Unbiased Coverage Of All Things HD: HD-DVD, Blu-Ray and Beyond
New Cuts For New Formats
It's not every day that you get to speak to a great director, let alone two. That's why I woke up early on the morning of Monday, September 17th, 2007, and fought L.A. traffic to get to Warner Brothers Burbank studio. I had been given the opportunity to meet with two legends in the industry - Wolfgang Peterson and Oliver Stone - and I was not about to pass it up. The event was to mark the release of new cuts made to two major historical epics. I'm referring to, of course, Troy and Alexander.
The morning began with clips from Sean Stone's supplementary documentary that appears on the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions of Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut. In a nice change of pace from the standard EPK, Sean went deep into the daily production of the film, showing just how difficult it was to bring the epic to the screen. But our first guest of the day was not Oliver Stone, nor even Sean Stone. No, we had the great pleasure of director Wolfgang Peterson's company.
Before Peterson arrived, we were told he had a selection of clips he wanted to show us from the new director's cut of Troy. But it quickly became clear that he wanted to talk, and we wanted to listen, so the discussion began immediately. The first question addressed the trend of releasing "director's cut" of movies on DVD with just a few more minutes of footage to make some extra bucks. Wolfgang was adamant that this cut of Troy was the cut he originally wanted to make, but wasn't able to because of studio interference. "The film now is done with much more confidence than what we did under the pressure of a summer release...The original director's cut that I delivered and showed to the studio and was proud of is what's here. And then it went all the way down. Because then came the month of pressure and studio notes and suggestions," he recalled. "When you do this, you're working against what the original idea of Homer's Iliad was...as we all know, Homer's stuff is rough, and it's brutal, and it's sexy, and it's extreme, and bold, and beautiful, and it's epic...and it's got the full spectrum of beautiful and bloody elements to it. The material doesn't ask for a little cut here, smooth things out there...it slices out the original excitement of this monumental project you're working with. But now it's all back there, and I'm very happy with that. Very very happy with that." At the same time, though, Peterson doesn't want to make new cuts of all of his films. The only two of his films to get the director's cut treatment, Das Boot and Troy, are the only two he feels needed a new version. Wolfgang was asked if the knowledge of being able to do a director's cut on DVD makes the paring down of the theatrical cut easier. He replied, saying "I think next time there will be a big fight," clearly wanting to get as much of his full vision on the big screen as possible.
Peterson was extremely excited about the new coloring on Troy. In the theatrical version, only a few scenes had digital color correction, in order to better meld the CGI elements. This time, Peterson had the entire film scanned digitally, and changed the whole color scheme. "I could do it exactly the way I thought it should be...We did only parts of the film when it originally came out and scanned it for digital. Only sections that were CGI-intense. That was maybe 25% of the movie. So this time, we said, okay, please let us do the whole thing, scan it for digital. It gives us the chance to sit there for two or three weeks and dream. And it's amazing what you can do. If it's the color of Brad Pitt's eyes, you want to make them more blue, you can do that, and leave the rest of the image alone. If you want to add saturation to the skies, a little here, a little there, so it doesn't look washed out, you can do it. You can even give actors, if you want, a little bit of a botox job. And nobody will ever know. Did I do it? I don't tell. But I could have."
As much as he was in love with the options digital editing gave him for the image, he was even more enthusiastic about the sound. He described how Gabriel Yared was originally commissioned to do the score, but after poor test screenings, Yared was replaced with James Horner. "The mixing was so quick. [James Horner] did what he could in four weeks. That way, it was so narrow, the window he had, that whatever he recorded each day, it was sent to London and that was our morning in London, and I had to mix it in. I had to mix in whatever I got. I could not have one day where I could say 'Stop, I don't like that, we have to change it.' No way. There was not one day of fallback. So we did the unbelievable thing where every morning we'd mix in the last night's work. And it was okay, but it was not the way you'd normally do it, of course. And that was one of the big things, when I went back to do this version, I said we have to do something with this music. And we recut the music in a way, it's unbelievable. If you look at the old and look at this, and some critics say it's a new score and it's beautiful now, they're wrong. It's the same score, it's just recut. Sometimes you play the silence much better, sometimes you have music where you didn't have any before. And that's not all. Sometimes we'd go into the tracks, took all parts that didn't sound right, replaced them, added different cues in. It was like recomposing the score, but it's always [Horner's] score. If you see it now, I think it works really well." Someone specifically brought up the scoring during the fight between Hector and Achilles. Peterson admitted that this wasn't taken from the original score. "We didn't like what we had before. That was a piece I never liked. I wanted to use what I had in the temp score. What we used there was so good, and it worked much better. And we bought that piece and we put it in. That is a piece, believe it or not, from Danny Elfman. And it's from the film Planet of the Apes. And it's so funny, no one will ever know," a comment which prompted much laughter. "Of course, now everyone will know!" Wolfgang exclaimed.
Being the high definition nut that I am, I had to ask what Wolfgang thought about the new formats, especially considering how much work he put in to the coloring and the sound. He replied very enthusiastically, saying, "I have at home an HD DVD player and I have a big screening room and it's just beautiful, with 7.1 sound. And I have to tell you, it's just unbelievable. If you do work like this and make it so beautiful, and we didn't even talk about the sound! The sound was a major thing, and the sound is far, far better than what we did under the time pressure. If the old one the sound was at 80%, now it's at 100%. So, for the formats, for HD DVD and Blu-ray, it can't get better than that. It's great." Moving away from Troy, Wolfgang confirmed he's got three sci-fi films in development, including his long awaited adaptation of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. "I just had a meeting with Orson the other day and...we're holding in there," he said with a wry smile. After that, he was very keen to show us the clip from Troy where Achilles duels with Hector. As mentioned, the music was very, very different from what originally appeared in the theatrical cut.
At that point, we took lunch. But Warner had a little surprise up their sleeve. We got a chance to speak with Warner's Vice President of High Definition Media. The first few questions dealt with the fact that to date Warner has had trouble getting interactive functionality to work on Blu-ray. Titles such as Return to House on Haunted Hill and Terminator 3 (which features the In-Movie Experience, a feature that currently Warner has not been able to use on Blu-ray) were mentioned, and we were assured that the studio is doing everything they can to match the features on both formats. Unfortunately, the Harry Potter films on Blu-ray will not have the In Movie Experience at this time. For me, a big question was whether or not the DVD Forum's approval of the twin format (which allows for a dual-layer DVD and a dual-layer HD DVD on the same side of the disc) would prompt Warner to drop the flawed and oft-criticized combo format that they currently use for many day and date releases. I got a very vague answer, to the effect that the studio will evaluate twins to see if it meets their needs as well or better than combos.
We did get some good, news, though. I asked if the upcoming five-disc set of Blade Runner would feature all five cuts of the film in full 1080p high definition, and it was confirmed that every cut will be in high def. They also mentioned that making these new Blade Runner sets have a cost of several hundreds of thousands of dollars. They were also very quick to reassert their status as format neutral. "We don't want to penalize the consumer," was something they really wanted us to take away from the conversations. They're not sweating the increased replication costs of Blu-ray, citing other benefits that balance out the extra money they have to spend. Overall, we got a sense of a studio very dedicated to making the best possible high definition releases possible, an assumption that's proven by the stellar discs they've brought to the market.
After that we got to take a swing at Oliver Stone and his son Sean. As with Wolfgang Peterson, both were very personable and forthcoming. We started this section with clips from the HD DVD and Blu-ray, Oliver explaining that he himself has yet to see the HD discs. "I really haven't seen this," he mused, asking questions about the discs to the various studio reps behind him. After the clips, the first question was obvious: Why a third cut of a film he's already released twice before? "I was arbitrarily trying to make this movie three hours and less. As you know, I made two cuts of it. It has a different pace, this film. The emotions come out differently. The intermission comes in the right spot. It just has the right feel to it." He was asked if this was his truly final cut. "I promise you I won't be back," he responded ruefully, "All the footage is here."
Asked about previous comments where he was critical of DVD, Stone was quick to point out the benefits of the format. "Without it," he explained, "I wouldn't have been able to make this cut." But at the same time, he wasn't without reservation. "It's a shame people watch DVD's with the lights on, with people wandering in and out of the room. Movies are different from television. You cannot watch movies like television, it distorts it. Television is a cool medium, movies are a hot medium. You can pause TV, stop it, go back to it. I make my movies in the kind of way where if you miss one minute, you'll be completely lost."
Stone addressed making a film with the scope of Alexander in 90 days with financiers breathing down his back. "You can't do it anymore. Ridley Scott is a perfect example with Kingdom of Heaven, and with Blade Runner. He wanted to make more ambitious films, and he finally got the chance with DVD. I don't know how, the exhibitors have cut it off. It's impossible to make a 3 hour, 45 minute movie anymore. If I had the guts, which I don't think I had, I would have released a longer cut in Europe, and I would have given it to Warner Brothers, and they would have cut it. It would have been the typical Sergio Leone scandal, but I think if I did it, I wouldn't be working. I wouldn't be here right now. It's just a system, and you live in this system. You can't make big movies, you have to make smaller movies. You can't take on Alexander unless you make it less than three hours, which is possible. I couldn't do it. It does cut down your ambitions, because some movies do take longer."
We talked a lot about Sean's documentary and Oliver's reaction to it. "Sean was courteous enough to show it to me [before it went on the disc] and I was embarrassed about some things in it, but I said, 'Fuck it,' I'm doing down anyway with this movie, I might as well tape the whole thing. It wasn't that flattering at times, but it was a special moment in our relationship, because it was the first time we had spent time together in a working environment." Sean chimed in, saying, "There really is a dialogue between a father and a son. It's really a filmmaker explaining himself." Oliver was asked about cuts he had to make for theatrical exhibition. "The eunuch was really the biggest problem in terms of sexuality. The fact that [Alexander] was a military commander with Greek proclivities was not easy, because that's not the way Americans like to think about the military, but the eunuch was the real hangup. He was cut entirely out of the theatrical version, but now he's back."
With a body of work like the kind Oliver Stone has accumulated, it was inevitable that we moved beyond Alexander to talk about about his career as a whole. "We worked at a pace that was incredible. I mean, one film a year, imagine the energy that went into that. They were huge films, they really were. They were muscular and big. I do think we reached a natural exhaustion point...so I was tired. When I did Any Given Sunday I re-exhausted myself again. And then Alexander, with the documentaries in between. So while the pace has let up, the intensity has not. I'd love to do a little drawing room film. I'd love to do Gosford Park," he joked. And knowing Stone's outspoken political views, it was just a matter of time before someone asked what he thought about our current political situation. "I think the obvious has been missed. The conspiracy these days has been so overt. You don't need to hide it, there's no need for covertness. When the President of the United States has been caught leading us into a war under false pretenses and everyone knows about it, that's a conspiracy. And he hasn't been impeached for it."
But we weren't talking politics just for a sound bite. As any Oliver Stone fan knows, politics and history form the backbone of his work. Discussing the current political climate only brought us to his next project, Pinkville, about the Mile High Massacre. "It's really a hell of a script. It's really more like a JFK, it's an investigation. It's about how things get covered up. It takes the tenacity of two main men to uncover it. I didn't know as a soldier what exactly happened until I read this script in 2001. I think there's a historical, frankly an obligation, to remember. If we don't remember, then we're really fucked. So what else can I really do as a filmmaker? We're working very hard on Pinkville. We've had eight drafts since 2001."
Moving back to Alexander, Stone expounded upon his goals with the film. "I'm a history person. I love history. Alexander to me is one of the greatest inspirations. He's one of the best examples to the youth of today of guts, of bravery, of following your dream. But at the same time, there's also misery, and suffering, and burden he had from his youth. But I wanted to show the young generation that there ARE heroes, there are people who can change the course of history for better or for worse. I wouldn't have focused my whole life on Alexander, but he's a prototype. You realize when he did this, when he went to the East with this size army, no one had done that. There was this tradition of great heroes who went East, but they were all myths. Achilles was a myth. Perseus, Theseus, they probably existed in some form. They all went East. That's where you went to make your bones, so to speak. Alexander was the first man to go East not to plunder, not to loot and come back to Greece, which is where his Macedonians wanted to go. He stayed and became half eastern. That's the interesting thing about his journey. It wasn't like, 'Let's get out of Iraq.' He went over there to stay. But I'm fascinated by the idea of this man. He's done something that's never been done again. Even the Mongols went home."
We all chatted a bit more and the conversation wound down. It had been a long day, with some excellent discussion, and a lot of information to sort through. But more than anything, I took away a lot of enthusiasm. Enthusiasm from the directors over these revised and improved cuts of their most epic films. Enthusiasm from Warner Brothers over their relationships with these men, and over both hi def formats. The feeling was infectious and I came away exhilarated and exhausted, but mostly thankful that I was able to take part, and thankful that I can experience these movies with the best possible picture and sound on HD DVD and Blu-ray.
A few weeks back, I carried a story about a mall tour Disney was doing to promote Blu-ray. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to make it to the location in my area, but DVD Talk creator Geoffrey Kleinman was, and he writes back with a some interesting thoughts about the event and the war in general. Read on for his impressions:
In covering Home Entertainment Events I've traveled to some interesting places. But in all these years I never expected to hop in my car and drive a few blocks down to my local mall. This past weekend Disney's Magical Blu-Ray Tour made a pit stop at the local Washington Square Mall here in Portland Oregon in an effort to make the case for Blu-Ray as the high-def platform of choice.
For me, the biggest question in my mind wasn't "why Washington Square Mall?" but "why Disney?" At its launch Blu-Ray was considered solidly to be a Sony platform and the format war, at its heart, would be between Sony and Toshiba. And yet, here in my local mall, it is Disney showcasing Blu-Ray (along side Panasonic) like a proud parent showing off pictures of a new child.
Make no mistake, Disney is committed to crafting the story of Blu-Ray. As their presentation began a reel showed many of Walt Disney's innovations: from early animation to 3D animatronics and the founding of the first major theme park. As this reel finished up you're left with the impression that old Walt thawed out from his cryogenic freeze for a bit to come back and invent Blu-Ray.
As surprising as it may be to see Disney 'own' the message of Blu-Ray, it may just be the thing that gives the platform the competitive advantage over HD DVD. With DVD the case for the switch from VHS to DVD was made with 'early adopters' and the transition between the two took many, many years. This time around studios recognize the importance of getting the message out to the mass audience as quickly and effectively as they can. Thus a mall tour.
What interested me the most about the Disney 'Magical Blu-Ray Tour' was the fact it was so squarely targeted at kids. The titles displaying on the screens of the booth were Cars, Chicken Little and Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man's Chest and the featured content wasn't the movies but the games.
Disney has mastered the craft of marketing to kids and this mall tour is another example of how savvy they are at leveraging that knowhow to make their business a success. As most early owners of HD DVD and Blu-Ray systems eagerly await releases like Blade Runner and Spider Man 3 it may very well be the High School The Musical 2 and Harry Potter which propel the format war into a new arena, the domain of the highly tech savvy and hyper consuming kid.
In less than wonderful news, Fox has delayed indefinitely Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. While I won't speculate on the reasons for the delay, it does not bode well for Fox, who have not produced a single Blu-ray disc since April. Here's hoping this is an isolated incident and does not turn into a whole series of cancellations for the gun-shy studio. And even when they do seem intent on releasing a title, they don't do it right. Robocop recently received a feature-laden special edition, but the announced Blu-ray features are...a trailer. That's it. You've got to be kidding me. To top it all off, if you want to see the unrated cut of Live Free or Die Hard, you'll have to buy the regular DVD, as the Blu-ray is only PG-13. It's nice to know that no matter what else happens in this format war, Fox is still make boneheaded decisions.
On a lighter note, Disney has announced their Q4 titles, including three separate Pixar releases and Pirates of the Caribbean - At World's End. Universal has announced not only The Bourne Ultimatum, but also a limited edition trilogy box set of all three Bourne films. Look for all these this holiday season.
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