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A.I. Actual Interview: A Chat with DVD Producer Mark Rowen

by Joel Cunningham

A.I. is sure to be one of the biggest DVD releases of 2002. But putting together these million-sellers is no easy task. You need some real intelligence to get them to come out right.

Mark Rowen, who oversees production for all of the DVDs at DreamWorks, is especially proud of his work on this particular release. He sat down with us to talk a smidge about Stanley, Steven, and a little known composer with the last name Williams. Who is he again?

dOc: Let's start with a really original question. How did you get your start in Hollywood, and how'd you come to find yourself producing DVDs for a living?

MR: I got my start in Hollywood, you could say, in home entertainment. Ann Daly, who's the head of feature animation [at DreamWorks] at the time was the president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment, and a good friend, and she gave me the opportunity to start working on some home entertainment titles over at Disney, like The Lion King and Cinderella, and they were big successes when we were all there. Then when Ann came over to DreamWorks she was kind enough to invite me to come over also, and as DVD evolved I'd been overseeing production for her and everyone at DreamWorks, so it just seemed a natural progression to oversee DVD production here.

dOc: In the past couple of years, you've produced some of the top selling discs?Gladiator, and of course, Shrek, and worked with top tier talent like Cameron Crowe, Ridley Scott, and Steven Spielberg?what's your thought process when you begin working on a new disc?

MR: The first thing that we want to do, the number one thing on every disc is to create something that enhances the viewer experience. It's an extension of the film. If you look at a film like Untitled, Cameron Crowe really takes you deeper into his world than he did on Almost Famous. There's more behind-the-scenes with him. There's a commentary with his mom. When you look at a film like Shrek, it takes the fun and excitement of that film and exponentially makes it grow so you are really a part of the film, with the Re-Voice Studio and everything.

And when you take a film like A.I., it's taking the A.I. experience. Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg are known for being such incredibly brilliant filmmakers, and we look at how we can dissect that filmmaking process. We try to have discs that are additive, first and foremost, and then we go and include the filmmaker in the process. And obviously I laugh when I say this, but I've gotten to work with Robert Redford, Bob Zemeckis, Jeffery Katzenberg, and all of Steven's people. Evolution with Ivan Reitman. These are the premiere, preeminent filmmakers in the world that we get a chance to hang out with. You just sort of giggle, like, "Oh, you mean I got to go hang out with you?"

It makes our job easy because we go talk to our filmmakers and really find out what they want on the disc, and we bring our vision and their vision together to make the best disc possible. One of the other great things is when you look at Gladiator, Shrek, Saving Private Ryan, and A.I., we are also given great stories and films to start with. We have wonderful films and filmmakers, making these discs a lot easier on us.

dOc: Well, you touched my next three questions there...

MR: Ask them again, I'll answer!

dOc: Here's one. On a particular project, how closely involved are you with the creative team behind the film, like say Ridley Scott or Steven Spielberg?

MR: We are as closely involved as they will let us be. Fortunately, every filmmaker has really embraced the DVD technology and has been unbelievably gracious with their time and the set while shooting and all the footage and behind-the-scenes that we need. I think it is a great testament that all those who work on and behind the camera are willing to help out and be a part of it. With A.I. we have really in-depth interviews with Stan Winston and John Williams, who are both nominated for Oscars?. Go down the list from storyboard artists to Janusz Kaminski [director of photography] and Steven. So, without a doubt, our number one priority is to involve the filmmakers as much as possible. It's been great.

dOc: Sounds good.

MR: Yes, obviously it is. We get the chance to play with these guys. To sit down with Ivan Reitman or Ridley Scott and talk about their careers. It's unbelievable. No complaints here.

dOc: Going back to a disc you touched on a bit ago, I think Shrek is a pretty unique product because it recognizes the dual fan base—the kids play with Re-Voice Studio and the interactive games, and the adults can listen to the audio commentary and check out the effects documentaries. How do you go about deciding what sort of features belong on a particular DVD?

MR: We have a great team of people in our tech services department, and we pride ourselves on having the best picture possible. So once we get the bitrate and know how much space the movie will take up, that will let us know how much space we have for bonus features. And then, we try and decide what will, again, enhance the viewer's experience. And on a film like Shrek we have the wonderful luxury that the film appealed to little kids, to adults, to grandparents, so knowing that, we wanted to design a disc that could truly appeal to everybody. Everything on that disc, though certain parts are geared towards kids, everything works across the board. With A.I., the audience is a bit older, and that demographic was what we went after, talking to the more intelligent, savvy DVD audience. The great thing is, as a producer I'm surrounded by such incredible people, whether it's Mark Atkinson and his people doing the transfer, Marty Cohen supplying the elements, the people behind the PR and marketing. We want everyone to have input.

dOc: It definitely seems that DreamWorks has gained a reputation for putting out some of the best DVDs, even for under performing films (like the criminally unappreciated Untitled/Almost Famous. I certainly appreciate going through a disc for a movie I love, especially if it was ignored at the box office (A.I. didn't do the best either).

MR: Well, what's funny with A.I. is that a lot of it is perception. It did like $257 million worldwide. I only hope that all our perceived failures do as well as A.I. ! And with Almost Famous, and even Shrek, you always want your films to do more, and the great thing about DVD and video is that we all work together. We don't base the quality of discs on theatrical performance. Shrek is a great disc because it's a great movie, which I think is true of all of our films, like I said earlier, it's such a great luxury for us to put together the best disc possible. And obviously, talking on a consumer level, it is great to hear customers love our discs. Sales are a good indication of what people like, but it is nice to hear them say what they truly like.

dOc: Moving on to the A.I. DVD, how do these projects get off of the ground? I imagine it is a very daunting task, especially working with a director as successful as Spielberg. How does it start, and how "hands on" do you get?

MR: Well, the process is very collaborative right from the start. We were very fortunate here to be working with Laurent Bouzereau, who has done a lot of the documentary material for Steven in the past, on set for us filming every day. So, it started with Laurent and I sitting down and coming up with a vision for the project and developing it. Then, after Laurent got all his material together on set, he began to develop even more refined ideas, and we looked at them together, and then took them to Spielberg and Kathy Kelley [producer] for approval.

Then, once we have the material together—and I worked intensely with Laurent throughout the editing process—then we begin to decide how it will be organized on the disc. We have, I think, 15 featurettes on the disc—some people will do one two-hour piece, but for us, it just made more sense to break it up, to make it more accessible.

dOc: I've never been a big fan of the current "slap an HBO featurette on the disc and call it a special edition"-style of DVD that seems to be popular these days, and I was surprised at the perspective that was added to the A.I. featurettes, even though the film is nine-months-old.

MR: First, our HBO pieces, which we produce here at DreamWorks, obviously, I mean, those, if that is all the behind-the-scenes material you want for that particular film..

dOc: Well, yes, there are some that are just two minutes long.

MR: Exactly. And you wonder, "Why do I want this on the DVD?" With A.I., we tried to avoid that by creating a vision for the disc, the ultimate "A.I. film school" of how this film was made.

dOc: Along those lines, I was happy that Spielberg and Jan Harlen [exec-producer] were so forthcoming on the long history of the project, especially in relation to its development under Stanley Kubrick. Was there any of this archival material that you wanted to include but couldn't? Was the choice more yours or that of the creative team behind the film?

MR: No, I wouldn't say that. The project obviously has an extensive history, and we'd simply decide what we needed, and then we have to ask, and we'd get it. And especially with Steven, because he's not just a great filmmaker but a great person, he's—more often than not—going to say yes. So there was really nothing we wanted to include but weren't able to. Of course, we were very fortunate than Steven and Jan were willing to speak so freely about personal matters, and especially about Stanley.

dOc: Connected with that, I noticed that Spielberg was very involved with all the extras and documentaries, which sort of made up for the fact that he doesn't like to do commentaries, which he's famous (or infamous) for. It seemed like he was omnipresent in the extras anyway.

MR: Well, for this title, A.I. specific, to your point exactly. Steven could've done a commentary, but it would've been, not entirely, but somewhat, redundant. I mean, hearing Steven speak on anything is incredible, but on this particular title I didn't really miss it that he didn't do a commentary, and I certainly respect his choice not to do them.

dOc: Once you get all the material from Laurent Bouzereau... and I'm really glad you pronounced the name before I had to...

MR: Oh, I'm used to it. I messed it up the first hundred times.

dOc: ...Once you have that all together, how do you go about deciding how it is presented on the disc. Is it difficult blending your vision for the material with what has already been completed?

MR: It's easy to blend because it's a collaborative process all the way through. We have a good idea on all our films of what the filmmaker's philosophy is about, so it is a natural progression. On this disc, I think it is more accessible to say, "Oh, you want to talk about sound and music? Let's click on that. You want to talk about effects, go to effects. Acting, you've got Haley and Jude." To break it up in all the major components of the film made it easy on this particular title. Like with Shrek, the more "mainstream" family ideas were in one place, and the more DVD user tech stuff was in another place. It's all intuitive. It's a team effort, not just me deciding on a whim, even the archives and still galleries, if you take the time to look at them, they're great.

dOc: Well, I said this in my review, but A.I. is one of the first DVDs I've owned where I've sat through all of the extras in one sitting and thought, "Why isn't there anything else?"

MR: Right, it's funny, when we're creating it, it's like, well it's interesting to me, but what about everyone else? And we're lucky that on this particular disc, as we got through it, breaking it up the way we did made it so much more accessible.

dOc: I hate to talk about what's not on the disc...

MR: No, bring it up. For me, it's learning for the next time. Questions and criticisms we like, too.

dOc: I was pretty happy with it (of course, the fact that it was my favorite movie last year didn't hurt), but a lot of Internet fans have noted two omissions: the TV ad campaign and the complicated on-line game. Any comments there?

MR: We typically try and include a couple of the trailers. On this, what we were trying to do was make the ultimate A.I. experience into the world of making the film. While we did include those trailers, the overall consensus was that as great as the TV campaign was, and as great as the game was, those weren't part of the filmmaking process. It's ironic, as you were commenting earlier, other discs try to throw in everything and the kitchen sink, and it doesn't make sense, and that's exactly what we try not to do. Our theme for this disc was to do the ultimate film school on A.I., and the theatrical marketing aspects of it weren't in that theme, not that they weren't worthy.

dOc: Seems logical.

MR: And it was by design, not for any other reason. I love the fact that no one has said, " I wish you wouldn't have had this, and added the game." I think the point is that we included what we wanted to include, everyone likes it, and wants more.

dOc: What feature on the disc are you most proud of?

MR: The politically correct answer is I love the entire disc, but for me, I love the John Williams piece, because it's John Williams. I love everything he's done, so that, for me, is I think my favorite piece.

dOc: I've heard those composer pieces before, and this one was interesting because instead of just "how he did it," it was his personal thought process on integrating the music with the themes of the film. I wanted to, again, hear more of that.

MR: Right, we could've done a whole disc just on John Williams. It's great that he isn't just talking about the instruments, but the entire process.

dOc: Can you talk about upcoming projects you are working on for DreamWorks, or is it all "hush hush?"

MR: I can talk about them, just not to anyone outside the office. But I work on all the films at DreamWorks, so we are working on everything, even things just in pre-production.

dOc: Here's the obligatory off-topic last question: if you could work on the DVD for any film, from any studio, from any time past or present, what would it be?

MR: I answer you with an anecdote, and a general answer. Right now, my favorite disc, the one I watch three times a day, is Shrek. I have an one-and-a-half year old son at home, and one day, my wife put on the disc for him, and now it is his favorite movie. So every day when he wakes up, and every night before he goes to bed, he has to watch it. And he sits on my lap, totally still, watching the movie. So for that reason, if Shrek was the only DVD I owned or the last thing I worked on, it would be enough.

dOc: Good thing he has good taste in film.

MR: Yes, I could have been stuck with some obscure title. As to your question, if I could work on any film... I love big Hollywood musicals. The films of Stanley Donen, those were amazing. Barry Levinson had some great films when I was growing up, and I got to work with him last year on An Everlasting Piece, which was great. I've worked with so many great filmmakers here at DreamWorks that it is hard to pick from someone else's catalogue. We have such great films here.

dOc: Well, that's all I have, unless you want to comment on the "skate-gate" controversy.

MR: Well, I would, but it might get me into trouble here.