of film production, the elaborate two-disc
special editions of two David Fincher films, Se7en (New Line)
and Fight Club (Fox) provide perhaps the most comprehensive
and entertaining general overviews of the entire moviemaking process,
from script development, location shooting and FX work, to editing
decisions, sound design and even the telecine process of video transfers.
They’re both essential purchases. But the single best commentary
track from a director could be Bill Condon’s remarks on the Gods
and Monsters
disc (Universal)–a thorough, consistently engaging,
admirably well-prepared audio tour through every step of his film’s
creation, as well as background on the film’s subject matter. Good
thing every director isn’t this articulate, or traditional film
schools might be in trouble…. MM

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