‘Room 237’ Director Rodney Ascher On Making a New Commentary Track For an Old Movie
As a general rule, I don’t back crowdfunded movies. In this line of work, you never know when you’re going to be called upon to write about something critical, and donating money to a production you might later review is an ethical gray area I try to avoid. To date, I’ve donated to just one film; the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself (and technically, someone else donated on my behalf and then gave me the rewards).
But this morning, I backed a second Kickstarter: An unusual project called Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein. It’s directed by Tim Kirk and produced and edited by Rodney Ascher, the filmmakers who made the outstanding documentary Room 237 about obsessive fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. According to the film’s Kickstarter page, Director’s Commentary “transforms [Terror of Frankenstein] into an entirely new, all too human, horror story. It’s less Mystery Science Theater 3000 and more Sartre, an icy satire of the monsters onscreen, behind the camera, and in the audience.”
Essentially, Director’s Commentary is a new audio track for an old Frankenstein film, featuring the star of that original film, Leon Vitali. But it also includes contributions from actors Clu Gulager and Zack Norman, who weren’t in Terror of Frankenstein. Exactly how truthful or fictional the commentary is, Ascher won’t say (“A little mystery never hurt anyone”). Whatever exactly it is, it sounds fascinating and unique enough for me to break my unofficial rule and donate to the fundraiser.
It also intrigued me enough to get Ascher on the phone for a brief interview about Director’s Commentary where I tried to pry out a few more details about the movie, learned the project’s origins, and discussed the dying art form of the DVD commentary track. Director’s Commentary: Terror of Frankenstein premieres Friday, May 1 at the Stanley Film Festival. If you can’t make it and want to see it (like me), a $25 Kickstarter donation gets you a digital screener.
Did you have any trepidation about using Kickstarter?
Only in that I’m a little embarrassed to shake the cup. But this is the definition of an independent project. It would be very hard to get some independent financier to write a check for it. So Kickstarter seemed to be the way to go. Fingers crossed, since we’re going to be showing this movie in a month.
Is it a movie technically? What do you call it?
I call it a project, [director] Tim [Kirk] calls it a film, so it all depends on your point of view. But it is a full-length cinematic experience where you watch moving pictures and listen to voices, sound effects, and music. But it is an existing film, 1975’s Terror of Frankenstein, with a newly recorded commentary track. So we’ll be projecting the movie while listening to a commentary track.
Right. And the track has the actor who starred in the original film as Victor Frankenstein, but it also has other people as well, correct?
Well, it’s this whole conceptual thing; you’ll have to see it. But yeah, Leon Vitali, who starred in the original [Terror of Frankenstein], returns to record a commentary track.
Right. Okay. But it’s not a typical “This is what happened during the making of this film commentary track.”
Well, we discuss all sorts of things. A lot of what they talk about happened in the wake of the film.
Obviously I haven’t seen the finished product, but listening to you describe it, it does remind me a little of Room 237, which was a documentary about people interpreting another man’s work of art. Would you say that’s kind of what you guys did here? You refracted someone else’s film into your own creation?
Yeah, in broad strokes. Both projects are about getting you to watch a film in a new context and put the pieces together differently than a straightforward viewing of the regular film would.
One thing I thought was interesting was there was a review of Room 237 in Artforum, and they included a picture to illustrate it of Danny on his tricycle. The caption could have said Room 237 or The Shining — the same picture can have different captions and give it an entirely different context. [Susan] Sontag and Errol Morris have played with that idea in their books; you show the same picture with a different caption and all of a sudden it’s completely different. Errol Morris did one with a picture of rubble. He said “This is in Palestine after an Israeli rocket strike.” And then he switched the caption and said “This is Israel after a bomb went off.” And the picture’s exactly the same. But changing the caption changes the way you look at it dramatically.
So how did the project come about?
Tim has long been fascinated by Frankenstein. He and his cousin [co-writer] Jay [Kirk] really conceived of it, and it was very much the kind of thing I’m drawn to. So I came on to help in any way I could. For me, it reminded me — this process of having this incredibly dramatic, radically different story unfolding in the commentary track — reminded me of, like, this J.G. Ballard story, one of my favorite ones, called “The Index.” It’s an index to a book that does not exist, and you have to sort of figure out the chronology of this guy’s life story based only on the index as if that was the end of the book. Or Chris Ware in an issue of The Acme Novelty Library had this very long set of instructions for how to build this hideous wooden cat, but embedded within those instructions was this very tragic story about a young man watching his grandmother die. So it was this format that I was very excited about.
There was some debate about which Frankenstein to use. This one was one of the more interesting. And when Leon agreed to do it, that was the end of the search.
So you’re premiering at the Stanley Film Festival. Is this the sort of thing you hope people will see in a movie theater?
Well there’s not a lot of precedent. I think it would be great if it did a bunch of film festivals, and then, because it’s about the DVD format too, it would be nice if there was a collectible DVD with a nicely designed box with some supplements in it.
Even showing it a couple times in a theater is unusual, because the commentary track as a form is designed for the home. I don’t think I’ve ever listened to one in a movie theater.
The majority of them are only of interest to very dedicated fans. Every once in a while a commentary track is very entertaining on its own. There’s an amazing one on Doris Wishman’s A Night to Dismember between her and the cinematographer, I think it’s C. Davis Smith. She introduces the film and as soon as he says a word she shuts him down. “No one gives a damn what you say! This is my film and I’m the reason people are watching!
Listening to these two fight it out, imagining it reflects what the dynamic was like on set, is incredibly entertaining. I think my favorite commentary track is the one where Lem Dobbs goes toe to toe with Steven Soderbergh on The Limey. That’s an experience that was very different from seeing The Limey in a theater.
I was going to ask if you had any favorite commentary tracks. Any others come to mind?
I haven’t been listening to them lately like I used to. But Starship Troopers and RoboCop have amazing commentary tracks. The Limey, of course. While researching Room 237, I watched the TV version of The Shining with the commentary track by Mick Garris and Stephen King. Anybody wants to spend a year or two obsessing over The Shining like I did; it told a lot about Stephen King’s relationship with that book. That one was really interesting.
I think most people are listening to them less than they used to. I certainly am. But I just heard a few last week for something I was writing, and really enjoyed them. I sort of forgot how great they can be.
I don’t think you can turn them on on Netflix. There’s an option for different languages sometimes, but I’ve never seen commentary tracks.
Not yet. [NOTE: Netflix has offered a few commentary tracks, like David Fincher’s for House of Cards, but they are extremely rare]
It would be a shame if it was like CD-ROMs, and it became an entirely lost artform.
Yeah and to me, that makes your project even more interesting; that quality of something lost and then rediscovered.
I had fun doing a commentary for The ABCs of Death. Someone asked me if my short worked as an ABCs of Death because, arguably, it ends with somebody coming to life not somebody dying. And in order to talk about that I got this philosophy teacher at the University of Glasgow who recorded a 3.5 minute meditation to play over it. [laughs]
As much as I like commentary tracks, I haven’t had the guts to record one in my own voice yet. I was very proud of the Room 237 one, where I got Mstrmnd, who didn’t want to be interviewed in the film proper, to do a feature-length discussion of The Shining as the commentary track.