The TFS Staff Selects Their Favorite Commentary Tracks
Anything David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club, The Game, Panic Room, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Zodiac, Gone Girl, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Informative. In my many years of watching director's film commentaries I've never found a director more informative on the tracks than David Fincher. He's upfront about every one of his films (except Alien 3, of course) and uses his time wisely. For a man who's about all about precision, it's no surprise he packs every minute with enough behind-the-scenes information that will not only make you appreciate his craft, but will give you enough insight that you'd be foolish enough to try your hand at filmmaking (me). Also, Fincher confirms his obsession with numerous takes and studio resentment. For The Social Network, he owns up to Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara do many, many, many takes in order to break down their performances, by aide of repetition. From Jake Gyllenhaal tossing a book in Zodiac over and over, to Jodie Foster dropping a medical bag in Panic Room over and over—Fincher, slyly, says it was all in service of the craft. He even opens up about the studio battles he's had, recounting the wins and loses over test screenings and promotional material. As a bonus, be sure to check out his commentaries for the first two House of Cards episodes. There, he's just as open, speaking about how he spent too much money for one particular scene of Kate Mara sitting on a bench. He also reveals the Frank Underwood line—"You know what I like about people? They stack so well."—is actually something he said on the set of Alien 3.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with Tobe Hooper, Gunnar Hansen, and Daniel Pearl
Tobe Hooper's 1974 film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre not only changed the face of horror but it remains one of the most shockingly powerful and terrifying films ever made. This film has had many commentaries over the years, but the most famous of those is a sit down session with writer-producer-director Tobe Hooper, actor Gunnar Hansen, and cinematographer Daniel Pearl. Over the length of the film, these three friends put on an indie filmmaking clinic on how the picture was made. Here's some info bombs dropped by these three friends, as they reminisce about that fateful summer in Texas:
Tobe Hooper wanted John Larroquette to do his best Orson Welles in the opening narration. “It still sounds like John Larroquette,” joked Hooper.
Wheelchair bound Franklin, portrayed by actor Paul Partain, STAYED in character as Franklin during the filming, annoying cast members daily.
Hooper wanted The film to receive a PG rating, and went as far as pleading his case to the MPAA , Arguing that the film shows barely any blood. He notes the film has maybe two ounces of blood in its entirety, but recognizes the worldwide belief that it’s a wall-to-wall gorefest.
Any wannabe filmmaker should listen to this. Various techniques are given on low budget filmmaking, and even the sense of humor these three guys have when describing war stories about how "someone almost lost an eye" is endearing. This commentary perfectly sheds light on an insane film shoot that almost drove everyone involved completely insane.
Doctor Strange with Scott Derrickson
I picked a recent release for two very simple reasons: I have been raving about it a lot as of late and most importantly it is packed with information. Recently, I went to bat for Scott Derrickson's Marvel outing here and I stand by what I preach. Derrickson informs us that he is recording the commentary the day before the film's world premiere, having no clue how the film will be received at all. Which is bananas considering it was a smash hit.
He then for goes on a tear, rarely, and I mean rarely, repeating himself talking throughout the entire film. All useful information and never boring, the gregarious Derrickson delivers one of the more useful audio commentaries in the MCU arsenal. What actors brought to the table, how he earned the job, and how he needed to honor the comic's psychedelia, all bases are covered. He even addresses the two main complaints the film received once the trailers hit: the casting of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One and the Inception-like visuals, never skirting around the issues and telling it like it is. No matter your stance, it is very admirable to hear him tackle this head-on rather than sweep it under the rug and ignoring it all together. He even calls himself out for going 'um' a few times recalling an old teacher who hated such stutters in speech and he apologizes to the teacher like a true gent. Popcorn trivia galore, with absolute clarity, Doctor Strange has a champion commentary that is a must-listen for both Marvel and film fans.
Alien with Ridley Scott
“Hello, I'm Ridley Scott, and I'm going to be talking about Alien.”
And so begins my favorite director's commentary, for what happens to be my favorite film of all time. I've always been fascinated by the world of the Alien franchise, having first seen James Cameron's Aliens at the age of 8. That led to me seeing Ridley Scott's masterpiece about two years later, having rented it from my local video store. I can still remember being in high school and reserving a copy of Alien when it first came out on DVD, having seen it countless times on VHS, the first thing I did when I got home was watch it with the commentary.
Scott does commentaries on the regular, but the one for his most groundbreaking picture is still my favorite of his. Thanks to both Alien and Blade Runner, he's long been my favorite director, and his commentary is eye opening. Sure since the initial commentary, the information gleaned from it has been reiterated and expanded upon for The Beast Within documentary included on the Blu-ray set, but there's something charming about hearing Scott explain his process through a cloud of cigar smoke. From learning that the actors in spacesuits were in fact children, to finding out that the only reason it's “raining” in the landing gear room is that it looks good, the commentary for the theatrical cut of Alien is a definite must-listen.
The Whip and the Body with Tim Lucas
After Anchor Bay turned a new filmic generation to Mario Bava with their 2007 box set featuring Black Sunday, Black Sabbath, Kill Baby Kill, Knives of the Avenger, and The Girl Who Knew Too Much. These classic Bava DVDs (no, I haven’t upgraded to the Kino Blu-rays yet) illuminated me into the expanding the world of Bava and it also introduced me to another figure in the film world, Tim Lucas.
Lucas, founder and editor of Video Watchdog, is the foremost authority on Mario Bava, and his commentaries for almost every Bava movie is staggeringly informative and insightful. But the commentary track that floored me wasn’t on the Anchor Bay collections; it was the (at the time) VCI Entertainment release of The Whip and the Body. Lucas exceeds himself throughout, shedding light on the films various dynamics, Christopher Lee’s role, dubbing his character, locations, the careers of its European cast, (Daliah Lavi, Tony Kendall, Ida Galli) cinematography, score, and just about everything in between, no stone is unturned with Lucas which is exactly why his commentaries are the best.
This is Spinal Tap with David St. Hubbins, Nigel Tufnel, and Derek Smalls
The best commentaries, the really good ones, provide one of two experiences for the viewer: either they make you feel like part of a conversation, despite having been recorded long before you join it, or they feel like a documentary is unfolding right before you, a completely discrete but still-related experience. This is Spinal Tap’s cast commentary, with Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer, aims to transcend even that high level and present the listener/viewer with what adds up to more of a radio play. They manage this because the main cast delivers their commentary entirely in-character, as the members of the very band depicted in their movie.
McKean, as David St. Hubbins, Guest as Nigel Tufnel, and Shearer as Derek Smalls, all bicker amongst themselves over details in the film which their characters feel were unfairly depicted (the famous backstage scene being a highlight for the commentary), argue over which of the people shown in the film are now dead (in like every scene), and simultaneously defending and attacking David’s hanger-on girlfriend, while hammering after Rob Reiner’s director character, Marty DiBergi. The trio manage a vulnerable and defensive kind of humor all the while tearing down how unfair it is to mention that Rolling Stone reviewed their last album with just two words: “Shit sandwich.”
“The Tap’s” commentary manages to double up the content of the mockumentary’s DVD by providing what is essentially another comedy in audio form.
Conan the Barbarian with Arnold Schwarzenegger and John Milius
One of my favorite DVD features of all-time, this track featuring star Arnold Schwarzenegger and director John Milius sounds like the product of two guys who got really wasted before looking back at a film neither of them had seen in years. Milius does provide several compelling anecdotes about the film’s production background and the inspirations behind his take on Conan, and given it was the highest profile film of his career, he looks back at it fondly. Of course, Arnold is what really makes this great, as he spends most of the time describing the scenes as they happen and making weird, lewd comments throughout, or just agreeing with what Milius says (take a drink every time Arnold says "that is funny" or "exactly" for a fun experience). It’s troubling and gross in some moments, when the two seem to devolve into weird sexist talk revolving the film’s actresses, basically turning into an extended guy talk over evaluating the film, and for that reason especially it’s amazing that the commentary was approved and not scrapped. While the commentary is not at the level of what one would expect, it the remains just as fun, if not more fun, than watching the film on its own.
Anything Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy, Mallrats, Dogma)
I was a boring kid. I was never passionate about music, most of the time I preferred to listen to talk radio or nothing at all. A very boring kid. I was basically waiting for podcasts to be invented. Apparently Kevin Smith was as well, because the commentaries on his movies all end up as proto-versions of his many hit podcasts. Long time collaborators such as Ben Affleck, Jason Lee, Scott Mosier, and Jason Mewes show up for the movies they are in to basically have a movie-length bullshit session. They are rarely informative, but they are always a blast to listen to. On Chasing Amy, Smith got himself into some hot water by going on a tirade right off the bat against DVDs (he was a staunch LaserDisc advocate). Amazingly, this made it onto the DVD but for the Blu-Ray release they had to record an extra track fifteen years later to make up for it, and it ends up being an actual episode of Smodcast. In the years since I discovered podcasts, my fandom for Smith's long-winded rants has waned, but I still pop in one of his DVDs from time to time to relive the many hilarious conversations.
Tropic Thunder with Ben Stiller, Jack Black, and Lincoln Osiris/Father O’Malley/Kirk Lazarus
The first thing to note about the Tropic Thunder cast commentary is that Jack Black was 45 minutes late to the session. The second thing of note is that, much like his character in the film, Robert Downey Jr. does the Tropic Thunder cast commentary in character. First, as Lincoln Osiris, and then later, as the characters disintegrate, Father O’Malley from Satan’s Alley, and Kirk Lazarus himself. Ben Stiller, clearly expecting to use this as a cold run for his filmmakers commentary scheduled after this, is derailed immediately, and Black’s tardiness is a constant touchstone for RDJ to return to.
RDJ is as disruptive as Lazarus is, from excitement over the onscreen effects ("Fucking BA-GAWWW!"), his entrance to a scene ("Here I come, everyone shut up!") and his opinions of Steve Coogan, playing on-screen director Damien Cockburn (“fucking dumb-ass Limey!’). Probably my favorite exchange is a conversation about who they’ll be wearing at the premiere, and Downey/Osiris drops a fast, downward sliding "Dior!". Black is powerless against Downey’s more spot on barbs, cackling and joining in, and Stiller’s legitimate insightful comments are poked and prodded out of him as Downey’s Osiris probes Inside The Actors Studio style questions out of him. Stiller and Black are the skilled comedians here, but RDJ’s penchant for character work makes him sharp and playful, even when he’s not pushing for a punchline.
Schizopolis with Steven Soderbergh and Steven Soderbergh
Director Steven Soderbergh is always one for self-deprecation. He's recorded 13 commentary tracks for his films, and, for the most part, each one if highly informative and filled with the director poking at the film in question. On the Out of Sight commentary, for example, he realizes that he may be poking at the holes in the film too much, complaining on things he could've improved on. There's no bigger critic of Soderbergh than himself, so whom better to interview him on a commentary track than himself. On the Criterion Collection DVD commentary for Schizopolis, it felt only right to break the fourth wall of commentary tracks for a commentary track on a film that regularly breaks the fourth wall. Deadpan doesn't even begin to describe Soderbergh interviewing himself—there's a straight man Soderbergh interviewing the director/star Soderbergh—each question is typical of what you'd hear on commentary track, but each response ranges from flippant to outrageous. In Soderbergh's long list of films and film commentaries, Schizopolis rightfully stands on its own. You may not get much useful information from this commentary (check out the crew commentary on the Criterion disc for that) but it's delightful look into playful mind of Steven Soderbergh.
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin with Andy Klein and the RZA
Hong Kong action movie commentaries, whether they be for heroic bloodshed, wuxia, kung-fu, or a routine shoot-em-ups, has the director, or film critic, presenting great trivia, knowing every extra, and reciting the most gnarly stories about what happened to what stuntman. So, as the case with Dragon Dynasty’s (the Criterion Collection for Hong Kong cinephiles) release of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin after watching the movie, it was commentary time.
It starts with the official introduction from film critic and Dragon Dynasty audio commentary regular Andy Klein, and seemingly out of nowhere I hear “you’ve got the RZA from the almighty Wu-Tang Clan, bong bong,” a lively, but comparatively tame, intro for the RZA.
While Andy Klein is pleasant and fluently informative, the RZA, in all honesty, outflanks him in almost every department: knowledge of wuxia/kung-fu film trivia, Chinese history, and does so with personality and charm. Audio commentaries are always educational, and there are some drawbacks in older home video formats, Laserdiscs, and earlier generation DVDs have the clunky introductions, pauses, (those awkward introductions—“now, insights from film historian David Thomson”) the commentary for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is fun because it’s fast and loose, but above all it’s fun and smart.