Movies

The Films That Made “Star Wars,” Pt. 3

The Films That Made Star Wars, Pt. 3

633 Squadron

If you wanted to, you could spend years watching the westerns and samurai flicks that in one way or another influenced Star Wars, but there is another essential element of this pop-culture collage we can’t overlook. Namely: World War II movies.

 

In editing the film’s final space battle, Lucas famously cut together footage from old war pictures to inspire the special effects team at Industrial Light & Magic, specifically to give them the sense of pacing and movement he was looking for in the dogfights. He would also go on to splice these scenes into the working print of Star Wars to serve as animatics and editing placeholders. If you’d like to see some of the films he used, I would recommend The Dam Busters (which was a huge inspiration for the trench-run attack on the Death Star), as well as The Bridges at Toko-Ri and 633 Squadron.

 

These can be a bit tough to find in good quality, but The Bridges at Toko-Ri is available on Kaleidescape (in standard-definition only, sadly) and you can find 633 Squadron for rent on Amazon. The Dam Busters has been released on Blu-ray in Europe, but I’m not aware of any HD release available to American viewers.

For a fun look at the parallels, check out this YouTube video mashup of the imagery from 633 Squadron combined with the soundtrack of Star Wars (and ignore the unnecessary potshots at The Dam Busters—it’s still a relevant influence).

 

Needless to say, if you want to fully understand the roots of Star Wars, you 

also need to consider the influence of classic science-fiction on the film. Again, Star Wars is most decidedly not sci-fi, but it certainly looks like it in places.

 

To see where Lucas got the inspiration to attempt space battles the likes of which no one had ever seen onscreen before, look to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick practically redefined what was possible with the special effects in this film, and Lucas would go on to borrow many of the technicians who made that possible.

 

Stuart Freeborn, who created the apes at the beginning of 2001, would go on to create Chewbacca, as well as many of the creatures found in the Mos Eisley cantina (as well as Yoda in the next film). Lucas attempted to hire 2001‘s effects supervisor 

Douglas Trumbull but Trumbull turned him down, likely due to his commitment to work on Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune

 

If you want to experience 2001 in its best form, I cannot recommend the Kaleidescape 4K/HDR release highly enough. The film is also available on most digital retailers in 4K, but the highly detailed cinematography really deserves the pixel-perfect transfer available on Kaleidescape.

 

Speaking of Dune, we can’t overlook the influence that sci-fi epic had on Star Wars. The similarities are, at times, striking. Desert planet? Check. Fascist galactic emperor? Check. Youthful chosen one with magical abilities? Check. Hell, Star Wars even calls its elicit substances “spice” as a homage to Dune. Of course, it bears repeating, Star Wars is not science fiction, and it could not be narratively or thematically more different from Dune. But Lucas certainly stole elements from the original novel where he saw fit. And there’s also reason to suspect that he was, in some ways, influenced by the mid-’70s film adaptation of Dune that never got made.

 

Check out the excellent 2013 documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune for more details on this, but the short story is that Jodorowsky created a massive illustrated bible and script for his adaptation that was shopped around to every major studio in Hollywood in an attempt to secure the last $5 million needed to flesh out his budget. He failed in that respect, and the film never got made, but you can see 

elements of his storyboards and designs in everything from Alien to Prometheus to Mike Hodges’ 1980 Flash Gordon film to, yes, even Star Wars.

 

Whatever you do, though, please avoid at all costs David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Dune (which, by the way, he directed after turning down the chance to helm Return of the Jedi). It remains to be seen how successful Denis Villeneuve’s new adaptation will be, but for now, the only good Dune movie is the one about why a good Dune movie was never made. 

Jodorowsky’s Dune is available on Kaleidescape, as well as most other digital movie retailers.

 

Two last influences you can’t overlook if you want to understand Star Wars (more from a storytelling than cinematic point of view) are the works of Joseph Campbell and J.R.R. Tolkien.

 

The Lord of the Rings was 

not, of course, adapted to film until well after Star Wars was made, but the book certainly had a powerful influence on young George Lucas, which you can see in the numerous parallels between them. Consider, for example, the similarities between the overall narrative arc of Fellowship of the Ring and A New Hope: Young lad raised by a relative (second cousin once removed in one work, uncle in the other) befriends a mysterious wizard and goes on a quest to defeat evil. You can also see direct correlations between specific scenes, such as the sacrifice of Gandalf/Obi-wan so the young lad and his party can escape. And if you want to extend this to the entire trilogy, there are even more similarities. Compare, for example, the death of Anakin Skywalker in Return of the Jedi to the death of Théoden in Return of the King.

 

While Lucas only had the original book as inspiration, we of course have Peter Jackson’s epic cinematic trilogy to enjoy (which, coincidentally, was itself inspired in parts by Star Wars). You can read more about that adaptation here.

 

Lastly, you can largely thank Joseph Campbell for Lucas’ ability to look at all of these disparate works of inspiration and pull from them exactly the right elements he needed to craft something that felt new and fresh, while also being evocative. Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth is a fantastic PBS series from 1998 that explores the author’s work on mythology, namely the common elements of all myths and how they serve as metaphors for the human experience. You can purchase all six episodes of this incredible interview series on Amazon, but if you’re itching for some deeper reading, I also recommend Campbell’s seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Without this book, there would be no Star Wars as we know it today. And if you need proof of that, just check out J. W. Rinzler’s comic book series The Star Wars, an adaptation of one of the last drafts of the original film before Lucas discovered Campbell’s work and transformed his own story to fit the template of the monomyth. It was between this draft and the final script that Star Wars would transform from light science-fiction into epic fantasy, and the differences—narratively, symbolically, and thematically—couldn’t be starker.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Films That Made “Star Wars,” Pt. 2

The Films That Made Star Wars, Pt. 2

Ask me to sum up the appeal of Star Wars as succinctly as possible, and I would have to describe it as the cinematic child of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone dressed in Flash Gordon Underoos. As I mentioned in the Pt. 1 of this series, what would eventually become Star Wars originally began as George Lucas’s attempt to make a modern Flash Gordon film. And indeed, the serial adaptations of the 1930s and ’40s strongly influenced the structure and some of the aesthetic trappings of the film Lucas eventually made.

 

But dig beneath the surface, and the movie we ended up with shares almost no meaningful DNA with those adventurous sci-fi serials. If you really want to understand what makes Star Wars tick, you have to ignore the ray-guns and robots and starships—or at least look past them. And when you do, what you’re left with is mostly the samurai and the cowboy. 

 

AKIRA KUROSAWA

Kurosawa’s influence on Lucas has been so thoroughly discussed and dissected by this point that I have little to add. But if, for whatever reason you’ve never explored the connection for yourself, you’re in for a treat. Start with 1958’s The Hidden

Fortress (aka Kakushi toride no san akunin or The Three Villains of the Hidden Fortress).

 

You’ll notice some superficial similarities here, especially Kurosawa’s heavy use of wipe transitions, which Lucas employed liberally in Star Wars. But after just a few minutes’ worth of viewing, you should start seeing deeper parallels. There’s the fact that the peasants Tahei and Matashichi map nearly perfectly to Artoo and Threepio, in terms of personality as well as their relationship to the other characters and their roles as catalysts on the plot. Kurosawa’s film also features a battle-weary general who becomes wrapped up in a rebellion led by a princess. Even the overall story beats for both films follow a very similar structure. When you get right down to it, Star Wars is effectively a remake of The Hidden Fortress, something Lucas himself has admitted to on several occasions.

 

But Kurosawa’s influence can’t be limited to one film. You should also check out 1961’s Yojimbo, which provides definitive proof that Lucas was directly inspired by

Kurosawa, and not merely Kurosawa by way of Leone. If you don’t understand the distinction, it helps to know that Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was such a blatant ripoff of Yojimbo that Kurosawa sued.

 

But there’s one distinctive element of Yojimbo that Leone didn’t pilfer, but which made its way into Lucas’s film. Check out the first fight in the film. Imagine Toshirô Mifune wearing Jedi garb instead of samurai robes, and holding a lightsaber instead of a katana. (That shouldn’t be too difficult, since Lucas actually wrote the role of Obi-wan Kenobi for Mifune, and only asked Alec Guinness to play the part after Mifune turned him down.) Now imagine the scene as a gloomy cantina instead of a dusty

street. What you’ll notice is that the fight plays out strikingly similarly to the cantina brawl in Star Wars, complete with the severed-limb gag that would appear in practically all of Lucas’s Star Wars films.

 

It wasn’t merely Kurosawa’s samurai epics that inspired Lucas, though. You should also check out 1975’s Dersu Uzala, a Soviet/Japanese 

collaboration about a Nanai trapper and hunter by the same name. Noteworthy for being Kurosawa’s only 70mm film, it came out not long before Lucas began filming what would come to be known as A New Hope, and you can see visual influences throughout.

 

Perhaps the most striking involves a scene in which the two main characters look out over a horizon that includes both the setting sun and the rising moon. You can catch a glimpse of the scene about a minute into the film’s trailer, although the visuals here don’t do it justice. Unfortunately, the only way I know of watching Dersu Uzala is on The Criterion Channel, but since that streaming service is also home to many of Kurosawa’s classic films, it may be worth signing up for a 14-day trial if you don’t want to purchase them on Blu-ray.

 

SERGIO LEONE

When I said Lucas was influenced directly by Kurosawa and not merely Kurosawa by way of Leone, I didn’t mean to imply that Sergio himself didn’t also have some measurable impact on Lucas’s style. The look of Tatooine, the desert planet on which Luke Skywalker grew up, certainly owes a lot to the aesthetics of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, not only in its landscape but also in its architecture. 

 

But a much bigger influence on the overall visual style of Star Wars comes from 1969’s Once Upon a Time in the West. And it’s not so much the scenery that rings familiar here; it’s more the movement of the camera, as well as the characters. Watch the scene in which Frank, the villain played by Henry Fonda, strides his way into the film, flanked by his flunkies, silently strutting and letting his boots and cloak do all the talking.

 

Compare this to Darth Vader’s first appearance onscreen, and you can see that while Lucas wasn’t necessarily quoting Leone here, he was definitely paraphrasing him. The instant you see Frank and Vader, you know they’re the baddies of the picture. You know they’re evil to the core without a hint of mustache-twirling or monologuing.

Once Upon a Time in the West is a film that’s high on my list of cinema classics in dire need of a new 4K/HDR restoration, but until that day comes, the best way to view the film is via Kaleidescape. You can also buy or rent it via most major digital movie retailers, and it’s currently streaming for free on HBO Max. Just know that HD streaming isn’t always up to the task of delivering the film’s wonderfully grainy cinematography and rich color palette. 

 

JOHN FORD

While you’re in a western mood, I would also recommend checking out The Searchers. The films of John Ford certainly had an influence on Lucas’s cinematic sensibilities, but none influenced Star Wars quite so much as this one. As with Leone’s 

westerns, the desert landscapes here can be seen echoing all throughout the Jundland Wastes in A New Hope, but there’s one unforgettable scene that Lucas would pretty much lift straight out of Ford’s film and paste into his own. It’s the one in which John Wayne comes home to find his brother’s ranch in flames and his relatives slaughtered.

DAVID LEAN

Tired of westerns but still itching to dig into Lucas’s desert inspiration for Star Wars? Look no farther than David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia. So much of this film’s style can be seen reflected in the work of Star Wars cinematographer Gil Taylor, but as the official Star Wars website points out, there were also a number of scenes in Lawrence that were practically traced in Star Wars:

 

Many moves from David Lean’s epic were cribbed for sequences on Tatooine. The shot of Mos Eisley from the distance as Luke and Obi-Wan look from on high reminds one instantly of shots looking down at Damascus. Shots of Tusken snipers looking down at speeders moving below echo the same sorts of shots in Lawrence of Arabia.

 

Unfortunately, the best way to view Lawrence of Arabia is still on disc, as part of the Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection, which also includes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Dr. Strangelove, Gandhi, A League of Their Own, and Jerry Maguire. Lean’s classic has not been released on UHD Blu-ray on its own, and the digital releases of the film all lack the Dolby Vision HDR version featured in this collection. If, for whatever reason, you’re not interested in HDR, your next-best bet is Kaleidescape’s UHD release of the film.

 

In Pt. 3, I’ll wrap things up by taking a look at the influence World War II movies, 2001Dune, and classic myth had on forming the Star Wars universe.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Films That Made “Star Wars,” Pt. 1

It’s sometimes easy to forget that before it became a nine-film saga supported by three standalone films, two made-for-TV movies, three excellent TV series, a few terrible TV series, and a holiday special that is best forgotten, Star Wars was just a movie. An incredible movie, mind you. One that sparked the dreams of uncountable future filmmakers and other creative types. One that practically created the concept of the modern blockbuster and changed the cinema industry forever (for better and for worse).

 

It’s just as easy to forget that as unique as 1977’s Star Wars seemed at the time of its release—especially to my five-year-old eyes—there was barely anything original about it. Sure, the way it was put together was fresh. Mind-blowingly so. But dig

down to the nuts-and-bolts level, and it’s clear that this Galaxy Far, Far Away didn’t spring to George Lucas’s mind fully formed. The film was, in many ways, a reaction to the grim and gritty films that dominated cinemas in the early 1970s. But first and foremost, it was a homage to the serials and adventure movies that Lucas enjoyed seeing on the big screen in his youth.

 

And I’m sure you’ve heard that before. But have you ever actually seen the direct correlations? If not, you should spend some time with the Flash Gordon serials of 1936, ’38, and ’40. This is no great surprise, given that Lucas originally intended to develop a Flash Gordon film in the early ’70s, and only set about creating his own universe because he couldn’t secure the rights to Alex Raymond’s legendary comic-strip character.

 

Despite the fact that Star Wars ended up being way more fantasy than sci-fi, a lot of the retro-high-tech set dressing of Flash Gordon remains, but that’s not all. The 1940 Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe in particular loaned a number of story elements to the first Star Wars and its two sequels, including character archetypes and relationships, and even settings. But the biggest thing Flash Gordon gave to Star Wars was, of course, that iconic opening crawl.

 

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe is available in its entirety on YouTube, as are the 1936 original and the 1938 sequel, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. They aren’t exactly high cinema or anything, but if you’re interested in understanding the genealogy of Star Wars, this is where you want to start.

 

Other serials worth a look (and also available on YouTube) include 1939’s Buck Rogers (another fantastic opening crawl!) and a delicious little oddity known as The Fighting Devil Dogs (1938). The latter in particular is famous for being one of the cheapest serials ever made (and it shows), but also for including the first costumed super-villain, The Lightning, whose garb almost certainly inspired the look of Darth Vader and the bounty hunter Boba Fett, as well.

 

Other classics of the era that seem to have had an influence on Lucas in his youth (although he likely saw them in early TV broadcasts rather than at cinemas) include The Wizard of Oz, from which Star Wars borrows much of its group dynamic, fairy-tale nature, and monomythic structure; the works of Laurel & Hardy, which certainly had some influence on the relationship between Artoo-Detoo and See-Threepio; and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, whose art-deco Maschinenmensch (Robot), despite being feminine, undoubtedly influenced the look of Threepio. Hell, you could even argue that Lucas drew some inspiration from the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will—not its ideology, but rather the scale and grandiosity of its imagery, especially in the triumphant Royal Award Ceremony after the Battle of Yavin, in which Luke and Han are celebrated as heroes of the Rebellion.

 

Of course, you could just as easily argue that all of the above (save perhaps Flash Gordon) represent superficial influences, at best. But to deny the importance of these

elements would be to deny that Star Wars is, at least in part, a pop-culture collage, a pastiche of cool design elements that make it feel both fresh and timeless.

 

In Part 2, though, we’ll dig into some of the more substantial cinematic gold Lucas mined in creating the first Star Wars film, as well as the first two sequels.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

The Beatles on Film: “A Hard Day’s Night” & “Help!”

The Beatles on Film

If an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings is a little too heavy and big of a commitment for your comfort viewing, you might want to opt for something a little lighter but no less substantial. Consider, for example, the groundbreaking first films by the Fab Four (aka the Beatles)!

 

At this point, well into the 21st century, it is often hard to fathom the Beatles’ impact on so many facets of popular culture across not only music but art, fashion, and even filmmaking. On the surface, their films can be enjoyed simply for their boundless and often madcap sense of joy and adventure. Yet there was a great deal of thought and care that allowed 

director Richard Lester to capture and convey this energy on the silver screen.

 

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT

 

The preferred version of this film is currently only on a deluxe edition Blu-ray Disc package put out by Criterion. Not only does this present a restored version of the film based on a stellar 4K transfer, but there is a wealth of bonus materials that are essential viewing for appreciating the movie and its impact on the filmmaking. (You can also stream Hard Day’s Night on most of the major services, as well as on the Criterion Channel.)

A fanciful, playful adaptation of actual occurrences in the daily life of the Beatles coping with the first wave of “Beatlemania,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964) is a black & white documentary-like snapshot of that moment in time. You’re immersed in the Beatles’ lives, finding yourself in the thick of Liverpool and London as you witness these four “mop top” musicians’ daily struggle to exist. Victims of their own fame, just getting to a performance without being mobbed by fans was a major undertaking!

 

A Hard Day’s Night is akin to Francois Truffaut’s influential Day for Night (1973), which was at its core a movie about making movies. A Hard Day’s Night shows the Beatles being Beatles, four talented musicians performing their original music on television, in concert, and in the studio. At the time, being able to see that was still a new and exciting phenomenon.

 

Part of what makes this movie both a believable documentary-styled film and an enjoyable cinematic entertainment experience is its clever script design, which is crafted around the Beatles’ unique and fast-evolving “Fab Four” mythology. A Hard Day’s Night blurred the lines between traditional moviemaking and the free-form spontaneity of improvisation, allowing Lester to capture on film the essence of the Beatles’ individual personas and special magic as a group. Scriptwriter Alun Owen spent time with the band, following them around, familiarizing himself with their mannerisms as well as their daily trials and tribulations in the face of rapidly escalating Beatlemania.

 

Accordingly, this, coupled with Lester’s unique directing style provided the necessary basic story structure while allowing space for happy accidents and in-the-moment magic to make its way into the final cut. This helps lend a buoyant quality to the film, making it feel timeless nearly 60 years on. 

 

A Hard Day’s Night showcases the Beatles’ whimsical English humor, which would show up throughout their careers, especially on film. Influences like The Goon Show, the comedy troupe that gave the world Peter Sellers (who became a friend of the band and even later co-starred with Ringo Starr in The Magic Christian), trickled down into A Hard Day’s Night and subsequent films like Help! and Magical Mystery Tour.

 

The movie boasts numerous innovations that influenced future filmmakers. For example, cinematographer Gilbert Taylor armed his team with handheld cameras so the Beatles wouldn’t feel inhibited on set. Combined with Lester’s prior TV-production experience, the result amounted to the development of a new filmmaking style, the repercussions from which are still being felt today. And it all started with these four lads from Liverpool!

 

The Criterion edition looks terrific in 1080p (working off the 4K restoration), displaying a remarkable level of detail. The solid but appropriately simple DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix created by producer Giles Martin definitely improves the viewing experience, especially compared to the old mono version.

 

In the book that comes with this edition, you can read in detail about the sources for creating the restored footage used in creating the Blu-ray Disc. It also goes into extensive detail about the audio restoration, including how the original master dialogue and effects tracks were located, while paying attention to significant details unique to the film that had an impact on the soundtrack. This is yet another reason to buy this director-approved Blu-ray.

 

The Criterion package delivers a bounty of bonuses, including the 1994 documentary You Can’t Do That: The Making of “A Hard Day’s Night.” From 2002 is a documentary called Things They Said Today, which features Lester and Gilbert Taylor as well as the Beatles’ music producer George Martin.

 

Lester’s Oscar-nominated short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960) is an essential bonus starring Peter Sellers and anticipating some of the ideas and visual concepts Lester used to great effect in A Hard Day’s Night (and which ultimately influenced Monty Python’s Flying Circus). Picturewise is a fascinating piece about Lester’s early work, and Anatomy of a Style is a more recent feature that explores his directing methods.

The Beatles on Film
HELP!

 

The best version of Help! I’ve seen to date was released in 2013 on Blu-ray. Lovingly restored (in 2007) and with some terrific bonus materials, its a fun film to add to your collection that looks and sounds great. Watch it in 5.1 surround sound for the most fulfilling experience. (You can also stream it on iTunes.)

 

For the followup to A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles and Richard Lester knew they had to do something different so the second film wouldn’t seem like a formulaic retread. For starters, Help! was shot in color vs. A Hard Day’s Night’s black & white.

 

Most significantly, the film revolves around a genuine plot line as opposed to the quasi-documentary feel of A Hard Day’s Night— they didn’t try to make A Hard Day’s Night IIInstead, the Beatles were placed squarely in the then-popular spy-thriller genre. Very much a light parody of the 1960s Bond films, this connection continued for Paul McCartney, who would later compose the theme song for Live and Let Die.

 

Unlike A Hard Day’s Night, which stayed based in England, Help! takes the Beatles to sensational locations, including sunny beaches in The Bahamas and snow-capped mountainsides in Austria. But beyond the fun-mod look and feel of the film and some of the breathtaking location imagery, which might seem on the surface like just escapist fluff, Help! would end up having a big impact on the movies—and on TV.

 

For example, Lester refined the approach to the Beatles’ musical numbers that he had begun to develop in A Hard Days Night, where he had crafted standalone performance vignettes in unusual locations, be it a train or an aerial shot of the Beatles running around wildly in a field. In Help! he essentially invented the modern “music video,” with its combination of performance footage, story narrative, fast-cut editing, and innovative camera angles. MTV even named him the Father of Music Videos, according to Lester himself in an interview you can enjoy in the bonus materials on the Help! Blu-ray. 

 

The Blu-ray’s sound quality is excellent, mixed into a mostly forwardly-leaning, gently immersive, and remarkably dynamic DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. I prefer watching the film this way as it just feels fuller without being distracting.

 

The overall look of Help! is fantastic, and many kudos go out to the team responsible for its restoration. Do be sure to watch the documentary on the restoration. It’s quite impressive because it shows the process of how the film negative was prepared for digital transfer, and then explains how all the subsequent digital cleanup work was done frame by frame by hand in the computer by a tag team of experts. This was a labor of love for these film professionals, who also happened to be Beatles fans. They wanted to make sure they did the film justice, and it shows.

 

Help! looks fantastic in all its 1080p glory and I only wonder how it might look with an updated super-high-resolution restoration—maybe we’ll get to see that on the film’s 60th anniversary in 2025.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound & Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

I Rented an Entire Theater to See “Tenet”

I Rented an Entire Theater to See "Tenet"

I’ve been following the start-stop, herky-jerky release plans for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet from the get-go. Ordained as the film that was going to re-open commercial cinemas and save them from the ravages of COVID-19, Nolan and Warner Brothers were hellbent on giving Tenet a theatrical release—PVOD streaming be damned!—even when US theaters weren’t fully ready to reopen. So the film took the unusual approach of opening internationally prior to its official run here in the States

starting on September 3.

 

As a fan of Nolan’s creative time-twisting work (Memento, Inception, Dunkirk), I was eager to see if Tenet lived up to the hype, and seeing it in a commercial cinema was the natural consummation of my relationship with this film. Unfortunately, my wife just wasn’t comfortable with the idea of sitting in a movie theater for nearly three hours with a bunch of strangers, regardless of how much the theaters were touting new enhanced cleaning procedures.

 

The solution? Rent out the entire theater for my own private Tenet watch party!

 

Besides solving my dilemma of wanting to watch Tenet in the theater, the proposition of having the whole theater to myself for a tentpole film on opening weekend seemed like a baller-move just too big to pass up.

 

In actuality, it wasn’t that expensive. To entice people back to the cinema, Cinemark is offering special Private Watch Party pricing ranging from $99 to $175 based on location and movie selection. Renting out a theater to watch Tenet only cost me $163.24, including all taxes and fees. For that, you get the place to yourself and can have as many as 20 guests in your party. Seating starts 15 minutes prior to the show, and you even get special pricing on concessions. (A large popcorn is “only” $5, large fountain drinks are $3.50, and candy is $2.50.)

 

As you can imagine, after months in lockdown, getting 20 

friends together to see a movie in a commercial theater and have some sense of normality back in their lives took about as long as copying and pasting, “Hey, I rented out a movie theater to watch Tenet. You want to come see it?” into a text.

 

Once our party was all together, I showed the theater staff a QR code on my phone and they let us in. Our auditorium had about 45 loungers in it, and we were free to sit wherever we wanted.

 

Our showing started promptly at 5:15, beginning with trailers for Dune, Wonder Woman 1984, and Judas and the Black Messiah. Following that was a brief ad extolling the virtues of seeing big movies on big screens—a bit reminiscent of the 

ads on Blu-ray discs telling you how great Blu-ray discs are (I mean, I was in the theater to see this ad, so it felt a bit like preaching to the choir)—followed by a brief spot extolling all the enhanced measures Cinemark was taking to ensure that its theaters are clean, safe, and comfortable.

 

The messaging certainly suggested that Cinemark is doing what it can to make the moviegoing experience as safe as possible, but we weren’t there to see if they actually cleaned our auditorium before our seating and didn’t stick around to see whether they fully disinfected it after it was over. There were sanitizing stations around, and all employees—and moviegoers—are required to wear masks. They also really tout the new “3-point air-quality standard” with advanced circulation, filters, and ionization. But beyond the theater not having any odor—or ever
feeling stuffy—I really just have to take them at their word on this as well.

 

Honestly, besides literally having the auditorium to ourselves, the entire building felt empty. I don’t think we saw more than a half-dozen people who weren’t in our group. Another part of the safe opening is staggered showtimes, creating larger windows between people exiting and entering.

 

So, if you’re hesitant about being around crowds, that might not even be an issue right now. Another part of nearly every theater’s safe reopening includes limited seating in auditoriums, such as automatically blocking off the seats next to your

I Rented an Entire Theater to See "Tenet"

party. (Rows ahead and behind in our theaters are already separated by more than six feet, but I understand these are blocked as well when necessary.) And, of course, if you don’t want to be around others, the Private Watch Party is the perfect solution.

 

Then, trailers and messaging out of the way, it was time for Tenet!

I’m going to keep this totally spoiler-free for two reasons. One, Tenet is an experience you should be able to have unspoiled, and, two, the film is so complex and twisty and mentally fatiguing and confounding, I’m not actually sure I understood it well enough to spoil it! Just as no one could be told what The Matrix was, no one can easily explain and summarize exactly what Tenet is.

 

Apparently, Nolan has been crafting Tenet for years, saying he deliberated on the film’s central ideas for over a decade and then took more than five years to write the screenplay. With all of that time to weave the story, plot, and world of Tenet, expecting to unpack and process it all in one viewing is an overly ambitious goal, especially with sensory overload happening in many scenes and overlooking small details you aren’t aware are important. If Nolan’s desire was to get people to see his movie in a commercial cinema—preferably on an IMAX screen—he could truly be the savior of the commercial cinema, as it will take multiple viewings to fully take in and comprehend this film.

 

True to its palindromic title, Tenet plays with time, moving backwards and forwards, sometimes at the same time. I often found myself watching the action unfolding not totally sure what was happening but marveling at the time some of these scenes must have taken in editing and post-production to get just right.

 

After the film, our group stood in the lobby and parking lot for some time with lots of, “Why did this happen?” and “What was going on here?” and “What do you think this meant?” I don’t visit Reddit, but I can only imagine that Tenet is blowing up the boards there with deep fan-based discussion of what the film is all about.

 

It’s as if Tenet saw how deep and layered Inception was—with people still debating whether the top is spinning or not—and said, “Hey, Inception. You think you had a complex plot? Hold my beer.”

 

If you have that one friend who is always confused by film plots, asking what is happening, do not take them—their head will explode.

 

Ideally, Tenet would come with a detailed Wiki and walkthrough prepared by Nolan, to guide you through the layered world with tips on what to look for, key dialogue to pay attention to, and objects (or colors) in the background to be aware of. Having only seen it once, I can only speculate on what things would be noticed and understood on the second or third viewing.

 

Tenet is a cool, slick, fast-paced film that travels the globe to exotic locations. It features car chases, elaborate heists, massive gun battles, and huge set pieces. I’m not sure it is a fun film to watch, but it is definitely an interesting and deeply cerebral film. Nolan doesn’t dumb it down, spell things out for the masses, or try to offer any overly helpful exposition.

 

One thing that definitely didn’t help with understanding the film is the sound mix. Music and effects are often playing quite loud, even when characters are talking. Compounding that is the fact that characters are often wearing masks, making the dialogue exasperatingly difficult to understand. Removing the ability to understand lines of dialogue at key moments takes an already complex plot and puts it up on Legendary mode. I’m hoping they do some remixing for the home release, but if nothing else, you might get more out of Tenet by being able to watch it with subtitles turned on. 

 

Featuring a strong cast that includes John David Washington (Denzel’s son), Robert Pattinson (whose performance made me believe he can pull off Batman), Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Himesh Patel, and a wonderful (but short) scene with Michael Caine, performances are solid throughout.

 

Now that it’s finally here and showing in commercial cinemas, I’m not sure Tenet fully lives up to all the hype and expectation that had been heaped upon it, or that we’ll ever fully understand all of its intricacies, subtleties, and meanings, but it is the first summer blockbuster to come to theaters, and if you have the means to safely see it, it certainly makes for an interesting two-and-a-half hours for sure. And remember, what’s happened’s happened.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Cineluxe “Comfort Viewing” Guide to “The Lord of the Rings”

Comfort Guide to LOTR

Maybe you saw Peter Jackson’s epic The Lord of the Rings trilogy in cinemas back in 2001, 2002, and 2003 and haven’t dug back in since. Or perhaps you’ve caught the films individually here and there on cable over the years. Or maybe you’ve never seen The Lord of the Rings at all. (That might seem improbable, but I see new YouTube clips on my timeline every couple of days proclaiming “I’ve never seen Fellowship of the Ring” or “FIRST TIME WATCHING Lord of the Rings: The

Fellowship of the Ring” or something to that effect.)

 

No matter what your relationship with the films may be, settling in to watch them from beginning to end can be an uplifting experience, which is something all of us need right now. What the series’ fans know—and what new viewers are learning with ever-increasing frequency—is that The Lord of the Rings is emotional nourishment. Spiritual sustenance. In other words: It’s comfort viewing. Despite the focus on hobbits and elves and dwarves and magical artifacts, The Lord of the Rings is, at its heart, about times like those we’re currently living through. It’s about defiant endurance in the face of uncertainty. It’s about clinging to hope when there seems to be none.

 

But committing to an 11-plus-hour movie marathon can be daunting, no matter how inspirational the films themselves may be. In addition to the time investment, there’s the fact that the films have been released to home video so many times that choice overload starts to kick in.

 

That’s where this guide comes in. The goal here is to help you enjoy The Lord of the Rings in the best quality

possible, whether for the first time or the twentieth, and to help you navigate the wealth of bonus materials based on your personal interests and preferences. Before we get to all of that, though, the first thing you need to decide is which version of the films you should watch.

 

Director Peter Jackson has famously said the theatrical versions are his preferred cuts, and that the extended editions are simply “a novelty for the fans.” That is absolute rubbish. The theatrical edits are a roller coaster of unevenness, with the first and third films—The Fellowship of the Ring and The 

Return of the King—being perfectly enjoyable for what they are, but only as self-contained films with no connection to the rest of the trilogy.

 

On the other hand, the second film, The Two Towers, is a confusing mess of a thing in its original edit. At 178 

STEP 1

Watch the Extended Editions.
Forget the theatrical cuts even exist.

minutes, it’s a laborious slog, filled with one non sequitur after another, packed with characters whose motivations make little sense. The 228-minute Extended Edition, by contrast, positively whizzes by. It also gives you a deeper understanding of the histories and motives of its characters and the mythical lands they populate.

 

From a purely narrative perspective, the Extended Editions of Fellowship and Return aren’t quite that essential, but they still add some much-appreciated depth and context. They also insert some connective tissue that ties the three films together

STEP 2

Buy the films on Blu-ray or on Kaleidescape. Streaming simply doesn’t do them justice.
Comfort Guide to LOTR

into one unified work.

 

Skip the Extended Edition of the first film, for example, and you may be left wondering where certain items and artifacts central to the plot of the second film came from. Watch the shorter theatrical cut of Return of the King, and one of the second film’s major characters just disappears from the narrative with no explanation and no resolution.

 

So if you’re committing to watch all three films—and why wouldn’t you?—the Extended Editions are certainly the preferable option. But before you go traipsing off to Vudu or Amazon or some other digital retailer to buy the trilogy, allow me to make the case for why streaming doesn’t do these films justice.

 

That’s an odd pronouncement coming from me, especially given that I’m probably the biggest cheerleader for streaming here at Cineluxe. But streaming falls short of 

delivering The Lord of the Rings in all its glory for a couple of reasons. First, the films aren’t available yet in 4K/HDR, and probably won’t be for another year, at least. And while 4K streaming looks pretty amazing these days, the same can’t be said 

for HD. Second, the streaming versions of the Extended Editions lack the amazing Appendices, which we’ll dig into in just a bit.

 

That leaves Blu-ray Discs and the Kaleidescape downloads as your best options if you want to enjoy The Lord of the Rings to the fullest. If you opt for Blu-ray, each film is split across two discs to keep the compression from getting too out of hand. 

 

This actually works to the advantage of The Fellowship 

STEP 3

The first and third films can be viewed in halves, while The Two Towers should be approached as one long film with a quick potty break between scenes.

of the Ring and Return of the King, though, since you can treat the first and second half of each as a film in its own right. Take a break at the halfway point to grab a meal or take a nap or even sleep for the evening and you won’t disrupt the flow of the experience too much. The Two Towers, the middle film in the trilogy, doesn’t break quite so cleanly, so you’re better off treating it as one long film with a quick potty-break intermission between scenes.

 

If you’re watching on Kaleidescape (or if you ignored my counsel and bought the films on iTunes or whatever), you don’t get such neat breaks, since the films run straight through from opening to closing credits. But you can always hit the

STEP 4

If you want to explore the extras but you’re not sure you’re up for all 21 hours’ worth, you can go straight to the groups of Appendices that suit your specific interests.

intermission button on your remote right after “The Council of Elrond” in Fellowship of the Ring (you’ll know it when you get to it, I promise) and just after “The Siege of Gondor” in Return of the King. (That one’s not quite as obvious, but just remember to take your break right after the orcs start pushing a big flaming battering ram shaped like a wolf’s head toward the gates of the city of Minas Tirith and chanting “Grond! Grond! Grond!” That’s the name of said flaming wolf-headed battering ram.)

 

And that’s it. Congratulations! Make it through one more 

disc (or a few more hours of film) after that point and you’ve finished the epic journey through the lands of Middle-earth in the best way possible. 

But hang on a minute. If you’re like most people, once you’ve experienced all three films, you’ll be itching to know more about the books that inspired the trilogy and the process of adapting them for the big screen. That’s where the Appendices come in.

 

On both Blu-ray and Kaleidescape, the Appendices are broken into six parts (two per film, with each Appendix getting its own disc if you opted for physical media). The neat thing is, they follow a reasonably  predictable structure, so if you know for sure you don’t want to watch all 21 hours’ worth of documentaries (not a typo), you can hone in on the sort of background information that interests you most.

 

The odd numbered Appendices (the first disc or batch of bonus content) tend to dig into the history, themes, and meaning of the books themselves, along with the writing and planning that went into adapting this supposedly un-filmable book into three of the best films ever made. As such, Appendices 1, 3, and 5 explore the life of author J.R.R. Tolkien; the publication of the book; the characters, the peoples, and the locations of Middle-earth; and preparatory work like writing the screenplay, adapting the scripts from two films to a trilogy once Miramax passed on the adaptation and New Line stepped in, and creating the costumes, sets, props, etc.

 

The even-numbered Appendices are probably more your speed if you’re primarily interested in The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy of films and not so much as an adapted work. Appendices 2, 4, and 6 explore the long process of shooting the films, as well as post-production work like editing, special effects, sound effects, and score music.

 

“But wait!” he says in his best Billy Mays voice, “There’s more!” Each film is also accompanied by four full-length audio commentaries. Again, there’s some consistency here,

Appendices 1, 3 & 5 focus on the book, its author, and the translation from page to screen.
Comfort Guide to LOTR
Appendices 2, 4 & 6 are more like typical behind-the-scenes documentaries
Comfort Guide to LOTR

with one track for each film focusing on the writing, one on the design, one on production, and one with the cast. 

STEP 5

Still hungry for more info? Each film has 4 commentaries that range in appeal from “must listen” to “for hardcore nerds only.”

The cast commentaries are the best by a long shot, since Sean Astin is a walking/talking film encyclopedia and Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd are straight-up laugh-out-loud hilarious throughout. Andy Serkis also performs part of the commentary for Return of the King in character as Sméagol/Gollum, which is something you don’t want to miss.

 

The commentaries featuring Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh,

and Philippa Boyens are also absolute gems if you want to take a deeper dive into the process of adapting the book than the documentaries in the Appendices provide. 

 

The other two commentaries for each film, I must admit, are for hardcore fans only, so unless you’re absolutely obsessed by this point, you can probably safely skip them. To wit, I’ve only listened to the design and production commentaries two or three times over the past two decades. (By contrast, I watch all 21 hours’ worth of Appendices every other year, and dig into the cast and writers’ commentaries at least once every three years.)

Dennis Burger

CLICK THE THUMBNAILS BELOW TO ORDER THE LORD OF THE RINGS ON KALEIDESCAPE

"The Lord of the Rings" in Disquieting Times
"The Lord of the Rings" in Disquieting Times
Comfort Guide to LOTR

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Kaleidescape’s Luke O’Brien on the Importance of Catalog

Kaleidescape's Luke O'Brien on the Importance of Catalog

Someone peering in from the outside might assume that the Director of Content Operations at a luxury movie-download service like Kaleidescape is a kind of high-end traffic cop, tasked primarily with taking the 4K HDR files sent along by the various studios and ensuring they’re posted on the company’s movie store without any serious technical glitches—in other words, a job defined more by technical diligence than anything else.

 

But Luke O’Brien (like Kaleidescape’s Principal Engineer of User Experience Michael Kobb, who we profiled in “Inside a Film Connoisseur’s No-Compromise Home Theater”) is a deep-dyed movie fan. And his passion for film permeates the entire Kaleidescape experience, from the selection of movies to the creation of the transfers to the crafting of the descriptions on the interface and store.

 

With most big movies on hold with no clear sense of when—or how—they’ll make their way to the home market, which is causing a lot of people to turn to older films for entertainment, this seemed like a good time to pick Luke’s brain about the virtues of exploring Kaleidescape’s [11,000]-title catalog of films, series, concerts, and other content.

—Michael Gaughn

It seems like it might have been wiser for the studios to have released more of their big summer movies straight to the home market than to sit on them for an indefinite amount of time. But I guess they’re willing to gamble that they’ll get a big enough bump out of them when and if they’re able to get them into theaters.

I think the studios are going to do everything they can not to give up on that window. But as time continues to move forward, they do have a lot of stuff that is already finished. It becomes hard to make those choices about when do they actually get those titles into the world to monetize them. Even if they do choose to release some of them now, if we’re still in a period where they’re not getting back to things being filmed and finished, we’re just delaying another very hard dry spell we might 

have to experience months down the road. Because if you show everything you currently have in your backlog now, there will be a point later on when the well is dry and you have to figure out how you can live through that experience.

 

Premium video on demand (PVOD) seemed to come out of nowhere to at least get some mid-tier titles into the home market.

We’ve seen things that, if not tent poles. would have at least been prominent theatrical releases transitioned straight into the premium EST [electronic sell-through] and premium VOD markets. It’s the first time that’s happened. So we are in an unprecedented time right now.

 

How has this played out for Kaleidescape in particular?

It’s been a really interesting period for us. We are continuing to see very good traffic coming through our store. There are two things people are really diving into, both of which are encompassed by what we generally talk about as “catalog” —that is, movies that have been out for over a year.

 

One, there are a lot of films that maybe people missed the first time around but now they’re getting a chance to 

dive into. And then there’s also—I heard the phrase the other day—“comfort viewing” that’s taking place. This is where you have movies you love or stars you connect with and you’re diving into their content and kind of snuggling up with it to really make the end of your evening a more pleasant experience.

 

When this first all started to play out, did you see people gravitating naturally or sort of organically towards catalog in the sense that there was an unusual uptick of people going in and checking out those titles?

When the pandemic first started, we saw what a lot of platforms did, that movies like Contagion jumped into people’s minds right away. So there are some famous films like that that come to the top of your mind when you’re at a time like this. But as 

time went on, it became, “What are the things I’ve missed? What can I go and revisit in the catalog that’s going to help me be happy?” We just did a promotion where we featured some films of Stanley Kubrick as an extraordinarily masterful director. That’s an opportunity where people will say, “Oh man, I’ve seen The Shining. What are the other ones?”

 

As time has gone on, what do you see people gravitating toward? Are they getting more adventurous with their choices?

That’s more a per-customer sort of thing, but we are seeing some of them who are going in and doing more deep dives. They’re electing to go through and pick up a bunch of titles in the furthest reaches of the catalog, like some of the extraordinary noir films from the 1940s that they hadn’t gotten around to before. But for a lot of people, it’s the stuff they missed maybe two years ago—stuff that feels not that far away.

 

I know older films like Jaws, Top Gun, and Easy Rider have recently been

Kaleidescape's Luke O'Brien on the Importance of Catalog

upgraded to 4K HDR. Do you see that trend accelerating, given the increased demand for catalog titles?

If that plan ends up coming into effect, we’ll likely begin seeing the results the very end of this year and into early next year. It takes a lot of resources for the licensers to go out there and do those 4K remasters. They really want to do them well and right. They don’t want to slap together a cheap “scan it up and ship it out”-type product to people. So when they make a 

Kaleidescape's Luke O'Brien on the Importance of Catalog

deliberate effort to go back and get those films redone, it takes a little more time.

 

While the market might not be able to make that happen as quickly as we’d like, I think we have to be pretty excited about what they’ve been able to get out of the new titles that have come through. To pick an example, The Shining, which I just mentioned—that 4K remaster is gorgeous. It’s an absolutely beautiful film, which only increases that wonderful Kaleidescape cinematic experience of being at home and getting to enjoy that movie in the best way it can be experienced.

 

For people who’ve never really gotten into older films, your AFI Top 100 collection would seem like a good place to start. I know you’ve been able to round that collection out since you obtained the rights to the MGM catalog, but is there anything else you’ve been able to do recently to spruce it up?

Acquiring the MGM catalog did allow us to add films like Silence of the Lambs. And we’ve been able to enhance the collection with some recent upgrades to things like Duck Soup and Swing Time. We’re trying to make sure that we’re supporting the Top 100, which we know is one people gravitate to, as best we can.

 

If you could point people toward some other areas, what would they be?

To echo the recent winner of the Best Director Oscar, we want to continue to introduce people to the movies that

take a little more investment in terms of having to read subtitles. There’s so much good international content on our store, and we’ve got a Best of Foreign-Language Cinema collection. A great recent foreign title is François Ozon’s Frantz, which we added a couple of years ago and which did very, very well. It’s so morally challenging and visually stunning and just a great film to kind of get people engaged with.

 

It’s not clear to me why, but I know musicals can be a hard sell for some people.

We’re fortunate to have had animation keep the musical alive when live-action let it go away. But even new movies that aren’t musicals can still have that same intonation. One of the biggest hits last year was the remake of A Star Is Born. That has as much song as story taking place in it, so it’s got some of the qualities of a musical running through it. We just had the Trolls World Tour drop, which is an animated film that was one of the premium early releases. I’ve got a friend who says his niece

won’t stop listening to it. So that tells you it’s got a quality that is certainly attractive to the market as a musical.

 

Interesting people in silent films can also be a challenge.

100%. We have some real masterpieces that live there on the store, and if you can just get somebody interested in something like Buster Keaton’s The General, you can often lead them to other silent classics. The great thing about the foreign silent films is that there is no language barrier to watching something like Battleship Potemkin or Metropolis or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. You can see really some of the most interesting and visually stunning movies you’re ever going to watch.

 

We’ve been focusing on films, but things like concerts and your recent acquisition of the PBS titles also give people room to roam.

For somebody who has invested in their home theater experience, being able to enjoy a concert film in lossless audio—there’s nothing like it. It blows the doors 

Kaleidescape's Luke O'Brien on the Importance of Catalog

off. One of my dealers reached out to tell me how excited he was to sit down and watch the INXS concert, which looks and sounds great because it was provided to us in HDR with Atmos audio. Bruce Springsteen’s recent significant movie was his Western Stars concert in a barn. It’s also sort of a personal journey film that I think is gorgeous and totally engaging.

 

You mentioned us recently adding PBS to the store. We have so much extraordinary television content, and the great thing about that is that it you can have a much longer-term engagement with it that’s not just a two-hour experience. If you watch one of those extraordinary Ken Burns documentaries, that’s several hours of your life having a deeply enveloping educational experience. I love a lot of the mysteries, like The Bletchley Circle. I watched The Manhunt for the first time, the Martin Clunes detective thriller from RLJ Entertainment, which is actually the length of a movie but it’s got that serial episodic hold to it that I find totally engaging.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 2

Barry riffs on everything from A Series of Unfortunate Events to subwoofers to
The Tick (2001) to why most movie theaters are like a bad BLT

In Part 1, director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family, Men in Black, Get Shorty, Pushing Daisies) offered his thoughts on how film distribution, movie theaters, and Hollywood in general have fared during the current crisis. Here, he gets more personal, discussing the pandemic’s impact on his efforts to get a new streaming series into production and on his viewing habits at home.  

—Michael Gaughn

Will the backlog of tentpoles and other films awaiting release in turn hold up other films from going into production, so essentially all movie production shifts by about a year?

Mike, it’s less that there’s a backlog of movies to be released and more that there’s no production going on and no one has really figured out how to get production started. I’m in Vancouver and I’m supposed to start pre-production on a television 

series this week. Vancouver has done a very good job in containing the virus, but if I were a studio—whether it’s TV or streaming or features—I would be very hesitant to start a show knowing that the insurance companies will not cover shutting down for COVID.

 

If a hair & makeup person or an actress or a third grip gets COVID, you could be shut down for weeks at a minimum. Even though you can test every other day, I don’t see how it can work until there’s a 15-minute, accurate, no false-positives test where the crew can get paid to come in 15 minutes early, get tested, and then wait until someone says, “Okay, you’re clear, you’re clear, you’re clear. You can come in.”

 

This concept of zone shooting—where the grips and electrics come in and they light, and then they leave the set and the actors come in—it’s sort of an OK idea in theory, but in execution, it’s not the way movies are made. Because if you rehearse with the lead actors, how does a crew watch the rehearsal? Do they have to watch it from a witness camera? Who puts marks down for the stand-ins to know where to stand?

Then an actress comes in, now she’s in hair and makeup, which she wasn’t ahead of time. And the DP realizes he has to move a light three feet forward because her hair is blocking her face now. Do the actors leave, and then the grip and electric come back in and move that light three feet? And then the actors come back in and you hope you don’t get it wrong. I mean, it’s going to slow down the time it takes to shoot a show by 30% or 40%.

 

So it’s not about backlog, it’s about if I were a studio executive, I wouldn’t be making movies, I would be buying up libraries. Or buying movies that didn’t get released properly, that were really good but it was the wrong timing. Like I had a movie, Big 

Trouble, that was about Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville accidentally stealing a suitcase that’s a nuclear bomb. It’s an outright comedy, but it came out 11 days after 9/11 so it never got a successful release. But I would not be making new shows right now if I ran a studio.

 

Can you tell me a little more about what you’re working on?

The situation is up in the air and things can change or not. But I’m hoping to start a six-part musical for Apple written by Cinco Paul, who wrote all the Despicable Me movies. This is his first live-action feature. And it’s being produced by Lorne Michaels and his company Broadway Video. 

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 2

Sofia Vergara, Ben Foster, Patrick Warburton, Tim Allen,
and Rene Russo in Big Trouble

It’s a half-hour series, and I’m not going to say who’s in it, but we hopefully will be starting prep this Monday. So that gives you an example of how things are still up in the air.

 

Well, good luck with all that.

Oh, thanks.

 

What impact has all this had on what you’ve been watching lately? Have you been going back and looking at older films?

Because of COVID, one thing I did is, in addition to my Kaleidescape, I also joined the Criterion subscription channel and I’ve been watching some stuff on that. It’s funny, Criterion gave me about 50 Blu-rays because I re-did Blood Simple for them and

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 2

The Criterion Blu-ray of
the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple

I also bought up a lot of Criterion Blu-rays, and you can’t find a Blu-ray player.

 

Costco doesn’t carry Blu-ray anymore, I had to go on Amazon to buy a player. Blu-ray is a dying business because everything is going to video on demand. I think catalogs are going to be where it is for a while, for sure.

 

Are movie theaters on their last legs? I mean, are we just drawing out the inevitable and the pandemic is just speeding that up? Or is there a reason for them to hang in there?

I’d get out of that business if I owned that real estate, although who do you sell it to? Maybe you sell it as an Amazon distribution center or an Apple store because no one wants a physical space anyway. So malls are dying, movie theaters are dying. Try to sell it and buy Amazon stock—that’s what I would do if I owned AMC.

 

Yes, it’s a dying industry, and Netflix and the streamers are going to really flourish. And again, Mike, because sound and picture quality is getting better and better and better for 

home theaters, the sacrifice of not going to a movie theater is now not about quality or even screen size. It’s just, do I want to be in a movie theater watching a comedy? See, for me, I think comedies rely more on big audiences than big action movies do. I had a better setup in Telluride to watch a big action movie than I ever did going to my East Hampton cinema and or even the Telluride cinema. So for me, the reason to be in a movie theater is to be with other people sharing a comedy, not watching bad VFX effects in a Marvel feature.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 1

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 1

Barry Sonnenfeld is the undisputed master of the puckish fairytale. Anyone who knows him mainly from Men in Black might think he specializes in effects-driven sci-fi films. But the one thread that runs through his entire body of work—from The Addams Family to Get Shorty to Wild Wild West to the first live-action Tick series to Big Trouble to Pushing Daisies to A Series of Unfortunate Events—is the sense of someone standing just off camera eager to tell you a very tall, very droll, and often surprisingly bittersweet tale. That quality lends his work a sense of both irony and intimacy that super-sized space operas usually lack.

 

It also helps to explain why you can almost always find not just the Men in Black franchise, but the Addams Family films and Get Shorty playing somewhere on cable. There’s a comfortable consistency to his work that’s allowed him to always draw an audience, whether he’s creating for movies or TV.

 

Barry in person displays the same droll and sometimes acerbic tendencies as his output. More candid in his observations about the movie industry than most mainstream directors, he’s not afraid to occasionally chomp on the hand that feeds him. And, unlike most directors, he doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to considering how people experience his work at home but has been deeply involved in the creation of his own home theaters.

 

Knowing he’d have a unique take on how Hollywood is faring during the pandemic, I was lucky enough to catch up with Barry for a few minutes as he was settling into his new hometown of Vancouver and about to begin pre-production on a new series—which we’ll discuss in more detail in Part 2.

—Michael Gaughn

Would you agree that there’s never been another time even remotely like this in the history of film or TV production?

Well, yes, there’s never been a situation like this before. What’s interesting to me is that the downfall of feature-film product actually started several years ago when the studios decided to make mainly movies based on IPs, whether they be sequels or huge books or comic books. What happened was that marketing became so expensive that if they had to spend between $50

and $100 million to market a movie, they’d rather spend $100 to $200 million to actually make a movie. Even if you make a good movie for $20 million, it’s still going to cost $50 million to market it.

 

So the movie business became a blockbuster-only business. And what that did is it sent any interesting scripts or concepts that weren’t big-budget IP, “I can only see this in a movie theater” kinds of movies to television.

 

In addition, Netflix has become so successful and has led to all these other streaming services—Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max—so fewer and fewer movies are being made for theatrical distribution. And even in those cases, it will only be very expensive, very VFX-laden movies. You see fewer and fewer small, interesting art movies going to movie theaters. Especially when you consider that the Motion Picture Academy is now accepting movies that are on streamers to be considered for nominations as feature films as long as they’ve been on in a short window in theaters.

 

COVID obviously has exacerbated this massive shift by a factor of 10. I think AMC and all of these other theater chains are basically going to have to go into the real-estate business and find ways to sell off their properties, because I don’t see that they’ll continue to need nearly as many theaters as they presently have.

 

Did you see the recent announcement from AMC and Universal?

Yes. AMC is cutting their exclusive-release window down to 

19 days, which favors only those movies that people want to see on the big screen instead of in their homes—the ones that require them to see them immediately so they can brag to all their friends that they saw the new Star Wars or Marvel movie or whatever.

 

Now, the theater chains hadn’t done a good job for the previous 20 years of maintaining their theaters, of creating an experience worthy of getting a babysitter, going to the theater, paying for parking or paying for a subway or a cab. So, until half a dozen years ago, the theaters could be blamed for their own decline because they didn’t realize they needed to not only make it an experience based on the size and scope of the movie but also on the experience of actually being in a movie theater. They overcharged for popcorn, they didn’t clean the theater between shows. They’ve started to come around; they’ve

just been very late. But now there are those draft-house and art-house theaters that have food delivery and waiter service.

 

But theaters have been in the candy store business as much as the theatrical release business. They probably make a higher percentage of their income from selling food, water, etc. than from ticket sales, because right off the bat, the theater gives half of 

Barry on home theaters vs. movie theaters

the money back to the studio. A $10 ticket only grosses them $5. So it’s not a great business, and I think COVID is going to really change that theatrical experience for, at a minimum, the next 18 months. I don’t know how theaters stay in business with their massive real-estate investments until then.

 

Do you have any thoughts on the whole situation with Christopher Nolan and Tenet?

I haven’t been following it that much. Is it Warner Brothers?

 

And IMAX. The claim is that they’ll be able to make the film available in theaters to 80% of the U.S. population by September 3rd, even if they can’t open in California or New York.

I’ll be frank with you, I don’t understand how they think they will be releasing Tenet in three weeks to all those IMAX theaters. Second of all, unless IMAX has changed, I don’t particularly like the format. The screen seemed to be 1:66 in ratio—they’re not 1:85, although you can crop them for 1:85. Also, I never thought the IMAX sound system was particularly good. For me,

RealD—they’re high-end, premier theaters—are a better movie-going experience than IMAX. They have better sound, their screens are the right aspect ratio.

 

I think a lot of the Tenet thing is hype and perception more than reality. I don’t see how Nolan’s movie could be released to 80% of the country. But what do I know?

 

Beyond Tenet, you’ve got Wonder Woman 1984, the Fast & Furious sequel

Top Gun.

 

Right. There are probably a dozen tentpole or nearly tentpole films they may not be able to release until next spring at the earliest. Is there a risk that these will just feel over-hyped and out of date by the time they actually put them out there? Are they missing an opportunity by not just going PVOD with some of these titles?

There are several costs, including the interest costs on all these movies. The longer they hold a movie, the more they’re paying in interest on it because they’ve already laid out $200 million and they’re not getting any of that money back in. Perhaps there will be either a COVID vaccine, or rapid testing where for 15 minutes while you’re waiting on line, you do your tests and then you’re allowed into the theater. I wish there was some other venue.

 

What’s really funny is it’s bringing back drive-in movie 

Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 1

Barry recently published his autobiography, which describes his journey from shooting movies for
the Coen brothers, Penny Marshall, Rob Reiner,
and others to creating his own hit films

theaters. The problem with drive-ins used to be the sound more than the picture—although they never could get the image bright enough. In fact, I don’t think they could ever show The Godfather at drive-ins, or any movie shot by Gordon Willis, because they couldn’t get the print bright enough.

 

But the biggest problem used to be terrible sound, with those wired speakers that you hung on your car window. Now they’ve gone to broadcasting the sound on a narrow FM channel.

 

I don’t know how you get 400 people into a movie theater. And I do question whether or not in a year from now when Top Gun is released and everyone’s had a year to pirate it and find other ways to get copies of it, if it will have the same sort of cachet.

 

They’re going to release Tenet overseas this month before it opens here in September—if it opens in September. That means the entire planet’s going to be awash in bootlegs before it ever gets near the U.S.

Well, I don’t know what percentage of the U.S. market will want to see movies like Tenet, etc., etc. on a bootleg copy with Italians coughing in the foreground. Unless it’s good bootlegs done by projectionists or that kind of stuff. I think that’s a small problem, but, again, if the movie is already out there, it’s sort of damaged goods to a certain extent. That’s why the streamers are in a really great place right now because people don’t want to leave their homes yet, unless it’s for political reasons.

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.

This Would Seem Like the Perfect Time for the Studios to Get Back into the Movie Business

This Would Seem Like the Perfect Time for the Studios to Get Back into the Movie Business

Dennis Burger told me a great wailing and gnashing of teeth could be heard emanating a couple of weeks ago from this year’s virtual Comic-Con because nobody knew when the new Wonder Woman film was going to be released, so all the vast profusion of product tie-ins, including a novelization and a new line of cosmetics, was being left suspended in the void, causing tremendous consternation among that franchise’s carefully cultivated and indoctrinated fan base.

 

Sorry, but I find it impossible to shed a tear over any of that, mainly because it was just another instance of the tail wagging a very shaggy dog. None of this is what the movies are supposed to be about.

 

Starting in the late ‘70s, Hollywood began moving away from making movies and into the “big event” business, creating not films but properties—things that depended as much on merchandising and other ties-in for their success as on anything that was projected up on the screen. It was a business model that eschewed cultivating discernment and appreciation, stoking

emotional addiction instead, ultimately going even more primal, coming to rely on constantly increased jolts of physiological stimulation—pumping adrenalin—to short-circuit any more considered response to what was being presented. And its success hinged on exploiting the emotional immaturity of teenagers—boys c. 12 to 14, in particular.

 

The result, 40 years on, is a culture defined, in almost every important respect, by arrested development. And the consequences, as we’re currently watching them play out, couldn’t be more devastating.

 

The movies became just another extension of the bubble & bust economy, an excuse for blind indulgence, consequences be damned. The audiences were huge, the profits were huge, the movies, almost without exception, were crap. And along the way, we came to confuse popularity with quality, which might be the biggest knot that needs to be undone.

 

But there’s no law that says it has to be this way—it’s just 

that we’ve been trained to believe this is the only viable model. Well, that model isn’t serving any of us very well at the moment. 

 

With traditional movie release patterns out the window, the almost complete cessation of film production, the fate of theaters in the balance, and vast economic uncertainty on the near and far horizons, it’s pretty obvious that all bets are now off. So it can’t hurt to daydream a little and imagine a better tomorrow.

 

So let me make a modest proposal.

 

What if we let adults make movies instead of the unending stream of entitled juvenile smart asses that have been at the helm throughout the postmodern era? What if all film budgets were capped at $50 million? What if special effects were only used when absolutely necessary and only to enhance the story instead of being slopped all over the movie like great gobs of Crisco and sugar on a flavorless wedding cake? What if there was a moratorium on franchise films and their latex and spandex, parallel universes, and weapons of mass destruction? Better, what if there was a moratorium on—yes, I’m actually going to type it—fantasy, and films returned to using something resembling reality as their point of departure? And what if most of this new breed of movies was meant not for Netflix or Amazon but actually for theaters, which were designed with taste and an aspirational flair that created a sense that what you were about to see actually matters instead of making you feel like you’re in imminent danger of being whisked away to a CIA black site.

 

I know, I know—I might as well be talking about cold fusion or perpetual motion. But nothing I’m suggesting here is impossible—it’s all easily doable. And once everyone has adjusted their expectations, it would soon become desirable—and way more sustainable than the current model.

 

Why is it that people who are so obsessive about planning their diets and tending to their gym memberships are OK with almost all the entertainment they consume being the equivalent of a super-sized sack of White Castle hamburgers brimming with fries? We’ve gorged ourselves on noxious piffle until our brains have gotten fat on the stuff and our neural pathways clogged. Irrational exuberance has proven to just be a cover for a coldly calculated effort to extract our last dime and a mass stifling of our imaginations.

 

I realize the public would need to overcome decades of propaganda (or marketing—same thing) and a serious case of the Stockholm syndrome for any of this to ever come to pass, but throwing off the escapist fetters would be like emerging from darkness into the dawn.

Michael Gaughn

Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtablemarketing, product design, some theater designs,
couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.