David vs. Goliath: David Kalat Reflects on Running a DVD Company
Posted by: Robert Mandel
David Kalat has the kind of luminous voice that should find him mixed up in radio, commercials, or even Moviefone, but that cannot help but reflect the almost childish glee he gets out of "shameless self-promotion," as he guiltfully admits to several times on the pages below. But how is a guy basically operating as a one-man-show, who is trying to scratch out a living bringing old obscure foreign horror and sci-fi flicks into the consciousness of a DVD-buying public overly consumed with new releases and Hollywood blockbusters supposed to get word of his product out to the niche market that does or might care? Martin Blythe of Paramount spoke to the dOc about niche market... well, David is the REAL niche market, folks. Don't believe me? Check out his foray into the modern era, Treasure Island.
dOc: How did you get into the DVD business?
David: Well, I had been working at Interface Video Systems, sort of as a Project Manager. This is the video facility in Washington D.C. where I have since been doing all of the film-to-video transfers of the DVDs. In the mid- to late-1990s, when DVD was initially being promoted but hadn't officially been rolled out, I was interested in finding out about the format and capabilities, because I suspected at that time that our clients were going to be asking about it for their own usage. So, I wanted to be well acquainted with it to be able to answer their questions and provide them services. I was gathering information—really with no ulterior motive at that time.
At the same time I had been a video collector with an unhealthy obsession in obscure films and unusual lesser known movies. I was discouraged because my house was filling up with these rather poor quality VHS tapes—copies of copies of copies of copies... that I was paying good money for, but which looked terrible, and had limited shelf life. They were not very satisfying, so they were not really worth collecting. I was interested in the films themselves, but the presentations were so poor.
So, as I began to learn more and more about what DVD had to offer, I began to think that this was the ideal medium by which to distribute, specifically, cult movies.
dOc: Did you ever get into LaserDisc?
David: I hadn't because of the prohibitive cost. I just did not have the money to put into developing a LaserDisc collection at those kinds of prices. I was also put off by the fact that a lot of other people were in the same position, and to me the great appeal of the video revolution was being able to make these movies accessible to the greatest possible audience. So, LD seemed to run counter to that whole notion by making it an elitist sort of pursuit. But DVD took all of the advantages to LaserDisc and did it at essentially what were VHS prices. So here was something you could really invest in, and own with the same kind of ownership you would have in a book or CD collection; something that would stand the test of time, without deteriorating.
At that time, all of the seminars I was going to indicated that DVD's initial roll out would be supported by these big, Hollywood blockbuster films. Not the kind of films that I was going to rush out to the video store and buy. So, I felt here was an opportunity to really put my money where my mouth was, and if I felt that DVD was the way to distribute cult movies—and it looked as if no one else was going to be doing that—then maybe what I ought to be doing is licensing these films myself and bringing them out on DVD. As it turned out I was NOT the only person with that idea or agenda; I was one of a number of small labels that jumped into DVD, but I was one of the first. A lot of the other companies that have been my peers and competitors had been involved in LaserDisc and made the transition gradually while they waited to see if DVD lived up to its promise. I had the advantage of jumping into the format when it was largely being exploited by companies such as Warner Bros and MGM and Sony. There were a handful of early adopters that were interested in collecting unusual films on DVD, there weren't many to choose from back in 1997. There were a lot of reviewers who thought, what a weird thing it is that when there are only a handful of titles on DVD that The Sadist, with Arch Hall Jr., was one of the first!
dOc: Was that your first title then?
David: That was the first title we brought out, toward the end of 1997. I'm still kind of proud of that release! I have learned a lot in the three years since then, and I think we are doing substantially better work now, but I am not ashamed of what we were able to pull off without ANY prior experience in video distribution, or any real knowledge of where this was going to go.
dOc: So, what is it that you have learned?
David: Part of it is learning what it is that the market will hold. Not having any experience in video distribution previously, it was hard for me to evaluate what my potential sales were going to be. I had a kind of unrealistic ambition of how many of these titles were going to sell. At the beginning I think we were over-spending on production, so that has been a learning experience over the years as far as what we can afford to put into the titles based on what we can expect to make back.
dOc: What aspect of production were you spending too much money on?
David: It would depend on the condition of the materials. For example, Ganja and Hess, that alone was two or three times as expensive as the two titles that had gone before it, which were The Sadist and The Asphyx, because there was no single, complete element that we were able to use. That was the same problem that we faced with The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, where it wasn't possible to take the negative or a print and say, "Here's our source material, let's master this to video." It was instead a process of piecing it together from various sources, and trying to find not just which of the sources was in the best condition—on a scene by scene basis—but reassembling the film, and making sure we were getting all of the scenes, and all in the right order. That whole process of editing is much more involved and much more expensive than probably is really warranted. Again, these are niche market titles, but I felt it was work that needed to be done, and if it wasn't done then these titles would simply not have been available because there was no other way to do it.
dOc: So, putting them out there at all is more important than presenting them in the best light?
David: Yeah. It is an advantage that I have being able to operate this on kind of a one person basis, where I really don't have to answer to people who might question my methods. Since it's just me doing this, my approach has been to balance productions where there are more involved things such as with Ganja and Hess and The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, with things like The Sadist, or Daughter of Dr. Jekyll or Blue Beard where they are much more straight forward. Basically, some titles are less difficult and less expensive and make up the shortfall of those that are more involved, so that hopefully in the long run it will all come out in the wash.
dOc: Before you got into DVD, and prior to being a Project Manager, what were you doing?
David: I had had the naïve and irrational belief that I was going to become an independent filmmaker myself. I was one of those people who grew up as a kid watching Star Wars and then moved onto the whole independent film revolution that came out in the late 1980s with Spike Lee and Steve Soderbergh, and the whole American independents scene where people with no money and no previous experience in the industry were getting investors to back very low budget films that were then winning awards and getting huge distribution contracts. So in my mind I was going to be the next Spike Lee, not taking into account that I did not have any talent, nor did I have any investors that were willing to back my irrational hopes. So, after a couple of years of failing to make a film of my own, I decided that perhaps releasing other people's movies was a more realistic approach to the whole thing.
dOc: Didn't you have some relationship to the TV series, Homocide?
David: Indirectly. When I first moved to Washington D.C., I was looking around for work—I had just graduated from the University of Michigan—I was trying to find some kind of employment in the film and video industry. A color lab out in Rockville, Maryland had suddenly got a tremendous amount of extra work as a result of the fact that Homocide started shooting in Baltimore. They needed somebody to help them out on a very short-term basis, so I ended up getting a job there. I had had some of my short films processed at the lab, so I was familiar with their work, and I sent them a resume based on that. When this extra work came in I ended up getting a job in the prep room, just cleaning film and getting things ready for color timing. It just so happened that there were people who were retiring and leaving the company at the time I was joining up, so an opportunity opened up to start working as a color timer, which is an unusual specialty for someone of my age. Most people who go into that sort of thing are going to do it on the video side of it doing telecine work rather than film-based coloring, but I got that opportunity at Color Lab. I had in my heart a very warm spot for Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana and everyone over at Homocide for having opened the door for me.
So, when I started writing books about film and television, I had always had in my mind that I wanted to talk about the fact that I thought that Homocide was such a fascinating way of translating the avant-garde stylings of the French New Wave, and a lot of things that were still very experimental, and putting them into a prime time network TV context. I started working on a book about Homocide, although it ended up being not as I intended, but as a rather straight forward companion or episode guide, that sort of thing. That was an opportunity to pay homage, in a way, back to the show that got me my start.
dOc: You wrote another book about Dr. Mabuse, right?
dOc: Did that come before or after you purchased the rights to the films?
David: They were kind of interconnected from the start. I first got interested in Dr. Mabuse when I saw the 1932-1933 Testament of Dr. Mabuse, which I rented from a video store not really knowing much about it, not having seen a whole lot of Fritz Lang's films. It was a case of picking something off the shelf randomly, and being absolutely entranced with it. Here was a film at the very dawn of the sound era, and it had so much about it that felt very contemporary—it felt like it could have been a summer blockbuster film six or seven decades later, and not have been out of place. I was really impressed with what was this very stylish action film being made in the sort of genesis of modern filmmaking. Then I became increasing aware of the fact that there were other Dr. Mabuse films, some of them also made by Fritz Lang after and before that film; that this was an entire genre of movies in Germany that dealt with historical concepts, and all of the traumatic history that Europe had faced during the early part of the Twentieth Century.
I was really fascinated with the fact that there was this whole huge subculture of films that wasn't being shown in the United States; that in Germany, the name Dr. Mabuse would be as well known to people as Frankenstein or Dracula, but to Americans would be completely unknown. I knew at that point—this was many, many years ago—that I needed to proselytize Dr. Mabuse to other people, it was my mission in life to bring this character to a broader audience. Just exactly how that was going to happen I wasn't sure, so when All Day Entertainment got started in 1997 I immediately put the Dr. Mabuse films on my short list to pursue for licensing for release. But that ended up being a much longer process than I anticipated, partly because it took a long time to negotiate the deal with the German producers. And also, as I have talked about elsewhere, the whole process of restoring the films for release on DVD turned out to be far more involved and more complicated than I had anticipated when I originally got into it.
So, it was while I was working on that whole process that I was also researching it both for my own edification and to find a way to promote the DVDs. That led to an article for Midnight Marquee magazine. It was the experience of writing the article, and every time I thought I was done with it and was ready to send it off, I would discover there was some other movie that I hadn't covered, that I hadn't known about. I would then seek that film out and write about it, and then as soon as I thought I was ready to send it off,"Oh, wait! There's another movie!" And even once I ultimately sent the article off there were THREE more films that came to light, but the article had been published. I felt that clearly this was far more substantive subject matter than can be covered in a couple of pages of a magazine, that there needs to be a book. So, I started pitching the book... but this was all concurrent with working on the DVD, so the two were going hand in hand all throughout. In fact, the book is scheduled for release any month now from McFarland. I persuaded them to let me hire the same artist who did the DVD cover art, Bill Chancellor, to do the cover painting of the book so that there would be a certain consistency in visual style and imagery as possible. As much cross-pollination and shameless self-promotion as I could cram into it!
dOc: When you say "niche market," I think about a certain sales number that one of the studios considers to be niche. I'd be interested to know what you think that number is for DVDs, being a smaller independent.
David: We start, generally, with initial pressing of 2,500. As the DVD audience has grown as the number of DVD players has increased exponentially, I am finding that the orders coming in on titles have also been growing exponentially... and growing in ways that don't necessarily have anything to do with the popularity of the titles. For example, the largest initial pressing we've had so far was on the Edgar Ulmer film, The Pirates of Capri, that just came out a couple of weeks ago. Although I really like that film, and I think it's a tremendous crowd pleaser... I had the opportunity to show it at the Anthology Arts Theater in New York a couple of months ago, and the audience really got into the film... to be honest it's a swashbuckler, and that's not a genre that has any currency any more. You don't get people going out to the movies saying, "I want to go out and see a swashbuckler this weekend!" It stars Louis Hayward, who is virtually unknown these days, and although I think the film is really good and rewards multiple viewings, it's not something I think is more interesting inherently than, say, The Asphyx, which is a more Hammer horror-style science fiction film that sold many fewer copies. It really is the case where the DVD audience is growing, and that is pushing our initial sales up. Ask me the question today and you're going to get one number. Ask me the question two years from now and I think you're going to get a much higher number. The niche audience is growing as the DVD penetration increases.
dOc: What was the number you pressed for Pirates?
David: The initial pressing for that one was 2,700.
dOc: When I think about them, although they were repeats, those swashbucklers on Sunday afternoon before cable was the thing. I didn't get into John Wayne, so that's what I grew up on....
David: It's definitely the case now where if you are trying to sell a film that falls into the science fiction and horror genres, a tremendous amount of your work is already done for you, because the audience for horror and science fiction films tend to be rather proactive in their collecting. They are out there looking for the movies that they are interested in; they seek them out. So, there doesn't have to be that much done in terms of advertising or promotion to make that audience aware of the existence of your disc. Whereas films that don't fall into those genres, even if they are better films... for instance, when we did the first of the Edgar Ulmer series, Strange Woman, starring Hedy Lamarr. A lot of critics regard that film as Hedy's best-ever performance, and coincidentally, the disc happened to come out at the exactly the same time that she passed away, so she was in the news, and it's the film with the biggest budget that Ulmer worked on—it's a really nice film, it's got a lot of kinky sexuality, it's got George Sanders in it, it's a really, really nice film... it's our lowest selling film to date. We can barely give those things away at all. Whereas a film like Daughter of Dr. Jekyll, which I think is a fluffy little science fiction film, it's got some appeal in its appropriation of the Universal horror gothic kind of approach. But nobody's going to come away from it saying, "Oh, I've seen a really great film!" But that sold like hotcakes, and I think that is because there were are a lot of people who saw it when they were kids....
dOc: Exactly! That's what I'm saying... those of us who grew up watching swashbuckler films on Family Classics on WGN on Sunday afternoons have a certain nostalgia for them.
David: Yeah. I had a dealer's table at the Classic Film Fest that Midnight Marquee hosted in the Washington D.C. area last summer, and this guy walked up to the table, looked at the discs, and said, "You know, I'm an Edgar Ulmer fan and I'm also a big pirate movie fan..." And, I said, "Oh, boy! Have I got the film for you!" I felt like I had done the disc just for an audience of one! How can you hit the target audience any better than that?
dOc: So, do you suffer from guilt that Hedy Lamarr dies right when you are putting the disc out, and you are saying in the back of your mind, "Yes!"
David: Well, I think I've been through my sense of guilt on that before. Back when I thought I was going to be a filmmaker, when I was working on what was to be my first feature, which was based on a true story about this group of cultists that predicted that the world was going to end in 1954. I licensed the rights from the people involved, I'd written the script, we'd hired a cast, we had locations, then the money fell through at the last second and the whole thing disappeared. But had the film been made on the original production schedule we were slated to have the film done and edited at a time coincidentally when the whole Heaven's Gate thing happened. Of course, lots of people died, but it would have been great publicity. As I sat there pondering, "Oh, gee, I really should have had the film out by now..." on the back of such tragedy. I have been through that before. I think one person's tragedy is not as bad as a group of people's.
We film people are a soulless lot!
dOc: Let's get more into the aspects of being an independent, especially your size. There's Kino, Criterion, Anchor Bay and Image (both of which are gigantic compared to you!) that are all on the similar end of the business.
David: It's hard to consider Criterion an independent, though. They definitely deal with this kind of stuff, but they also have been working with the studios to parallel releases of these big films.
dOc: Mostly Disney and MGM, who either don't have interest or the money to do special editions themselves (withstanding the Orion titles). I guess because of the market was drying up, meaning that in their LaserDisc incarnation, and this goes for Image as well, they released a lot of studio titles, but with DVD the studios are primarily doing their production in-house now. So, that avenue dried up, which forces the non-studio companies to begin looking at foreign and fringe films. When you think of all of you trying to find the "fine art" foreign films... are you guys finding yourselves fighting for the same titles, going at each other, at all?
David: There are so many movies that I dearly love that are either not available or long out of print or the available prints are not very good, it's hard for me to think that the movies that I'm interested in are going to get used up before I get done with this. I continue to take a look at this long list of titles where I scarcely can believe that half the other companies even know of the existence of some of these. So, I'm not too terribly worried about that.
A bigger concern, especially from an independent standpoint, is that as the studios have gotten into DVD, the bar has been raised for what is considered 'typical' with DVD. You know, when this was all getting started the comparison point was to LaserDiscs, where a vast majority of films were coming out with maybe a trailer, and a deluxe edition would include an audio commentary track. Now you get extragavant, multimedia capacity of releases like The Matrix. The more the DVD audience comes to expect, the harder it is for the smaller players like myself to be able to meet those expectations. This comes especially when you're dealing with the old films where the participants are long since dead; where films have fallen into near obscurity and are barely in any presentable shape by themselves. The idea of coming up with alternate footage or deleted scenes or any kind of supplements like that is really a hit or miss sort of equation.
It was really a shot in the dark that we were able to come up with color footage from the making of Bluebeard, back in 1944. It wasn't like we could have said, "Let's go seek this out," it was a case where we were presented it—"Here you go. Here is some color footage to go along with the film." But other than that it wasn't something you could have expected to find. So, there are lots of other movies, such as Fall of the House of Usher, essentially with nothing on it, because really there isn't much to put with it. And as a point of competition you don't want to disappoint the buyers, but you also have to bear in mind what's doable and what's worth doing in terms of how in-depth the disc is going to be versus how many people are going to buy it. Just about everybody who has a DVD player is going to buy the James Bond special editions, because they are must haves. Ganja and Hess is a must have for people who know about it, but it's never going to have the same kind of penetration. So, how will the two ever compete with each other?
dOc: Well, I think that the people who are really into these films—the collectors, the cinephiles—I think they understand. The supplements are nice to have, but when you come down to it, having these films in the best condition possible on DVD is most important. You look at the Criterion Collection, most of the releases don't come out as special editions, but it's the quality of the transfers that makes these wonderful. I would think that the transfers would be the most difficult aspect for you... not that putting out a brand new film is cheap either...
David: Well, I have been very fortunate... as I have said before, I worked at Interface Video, and I have been very lucky to have such experienced people to work with.
dOc: What was the worst condition you discovered a film in?
David: I think The Asphyx was the worst source material we were presented for any of the titles. Which is ironic, because it was one of the most recent films that we've done. The movie was made in 1972, but the prints we got were literally covered in mold. Neither of them had anything approaching any decent contrast left to them, the colors were solid pink, and they were badly scratched. Just very dirty. It was a very long time to do the transfer. It took many weeks, and what impressed me was that when we got to a point where the thing had been transferred—we were using the best sources for each individual scene, it was edited together, and I was satisfied with it and signed off on the transfer—the colorist, who in that case was Bob Johannsen, said, "No, I can do this better." So, he went back and even made some substantial improvements—not just incremental—but substantial improvements in a number of the scenes. There are still two or three scenes in the movie that I really wish could look better, but by and large it looks the way the movie would have looked had you been in the theater back in 1972. The fact that the prints are so badly damaged and so badly faded, it really is a testament to what can be done in the digital video realm. And that's one of the reasons I think that DVD is such a great medium for dealing with these forgotten films. When you think about the effort that the studios had to put into restoring movies like Star Wars and The Godfather, for their big theatrical reissues over the past couple of years... they talk about all of the work that had to go into making these things presentable again... and these were the crown jewels in the history of major movie studios—these are about as popular as movies can get—and if they have deteriorated that much over the span of just one generation, then just imagine what has happened to all of the orphan films. These films are not going to survive indefinitely, and through the magic of digital restoration, not only can you improve upon the damage to the original film elements, but you can sort of freeze it in time, because that digital transfer itself is not going to deteriorate over time, even as the film may suffer further indignities over the course of time. People can then watch them in home theater environments that, in many cases, are so much nicer in terms of presentation style than a lot of movie theaters, that you can really sort of rescue these films from an ignoble fate.
dOc: Exactly. I think that is an important aspect of the medium, because who knows how long many films are going to last, and so this is a medium that allows a chance to restore and preserve films for posterity. I say make the effort now, because this is the time to do it. There may not be many more chances to bring them back to life.
David: It's one of the things I have been proud about in this process, that we haven't just been doing the video transfers to produce the DVDs, but have also been contributing to the filmic restorations,. Perhaps, if technology improves over time and it becomes possible to do a different video transfer in the future for some different format, we have at least been able to preserve, but maybe to improve, the condition of the film elements. In the case of Ganja and Hess, the only known surviving print that had been previously available for theatrical screenings had been withdrawn by the Museum of Modern Art, because of damage. When we brought in the new prints that we were using for the DVD, we donated them to MoMA., so that their print could be restored. So that is once again available for theatrical screening due to the work on the DVD. Similarly, with the Ulmer process, many of these are restorations done by the Cinémath&eagrave;que français, and through the revenues generated by the DVD sales, we are making those prints available for theatrical screenings here in the U.S. There have been a number of Ulmer retrospectives at film festivals around the U.S. over the last couple of years, which are a consequence of the work on the DVDs. Similarly with 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, we actually created a new film element for the last six minutes of the film, because the final six minutes on the prints in Germany were completely unusable. We had to optically reprint it, and when we were done with that it was of no further value to us; we sent it back to CCC, so that their print could be whole. We have tried to work in tandem with film restoration as well, even though ultimately when you take a look at how much is involved in film restoration versus just digital restoration for DVD release, the two are wildly imbalanced. So, it's not like we are going to be able to go out there and restore things for theatrical release, and then do a DVD transfer off of that. We'll leave that to the people working on the Alfred Hitchcock releases! But we'll do what we can to get close.
dOc: How did you get hooked up with as recent a film as Treasure Island?
David: I had seen it sort of by accident. I was in New York working on 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, and I had some time free one afternoon. I was flipping through the Village Voice trying to find something that I can do to kill the time, and I read this review of Treasure Island that just sounded fascinating. It sounded like something that was genuinely unique. I thought that if I don't go see this, the odds of being able to see it in the future are pretty slim. So, I trekked out to the movie theater, and they had misprinted the time. When I got to the theater the movie wasn't showing, so I had to come back later. I was really invested in the film by the time I got to a genuine showing of it. Half way into it, a little voice in my head was telling me I had to buy this film. This was a Saturday, so I contacted the director, Scott King, that Monday. By the end of that week the wheels were in motion to do the DVD.
It was really one of those "loveat first sight" experiences, even though I knew at the time that this was a derisive film that didn't leave much room for moderate feelings. You either love it or you hate it. There were some people at the screening that I was at that hated it. About the same time that I was committed to releasing the film on DVD, there were a couple of people who got up and left. I mentioned this to Scott, and he said that he considered it a badge of honor! He felt that any screening where people did NOT get up and leave, that he had failed in some way. He really wants it to piss people off. I guess that gives you some insight into where that film was going. I guess that's part of the niche that I have been carving for myself. As you mentioned there are other independent DVD labels like Image, and Criterion, Synapse and Elite, and everybody has their own little personal niche. I guess I'm the distributor of last resort for the films that everybody else hates! Nobody else can sell Ganga and Hess. Nobody else can sell Treasure Island.
dOc: Did you ever see Chuck and Buck?
David: No. It's been hard for me. On top of the DVDs and writing my books, I am also a stay-at-home dad. Getting out to the movies can be a real challenge, so I see many fewer films at the theater than I would like to.
dOc: Well, Artisan just put it out on DVD. I had thought that—I hate to use the word 'strangest', but I will—it was the strangest film I had seen all year, but TI tops that! But I have to say that this the coolest packaging I have ever seen for a DVD release.
David: Well, I think we had to kind of overcome, as you say, the 'strange' aspect of the movie. There are going to be people who don't like it, and some of the people who don't like it are going to be people who have gone out to the store and bought it. And some of the people who are not going to like it are going to be reviewers who we sent review copies to. So I needed to do something to mitigate that so that the people who bought it wouldn't feel that they had been cheated in some way. Also, part of it was putting on the packaging as much as I could to indicate that this was an unusual film that you may not like. We even did some ads where instead of putting positive reviews on it I put only negative review quotes, just so that people would know what they are getting into. I also wanted people to feel that they got their money's worth. You get a hardcover book, for god's sake. You get all this supplemental material—all the commentary tracks and deleted scenes—it's going to take you a good weekend to get through all of this stuff. So, even if the movie isn't your cup of tea you are still getting something for your $30.
dOc: The only thing that worried me about the package is the styrafoam hub.
David: Yeah, it's one of the things with these custom packages... you don't know what to expect. With the Amaray cases, these things have been well tested and there's a lot of experience that go into them and you know what to expect. There was this whole thing that happened when DVD was first launched. There were all these companies that were competing to be the supplier of packaging. A lot of them fell by the wayside. You've got the cardboard boxes (Snappers) that Image and Warner Bros. use, you get these plastic boxes that practically everybody else uses, and all of the other options you had in 1997 have basically disappeared. So, when you come along and do something like this you are kind of asking for trouble. Scott and I have been concerned about what's going to happen to this box five or ten years down the line—how dirty this piece of white cardboard is going to get. I think because Scott wants it to look like it's a genuine relic from the 1940s, if it gets all dusty and beat up it will probably help it! That little Styrofoam dot was the biggest headache with it. Of all of the aspects of the packaging, that was the one that slowed it down. We missed out street date by a week—which isn't that bad in this business—but we missed it due to that little foam dot that holds the disc in place, because those things had to be individually hand glued on.
dOc: I think the design goes along with the theme I THOUGHT the movie was about! The whole code and Secret Squirrel stuff going on, only to discover what was really about.
David: That is definitely a part of it, and what originally drew me into the theater that fateful Saturday, as I have always had a fascination with cryptography, and the way that World War II era cryptography led into the whole computer age. Also, the way the film drew in aspects of film noir, old serials, as well as French New Wave. A lot of different things getting mixed into the soup.
dOc: Did you have to get special dispensation from Image for doing this case?
David: No. Actually the deal with Image covers a lot of things but the packaging isn't one of them. The deal is that I get to have virtually complete autonomy over my end of production, and they buy the finished product from me. That's why I have been able to use the Amaray plastic cases, while everything else that comes from Image is in the cardboard Snapper cases. I did have to talk to them about it because it was going to increase shipping costs, as typically a box of DVDs holds 30 units—as is standard VSDA packaging, but since these are physically larger and substantially heavier we could only fit 21 per case.
dOc: I only had a chance to view the first behind-the-scenes. What else is on the disc?
David: There's that behind-the-scenes featurette that was actually shot on set during the production, that has interviews with the cast and the crew. There is also a separate featurette that is about 8 minutes or so, that includes footage from Sundance, where the film was viewed publicly for the first time. This shows not only Scott King giving the introduction to the crowd, but also the crowd's initial response. I think an important record, because part of what I think is the interesting back story of this whole project is that typically when a film wins awards at a major film festival like Sundance that's more or less like winning a contract from a major distributor. This is an example of a film that won a major award at Sundance that didn't go on to be picked up by a company like Miramax or October Films. In fact, the major distributors actually laughed at how uncommercial the film was, and that was a kind of notorious incident at the time. It got written up with a lot of cluck-clucking tongues from the independent cinema press—in magazines like Filmmaker and Independent Film and Video Magazine, sort of how the idea of these festivals promoting 'art films' got lost in the desperation to find the next Blair Witch Project, the next moneymaker. We also have two complete audio commentaries by Scott King. One where he talks specifically about the making of the film, and one where he discussed what the film means, and what went into it. You also get the trailer and a number of deleted scenes, the latter, which has Scott's comments on them as well. You get the complete original screenplay and storyboards as a DVD-ROM supplement. I want to go on to say that this is a rare DVD-ROM supplement that works in Macs as well as PCs. Most of the DVD-ROM supplements are coded to be used only on PCs, and because I have a Mac I was determined that it work on my computer, dammit! There is a separate section in the video section for the screenplay for those without DVD-ROM access, where you can do immediate scene-by-scene comparisons looking at the storyboards and the scenes they turned into. Of course, there's the hardcover book we've talked about.
And the soundtrack is isolated. We had wanted to have the composer Chris Anderson do a commentary during the quiet moments in the score, that was done with The Matrix, because I like that... but he turned out to be unavailable. And if you compare the fully mixed soundtrack with the film track, you can tell how Scot was adding in this tinnyness and crackly sound to give it more of that old movie sound feel. It sounds richer and fuller because it doesn't have all of that tampering with it. I hadn't even noticed it until I listened to it separately.
What you get with Treasure Island is the ability to pick it apart into its constituent pieces, and to see how these different parts fit together to make the film. Although it is a very unusual and off-putting film, I think that once you work through all of this contextual material you will get a sense why the film was made and what went into it. I think that this is one of the advantages that DVD can have for art movies, that can often be off-putting to audiences, because you sit there thinking, "Oh, I didn't get it!" Well, really you DID get it... you just need someone to come along and remind you that you did get it. So, to hear all of the filmmaker's involved about what was involved going into it, and comparing that to your own reactions, I think that it ought to be a reassuring thing for audiences.
dOc: Wasn't the packaging prohibitive—cost-wise?
David: It was more expensive, definitely, but because we were dealing with a film that had been made very recently, and the video transfer that had been done at the time of Sundance had been done using all of the modern technology, we didn't have to put in some of the expenses we have to with other titles—where we're remastering elements or piecing together film. So, what we were saving we were able to put into other venues, such as extensive special edition features and the nifty cover.
dOc: Where do you go from here?
David: The next up is the 1928 Fall of the House of Usher, which is not terribly well-known among horror fans, although it is probably the best reviewed from all of the films made from Edgar Allen Poe stories. It was made in 1928 by Jean Epstein and Luis Bunuel , and it was film that Luis Bunuel worked on before striking out on his own as a filmmaker. He was the co-director to Jean Epstein on several films in the 1920s, after which he went on to do Un Chien Andalou , and to become the great filmmaker that he was. The interesting thing about it is, although it is a film made in France, according to Epstein's "Art for art's sake" surrealistic aesthetics, a lot of the gothic styling and a lot of the hooks that we familiar from German Expressionist horror films, and the direct descendent of those, which were the Universal horror films of the 1930s. This is a film that really belongs in that same tradition, and it would be very easy to watch a double-feature Fall of the House of Usher with something like Todd Browning's Dracula, and see a direct line of influence between them. So, it's a lot of fun for me to bring this film out and know that horror fans who are familiar with things The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Nosferatu, and these other German films, but aren't very familiar with the French influence will be able to experience this and realize just how closely fits in with the whole thing that was going on in Germany and the United States. It has been a very exciting project, and it's a beautiful print—I mean, it's absolutely immaculate.
Sorry. I wish I could specifically announce other titles down the line... I would certainly benefit by using this as an opportunity for more shameless self-promotion. Unfortunately, none of the other films in discussion right now we've actually signed any licenses on. So, I don't actually know what's coming up next. I'm sitting here creating the catalogue that's going to go in Usher for April 3rd—because we finally have enough discs to do a printed catalogue—and there's a blank page for movie 'X', the film that's going to come next, and I'd really like to know what it is!