Tag Archives: audio commentaries

From Hyannisport to the Jersey Shore

This timeline (cynically) charts the evolution of observational documentary in America, from 1960 to the present. The first still is from Primary, a game-changing film about JFK and Hubert Humphrey’s life on the campaign trail. Its principal architects were producer/soundman Robert Drew and photographer/editors Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, Terence McCartney-Fillgate, and Albert Maysles.

Fifty years later, four of those gentlemen are still making films, but sadly, Ricky Leacock recently passed away. Peter Schneider, an old friend of mine who co-owns Gotham Sound, a sound gear sales-and-rental house in NYC, asked me to write about Mr. Leacock for their blog, the Gotham Gazette. I was thrilled and flattered since their blog passionately promotes the values and standards of 60s and 70s New York City location filmmaking at its best.

Click here to read my post Ricky Leacock and “The Sense of Being There.”

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I Knew It Was You: The Sixth John Cazale Film

A few months ago, when Richard Shepard’s documentary I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale aired on HBO, I wrote a post about it, going on and on (and on). Well, today the DVD of that doc hits the stores. (Inexplicably, it’s not yet available via Netflix, but if you add it to your queue, they’ll get the idea!)

The DVD’s bonus features include 40 minutes of outtakes from the interviews with Al Pacino and playwright Israel Horovitz; all of “The American Way,” a 1962 short film featuring Cazale (only clips are shown in the doc); and an audio commentary by Shepard. I’m a fan of Richard’s other commentaries (i.e. The Matador) as they are funny and informative, real How To’s for independent filmmaking.

OK, I’m biased. I’ve known Richard for a dozen years. I’ve worked for him, played poker with him, and, hell, he even recorded one of his commentaries in my living room. One of our favorite pastimes was hanging out with Adam Lichtenstein (the documentary’s editor) and talking endlessly about 70s cinema.

Recently, Richard gave me some time to talk about the film and its effect on him as a filmmaker…
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Richard Shepard: I am really happy the doc is even getting out on DVD. Y’know, for a forty minute short to come out on DVD is not an every day occurrence.

Stephen Altobello: A forty minute doc barely has a market in the first place, much less on DVD. It was awesome that BAM did a Cazale festival last year [screening all five of his films] and screened your doc a couple of times with it. I can imagine for a revival house that a Cazale festival is a license to print money.

Richard: That is so true. You would think they would do this all the time. There was just a screening of Dog Day Afternoon up in San Francisco where they showed the documentary, and I can imagine going forward in my life showing this movie in various film revival places, whenever they show those movies. Because it is a perfect companion to them. I kept joking that I was interested to see the Netflix demands for these movies after its aired on HBO. I think any Film Lover who sees one second of so many of those movies gets that Film Lover Erection.

Stephen: Sure. I’m picturing people having double feature nights, where they show your film and, say, The Godfather. It would be also awesome if it lives, like you said, in a revival house capacity. That it becomes known as the sixth Cazale film.

Richard: That would be insane if that was the case.

Stephen: Have actors and directors come up to you after seeing the film?

Richard: Well, it’s an unintended positive consequence of this documentary in that it is so actor packed that if you’re sending out a script, trying to get an actor attached to it, sending this documentary with it, it’s like people see this and they suddenly believe, truthfully or not–and I would like to believe its truthfully–that I love actors and the craft of acting and understand its importance. So in some strange way, it’s like this incredible catnip for actors for me getting them into other projects. Which is not what I intended, obviously, but I certainly don’t mind that consequence, and certainly every actor that has seen it has been extraordinarily moved and positive about it. It’s not like I’m getting phone calls from Brad Pitt, but it is strange how many meetings I go to and parties and whatever, and people are like, “Oh my God, you made that movie, I loved it!”

Stephen: I guess the big question is, since you’ve immersed yourself for so long in this project, do you feel you have been directing actors differently, better, more intuitively? How has it paid off for you in that sense?

Richard: Well, yesterday we were auditioning actors and this actress was really good, but she just wasn’t listening at all, and it was this weird moment where I am like, “She really can say her lines great, but she is not really listening to the other lines and not really reacting in any organic away.” And while everyone in the room was like, “She was great,” I’m like, “She was great, but let’s watch the tape of her because you’re going to see she is not acting because she’s not reacting, and thus we’re going to die moving forward because there is no real heartbeat there.” And that realization came from what I learned from Cazale, and I was like, “Wow.” I think I have a different eye than I might have even had a year ago, and I would like to see how that extends to actual work, as opposed to an audition process.

Stephen: Right. I suppose if you were an asshole, you might have a stack of those DVDs at your auditions and that would be your way of saying they didn’t get the role: “Here, take a copy on your way out.”

Richard: Or pay for one and maybe you’ll get a role! [laughs]

Stephen: About your interviewing process for the film, I heard you explain you’re not an interviewer but just very, very curious, which is a real difference. I hadn’t seen that many interviews with Pacino, but I was surprised at how generous and sincere he seemed. Were you similarly surprised during the interview?

Richard: Yes. I felt that when that interview was done that we didn’t need to do any other interviews and we would still have a documentary. He really came into that room wanting to talk. It was almost as if when we finished, he was upset that we were leaving. Which, by the way, is a great place to be if you’re doing a documentary, because it’s like, he was just ready…he came very thoughtful and passionate and emotional. I think that Pacino appreciates that we were coming at it from a place of love, and he didn’t think we were being disingenuous. He really came in there and said, “I’m giving you myself. This is all I’m doing today. I’m going to do this. I’m going to eat a dinner and have a glass of wine, and that’s my day.“

Stephen: I was so amazed. Everything you just said, by the way, reads in the film. What vibe you got while doing the interview, is on the screen. Sometimes a great interview doesn’t necessarily mean it will be great in the doc. And you lucked out there. I had a similar lucky experience interviewing Scorsese about The Last Waltz. Nobody would ever talk to him about that film more than what it would take to get from Taxi Driver to Raging Bull. It would get, like, a paragraph. And he gave me ninety minutes on The Last Waltz when his assistant assured me I wouldn’t get even an hour with him.

Richard: And he was probably thrilled about it, because, a) he doesn’t talk about it a lot and b) he is sitting next to someone who loves the movie and is smart about it. There is nothing better than giving an interview to someone who knows what they’re talking about. When I was promoting The Matador…my God, there was one day at the Toronto Film Festival when we did a three straight press junket and it came right after three straight days in France doing the same thing. It was six straight days, every fifteen minutes a different interviewer. And it was mind numbing on a level that you can’t even imagine. I was, like, this is the hardest work I have ever done! Trying to make these answers seem fresh. Trying to remain enthusiastic. Trying not to punch someone in the face. And so I know there’s nothing better than talking to someone who is passionate about your film and doesn’t feel like, “I am just a piece of the process as well,” or, “I have to do twelve interviews today,” but instead is like, ”I want to sit down with you and talk about your movie in a real way.” Those are the best interviews because you’re like, “Oh, I am totally connected to this person.”

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So, this holiday season, what could be a better gift for the Film Lover in your life than a DVD of one of Cazale’s films, coupled with I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale?

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What Happens When You Meet Grover and He Curses?

I’ve devoted two recent posts to the film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and director Frank Oz’s commentary for it (here and here). Now I’m going to put that topic to bed with one last post, this time about my experience as the field producer for the audio commentary, in May, 2001.

At the time, I was the East Coast pointman for the LA-based documentary company Automat Pictures. Besides producing the bonus features for the DVDs of Scorsese’s Raging Bull and The Last Waltz, I occasionally covered their NYC-based gigs, such as interviewing Isabella Rossellini about her vagina. 1

Frank Oz was due to record his audio commentary for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in LA, but circumstances kept him on my coast, and so I got the call to field produce his session. The DVD’s producer was Ian Haufrect, a swell guy who was understandably crestfallen that he would not be able to cover the session personally. Still, he gave me great questions and did all the logistical arrangements. 2

The session was at Spin Cycle Post, a small facility where I had been a sound editor for a half-dozen years. It was just Frank; my old buddy Jason, who engineered the session; and me. Jason and I were very professional: courteous and calm, the whole time ignoring the fact that—Holy Shit!—we were in the same room with Cookie Monster, Miss Piggy, Grover, Fozzie Bear and Bert!!

Frank was a Commentary Producer’s dream come true: he spoke constantly, giving us an in-depth glimpse into his process. There was one moment of (self) constructive criticism I’ll never forget. Frank had just done a portion of commentary and suddenly stopped, asking us to play it back for him. It was a two minute chunk of his description of “what is funny,” and I have to admit, it was pretty meandering. Although when he asked us for our opinion, Jason and I were reflexively and blindly supportive: “Oh, it’s great, Frank! Just beautiful! It’s awesome, Sir!” etc.

“Really?” he asked incredulously. “No, it isn’t. It’s fucking boring.”

After that icebreaker, it was easy for us to offer genuine feedback. (And to this day, when re-reading something I’ve written, such as this post, I’ll sometimes hear Frank’s voice say, “It’s fucking boring.”)

Naturally, there were the requisite Star Wars junkies on hand. (Can you imagine a film editing facility that wouldn’t have them?) In this case, two assistant editors a few years younger than me, Chris and Jeff, though that day they were more like Mutt and Jeff, giddy over the possibility of an audience with Yoda. “OK, guys,” I said. “Keep yer pants on. This isn’t my session, technically. I’ve never met the man. I don’t know how he feels about shit like this, “ and so on, explaining that they could approach him at the end of the session. Every time I went into the lobby, they’d be there, like expectant fathers in a waiting room, wide-eyed, wondering if it was Time.

When the session was ended, Frank was glad to do a small meet-and-greet. I stuck my head outside of the studio and gestured for the groupies to come in. They did, each with brand new Sharpies and 8×10 glossies of Yoda that they purchased that morning. I rolled my eyes and stepped back so they could have their own private Comic-Con.

Frank was incredibly cool. Recently, I asked Jeff Marcello, who’s now an editor and  filmmaker, for his recollections:

Frank signed the picture with his name and Yoda’s. I asked him to write, “Do or do not. There is no try.” He declined because he didn’t want to take credit for other people’s words. However, signing Yoda’s ‘autograph,’ he said, “This is how I imagine Yoda would sign his name.”

I’ve met a lot of celebrities, but I hardly ever ask for an autograph. This one is one of my prized possessions. It’s framed and hangs in my home edit room!

Jeff’s also generously offered this scan as proof of the momentous occasion.

That’s pretty much it, except for one noteworthy postscript. MGM would “pay” directors and actors for their time in DVDs. They’d provide a list of 200 or so titles and ask the talent to check off 15 that they wanted. Frank did this, grumbling as so many others did that the folks at MGM were being cheapskates, and I mailed it off to Ian. A few months later, I got a phone call at home:

“Hi. This is Frank Oz. I was wondering…where the fuck are my DVDs?”

I already knew that MGM was slow to “pay” talent, so I referred him to Ian in LA and that was the end of it. But there was that one stunned moment when I thought, “Did Yoda just curse at me?!” (“Off it pisses me!”)

All-in-all, it was my favorite audio commentary session, and I made one contribution that I’m proud of: Frank’s commentary for Dirty Rotten Scoundrel’s legendary teaser trailer. MGM hadn’t sent the trailer to the session—so Frank would have nothing to watch–but thanks to my film geekery, I knew that it was at the beginning of the VHS of Eight Men Out, so I rented it on my way in and—boom!—there it is on the DVD.

And that’s why MGM hired guys like me to produce those things!


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BACK TO POST 1 Of course, that story’s for a future post, but, hey, nice to see you’re using the nifty footnote function!

BACK TO POST 2 In fact, Ian was the first commentary producer to recommend I have an IMDB cast-and-crew list on hand to make life easier for directors (and if you’ve read this post, you know that I put a lot of stock in the commentary producer’s responsibilities).

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If Boys Don’t Cry, Then Why, Oh, Why Can’t I?

(A few weeks ago, I contributed this post to the Film Experience blog–my first guest post!–and I’m only just now getting around to posting it here. Normally, I’d link to it, but I’ve added a few images and altered the copy enough that I’m posting in its entirety below. But I still heartily recommend visiting the Film Experience blog!)

Twelve years ago, when I was a sound editor in NYC, I had the good fortune to meet with director Kimberly Peirce to discuss her film, Boys Don’t Cry. I don’t know if I was ever seriously considered to her supervising sound editor, but I was flattered nevertheless. And talking to her about her great film-in-progress was really a privilege.

I always looked at the film—the story of transgender male Brandon Teena–as interpreting Brandon’s tragedy as a Pinocchio story: someone who wants to be a boy is severely punished for lying. I suppose I thought that because of moments like this:

Lord knows Peter Sarsgaard and Brendan Sexton III’s characters scared me as much as these guys did in Pinocchio.

But in Peirce’s very incisive audio commentary, she refers much more to The Wizard of Oz as point of reference. For example, during Boys Don’t Cry’s opening credits, Teena has just “become” Brandon and goes to meet a date at the skating rink. Peirce explains that Brandon’s entrance to the rink is the final step of his mental transformation:

“We…set up a shot sequence that made you feel like you were walking inside the landscape of your fantasy. It was a…structure inspired by The Wizard of Oz:



A shot of the character;





a shot of the landscape she walks into;





the door opening;





the character going through;





and us going right through that door with them.”



This clip I made helps illustrate her point. It has Peirce’s commentary, Brandon’s “passage to manhood,” and Dorothy’s entrance to Oz…


Peirce’s entire commentary is riddled with these awesome examples of how she uses the camera to transform Brandon’s experience—as best as she can imagine it—into a cohesive film. To hear her thoughts on the difference between fantasy and reality; self-loathing as a by-product of an oppressive environment; Brandon’s self-destruction; etc, makes it very clear that the film’s impact was no mistake.

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Hyman Roth’s shirt(s)

A significant difference between the two Godfather films is that the first was made on a very low budget, while the second, benefitting from the success of the first, was quite a different story.

On the audio commentary for The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola repeats endlessly about compromised locations, restrictive shooting schedules, and constant corner cutting. On the commentary for The Godfather, Part II, he explains it was just the opposite: he was the goose that laid the golden egg and everything he needed was at his fingertips. That’s what makes this story from that commentary all the more amusing. It’s about one of the scenes in Cuba, with Lee Strasberg, and it’s a nice reminder that Coppola got his start with the barebones-yet-resourceful Roger Corman.

Before & After


Perhaps this is why Coppola decided to have Lee Strasberg topless in the next scene…

Hyman's hair shirt

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When Audio Commentaries Stick in My Craw

Sidney Lumet: Dementia sufferer…Robert Altman: Stoner…Frank Sinatra, Jr: Numbskull.

What a lazy commentary producer might look like.

These aren’t things I want to think about when I listen to an audio commentary, however, before this post is done, you’ll understand why I almost did.

I’ve produced, engineered and/or edited several commentaries over the years, and one of the reasons I was hired is because I’m very a detail-oriented film geek. And since some of my subjects were people that hadn’t watched their films in years, I was there to help out, to make sure they had the names right or, at the very least, to give them printout of the credits from IMDB.

I always looked at my job as a responsibility to the filmmaker (or whoever is commenting). I want to show them in the best light possible; to protect them oversights that are a by-product of the ravages of time; and to capitalize on the fact that I have spent way too much time pondering their work.

I’d think—hope–I have a solid track record of producing factually accurate audio commentaries. And therefore when I’m listening to one I didn’t produce and there’s a glaring mistake, you can understand why it stokes my ire.

I have some examples, and you’re may think I’m a old grump that’s getting hung up on details. But that’s exactly what a producer should do: get hung up on details.

-In director Sidney Lumet’s great commentary for Dog Day Afternoon, he talks about the real life events that inspired the film and their relation to the gay rights movement that was blossoming in NYC: “[The robbery was] way in advance of the gay movement. Stonewall had not happened yet.” However, the robbery detailed in Dog Day Afternoon took place in August, 1972; the Stonewall Riots happened in June, 1969. Would it have killed the commentary producer to say, “Uh, Mr. Lumet, can we go back to this one section and take another shot at it. I think your timeline is a little off”? Or if that opportunity was missed, then the producer could say to the editor, “Ditch that section about Stonewall. Lumet’s got it backwards, and we don’t want this great man to look old and doddering.”

-It’s clearly noted in Nashville’s closing credits (and on the soundtrack) that the song “For the Sake of the Children” is written by Richard Baskin and Richard Reicheg, yet during the commentary, director Robert Altman has an isolated moment where gives full credit to actor Henry Gibson. And when I say “isolated,” I mean isolated: it could have been easily removed with a keystroke. Instead it was left in there, and when I saw the songwriters’ names in the credits, I thought, “Oh, man. Some producer fell asleep at the wheel.”

-On Frank Sinatra Jr.’s commentary for the Rat Pack film Sergeants 3, he makes this bold statement about the film’s director John Sturges: “Like his father before him, Preston Sturges, John just had a way with the movie camera.” Which is all the more daring when you realize that not only were Preston and John not father and son, but that Preston Sturges’s first born was hatched 31 years after John Sturges was born.

Rocky has a wonderful cast-and-crew audio commentary, including director John Avildsen, actors Talia Shire, Burt Young, Steadicam operator/inventor Garrett Brown and others. About 99% is great—and well edited—but this one spot really pissed me off. There’s a scene at Philly’s legendary Pat’s Steaks. Now I know this because I was raised in the suburbs of South Jersey and am therefore familiar with this establishment. Oh, and I also know because it’s incredibly clear in the scene’s establishing shot. That being said, why, oh, why did the commentary’s producer leave this in?

Did the person driving that ship even watch the film?

And it didn’t even need to be in there! Steadicam operator Garrett Brown says “Jim’s Steaks” apropos of nothing; it was purposely edited into the tapestry, in between Avildsen’s comments. Lame. (By the way, Stallone gets the name right on his commentary track, which was recorded a few years after this multi-person one.)

(I’ll take it a step further: As someone who grew in that area, I have news for Mr. Avildsen: Rocky did not put Pat’s Steaks [est. 1930] on the map—or Jim’s Steaks, for that matter. On any map. But that’s just me being a local boy, being all hair-trigger.)

Full disclosure: I’m partial to this scene because as the shot continues, Rocky crosses S. 9th St and we see the front of the St. John Nepomucene Catholic Church, which is where my grandmother was baptized in 1921.

Good thing Rocky put it on the map.

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