Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Sociable Commentaries

Quite a lot that I know about writing, TV and film-making I have learnt from listening to commentaries on DVDs. I presume other people do this as well: an enormous wealth of useful information is available on the secondary audio track.

Alas, there is a lot of dross as well: I remember one, on a Fawlty Towers disc I believe, that consists of pretty much nothing but the director saying "This is a mid shot..." then "...and this is a long shot..." then "...and we're back to a mid shot now" for six times thirty minutes! And this is why I'm very excited about the forthcoming Fawlty re-release where John Cleese is commenting on every single episode. My wife does not understand this: she just thinks I'm buying stuff again that I already own, for the sake of hearing someone waffle over the action. Which is not even slightly true, obviously. Obviously.

In order that some of the dross be avoided, and that perhaps people can better explain purchases to their wives, husbands or partners (or at any rate just blame me), here are a couple of recommendations. One of the first and best I ever heard was Robert Rodriguez's talk track on El Mariachi, which is a veritable masterclass on getting the most out of a 'low-to-no' budget.

Another good pick is the first and second series sets of Father Ted, on each episode of which Graham Linehan details the writing process, explains why some things work and some things don't, picks holes, mercilessly slags off his own work in the Christmas special. At one point, he even starts explaining how he's going to make the commentaries on future episodes work better. He is incapable of opening his mouth without being informative and entertaining, and it's worth the weight of any comedy-writing workshop, trust me.

My latest commentary hero is Stephen Gallagher. As long-term readers and friends will know, I am a true Who geek. I buy all the Doctor Who DVDs as they come out, and watch and listen to all the extras. Whatever you think of the stories, Peter Davison's tend to have the best commentaries. Peter is always prepared, and always informative, but usually quite tongue in cheek too. It's a good mix. But on recent release Terminus (currently only available in a box set called the 'Black Guardian Trilogy') Stephen G bests him in both trivia and jokes. I would almost go as far as to recommend it even if you don't like Doctor Who (your wives, husbands or partners would love that, I'm sure). He really is that brilliant, and keeps a nifty blog too - check out Hauling Like a Brooligan, if you haven't already (and why would you not have, hmm?!).

And if anyone has any other recommendations of informative and/or entertaining DVD commentaries (film or TV), they'll be gratefully received at the usual address. Cheers.


Good Dog said...

The best film commentaries I think come from Ridley Scott. They’re like a condensed version of film school. Get hold of his first film, The Duellists, based on Conrad’s short story. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, it was made for less than $1m, which is astonishing for a period drama. You get to hear how scenes set during the retreat from Moscow were shot in a hotel car park, the best way to reuse props and locations. He even points out footage he lifted from a toothpaste ad he had previously shot.

Thelma & Louise and the R1 discs of Legend and Black Rain all have great material. Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and the Director’s Cut of Kingdom of Heaven are just as engaging and informative although he shares commentary duties with other members of cast and crew. The only real duff one is for Blade Runner, although it’s probably because after all this time he appears to be getting sick of the bloody film.

Slightly less informative in the filmmaking process but very entertaining nonetheless are the commentaries by Stephen Soderbergh on Get Shorty, The Limey and Ocean’s Eleven which he does in the company of each film’s scriptwriter.

As much as I look forward to Michael Mann commentary tracks, he’s one of the many directors who stop talking for long stretches over the course of the movie. Fincher on the other hand does a great commentary for Zodiac where it’s difficult to work out when he’s actually taking a breath.

On television, season one of The Shield is really informative with every episode getting a track. Although one of the later episodes has so many people contributing that whenever someone started saying something interesting they’d be interrupted by someone else’s anecdote as the story onscreen progressed. And that could get a bit annoying. Haven’t listened to any of the further season commentaries, which dropped in number, although I keep meaning to get around to it.

Still, on the pilot – which, if I remember rightly includes the director Clark Johnson along with Sawn Ryan – they mention how many more shooting days the episode’s budget would have allowed if they shot it in different cities and why they chose to stay in LA (which naturally afforded them the least amount of time.

The Ron Moore commentaries for Battlestar Galactica are pretty much a must. He usually starts off by announcing what brand of whiskey he’s imbibing and whether the smoking light is on or off. Because he tends to record them at home – with pop-ins from Mrs Ron – you occasionally get to hear the gardener outside or helicopters passing overhead. Such things might seem a distraction but it actually makes them sound more intimate.

Firefly has a good selection of commentaries from cast and crew. The best bits are usually when Joss Whedon is at the microphone.

Ken Trodd is interesting on the Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective discs where he’s accompanied by the directors Piers Haggard and Jon Amiel respectively. It’s a shame they only do two episodes per drama and not the whole run. Oh, and Poliakoff does good commentaries too.

2Entertain really should get Troy and Michael Wearing together to record commentaries for Edge of Darkness.

Leo said...

The commentary for Stand By Me can easily be recreated by firstly turning down the sound so that it's barely audible and then remaining silent yourself for long periods of time. Occasionally say the name of a lens.

The commentaries for Spaced and SOTD are at least as entertaining as the material they are commenting.

Stuart Perry said...

Good Dog - thanks for a great response- some fantastic stuff there that I haven't heard. Agree about Soderbergh and Mann; and it's about time I watched The Duellists (I know, I know...)

Leo - re: recreating Stand By Me, you also have to say "We used to do that when we were young" every so often! It seems that, sparse as it is, Reiner's comm is shall-we-say unforgettable!

Chris Regan said...

Point Blank has a great commentary with John Boorman chatting about the film with Steven Soderbergh, although I think it might only be available on region 1.

The best I ever heard was on Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows. It's a bad film, but the director knows its bad and is quite happy to discuss why and explain his original intentions making it pretty refreshing.

Good Dog said...

The Duellists also has a half-hour doc where director Kevin Reynolds discusses various aspects/scenes of the film with Ridley Scott, which is just as illuminating as the commentary.

Whether you like his films or not, the DVDs for Scott’s movies usually have pretty damn good documentaries and extras, most of which are produced and directed by Charles de Lauzirika who, in my opinion, makes the best supplementary material. What I like about them is the honesty. Scott’s willing to admit his mistakes and point out where things went wrong (especially when it comes to Legend). If you get the 4-disc DC of Kingdom of Heaven they actually start with the making of Tripoli, which was good to go until the studio got cold feet.

Oh, and The Duellists also includes Scott’s short film Boy and Bicycle, made in (I think) 1965. It rambles on a bit, and obviously there were the various TV episodes he directed along with a couple of thousand commercials between this short and his first feature, but it’s fascinating to see how he started off.

Stuart Perry said...

GD - I'm definitely sold on The Duellists, even though I already have Boy and Bicycle on a short films disc.

Chris - thanks for the recommendations, I will check out to see if the Point Blank is avaialable Region 2. Though I'm not sure I can bring myself to buy Blair Witch 2 though!

Leo said...

In one of those spooky little "Plate O'Shrimp" moments it struck me in relation to this that for sheer entertainment value then This Is Spinal Tap has probably the finest commentary in the history of DVD commentaries.

I was planning on pointing that out here and then this morning discovered that this is imminent

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