John Cassavetes was an artist who believed that filmmaking's salvation lay in "individual expression" and applied this belief to his own movies. He is often credited as the father of American independent cinema and to be sure without him there would be no Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch or John Sayles. For years, fans of Cassavetes' movies have had to suffer with grainy copies and substandard transfers on DVD (or, quite often no availability at all). The folks at Criterion have answered their prayers with a fantastic box set with five of the man's movies and Charles Kiselyak's epic documentary.
The Shadows disc features an interview with one of the film's stars, Lelia Goldini, who talks about how she met Cassavetes and her impressions of the man. She also covers the improv exercises that he would stage and how they developed into the movie. There is also an interview with Seymour Cassel who reminisces about how he met Cassavetes and how he got a job on the crew making Shadows. A real find is never-before-seen silent footage of rehearsals for the film in Cassavetes' acting workshop. Also included is featurette examining the painstaking restoration process that transformed the original print into this new glorious version. Finally, there is an excellent behind-the-scenes still gallery and a trailer.
Faces features an alternate opening sequence that was originally screened in Toronto and rearranges the chronology of scenes. "Cineastes de Notre Temps" is a French TV program that interviewed Cassavetes in '65 while he was making Faces and then again in '68 after it had been screened. The first interview finds him in a playful mood as he jokes about making a musical of Crime and Punishment. In the second interview he claims that he's the worst director but tries to create an environment that allows the actors to express themselves honestly. "Making Faces" is a 42-minute featurette with new interviews with Gena Rowlands, Lynn Carlin, Seymour Cassel and editor/producer Al Ruban. Rowlands talks about how they financed the movie themselves so they'd have complete control while Cassel talks about how Cassavetes was his best friend and mentor. Finally, Ruban discusses the equipment he used to shoot the film in the "Lighting and Shooting the Film" featurette. He goes through specific scenes via text and clips from the movie providing excellent insight into how certain techniques were achieved.
A Woman Under the Influence features an audio commentary by cameraman Mike Ferris and sound recordist/composer Bo Harwood. This movie marked the first time they worked together and they would go on to collaborate with Cassavetes on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night. Next up, is an excellent conversation between Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk. They talk about Cassavetes' approach to filmmaking and fondly recount anecdotes about making the movie. There is also an audio interview done with Cassavetes in `75 that covers a wide variety of topics: improvisation, casting, directing and so forth. Rounding out the disc is a trailer and a rare collection of behind-the-scenes photos taken on the set of the movie.
Included on The Killing of a Chinese Bookie disc is the original 135 minute version released in `76 and the truncated 108 minute version that came out in '78. The first version was rush job and became a commercial and critical failure. It was pulled from theatres after a week and two years later Cassavetes cut almost 30 minutes out and re-released it. There is a fascinating interview with Ben Gazzara and Al Ruban. The actor recounts how the first audience to see the movie hated it and this broke his heart. Ruban also talks about the negative reaction and Cassavetes' desire to re-cut his movie as a result. There is another audio interview with Cassavetes where he talks at length about working in genres and how he got the idea for the movie. Finally, there is a collection of rare, behind-the-scenes photographs.
Opening Night features a conversation between Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara. They speak warmly and fondly about their experiences working on the movie, recounting several stories. There is also an interview with Al Ruban who talks about Cassavetes complete immersion in every aspect of his movies: sets, costumes and so on. There is another audio interview with Cassavetes where he talks about the play that occurs within the film and comparing movies to plays. Finally, there is a trailer.
Cassavetes fiercely believed that "to compromise an idea is to soften it, to make an excuse for it, to betray it." The five films that are included in this box set certainly adhere to these words and represent the man's pure and unfiltered artistic expression. This is an impressive box set that also includes a 68-page booklet with essays by Cassavetes and critics and interviews with the man that does a great job putting his movies and personal philosophy into the proper context.