Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Good Afternoon, and Good Luck: Making a DVD with George Clooney, Part Two

{Ed. note: If you have not already done so, please read the introduction to this series here, and the first installment here.]

Finding the right balance for a DVD commentary is a matter of both chemistry and mechanics. Director Robert Altman has been re-recoding comments for some of his classic films from the Seventies, including M*A*S*H, Nashville and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. While they are, for the most part, invaluable, for some reason Altman solos on his commentary for M*A*S*H, leaving several five-minute stretches of silence. Leaning too far the other way, American Splendor’s DVD features the movie’s two directors and two stars, alongside Harvey Pekar, whose life the movie is based on, and his wife, for a total of six in the booth. The opportunity for participation becomes so thin that when Pekar’s cell phone rings, he actually takes the call.

Interaction among the commenters is key. The circular studio at New Wave is set up to allow the participants to face each other, to facilitate good conversation. “We built that room from scratch for commentaries,” Lerner says. “In a screening room, everyone’s to your left or right, and you don’t have the same interaction.” Keeping the speakers separated doesn’t seem to work very well. For the Meet the Parents commentary, Ben Stiller and director Jay Roach were in Los Angeles while costar Robert De Niro watched a simultaneously screened version of the film back home in New York. De Niro, who is not exactly Chris Tucker to being with, stubbornly refuses to interact with his colleagues, volunteering almost no information of his own and answering Roach’s pointed questions with little more than grunts. Roach calls it an “anti-commentary.”

“It was so hard to get Bob to talk,” Roach says. “It got to the point that Ben and I were asking questions, like, ‘Bob, didn’t you do theater at one point?’ It was so lame. He’d say, ‘Yeah, yeah, I did some.’ I don’t know what he was doing, but I pictured him taking a nap, or reading the paper. Finally, during the end credits, he goes off on this story about the deer in the corral for The Deer Hunter, and it runs through most of the end credits.”

In De Niro’s defense, it can be hard to come up with fresh material. On the DVD for the first Austin Powers, Mike Myers explicates the craft of comedy. During the scene where a freshly unfrozen Austin urinates for a good two minutes, Myers explains his theory of comedy torture, how if you stretch a joke out far enough, it passes from funny to unfunny, then back to funny again out of sheer brazenness. That track was laid down at a studio in Las Vegas in 1997, when DVDs were still in their infancy and Myers and director Jay Roach thought they were speaking to a tiny audience of comedy geeks.

But by the third film, they’re mostly just talking about how great it was to work with Katie Couric. Roach says it’s not series fatigue but literal fatigue that caused that. “Because the DVD comes out so quickly these days, they really drive you to do them during your post-production period,” Roach says. “And we never get to sleep during the post-production period. We were so beat.” He dreams of rejuvenating the Austin Powers commentaries, perhaps on a box set of all three, with Myers recording a track as Dr. Evil.

Myers didn’t just star in the Austin Powers movies but wrote them as well. Clooney, for his part, has no interest in commenting on films he’s merely acted in; he’s conspicuous by his absence, for example, on Ocean’s Eleven, for which Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Andy Garcia cut a track. “I could see it if a filmmaker wanted me to come in and make jokes or keep it fun,” Clooney says. “But when it comes to filmmaking commentary, I leave it to the filmmaker.”

Some of the best commentaries, however, have come from people who weren’t responsible for making the film, and therefore have the latitude to wander all over the map in their comments. The gold standard remains Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church -- their friendship clearly evident throughout -- trading insults and impossibly baroque allusions over Sideways. “It’s almost like a duel,” says Church, “who can come up with the thing that will make the other guy laugh really hard.” People have even suspected the performance was scripted, but Church claims to have gone in cold and produced his references to Windham Hill and Wallace Beery off the dome. “If you ever spent any time around Paul and I, you’d know that scripts are not required,” Church says.

He says they went into it bleary-eyed, at 10:00 one morning long after the film’s release, fueled solely by coffee and Red Bull. The commentary made such an impression on Giamatti that for a long time afterward, he would leave voice mails for Church laughing over the latter’s description of his character as resembling the Underwood Deviled Ham guy.

The capper, though, was Church referring to costar Virginia Madsen as “bejugged.” “I got to that comment before Paul did,” Church claims. “I don’t know if his descriptive would have been ‘bejugged’; he probably would have gone for something a little more diplomatic.” And was Madsen upset when she heard the comment? “Nah, she actually laughed,” Church says. “She was like, ‘I didn’t think you had even noticed.’”

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