Make sure you tell your friends and check back for that...
As the title suggests I have another special treat for you today:
A conversation with David Prior, the producer of the "Benjamin Button" DVD. Let me say thanks again, David, for taking the time
-- I do appreciate it!
You can download this interview here as a pdf, to print out or read on a white background... if you prefer... which I would...
Here's what he had to say:
Fincherfanatic: Fans of David Fincher’s works know your name from your fantastic work on the DVDs for "Fight Club", "Panic Room" and "Zodiac". Can you give us a more detailed version of your biography, how you first entered the business, and how you came to work for Hollywood’s finest?
David Prior: The first time I clocked David Fincher’s name was when I conned my way in to a rough cut screening of “Alien 3” in Glendale, California about a year or so before it finally came out. Obviously the movie had problems, but I really admired the aesthetic and the way it tried to recapture the look and feel of Ridley’s masterpiece after the gaudier, more comic book-looking world of “Aliens.” I vowed to keep an eye on him, so when “Seven” came out, I was there on opening day and stayed to watch it three times in a row. Maybe that indicates a need for therapy, I don’t know.
Fincherfanatic: Nuh, don't worry...
David Prior: I just felt that here was a guy talking about stuff that was relevant to me, and doing it in such a beautiful, accomplished way. It was the kind of filmmaking I aspired to, and I felt I’d discovered a kindred spirit.
I was one of those weird kids gifted and cursed with the clear intention of what I wanted to do at a very young age; gifted because it prevents a lot of hemming and hawing, cursed because every day that goes by that you’re not doing it is a little like death. I bummed around the film industry for years, first as a child actor, then in visual effects starting when I was about 16, then art departments, TV segment producing, writing, etc. I played the Alien in “Alien Resurrection” just before I started doing DVDs. So when circumstances conspired to put me in touch with some folks at Fox Home Video in 1999 around the time I saw “Ravenous,” I saw a way to add another odd tributary to my resume. I thought “Ravenous” was a wonderfully strange, idiosyncratic movie that the studio clearly didn’t know what to do with, so I proposed doing a special edition just out of sheer love for the film. The DVD sold very well, much better than expected, so when they asked what I wanted to do next, I looked at their upcoming release list, saw David Fincher’s name next to something called “Fight Club,” and said “that one!” I had no idea what “Fight Club” was, but I realized that this DVD thing, which I had thought was just a lark, a one-off, might be a great opportunity to meet and learn from some people I really admired. And that’s been the case — from Fincher to Peter Weir to Tim Burton to Guillermo del Toro, it’s been a real kick, and an invaluable learning experience.
Fincherfanatic: You surely have been around some seriously talented directors! Michael Bay and Tarsem (Singh), among them also. What did you learn from these experiences? And what lessons did you cherish the most in your own directing?
David Prior: I think what I’ve learned most from guys like that comes from marking the decisions they make. Any creative act is an act of discrimination — why this color chair instead of that one? Why a close up here instead of a long shot? Someone has to make those decisions, and a lot of directors make them arbitrarily, or they defer to collaborators. But the good ones consider everything, and thus their work has a certain “discriminateness,” to coin a phrase. Sometimes I sit on set and watch one of these guys work and I shake my head and think: “What on earth are they thinking??” Sometimes I never learn the answer to that, but with David, I usually realize later, watching the cut, “Oh — that’s what he was thinking” and it makes sense. Also the way other directors behave on set is really instructive. Directing is more than just dreaming up cool shots and filming them. It’s political, it’s personal, it’s a weird National Geographic mating dance, it’s coaxing and motivating and only appearing to lose your temper. It’s crisis management. It’s creating an atmosphere, and I think a lot of directors, maybe all of the good ones, do this unconsciously.
Fincherfanatic: I read a quote of yours where you said you have already been a big fan of David Fincher’s work, even before you started working on his DVDs. "Fight Club" was the first DVD you did for him, then? How did that go?
David Prior: The early days of DVD were really different than they are now. Back then a lot of studios were kind of looking for people who could show them the way, and there was a lot more free reign to just do the work. Very few people breathing down the back of your neck and steaming up your glasses. Once Fox gave me the go ahead to do “Fight Club,” I contacted Fincher’s office and we had a great conversation, and I don’t know, despite how nervous I was I must have said something right because he said “yes” right away.
Fincherfanatic: What is it like to work with him? How far is he involved in the production of a DVD?
David Prior: Fincher cares a lot about the DVD’s. It’s important to him. It’s like everything, you either care or you don’t. Tim Burton, for example, doesn’t care about supplemental material, or at least he didn’t seem to on “Planet.” I don’t think that’s telling tales out of school, I just don’t think the whole thing was terribly important to him, at least not as important as it was to me. But it is important to David, maybe because he knows that’s how the film will live longest after the theatrical release. He’s full of good ideas, but I think he only involves himself as much as he feels he needs to. All good directors create an environment in which the people they work with are encouraged to do their best work, and when he feels you’re the right person for the job he gives you a lot of latitude to just do your thing. He’s very savvy that way — he’s totally in control the whole time, but he makes you feel as if you’re the one in control. He’s really a devious bastard, come to think of it.
Fincherfanatic: He's also rather camera-shy as opposed to, say, Michael Bay, isn't he? Did you have the chance to sit down with him for a video interview this time around?
David Prior: I think that says a lot about the differences between David and Michael. My guess – and you’d really have to ask him – is that he feels he says what he has to say in the commentaries and never felt the need to gild any lilies. But there is a lot to be said for looking at someone’s face when they’re talking. So on “Fight Club,” “Panic Room” and “Zodiac” I tried, knowing the answer would be “no,” to get David to do an interview. I hope he doesn’t read this because it might embarrass him, but he’s such a smart and affable guy that I knew he’d be great on camera. And to be honest, the main reason I wanted one is that every goddamned review of one of my docs feels the need to point out the gaping hole left by not having an interview with him, and I’m tired of getting ragged about it. But on “Benjamin Button” he finally relented, and did an on camera interview. And can I tell you? It’s great. You’ll see it on the DVD as part of the documentary, “The Curious Birth of Benjamin Button.” He’s personal, warm, revealing, silly, witty as hell ... Just wonderful.
Fincherfanatic: Let's talk about "Benjamin Button". In all honesty, it is hard to imagine all the work that goes into making a DVD. Can you sum up your involvement, from your first phone-call to the finished product?
David Prior: My first day of real work on “Benjamin Button” was in October of 2006, and that was several months after our initial discussions. It all depends on the job of course — older catalog titles are a different beast than new releases. But starting with “Planet of the Apes” I got involved very early. I try to get my hands dirty on as much of the final product as I can, from shooting and editing the documentaries to recording and editing the commentaries. I design the menus when I can (as I did on “Button”) and even the packaging (as I did on the “Zodiac” special edition). On the last two projects the producer, Cean Chaffin, shot most of the on set footage, since I wasn’t able to be on location as often as I would have liked. I keep a very small crew — I have an assistant and an office space, and I do a lot of work from home. My equipment is an Avid Adrenaline, a Sony EX-1 and a lot of Adobe software. I like to work with the same people as much as possible, and my collaborator on several projects now, going back to “Pearl Harbor,” is an editor named Keith Clark, who’s also a very talented producer in his own right, so he co-produces some of the pieces we do together, and edits a good deal of it, as well. In the old days I tried to do everything myself, but I don’t have that kind of stamina anymore and Keith is a really invaluable and unsung collaborator.
Fincherfanatic: Do you look at DVDs differently, as a DVD producer? What are your favorites, and for which qualities?
David Prior: I don’t like anyone else’s work but my own (kidding). Okay, let’s see. I run the risk of accidentally insulting friends by leaving them out, so let’s say that I love Criterion’s “Brazil” set because I love that movie and it’s a very thorough DVD; Keith Clark has done good work with Bill Condon’s movies; I thought Laurent Bouzerau’s docs for “Jaws” and “The Birds” were commendable; Julie Ng did a very good doc for “Willard” which was far better than the film itself. Mostly what I look for in a DVD is to learn something, either about the specific film or just film in general. And if I can sense another specific sensibility coming through, so much the better. But that’s rare these days. Most DVD work is being done by people toiling within the studio saw mill, and it’s pretty lackluster stuff. I’m forced to be selective theses days — I haven’t had the time to watch a lot of DVD supplements that I would otherwise have devoured — but there’s good stuff out there. “Blade Runner” was pretty good.
Fincherfanatic: I wondered, do you usually end up with a ton of cool stuff – coverage, interview material – that just doesn’t make it on the final DVD?
David Prior: Yes indeed. There are always great bits that never quite make the cut. Usually it’s the result of creative decisions. Despite what an obsessive completist I am, you just can’t fit it all in. Stephen King once described some writers as “taker-outers” and that he himself was a “putter-inner.” When it comes to DVD, I’m definitely a “putter-inner,” but there are always narrative concerns, as well as simply limited space on the disc. The most painful is when cuts happen for non-creative reasons, and “Zodiac” was a particularly bitter pill that way. There was about an hour and a half worth of stuff that never made it to the disc. When you go to the section of the menus called “Prime Suspect” and you only see one item -- “The Case Against Arthur Leigh Allen” -- you should know that there was supposed to be several other pieces there dealing with criminal profilers we hired to look at the case from a present day perspective. Shortened versions of these ended up on the internet, but “Zodiac” really should have been a 3-disc set.
Fincherfanatic: It should have! As for the "Benjamin Button" DVD one of the features I am most looking forward to is "David Fincher’s creative process on the set". How did that come about? And do you start working with a concept in mind – or on paper – of the special features you want to produce?
David Prior: The moral of this question is “never believe a press release.” Maybe some people know how to begin a documentary with a specific structure in mind, but I’m not one of them. Of the 20 or so DVDs I’ve done, not one of them has ever resembled the proposal that you initially give to the studio. But they like having these sort of “talking points” laid out. “Action items,” “priority lists,” stuff like that, and more often than not they end up in the press release even if they don’t reflect what’s on the disc. So “David Fincher’s creative process on the set” is certainly something you get a look at in the course of watching the documentary — that’s what it’s about, after all — but there is no single piece called that. Documentaries, in my experience, are the sum of a thousand little discoveries you make in the process of creating them. When shooting, you go for quantity, and then you carve away at this great lump of clay in the editing until it looks like a documentary. You know, like Michelangelo said.
Fincherfanatic: I get it. And I am really looking forward to that documentary! I guess I would be fan enough to buy an extra DVD that's all and only about Fincher's creative process! Did you ever have the chance to gain an insight into how Fincher works on a script with the author? I know this is hardly a facette of filmmaking that can possibly be covered in a documentary. But when Fincher has another extraordinary quality apart from his visual exceptionality, it may well be his understanding of a good story.
David Prior: I’m glad you brought this up because I think Fincher may not get enough credit for his acuity with character and story. When someone is exceptionally good at one aspect of filmmaking, such as Fincher with his visuals, there seems to be an assumption that, de facto, they are weak in other areas. That’s true of a lot of filmmakers, but not David. He’s really a terrific actor, as I think all good directors must be. He’s got a great ear for dialogue and a finely honed bullshit-detector. You’ll see some brief moments in a story meeting with him, Eric Roth, Brad and Cate on the “Button” DVD, but really, I could have built a whole supplement around his work on the script. Not to take anything away from Eric Roth, who is an awfully good writer, but Fincher’s stewardship of the script was critical to the final product. Ultimately, that’s what sets him apart from so many other directors who came out of commercials and music videos. He’s better than his camera moves.
Fincherfanatic: How many versions of a DVD do you usually make or is that someone else’s job? Like, creating the single disc versions, the 2-disc, the blu ray? I also noticed these versions have different artworks, do you design all of them? What about the varying international versions of the DVDs?
David Prior: Generally speaking I do all editions during the first phase of release. I claim absolutely no responsibility for the dual-disc “Fight Club”/ “Boondock Saints” disc, which recently came out. The less said about that the better. But the single disc “Button” (as with “Zodiac”) doesn’t contain any special features, so there wasn’t much for me to do. I designed a few alternate packaging concepts for “Button” that Fincher loved, but ultimately we couldn’t do without Brad’s and Cate’s face on the box, so they went with the key art design. Sometimes, like on “Zodiac,” I get to design the package myself, but generally that’s done by the studio in collaboration with David.
Fincherfanatic: Gotta ask – which are your favorite movies and directors?
David Prior: The movie that first congealed all my passions and made me consciously aware that I wanted to make movies was “Jaws.” The first movie that gave me a literal feeling of anti-gravity euphoria when I was 8 years old in the Chinese Theater was “Star Wars.” The first movie that showed me there was a more human and mature version of “Star Wars” was “Close Encounters.” And the one movie that made me momentarily consider giving up movies and going into archaeology was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” So I guess that means Spielberg was the first serious pretender to my heart. But I also absolutely flipped for movies as far apart as “Alien” and “Days of Heaven.” Director’s who mattered most to me growing up were Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Terry Gilliam, John Huston, David Lean, Ridley Scott, The Coen Brothers, John Carpenter, Preston Sturges, William Friedkin, Alan Parker, Howard Hawkes, and, perhaps above all, Stanley Kubrick. Tastes change over time, but those directors will always speak to the young, eager, enthusiastic corner of my soul that I hope and pray never dies.
Fincherfanatic: Your short-film "AM1200" has a very professional look, and a moody cinematography that made me think of “Zodiac” more than once – obviously in a good way. I have also read a review that praises the film’s clever and effective sound-design (personally have only had the chance to see the trailer so far). Did your contacts to the Hollywood elite help you in (funding, assembling a team, shooting, etc.) making that short film?
David Prior: First, thank you. That’s high praise. I’m sure the natural assumption is that I was only able to make the film by cashing in a lot of favors. There was some of that, but not as much as you might think. I did have a good deal of help from a few important people. The DP, Brian Hoodenpyle, and his crew were people I’ve used on a lot of the DVD stuff. Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, who I’d worked with on “Alien Resurrection” as well as “Panic Room,” generously donated the dummy of Jake Gyllenhall that the main character pulls down the stairs. Peter Mavromates, Fincher’s post production supervisor, was a great help in securing a reasonably affordable digital intermediate, and the people at Technicolor were very accommodating. But everything was bought and paid for by me personally. And often enough the only person I could afford was me, which is one of the reasons I did so much of it myself — editing, production design, sound design, a few VFX shots, etc. I planned the shoot, (rewriting, doing the previsualization) while I was working on “Blade II” and “Panic Room,” and then shot it between DVD jobs over the next couple of years. The post production alone took nearly two years. I’m happy to hear that it reminded you of “Zodiac,” but the truth is we’d shot it before I began work on that film, so any resemblance is purely coincidental, although I think the reason I like Fincher’s work so much is that he’s doing the kind of work I aspire to do. His sensibility is so expansive and his technique so acute. I’ve been making movies in one form or another since I was a kid but never had the resources to do something that accurately reflected the kind of films I wanted to make, until “AM1200.”
Fincherfanatic: Didn't mean to imply you were stealing shots from "Zodiac". But yeah, I guess your visual style feels somewhat similar and I can enjoy that a lot! In general, which directors do you feel helped shape your style the most?
David Prior: I try only to steal from the best. If I were ever able to make a film as controlled as Kubrick or Fincher or Lean, as expressive as Hitchcock, as dense and human as Welles, or as emotive as Spielberg, I would be a very happy camper. But ultimately I’d be happy just making David Prior films, whatever those turn out to be.
Fincherfanatic: You have been producing DVDs for more than a decade. Does "AM1200" now mark your branching into directing feature films? Do you have a feature length project lined up?
David Prior: Has it been that long? Gosh. Reminds me of that old Pink Floyd line from “Dark Side of the Moon.” But yes, thank you for asking, “AM1200” marks a new territory for me. I just recently closed a deal to write and direct a movie. I can’t go into much detail, but it’s a supernatural thriller about fear and loss. And I have a few other interesting irons in the fire as well.
Fincherfanatic: Since my blog is a Fincher fansite ... Do you remember a particular encounter with the man? Any funny or odd or insightful anecdote no one but you can share?
David Prior: Hmm. You kind of had to be there, but I remember we were having dinner in New Orleans during prep on “Button” and he acted out a 45 second summary of the “Poseidon Adventure” remake that had the whole table roaring. Kind of like “Poseidon Adventure for Bunnies.” It was better than the movie. And shorter.
Fincherfanatic: What are you currently working on?
David Prior: Apart from the film projects of my own I mentioned earlier, we’re working on the DVD for Brad Silberling’s “Land of the Lost” as well as gearing up for the 10th anniversary of “Fight Club.” Nothing I can mention specifically at the moment, but we’re trying to do something special for that.
Fincherfanatic: When can I buy that? December?
David Prior: Not sure, that’s up to the studio. But probably sometime in the “fourth quarter,” as they say in marketing.
More on David Prior here: