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Jerky Treats!

An Interview with Ravenous DVD Producer
David Britten Prior

Jerky Treats (good... and good for you!)

The following is a transcript of an interview that Todd and I conducted a couple of weeks ago with David Prior, who produced the recent Ravenous DVD for Fox. The interview covers a great deal of ground, from the Ravenous disc itself, and some of the difficulties involved in getting it done, to the DVD format, David's background and history, and film in general. David even gives us a sneak peek at a pair of very exciting DVDs he's currently working on for Fox, and I think some of you will be very excited to hear about them.

Todd and I did this interview tag-team style, and we're pretty proud of it. We had a great time taking with David, chatting for nearly two hours on all sorts of subjects, and we think you'll find this a fascinating read. One word of warning however - if you haven't seen Ravenous yet, be aware that this interview contains spoilers, in the context of discussions about special edition materials that were (and weren't) included on the DVD. So that said, sit back, relax, and enjoy!

Bill Hunt - The Digital Bits: Well David, let's start by having you tell our readers a little bit about yourself - your background, and how you got involved in the Ravenous DVD.

David Prior: Sure. How I got involved was - normally, when people say that they stumbled into something, I don't believe it. But in this case, it's about as true as that statement can get. I was working with Sony on a project having to do with their telecine. And when I found out that my friend Charlie de Lauzirika was supervising the DVD of Alien, I suggested that he bring the telecine to Sony, because at the time, they had the only pin-registered telecine in the business - it was easily the best.

Around this time, Ravenous came out, and in defiance of the advertising, I decided to go see it, because I figured that anything directed by Antonia Bird, with that cast, has to be more interesting than the trailers let on. So my girlfriend and I went, and instantly fell in love with it. We managed to catch it three or four times before it swiftly disappeared from theaters. And almost on a lark, I told some of the people at Fox, who I'd met through Alien, "Hey, you guys have a really special movie here… what about doing a special edition on DVD?" And lo and behold, they agreed and gave me the job. But before that, I'd been doing freelance writing, acting here and there, working on movies, art directing, visual effects - whatever came up - making short films.... Film is what gets me up in the morning and keeps me up late at night. It's been like that since I was five years old. My passion for movies has taken me down some interesting avenues. DVD is just a new one.

Bill Hunt: So you come on board with Ravenous - what was your first experience like with Fox? Did they give you free reign to do whatever you wanted, or did they have specific ideas for the disc in mind?

David Prior: Well, it was interesting. They were open to ideas to a surprising degree, at least at first. But the marketing people I was directly working with hadn't seen the film. [Todd and I laugh] I found out later that that's not unusual - it's pretty common actually. Most of the studios work like that.

Todd Doogan - The Digital Bits: [disbelieving] Really?

David Prior: Yeah. So often, at least with smaller films, decisions about marketing are based on the opinion of the one person in the room who may have caught an employee screening and said, "Oh, that's terrible…"

Bill Hunt: [laughing] God, you've gotta love that… that confirms every aspiring filmmaker's worst fears.

David Prior: Really. But something about the film smelled like a cult hit to marketing, and they decided to let me do it. So I wrote up a proposal. Now I'm a laserdisc collector, so I'm used to those kind of intensive Criterion supplements. And I wanted to get as close to that as I could. So I wrote up this big fat wish list of the things I wanted to do, but they very quickly started getting shot down, most of them. With a big red pencil, "No, we're not gonna do this, we're not gonna do that…" So a lot of the early phases were just trying to figure out how long my leash was. Most of the time I honestly didn't understand the reasoning, so I questioned a lot of the decisions and that led to a few arguments. It would be dishonest to say that the project was all smooth sailing. There were problems, personality conflicts, etc. But those problems were primarily coming from one person, who is no longer at Fox. Other than her, I had a lot of support. Karen Fromel, who's now a manager in DVD, has been a God-send. She and Sven Davison in marketing are top-notch people, who really know what they're doing and, I think, are doing it for the right reasons. During some of the problem periods, they were the only people keeping me sane. But back to the supplements: The only thing that I was certain off the top was okay, were the commentary tracks. And so that became - I actually ended up going to England to record three of them. Or two of the tracks, with three of the people. And then the other one was done here at Jeffrey Jones' house.

And then as the thing got farther along, I started fighting for things. I just wanted everyone to love the movie and be as excited about it as I was. In hindsight, I guess I'm glad I fought as hard as I did, but at the time it was pretty rough. In the end, more stuff got onto the disc than they were going to initially allow.

Todd Doogan: Was that later? I mean, wasn't there a time when they were only going to release a movie-only disc?

David Prior: There was actually a time when they weren't going to put it out at all.

Todd Doogan: [surprised] Really?

David Prior: It was on the release list when I proposed the special edition, and I promised to make the commitment as painless for them as possible. But then somebody in marketing decided that they weren't going to release the thing, period. And by that time, I had already contacted most of the people involved - the filmmakers - so I wrote this impassioned letter about these people who had been stranded in Slovakia making the film, and then felt like they got screwed when the film was basically dumped theatrically, and this was a chance to heal those relationships, blah, blah, blah… And that worked.

Bill Hunt: Now, you were actually spending your own money to get all this done, right?

David Prior: No, I was out of pocket for a while, but I was paid. I had other reasons for not letting it drop. The greatest thing about doing the project at all was - I mean, anytime you can get a job, it's good. It's good to work. But to have a job producing a DVD for a film that I really was passionate about… it made it really easy to go the extra mile. And so that's one of the reasons I fought so hard about it. It wasn't really to maintain my reputation as DVD producer, so much as that I really wanted to see the film well represented on video, so people could appreciate it.

Bill Hunt: I think that that's really the first step to producing a good DVD - people shouldn't be doing these things unless they enjoy their work. You can really tell which discs have a lot of TLC invested in them, and which ones have just been dumped on the market.

David Prior: Absolutely.

Bill Hunt: Now how did you find the experience of working with the cast and crew? Were they really willing to participate?

David Prior: They were beyond willing actually. It made me feel good in a way, because they kinda felt like, "Ahhhh, somebody finally understands what we were doing." I mean, they all liked the movie, and they all felt like they gave of themselves to make something worthwhile. And while the picture got quite a few rave reviews, I think their perception was that the Fox theatrical people thought it was a dog, or that it had no chance of making a return. And so when I came along writing these letters to them about all these things that I saw in the film, I think they finally felt like somebody got it.

Bill Hunt: Sort of vindicated…

David Prior: Well, it isn't like they said, "Thank God, at least David Prior likes it, so it was all worthwhile." But I can imagine how it would feel in the reverse, so I think it's fair to say they were pleased. They were all wonderfully willing to help in any way they could. The only thing that I wasn't able to do - you noticed that Robert Carlyle, on his track, doesn't talk a lot. Those gaps were supposed to be filled with Guy Pearce. And I know that he was absolutely ready and willing to do it... except that he was shooting that William Friedkin submarine movie, so he couldn't get around the schedule conflicts. But I know that he wanted to be involved. And everybody else was just 110%.

Todd Doogan: How about Arquette?

David Prior: David Arquette was out of town shooting something, so I didn't even try to contact him. I talked to his agent, and he was like, forget it.

Bill Hunt: He was probably doing Scream 3

Todd Doogan: Or getting married…

David Prior: Or more of those AT&T commercials… [everyone laughs]

Bill Hunt: So tell us about the original list of extras, 'cause I know from talking with you before, that there were a lot of things you had in mind but didn't get to do.

Todd Doogan: Yeah, talk about the stuff that didn't make the disc.

David Prior: Well, I had a whole gallery of text supplements planned. When I first saw the movie, I instantly recalled the story of Alfred Packer - sort of an obscure true-crime story of the old west. He was a charlatan who passed himself off as a mountain man, and would get these groups of prospectors together with the promise that he could guide them to gold. But payment for his services was always upfront, because he had no idea where to find gold. So in 1873, he led a group of twenty gold hunters into the San Juans. On the way, they came across an Indian camp, and the chief, named Ouray, warned them not to go up into the mountains - it's gonna snow and you're all gonna die. Half of them turned back, but Packer convinced the others to press on and sure enough, they got snowbound and ran out of food. He finally made it back to civilization, alone of course, and told a story a lot like Colqhoun's story in Ravenous - they took shelter, he said, and one day while he was out gathering wood one of the men had been killed for food. He admitted to killing one man named Shannon Bell, sort of the Colonel Ives of the yarn, but only in self-defense. His story seemed fishy to a lot of people, though. Packer started spending too much cash around, and he gave himself away very quickly. The authorities led him back up into the woods, but he led them everywhere except to the cabin. Finally, after trying to kill the man he was shackled to, Packer was sent back to jail and the lawmen found the cabin on their own. Along with five cured, partially eaten bodies.

Bill Hunt: So it was pretty clear that there was deliberateness involved…

David Prior: Yeah, they found the bodies lying in a row out in the snow, where they would be preserved, and they had been very carefully butchered and stripped around the chest - he actually had a very particular affinity for breast meat. And as the story goes - there's a legend in Colorado that the judge, when he sentenced him said, "Packer, you son of a bitch! There was only seven Dimmycrats in Hinsdale County, and you ate five of 'em." So he became the Man Who Ate Democrats. I asked Ted Griffin about it, and sure enough, that was the inspiration for the story. So I wrote up a text supplement, retelling the story with some period photographs, like Packer's prison mugshot, and some newspaper drawings of the bodies - really cool, gruesome stuff. None of that stuff made it onto the disc. And there was a whole retelling of the Donner party incident, which was also an inspiration for the film, with photographs and drawings and stuff - and that didn't make it. What else? There was, I think it was a five or ten minute featurette, recut from the EPK, using music from the film. And then there was a further selection of trailers and TV spots - they [Fox] only wanted one of each…

Bill Hunt: How many were there in all?

David Prior: I think there were - there was one other trailer, and I think 10 TV spots. And the TV spots were surprisingly different, so I tried to pick one that was as different from the trailer as I could get. I also wanted an isolated score track, because I think Ravenous has one of the best, most imaginative scores I've heard in decades, but that was Virgin Records who kiboshed that. Understandably, I suppose. And we wanted to put the whole screenplay on the disc, because it's a great script and the original draft is interestingly different. It had an opening and closing that took place in present day.

Todd Doogan: Oh, really?

David Prior: Yeah. I don't think anybody ever intended to use it. I think Ted wrote it in there thinking it would help the sale, and nobody ever really wanted to use it. But I thought it would be interesting to include.

Todd Doogan: Wow - what was it?

David Prior: It revolved around a group of skiers who get snowbound, and take shelter in a cave, and they start telling each other ghost stories to pass the time. One of them tells the story of Captain Boyd - the legend - which leads into the movie. Then at the end, a park ranger comes to rescue them, and it's Boyd - it's Guy Pearce. So his "diet" has given him this longevity.

Bill Hunt: Oh, right I see - the lore that you can become stronger and live longer from cannibalism…

David Prior: Right.

Todd Doogan: I like the idea that he dies.

David Prior: Yeah, I think it's much better the way it turned out. But it's one of those things that I think it would have been interesting to be able to compare.

Bill Hunt: And didn't you say that there was a deleted scene - one in particular that didn't make the disc?

David Prior: Oh yeah. There was one deleted scene that, of all of them, Antonia said in her commentary should have been in the film. It was just after General Slauson arrives for the first time. He's about to leave the fort, and everyone's out in the courtyard - he goes up to Carlyle and says, "Boyd has a problem with you, and if you want me to take him with me and put him in jail, I will." And Carlyle looks at him and says, "No let him stay. The only way he's going to work it out is if he stays here." It was kind of funny. And then Slauson goes to Boyd, and says, "If you really wanna get out of here, I'll take you with me." And Boyd looks at Martha, and Cleaves, and Knox, and realizes that if he leaves, he's leaving them like lambs with the wolf. And so he decides that he's going to stay and protect them, and it becomes the first turning point of his character towards selflessness.

Bill Hunt: That's a pretty heavy moment.

David Prior: It was a very heavy moment, and it's a very well done scene. Most of it is just one very well choreographed Steadicam shot. And it was a technical thing, where they [Fox] said that they couldn't recognize one of the extras in the scene and get a release from him. So it was rejected on a legal hiccup, that I actually went to great lengths to clear up. But in the end - well, let's not get into it.

Todd Doogan: Now why - going back more to that answer - why did more of this stuff not find its way on the disc?

David Prior: No comment. [laughs]. It was… well, they usually blamed it on legal. The legal department at Fox - and this probably isn't more true of Fox than any of the other studios - but they're just extremely paranoid. It seems like their job is to say no to everything. On one hand, it's perfectly understandable. Any big company is in constant danger of litigation, unfounded or not. But on the other hand, what are we in this business to do? In the featurette, for example, there was a lot of footage from the Mexican war scenes that were cut. Really amazing, spectacular stuff - I think there's a still frame in the gallery that hints at it. Where you see this huge field of bodies, and two Mexicans going around piling them on the dead cart. It was just amazing the scope of the thing. And it was full of battle scenes and stunts, and so the legal department said, "Absolutely not. There are stunts all over the place, and we'd have to repay the stuntman's union for each of these players, and it's not going on the disc." But the truth was, they were all Mexican stunt men…

Bill Hunt: Ahhh, so they weren't union.

David Prior: Exactly. There was no legal concern. I don't mean harp on the troubles, because I had a great time doing the project and I'm very proud of it. But in my darker, more paranoid moments, it felt as if some of these decisions were being made out of spite. Okay, lock me up now.

Bill Hunt: [laughing] No, I believe it. I know exactly what and who you're talking about. Believe me, I know there were also some scary moments on the Alien DVD, and it was tough going sometimes…

David Prior: Yeah, but the great thing with Alien is that it's a tent-pole film for the studio...

Bill Hunt: So it's easier to leverage.

David Prior: Right. You can call Ridley, and get him involved. With something like Ravenous, because it's such an underdog movie, it's a much harder row to hoe.

Bill Hunt: And I'm sure Antonia Bird doesn't have a whole lot of pull at Fox…

David Prior: That would be an understatement. But at the same time, I have to take my hat off to Fox for putting this DVD out in the first place. It's really hard for a studio that has such enormous overhead to seriously commit to a film that didn't make a penny for them. So the fact that they got behind this project as much as they did deserves commendation. I mean, a smaller company that has to get behind everything they've got - that's one thing. But Fox has so many projects on their corporate plate, that I'm just glad they let me do this at all. The fact that the Ravenous DVD has doubled its shipping expectations makes me feel a lot better. After all, it's their money and it's very important to me that whatever I do with them makes a good return.

Bill Hunt: And who knows - seeing that it's worth it means that maybe they'll want to come back and revisit it sometime…

David Prior: Right. I hope so. Because there were other deleted shots that I didn't know about when I did this. There's a shot at the end that Antonia mentions, where the camera pulls away from the two men in the bear trap, and goes out the barn and over the mountains into the sky, and the credits roll on this beautiful shot of the Sierras. It sounds a little strange - not really in keeping with a horror film - but when you have this really graceful music over it, it just gives everything a bit more weight. And I think that if I had known about it, and had more time, I could have restored that shot, which Antonia really wanted. Maybe someday we can do a restored director's cut. And the other day, I talked to the Fox archive people - who I didn't even know existed - and they have reams of material on Ravenous.

Bill Hunt: Really?

David Prior: They have pre-production paintings, storyboards, and hand props, and dummy bodies, fake heads…

Todd Doogan: Yeah, but you wouldn't have been able to get it on the disc anyway.

David Prior: [laughs] It probably would have been another fight.

Bill Hunt: But at some point, the difficulty in dealing with Fox went away…

David Prior: Yeah, it went away when this particular person left Fox. And I can tell you, and I think this will reassure a lot of DVD fans, that the people who are in charge of DVD now at Fox are just great people. They love DVD, and they know DVD, and they've got their hearts in the right place. They're savvy, and they're a joy to work with. So with the main obstacle out of the way, things did get much easier. I wasn't unfortunately able to restore everything, because by that time, the DLTs were already done. But, for example, on the menu screens - I personally wasn't really very happy with them. But I was able to restore most of the "Trail of the Donner party" Easter Egg that I'd made. While I initially had much more elaborate plans for it - it was going to be more like a daily log book - I'm glad that's it's in there in any form. I also got to do the beef jerky Easter Egg, which had been cut.

Todd Doogan: We want some of those Jerky Treats, by the way. [everyone laughs]

Bill Hunt: We'll have to see if we can get a scan of one of those for this interview when we post it.

David Prior: [laughs] Perfect. So anyway, I was able to go back and do a few things, just not all the things that I would have liked.

Bill Hunt: I suppose that most of the interactivity had been finished at that point...

David Prior: The compression of the film on DLT had been done - all the video side was done. So I could still tinker with the menus at that point, but I couldn't do anything that would affect the compression. If I had added another trailer or the featurette, we would have had to recompress everything.

Bill Hunt: It seems like there's a definite formula - you have to have a list of everything you want on the disc, and the compression rates and content all has to be balanced based on what you want, and what will fit.

David Prior: Exactly. And the other thing is layer breaks. I've seen some pretty graceless layer breaks. But it's usually the necessities of compression - you just can't have it past or before a certain point.

Bill Hunt: So there's just a range where it has to go, and you do the best you can.

David Prior: It's usually halfway through a movie, unless you don't have a lot of supplements, and then you can get away with shifting it around a bit.

Todd Doogan: How long did the production of the disc take?

David Prior: I would say - it was originally going to be two weeks. That was all there was at the outset, but thank God the release date moved, and I gained an extra month. So I guess about a month and a half.

Todd Doogan: And what about for the project you're working on now? I know you can't talk about it too much at the moment…

David Prior: Well, actually, I did get clearance from Fox to mention a couple of things on the record now. I'm producing the DVD version of David Fincher's Fight Club at the moment, and I can tell you that it will be anamorphic. And as a result of Ravenous exceeding expectations, Fox is doing a special edition of Best Laid Plans, Ted Griffin's other film, which came out a few months ago. Again, another movie which lasted about thirty seconds in theaters. So I'll be doing that next, and that will be anamorphic as well. We're still figuring out the extras so I can't go on the record just yet, but we can talk about that more later…

Bill Hunt: No problem. And we can do another interview specifically about Fight Club when you and Fox are ready. In any case, that's good news for DVD fans.

Todd Doogan: That's great news. And it seems like they're giving you a lot of time to work on Fight Club. The movie's not even out yet, and you're already working on this.

David Prior: Yes, but the whole notion of doing it came up sooner in the release cycle than Ravenous. I didn't even propose the Ravenous disc until after the release date had been set. That was the reason for the truncated schedule. But with Fight Club, even though the disc probably won't come out until next year, the holidays are coming up, and the facilities and vendors close up shop. Their schedules are already locked in for early next year, so we need to have a certain amount done beforehand in order to be ready to go when they reopen.

Todd Doogan: Well getting back to Ravenous, I'm glad that you fought so hard on it, because it's a disc that probably would have gotten lost otherwise. I probably wouldn't have even watched it if it didn't have special edition materials on it. But I watched it, and thought, "This is such a great, fun movie." And it made me want to learn more about it. And I wish that all DVDs had these kind of extras on them, because there's so much interesting stuff to these films.

David Prior: Thanks, and I agree. But it's an interesting kind of double-edged sword I think, the supplements. Because you know, as a kid, I remember when VHS wasn't even around. But if DVD had been around, this is exactly the kind of stuff I would have wanted. I wanted to immerse myself in movies, and I collected all the magazines. But there is a part of me that wonders if it affects the mystery.

Bill Hunt: Takes away from the experience?

David Prior: Yeah. I don't really know. For your average consumers - I mean obviously for film nuts, it's a foregone conclusion - but for your average moviegoer, I wonder what the supplements really do for them, and if they should even be interested as much as they seem to be these days.

Bill Hunt: Well... you know, it's an argument that a lot of filmmakers have been having. Spielberg, for example, has never done a commentary track. And talking to people who've worked with him, they say that reason is that he just doesn't want to break that fourth wall - he doesn't want to take you out of that movie experience, and he wants the image and sound to speak for itself.

David Prior: And I understand that point of view, and I'm probably right in the middle of it. We're all so media-obsessed these days. It's fun and exciting, but I don't know how good for us it all is, all that distraction. Except I have to say, that I really love a well done supplemental section.

Bill Hunt: Well, and particularly when you've got things like production sketches, and things that really help to give you a sense of the making of the film. Because I think that's what is really interesting to people - that idea of, "here's what we started with, and here's how the process works, and this is the result."

David Prior: And the plus side is, like you were saying, particularly for a film that didn't get the respect it might deserve, it can deepen someone's appreciation, once you see the effort and the hard work. I know so many people, for example, that were convinced that Fort Spencer was just this shackey old building that they found somewhere. And once they realize that the whole thing was built from scratch - even something as technical as that enhances your appreciation for the effort involved.

Todd Doogan: It's kind of ironic that you say that, because I just recently had a conversation with Bill about the same subject. I was looking at - a friend of mine had all these French cinema magazines, and a magazine called Film and Filming from the '60s, and I'm looking at these pictures in them, and all of a sudden it hits me that this is pre-video. Then you weren't able to go see a film unless it was playing in the theaters. And so a lot of future filmmakers, or people who were making films at the time, would see photographs in the magazines, and say, "I like the lighting in this picture…" and gain insight or inspiration from a photo, rather than from seeing the film itself. And then the video culture had the same effect - I'm thinking of the famous Reservoir Dogs opening, where Tarantino says he based that on The Wild Bunch. But he really didn't…

David Prior: [laughing] Right.

Todd Doogan: He based it on the VHS version of Wild Bunch, where it was panned and scanned from the widescreen, so they had to cut to each person, just so that you knew they were all walking down the street. So now that there's widescreen, and it's always going to be widescreen [with HDTV], that reference is lost forever.

David Prior: That's an interesting point. Our view of movies got smaller when home video took off.

Bill Hunt: And so now you have contemporary filmmakers making references that aren't valid anymore.

Todd Doogan: Yeah, and that's funny. I mean, even the cutting back and forth that directors do now for TV - that wasn't going on. So when you see Guess Who's Coming to Dinner on TV, and Spencer Tracy and Hepburn are having a conversation, and someone later says they got their idea from the cutting of that scene…

David Prior: It's not really from the cutting of the film…

Todd Doogan: Yeah - it's the scanning back and forth because that's the way they modified the film for TV.

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