Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Cthulhu (2007) - Best DVD Commentary Ever

Back in August 2010, a friend lent me a DVD of Cthulhu (2007), a not-so-great low-budget ($1 million) horror film whose main claims to fame are that Tori Spelling plays a small but tantalizing role in it, and that it features possibly THE BEST DVD COMMENTARY TRACK EVER!

While many director's DVD commentaries are all but useless, consisting primarily of self-congratulatory chatter and vapid anecdotes about what happened to a certain prop or costume AFTER the film wrapped, Cthulhu's commentary, featuring Director Dan Gildark and Screenwriter/Executive Producer Grant Cogswell, is a rich collection of technical making-of insights accompanied by hindsightful ruminations about why the project failed.  And while this may sound silly at first -- listening to a commentary track for a bad movie, wherein that commentary only confirms that the movie I'm watching is indeed bad -- it has been, in fact, one of the most instructional and gripping 100 minutes I've spent in a long time.  First-time filmmakers Gildark and Cogswell are extremely frank about what went wrong on Cthulhu, and speak in detailed fashion about what could have been done to improve the end product and make their lives easier during production.  For example, screenwriter Cogswell (who reveals that he sunk a staggering $175,000 of his own money into the project!!) states early on that his biggest mistake was writing way too many locations into the film, and that that factor cut into their budget and their time (what with extensive travel between locations all up and down the West Coast) in disastrous ways.  Both he and Gildark emphatically urge other first-time filmmakers to begin their projects with solid scripts set in relatively few locations -- a single location if possible (e.g., Tape, Clerks).  This is crucial advice from people who, sadly, had to learn it the hard way. 

Cogswell and Gildark both stress the importance of having a very good script, noting that Tori Spelling came on board the Cthulhu project on the basis of its script.  All actors, even famous ones, are on the lookout for meaty roles in good scripts, so the quality of a film's script is all-important to attracting stars, as well as ensuring a smooth production process.  Further, a script can limit or even to some extent dictate the pacing of the finished film, so revising the screenplay for pacing is key: Gildark states that Act One of Cthulhu (introducing the characters and the film's main narrative conflict) does not end until the 49-minute mark, awfully late in a film for the heightened conflicts, juicy narrative twists, and increased pacing of Act Two to get underway.  Another hard lesson learned, after it was too late to significantly change the film, even in editing.  The filmmakers attempted rewrites and post-production re-shoots to tighten the first act, but to no avail: the film is just really slow for almost the entirety of its first hour.  Beautifully shot in many scenes, and well-acted throughout, but draggingly slow nevertheless.

Cthulhu screenwriter Cogswell is fairly unforgiving of his own mistakes, and while he may be correct in his assessment that the Cthulhu script was too ambitious for its budget, at least in terms of locations, I had the feeling listening to the commentary and watching the film that these two guys set out to make a horror movie that was true to the spirit of its source material (Lovecraft's novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth) while incorporating thought-provoking new ideas, including a homosexual main character.  This is bold stuff, and is the kind of risky territory that low-budget, independently produced cinema can and should venture into as frequently as possible, since the studios won't go near it.  As the Cthulhu commentary progressed, I found myself really admiring these two geeks who set off to make a potentially audacious, meaningful, smart horror film, yet who lacked the skill and experience to pull it off even to their own satisfaction (let alone the critics' or audiences').

But their DVD commentary may be Gildark and Cogswell's actual magnum opus.  Alongside the Hooper-Pearl-Hansen commentary on the original 1974 Texas Chainsaw Massacre DVD (which the Cthulhu filmmakers specifically mention during their commentary!), Gildark and Cogswell's feature-length commentary on Cthulhu is one of the most informative such things I have ever heard, offering insight into how to make low-budget films correctly precisely via the candor with which it reveals how to do it incorrectly.  Only the Alien 3 special features or the documentary film Lost In La Mancha even come close to Cthulhu's commentary track in terms of accurately documenting a troubled production with such admirable honesty.  I would consider buying the Cthulhu DVD expressly for its commentary and I would make it assigned listening for future students of low-budget filmmaking practices and production.

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