A couple of quick shortcuts and a lot of luck later, I pull into the Santa Monica offices of POP Sound with nary a moment to spare. Fortunately, though, the rain’s delayed everyone, so I have time enough to grab a cup of coffee and chat for a few minutes with Garrett Smith and Ron Smith (of Paramount’s Digital Mastering Operations – no relation) before the stars of the day’s show arrive.
The first thing that strikes me about George Romero and John Harrison, when they walk through the front door together a few minutes later, is how different they seem from each other. Romero is a great big bear of a man, easily a head and shoulders taller than Harrison. And Romero’s face seems to have a perpetual smile, his eyes an ever-present twinkle. You get the idea that’s he’s got a lot of stories to share and that he shares them often. Harrison, by contrast, seems more focused. He’s observant, quieter... a listener. But once you get to know these men a little better, you begin to realize that they have much more in common than you’d guess.
With all the players finally present, the group gathers to discuss the schedule for the day’s work. In addition to getting their commentary recorded, Harrison and Romero will also get a chance to listen and approve the new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that’s been prepared for this DVD, so there’s definitely enough activity to fill the afternoon. It becomes clear that it makes more sense to eat lunch first, rather than break up the day’s tasks. So, joined by Paramount’s Martin Blythe, we adjourn to a small conference room for deli sandwiches and lively discussion.
It’s always fascinating to listen to filmmakers talk about their craft and their body of work. But get two filmmakers together, particularly two that have an obvious respect and affection for each other, and interesting doesn’t begin to cover the discussion. Romero and Harrison both spent much of their early careers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania... or, as they say with a smile, “Back in the ‘Burgh.” Romero shot his most famous work, Night of the Living Dead, in that area of the country. And among Harrison’s early directing jobs were stints as assistant director on Romero’s Day of the Dead and Creepshow. Romero’s career goes a little farther back though. As he explains with a laugh, “My first paying job was on Mister Rogers Neighborhood.” (Now there’s a credit you won’t find listed on IMDB!)
Listening to them talk, you quickly get the idea that both men would be making movies even if they weren’t getting paid to do so. And given the $100,000 budget on Night of the Living Dead, Romero’s definitely proven that he’ll work for food, so to speak. But in addition to their common love of film, both Harrison and Romero share a love of the horror genre in particular. “People think horror is easy, but nothing could be further from the truth,” notes Harrison. He’s right – has anyone else noticed how few truly good horror movies are being made today? It seems to be particularly difficult to combine horror with humor – something both men are fond of doing and which they used to great effect in Tales from the Darkside to heighten the film’s social satire. “Horror and humor go together very well,” says Romero, “There’s something about the use of such opposites in horror that’s particularly effective. You take the thing that’s most attractive and show it for what it really is... or vise versa.”
Both Romero and Harrison lament the fact that the anthology format is used so seldom in film these days. Harrison believes that anthology is particularly good for horror stories. Anyone who’s ever told scary stories around a campfire would probably agree. “Anthology is an homage to comic books really,” he notes.
Romero’s major contribution to Tales from the Darkside: The Movie was his adaptation of a Steven King short story for the film – the Cat from Hell segment – which King reportedly was very pleased with. On this note, the discussion quickly turns to the many other film and TV adaptations of King’s novels, and the fact that the author isn’t happy with many of them, particularly Stanley Kubrick’s take on The Shining. “What Steven doesn’t like is that people tend to gloss over important elements – to soft-peddle. King doesn’t shy away from difficult issues,” Romero says. “That’s why you’re there, after all.” But when King is asked how he feels about people ruining his books, Romeo reports that the author is quick to point out an important detail: “They haven’t been ruined. They’re right over there on the shelf!”
The discussion continues like this for maybe an hour, running through a host of fascinating subjects. When we finish eating, the group reconvenes in one of POP Sound’s state-of-the-art recording studios. It’s a two room affair. The control room sits elevated in the back, separated from the actual studio by a large observation window. Ron Smith settles himself there, along with a POP sound engineer, to supervise the recording. But the rest of us file into the studio itself. One wall of the studio is dominated by a massive front-projection screen. Facing it, and in front of the control room window, two chairs have been set up for Harrison and Romero, complete with microphones and headsets. And all around the edges of the room are comfortable couches. It’s to these couches that most of us gravitate, as the two filmmakers take their seats and prepare to reminisce about Tales from the Darkside.
Now, I’ve been to a number of commentary recording sessions, and I can tell you that each one is as different in tone as the various directors involved. Some directors will prepare elaborate notes of things they want to mention during the recording. Others make notes during the process itself, using pencil and paper to better organize their thoughts as they go. Sometimes the recording is haphazard, with the filmmaker and other participants talking about whatever comes into their minds – content to be reshuffled in editing later to better match the picture. Other times, the commentary is done in one take. But with John and George, you get the impression that neither has seen this film in some time, and they’re looking forward to watching it again together as much as the rest of us are.
After a few minutes of discussion about the best way to proceed, everyone is called to silence, the film begins playing and a light comes on in the studio to indicate that the recording has begun.
Harrison: My name is John Harrison, and I’m the director of Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. I’m glad to be here with all you fans. And I’m here with my dear friend and mentor, Mr. George Romero, sitting to my right...
Romero: Hi there! (laughs)
And so it begins. Both men are immediately struck by how good Tales looks, projected on such a large screen, as the film’s wrap-around story plays out in front of them. They’re excited about the DVD release, and what it means in terms of the quality people will finally get to experience the film in. The next hour passes surprisingly quickly, as the two men discuss the early film appearances of Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Christian Slater, and Blondie’s Debora Harry. They talk about the difficulties of filming much of the movie in an abandoned high school in New York. John discusses the soundtrack for the film, for which he created original music – a hidden talent. And George addresses the challenges of filmmaking, guerilla-style. They’re having a great time, telling stories about the production and making each other laugh repeatedly. They’re also making the rest of us laugh and, more than once, we have to struggle to keep silent when one of them cracks wise. “That’s what I like about zombies,” George declares at one point, “Zombies are sort of your blue-collar monsters. I know a thing or two about zombies...”
When we reach the end of the first hour of the film, it’s decided that everyone should take a break. So we all file outside for some fresh air, and to talk shop. I take the opportunity to ask the folks from Paramount about upcoming titles. In particular, I’ve been bugging Martin Blythe about the possibility of a DVD release of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West for well over a year now. I’m quickly assured that it’s in the planning stages. Apparently, the film elements in Paramount’s archive are less than optimal for DVD and the Leone estate has a better quality master print of the film – a cut no one’s ever seen. If all goes well, a DVD could be released late next year.
The discussion quickly turns DVD in general, and everyone joins in. Harrison, it seems, has been enjoying a number of Criterion’s recent discs, including Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus. We talk about Kubrick for a few minutes, and Romero notes interestingly that, “The end of 2001 is the scariest thing I’ve ever seen...” Now, when George Romero tells you that the scariest thing he’s ever seen is the end of 2001, you take it pretty seriously. How do you argue with that? Fascinating.
It’s not long before Harrison and I begin chatting about his recent (and most high-profile) work, Frank Herbert’s Dune, which Harrison directed for the Sci-Fi Channel. The miniseries was the network’s highest rated program ever, and the DVD version has been a hot seller, despite its lack of anamorphic widescreen video and 5.1 sound. I’ve long loved Dune as a novel, and I’m definitely a fan of both Harrison’s screenplay adaptation and the miniseries itself. As we talk about the challenges of boiling a 500-page novel down for the screen, John reveals that he’s just finished the scripts for the follow-up miniseries, Children of Dune, which will hopefully begin production before the end of 2001. The adaptation will combine two of Herbert’s novels, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, because as John says, “They’re really halves of the same story – the story of the Atreides family. After those two books, the series really becomes something else.” John also reveals something that he knows will make me very happy indeed, having read my review of the original Dune DVD. Sales of the disc are so good, that Artisan’s decided to produce a special edition DVD for release in 2002, that will feature anamorphic widescreen video, a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and director’s commentary (among other extras). Harrison has promised to keep me up to date on this project, and we hope do a feature story on it for The Bits in the near future.
Finally, it’s time to get back to work, so it’s off to the studio again. The second hour passes even more quickly than the first and, before long, the commentary’s in the can. There’s another good ten or fifteen minutes of story-telling, chatting, laughing and general joking around that spills out of the recording studio, before John and George have to head off to another part of the building to listen to the new 5.1 audio mix. It’s amazing how easily you can pass an entire afternoon when you’re having a great time. And I’ve definitely enjoyed getting to know both of these filmmakers a little better. But all good things must come to an end. Warm good-byes are said all around, with the promise of staying in touch, and soon I’m back in my car, leaving POP Sound far behind, heading back down the 405 freeway to the offices of The Digital Bits.
Wouldn’t you know it? It’s not raining anymore...
I’d like to take a moment to personally thank John Harrison, George Romero, Ron Smith and everyone at Paramount Home Entertainment and POP Sound. Particular thanks also to Garrett Smith, who provided many of the images you see above, and to Martin Blythe, who was kind enough to make this day possible.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this look behind-the-scenes at the recording of the Tales from the Darkside: The Movie audio commentary as much as I did bringing it to you. Be sure to check out Paramount’s just-released DVD of the film (you can purchase it from Amazon by clicking on the linked DVD cover above), with which you can experience the complete commentary. If you love this movie, and these two filmmakers in particular, it’s definitely worth a spin. As always, I welcome your comments.
- Bill Hunt