Brendan Shick | Freelance Film, Broadcast, & Digital Media

4 Must Watch Director’s Commentaries – Even if You’re Not a Film Geek

4 Must Watch Director's Commentaries - Even if You're Not a Film Geek

4 Director's Commentaries for any sensibility or taste! At least one of these will appeal to you...
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4 Must Watch Director’s Commentaries – Even if You’re Not a Film Geek

Sep 23 2013 by Brendan Shick Add Your Thoughts

I present to you – 4 director’s commentaries for any sensibility or taste!

Many of my readers eat these things up and simply can’t find time to watch enough. If that’s you, make these your next four.

These are my favorites and each of them has as much rewatch value as the respective film itself. Yeah, that’s right – I’ve played the audio commentary track multiple times on several of these and learned more each time.

If you’re the type who can’t bring yourself to listen to an audio commentary, keep reading anyway.

I’ve chosen a non-traditional set here, so at least one of these will appeal to you. Read through each description to figure out which one(s), as each is included for its distinct flavor.

*NOTE: This post is 100% spoiler free*Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek (2009)

Being a popular blockbuster release, this is easily the most traditional release of this set. So rather than talk about how it’s different, I’ll just share some of the highlights:

One, large sections of the Enterprise (especially engineering) weren’t built as a set, but were shot on location in existing real world locals. Can’t quite imagine how this could be the case? Well, you’ll have to fire up your DVD/Blu-ray player to find out where this other-worldly place is.

Two, J.J. Abrams has made it no secret that he’s a Star Wars lover (and that he’d rather direct a Star Wars reboot than a Trek reboot). He shares a lot of ways in which he vicariously lived out this dream while re-imagining the Trek franchise – ways he made his first Trek movie more like Star Wars and more accessible to audiences as a result.

For example, he says while directing particular Star Trek scenes he’d imagine a particular classic Star Wars scene in his head. Once you know which scenes are substitutes for which, you can’t unsee it. It’s not only genius, it will leave you wondering, “How’d I never notice that before.”

Similar manipulation with Michael Giacchino’s score is also hinted at a couple times.

Finally, one of the best on-set stories of this commentary comes when Steven Spielberg visited the set. Abrams and Spielberg were already collaborating on Super 8 (2011), but this marked their first, face-to-face meeting.

Having been a longtime fan, Abrams obviously wanted to impress his movie mogul idol. But what scene were they shooting that day?

The one where our heroes plunge headfirst thru Vulcan’s atmosphere.

Our Heroes Trying to Save Vulcan

Our Heroes Trying to Save Vulcan

And what kind of elaborate sets and awesome special effects trickery were used to accomplish this?

Well, actually the actors were just standing right-side-up on top of mirrors laying in the parking lot, arms stretched high in the air, wearing silly-looking spacesuits, camera pointed downward, as large fans blew on them. No special effects. No set but a mirror reflecting the backlot sky.

It must have looked pretty ridiculous in person, but something tells me Mr. Spielberg was still pretty impressed by the ingenuity and simplicity of that technique.

Insomnia (2002)

Insomnia (2002)Star Trek (2009) was the big budget blockbuster from the list, and though the rest of these are lesser known films, each of their commentaries makes the list for a reason that makes them particularly unique.

Insomnia is perhaps the most unique option on the list, if not of all-time. I’ve already dedicated an entire previous post to this one, but to sum up, director Christopher Nolan recorded the commentary in shooting order rather than in script order.

That is, when you play the director’s commentary, you see the film played back scene-by-scene in the same order that they shot the scenes.

Although this probably catches the interest of filmmakers and other behind-the-scenes film junkies, you can’t appreciate how much extra information this format conveys without watching it yourself.

The drawback is that you get no sense of the process of editing the film from this format (there is a separate bonus feature with editor Dolby Dorn), but it gives an amazing sense of the pace and work-flow of production if that’s your area of interest.

It’s also largely informative for those interested in pre-production (what order to you schedule the shoots in, how many days for each scene/location, what are the logistics of getting all the right people and gear there, etc.) – a perspective often missing from the traditional commentary track format.

Also, noteworthy is when Nolan notes that there are generally no ‘B’ units on his films. He and (former) DP Wally Pfister supervised every shot, including inserts and wide establishing shots.

Margin Call (2011)

Haven’t heard of Margin Call? You’re not the only one. This made my top films of 2011, so jump to that review if you want to know more before committing 90 minutes.

Zachary Quinto in still from Margin Call (2011)

First-time feature writer/director J.C. Chandor was nominated for an Academy Award for this screenplay, but perhaps more impressively, the entire film was shot on a budget of only $3 million despite including Zachary Quinto, Stanley Tucci, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, and Jeremy Irons in its all-star cast.

The commentary track reveals many of the crews secrets. As such, it’s a must watch – both the film and the commentary – for younger filmmakers, student filmmakers, or those otherwise trying to break into the industry.

Time after time, the filmmakers reveal a trick they used here or there to save thousands or millions of dollars on production costs – each time it involves cutting a corner that you didn’t notice was cut.

MMoon (2009)oon (2009) is a similar case of a film made for much less than you’d think – and its commentary is similarly helpful, particularly if you’re looking for decent sci-fi effects on the cheap.

Not only is this a learning experience in trying to make a film on a shoestring budget, but if you’re still in film school, it really gives you a sense that a student filmmaker isn’t that impossibly far removed from an Oscar-nominated filmmaker.

(PRO TIP: they’re not far removed at all – I cite Oscar-winning “West Bank Story” as my case study)

If you learn a few simple tricks – the difference is often just a matter of drive.

Also noteworthy on this commentary is the surprisingly short amount of time Jeremy Irons was on set – and how it suddenly became even shorter due to a last minute international incident/visa dispute.

Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie (2002)

There’s a number of commentary tracks on Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie. One of them is labeled a director’s commentary, and although it’s pretty good, that’s not the one I’m recommending.

Yes, there’s another track recorded by none other than the Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything. During this one, Mr. Lunt claims that Pa, Larry, and he “actually directed the film.” If you’re keeping track of who’s the voice actor for whom, this isn’t that misleading.

As you might imagine, this one is hilariously off-topic and funny, playing out more like an episode of RiffTrax or MST3K than a traditional director’s commentary. The pirates barely even remember they’re watching a film for most of the ordeal.

The only thing you’ll glean from a behind-the-scenes perspective on this one is that production always goes smoother when craft services has plenty of Krispy Kreme donuts, and although that’s always an important truism, I don’t actually understand how it’s applicable to producing an animated film.

The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything

Also on the DVD: a very strange, but awesome, behind-the-scenes tour of Big Idea’s studio (then located in a shopping mall) narrated by Phil Vischer – and perhaps my favorite DVD bonus feature of all-time: Khalil’s Answering Machine (so funny, but make sure you watch the film first or it makes zero sense…ok, so maybe it still makes zero sense…but that’s why it’s so good).

Bonus Pick: The Fountain (2005)

I’ve only played this one once, and honestly don’t remember much of what was said in it, but I’ve included it for the unique story behind it.

If you own or go to purchase a copy of The Fountain on DVD based on this recommendation, you’ll probably be initially puzzled, as the studio released only one DVD with paltry bonus features and no commentary track whatsoever. This was seen as a cost-cutting measure for the DVD release of a film that wasn’t expected to sell to a wide audience.

But director Darren Aronofsky didn’t want this to stop his fans – who ironically are largely in the “I love audio commentaries” demographic – from hearing about the film.

In what was possibly a move to show studios everywhere just how cheap you have to be to not include a commentary track, Aronofsky recorded one in his living room posting it on his personal website (now on Vimeo) for what must have been a total sum of $0.

Just download and hit play on the DVD and your computer’s audio player to sync the tracks.

Your Turn…

Did I miss one of your favorite commentaries tracks? Or maybe I either missed or nailed one of your favorite moments from these five?

Share your take in the comments below so that other readers can experience your favorites too.

Brendan Shick

Brendan Shick is a freelance DP, gaffer, and sports broadcaster serving primarily the Chicago, IL; Pittsburgh, PA; Grand Rapids, MI; and Fort Wayne, IN, regions. You can find out more by following this blog, his recent work on Vimeo, or by connecting with him on Twitter or LinkedIn. Brendan is also an occasional contributor to the Project Updates feed for one of his most recent films, To Turn Back Time.

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