DVD extras: Do you want sugar with that?

Christian Bale in Terminator SalvationBack in February, when audio of Christian Bale shouting at the director of photography on the set of Terminator Salvation landed with a thwack on YouTube, I found myself sporting a new windswept hairdo, such was the force of Bale’s outburst.

Interviewed in last month’s Total Film magazine, the actor admitted that he went “overboard” that day. However, he went on to criticise the leak and make some interesting comments about “B-rolls, DVD extras and stuff like that”, bemoaning the fact that many “wonderful mysteries” are revealed far too readily. “I look at it as old-school movie magic,” he said, “and with magic you do not reveal your secrets.”

In the early days of DVD, I’d devour the content of discs, hopping straight from the main feature to the extras in the time it took to click the ‘enter’ button. As a kid, I lapped up Sunday-afternoon documentaries with titles like The World’s Greatest Movie Stunts and Hollywood Special Effects Secrets, so to be able to go behind the scenes of a film whenever I liked felt like an honour. And in many respects it still does. I’ll never tire of hearing my favourite directors talking about their films as they play out in front of them (and me), and an enlightening ‘making of’ documentary is a treasure worth marking with a giant X on my DVD shelves.

However, over the years, a lot of PR puff has also been pressed to DVD. The term ‘featurette’ is often a euphemism for ‘electronic press kit’ – basically, the cast and crew lining up to sell the film by saying what an honour it’s been to work on such a wonderful production – and it’s hard to take seriously the claims that some actors make for certain movies while they’re sitting on set in costume and make-up, within earshot of their peers and employers.

This is perhaps one of the reasons why older movies and TV shows often feature the most candid extras. Freed from the air of diplomacy that new productions are usually burdened with, everyone involved with an archive film or TV series gets to cut loose, and the viewer is more likely to get some genuine insight. Where time has put some distance between the players, they usually feel able to talk honestly about their experiences, and we’re more likely to get the real, human stories rather than the sanitised versions that we’re often served from behind the scenes, where everyone falls over themselves to praise everyone else amid acres of green screen.

An example is the difference between BBC3’s Doctor Who Confidential and the documentaries found on the classic-series DVDs. Where the former offers little, if any, critical perspective on the episodes it documents, filling its running time with self-congratulation and celebratory montages, the latter is usually very candid, with cast, writers and crew discussing grievances and problems with the writing and production. Consequently, the Doctor Who classic-series DVDs feature some of the most absorbing and acclaimed extras of any TV show.

While Christian Bale seems to be concerned about exposing the guy behind the curtain (who might, coincidentally, be angry and swearing loudly), I don’t think he should worry too much. My appreciation of certain films and TV series has increased because I’ve read or heard accounts of their making: the problems encountered during conception and writing; the agreements and disagreements over the course of production; the decisions taken and the paths trodden. A warts-and-all account of life on and around a film set is sometimes as dramatic and involving as the movie itself – sometimes more so.*

Of course, there’s no way that Bale’s on-set rant will be making its way on to the DVD of Terminator Salvation, anecdotally or otherwise, but it certainly made the stale old term ‘behind-the-scenes glimpse’ feel fresh again (it gave new meaning to ‘Christian attitude’, too). The actor might not relish the thought of his outburst being broadcast to millions, but now that it’s out there it’s a pop-culture artefact that can take its place in cinema’s back pages, filed under H, for ‘hang on a sec, rewind that!’ – a chapter for those glimpses of real life that sometimes penetrate modern movies’ PR machines and remind us that, actually, this business is much more interesting, passionate, daft and infuriating than the average ‘look behind the scenes’ would have us believe.

* The most candid behind-the-scenes account I’ve ever read is director Tor Ramsey’s insight into the making of the dire Children Of The Living Dead (2001), a film that he claims to have lost control of. “It really does suck,” he admits of the finished product. “Myself and everyone involved looked like idiots.” Read the full confession at Homepage Of The Dead.

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