Amadeus: The Director's Cut
Mar 1, 2002 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson
If you haven't seen Milos Forman's Amadeus for a number of years, it's easy to forget what a great film it is. In a hazy memory, you probably recall the wigs, the sumptuous sets and colorful costumes, young Mozart's cloying hyena laugh and, of course, all that incredible music. But remember, too, that it was originally a great stage play by Peter Shaffer, a brilliant meditation on creativity, faith, and musical and spiritual transcendence. Shaffer's play, and Forman's 1984 film (which he co-wrote with Shaffer), is no conventional biography of Mozart; indeed, the main character is a jealous, older composer named Salieri, who wages a fierce personal war against God because he cannot accept that the Almighty has given such sublime talent to the boorish, hedonistic Mozart, while he — the refined and pious Salieri — struggles to write competent but conventional music. Forman's film is epic in its scope, yet unsparingly intimate; and it's the human drama that gives the work its deep resonance.
Amadeus was a surprise hit and was rewarded with 11 Academy Award nominations and a whopping eight trophies on Oscar night, including Best Sound. Now, Amadeus is back in an expanded version, with 22 minutes of added scenes, a bit of new music, remastered sound and, of course, a newly minted DVD in 5.1 surround. The film was re-released in theaters in late February; the DVD is scheduled for a May release.
The project reunited many of the talented people who crafted the original, including Forman, Shaffer, producer Saul Zaentz, supervising sound editor John Nutt, supervising re-recording mixer Mark Berger, re-recording mixer Todd Boekelheide and assistant sound editor Tom Christopher, who in the intervening years has developed into a picture editor.
“Essentially, what happened is that Saul and Milos, the producer and director, got together and looked at an old cut of the movie that was three-and-a-half hours long,” says Christopher. “They looked at that and decided there were some things they wanted to investigate and try to add back. And that's where I came in. I came over to the [Saul Zaentz] Film Center [in Berkeley] on another matter and got into a conversation with Saul, who told me immediately to call Milos and talk to him, which I did. He outlined to me that there were three to five scenes that he wanted to add back in. I called him a few days later, and it turned into more like 15 scenes — really 13 or 14 story points, where the whole concept of the story, the arc of the story, had been taken out.
“The best example is the story arc that involves Costanza [Mozart's wife] and Salieri,” he continues. “During Mozart's decline, Costanza tried to intercede for her husband and involve herself in the dispute between Salieri and Mozart. That story was taken out completely, and there were lots of tendrils from that that worked into the movie. For me, certain things started to look better, to gel. I had always wondered, ‘Why is she so angry here?’ She's angry for a reason: Salieri actually humiliates her in a very powerful scene.”
Christopher notes that there were also several short scenes of Salieri speaking to the priest (which forms a framework for the entire film, which is mostly flashbacks) that were added back in “to clarify Salieri's position that it's God he's competing with: ‘I've decided I will thwart God, that God will lose.’” There is also another new storyline involving Mozart's frustrating attempts to make ends meet by giving private music lessons.
Not surprisingly, constructing the new scenes was a fairly complicated process, both visually and sonically, because it involved finding and working with nearly 20-year-old elements and blending them seamlessly into the film. On the visual side, Christopher had to cull the new material from 760 boxes of raw film footage. That involved first putting the boxes in order, then extracting what he needed and assembling a temp of the new scenes “the old fashioned way, on an eight-plate Kem Universal that has two picture heads so it gives you the ability to do this type of editing — you can have one thing moving and another thing you're cutting into. It's the style of cutting that the film was originally done on,” he says.
In all, Christopher reprinted some 75,000 feet of film — equivalent to about 13 hours — representing multiple angles of raw footage, for the 22 minutes that was ultimately added to the picture. “I also deleted a few minutes from the picture,” Christopher says, “because in order to make this story work, some things didn't need to be in there — the beginnings and ends of a few scenes needed to be manipulated a bit. Some of the changes are very tiny, but they seem to have an effect.” His goal, he says, was to try to re-create the rhythm of original picture editors Michael Chandler and Nena Danevic. “I don't want the new scenes to come in in some sort of aggressive way,” he comments, “so we used sound overlaps, which are used in Amadeus quite frequently. I definitely wanted people to look at this and say, ‘I can't tell what's new.’”
After Christopher had completed a rough cut on the Kem, a process that took several weeks, he sent versions on videotape to Forman and Zaentz, while the original and new elements were digitized and loaded into the Avid. There were discussions back and forth, and Christopher did an Avid cut based on the Kem conform. He then looked at the additional footage, made another cut and then flew to New York. “Milos and I fine-cut that on the Avid,” he recalls. “Then Peter Shaffer and Saul and Milos and I screened the film in my cutting room [at PostWorks] in New York, and we actually made a few changes that final day.”
On the sound side of the equation, a top-flight team worked on the various elements at the Saul Zaentz Film Center. Mark Berger was back mixing dialog and effects, Robert Randles did the music editing (see sidebar; Mark Adler was the original music editor), and Todd Boekelheide did the music mixes. Like Christopher, who found that “I was able to uncover everything we needed in the same quality level as the original film,” Berger discovered that the tracks he and the original team had created nearly two decades earlier were in very good shape for the most part.
“We mostly worked from the 70mm sounding master, from the stems,” says Berger, who had also revisited the film's audio tracks a number of years ago for a Laserdisc version. “There was a dialog stem and there were music units that were transferred into Bob Randles' computer, and there was an effects stem: two 6-track [mag] stems that had the dialog, music and effects on them. But that's as far back as we went. The music was from the stereo mixdown from 24-track. I think for a couple of cues where there was some wow and flutter, they did go back to the 24-track.
“But as it turned out — and this is the key to the whole experience — going back further isn't necessarily always better,” he adds. “In other words, just because we were able to redo everything, and everything was digital, and there have been advances in technology, doesn't necessarily mean it was better, and, in fact, the most interesting thing we found was that we did it right the first time. In some cases, it was virtually impossible to re-create the feeling and the emotional impact of the music and the scene, even though we were working from original elements, and it had been digitized, and the pitch was corrected, and all the wow and flutter had been taken out. All that became irrelevant when you sat there and listened to the effect of what had been done. I would say 85 percent of the time we stuck with the original. It may have been just because we were working in mag film, and we were mixing to exploit the strengths and weaknesses of that particular medium. When you change media and go to digital — we did the new work on a Sonic [Solutions system] — you're not necessarily able to produce those same kinds of effects.”
The Sonic system did come in handy when it came to cleaning up the original dialog tracks, which had been recorded in mono on a Nagra “and was about 20 dB too low on the tape and was quite hissy and noisy,” Berger says. “At the time [in 1983], I had to invent a device, which I called the Markomatic, which was a Dolby CAT 43 box — their 4-band A-type noise reduction, which had variable compression on each one of the bands. We basically used that as a four-way band splitter, because it was all phase-coherent, and the bands had been carefully thought out, and the overlaps and everything summed quite well. So, I brought each one of those four bands out to a little box that had switches and patch points, and then I put compressors and gates and signal processing on each one of those four bands, so each line of dialog could be treated — rather than as a whole chunk, it would be broken up so the high frequencies could be treated differently than middle and the lower frequencies, which is sort of a crude version of band splitting and limiting and de-essing. Four or five years ago, someone came out with a box that does all that and more, but at the time that was all we had.
“So, given that, it was better to go back to the dialog premix I had done and run it through the Sonic No-Noise, which is a much more finely tuned box, and it really quieted it down. I liken it to scraping off some of the aged patina on a statue so you can get to the luster underneath; now the dialog really shines, and you can hear a lot of subtlety that was covered up before, especially on the Salieri narration. And there's just a general overall feeling of intimacy and immediacy that wasn't there before.”
As for the new footage added in by Christopher, “we had original production tracks that had to be No-Noised and premixed. Basically, we were starting from scratch, but with 20 years of advances in technology to make it match, I think it did very well. It didn't need the Markomatic,” he says with a laugh.
REVERB IS YOUR FRIEND
Particularly challenging were new scenes in the palace of a would-be student of Mozart's named Schlumberg. Aside from needing extensive new dog Foley (recorded at the Film Center), “those scenes were very, very echo-y,” Berger relates. “It was a huge palace room that they filmed in; it almost sounds like a stadium. So the challenge there was to try to clamp down on the echo so it became a reasonable-sized room. So, we compromised between the room reflecting the guy's affluence, in that he could afford to live in this palace, but also maintain some kind of intelligibility.
“Now, getting rid of reverb is difficult but not impossible. Through a combination of the Dolby 430, which is the SR version of the 43, you can use it to kind of clamp down on the tails of words, which has the effect of reducing the echo. And then you have to supplement a little bit with a shorter echo to make up for the fact that you hear it going away. So, basically, you whack off the long tails and replace it with shorter tails.”
Berger found that for the 5.1 surround version of the film, too, he sometimes added different “rooms” to fill out the sound for the rear speakers. “When we were working from the original mix off of the 70mm, we would just re-create the surround using notes of the Lexicon [224XL] settings that we used to make the surrounds. But we also added room to all the scenes. I developed spaces for Salieri's room in his cell, for the emperor in his large room, for the meeting rooms — I had half a dozen different spaces that corresponded to the different rooms, and I would add room to the dialog and spread it out — not hard left and hard right, but maybe 30 degrees left and 30 degrees right. What that does is, in addition to warming it up a bit and giving a sense of being in a space, it kind of smooths out all the little artifacts that were left over from the use of the Markomatic years ago.”
This time around, Berger's reverb of choice was Lexicon 480. “I wanted to make the spirit of the voice live in the room just a little bit longer and feel a little fuller,” he says, “so that once the words leave the character's mouth they don't just die on the floor in front of them; instead, they inhabit the room for a bit and then dissipate.”
In this film, even more than most, the relationship between the dialog and the music and the overall story is critical, Berger notes. “The music becomes another character — there's Mozart and Salieri and the music. It's so perfectly and intimately integrated with the story and the transitions and the underlining, it's one of the few movies that is able to coalesce all the functions of music — as source, as score, as underscore, as background — and it adds the idea of it as a voice in itself.”
Berger believes that the film has not lost any of its power to excite and enthrall; indeed, he notes that when it was shown not too long ago at the opening of a new theater in Houston (along with The Right Stuff, which Berger also worked on), “even though everyone had seen it before, they were completely blown away by it. And now it's even better. I think it's great that people will have a chance to see it on the large screen again in a way that existed only for a relatively brief period of time in the 70mm version. I think even young people who are used to all these action films and a lot of noise can appreciate what this film is and the value of sound apart from just being louder explosions.”
Blair Jackson is Mix's senior editor. In an eerie parallel with Mozart, he has on occasion been accused of using “too many words.”
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