Interview: Criterion GODZILLA Producer Curtis Tsui
A SCIFI JAPAN EXCLUSIVE
On January 24th, The Criterion Collection will release the Toho classic GODZILLA (ゴジラ, Gojira, 1954) on special edition DVD and Blu-ray. The high-anticipated discs feature high-def digital restorations of both the original Japanese film and its Americanized edit GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (1956), plus a wealth of bonus content including trailers, cast and crew interviews, audio commentaries and featurettes.
Supervising the new release is Criterion producer Curtis Tsui, who recently discussed the project with SciFi Japan…
Keith Aiken: Would you please provide some details about your background at Criterion?
Curtis Tsui: I joined Criterion around 2000 or so, after a job at a New York-based optical house came to an end when the company went under. Turned out to be a blessing, as I’ve been here now for over a decade. I started as an associate producer, helping the core producers with everything from research to getting timecodes from tapes. I think I got bumped up to producer about a year after that, with a straight release of George Sluizer’s THE VANISHING.
I’ve been pretty lucky because I tend to land films that I happen to love, like THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, our two recent Kubrick releases, and of course our great kaiju friend GODZILLA.
Keith Aiken: Back in the 1990s, Criterion announced they would release GODZILLA on laser disc but those plans fell through. Why did Criterion decide to revisit this film now?
Curtis Tsui: Yeah, I remember wanting to pre-order those lasers from Ken Cranes back in the day! I don’t know why those discs didn’t happen, but clearly Criterion’s interest in GODZILLA existed far before my hiring, and for obvious reasons: the movie’s great, amazingly influential, and a pretty staggering artistic achievement to boot. I’m sure the interest in the film never waned since then.
I suppose the stars finally aligned and everything fell into place this past year. Or if not the stars, then licensing and contractual agreements that I don’t know about.
Keith Aiken: Was Toho’s office in Los Angeles involved, or did Criterion deal directly with the company in Tokyo?
Curtis Tsui: Our point man for the studio is an amazingly patient fellow based in Toho’s New York office. His gig is, in a lot of ways, to work with us on every Toho release we do, so that’s a workload I wouldn’t envy. Everything we do for our releases is provided to him first, and then he relays the issues at hand to Tokyo.
And this does remind me: we did work with Classic Media on this release as well, as they had a hand in GODZILLA becoming available to us.
Keith Aiken: When did you get the assignment to produce Criterion’s GODZILLA discs?
Curtis Tsui: My first recollection of GODZILLA officially popping up on my radar was, I think, pretty early in February 2011. I walked into the office and the company president, Peter Becker, and our executive producer, Kim Hendrickson, both stopped me and asked me if I liked GODZILLA. I said yeah (well, maybe, “F*ck yeah!” or something like that) and said I’d love to produce it and then… stopped. Because I started to think that there wasn’t much I could do beyond what was already accomplished on the Classic Media and BFI releases.
However, I mulled it over for a while and thought that there were avenues that could be pursued: interviews with surviving cast and crew, some additional cultural perspectives, things like that. Simply taking a different avenue of approach that could add to the already great material that’s out there. So I was conscious about (1) approaching different people for this project, since the previous editions would remain in print and (2) trying to make sure we’d go into areas that weren’t delved into as deeply on the other releases.
This isn’t to fault either the Classic Media or BFI editions, mind you. I’m not sure how many people are familiar with the ins-and-outs of DVD production, but sometimes it’s harder to get ahold of things than by simply asking or even paying a fee. It can be a costly, time-and-manpower-intensive process, and I’m just glad that Criterion was able and willing to stand behind this project all the way.
Anyway, getting back to going to other folks, having worked with David Kalat before, and knowing that he wrote his critical study of the series for GODZILLA, I figured he’d be up to the task, not only because he loves Godzilla movies, but also because he knows the work that exists on those previous two releases and he knows what we tend to look for. So probably after a couple of hours after talking to Peter and Kim, I shot David an e-mail just giving him a heads-up that I was potentially going to be producing this release and I’d love to have him do the commentaries, so please starting planning it out. He was at a new job and had a tight schedule, so I figured if I could give him good advance notice we could get the work done in a timely fashion. By the time I recorded with David in June, we still didn’t have our own masters. I simply used ones provided by Classic Media as templates.
Keith Aiken: What materials did Toho provide for the Japanese version of GODZILLA?
Curtis Tsui: Toho were good enough to let Lee Kline, our technical director, have access to a 35mm fine grain master positive of the 1954 original so that we could create a new master, and I’m really thankful for that. I hope the movie’s fans and newcomers to the film will be too. Lee actually went out to Japan and supervised the transfer, and we were all happy with what he brought back.
Keith Aiken: Would you describe the work that went into the high-definition digital restoration of the film?
Curtis Tsui: It was basically a good many weeks of a team of hard-working folks besides myself going through every frame of the film and removing the dirt and scratches that they could, not to mention the audio department going through everything to make it sound as good as possible too.
Our restoration team used three digital restoration software packages to make GODZILLA look good: MTI’s DRS, Pixel Farm’s PFClean to the dirt, scratches, warps and jitter, and Image Systems’ DVNR for small dirt and grain. The thing is, it’s always a careful balance between removing problems and using the software so extensively that the film… well, no longer looks like film. We like grain, because that’s such a central part of the “film” aesthetic, so there’s often a judgment call that goes into every shot. We don’t want to make things look like plastic or Saran Wrap.
Keith Aiken: It seems like every subtitled release of GODZILLA — Toho and Rialto’s theatrical prints; the various US, UK and Australian DVDs — has its own unique English translation. Did Criterion prepare their own translation and subtitles for the new GODZILLA DVD and Blu-ray?
Curtis Tsui: We worked with a subtitling house called Subtext on this release, and they handled all of the subtitles for GODZILLA and the SDH [subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing] material for GODZILLA KING OF THE MONSTERS too.
Keith Aiken: Was it difficult finding materials of acceptable quality for GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS? I know that neither Toho nor Classic Media own a print or negatives for the American version.
Curtis Tsui: It was somewhat difficult to locate elements that were suitable for the GKOTM master, but things worked out in the end and I think — I hope — that people find this presentation to be the best one yet available, and the most complete. I’m grateful to everyone who helped make it happen — everyone from my bosses to the fans who came through — considering GKOTM was the movie that introduced me to the original Godzilla, so I’ll always have a fondness for it. (TERROR OF MECHAGODZILLA was technically my first Godzilla movie.)
Keith Aiken: How were supplemental features decided upon? Did Toho offer interviews with particular filmmakers who had worked on GODZILLA, or did Criterion make those decisions on their own?
Curtis Tsui: We decided who we’d like to interview, in terms of surviving cast and crew. A lot of factors go into play, of course: budget, timeframe, whether the subject in question would appeal to both die-hard G-Fans and general viewers. I hoped to balance things out between FX talk, production stories, and cultural/historical details, so that folks would get a full picture about what makes this film so significant.
For our Japanese projects we often work with a Canada-based documentary filmmaker/art teacher named Marty Gross, who’s been tight with members the Japanese film industry for quite some time, to land and conduct those interviews based on our needs and questioning. So interviews with folks like Nakajima, Takarada, Irie and Kaimai pretty much happened via legwork on our end. When someone’s no longer with us but still had enormous impact on the success of the film and the series as a whole — I’m thinking of composer Akira Ifukube here — we tried to license the material.
But I shouldn’t ignore the generosity of the great Akira Takarada either. He provided a number of images from his personal collection, as did effects director Koichi Kawakita. So big shout-outs to those guys too.
The Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibition Hall also provided us with a number of images, and allowed us to take photos of the ship itself for inclusion in the supplement about the vessel. Again, many thanks to the generosity of others!
Keith Aiken: The Criterion release also includes a Toho-produced GODZILLA photographic effects featurette and an older interview with Akira Ifukube…
Curtis Tsui: We were able to license the Akira Ifukube interview and the compositing video featurette with Koichi Kawakita and Motoyoshi Tomioka from Toho. Rounding it all out, we got a number of behind-the-scenes production stills from them.
I’m not sure what Godzilla release had the photographic effects piece, but it definitely appeared on one of the Toho originals. I found out about it because Koichi Kawakita provided a screener of it to us. I tried to figure out the exact release but I couldn’t. I’m glad, though, that Toho was able to find their master. I was afraid we wouldn’t get it at all.
The Ifukube interview was on Toho’s Blu-ray release of GODZILLA.
Keith Aiken: You’ve already mentioned bringing David Kalat on board. Would you elaborate on what he and Greg Pflugfelder contributed to GODZILLA’s extras?
Curtis Tsui: Greg’s a historian who’s tied in with the Donald Keene Center of Japanese Culture, and he’s devoted a lot of his studies to Toho monster movies and Godzilla, so I figured his knowledge of Japanese culture, history and the film itself would make him perfect for the Lucky Dragon Incident supplement.
Greg, by the way, had curated a poster art show at the Donald Keene Center dedicated to international Japanese monster movies some years back called “GODZILLA Conquers the Globe”, and you can still see details of that show at keenecenter.org/exhibit_godzilla.
David’s someone I worked with before — he wrote the liners for the DVD of Georges Franju’s EYES WITHOUT A FACE that I produced — and knowing his work on our TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE commentary, I figured he’d be the perfect candidate for doing tracks for these films. I think he balances analysis, history and fan minutiae very carefully, and knows how to deliver the materially vocally as well. The guy recorded both tracks in one Saturday session, which was terrific. I think what made David’s contributions so wonderful too was the fact that he knew that the existing tracks on the Classic Media and BFI editions by Steve Ryfle, Ed Godziszewski and, hey, you, were so detailed and exacting that he had to take a different trajectory for his work, and I think he delivered.
You have to keep in mind that both David and I already bought and owned the Classic Media and BFI releases and already knew they were stellar. We wanted to have something that could go hand in hand with their material (since both of those releases will continue to be sold) and not simply cover ground that was already well-trodden. And trodden very well!
Keith Aiken: Who created the excellent DVD/Blu-ray cover art and packaging design for GODZILLA?
Curtis Tsui: The great Bill Sienkiewicz created the art. You’re a comic guy, so I know you’re familiar with him! He did the artwork for ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, which I produced on DVD and blu-ray, and as a longtime fan I was happy to get him on another project. I fully remember the day that his initial sketches came in, and we all had such a hard time deciding where to land simply because we liked so many options. But we chose that kind of rear-view image of Godzilla and the destruction he left in his wake for a couple of reasons. One, it brings him back to being a terrifying force, which I think a lot of people unfamiliar with the movie may not remember. Certainly the G-Fans all know it, but we do hope that we can bring the movie to others too.
Second — and big credit deserves to go to our art department here, especially Eric Skillman and Sarah Habibi — the packaging of the release kind of works as a process of revelation for the viewer, in the traditional monster movie manner. You don’t get a “clear” image of the creature until “the end,” and I’m not gonna tell you what that end is. I’m being deliberately coy here, because we were granted the opportunity to go all-out in a way with the design of this release, but I can assure you that people will be thrilled when they open that package and just keep going ’til they get to the disc housing. I wish I could take credit for it, but I basically said, “Yeah, great idea! Let’s hope we can do it!” and the art dept. and their colleagues made sure it would work.
Eric’s shepherded a number of things that have turned out exceptionally lovely in terms of my own productions, like the ghostly effect on the cover of KURONEKO. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, get the disc! The movie’s really good, for one thing, but play with the angle of the cover under a light. It’s a nice effect.
Keith Aiken: There were reports that GODZILLA had the highest pre-orders in Criterion’s history. Is there any truth to these claims?
Curtis Tsui: I… have no idea! I’m not privy to that kind of thing. If that’s the case, I’m certainly happy, not because of my connection to the project but because people want to see a great movie. Or, in this case, two of ’em, and two movies that have already existed in really nice editions beforehand.
Keith Aiken: Does Criterion have plans to release any other classic Toho monster/FX movies? Would strong sales for GODZILLA have any impact on Criterion’s decisions?
Curtis Tsui: I couldn’t say. Never say never, I suppose, but there are so many factors that go into titles being acquired and released that I can’t speculate on any possible impact GODZILLA sales would have on possible future releases. I certainly wouldn’t turn down another opportunity. THE MYSTERIANS, anyone?
For more information on Criterion’s upcoming GODZILLA DVD and Blu-ray, please see the earlier coverage here on SciFi Japan: