Saturday, September 11, 2004

Next Up: "The Making of Our Making-Of Documentary"

The "all-new making-of documentary" is getting to be almost as much a DVD staple as the audio commentary. Indeed, there are some directors, like Steven Spielberg and David Lynch, who prefer to do such documentaries instead of audio commentaries, on the basis that you should get the behind-the-scenes facts after you watch the movie, not as you're watching it. Anyway, the one thing that's certain about a making-of is that if there's also a commentary on the disc, the best anecdotes will be repeated in both the documentary and the commentary, creating a feeling of deja vu or, more accurately, deja entendu. Most of these documentaries also follow the same pattern: talking heads intercut with still photos, script pages, and clips. The biggest distinction between one making-of and another is that some of them use narrators and some of them don't.

D.K. Holm, reviewing the making-of on the new special edition DVD of Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (which, by the way, is an excellent DVD, with a transfer that's quite an improvement over the last DVD release), makes the point that the people interviewed for these things always have the blandest things to say about the movie and the moviemaker; you won't hear from people who have a revisionist take on the film or on Hitchcock. Instead you'll hear from, at best, people delivering the conventional wisdom about the movie and how it works, and, at worst, Peter Bogdanovich. (I am, barely, willing to accept that Peter Bogdanovich should be allowed to talk about his own movies, but that's as far as I'm willing to go; he should not be allowed anywhere near a DVD of someone else's movie, particularly a movie by someone he used to suck up to in the '60s.) Of course, this isn't a problem with making-ofs in general so much as it's a problem inherent in the nature of DVD extras: they have to appeal to any and all people who may buy the film, from people who are seeing it for the first time to people who have seen it every year since they were kids. The latter group may be looking to hear something that goes beyond the conventional wisdom, but you have to start with the conventional wisdom, for the benefit of people who have just seen the movie and want to know how it was made, what happened on the set, etc. A critic like Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose writing style is based on reading what other critics are saying about a movie and then saying the opposite (thus proving he's the only critic who hasn't sold out to corporate indoctrination) wouldn't really work in a DVD feature, which is supposed to be aimed at those of us who don't necessarily know what the critics have traditionally said about this movie. So a making-of offers few surprises if you've already read up on the movie; but I don't see how it can be any other way. It might be nice if some DVDs provided extra features for hardcore fans -- someone popping up, separately, to tell us that all the stories we heard in the making-of are wrong and here's what the movie is really about -- but then, if they did features like that, they'd probably find some way to put Peter Bogdanovich in them, so I guess it's just as well that they don't.

I was going to end this by talking about making-ofs I liked and disliked, but quite honestly, they all kind of blur together in my mind. They follow this basic story formula:

- Someone writes a wonderful book/play/story/article/blog post that no one ever thought could become a movie (insert shot of the original book)
- Director and/or Producer, aka Our Hero, sees the source material and, alone among everyone, believes that it can be a movie
- Our Hero tries to find someone to make the movie, but to no avail
- Finally, after all the other studios have turned the project down, the project comes to the attention of The Last Studio In Town, which takes a chance on Our Hero and his project
- Our Hero assembles the cast and crew. Either he got all the people he wanted, and they were absolutely perfect, or he got his second or third choices, and they were absolutely perfect. Cut to various people talking about how absolutely perfect everybody was.
- The movie goes into production. Cut to various people saying that they knew right from the start that they were involved with something very special.
- During production, something goes wrong that threatens to disrupt the making of movie. This looks like the end for Our Hero. But Our Hero recoups and hires someone else (who was absolutely perfect) or wins his battle with the front office.
- The movie is finished. It doesn't test well. The studio wants to cut it down and then burn the negative and send Our Hero to Siberia. Our Hero stands his ground. He talks the studio into releasing the movie after all.
- The movie opens and is a huge success. Every review is a rave. Everyone who saw it loved it. Our Hero is vindicated.
- Our Hero recalls that this was the greatest experience of his career. Cut to other people saying that this was the greatest experience of their career. Cut back to Our Hero saying that if he can bring a little joy into people's lives with this movie, he has not lived in vain. The end.

Oh, one making-of I like is on the DVD of Casino Royale. Instead of a big conventional making-of, they just have a long interview, intercut with clips from the movie, with director Val Guest (who was supposed to work on the project for eight weeks and wound up staying for eight months). He talks candidly about everything that went wrong with the film, most of it stemming from the fact that the producer was nuts, and what a complete mess they ended up with. He's not complaining about it -- this isn't one of those things where somebody whines that he worked on a bad movie and this was the greatest injustice in the history of mankind -- he's just amused at the weirdness of the experience, and bemused by the fact that it somehow became a hit anyway. That kind of one-man making-of can actually be better than a lot of talking heads, and, unlike a commentary, doesn't require the guy to come up with two hours' worth of stories.

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