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Case Study: Being There: Wilco on DVD
Posted Jun 1, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 3 next »
  

Sam Jones made an awfully bold move when he decided his first film directing effort would not only be a documentary about a band, but one shot in Super 16mm black and white. He also knew that in the days of high-definition, supersharp digital clarity, trying to transfer it to DVD could be as big a challenge as trying to get it into theaters.

Both endeavors proved even more successful than the first-time film director ever imagined: I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Jones' 2002 documentary about the making of alt-country/pop band Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot CD, has played in 150 cities, and the deluxe, 2-disc DVD package further enhances the experience with worth-watching bonus footage and a real-life feel.

"I've been really super-pleased with the response because I not only made the film that I wanted to make, but that I had to make," says Jones, who segued from still photography to commercials before deciding he wanted to try a feature-length project.

While he was making his film, Wilco's real life got rather complicated. The band was dropped from its label, Reprise Records, and subsequently picked up by another Warner Bros. subsidiary, Nonesuch. The day before filming began, drummer Ken Coomer was ousted. Later, band leader Jeff Tweedy fired seemingly integral member Jay Bennett, adding even more unexpected drama to the story. The press attention that drew, accompanied by critical acclaim for the album and film, helped attract moviegoers to the art houses where it played.

Sunken Treasure
The film's theatrical success pushed back the DVD release, which was originally planned for around Christmas, according to executive producer Gary Hustwit, president of plexifilm, which owns Heart's distribution rights. It finally hit stores April 1. But he notes, "From day one, we were concentrating on the DVD release because that's what we do."

The Brooklyn-based company, an independent DVD label and film studio, produces, distributes, and markets its own products and provides production services to studios and distributors. It was co-founded by Hustwit, former vice president of broadband at Salon.com, and Sean Anderson, former DVD development director at The Criterion Collection.

plexifilm got involved after Hustwit heard about the project from friends who are fans of the Chicago-based alternative-county/pop-rock band. "We were looking for films to put out on DVD," he says. "At that point, the film was still in mid-production. We came on as co-producer and helped get it finished and the theatrical release done, and then geared up for the DVD release."

Jones shot 90 hours of film, which was edited down to 92 minutes. "The by-product of that," Hustwit says, "was that there was a lot of extra footage to include on the DVD release. A lot of amazing footage." Jones put 70 minutes together for what Hustwit characterizes as "an extra film." It contains 17 additional songs, including alternate versions of those in the film and on the album, live concert performances and unreleased songs, as well as feature commentary from the band and director and a 7-minute behind-the-scenes featurette titled "I Am Trying to Make a Film." The 40-page booklet includes Jones' film diary, photos, and liner notes from Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke (who also appears in the film).

Far, Far Away
As for why Jones decided to forego the conventional color route, he explains, "If I was going to make it and I was going to spend my own money, I just love black and white and I think it adds an element of removal from the audience." You're being told the story, rather than just observing reality, he says. "It kind of takes you out of time and place. With black and white, you stop thinking so much about what season it is or what year it is."

Heart was shot at a 1.85:1 ratio, then enlarged to 35mm for theatrical showings.

Its format sets the film apart for another reason. "It's probably one of the last documentaries that you're going to see that's actually shot on film," Hustwit says. He chalks it up to economics; shooting that much footage, then blowing it all up to 35mm in post-production, was much more expensive than shooting digitally would have been. (Jones augmented his own money with funding from plexifilm, Fusionfilms, and other sources.)

The look may be a loving throwback to one of the earliest music documentaries, D.A. Pennebaker's much-lauded 1967 Bob Dylan study, Don't Look Back, but the DVD was made for current and future TV viewing.

Matt Grady, plexifilm's director of DVD production, made an inter-positive taken from the 35mm version. Then he did a high-definition 16:9 anamorphic transfer to D5-HD on a Thomson Spirit datacine with da Vinci 2k color correction, and encoded from that.

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