A.I. Actual Interview: A Chat with DVD Producer Mark Rowen
Posted by: Joel Cunningham
A.I. is sure to be one of the biggest DVD releases of 2002.
But putting together these million-sellers is no easy task. You need
some real intelligence to get them to come out right.
Mark Rowen, who oversees production for all of the DVDs at
DreamWorks, is especially proud of his work on this particular
release. He sat down with us to talk a smidge about Stanley,
Steven, and a little known composer with the last name Williams. Who
is he again?
dOc: Let's start with a really original question. How did you get your start in Hollywood, and how'd you come to find yourself producing DVDs for a living?
MR: I got my start in Hollywood, you could say, in home entertainment. Ann Daly, who's the head of feature animation [at DreamWorks] at the time was the president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment, and a good friend, and she gave me the opportunity to start working on some home entertainment titles over at Disney, like The Lion King and Cinderella, and they were big successes when we were all there. Then when Ann came over to DreamWorks she was kind enough to invite me to come over also, and as DVD evolved I'd been overseeing production for her and everyone at DreamWorks, so it just seemed a natural progression to oversee DVD production here.
dOc: In the past couple of years, you've produced some of the top selling discs?Gladiator, and of course, Shrek, and worked with top tier talent like Cameron Crowe, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg?what's your thought process when you begin working on a new disc?
MR: The first thing that we want to do, the number one thing on every disc is to create something that enhances the viewer experience. It's an extension of the film. If you look at a film like Untitled, Cameron Crowe really takes you deeper into his world than he did on Almost Famous. There's more behind-the-scenes with him. There's a commentary with his mom. When you look at a film like Shrek, it takes the fun and excitement of that film and exponentially makes it grow so you are really a part of the film, with the Re-Voice Studio and everything.
And when you take a film like A.I., it's taking the A.I. experience. Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg are known for being such incredibly brilliant filmmakers, and we look at how we can dissect that filmmaking process. We try to have discs that are additive, first and foremost, and then we go and include the filmmaker in the process. And obviously I laugh when I say this, but I've gotten to work with Robert Redford, Bob Zemeckis, Jeffery Katzenberg, and all of Steven's people. Evolution with Ivan Reitman. These are the premiere, preeminent filmmakers in the world that we get a chance to hang out with. You just sort of giggle, like, "Oh, you mean I got to go hang out with you?"
It makes our job easy because we go talk to our filmmakers and really find out what they want on the disc, and we bring our vision and their vision together to make the best disc possible. One of the other great things is when you look at Gladiator, Shrek, Saving Private Ryan, and A.I., we are also given great stories and films to start with. We have wonderful films and filmmakers, making these discs a lot easier on us.
dOc: Well, you touched my next three questions there...
MR: Ask them again, I'll answer!
dOc: Here's one. On a particular project, how closely
involved are you with the creative team behind the film, like say
Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg?
MR: We are as closely involved as they will let us be.
Fortunately, every filmmaker has really embraced the DVD technology
and has been unbelievably gracious with their time and the set while
shooting and all the footage and behind-the-scenes that we need. I
think it is a great testament that all those who work on and behind
the camera are willing to help out and be a part of it. With
A.I. we have really in-depth interviews with Stan Winston and
John Williams, who are both nominated for Oscars?. Go down the list
from storyboard artists to Janusz Kaminski [director of photography]
and Steven. So, without a doubt, our number one priority is to
involve the filmmakers as much as possible. It's been great.
dOc: Sounds good.
MR: Yes, obviously it is. We get the chance to play with
these guys. To sit down with Ivan Reitman or Ridley Scott and talk
about their careers. It's unbelievable. No complaints here.
dOc: Going back to a disc you touched on a bit ago, I think
Shrek is a pretty unique product because it recognizes the
dual fan base—the kids play with Re-Voice Studio and the
interactive games, and the adults can listen to the audio commentary
and check out the effects documentaries. How do you go about
deciding what sort of features belong on a particular DVD?
MR: We have a great team of people in our tech services
department, and we pride ourselves on having the best picture
possible. So once we get the bitrate and know how much space the
movie will take up, that will let us know how much space we have for
bonus features. And then, we try and decide what will, again,
enhance the viewer's experience. And on a film like Shrek we
have the wonderful luxury that the film appealed to little kids, to
adults, to grandparents, so knowing that, we wanted to design a disc
that could truly appeal to everybody. Everything on that disc,
though certain parts are geared towards kids, everything works across
the board. With A.I., the audience is a bit older, and that
demographic was what we went after, talking to the more intelligent,
savvy DVD audience. The great thing is, as a producer I'm surrounded
by such incredible people, whether it's Mark Atkinson and his people
doing the transfer, Marty Cohen supplying the elements, the people
behind the PR and marketing. We want everyone to have input.
dOc: It definitely seems that DreamWorks has gained a
reputation for putting out some of the best DVDs, even for under
performing films (like the criminally unappreciated
Untitled/Almost Famous. I certainly appreciate going
through a disc for a movie I love, especially if it was ignored at
the box office (A.I. didn't do the best either).
MR: Well, what's funny with A.I. is that a lot of it is
perception. It did like $257 million worldwide. I only hope that
all our perceived failures do as well as A.I. ! And with
Almost Famous, and even Shrek, you always want your
films to do more, and the great thing about DVD and video is that we
all work together. We don't base the quality of discs on theatrical
performance. Shrek is a great disc because it's a great
movie, which I think is true of all of our films, like I said
earlier, it's such a great luxury for us to put together the best
disc possible. And obviously, talking on a consumer level, it is
great to hear customers love our discs. Sales are a good indication
of what people like, but it is nice to hear them say what they truly
dOc: Moving on to the A.I. DVD, how do these projects get off
of the ground? I imagine it is a very daunting task, especially working
with a director as successful as Spielberg. How does it start, and how
"hands on" do you get?
MR: Well, the process is very collaborative right from the start. We
were very fortunate here to be working with Laurent Bouzereau, who has done
a lot of the documentary material for Steven in the past, on set for us
filming every day. So, it started with Laurent and I sitting down and coming up with a vision for the project and developing it. Then, after Laurent got all his material together on set, he began to develop even more refined ideas, and we looked at them together, and then took them to Spielberg and Kathy Kelley [producer] for approval.
Then, once we have the material together—and I worked intensely with
Laurent throughout the editing process—then we begin to decide how it will
be organized on the disc. We have, I think, 15 featurettes on the disc—some people will do one two-hour piece, but for us, it just made more sense to break it up, to make it more accessible.
dOc: I've never been a big fan of the current "slap an HBO
featurette on the disc and call it a special edition"-style of DVD that
seems to be popular these days, and I was surprised at the perspective that
was added to the A.I. featurettes, even though the film is nine-months-old.
MR: First, our HBO pieces, which we produce here at DreamWorks,
obviously, I mean, those, if that is all the behind-the-scenes material you
want for that particular film..
dOc: Well, yes, there are some that are just two minutes long.
MR: Exactly. And you wonder, "Why do I want this on the DVD?" With A.I., we tried to avoid that by creating a vision for the
disc, the ultimate "A.I. film school" of how this film was made.
dOc: Along those lines, I was happy that Spielberg and Jan Harlen
[exec-producer] were so forthcoming on the long history of the project,
especially in relation to its development under Stanley Kubrick. Was there
any of this archival material that you wanted to include but couldn't? Was
the choice more yours or that of the creative team behind the film?
MR: No, I wouldn't say that. The project obviously has an extensive
history, and we'd simply decide what we needed, and then we have to ask, and
we'd get it. And especially with Steven, because he's not just a great
filmmaker but a great person, he's—more often than not—going to say yes. So there was really nothing we wanted to include but weren't able to. Of
course, we were very fortunate than Steven and Jan were willing to speak so
freely about personal matters, and especially about Stanley.
dOc: Connected with that, I noticed that Spielberg was very
involved with all the extras and documentaries, which sort of made up
for the fact that he doesn't like to do commentaries, which he's
famous (or infamous) for. It seemed like he was omnipresent in the
MR: Well, for this title, A.I. specific, to your point
exactly. Steven could've done a commentary, but it would've been, not
entirely, but somewhat, redundant. I mean, hearing Steven speak on
anything is incredible, but on this particular title I didn't really
miss it that he didn't do a commentary, and I certainly respect his
choice not to do them.
dOc: Once you get all the material from Laurent Bouzereau...
and I'm really glad you pronounced the name before I had to...
MR: Oh, I'm used to it. I messed it up the first hundred times.
dOc: ...Once you have that all together, how do you go about
deciding how it is presented on the disc. Is it difficult blending
your vision for the material with what has already been completed?
MR: It's easy to blend because it's a collaborative process
all the way through. We have a good idea on all our films of what
the filmmaker's philosophy is about, so it is a natural progression.
On this disc, I think it is more accessible to say, "Oh, you want
to talk about sound and music? Let's click on that. You want to
talk about effects, go to effects. Acting, you've got Haley and
Jude." To break it up in all the major components of the film
made it easy on this particular title. Like with Shrek, the
more "mainstream" family ideas were in one place, and the more DVD
user tech stuff was in another place. It's all intuitive. It's a
team effort, not just me deciding on a whim, even the archives and
still galleries, if you take the time to look at them, they're great.
dOc: Well, I said this in my review, but A.I. is one
of the first DVDs I've owned where I've sat through all of the
extras in one sitting and thought, "Why isn't there anything
MR: Right, it's funny, when we're creating it, it's like, well
it's interesting to me, but what about everyone else? And we're
lucky that on this particular disc, as we got through it, breaking it
up the way we did made it so much more accessible.
dOc: I hate to talk about what's not on the disc...
MR: No, bring it up. For me, it's learning for the next time.
Questions and criticisms we like, too.
dOc: I was pretty happy with it (of course, the fact that it
was my favorite movie last year didn't hurt), but a lot of Internet
fans have noted two omissions: the TV ad campaign and the complicated
on-line game. Any comments there?
MR: We typically try and include a couple of the trailers. On
this, what we were trying to do was make the ultimate A.I.
experience into the world of making the film. While we did include
those trailers, the overall consensus was that as great as the TV
campaign was, and as great as the game was, those weren't part of the
filmmaking process. It's ironic, as you were commenting earlier,
other discs try to throw in everything and the kitchen sink, and it
doesn't make sense, and that's exactly what we try not to do. Our
theme for this disc was to do the ultimate film school on
A.I., and the theatrical marketing aspects of it weren't in
that theme, not that they weren't worthy.
dOc: Seems logical.
MR: And it was by design, not for any other reason. I love
the fact that no one has said, " I wish you wouldn't have had
this, and added the game." I think the point is that we included
what we wanted to include, everyone likes it, and wants more.
dOc: What feature on the disc are you most proud of?
MR: The politically correct answer is I love the entire disc,
but for me, I love the John Williams piece, because it's John
Williams. I love everything he's done, so that, for me, is I think
my favorite piece.
dOc: I've heard those composer pieces before, and this one was
interesting because instead of just "how he did it," it was his
personal thought process on integrating the music with the themes of
the film. I wanted to, again, hear more of that.
MR: Right, we could've done a whole disc just on John
Williams. It's great that he isn't just talking about the
instruments, but the entire process.
dOc: Can you talk about upcoming projects you are working on
for DreamWorks, or is it all "hush hush?"
MR: I can
talk about them, just not to anyone outside the office. But I work on
all the films at DreamWorks, so we are working on everything, even
things just in pre-production.
dOc: Here's the
obligatory off-topic last question: if you could work on the DVD for
any film, from any studio, from any time past or present, what would
MR: I answer you with an anecdote, and a
general answer. Right now, my favorite disc, the one I watch three
times a day, is Shrek. I have an one-and-a-half year old son
at home, and one day, my wife put on the disc for him, and now it is
his favorite movie. So every day when he wakes up, and every night
before he goes to bed, he has to watch it. And he sits on my lap,
totally still, watching the movie. So for that reason, if
Shrek was the only DVD I owned or the last thing I worked on,
it would be enough.
dOc: Good thing he has good taste in film.
MR: Yes, I could have been stuck with some obscure
title. As to your question, if I could work on any film... I love
big Hollywood musicals. The films of Stanley Donen, those were
amazing. Barry Levinson had some great films when I was growing up,
and I got to work with him last year on An Everlasting Piece, which
was great. I've worked with so many great filmmakers here at
DreamWorks that it is hard to pick from someone else's catalogue. We
have such great films here.
dOc: Well, that's all I
have, unless you want to comment on the "skate-gate" controversy.
MR: Well, I would, but it might get me into trouble