I never return a rented DVD before I’ve watched its special features. Sometimes I don’t like the movie, but that doesn’t keep me from learning about how it was made. For example, on the music special feature for Tim Burton’s film Ed Wood, I see a man standing behind a wooden box that resembles a 1940s radio which is called a theramin. He presses his left thumb and forefinger together and then, as if waving a conductor’s baton, he coaxes from the air eerie, human-esque “o-o-ooo”s, like hollow voices stretched by tinny whistles. Theramins accompanied many 1950s sci-fi and horror films.
In another feature I see Martin Landau made up to look like Béla Lugosi. He describes how the makeup artists change his nose and jaw line to resemble Lugosi’s. This is interesting, but what’s more interesting is how he duplicates the way Lugosi, a native Hungarian, spoke. First Landau learned to speak Hungarian. Then he taught himself to act like a native Hungarian who speaks English with an American accent. What?
Next there’s Enemy at the Gates, which dramatizes “a duel of the eyes” between a Russian and a German sniper during the Battle of Stalingrad during WWII. The screenplay is based on a famous event that’s celebrated in Russia but hardly known about elsewhere. Director Jean-Jacques Annaud says he cast Ed Harris as the German sniper because “I needed the powerful eyes of birds of prey. Those eyes [Ed Harris’s] were like a light in the darkness.”
Then there’s “Costumes: Road to Perdition,” in which I learn about the challenge of costuming actors to portray the mood of a Depression-era winters. The costume desigbers says in winter “everything is dead,” so she wants to illustrate the bleakness of that time by using heavy, textured fabrics in muted grays and browns that absorb, rather than reflect, light.
I love watching special features. (In case you didn’t already figure this out.) My writing improves because I listen to composers, actors, directors, costume designers, lighting and set designers talk about their work, their decision making process. They provide a new approach to defining characters and settings I wouldn’t have thought of by myself.