David Hughes explains the thinking behind his new movie audio-commentary podcast, Rogue Commentary, that’s bringing the yack track back.
A spoiler for Total Recall lies ahead.
Ever since someone first discovered there was room for more than one audio track on a laserdisc and decided to use it by having a filmmaker prattle on during the film, I’ve been a huge fan of audio commentaries.
As a film critic, screenwriter and author of several film books, I’ve always been fascinated by the insight (all right, and/or gossip) provided by someone chatting away while virtually watching along with us, whether that person is a filmmaker, a learned scholar, or even – as in the case of the classic Jake LaMotta commentary for Raging Bull – the subject of the film. (There’s even a feature-length commentary for Blood Simple by a hilariously pompous fake film scholar, who provides nonsensical behind-the-scenes tidbits, such as pointing out that all scenes in cars have to be filmed upside down for technical reasons.)
I recently realised that I’m not so interested in finding out about how things were done – I rarely watch the ‘extras’ on discs that deal with special effects, fight choreography, etc. – but I am fascinated with the why. The choices that were made, in the formation of a film from idea to script, and from script to screen, and the reasons why certain choices were made, whether for artistic reasons or pragmatic ones.
It’s my experience that audio commentaries do this best – and, although I don’t have any research to back up this claim – I have a feeling that quite a few young filmmakers who didn’t go to film school learned a lot about filmmaking from listening to audio commentaries. Just as an insightful critical analysis can make you see a familiar film in a new way (I’d love it if we film critics were called film analysts, but that ship has sailed), so an audio commentary can reveal things you hadn’t previously known. Just ask Arnold Schwarzenegger, who apparently didn’t know, until he and Paul Verhoeven sat down to record a yack track for Total Recall, that the whole film was a dream.
Sadly, in the past decade or so, there has been a sharp decline in the number of audio commentaries being provided on DVD and Blu-ray releases, mostly due to the slashing of distributor budgets caused by falling sales of physical media. That, and the growing prevalence of films going straight to streaming services, which have no interest in offering additional content beyond foreign language audio tracks.
Some sectors of physical media, such as catalogue titles, are doing their best to keep the yack track alive, but there isn’t a clear market for a Blu-ray or a 4K release of every title – and even if there was, not every distributor would have the means, or the incentive, to track down filmmakers and others to record new commentary tracks for older films. That, I thought back in 2017, is a damn shame.
That was when I first had the idea to launch an audio commentary podcast, which film fans could listen to either on its own, like a regular podcast, or synced up to the film if they happened to own a copy, or could find it streaming somewhere. It wasn’t until lockdown that I finally found the time to turn a concept, a name, and a parked Twitter account into a thing that actually exists.
A few months ago, I started writing to filmmakers who hadn’t recorded a commentary for this or that film, for one reason or another – and people started to say yes.
My address book is not as interesting as it should be after 30+ years of interviewing directors, screenwriters, actors and others, but I had a start – and pretty soon Rogue Commentary had its first few episodes in the can, ready to be released, on a fortnightly (or bi-weekly for US readers) over the coming months and years. (I say ‘years’ because one director said he would record a commentary for me in three years’ time, when he can bear to look at the film again. Ain’t them filmmakers quaint?)
For the first episode, I chose a belter: director Bernard Rose and screenwriter Matthew Jacobs sitting down (in lockdown, via Zoom) to revisit and talk about one of my absolute favourite films: the cult British horror movie Paperhouse (1988). I won’t spoil any of the material for you – there are clips on our Twitter feed if you’re not ready to listen to the whole thing – but suffice to say it sets the bar pretty high. But that’s okay – I know some of the people we’ve got lined up, and I don’t think subscribers are going to be disappointed.
What’s even better is that we don’t have to wait for a physical re-release, or a special anniversary edition, or even the rights to become available – we can just go ahead and make them. Lots of them. And if you don’t like the films or the filmmakers we choose, feel free to make suggestions.
So if you love audio commentaries as much as I do, listen out for Rogue Commentary on a podcast platform near you. You can find more at rogue-commentary.com and subscribe here (Apple) and here (Android). Hope you like it…
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