I think for many people, there are some films they saw in theaters, that just make them unable to forget ‘their first time.’
I was not of age to see Star Wars when it was released in 1977, but a decade later, there was one film I saw on the big-screen, that just blew my 8-year-old mind.
At the time, Who Framed Roger Rabbit’s creation was a risky venture between Walt Disney Pictures and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company, that combined animated characters within a live-action film-noir story.
The production was a neverending headache for director Robert Zemeckis. Having just come off of the whirlwind production of Back to the Future, Roger would be a production that would take several years, and be made in a number of different locales around the world.
When it was all over, many breathed a sigh of relief when the film came out in 1988, and became one of that year’s biggest hits.
Growing up, I was often on the lookout for anything associated with the film’s production. While a making-of book was never released, there were some other items that filled me in. From a making-of article in the special effects magazine Cinefex, to the DVD release in 2003. This release not only gave images and a making-of special, but something I am always game for: an audio commentary!
The commentary featured Robert Zemeckis (director), Frank Marshall (producer), Steve Starkey (associate producer), Jeff Price (screenwriter), Peter Seaman (screenwriter), and Ken Ralston (the film’s visual effects supervisor). Each of the men in the special audio track, talks about their experience on the film, and given the film is over 30 years old this year, I thought I’d highlight a few of the things they talked about.
Though it isn’t a facet of all of his films, director Robert Zemeckis seems to enjoy playing around in the past, and sometimes having his film’s characters influence what was happening, or encounter past historical events.
His debut film I Wanna Hold Your Hand had a number of fictional teen characters trying to see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For the film 1941 (which he and his friend Bob Gale wrote for Steven Spielberg), their fictional characters encountered real-life figures in a panic on the streets of Los Angeles.
Some may assume the encounter with animated characters in 1947 Hollywood was the big connection to the past, but buried within the film, was a connection to a real-life event that affected the city of Los Angeles’ transportation system:
Peter Seaman: Actually, the Red Car (Trolley) part of the movie came from-I don’t know if you remember Bob (Zemeckis), but a meeting with you and (Steven) Spielberg. Jeff (Price) and I were in there, and Spielberg said there was no reason to make this movie just to match animation/live-action. There had to be a real story so, we came up with the Red Car plot, which is a real one, where the tire companies and auto companies conspired to get rid of the trolley cars in Los Angeles, because the car was the future.
Robert Zemeckis: That’s right, and all the freeways in Los Angeles run right along the same routes as the Red Car tracks.
When it comes to the film’s plot, most people remember Judge Doom’s plan to destroy Toontown so he could open up new land for a freeway and commercial growth, but the Red Car plot almost gets buried within the film.
It’s briefly mentioned in regards to the Cloverleaf Industries billboard (the company Doom owns) being hoisted above the Red Car depot across from Eddie’s office, to the judge admitting to Valiant that he purchased the trolley system, to ‘dismantle it.’
To some that saw the film, there probably was some confusion over it’s title. It seemed to be asking a question, and yet the title did not have a proper punctuation mark at the end.
Naturally, one of the filmmakers brought this up in conversation.
Steve Starkey: Why was there no question mark after the title of this movie, Bob (Zemeckis)?
Robert Zemeckis: Because everyone said that you don’t put question marks at-I mean, we looked at it. Yeah, it didn’t look right.
Peter Seaman: That was the most-asked question in our press interview.
Robert Zemeckis: Yeah, interesting.
Peter Seaman: Made ‘us’ look bad…”the writers.”
Seaman is only joking of course. Throughout the commentary, the writers and the production crew have plenty of laughs together, and this bit gave them a chuckle.
Like some comedians doing stand-up, the film had a number of jokes and gags that just flew over the heads of the viewers.
In one scene, Eddie tells his girlfriend Dolores to go downtown, and check on the probate regarding Marvin Acme’s will. Co-writers Price and Seaman actually found a crazy way to give the explanation, a little life:
Peter Seaman: Here was the ‘semi-splainer’ scene where we had to describe the probate of the will and all that stuff. It was really dry and everything, so, we were just joking around in the office, and Steven Spielberg was in the office with us.
And he said, “Yeah, you got to explain that probate so people understand it.”
So, that’s when we said, “well, how about we say, ‘yeah, probate, my Uncle Thumper used to take big pills for his probate.’ ‘No, prostate, you idiot!'”
We were just joking around, but he said, “No, you gotta put that in the movie!”
While the joke gave Spielberg a good laugh, it got just a few chuckles at the film’s premiere. However, co-writer Jeff Price laughs on the commentary, claiming that now that everyone who saw the film has gotten older, they’d probably understand it better.
When the film wasn’t being about Eddie Valiant trying to clear Roger’s name, it would often get very rowdy and very noisy, given the toons and what they were doing.
Much of the film showed Valiant being very annoyed with Roger’s antics, with only a scant few moments where the rabbit seemed willing to slow down, and be a little more serious.
One such moment came right after the madcap chase in Benny the Cab, where Roger and Eddie hide out in a movie theater:
Robert Zemeckis: Now this is-I think this is just really great lighting, on the toon here. This is great, and great animation and-Simon Wells animated this and I think, if I’m not mistaken, it’s the longest continuous animation scene in the movie. This shot here with Roger, and what’s nice about the animation in this is it’s just so subtle, and restrained-
Frank Marshall: And always ‘alive.’
Robert Zemeckis: And alive, yeah.
Ken Ralston: Remember this-Steven Spielberg came in and said, “I don’t care what you have to do, stop the movie if you have to, but put the rabbit and the detective in the same scene, and let them talk to each other.”
It’s notable that Zemeckis shoots this scene all in one long take, pushing in on Eddie as he tells Roger what happened to his brother, Teddy Valiant.
This is often a signature of Zemeckis’ directing, where he will often do a long camera-take, without cutting away. One can see this in the opening scene of Back to the Future, when the camera shows us all of Doc Brown’s garage-laboratory, without cutting away.
Looking back at Zemeckis’ filmography, one can see that in several of his works, he likes to mash together a number of genres. This was notably with Back to the Future, given it wasn’t just a science fiction film, but a comedy, a drama, and much more.
Near the end of the film as the commentators watch a complex scene, Zemeckis sums up just what he and the film crew were up against in putting the film together:
Robert Zemeckis: It’s three gigantic movies in one. You had a 48-minute animation movie which is, just a little under what an animated feature runs. You had a live-action period movie, with giant stunts and giant sets and vehicles and guns and all that stuff, and you had this huge special effects movie where there were, 1500 composite shots.
This same sentiment of combining things is mentioned throughout the commentary. Another notable moment is in regards to Alan Silvestri’s score, which managed to be a mixture of period-piece film noir musical cues, and the kind of crazy music as seen in animated cartoons of the time. Oftentimes, the tempo changes of the music would be too much for the film’s orchestra.
The commentary at times does have a lot of people talking over each other, but the information gleaned from it is still something I enjoy coming back to.
Notable are some areas where the commentators discuss a number of ideas that came up during production, that were ultimately dropped.
At one point, Baby Herman was considered to be the bad guy, and another time, Judge Doom was to have an animated pet vulture (named Voltaire), that was dropped when the filmmakers had to make cuts due to time and money.
The fact that Voltaire was part of the early drafts, could explain why when a line of Roger Rabbit “bendy” figures were released in 1988, Doom came with a vulture in his packaging.
There is even talk about the first, early test-screening of the film. Because much of the film was unfinished at the time, and since the audience had no clue just how the film was supposed to ‘work,’ the test-screening ended horribly.
Of course, looking back on the film all these years later, Roger Rabbit is still surprisingly well-done, given the time-crunch and mad dash to finish it. It ended up being director Robert Zemeckis’ third hit in a row (following Romancing the Stone and Back to the Future), and paved the way for a few Roger Rabbit cartoon shorts. However, licensing snafus between Disney and Amblin Entertainment (Spielberg’s production company) soon sidelined Roger’s career. Talk of a sequel or prequel has come up over the years (and test-footage of a CG-animation test was leaked some time ago), but it seems that it will forever be a remnant from our past.
However, bits of the film are still alive in the Disney theme parks. Several of the film’s props are still sitting around Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World, and on special occasions, Roger (and sometimes Jessica) can be seen in the various theme parks as meet-and-greet characters. Plus, the film’s characters live on in Roger Rabbit’s Car-toon Spin, a “dark ride” attraction located in Mickey’s Toontown at Disneyland.
In the thirty years since the film was released, we’ve seen a number of live-action/animation films like Cool World and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, attempt to do what Robert Zemeckis’ film did. However, none of the attempts I’ve seen, even comes close to topping Roger. Today, it would be ‘easy’ to make a film like this, but the blood, sweat and tears that went into making that 1988 film, helps make it a true work of art in my opinion.
*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.*
When the Walt Disney Studios began to put their films onto the DVD format starting in the late 1990’s, they realized that they had a big chance to show more, AND talk more, about the filmmaking process. The Digital Video Disc format, was a more compact, and less-expensive item for film aficionados, in place of the more costly laserdisc format.
Starting in 2001, the studio announced their Platinum Collection, which would take a number of the studio’s most popular titles, and give these releases the super-deluxe treatment.
Beauty and the Beast was the second Platinum release, and in October of 2002, I eagerly purchased it, and dove into the numerous features it had to offer.
Most notable to me, was the audio commentary track that was included. Sitting down to talk about the film, were co-directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, producer Don Hahn, and composer Alan Menken.
There’s plenty of material that is discussed, and I thought I’d share a few highlights, given the film came out 25 years ago this winter.
Uncertainty over a Song
Throughout the audio commentary, much praise is given to lyricist Howard Ashman, and composer Alan Menken, whose musical work feels like the connective tissue, binding this animated fairy tale together.
Alan was brought in as a ‘special guest’ on the audio commentary, and gives plenty of insight regarding the different songs.
To many of us, the opening to the film seems picture-perfect with the song titled Belle, in which we are introduced to our heroine, and the provincial town she and her father call home. However, there were some trepidations in the beginning:
Alan Menken: When Howard (Ashman) and I began working on Beauty and the Beast, the first song we wrote, Belle-was the first one. And he (Howard) said, “Oh my God, they’re gonna just laugh at it and throw it back at us. I don’t even want to send it out.” I said, “I think it’s great! Let’s send it out!” So we sent it out, and what we got back were “hurrahs” and “yays,” and this was exactly where they wanted to go.
The musical-style opening, had never really been done in this way with a Disney animated feature, and the film moreso played out like a stage musical brought to animated life.
Most interesting, is that for a song that had Ashman worried, it was remembered when awards season arrived in the Winter of 1991. The song Belle was one of three nominated for the Academy Award for Best Song. The songs Be Our Guest and Beauty and the Beast were also nominated, with the film’s title song taking home the statuette that evening.
Time is of the Essence
Audio commentaries, are often a great source of information, that is usually not as widely known to the public. Notable in the commentary for the film, is co-director Kirk Wise, discussing the time-frame for making the film:
Kirk Wise: This movie was made in a very short period of time, believe it or not. The actual production of the version of “Beauty and the Beast” that you see before you, was done in two years, as opposed to the typical three or four.
Until I first heard the film’s audio commentary, I had little idea of the first iteration of the film. Beauty was originally meant to be a non-musical feature, and would have been a bit more serious in tone. However, early reviews of that material found few executives willing to go along with it, and the film was then re-imagined into what we know it as today.
Of course, 2 years isn’t the craziest production time for an animated feature. Toy Story 2 was rewritten and animated, 9 months before its November 1999 release (all in a manic attempt to make a film worthy of the PIXAR name).
Finding a New Design for The Beast
When it comes to the story of Beauty and the Beast, the Beast himself has often been a character, who has been re-imagined many times over, in different story illustrations.
For his appearance within the Disney world of characters, his design took a little time to come up with, and becomes an interesting little round-table between the producer and directors of the film:
Don Hahn: The Beast was, a little bit of everything, wasn’t he?
Kirk Wise: Yeah, it was a challenging character design, and Gary (Trousdale) and I looked at some of the early design work that was done on the Beast, and we didn’t care for it, because they all just seemed to be variations of a man, with an animal head. You know, this enchantment didn’t seem to affect the rest of his body, at all. It was either a man with a baboon head, or a man with a monkey head, or whatever.
Don Hahn: It didn’t play into the strength of what animation can do-
Kirk Wise: Right.
Don Hahn: -which is, anything.
Gary Trousdale: We gave the project to Chris Sanders and said, “Could you mess around, you know, and come up with some designs?” And he came up with the weirdest things!
Kirk Wise: Yeah, the avian insectoid-
Gary Trousdale: We had like, stag-beetle and mantis Beasts. We had fish head Beasts, I mean there were everything. And finally, he hit upon one, that is pretty close to what you see on-screen right now. And we saw that and went, “Yes! That’s it!”
Kirk Wise: It was this kind-of, combination of a bull, and a gorilla-
Don Hahn: Bison kind of size.
Kirk Wise: A bison.
Gary Trousdale: And he’s got the hind legs of a wolf, and the forelegs of a bear.
Kirk Wise: It just suggested a lot more interesting animation possibilities.
To me, the Beast has always been a fascinating character, given how the designers and animators, could bring together all these different parts of different animals, and yet make the Beast seem like a real creature.
Notable in the commentary here, is the mention of Chris Sanders. Sanders made a name for himself at Disney, doing not just concept and character art, but also storyboarding a number of major sequences in numerous films in the 1990’s.
Though his biggest claim-to-fame at the studio, was being co-director and creator, of their 2002 animated feature, Lilo & Stitch (not to mention also providing the voice for Stitch).
In the film, Maurice created an automatic wood-chopping device, which had been conceived of by the writers, as a way to get him and Belle out of the basement later on in the film. But after creating this machine, it seemed there was noone around to work it when the proper time came!
One of the best things a really involving story can do, is keep us so invested, that we sometimes let holes in the film’s logic, just fly by. Co-director Gary Trousdale quickly pointed out one of these, that I hadn’t considered until hearing him discuss it:
Gary Trousdale: “Oh, we’ve got that thing, it’s sitting around in the yard, isn’t it? Well who can start it up?” They’re both in the basement. We thought, Well, maybe Chip can, but he doesn’t have any hands!
Don Hahn: He can stow away.
Gary Trousdale: It’s a cartoon! He can talk, can’t he?
Kirk Wise: We cut around the parts where Chip-
Gary Trousdale: Where he’s shoveling coal and lighting the tinder and flint and-
Kirk Wise: He’s a smart little cup.
Those little observations make the commentary quite eye-opening. The filmmakers also bring our attention to some strange goings-on with Gaston’s chair, and a bearskin rug during the reprise of the song, Gaston. I won’t go into detail, as it’s funnier listening to them tell it, than it is for me to recap it.
What’s in a name?
Another revealing thing that I never questioned, comes near the end of the film, when Belle reunites with the Beast.
Gary Trousdale: Yeah this scene here was a little bit of a, we didn’t realize until we actually got to it, but when Belle comes out and calls to the Beast, we said, “He doesn’t have a name. We just call him ‘Beast.'” It’s like, “I don’t know what his name is!”
Don Hahn: Tyrone, or-
Gary Trousdale: Bob!
Don Hahn: Steve!
It wasn’t until I found myself among some West Coast Disney fans almost 5 years ago, that I became aware of what I consider a Disney urban legend, regarding the Beast. When I joked about the commentary’s mentioning about how he didn’t have a name, several told me that the Beast actually DID, and that it was Adam.
This was due to a CD-ROM game licensed by Disney, called The D Show,which gave the Beast this name in a trivia category. However, a number of staff (including the Beast’s supervising animator, Glen Keane), have denied the Beast was ever given a name during production.
Maybe a sign that some legends never die, was seeing that someone had included the title of Prince Adam on the IMDB credit for the Beast in the upcoming live-action film from Disney, but it’s hard to tell if this is official naming, or some fan-submission that may get amended later on.
Even after 25 years, Beauty and the Beast is still one of the best films the studio made during the 1990’s. I can put it in all these years later, and still be entertained by the story, and remember many of the scenes that slowly made me think that animation might be a career path I’d like to pursue.
It also blazed a new trail for animation at the time, when it won for Best Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes, and was one of the Oscars’ 5 Best Picture nominees, a feat that had never before been achieved!
Next year will see the animated feature, adapted into the realms of live-action. While many are excited for this new adaptation (with Emma Watson as Belle), it stands to be seen if the filmmakers can make the live-action film as memorable, as the animated film that was released 25 years ago.
*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.
While some films have made me well-aware of their presence months or even years beforehand, every-so-often, there come a few that end up just popping up, and surprising me.
That was the case in September of 2000, as I prepared to leave my hometown of Waterloo, IA, and embark on a quest to pursue animation in the big city. My life had largely been one of animation and film fascination since a young age, and it probably made the most sense that I had found refuge and solace in my hometown’s movie theater, where I had been employed since May of 1999.
A few days before I was scheduled to leave on the next big journey of my life, we ran a print to make sure it was put together properly, for a new film by director Cameron Crowe, called Almost Famous.
The film was a pseudo-documentary of Cameron’s own life growing up. In the film, young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) has aspirations to become a Rock journalist. He gets the opportunity when Rolling Stone magazine calls, asking if he’d like to cover a band for a magazine article. Having just met up-and-coming band Stillwater at the local Sports Arena a few days before, William requests to cover them, and he’s soon on his way.
What I saw on the screen, quickly seemed to speak to me. William Miller’s journey out into the big world to be a Rock Journalist, I could almost see slightly mirroring my own journey to escape and find something that fascinated me, and along the way, make me learn a few things or two regarding life.
The film rose and fell quickly at the box-office (even international grosses couldn’t help it recoup its $50 million budget), but it quickly became an awards-season contender. Crowe was hailed in many capacities for the film’s original screenplay writing, which took home plenty of screenplay awards in a number of different awards ceremonies, and film critics circles.
The film would be released on VHS and DVD a few months after the Academy Awards, but I held out, as word came that Cameron was priming what he called, Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut.
The Bootleg Cut added an extra 35 minutes to the theatrical release, and the DVD set had plenty of extras regarding Crowe’s career as a journalist. It even included a packed-in CD containing the original music that was recorded for the film’s made-up band, Stillwater (which featured actors Billy Crudup, and Jason Lee).
What was most intriguing to me, was that the film also contained an audio commentary track (and it even had its own subtitles!). But this isn’t just Crowe flying solo. He also brings along some friends. They include Scott Martin (from Vinyl Films), Andy Fischer (from Vinyl Films) Ivan Corona (a family friend), Mark Atkinson (from Dreamworks), and, Cameron’s mother, Alice Crowe, who is portrayed in the role of Elaine Miller in the film, as played by Frances McDormand.
At the start of the commentary, Crowe tells how he could be ‘dark and mysterious’ about the film and reveal nothing, or be ‘blatantly open’ and reveal plenty about the film. Luckily, Cameron chooses to play nice, and the 2 1/2 hours fly by, with him and his cohorts sharing memories about his past, the film’s production, and making note of some information that proves to be quite entertaining.
Sifting through the information, I thought I’d share 5 of those moments that stand out, and list them below. I find them sort of like an appetizer of what the full commentary track contains.
During the process of deciding how to make Almost Famous, Crowe often found himself trying to figure out how best to focus on the story, without having it derail too far into the standard troupes that almost every other rock-and-roll-based film seemed to go towards.
In an opening scene taking place in 1969, a young William Miller (played by Michael Angarano) finds his sister has given him her collection of records. Crowe tells how many of the records were time-accurate, but he did throw in some that set a particular ‘mood’ for the scene, and the film in general:
Cameron Crowe: Cindy (my sister) actually did do this, left me her records. And it was-the only one that is actually not ‘time-accurate,’ and it’s one of the few little obvious, purposeful mistakes was (Joni Mitchell’s album) Blue.
Blue came out a couple years later, but I love the album, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, because it’s personal, and it’s shamelessly personal, and I-it probably aches for her, and I think she’s said she doesn’t listen to it that much. And I thought, that’s a standard to hit for the movie, you know? This movie’s gotta ache, and if you pull punches in a coy or precious way, why do it?
So it was kind of hard day-to-day to just, be ‘a cop’ on yourself. And it’s funny how the movie turns out to still be, kind of a-you know, “worshipful” in the right way. Because I think to be a fan is an important thing, it’s good to protect that, and the movie, more than anything else to me, feels like a fan’s love-letter.
That is definitely the case with both cuts of the film. We get to see a lot of the highs and lows of Crowe’s life, emulated through William Miller.
From his being looked down upon for being younger than his classmates, to caring for “band-aid” Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), but seeing that she doesn’t see him as anything more than a friend, whose along for the ride.
This also carries over into the emotions that William’s Mom goes through. Her characterization captures the concern she has for her son’s emotional well-being, as well as her fears that something might happen to him out among the crazy world of Rock Stars.
Mick Jagger will turn Mom around
A major influence on Cameron’s life has been his Mom, Alice Crowe. A former teacher, Alice’s methods may have seemed a little odd to many. While most would sugar-coat some things, Alice Crowe would often give you the straight story…which caused her to freak out quite a few people.
One area of Cameron’s career that took his Mom awhile to warm up to, was Rock-and-Roll. The original career goal for Cameron, was that he would eventually become a lawyer, and that Rock Journalism would be moreso a hobby (since you couldn’t really live well as a freelance Rock writer), but those plans fell through (as can be seen by his current career as a film director). However, there were some points where Alice mellowed on her stance, and one of those moments was mentioned:
Cameron Crowe: I just want-for anybody listening-we are into the achingly-personal aspect of our audio tour-
Alice Crowe: *laughs*
Cameron Crowe: -we had a press party after the book Conversations with Wilder came out, and Mick Jagger was invited, and he showed up! And my mom actually spent more time talking to Mick Jagger, than ME that night.
Alice Crowe: *laughs*
Cameron Crowe: What was that like?
Alice Crowe: Well, he’s amazing because, I’ve seen his photographs, and I saw him in person, and he looked so young. Actually, he’s quite good-looking in person.
Cameron Crowe: Ok. You see how it happens?
Alice Crowe: Yeah.
Cameron Crowe: Rock is evil, until you meet Mick Jagger!
The book Conversations With Wilder (which Cameron wrote), came out in 1999, so the Mom-meets-Mick moment happened before the film came out.
Though he wasn’t in Almost Famous, Mick’s name did come up in one scene. As manager Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon) pitches his ideas to help the band make more money, he tells how they have only a finite amount of time to do so. One line he uses, is telling them that if they think Mick Jagger will still be playing in his 50’s, they are “sadly mistaken.”
Crowe said (at the time), he wasn’t sure how Mick took that line, but it was moreso a line that smacked of the times. Because at that time in 1973, who would have expected some of the Rock Stars of that time to still be touring and making money, over 2-3 decades later?
Believe it or not, the film’s name did not come easily, and there was a constant struggle to figure out just what to call it. During a scene where Russell Hammond and William Miller go to a house in Nebraska, Cameron relays how during the shoot there, there was a little contest to try and name the film:
Cameron Crowe: It was a derby. The fans (in the scene), the extras, were trying to come up with titles for us, the crew was trying to come up with titles. We had a big box that everybody would put ‘suggested titles’ in it.
Nothing was ever as good to me as Untitled, for the longest time, although I’m now used to Almost Famous. But I wanted-the movie wanted to be called Untitled, like, the fourth (Led) Zeppelin album, or a painting, that was just shaking off all notions of a title.
But, I do remember my favorite of all the submitted titles: Saving Williams’ Privates.
Watching Untitled, there are a number of moments that seem to be perfect freeze-frames, that could capture the essence of the film or its time period. I sifted through quite a few that Cameron calls out in the commentary, but one that really stood out, followed a concert where Stillwater performed in Cleveland, Ohio.
As the band is talked into hiring a new manager named Dennis Hope (played by Jimmy Fallon) in the back rooms, Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), dances and twirls around the empty auditorium’s floor (as Cat Stevens’ song, The Wind, plays over the scene). Cameron has cited this scene as his favorite in the film, and takes the time to elaborate on his feelings towards it:
Cameron Crowe: The one regret I have about the theatrical version (of the film), there’s only one, is that this scene didn’t go on longer. So we let it play (in the Bootleg Cut), as long as-well actually, I could probably still take it, for about an hour or so.
But I just love this moment, because it’s so much, what the movie is about-
Alice Crowe: Yes.
Cameron Crowe: -the spirits that remain after something magical’s happened, and how-
Alice Crowe: Yes.
Cameron Crowe: -you can go back to a place where something amazing occurred, and the feeling’s still in the air. And she, of all the characters in the movie, understood…understood music, best.
Much was made of Kate Hudson’s role as Penny Lane, who was based on several girls Crowe met over the course of his time interviewing bands. Though largely a composite of several different ones, Hudson’s Penny Lane often seemed an ethereal spirit of music. She was that wistful pixie that seemed to inspire, but was someone who could never really be tamed in her emotions or thoughts.
I’m all about atmosphere, and this scene has also been a favorite of mine. I have often found myself going to some places, and almost doing what Cameron mentions, about that lingering feeling of something you experienced, but has been covered over by the years gone by.
As well, the use of Cat Stevens’ song, The Wind, has caused me to use that song in some quieter moments of contemplation, and remembrance.
One of Crowe’s ‘mentors’ in the world of Rock Journalism, was Lester Bangs. Bangs was a freelance writer who wrote for such publications as Rolling Stone, and Creem magazine.
In the film, he is portrayed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in what some have often felt is one of his best, lesser-known performances.
During one of the final scenes, William is struggling on how to finish his piece on the band Stillwater. With the clock ticking down before he has to submit it to Rolling Stone, he calls Lester in Michigan, to figure out just what he should do.
The scene actually became better, given what Hoffman suggested to Crowe:
Cameron Crowe: This scene is funny. This scene changed a lot. Originally, it was a scene where Lester was storming through the apartment, just, shouting advice to this guy like a warrior-king. And, through rehearsals and discussions with Phil Hoffman, who is a brilliant actor, and really did only have a few bursts of time to do this part…through conversations and rehearsals, we decided to make this scene about the two (Lester and William).
Alice Crowe: Yeah.
Cameron Crowe: The only two guys in the world still up, and they’re talking with each other, and this guy is-and this was Phil Hoffman’s note: “Lester, was lonely.”
Alice Crowe: Yes.
Cameron Crowe: And it’s funny that he channeled Lester so carefully. It’s funny that he said that, and kind of amazing, because I knew Lester, but I had forgotten the loneliness. And I had remembered him larger-than-life, maybe without some of that loneliness, but it was Phil Hoffman that said, “I want to play that loneliness.”
Because he’d studied Lester, and that’s how we came across this scene, which I’m, really proud of.
Cameron’s Mother also goes on to say that the scene is very moving, and several of the other commentators mention how it feels that Hoffman is long overdue for an Oscar win. 5 years after Almost Famous, Hoffman would win for his portrayal of author Truman Capote.
Like almost every Commentation article I write, there’s plenty of material I have to keep myself from expounding on, lest I bore you, the reader, with about 4,000 words.
The commentary was also ported over to the Blu-Ray release that came out a few years ago. However, it doesn’t contain the readable subtitles.
It’s a fun listen, because Crowe himself is just as much a fan of films as he is of music. He makes references to such films as To Kill a Mockingbird, The 400 Blows, and The Apartment. He also cites inspiration from the likes of Billy Wilder, and Francois Truffaut.
I will end by saying that in the 15 years since I’ve seen the film, I’ve found that being a fan of Almost Famous/Untitled, is a bit of an acquired taste. Of the films I love, I think a good 2% of people in my life have ever been able to sit through it, and enjoy it on the same level as me.
Then again, there is something fascinating about its time-capsule quality. Seeing the San Diego that my Mom and some of her siblings grew up in in the late 60’s/early 70’s, let alone the feel of the time period that I had just missed out on when I was born in 1980, as the fashions and styles of that world began to morph into a new realm of Rock-and-Roll.
*With the rise of DVD’s in the late 1990’s, one feature many promised with the addition of Special Features, was 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.*
Though his name had become synonymous with the words “Director” and “Genius,” Steven Spielberg slowly moved into a new arena of filmmaking in the mid-1980’s, when he adopted the “Executive Producer” moniker.
Under his production company Amblin Entertainment (named for the short film that got him his job at Universal Studios), Steven’s name soon headlined a number of pictures, with the tagline, “Steven Spielberg Presents.” Though the average person would assume that he had somehow directed another picture, in truth, he would moreso be there as a shepherd to the picture, throwing in a few ideas, and having a hand in the creative process.
1985 would be a big year for Amblin, when Back to the Future took the Summer by storm, becoming the biggest film of the year. However, a month before Marty McFly went back in time, another Amblin production had hit theaters: a family film by the name of The Goonies.
Based on a story by Spielberg, and directed by Richard Donner (Superman, Lethal Weapon), a misfit group of friends find a map that seems to promise pirate treasure right in their own backyard (aka Astoria, Oregon). With their stomping grounds threatened to be bulldozed for a new golf course, the friends set out to save their way of life, but soon find a couple of escaped fugitive and their tough-as-nails Mother, also wanting to get at the loot.
Though it didn’t take in as much as Back to the Future, The Goonies became the 9th highest-grossing film of 1985, with $61 million, which was quite good in those days, considering its budget was ‘only’ $19 million.
Over the years, Goonies gained quite a fan-following, and when it came time to convert it to DVD in 2001, some higher-ups at Warner Brothers actually had a great idea!
The studio had already reunited the former child actors from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to record an audio commentary for that film’s DVD release, and decided to apply the same TLC to The Goonies!.
Director Richard Donner was brought in, along with Sean Astin (Mikey), Josh Brolin (Brand), Corey Feldman (Mouth), Ke Huy Quan (Data), Jeff Cohen (Chunk), Kerri Green (Andy), and Martha Plimpton (Stef).
The commentary track would be a little different than the Wonka one, as an alternate version of the film could be accessed, where the film at times would phase into a corner of the screen, to see the cast and director at the microphones in the studio, talking over the scene.
Of course, with over 8 people in the studio talking about a film, there’s bound to be a lot of stuff flying around. Though Corey Feldman seems to overpower so much of the conversation, there’s plenty of ‘rich stuff’ to be gleaned from the film.
Below are a few ‘choice comments’ that I thought I’d bring up. Don’t be afraid that I’ve spoiled everything. There’s plenty to discover on your own.
During the course of the commentary, little asides are made to an alternate cut of the film that was never released. Some additional scenes included some gorillas, and even an octopus (which was mentioned by Data in the final cut near the end!), though noone has really deciphered what that much longer version would have been.
During the opening chase of the film, Sean Astin makes mention of a scene that was filmed, but not included in the final film.
Sean Astin: Do you guys remember the stunt we all got to go and watch, where they flipped the cop car on top of the boat?
Corey Feldman: No.
Martha Plimpton: Yes, I remember that.
Sean Astin: They drove the cop car off-they had a rig where the cop car goes-and it flips upside-down, and the guy gets out and he looks-you didn’t use that.
Richard Donner: No, we didn’t use that.
The scene would have taken place during the Fratelli’s car chase in the beginning, though surprisingly, footage of the stunt did make it into a Making-Of special produced at the time, as seen below.
Jeff Cohen is one of the most entertaining persons on the commentary. He gives a few insights into his career as ‘a little fat kid’ in Hollywood, but also provides some interesting remembrances from the set, including the ever-famous ‘Truffle Shuffle.’
It was hard to choose something that wouldn’t give away some of the best stuff. One that came to mind, was the scene where Chunk is locked in a storage closet with a dead federal agent (played by stuntman Teddy Grossman).
Jeff Cohen: Now when we were doing some of the takes where the dead guy’s in the um, like this-
Richard Donner: Yeah.
Jeff Cohen: -Dick (Donner) said-you know, we’d improvise. He’d be like, “Smack him in the face, kid. Make sure he’s dead. Make sure he’s dead.”
So I’d be smacking him and smacking him and smacking him, and after 8 takes of smacking Teddy in the face, he finally- he-the dead body yelled, “Cut! The kid’s beating the crap out of me!”
Though getting whacked around by a little fat kid like Chunk probably wasn’t as bad as Teddy’s role as another victim, in Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws. In that film, the shark overturns his character’s boat, and drags him under the water to his death!
Also as an aside, when he was a student at The University of California-Berkeley, Jeff Cohen ran for Class President, using the campaign slogan, “Chunk for President.” Naturally, he won.
Of course, not all ‘war stories’ from the trenches of filmmaking are great. Some leave deep scars that last for years. Carrie Henn who played Newt in Aliens had a memorable line (“They mostly come out at night…mostly.”) that her friends would often alter in a jokey sort of way. The same thing happened to Kerri Green, during a sequence where Andy freaks out in the caves and starts babbling:
Kerri Green: This is my big dramatic moment. I got made fun of this for 15 years.
*Andy in the movie is babbling, “Don’t I have a beautiful body? Don’t I have a beautiful body?”*
Corey Feldman (mimicking Brand on-screen): You have a great body.
Kerri Green (referring to her character’s babbling): That one. That was the line.
Sean Astin: You were really worked up when you were doing that.
Kerri Green: 15 years, people are like, “Don’t I have a beautiful body? Don’t I have a beautiful body?”
Sometimes it’s fun when actors or actresses confess little things like that. Though this was recorded in 2000/2001, so one wonders if after Kerri aired her grievances, some people backed off from the mockery of her teenage cheerleader’s worryings.
As the commentary continues, one can’t help but almost want to throttle Corey Feldman as he gives his two cents on every other moment in the film.
Though it seems in truth, he hasn’t changed all that much from when he was younger. During a scene in the wishing well where Stef and Mouth start to argue, Martha Plimpton shares a memory of an encounter with Feldman one day.
Martha Plimpton: Actually, what people don’t realize, is that at one point actually, Corey came to me in the school trailer, and I turned to him and I said, “What?”
And he said, “What?”
And proceeded to copy everything I said, for half an hour, until I became so enraged, that I jumped on top of him, and grabbed his head, and started smashing it against the floor. Meanwhile, he sat-lay there, laughing maniacally the entire time, making me even more infuriated, with Rhoda Fine (the on-set studio teacher) standing over us going: “You kids stop it! Don’t fight!”
Martha has a few interesting remembrances regarding the production, though this one, she really got the chance to just lay it all out on the table. It’s one of the few bits on the commentary, where no one interrupted her daring tale of Feldman-related Fury.
The Goonies is definitely an entertaining product of the 1980’s, and I’m sure would rank in the Top 10 of many of the films with Spielberg’s Executive Producer credit on it. The film has had popularity in the last decade, with a couple different action figure lines, and yearly events in Astoria, Oregon for the film. These events have even brought forth some of the cast and crew to join in on the festivities.
When I first started collecting DVD’s, this film’s release was one of my favorites. Though not as chock-full of what I would hope for (no word on that original cut that had gorillas involved!), it gave us plenty of extra features, including Cyndi Lauper’s The Goonies R Good Enough music video, and some promotional materials made for the film. Though of all the materials, this commentary is one of the highlights. It definitely makes me wish some other films could have such an entertaining group commentary.
Currently, the special commentary presentation has been in each version of the DVD and Blu-Ray releases, so you won’t have to shell out $35 for some super-special-edition.
I feel every fan of The Goonies should sit down and watch this commentary. Sadly, we can’t do much about Corey Feldman’s constant mouthing off, but in the end, I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what the majority of the cast and Richard Donner have to say.
*With the rise of DVD’s in the late 1990’s, one feature many promised with the addition of Special Features, was 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.*
It was some time after its summer premiere in 1991, that I was able to watch Terminator 2: Judgement Day. As the years went by, it would be a film that would stick in the back of my head, both for its story, but also for the behind-the-scenes material.
With almost all the talk of the use of computer-generated imagery, the film also was one that combined multiple effects and story tricks. Whereas one scene you’d have a computer-generated T-1000 effect, the next shot would have a practical, on-set one, and given the way the scenes were shot, your mind didn’t realize it.
An impressive 2-disc set for Terminator 2 was released in the late 90’s, with plenty of supplementary material, but it was in the 2003 release of the T2 Extreme DVD Edition, that a first was given for a James Cameron film: the director himself, had sat down to record an audio commentary track!
Along with Cameron, was his co-writer, William Wisher, who traded comments and anecdotes with Cameron over the course of the entire film.
Though it should also be noted, that the version they comment on, is what is referred to as The Special Edition, which has almost all of the deleted scenes edited back into the film, except 2 (one of the T-1000 snooping in John’s room, and another showing an alternate non-Judgement Day future ending).
This commentary is pretty interesting, as well as a little fun. Cameron and Wisher reminisce about the past like a pair of old buddies, and that chummy feel makes the audio work well.
This column is intended to bring a few ‘choice’ comments to the public eye. Here are some that stand out (pared down from a couple dozen I had in mind!):
Arnold was more-than-happy to come back to play the iconic role of the Terminator, but Cameron tells how one stipulation, shocked the Austrian:
Cameron: I remember we had breakfast, and I said: “All right, here’s the deal: you don’t kill anybody in this film.”
He said,”But Jim, I’m ‘The Terminator,’ that’s what I do. I kick in the door with the machine gun. I kill people.”
I said, “Yeah, but you can’t kill anybody in this film it’s critical thematically, that you don’t.”
Then he started to negotiate. He said, “Well, all right. That’s fine. Once the boy tells me that I can’t kill people, that makes sense, but can’t I just kill some people before that?”
I said, “No, no, you don’t understand. You can’t kill anybody!”
He said, “It’s going to be terrible!”
I said, “No, it’ll work.”
Cameron got lucky that the concept worked out. The idea of a future death-machine becoming the subject of ‘a boy and his Terminator’ story, actually worked pretty well. In fact, it went over so well, that it was then re-used in Terminator 3, and also again in the newly-released Terminator: Genisys, .this time with a younger Sarah Connor being the recipient of a future-protector.
After the film came out, Cameron received an interesting letter. As Sarah’s nightmare plays out onscreen (with a nuclear weapon detonating over Los Angeles), he tells an intriguing tale regarding what was sent to him:
Cameron: I got the strangest letter once. It was from a group of scientists who worked at the Sandia Laboratories, which is one of the the nuclear laboratories, US laboratories. And they said:
“Thank you for Terminator 2. It is the most correct visual representation of the effects of a nuclear weapon ever put on film.”
And I thought, “Well, gee, that’s a really nice compliment, but the fact that this is accurate, is terrifying.”
Cameron often strives for a realism in his films, but it definitely seems a little scary, that the guys who build these things, were praising his accuracy in what would actually happen.
On the commentary, Cameron does mention how seeing the old A-bomb test films as a kid did influence him as a young child, and definitely influenced his thinking when he first started crafting the Terminator films.
Also at the time the commentary was being recorded, trailers had just come out for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, a film wherein Cameron chose to not be involved. As he and Wisher were watching the film, the scene of Arnold’s “I’ll be back” line came up, leading Cameron to quip:
Cameron: What do you think? Does that sound better than, ‘she’ll be back?’
Though the commentary stays on track regarding T2, Cameron does give a few asides to the upcoming T3.
Cameron also has an eye and memory, for specific stunts, and points out a couple that seem rather natural, but were very risky (and almost cost the lives of several stunt-men). Talk of how digital (at the time of the audio commentary’s 2002 recording) could allow more dangerous stunts to be achieved, is compared in a few areas. One of the most notable, is in a wide-shot/one-take scene, that when one looks at what was done, is pretty fearless (and achieved by Arnold’s stunt-double, Peter Kent):
Cameron: Now this is a really dangerous stunt right here. I would never do this stunt now, with digital effects possible. He actually just does exactly what you see. There were no safety wires or anything. He just ran across the back of a pickup truck,and jumped on the hood of a semi.
Wisher: At about 40 miles an hour, it looked like.
Cameron: Yeah. Anything could’ve gone wrong there.
This is just one of several great moments that are mentioned. Another tells about how one of the helicopter pilots named Chuck Tamburro, flew a helicopter under an overpass…a move that the camera crew refused to shoot given how dangerous it was. Of course, when noone else would do it, Cameron found himself manning the camera rig for the scene.
For those of you that are into knowing how things are done, or learning behind-the-scenes material, the commentary that James Cameron and William Wisher give for Terminator 2, is one of the best I know of. I watch the film several times a year with the commentary track running, and it still never gets tiresome, listening to them talk over the film, and explain their working together on this landmark, 1991 action-drama.
After the Extreme DVD release in the early 2000’s, the audio commentary was ported over when the film made its debut on the Blu-Ray format, on the Terminator 2: Skynet Edition release. The release also contains a feature that gives little facts and anecdotes about the film as it plays, making it one of the best Special Editions of the Blu-Ray releases out there.
Of all the Terminator films, T2 is probably the only one that has an impressive array of behind-the-scenes material. One would almost wish that the same TLC could be applied to 1984’s Terminator film (I’d love to hear an audio commentary with Cameron, Wisher, as well as Cameron’s former wife/screenwriter, Gale Anne-Hurd).