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Some lessons from director commentaries

So what with something better than sleeping to do in the middle of the night, I’ve been watching movies, movie extras, and audio commentaries.  After watching the commentaries on The Chronicles of Riddick and Pitch Black, I’ve decided to compile some advice for all you folks who might someday be part of an audio commentary, either making one or engineering one.

Most of this is in response to Vin Diesel’s frustration toward the end of the Pitch Black commentary, when he says, “But what’s the deal with these critiques anyway?  Who came up with them?  What’s the point?  And isn’t it kind of insulting to the film to talk over the whole movie?” and later, “But really, what are you supposed to say?” My list is for you, Vin.  Feel free to use this advice on the commentary for Babylon A.D..

Chronicles of Ridiculous

  1. You Can Only Have One Favorite/ Hardest/ Best/ Worst; and you have to explain why it earns that title. I’ve seen numerous directors and often actors (in Pitch Black, Twohy and Hauser were teasing Diesel for making this error a Riddick-ulous amount of times) proclaim “This is my favorite shot in the movie.”  Only to say the same thing again a few minutes later.  Or, as Diesel did, they claim they “love” this shot, or that one.  Or all of them.
  2. Your Listeners enjoy pointed or funny or interesting anecdotes about producing the movie. Please note: pointed or funny or interesting.  “She was really cold that day” is none of these.  Pitch Black does this badly.  William Friedkin’s discussion of Linda Blair’s bed-thumping scene does this well in The Exorcist, as does Mel Brooks re: casting Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles.
  3. Your Listeners know the plot of the movie. So don’t narrate. I’m talking to you, Ahnold.
  4. Your Listeners appreciate discussion of artistic intent, but can smell bullshit. David Twohy does a good job talking about lighting decisions and arguments with DPs.  William Friedkin reads too much into his images.
  5. Silence is not golden. Don’t leave us sitting quietly.

The best audio commentaries are the ones clearly planned and/or somewhat thought out before they’re shot.  They mix anecdotes with narratives and explanations, oscillating between big discussions and little details, and putting relevant ideas next to key moments; OR, the best audio commentaries get a bunch of the folks involved (at least three, preferrably more) together and let them talk it out.  This can result in an amusing secondary camaraderie between the listener and the filmmakers, or it can backfire and leave the listener out.

My favorite organized commentaries:

Criterion Collection Robocop. They did three different commentaries as interviews and then edited them together so the relevant bits went with the relevant moments.

David Koepp on Stir of Echoes. Koepp hits all the key notes and does an excellent job giving insight into how the film was made, his goals, and his effort.  An excellent commentary.

Ghostbusters.  Ivan Reitman, Harold Ramis, and Dan Ackroyd talking about the movie.  Funny and informative.

My favorite group commentaries:

Criterion Collection This Is Spinal Tap. Commentary on the film starring the three members of Tap in character.  Like a whole additional Tap movie.

Cannibal, The Musical. Trey Parker and Matt Stone gathered the cast and got drunk while they watched the movie around a tape recorder.  Really funny.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. Brian | 15 August 2008 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    My favorite “did he really understand how he came across?” commentary is by Bob Rafelson, on the Monkees Season One DVDs, where he’s talking about an episode he directed, and starts making references to Godard’s Alphaville. Mind you, this is playing over images of Peter Tork and wool capped Mike Nesmith being chased around by a giant robot.

    Yes, I own the monkees on DVD. Shut up. (:

    Actually, Joss Whedon does really good DVD commentaries for Buffy episodes. Sometimes they’re just enjoyably goofy (as on “Wild At Heart,” from Season Four, where he and Seth Green just start cracking jokes and utterly lose the thread of any kind of analysis), but sometimes they’re very insightful, as on “Innocence” from Season Two, where he segues from on-the-set stories to technical analysis to discussion of influence like a really great film prof.

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