André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films
When André Gregory and Wallace Shawn—theater directors, writers, actors, and longtime friends—sat down for a stimulating meal in 1981’s My Dinner with André, they not only ended up with one of cinema’s unlikeliest iconic scenarios but launched a film collaboration that would continue to pay creative dividends for decades. The subsequent projects they made together for the screen—1994’s Vanya on 42nd Street, a passionate read-through of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and 2014’s striking Henrik Ibsen interpretation A Master Builder—are penetrating works that exist on the boundary between theater and film, and that both emerged out of many years of rehearsals with loyal troupes of actors. Gregory and Shawn’s unique contributions to the cinematic landscape are shape-shifting, challenging, and entertaining works about the process of creation.
The Criterion Collection presents the filmed work of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, in the aptly titled box set Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films. The box set includes My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street, both directed by Louis Malle, along with their latest feature A Master Builder, directed by Jonathan Demme. The two Malle films are both presented in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 while Demme’s lone film actually features two aspect ratios: 1.78:1 and 2.35:1. All three films sport 1080p/24hz high-definition transfers and are all presented on dual-layer discs.
This nice looking box set features all three films housed in their own individual keep cases, which are then housed in a nicely constructed sleeve. Each title is the exact same as their separately available Blu-ray editions, so other than the sleeve there is nothing unique about this set.
The best presentation probably belongs to Vanya on 42nd Street, which, despite the film’s fairly dank setting, looks rather brilliant. Clarity and detail is high, and the colours, which can look a bit yellowish/jaundiced (which I think is intentional) still look wonderfully saturated. Black levels are rich and deep and never crush out details, which is good since the empty setting presents a lot of shadows. The film has also been nicely restored, and I don’t recall any blemishes ever appearing. Film grain is present and looks clean.
My Dinner with Andre is an upgrade over Criterion’s previous DVD edition, though looks to use the same transfer. The film, shot in 16mm, is very grainy, and I can’t stress that enough. You could see this on the original DVD but Criterion obviously managed it a bit on that edition since it didn’t look like a big noisy mess. Here Criterion has taken a bit of a hands-off approach and the grain is presented as is. Screen grabs are not very good to use here as each image will probably look fuzzy and messy, but in motion the grain dances around naturally and the image comes off very sharp, with superb detail while even rendering textures nicely: Shawn’s corduroy jacket and Gregory’s sweater look particularly superb. The rendering of the grain is particularly good here, as I didn’t detect any noise or compression issues, so the image as a whole looks like a 16mm presentation. It’s very natural and filmic look.
A Master Builder may be the weakest of the bunch, though most of this can be attributed to the stylistic choices Demme made, as well as the fact the film was shot digitally (the other two were of course shot on film). Using two cameras, a Sony XDCAM 1920x1080 camera and a 2K Arri Alexa, they both present very different looking images. The material shot with the Sony has a “home video” quality to it. The image here is just not as sharp and has some noticeable artifacts, like trailing and blurring. It looks like it was shot at a different frame rate, which may be the cause of some of the problems present. I found the film rather ugly during these portions (which are the opening and conclusion) but the midsection is mostly shot with the Arri and it looks far better. It presents a more natural film look, dropping most to all of the artifacts that were occurring before. Colours also look better saturated with richer blacks, which don’t crush out detail as badly as the earlier sequences. There is some noise present in darker areas of the screen, but this can be mostly blamed on how the film was shot and this is more than likely inherent to the source.
In all, though, all three films look very good, and this is certainly the best the first two films, Andre and Vanya, have ever looked. If fans haven’t picked up any of these films on Blu-ray yet they will certainly be pleasantly surprised.
Audio differs across all of the films but what is most important is that all three present clear, fluent dialogue, and none of them show any damage or noise. Andre, presented in linear PCM 1.0 mono, may be the flatter of the three (though still fairly robust for a 1980’s mono track) where the others deliver more fidelity and range. Vanya, with a PCM stereo track, sounds fairly good for what it is, even presenting noticeable movement between the speakers.
The best and most active track (again, for what it is) accompanies A Master Builder, which features a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround track. Like the others it’s of course very talky, and like the others it is clear, but Demme uses a more creative sound design here, spreading music through the speakers, including the surrounds, with noticeable splits and direction. He ends up creating a sort of ethereal quality as the music dances around you, which is very suiting for the nature of the film.
All three are strong, but A Master Builder is the more showy design wise.
Since these titles are all the same as their respective individual releases the supplements don’t differ here.
Starting with My Dinner with Andre the first supplement is an hour long interview with André Gregory and Wallace Shawn conducted by Noah Baumbach and filmed exclusively for Criterion. Unfortunately the two have been filmed separately, Gregory interviewed at what I am guessing is his home, and Shawn in what I am guessing is the Criterion office. You can watch both interviews together or watch each one individually, though the Gregory interview will still run into the Shawn interview. Gregory gets 31-minutes of the interview, while Shawn gets the remaining 29.
I rather enjoyed these interviews, though it may have been better if the two were together. The two reflect on first meeting at one of Gregory’s plays, and then talk about the writing of the script for My Dinner with André and then getting it made. Gregory actually may be the better of the two interview subjects, coming off more loose and more like he’s enjoying himself, while Shawn almost feels a little more stand offish, but it could come down to the fact I think Baumbach was asking Gregory better questions. Shawn spends more time talking about the writing of the film and the material in the conversations but Gregory talks more of the overall production. He jokes about how they figured it would probably end up being a TV movie or a movie that only their friends would see (neither were probably prepared for just how popular it would become.) They also talk about their characters somewhat, where Gregory was playing a character based on himself while Shawn was playing a character he says he felt different from. Also another interesting little tidbit was that Mike Nichols was first approached about doing the film but he said he was unavailable. Malle was the one that ended up contacting them about directing (Gregory got the call and thought it was a joke.) While it’s a talking heads interview Baumbach and crew get a little more creative at least, setting up the shooting style similar to that of My Dinner with André’s making it a little less stale than similar features. Overall I rather liked this feature and it was a treat catching up with the two. But as I said earlier I still feel it’s a shame the two weren’t recorded together.
The second and final disc feature is My Dinner with Louis, a 1982 episode from a BBC program called Arena, featuring an interview between director Louis Malle and actor/writer Wallace Shawn. And of course this interview is done inside a restaurant. It’s a mildly interesting supplement with its biggest flaw being that it’s made up more of film clips than interview. In it Malle briefly goes over his career with Shawn, talking briefly about the controversy that surrounds some of his work including The Lovers and his documentary Phantom India, which got the BBC kicked out of the country. The rest of the interview has Malle talk about a few of his films, including Lacombe, Lucien, Murmur of the Heart, Atlantic City, and, of course, My Dinner with André. One of the more interesting aspects, Malle’s work as a cameraman for Jacques Cousteau, is only briefly mentioned. It’s a decent enough piece, though feels a bit fluffy.
Criterion includes a 28-page booklet that seems to perfectly replicate the booklet that came with the DVD, right down to the illusion of the booklet being a beat up script, right down to coffee stains and the typeface rubbing off on the opposite page. It first features the same essay by Amy Taubin, followed by the introductions by Gregory and Shawn that prefaced the screenplay and both of which are fun reads. This was a strong inclusion with the DVD so I’m glad Criterion didn’t dump it for a standard insert.
Vanya on 42nd Street is surprisingly has the slimmest amount of supplements, with only one significant feature, though at least it’s a good one. Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street, running about 36-minutes, gathers together theater director Andre Gregory, actors Wallace Shawn, Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine and Brooke Smith, and producer Fred Berner who joins in a little later. The first half of the piece has Gregory and his cast talk about the project, which sounds to have started out as just a study of the Chekhov play using a modernized American adaptation written by David Mamet. The actors would get together and go over the play and build up the characters and performances, changing things as they went. Eventually it morphed and they started doing performances for a few invited guests over a couple of years, no more than 25 or so at a time. In the last half of the piece they then get into about how talk of doing a film version came up and how Louis Malle came to be involved. One of the more difficult aspects of making a film was that when the group did the nightly performances of the play for their small audiences the play would constantly change as the performers experimented, but while filming this had to be stopped over the two week shooting period so that the film would be consistent. Another interesting thing is that since Malle had to make it film friendly he’d have a heavier hand in the performances than what Gregory would have done with the regular performances as things had to be framed a particular way or have a more interesting look. A couple of the actors get emotional talking about their experience, which obviously was a great moment in their careers, and you can tell there was a real love and admiration for what they were doing. Though short it’s an excellent documentary offering a great look into this interesting project and film.
Disappointingly that’s pretty much it other than the film’s trailer, which I think only appeared on video. Amy Taubin then provides an essay in the included booklet that also goes into details about the project, the performances in front of small audiences, and then the film. I would have expected maybe some material on the actual play and possibly Mamet’s adaptation, maybe even a comparison of sorts, but alas you don’t get anything like that.
Finally, we come to A Master Builder, which presents a couple hours’ worth of material. The Ibsen Project, a 34-minute conversation between critic David Edelstein, Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, and director Jonathan Demme, starts things off. Edelstein acts more as a moderator, asking questions, getting the conversation going, and both Shawn and Gregory answer them, talking about how the project began, 14 years ago, and how it developed over the years, from Shawn’s translation to getting a group of actors together. The group put on a number of performances for a low number of invited guests over the years, until Jonathan Demme finally saw it (the last performance apparently) and offered to make a film version. Demme sadly has very little to say here, giving the spotlight more to Gregory and Shawn, which makes sense as the project is their baby. But Demme does talk about the process of translating it to screen and also does go into some of the technical decisions, but again he sort of stays in the back. It’s a fascinating overview of the project though I guess maybe I was hoping for more from Demme about the film itself.
Following this is an interview with Lisa Joyce and Julie Haggerty, which is found under Hilde and Aline, the name of the two characters each respectively play. This is probably the more entertaining and fun of the supplements as the two talk about the long process of working on the project, the things they enjoyed, and even the things they’ll miss now that it’s all over. The two also talk about their characters and the development of them. Joyce interestingly points out how she had actually read for the part of Hilde for another production of the play, though didn’t really understand how to play her. It wasn’t until she read Shawn’s adaptation that she felt she got how to play the character. It’s a fun, very loose interview, but it’s packed with a great perspective on the project from that of the actors. Probably my favourite feature on here. It runs about 33-minutes.
Criterion then provides another interview with Wallace and Gregory, this time moderated by Fran Lebowitz. This 52-minute interview is the one that acts as the retrospective of their career, the two talking about first meeting, explaining their working relationship and what they were each, more or less, responsible for, and the various projects they’ve worked on. They explain why it takes so long for them to work on the projects (as mentioned here and elsewhere in supplements previously, A Master Builder was developed and performed over a period of 14 years) and then even talk a little about the film versions and what both directors Louis Malle and Demme brought to them. They even talk a bit about the theater, which none of the participants care about surprisingly (Gregory finds the theater boring and never goes, preferring films), and talk about how most ?filmed plays? are basically worse than death. Though Gregory and Shawn are fairly easy going (particularly Gregory, who seems almost too laid back) I unfortunately found this interview fairly stuffy, which I blame more on Lebowitz and some of her questions. Some decent material in here, and I enjoy that the two are together here, but it may be my least favourite item here disappointingly.
The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer, and the insert includes an essay by Michael Sragow, who goes over Shawn’s adaptation and how Demme translates that translation to screen. It adds the only analytical element to the release, while also supplying more detail on the actual play and Henrik Ibsen.
On the whole the set does rather nicely cover the work and collaborations of Gregory and Shawn, and even features a nice documentary about Louis Malle. Unfortunately it feels like there’s stuff missing, like more information on the adaptations, particularly Mamet’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya and there’s little detail from Demme’s perspective on making his film version of A Master Builder. Still, they’re a great set of supplements to go through and I’m sure fans will be thrilled.
A nicely constructed set, beautifully covering the film collaborations of Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn. It may leave a bit to be desired in its supplements, but the presentations are all rather beautiful. Since the discs in the set are exactly the same as their individually available releases there is no reason for those that already own the titles to pick it up. But for those that haven’t picked them up yet on Blu-ray, this set comes with a very high recommendation!