Audio commentaries on DVD or Blu-ray provide an insight into the filmmamking process and here are some that stand out.
I’ve long felt a bit guilty about my love of audio commentaries for films on a disc format.
After all, it is about the most unsocial way to watch a film if you’re in casual company and sitting around the TV.
But if – like me – you are interested in how a film gets made and want to hear the perspective of those involved then it is a fantastic resource.
As a marketing tool they can be traced back to the days of laserdisc, the video format which never took off but which saw companies like Criterion, specialise in editions of classic films which included bonus features.
Hello, ladies and gentlemen, I’m Ronald Haver, and I’m here to do something which we feel is rather unique. I’m going to take you on a lecture tour of King Kong as you watch the film. The laserdisc technology offers us this opportunity and we feel it’s rather unique — the ability to switch back and forth between the soundtrack and this lecture track…
Digging into the newly released DVD of Attack the Block I noticed there was three different ‘levels’ of audio commentary involving junior actors, senior actors and executive producers, all hosted by director Joe Cornish.
At first it seemd like a bit of a giggle but given the time and effort both cast and crew put into a movie, why not have an audio document of the movie, which can often take months or even years to make?
The executive producer commentary featuring Cornish and Wright is filled with interesting details, including:
- Cornish once worked on forgotten surfer comedy Blue Juice (1995)
- Chris Cunningham is a big fan of Xtro (1982)
- The Ralph Bakshi version of The Lord of the Rings (1978) and Cornish’s black cat inspired some of the VFX by Double Negative and Fido
- The practical effects of Day of the Dead (1985) were also an inspiration
- Night time movies with a location under siege such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Die Hard (1988) were a big influence
Plus, there is the following exchange:
Joe Cornish: “I love all the Friday the 13th movies”
Edgar Wright: “ALL of them?!
But I realise even amongst filmmakers the idea of audio commentaries can be divisive.
Directors like David Fincher and Edgar Wright like to document their films with hefty DVD or Blu-ray packages which nearly always include an audio track (or tracks) of them discussing the film directly.
However, Steven Spielberg refuses to even do them at all and more recently Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson have shied away from them.
A few years ago Warner Bros held a screening of Goodfellas (1990) for the 2-disc DVD re-release and they turned the audio commentary on, which I found a little odd.
Everyone there had already seen the film, but I don’t think the audience (including myself) quite expected the screening to happen like this despite the pleasure of hearing Scorsese and cast speak.
There is something that seems to make it work in the privacy of your own home (preferably with headphones) and not amongst the communal atmosphere of the cinema.
With that in mind, here are some audio commentaries which I’d highly recommend:
- Steven Soderbergh and James Cameron on SOLARIS (2002): Two very different filmmakers sit down to discuss the adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s classic sci-fi novel. With Soderbergh directing and Cameron producing, their fascinating dialogue touches upon the book, Tarkovsky’s film version and the fonts used on the credits. Fact: There’s an extended sequence which was filmed but omitted and it doesn’t even appear on the deleted scenes.
- The Cast of THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1982): Listening to the cast of Spinal Tap comment on the film in character is such a great idea, it actually adds another layer of genius on to what is already a gold plated comedy masterpiece. I’m not sure that it would work on other films – in fact it could become grating in the wrong hands – but here it extends the world of the film. Fact: The actress who plays Janine (June Chadwick) was once in an episode of Magnum PI.
- Martin Scorsese on TAXI DRIVER (1976): The current Blu-ray (an absolutely essential purchase) uses the wonderful audio commentary director Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader recorded for the 1986 laser disc. Although they never took off as a consumer format, it laid the groundwork for DVD and this commentary is wonderfully old-school with a host linking the audio bits. Both provide considerable insights into the film, which is a personal film for both of them. Fact: The scene where Travis is on the pay phone is the same building where Late Night with David Letterman is taped.
- Tony Gilroy and John Gilroy on MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007): Worthy commentary with writer-director Tony Gilroy joining his brother and editor for a wide-ranging discussion on the looping structure, locations, acting and influences on this modern classic. This was Tony’s debut as director after an established screenwriting career and the commentary hits a lot of points budding filmmakers should pay attention to. Fact: Actor-director Tom McCarthy can be heard but not seen on the phone to Clooney as he asks him to visit an angry client (Denis O’Hare) in Westchester.
- Paul Thomas Anderson on BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997): Unfortunately this is the last one PTA ever did, but it’s a gem as he describes the production with the help of his cast. One of the truly great films of the 1990s, the energy and invention on screen is matched by Anderson’s audio descriptions. There is also a startling story about an extended deleted scene which featured a car crash. Fact: Leonardo DiCaprio was the first choice for Dirk Diggler and Samuel L Jackson turned down Don Cheadle’s role.
- Christopher Nolan on FOLLOWING (1998): The writer-director of Memento, The Dark Knight and Inception describes in depth how how he made his debut feature for around £6,000. An astounding production achievement, Nolan reveals all kinds of tricks used to make the film seem bigger: Black and White visuals, good sound at the beginning, natural lighting tips and use of rooftops as an effective location. Filled with useful information this is like a film school course, only it costs £4 instead of £40,000. Fact: Some scenes were shot in the North London house where Nolan grew up (and later stayed whilst he filmed Batman Begins (2005) in the capital).
- James Cameron and William Wisher on TERMINATOR 2 (1991): One of the greatest action films of the 1990s has an audio commentary filled with fascinating information including production stories, the groundbreaking CGI, night-time visuals and individual scenes. There’s also some some revealing commentary on how the astonishing live action stunts were achieved. Fact: The biker bar scene was filmed just across the street from where the LAPD assaulted Rodney King – the amateur cameraman was filming the T2 shoot and just turned on his camera one night.
- Ridley Scott on ALIEN (1979): The Blu-ray of Alien is such an incredible audio-visual experience that it almost borders on the illegal. Scott gives some great insights into this deeply textured and groundbreaking film that was an indelible influence on the two genres of sci-fi and horror. He was known as being a demanding director on his crew but that paid off in the final film and the commentary also demonstrates his great eyes and ears for detail. Fact: Jon Finch was cast in the Jon Hurt role but had to drop out due to illness.
- William Friedkin on CRUISING (1980): This is Friedkin’s most interesting commentary, even if it is far from his best film. A thriller starring Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover in New York’s gay community proved controversial and was a box office flop. But Friedkin’s commentary is an interesting defence of the film which manages to use the phrase “leather bars” at every opportunity and his favourite theme of the thin line “Between good [pause] And Evil.”
With that in mind, here are some commentaries I’d love to hear. All the director has to do is record themselves whilst watching the film and upload the MP3 to the internet (compared to making a film, this is easy).
Can anyone with influence make them happen?
- Steven Spielberg on Lawrence of Arabia (1962): Spielberg famously refuses to do audio commentaries on his films. He has said in the past that David Lean describing elements of Lawrence of Arabia to him during a screening is part of the reason. But he is such an erudite champion of the film (see his recent DGA tribute) that if only he could be persuaded to do a commentary for the upcoming Blu-ray… well, it would be a fantastic resource for audiences and budding filmmakers.
- Quentin Tarantino on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966): The writer-director has long admitted that his favourite film of all time is Sergio Leone’s monumental spaghetti western and that the climax is his favourite scene ever. Tarantino’s wide-ranging discussion of the visuals, sounds, music and the film’s place in the western genre would be an audio document worth a coffin full of gold.
- James Cameron on Inception (2010): He’s described the film as ‘astounding’ but a full commentary on Nolan’s intricate sci-fi action epic would be fascinating. Kate Winslet reportedly turned down the role of Mal, which would have made for a fascinating parallel with Titanic (1998), given DiCaprio’s presence as lead in both films. Even so, it would be great to hear Cameron’s detailed thoughts on the narrative structure, the eye-popping visuals, clever use of sets and CGI.
- Christopher Nolan on The New World (2005): Nolan is a huge Malick fan as this promotional video featurette for The Tree of Life (2011) demonstrates. Although known for his distinctive narratives, he is a director who cares deeply about the visual image, which is why he still relies on relatively old-school photochemical processes (e.g. shunning a digital intermediate). Malick’s 2005 film was one of the most visually ravishing of the decade (with its rare use of 70mm cameras in certain scenes) and Nolan’s take on Malick’s distinctive visual and editing style would be interesting.
- Brian De Palma on Taxi Driver (1976): De Palma was originally going to direct this film before Scorsese and his original deal with Columbia meant that he got a small cut of it (this surprised Scorsese when Schrader revealed this at a Q&A earlier this year). What does he make of the film he nearly directed? Come to think of it a De Palma-Scorsese-De Niro co-commentary would be very cool, especially as both directors gave him breakthrough roles.
- Danny Boyle on Apocalypse Now (1979): Although his favourite film is probably Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973) his love for Coppola’s Vietnam epic knows no bounds. A commentary on the original cut would be intriguing (although there’s no need to revisit the inferior Redux version).
- David Thomson on Terminator 2 (1991): The author of The Biographical Dictionary of Film is a big fan of the first two Terminator movies (he actually told me this in 2008) and an erudite discussion of Cameron’s film would be great. Not only is the screenplay a textbook action script, but there are profound themes at the heart of the story and Thomson rifting on the editing, camerawork and visual effects would be great.
- Martin Scorsese on The Wrong Man (1956): Hitchcock has long been an important director for Scorsese and this film is a particular thematic and stylistic touchstone. It isn’t one of Hitchcock’s ‘established’ classics (like North by Northwest, Vertigo or Psycho) but that would make it even more interesting given Scorsese’s encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema.