Helmers have final word, but who listens?

Beatty ambivalent about DVD commentaries

Warren Beatty has long been one of the biggest DVD holdouts, declining to submit to bonus feature interviews, let alone a director’s commentary. But Paramount finally coaxed him into agreeing to be interviewed for a series of docus accompanying the 25th-anni edition of “Reds.”

Not that that stopped Beatty from expressing his ambivalence about these features in an astonishing array of interviews promoting the pic’s disc debut last week.

“I’ve never done one of these interviews for DVD and I basically disapprove of it,” Beatty says on the DVD.

He then quotes liberal journo Walter Lippmann’s response to his overture early in the filmmaking process: “What is it that you want?” “I just said that to you,” Beatty says to the off-camera interlocutor. “What is it that you want?”

But Beatty, who wrote, produced, starred and directed the film set in the early 1900s, soon warms up to his subject, telling a series of anecdotes interspersed with comments by former Par exec Barry Diller, thesp Jack Nicholson, composer Stephen Sondheim and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The docus prove far more informative than the average director’s commentary.

Director’s commentaries have become de rigueur on discs, but often disappoint, degenerating into marathon praisathons (“No, you were great!”) or painfully awkward voiceovers. Even normally droll helmer Paul Weitz stumbled in his first solo commentary for “American Dreamz” (also out last week), wondering whether “doing commentaries is like the Wizard of Oz pulling back the curtain on himself.”

Nor is it clear how many people actually listen to these plentiful recordings. DVD execs admit most directors love them, and consumers expect them, but actual consumption? Hard to say.

“For mainstream audiences, we would say deleted scenes and outtakes resonate the highest as desired content, but for true, true fans, it’s the commentary,” says Par homevid domestic prexy Meagan Burrows.

“When DVD was first out, director’s commentary was always toward the top of what motivated people to listen and buy,” says Tracey Garvin, Sony homevid’s head of added value. “As DVD went mass, bloopers, deleted scenes and alternate endings grew more popular.”

Execs admit they give directors and other members of the creative team free rein when it comes to commentaries. If they want to do it themselves, that’s fine, or if they want to interact with others, that’s fine, too. Multiple commentary tracks? The more the merrier!

“The understanding is we’ll pretty much let them say what they want to say,” says Fox homevid DVD production exec Jacqueline Reed.

The key, DVD gurus say, is to engage filmmakers however possible. Burrows say working on the DVD features reignited Beatty’s passion for “Reds,” which goes a long way toward explaining his massive promo efforts for the disc debut.

The ultimate goal, according to New Line homevid senior VP of content development Mike Mulvehill, is to make the DVD, and all bonus features, to feel like an extension of the film.

“We really want to be receptive to the film and the filmmaker,” Mulvehill says. “If they want 12 voices, you plan on 12 voices. Then it’s up to the producer to make it work.”

Studios prompt the flailing or digressive and tighten up ums and ahs, but generally leave the content alone. That’s fine when the commentaries work — helmers like Martin Scorsese, Kevin Smith and John Waters are known for lucid commentaries, and comic actors have proven especially amusing on recordings lately — but grating when they do not.

Surely homevid divisions are tending to exercise greater control, in much the same way theatrical counterparts finesse marketing campaigns. After all, better commentaries can’t hurt sales.

In the meantime, filmmakers with little or only complimentary things to say are advised to just say no — or to find another feature that better suits their temperament. Noah Baumbach, for example, eschews running commentaries, choosing instead to share his thoughts about various topics as stills flash onscreen.

Beatty was so encouraged by his “Reds” experience that he agreed to an interview for Sony’s upcoming “Bugsy” extended-cut DVD. However, he does not seem in danger of reversing his anti-commentary stance any time soon, any more than fellow holdouts Steven Spielberg or Woody Allen do.

“Reds” co-star Diane Keaton, meanwhile, remains unconvinced about docus. The thesp is one of the few major players in the movie not involved on the two-disc set.

“She would find probably a lot to find fault with in this particular approach to making a documentary and getting poopsy about the period,” Nicholson explains. “Too much of this, ‘Ooh! You made a movie, blah,’ is sort of the way she is.”

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