*With the rise of DVD’s in the late 1990’s, one feature many promised with the addition of Special Features, were audio commentaries. These would often contain dialogue from the film’s crew, or even film historians. In this category, I’ll discuss some of the audio commentary tracks that I feel are rather compelling, and end up being entertaining, in regards to the information provided, and what is being said.*
One item that quickly caught my attention with the rise of the DVD, were audio commentaries. However, while some studios went straight to the behind-the-scenes personnel like film directors and writers, someone at Warner Brothers actually had a really great idea when it came to repackaging some of their more ‘classic’ feature films.
One film that had grown to be a classic in their library, was Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
For special features on the film’s DVD, a new documentary had been made, along with pulling together several other items from the archives…but when it came to audio commentary, the studio went the extra mile.
Though unable to secure Gene Wilder (Willy Wonka) or director Mel Stuart, they were able to get the actors who had played the five main kids in the film.
They were Peter Ostrum (Charlie Bucket), Michael Bollner (Augustus Gloop), Julie Dawn Cole (Veruca Salt), Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregarde), and Paris Themmen (Mike TeeVee).
Plus, since the making of the film, it had been 30 years since they had all been in one place together!
The commentary rarely ever gets boring, and there’s a constant exchange of words and memories throughout. I thought I’d share a few of them here, for the film’s 45th anniversary.
What’s funny as the commentary goes on, is hearing that both Denise Nickerson and Julie Dawn Cole, seemed a bit boy-crazy in their early teen days.
Very quickly, it’s mentioned how they had a crush on Peter Ostrum, oftentimes taking turns on who ‘got’ Peter during various days.
Other times, there was talk of how the runner-up would end up with the assistant director’s son, Bobby Rowe.
One fun bit is where the girls try to draw Peter into the conversation about their pre-teen infatuation with him:
Denise Nickerson: Peter, does this just make you blush just thinking that two women were just fighting over you? But we did it so politely, and so civilly, didn’t we?
Julie Dawn Cole: Yeah, we did.
Denise Nickerson: Yeah, we understood, one day was mine, one day was yours (aka Julie’s), it was a good fight.
Peter: Moving right along…
In several portions of the commentary, the actors discuss how the film’s director, Mel Stuart, could often be so exacting, that he would keep pushing and pushing on an actor until the scene was perfect.
Paris Themmen makes note of this in Mike Teevee’s introductory scene, in which he tells the news reporters that his Dad is going to get him a real six-shooter one day.
When Mike’s father proudly replies, “not til’ you’re twelve, son,” Paris shares a behind-the-scenes fact:
Paris Themmen: Ok, great line, one of the big laughs, I’ve seen it in theatres and everybody laughs at that line…it took us at least 45 takes to get him to say that line right.
Denise Nickerson: Oh, my-
Paris Themmen: I’m sorry, I don’t know where the actor is now, I apologize, but, it was a combination of his read and things going wrong with the set and so forth, and, that was the take that just took a lot of takes.
Not quite a type of wart…
For playing such a brat on-screen, Julie Dawn Cole was nothing like her character…in some respects. Though she wasn’t a stuck-up loud-mouth, she somehow managed to keep her everlasting gobstopper, as well as one of the film’s golden eggs (which were not meant to be taken!).
Of course, Julie also had her own ‘trial by fire,’ when it came to Veruca’s golden tresses:
Julie Dawn Cole: It was in the day, 30 years ago, when the main obsession was about split-ends, and every single shampoo product was about curing the split-ends. And we had a German makeup lady, who was obsessed with split-ends. And she used to twist my hair like into a tight rope, and then run a candle down it, and burn the split-ends off. And if you look during the movie, my hair shrinks, because it caught fire, several times!
A fun game is to see if one can see how short Julie’s hair is in certain scenes. The scene where she enters the factory, was her first day of shooting, and the day that it was at its longest.
The Dangers of Chewing Gum
When it came to gum-chewing as Violet Beauregarde, Denise Nickerson was often seen on camera chewing away, before she eventually swelled up into a blueberry for her big scene.
During the commentary, a question arose regarding all that chewing:
Paris Themmen: Did your jaw ever get tired?
Denise Nickerson: I spent two months in the dentist’s chair when I got back.
Paris Themmen: Really?
Denise Nickerson: This was before sugar-less gum, so yes, I did spend a lot of time at the dentist.
Of course, a reminder of her role seeped back into the real world with Denise, when she returned to the US after filming:
Denise Nickerson: So, I’m sitting in my math class two days later in New York City, I went to Rhodes School, I’m on the fifth floor of a brownstone in New York City, and all the kids start looking at me, and pointing at me and snickering you know, and I’m like: “What? What?”
And my girlfriend looked at me and she says, “you’re turning blue!”
Well the makeup had started resurfacing through my pores, and only my neck, my face, and my hands were blue. Ladies room was on the second floor so needless to say that I flew down there, never got asked for a date in that school but uh, what can you do?
Over the years, some child actors are often plucked out of obscurity, bask in the limelight for a bit, and then return to ‘the real world.’ That was the case with Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie Bucket. Though he was offered a multi-picture deal following the film, Peter’s family declined the offer.
Though the other four kids do get in trouble, Charlie was not as innocent as he was in Dahl’s book. Charlie does transgress into being a semi-bad kid when Grandpa Joe (played by Jack Albertson) convinces him they should try the fizzy-lifting drinks, and while he doesn’t meet a horrid demise, Ostrum does tell that the scene was anything-but-pleasant:
Peter Ostrum: Jack (Albertson) and I thought this was going to be great fun-
Julie Dawn Cole: And?
Peter Ostrum: and it wasn’t. We wore these leather, “girdles” is the only way I can describe them and, all your weight, is hanging, right on your crotch. Jack made reference that the music that should be played to this, should be from “The Nutcracker Suite.”
Peter shares quite a few other stories about Jack Albertson, who also showed them some of his old vaudeville routines during the production.
Much like The Wizard of Oz, the film was not a hit upon its release, but through re-releases, television, and home video, the film quickly became a staple in the viewing diets of many young persons.
I wasn’t raised on live-action musicals as a child, though I did see it when I was 4, and then 6 years later when in 4th grade, when most of the class voted to see it as our pre-Christmas movie.
Much like Julie Dawn Cole had to work through her dislike of chocolate (true story!), I slowly came around to the film over the years, though still don’t hold it in quite as high regard as most people out there.
Even so, it isn’t without its charm, and its behind-the-scenes stories about how it was created, still entertain me to this day.
*Note: This ‘Movie Musings’ article is going off the assumption that the reader, has seen the film “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” If you haven’t seen the film and wish to remain spoiler-free, please turn back now.”
In the Summer of 2001, I was eagerly awaiting a film that was said to have been several decades in the making: A.I. Artificial Intelligence. While originally a film that tantalized Stanley Kubrick, he was said to have been unable to imbue his obsession with emotional heart. Who was he to turn to? Steven Spielberg, of course-the man who touched millions of hearts in 1982 with E.T.
Over many years, the two would often talk about the project, an adaptation of the Brian Aldiss short story, Supertoys Last All Summer Long.
However, the two soon reached an impasse. While Kubrick felt Spielberg could do the film justice on an emotional level by directing it, Spielberg felt that Kubrick should direct the project instead, since he had devoted so much time and effort to it.
And then in 1999, Kubrick passed away. Following Kubrick’s death, several members of his family asked Steven if he would consider trying to finish the picture. Spielberg then took the numerous pieces of information that had been done over the years, and crafted a screenplay, (one of his first since Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
Steven largely kept to the outline and information that had been accumulated over the years, but to many who saw the film, there were cries of blasphemy, that he had destroyed a perfectly “Kubrickian” ending.
After David and Teddy use an Amphibicopter to dive down into the remnants of the sunken Coney Island Amusement Park, David finds a statue of the Blue Fairy, from the Pinocchio fairy tale.
Unable to separate fantasy from reality, David believes he has found the one being who can grant his wish: to make him a real boy, and thus allow him to return to the Swintons, and win back Monica’s (aka his Mommy’s) love.
As David asks the Blue Fairy to make him real, the voice of the story’s narrator is heard:
And David continued to pray to the Blue Fairy, there before him. She, who smiled softly, forever. She who welcomed him, forever.
Eventually the flood lights dimmed and died, but David could still see her, pale-y by day, and he still addressed her, in hope.
He prayed until all the sea anemones had shriveled and died.
He prayed as the ocean froze, and the ice encased the caged Amphibicopter and the Blue Fairy too, locking them together where he could still make her out- a blue ghost in ice. Always there. Always smiling. Always awaiting him.
Eventually he never moved at all. But his eyes always stayed open, staring ahead forever all through the darkness of each night. And the next day. And the next day.
This is where some claimed that Kubrick would have ended the film, but as some in the auditoriums that summer began to rise from their seats, the narrator’s voice continued:
Thus…2,000 years passed by.
From here, we were treated to an image of lithe creatures, flying around in cube-constructed vehicles, cutting into the ice covering the Earth. The original proclamation by many was to assume that these were aliens (making several flash-back to the thin-limbed creatures in Close Encounters). However, they are actually Future Mecha- the evolution of artificial intelligence, having outlived their creators. The most obvious reason for their lithe form is that they retain a certain resemblance to their creators (a head, a body, and 4 limbs), but they have no use for human features like hair, eyes, or internal organs. Word was that Kubrick originally envisioned them with a leathery texture, but here, their translucent forms, make them look like an exaggerated iMac version of the human form.
Eventually, a group of Future Mecha find David and Teddy in the amphibicopter. After restoring power to David, they then scan his mind, and begin to analyze his memories. Much like human beings searching for information about ‘the ones who created them,’ the Future Mecha here are excavating into the ice, looking for more information on their own creators. With David, they have an amazing find: a mecha ancestor, who actually lived among humans!
Using his memories, the Future Mecha create a replica of the Swinton home. David can’t comprehend the difference between his memories and the fabricated world, and assumes that he and Teddy have ‘come home.’ Running around looking for Monica, David comes across The Blue Fairy in another room.
David once again asks to be made real, but the Blue Fairy claims she cannot do this. Eventually, we see several of the Future Mecha examining this scene. It soon becomes obvious that they are controlling the image of the Blue Fairy.
David asks where Monica is, but is informed that it’s been 2,000 years since she was alive. The Blue Fairy then claims that other humans can be brought back to interact with him, but because of his imprinting, David only wants Monica.
The Blue Fairy claims that only through the use of human tissue or hair, can they bring people back. Luckily, Teddy is there, and reveals to David how he saved some of Monica’s hair (from an incident earlier in the film). David offers the hair to the Blue Fairy, claiming that now, she can bring Monica back.
In the room with the Future Mecha, one of them speaks in English, and we hear the voice of the narrator: “Give him what he wants.”
David is then returned to his room in the false-home. When a knock comes at the door, David eagerly assumes it’s Monica, but finds it is one of the Future Mecha, who is designated as The Specialist (in the credits, and voiced by Sir Ben Kingsley).
Sitting down with David, the Specialist expounds on his race’s fascination and search to understand more about their creators.
The Specialist claims they attempted to recreate humans from pieces of bone or skin, but also attempted to try and see if they could bring back human memories, which would surely help them understand more about their creators.
However, their attempts proved futile, as the longest any creation lived, was less than a day…and once a person had been brought back once, it could never happen again.
“David, you are the enduring memory of the human race,” explains the Specialist. “The most lasting proof of their genius. We only want for your happiness, David. You’ve had so little of that.
Even in explaining what bringing Monica back will mean (only a single day with her), David will not be deterred.
“If you want for my happiness,” he says, “then you know what you have to do.”
And with that, the sky outside lightens, as ‘a new day’ comes. The Specialist then tells David that Monica is just waking up, and David finds her in the main bedroom.
Monica then greets David with a smile, and he quickly offers to make her some coffee, as the day begins.
Throughout the day, David is all smiles, as he and his Mommy do all sorts of things. There is no mention of Monica’s husband Henry, or her son Martin. As the narrator says, “There was just David.”
Eventually, the day draws to a close, and David returns Monica to the bedroom. As she settles down to sleep, she remarks on the ‘beautiful day,’ before drawing David in close, and telling him:
And with those final words, Monica goes to sleep…one from which she will never awaken.
David soon goes to ‘sleep’ as well, the reciprocation of Monica’s love, the fulfillment of his very existence.
What many moviegoers who felt the ending was cliche fail to realize, is that this ending brings the film full-circle. Throughout much of the film, circles are a motif we see in a number of areas and designs.
In the beginning, David was created as a placebo for those unable to have children, or those who needed something in order to ‘move on.’ When David was living with the Swinton’s, Monica was never fully able to accept David, because he wasn’t real. He acted more as a stand-in to her son Martin, until he recovered.
Eventually, Monica decided to take the next step, and “imprint” on David. This allowed him to ‘love’ her unconditionally, as per the parameters in his program, but it was like a hardwired bond that could never be broken. If Monica ever decided she didn’t want David, he would need to be returned to Cybertronics, to be destroyed. Though he looked human, he really was nothing more than a ‘super-toy’ like Teddy, meant for a specific purpose.
2,000 years into the future, mecha have supplanted humans as the dominant species. And, in a turn-about way, we find that the machines of the future, have the ability to create humans. However, the process to create and preserve human life, is still a mystery that they are unable to resolve.
In the case of the film’s finale, it is Monica who has been created to fill a void for David. However, while many assume this is a schmaltzy happy ending by way of an overly touchy-feely Spielberg, digging deeper into the ending scenes, shows otherwise.
A Beautiful Day, A Beautiful Lie
Though many assume that David’s final day with Monica is a beautiful thing, one has to figure it is little more than a beautiful lie.
The Monica David spends the day with, is very different from the one we see at the beginning of the film.
She never questions where her husband Henry, and ‘real’ son Martin have gone. At one point, she questions the day, and simply accepts David’s answer: “it is…today!”
For much of the day, Monica is all smiles, though a questionable expression, comes when David shows Monica a number of finger-paintings, as he explains about his journey.
It’s a look that almost harkens back to the the rather placid eyes of David’s when he was first brought into the Swinton household, leading me to believe that this Monica was recreated moreso from David’s memories.
One assumes that the Specialist and his kin, must have rooted around in David’s ‘brain,’ and found situations that seemed to bring happiness, and from that, designed a day, that would recreate those moments, but on a whole other level.
Like in the beginning, there are games of hide and seek, and a Birthday party. Though the game is more of fun than awkwardness this time, and the party is for David, not for Martin.
During the events, some may even question just “where” David and Teddy are when this happens. My feelings are that it is the equivalent of a neural highway/internet configuration that the future mecha have created. We see they can transmit imagery and such without cables or wires in one scene, so most likely, David and Teddy’s “brains” have been transmitted into it for the final part of the story.
Plus, in the simulated world the Future Mecha have created, almost anything seems possible. Notable is that in this world, David seems more alive than before. For example, we see him shed tears, which he never did in the real world.
Of course, sadness of the lie comes at the end, when the figure of Monica, tells David that she loves him. The real Monica could never bring herself to utter these words to David, but this one can say it willingly enough, that David is placated into thinking that his cherished wish has come true…when in truth, he is really on a dead, frozen planet, being placated by his more advanced descendants.
Thoughts on the Future Mecha
The Future Mecha also show how the creations, have evolved beyond their creators.
In the past, Gigolo Joe explained to David that even though they were living among the humans, and did numerous things for them, they were hated and oppressed by their creators (as we see in a number of sequences).
“They made us too smart, too quick, and too many,” Joe explained to David. “We are paying for the mistakes they made because when the end comes, all that will be left, is us!”
David himself, is an important link in the evolutionary chain of mecha. Before his creation, robots were programmed what to think and do, but as seen in David’s quest, he is the one who “chooses” to seek out the Blue Fairy. This seemed more like a ‘baby step’ in mecha evolution though, because David was unable to think and reason beyond his simple program to love Monica. He couldn’t live beyond that main piece of his programming, and as we see when the Future Mecha try to bargain with him to consider other ways to view him interacting with humans, he never wavers from wanting to see her again.
Of course, one has to wonder how this affected the Future Mecha. They were most likely able to extract information from David’s memories, but were probably saddened that they were unable to interact with him on a more investigative level.
David would probably be seen as a God to them, considering he was alive when their creators roamed the Earth. His interaction with humans 2,000 years ago, makes him at this point in history, the most ‘human’ thing left on the planet.
When one backtracks to the beginning of the film, it is the voice of the Specialist we hear, first narrating over an image of a roiling ocean.The film has an often cold sterility to how some characters act, let alone the coloration of some scenes being slightly muted at times.
If one looks at the film overall, it could be seen as a possible extrapolation of information the Future Mecha have gleaned from David, and what they have unearthed about the past. Given the Specialist’s voice is heard in a narrative capacity 3 times, it stands to reason that maybe he is relaying this story as some form of history lesson, on the evolution of the mecha ‘species.’
This can also make sense, as the story largely is about David’s creation, birth, life, and eventually, death.
There is a certain ‘sterility’ throughout the film as well, almost like affection and emotions, are kept at arm’s length from us. Even in the color palette in some of the environments are not as bright as we would expect…making one wonder, since the Future Mecha are unable to fully have as strong of emotions as their human creators (are they even imbued with a soul?), maybe that sterility and uneasiness of trying to channel emotions into the story, is a little ‘wonky’ to them.
Though one has to also wonder, if these Future Mecha see human beings as their creator, do they also subscribe to the man-made theory/thought process of a Supreme Being, or has limited knowledge and information in the future, truly supplanted such notions, and moved humanity to the top of that Divine Plane?
While it isn’t one of my Top 5 films by Steven Spielberg, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is one of those films that has managed to sit in the back of my head, and bubble to the surface every once-in-awhile with its subject matter.
The concept of the creation of artificial life, as well as human acceptance, is something that has often fascinated me, maybe in some capacity, because of studying animation, which some have called, “The Illusion of Life.”
During the summer of 2001, I was part of a Spielberg-related chatroom, and for the rest of the summer, I and many others, would trade discussion back-and-forth on the film, and what we felt certain elements stood for. Other Spielberg topics languished, as the A.I. board quickly rose to 10,000 posts and beyond. No stone was too small to overturn, as we searched for symbolism, the meaning to the end, as well as created fan-fiction to fill in the holes we saw.
Much like how Titanic brought me to a community to discuss my thoughts in 1998, A.I. Artificial Intelligence did so 4 years later, in a new capacity. Even watching the film 15 years later, there are still new things I am finding out.
Feature Review: Finding Dory (Rated PG for mild thematic elements)
When it comes to the wild world of animated sequels, Pixar Animation Studios has been reluctant to saturate the marketplace. Their general consensus has been, that a sequel will not be made, unless they feel there’s a proper story to be told.
Up until 2010, Toy Story had been the only film of theirs that had multiple sequels (and a fourth Toy Story film is on the way for next fall) Since then, the company has made continuations to its films like Cars, Monsters Inc, and now, a pseudo-sequel to Finding Nemo, called Finding Dory.
It’s been more than a year since the events of the first film, and in that time, Dory has come to be a close family friend to Marlin, Nemo, and their friends along the reef.
As she goes about her days, Dory suddenly finds certain things jogging her memory, and she slowly begins to recall things about her parents, leading her to want to find them.
Reluctantly, Marlin and Nemo agree to accompany her, on a journey that ends up leading them to the Marine Life Institute in California.
Personally, I never felt we needed to add more to the story of Marlin, Nemo, and Dory. However, at the 2013 D23 Expo in Anaheim, writer/director Andrew Stanton claimed that the spark for the sequel, was based on a line of Dory’s from the first film:
“It runs in my family! At least, I think it does…hm…where are they?”
Much like how Cars 2 took Mater the tow truck out of a supporting role and thrust him into the spotlight, Dory has the same done with her in this film.
Marlin and Nemo are largely along for the ride, but off doing their own thing for much of the picture (my biggest concern: Marlin has conquered some of his fears since the first film, but he still brings his son on a possibly dangerous journey?). Because of this, Nemo ends up serving as a substitute Dory to Marlin for a few occasions.
Ellen DeGeneres stated many times how she would love to voice Dory again, and with this film, she got that wish in spades. While Dory does have her moments here or there that elicited some rolling laughter through the auditorium I was in, there were times I longed for when she served more as a supporting fish. Given the extent of her short-term memory loss in the film, there were several times I was unsure if what I was observing, was actually meant to be funny.
To its credit, Dory manages to not be a rehash of the first film, and even avoids stuffing itself (too) full of unnecessary cameos.
We meet quite a few new characters at the Marine Life Institute, with the most notable being an octopus, named Hank (played by Al Bundy himself, Ed O’Neill).
Hank is quite an enigma for the show. With his big blue eyes shifting from side-to-side and his ability to camouflage, you’re not quite sure whose side he’s on. He also serves as a character we’ve seen in quite a few of Pixar‘s recent prequel/sequels, in that he’s one that shows how far technology has come since the first film.
The Institute is also an intriguing new world to explore (though it can’t compete with the visual spectacle of the open ocean). Given that Marlin went all over the ocean looking for Nemo in the first film, the Institute serves as a nice change of scenery, if a bit claustrophobic at times. We meet quite a few new types of fish and animals along the way, which will surely delight those who are into marine life.
One of the fun things Pixar often does, is try to take some things you might see as normal, but taken in a different perspective, becomes something else. For example, a touch pool in the Institute, quickly becomes a ‘hall of horrors’ when seen from the perspective of the sea life under the water.
Though I’m sure it will entertain the little ones and provide a few laughs, it definitely feels like Finding Dory will not be as memorable as Finding Nemo (though it might be more profitable).
Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane, and the staff at Pixar definitely don’t skimp on the effort, but the film just isn’t as strong of a continuation as that zenith of Pixar sequels, Toy Story 2.
While it is good that we didn’t get sent on another clownfish hunt, Dory’s quest almost feels like what happens to Mater in Cars 2, mixed in with some of the ‘historical revisionism’ of Monsters University.
That isn’t to say that the film won’t get you emotional (I dare anyone to not find sympathy for memories of Dory when she was a little fish), but it just doesn’t grab hold of the heart, and tug in ways like I was hoping.
Even Thomas Newman’s return to scoring Nemo’s sequel, failed to leave an impression on me. I kept waiting for a central theme to rise up and solidify in my eardrums (like the track “Nemo Egg” from the first film), but nothing came forward.
Pixar and its cast give Finding Dory the ol’ college try, but in the end, it just doesn’t reach the emotional heights we’ve come to expect from films like Toy Story 3, and Inside Out in the last 6 years. While it will be highly profitable in the end, I can’t help but feel that Andrew Stanton, who crafted the first film, was largely hard-lined into making this film for Disney, as a consolation for the lackluster box-office take of his last Disney film, John Carter.
One last thing: If you see the film, stay through the end credits.
Short Review: Piper (Rated G)
Accompanying Finding Dory, is the animated short, Piper. In it, a young sandpiper is encouraged by its parent to find sustenance on a nearby beach, but the little one soon finds herself terrified of the crashing surf after a harrowing incident.
Piper‘s animation style is a few steps beyond Dory, and feels like it’s trying for hyper-realism like in the PIXAR short, The Blue Umbrella.
However, unlike Umbrella, Piper‘s story works in a much better way.
While the hyper-realism of Umbrella’s cityscape seemed to distract away from that rather simple love story, the hyper-realism of a nondescript beach area, manages to keep us at rapt attention, while also keeping us focusing on the little sandpiper and the other creatures around her.
Sure, the little sandpiper bird is cute, but it’s in how the animators play out her emotions at times, that really makes us warm to her.
The beach Piper lives on, is also a wonder, with the waves washing onto the shore, the myriad particles of sand grain, the environment could have easily distracted me from the story (which was what happened when I saw Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur), but the focus on Piper and her journey soon won my attention.
Piper has no dialogue, leaving the entire short to be dependent on body language, which is handled quite well. Some of the best shorts Pixar has done have been ‘silent,’ and it is often these kinds of shorts that I relish. Animation doesn’t have to be about a lot of sound and noise, but can often just be about trying to follow a character, as your brain deciphers what is happening.
At only 6 minutes long, Piper is probably one of the most satisfying Pixar shorts I have seen on the big screen, since 2010’s Day and Night.
Final Grade for “Finding Dory”: B (Final Thoughts: The sequel to one of Pixar’s most famous films attempts to prove that it can be a decent successor to its 2003 counterpart, but fails to feel like a satisfying tug at the heartstrings. Dory takes center-stage for much of the film, but her adventures through the Marine Life Institute, makes me long for the days when her supporting nuggets of wisdom and observation in “Finding Nemo,” made her one of that film’s most memorable characters)
Final Grade for “Piper”: A- (Final Thoughts: Pixar’s hyper-real animated tale of a curious little sandpiper, manages to play cute with its story, along with actually wrapping us up in its lead’s situations, while also keeping our eyes alight over the advancements in the company’s environmental technology)
Once upon a time, making-of specials and documentaries, were incredibly “thick” with material.
You’d get people to sit down and reminisce, often coming up with the most amazing stories from the production they were thinking back on. All of a sudden, an incident that hadn’t been thought of in years would resurface, or the meaning behind a particular scene, would become clearer. To me, I ate up many of these documentaries like Reeses Pieces.
However, in more recent years, making-of specials have become flash-in-the-pan. They are often whittled down to 20-30 minutes, usually with the briefest of ‘talking heads’ from the crew, and more time given over to the cast.
Though when it comes to many of the making-of films I’ve seen, one name often comes up: Laurent Bouzereau
Bouzereau is one of the most well-known film documentarians around, with a major focus on the works of both Alfred Hitchcock, and Steven Spielberg.
His association with Spielberg largely began in the 1990’s, when he produced and directed a number of retrospective/making-of documentaries for the laserdisc-format.
Several that stand out from that time, include his making-of special for Jaws (which clocks in at almost 2 hours!), and his retrospective on Spielberg’s 1941.
In 1996, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial was released on laserdisc, and as an added feature, a 1 1/2 hour documentary by Bouzereau was included.
With the documentary’s 20th anniversary upon us this year, I couldn’t help but share some of my thoughts on one of the best ‘lost documentaries’ that you surely have never heard of (I mean, how many of us even HAD a laserdisc player growing up!?).
In The Beginning…
What many don’t know, is that E.T. originally started out as another project by Spielberg. A darker humans-meet-aliens story, called Night Skies.
Producer Kathleen Kennedy (left) shares a story about how Spielberg requested she research an incident where a farm family was terrorized by extra-terrestrials (sounding similar to one scene in Close Encounters), and use that as the basis for the film.
Also of interest, was Kennedy seeing a film called The Return of the Secaucus Seven, and requesting that its writer/director John Sayles, write a draft for this film…though 14 years later, she couldn’t recall just why she felt Sayles was the perfect fit for the project.
However, upon reviewing the first draft of Night Skies that Sayles wrote, Steven found it wasn’t quite where he wanted to go, and dropped the dark angle, soon after starting over with something simpler.
Steven also called a halt to the alien development, which was originally being handled by physical effects maestro, Rick Baker!
Recently, Baker did release some images of just what the Night Skies alien development was, before Spielberg decided to look elsewhere. As one can see in the image below, the creatures were definitely going in a different direction.
Though in going over the information, it almost feels like that “terrorized family” aspect that had originally intrigued Spielberg, ended up going into another 1982 release that he produced (and wrote), called Poltergeist.
Opening up with E.T’s Screenwriter
One of the often unsung heroes of E.T., is screenwriter Melissa Mathison.
One film that Spielberg had loved was The Black Stallion, which Mathison had also written. Once he had the framework for his ‘boy and his alien’ story, he asked her to work on fleshing out the rest of it.
In the early 1980’s, Mathison was married to Harrison Ford, and she claims she drew some inspiration from Ford’s son and his friends, for the Dungeons and Dragons game scenes in the film.
She also revealed something startling in part of her interview. When researching how to form E.T. as a character, she would poll random children for ideas, and found something consistent with a few of them:
“I was struck by the fact that several of them mentioned, that they would like, if this magical creature came into their life, they would like him to be able to ‘heal.’ And I thought it was such an incredibly poignant idea to come from a child. And they weren’t talking about ‘save someone’s life’ by healing, they were talking about, ‘take the owies away.'”
It definitely is something unconventional when it comes to aliens. One would most likely expect lasers or cool spaceships, but a healing factor was not something I don’t think an average adult would ever consider.
Unlike Sayles’ Night Skies first draft, Mathison’s first draft for E.T. so impressed Steven, that he claimed that he could have started shooting it the next day. Over the years, he would often claim it to be the best first draft he ever read.
Mathison also worked with Spielberg again in the last few years, when she was involved with the screenplay for Spielberg’s upcoming adaptation, of Roald Dahl’s book, The Big Friendly Giant.
Sadly, she passed away last year at the age of 65, but one has to wonder what her final screenplay with Spielberg will bring, when his latest film is released.
Chatting with the Cast
The documentary also gets the chance to talk with the main human cast of the film. They include Henry Thomas (Elliot) Drew Barrymore (Gertie), Robert MacNaughton (Michael), Dee Wallace Stone (Mary, the kids’ mother), and Peter Coyote (known only as “Keys” in the film, because of the ring of them on his belt loop).
There are some fun background facts about some of the actors. Peter Coyote tells of his embarrassing audition for Indiana Jones (he was auditioning for the lead), in which he tripped over his feet and knocked over a lamp. He lost the role, but his clumsiness stuck with Steven, who called on Peter for the role of Keys.
Of those that are speaking, it is Thomas and Barrymore who get the most time.
Thomas shares quite a few insights into production, including his audition, in which he ad-libbed trying to keep a government agent from taking away his alien friend. The whole clip is included on the documentary, including Spielberg’s words off-camera a few seconds after the conversation ends, going: “Ok kid, you got the part!”
Drew also mentions how she originally auditioned for the Carol Anne role in Poltergeist, but Spielberg claimed she wasn’t right for it. Instead, her ability to spin all sorts of crazy stories (she told him she was going to tour with a punk-rock band), led him to cast her for the role of Gertie.
Unlike most films, E.T. was shot in the order of the shots as we see on film, which allowed the kids to find E.T. and grow to understand him, in the same vein as what we see on-screen. This meant that by the time they got to the big scene where E.T. is sick and dying, the emotions were genuine (and, to which Spielberg mentions, many of those shots were got on the first take).
Being Candid with Steven Spielberg
I don’t know what it is about Laurent Bouzereau, but he seems to have a way of just putting Spielberg into such a relaxed state of talking, that Steven just opens up in some of the most surprising ways.
There are a few times where Steven gets so excited thinking of something, that he almost works himself into a frenzy.
Notable is one scene in which E.T. is eating some watermelon, and his left hand (performed by an off-camera mime named Caprice Rothe), reaches for a seed that has stuck to his face, and casually plucks it off. The discussion then lead into this:
“I mean, who would have thought of that, except someone who is really in touch with human behavior? And she really had a great understanding of the way the human body moves and what we do with our hands and our bodies. It’s just a tiny moment people don’t ever recognize in the movie, but I’m really proud of what she brought to that scene, just by taking a little piece of food off the lip-brought E.T. to life, like that! He was alive in that moment, completely alive! Nobody was running him. There were no wires, there were no servo motors going, that was really someone from somewhere else.”
Steven also reveals how he would often voice E.T. off -camera, and we see him in one behind-the-scenes clip, hunched off-camera doing a high-pitched voice, feeding Henry Thomas E.T.’s lines.
Supposedly, Thomas got so used to hearing Steven saying the lines, that after seeing the film at its premiere, he could still hear Steven’s voice in his head!
The bit where Spielberg discusses this is also memorable, because he even starts trying to mimic E.T.’s voice to Laurent (off-camera) during the interview.
Of Missing Scenes, and Sequels
What is most thrilling about the making-of special, is that there are actual clips from scenes that we’ve seen still pictures of, or may have been referenced in some of the film’s storybooks, but never seen in motion.
One of the most famously talked of, is when Elliot is taken to the Principal’s office after freeing the frogs in his science class. The unseen Principal, is actually Harrison Ford (and in one interview, Thomas tells how amazed he was to be in the presence of Han Solo).
There was even an alternate ending to the film, than what we know now.
The alternate ending, shows Elliot playing Dungeons and Dragons with Michael and his friends. However, unlike the earlier scene where Elliot is shunned, he is the Dungeon Master of the game, and as we pan up from the group of boys playing, we see on the roof of the house, the communications device E.T. used, possibly foreshadowing that the two may meet again.
Word was that after seeing the film cut with the goodbye scene in the woods, it was felt that that scene said all that needed to be said about the parting of the two friends.
There was even some discussion about a sequel for a bit, but eventually, it was decided to drop any thoughts of one. Kathleen Kennedy tells how the feeling was that it would “cheapen the film and its experience” for the audience.
As Spielberg states:
“I never made a sequel to E.T., because I can’t ever make an E.T. movie as good as what I did. I would only shame the memory. I would only show people ‘the flaws.’ E.T. isn’t a ‘mechanical cottage industry,’ that invites further adventures of E.T. and other kids on the planet Earth. It is a one-time event, and to do two or three or four movies based on that one character, is creating a franchise, that I didn’t frankly think was the honest and right thing to do.”
Probably the closest we ever got to an E.T. sequel, was the Spieberg-endorsed The E.T. Adventure, which was a fixture in all of the Universal Studios theme parks for awhile.
In the ride, guests would ride bicycles to help E.T. get home, where his healing touch would help save his dying homeworld.
The ride was very much in the same vein as the Peter Pan’s Flight attraction at Disneyland, with the ride vehicles suspended on an overhead track, giving the illusion that you are soon flying over a cityscape, and onto E.T.’s homeplanet.
Even though the film was touted for its effects work, it feels that much like Back to the Future and The Goonies, it is the characters and the story that take more precedence.
The documentary also gives plenty of shout-outs to the crew who built E.T., as well as the various little persons and others who helped bring him to life.
There is talk about the attempts to make E.T. seem believable, but also having to deal with the limitations of the animatronic technology of the time.
Also of note, is a small interview with Ralph McQuarrie, who was a major design influence on Star Wars.
McQuarrie was commissioned to design E.T.’s spaceship, whose design was a Jules Verne-inspired ship, with squat little landing legs coming out from its ‘body,’ almost making it resemble E.T. in a way.
A Word of Warning
When the film was done, word was that Spielberg later regretted scenes at the end, in which as the government agents attempt to stop Elliot and the other boys from escaping, they do so while brandishing firearms.
On-camera, Spielberg mentions how if the film is ever re-released, he intends to use computer technology to “fix” those scenes.
6 years later, he was true to his word when a Special Edition of E.T. was released, with the guns being replaced by walkie-talkies.
The Special Edition of the film received the same amount of flack that was directed at George Lucas for his Star Wars Special Editions. Though unlike those films, when E.T. came to DVD in the fall of 2002, it also contained a disc with the original cut. 10 years later for the film’s 30th anniversary (feeling old yet?), the Special Edition cut was nowhere to be found.
I originally saw the documentary in 10 parts on Youtube, before copyright claims ended up making the person take them down. It has recently resurfaced cut into two pieces, though with some missing pieces here-and-there, making some of the conversations severely disjointed in places.
Unlike the full 2-hour Making of Jaws piece that was included on that film’s recent Blu-Ray release, The Making of E.T. has never been re-released since its 1996 premiere on the E.T. laserdisc release.
Several snippets of commentary were included in a small book included in the 2002 DVD’s special edition boxset release, but it just doesn’t feel the same as Laurent’s documentary.
He has a way of painting his making-of pieces with the kind of informative format that just keeps me coming back to watch them over-and-over again. Then again, I have been one of the weirder persons who craved stuff like this (I’m also the guy who hopes for audio commentaries on Blu-Ray releases these days, even though that practice is pretty much dead).
If you’d like to know more about Laurent Bouzereau, and the other works he’s done, you can find out more at his website, Nedlandmedia.com