Truly Digitally OBSESSED: An Interview with Robert Meyer Burnett
by Dan Heaton
Robert Meyer Burnett has worked in nearly every element of the film industry. He began his career as an art department assistant on Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and has worked on numerous productions ranging from Free Willy to the "Star Trek: The Experience" attraction in Las Vegas. In 1998, Burnett co-wrote and directed Free Enterprise, a clever film in which two science-fiction fans meet their idol, William Shatner. It incorporates many elements from Burnett and co-writer Mark Altman's real life. More recently, he produced the excellent special edition release of The Usual Suspects. Burnett is currently working as an editor on the gargantuan Lord of the Rings DVD set. A self-called "film fanatic," he claims to own at least 2,000 DVDs.
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[Ed. Note: While Mr. Burnett must refrain from commenting on specifics about the The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring DVD, he suggests you check here.]
dOc: Let's start with your background.
Burnett: I grew up a film fanatic. In 1980, I got a VCR, and there weren't any pre-recorded tapes that existed at that time. I remember when MCA released the first 24 tapes on home video. I thought "My God! You can get Smokey and the Bandit on tape!" In 1985, I got a laserdisc player. So I was always a big fan from the get-go of Criterion special edition laserdiscs. I worked in video stores from 1980 on through college up until 1988 out in Seattle, Washington, which is were I was raised. And I just became a huge fan of the medium of laserdisc special editions. They were the first place where they had director's commentaries and behind-the-scenes documentaries that were being made directly for laserdiscs. For instance, one of my favorites that was later put out on DVD was Under Pressure: Making The Abyss.
dOc: Yeah, I've heard great things about that DVD. I've been meaning to pick it up for a long time.
Burnett: They imported lots of it over from laser discs. It's an incredible DVD. Then, I always wanted to make movies, so I moved to L.A. and went to film school at U.S.C. When I got out, I started working in movies, and was an art department assistant on Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3. I bounced around, worked at Full Moon Entertainment. I basically wanted to know everything there was to know about motion pictures. So I did everything from story development to being a creative executive or third director. I worked at William Morris, at the CAA (Creative Artists Agency), reading scripts, doing coverage. I was a producer's assistant on Free Willy. I edited this horrible Full Moon movie called Arcade. In the late '90s, I started working in DVDs with producing. I made my first feature film, which was shot in '98 and came out in '99, Free Enterprise. Independent movies are so difficult, and they don't exactly pay the bills unless you become a breakthrough star like Stephen Soderbergh or Kevin Smith or something. I still like to do other things, and this guy I know, Michael Pellerin, had been producing the Disney and Fox laserdisc sets like The Lion King and Tron. So, I went to work for him on the Fantasia Anthology project. It was a three-DVD-set with Fantasia and Fantasia 2000. I started editing and producing pieces that went on the disc, like the special effects on Fantasia. I had experience because of Free Enterprise. Not only did it come out on laserdisc, but it also came out on DVD. I produced a lot of the materials that are on the DVD.
dOc: I actually just picked it up a few weeks ago. I think it turned out really well.
Burnett: Yeah. It came out in '99, and it's not an anamorphic transfer, which wasn't as big of a deal. It's not in Dolby Digital because the film wasn't made in Dolby Digital, and it was done on a low budget. But it was fun having a DVD and laserdisc come out. So then I just went on from there and started working for Michael Pellerin's company on all the major Disney box sets. I worked on Fantasia, Snow White, and The Emperor's New Groove. I did the feature-length Making of Tron documentary for that DVD. In my spare time, I did projects outside of this company, and The Usual Suspects was the first disc that I produced entirely on my own.
dOc: How did you get involved in producing The Usual Suspects DVD?
Burnett: There was a woman at MGM who was running their DVD division who knew that I had known Bryan Singer. We had formed a friendship over the last 10 years, and I had known him socially. He didn't want to do the new special edition DVD. So, I got call from Kathleen at MGM to see if I could get him to sign on to do The Usual Suspects. And I said "I can try." What was really interesting was that it was unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, who you hear gets paid $75,000 to do an audio commentary. All of the guys who participated in The Usual Suspects DVD didn't want anything at all; they all did it for free. They really loved the movie. The only person who had any stipulation at all was Kevin Spacey, who said he would only allow himself to be involved if all of the other suspects and Bryan Singer himself were involved, which I thought was pretty cool. He was afraid of it becoming the "Kevin Spacey Show."
dOc: That's actuality a rarity on that disc because a lot of releases don't have everyone involved.
Burnett: For me, it was so interesting to have all of these points of view. The Kevin Spacey interview was actually done before I came onboard. That's why it's photographed the way it is, which is not very well. I tried to do it like a filmmaker. If you look at the way Stephen Baldwin is lit, the way Gabriel Byrne is lit, and the way Bryan [Singer] is lit, I try to always bring something to my interviews. I just had to track down everybody and get them to agree. They also had a really good time making the movie, and it's become sort of a cult hit. What was interesting was that I just kept finding stuff; Bryan had this box of tapes. One of the things about being a DVD producer is that you have to find things to put on the DVD. People always ask, "How come there weren't deleted scenes?" You'd be surprised. Once the film is made, that ship has sailed. There isn't a lot of material left a lot of the time. Newer films are definitely thinking about DVDs while the films are made.
dOc: You can tell. I've noticed that trend in the last year or two.
Burnett: Right. I think the problem with that is they don't have any perspective, because the DVDs have to be finished before the films even make it into the theater. So you don't know if the film's going to be a hit or not, or if it's going to have any cultural significance or not. The Usual Suspects has become such a beloved movie, and it is such a seminal film from the '90s that I think everyone involved with it is really proud of their involvement. It was made for very little money with pretty much an untried director. Bryan had directed only one feature, called Public Access, which hadn't been released theatrically here. It really was a leap of faith for everybody. While making the disc, I figured that when you get actors to participate in these DVD projects, you want to convey who they are as people. This is why I left all the cursing and the funny moments that are usually cut out. I figure if you got these guys together, why whitewash it? If they're going to open up to you, let's use it. I think that what makes the DVD so worthwhile: how candid all the actors were.
dOc: Yes. For so many DVDs, you feel like you're just watching the promotional footage for the movie.
Burnett: Well, a lot of the time you are. What's interesting is that they have to sit down and promote a movie. They have to do it. They're contractually bound, and they basically tell you what you want to hear. It's like when they put an HBO First Look special on the DVD. Those were things that were created to get an audience to go buy a ticket and see the movie in the theater. But if something is coming out on DVD, and people are buying it who have already seen the movie, then they're already fans. So, why watch documentaries or make featurettes of actors who are going to say "Oh, I really love doing this" or they "loved working with so-and-so"?
dOc: Those are so boring.
Burnett: They are boring, and I think one of the interesting things in doing The Usual Suspects from my perspective as the producer was to really get as much candor as I could from the people that were participating. I think it did that pretty well.
dOc: Can you talk about John Ottman's involvement on the disc? I think that was one of the best parts in having the editor's take.
Burnett: Being a feature editor myself, I'm a real big fan of John Ottman. I think his scoring of the movie and the editing of the film are great. There haven't been a lot of people in history who have scored and edited a movie. They basically deal with the same kinds of things: rhythm, emotional impact and mood. I thought it would be great to get him involved, and I had heard that he'd always wanted to do a commentary on the disc. So I called and just asked him: Can I do an audio commentary and an interview with you? Then, he had a terrible quality VHS tape of some goofy deleted scenes, and we could use it. So he came down and recorded the commentary, and I put him on camera and filmed it and did the interview. While I could have done it myself, my friend Jeff Bond, who writes for Film Score Monthly magazine, did it. Jeff may not be the most dynamic on-camera personality, but I thought he could bring something to the table with his insight and some interview questions I might not have thought about. I wasn't sure exactly where to use it on this disc, so I figured: Why not make it an easter egg? I think The Usual Suspects demands having an easter egg.
dOc: Of course. The whole thing flips you around so many times.
Burnett: Absolutely. I can't take credit for coming up with the little puzzle. That was MGM's idea, but I thought it was pretty funny. I think it's actually the order in which they appear in the movie.
dOc: I'd also like to talk about special editions. So many times, you pick up the special edition and get really excited, and than there's hardly anything included. Was it your aim to try and do more with it?
Burnett: You know, it's really funny. When I was first hired by MGM, they wanted me to a 45-minute featurette, and that's it. Forty-five minutes with the actors talking. And, they give you a certain budget, which is not very big, to pay yourself and to create all of the material. Then I found things like Bryan's box of tapes in the garage or that gag reel, which is really vile, but it's also really funny. It's something that you would never see anywhere else. So I went to MGM, and I asked, "Can I put this on the disc?" They were a little apprehensive at first because there's so much homoerotic imagery. It's so foul, but when you get five guys together, that's sort of what happens. I had to get special releases from everybody to use the gag reel. The only thing I had to do was remove the music from the beginning, which was from Bernard Hermann's score for Psycho, which I obviously couldn't use. I found another international EPK tape from England in PAL format that had a Chris McQuarrie interview on it, which I used to open up the documentaries. He didn't want to participate with the disc because he figured he'd said everything he needed to say on the audio commentary.
dOc: That was a bit surprising that he wasn't involved.
Burnett: He felt that the audio commentary was enough, and I respect his wishes. He did the commentary that was originally done for the laserdisc. So then I found the TV spots, which nobody had before that were on the international tape. I found the international trailer as well as the domestic trailer. I figured that all this stuff belongs on the DVD. Also, since John Ottman edited the original trailer, why not have him say a few words on camera about it?
dOc: And that's very rare too.
Burnett: Yeah, I thought it was cool. And, the more stuff I found, the more things I put on. It's funny because everything that you put on the DVD costs money. We were actually going into the hole a little bit as far as my budget was concerned. I went a little bit over budget because I delivered so much material, but it wasn't my intent to make any personal money. I wanted it to be a showpiece to show what I can do and come up with when I'm producing DVDs on my own. It just makes it that much more worthwhile. Because of the Screen Actors Guild, you can only have featurettes that are a half-hour or shorter before you have to start paying fees. They say that anything a half-hour or shorter is promotional, and everything over a half-hour is a documentary that the company needs to be paid for. This is why you see these featurettes split into parts now. Since I had all this great stuff, I figured that I would make one long hour-and-a-half documentary, but I couldn't do that. Well, everyone talks about Keyser Soze, so why not do a Keyser Soze piece? And then I'll do pieces about how everybody became involved, and then what filming was like, which became the two-part featurette, which had Pursuing the Suspects and Doing Time with the Suspects. When you're doing interviews, you organize them by topic. Because I consider myself a filmmaker or storyteller, I wanted to tell the story about how they all got involved and then what it was like to make the movie. You always have to find the certain way to tell the story.
dOc: Those are always the best DVDs.
Burnett: Yeah. I think that one of the things that marketing departments at the studios think is that the more stuff that you put on the DVD, the better off you're going to be. I don't think that's true. What's really important is that you have stuff that means something. Let's face it: people want to hear the stars and the filmmakers talk. They want the stories of how this movie got made, and what interesting stories happened when the movie went into production. The other stuff like the trailers is cool to have, but that's not really what people want. Like that Handicam tape of them at the Cannes Film Festival, which I thought was terrific. You never get to see what it's like to be standing in the middle of the red carpet. When I found this tape, I figured there were moments where they talked about it, so I could use it. It's kind of a neat little piece; it's a bit ragged, but it still conveys what it's like. It's funny when Kevin Pollak says,"Oh please, let me talk about this movie one more time." People don't really know that a star has to sit when a movie opens (at what's called a junket); they sit in a room, and reporters come in all day long. Reporters always think that they're the first person to ask this question, but the star's already answered it 80 times.
dOc: Everyone basically asks the same question and thinks they're being creative.
Burnett: Exactly. "What was it like working with Tom Cruise?" or "Did you like Kevin Spacey?" in The Usual Suspects case. "What was Gabriel Byrne like?"
dOc: They end up spouting out rehearsed answers to the same questions.
Burnett: That's right, and they're meaningless.
dOc: Let's talk about the Lord of the Rings DVD. Considering the ridiculous scale of this project, how do you go about creating a DVD for such a big movie?
Burnett: It's the biggest DVD project that's been undertaken, ever. I consider my boss, Michael Pellerin, to be the foremost DVD producer in the business because he did the Toy Story box set and all the big work for Disney. We've done the huge Bug's Life DVD, the Fantasia Anthology, Snow White, and Tron. We create all of our stuff from scratch and do the interviews with people. New Line picked Michael based on our Disney work to do this disc. He had to fly down and convince Peter Jackson, who is a huge fan of laserdiscs and DVDs, to do it. He was already familiar with the work that we'd done, so he said okay. What has happened with The Fellowship of the Ring is that they're going to release the movie-only version, the theatrical cut, in August. The only pieces that we did for the theatrical version are a three-minute preview for the extended version and a 10-minute preview that we did for The Two Towers. The disc that we've been working on comes out in November, and it has an extended cut of the movie, spread out over two discs. With the end credits, it's four hours long. It's a much better version of the movie, with a lot more character like the gift from Galadriel that she gives the Fellowship. There are four audio commentaries.
[Editor's note: The next comment by RMB has been omitted at his request.]
dOc: Why would you release two versions? Was it to correspond with the release of The Two Towers?
Burnett: That's an interesting question. They wanted to put out the theatrical version because that was the version that was nominated and won Academy® Awards. It was the version that was in the theater, so they wanted to make it available. It's on two discs, and has a lot of the promotional documentaries that were made for the film, like the Fox documentary and the Sci-Fi Channel one. They wanted to make those things available for the general public and the people that buy things at Best Buy or whatever. And, Peter Jackson wanted to the ultra, super-deluxe, four-disc set that he was always thinking of when he made the movie. He said that he's not a fan of the term "director's cut." It's an alternate or extended version of the movie that makes it a richer film. Peter Jackson is personally approving everything that goes on these discs. There's nothing that's thrown on. It's the biggest job that I've ever participated in.
dOc: How long have you been working on this project?
Burnett: We've been working 24 hours a day for six months. We'll be finished in July for a November release. The foldout box that it comes in is like a book. Alan Lee, who is one of the premier illustrators in the world, created new artwork for the box. I really think that it's going to be the standard by which all other DVDs are judged. But there will never be quite anything like it.
dOc: How could you top that?
Burnett: We're going to do four-disc sets for all three movies.
dOc:Have you seen any of the footage from The Two Towers? Do you have any tidbits to reveal about it?
Burnett: Richard Taylor, who did the effects and design work on all three movies and won two Academy® Awards, says that people who loved The Fellowship of the Ring think it's a great visual epic—they haven't seen anything. After you've seen the "Battle of Helm's Deep," you'll look in the mirror and your jaw will be gone.
dOc: I think that this book lends itself better to being a movie than the first one.
Burnett: Oh yeah. It's just huge. The scale and the amount of time spent is enormous. For example, with the city where the Rohan live, they went and found this hill, and built the whole city. It's crazy. And, the movies just keep getting better. The bar just keeps getting raised higher and higher. You're going to get a taste of that actually on the first DVD release, which comes out in August. There's a 10-minute preview that's not just scenes of the movie; it's a preview of the DVD. It's just going to make people's mouths water.
dOc: Are you going to be involved with the new X-Men special edition DVD?
Burnett: Yes. Theoretically, they're still trying to decide what to put on it, but I'm going to be doing a new X-Men DVD and probably X-Men 2. I know what they've proposed; they shot about 50 hours of behind-the-scenes footage when they were making X-Men. So I would be making the interactive documentaries with that material. I know that Bryan Singer is going to do a commentary himself, and then he's going to do a commentary with Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. I want to do a third commentary where we would have X-Men comic creators like Chris Claremont and Stan Lee. They would do a freewheeling commentary about the characters and where they came from.
dOc: That would be a great inclusion.
Burnett: I'm such scholar of film and such a maniac for the stuff myself. I own over 2,000 DVDs and before that, laserdiscs. I am such a big fan that I try and create things that I would want to see.
dOc: Touching on the Tron DVD, I really enjoyed this film as a kid. Are you a big fan?
Burnett: It came out in the summer of '82, which had E.T., Blade Runner, John Carpenter's The Thing, The Road Warrior, Star Trek IIand Conan the Barbarian.
dOc: That was the best science-fiction year of all time.
Burnett: Ever. For me it was really the galvanizing year. Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Superman, Alien and Dawn of the Dead made me want to make movies for real, but it was that summer that solidified it. While I don't think Tron was entirely successful as a film, it still presented a unique vision that even today hasn't been duplicated. A lot of people use CG now to duplicate real life, but Tron used CG imagery to create a world that doesn't exist. It was a complete fantasy world.
dOc: Let's talk about , Free Enterprise. How did you and Mark Altman come up with the script initially?
Burnett: We were writing a Jewish horror movie called Day of Atonement. There's all this cool Yiddish mythology. In the same way that Catholicism uses the vampire myth, we were going to use the Hebrew mythology. But our script was much too big and cumbersome, and it wasn't working. So I was working on the Star Trek Experience attraction, and I was annoyed that they kept cutting back on classic Star Trek. People were always saying to Mark and I that we were sort of wacky because we were industry professionals, and then we would run off and buy Star Wars action figures. Mark listened to me complain about classic Star Trek being taken out of the Star Trek Experience, this idea of writing a movie about ourselves just sort of happened. We started writing the script, and it originally was going to be that William Shatner was a fantasy character like the Bogart character in Play It Again Sam. That was the way it was originally written, and we had it financed. He was the martini-swilling hepcat and the coolest guy in the universe. The original script actually ended with William Shatner in bed with two women, which his wife at the time thought was a great ending. He said, "No, this is totally embarrassing; I'd be laughed out of Hollywood. People think I have a big enough ego as it is. You're making me the coolest guy in the universe, and no one would ever look at me again." I thought that was pretty interesting coming from Shatner. It was his suggestion to make him a real guy, and that's what we did, and it actually became funnier.
dOc: I think so. He seems very down-to-earth. The conversations with him on the DVD are really interesting.
Burnett: Isn't it? I know it looks bad, but he was very cool; we shot the footage at like 4 a.m. too.