Bringing Horror back to Little Shop
Every once in a while, film buffs get to see a masterpiece restored to its former glory. In 2008, an early print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was discovered in Buenos Aires, allowing for several long-lost sequences to be reintegrated into the film. The result was a print that reconnected the narrative dots and gave audiences a fuller picture of the movie Lang intended to release before distributors cut it to shreds back in 1927. While there are other noteworthy classics still waiting for a similar chance at salvation – like say, Rupert Julian’s 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera, whose original ending remains lost – we can now cross one more off the list thanks to the efforts of Kurt Galvao. And boy it is a big one.
The original ending of the Frank Oz-directed musical comedy Little Shop of Horrors has become the stuff of legends: an elaborately choreographed disaster sequence in which massive alien plants destroy some of New York City’s greatest monuments with gleeful abandon. Mind you, test audiences back in the mid-80s cared little for Richard Conway’s startling visual effects and miniature work if it meant having to accept the deaths of the adorable lead characters, Seymour (Rick Moranis) and Audrey (Ellen Greene). So, Oz filmed a happy ending in which the plant was easily conquered, spliced it into the movie and sadly called Conway to say his year’s worth of work on the Finale Ultimo wouldn’t make it to theatres.
For years, fans wondered if the original footage could be restored. As Warner Bros. Pictures Vice President of Feature Post-Production Assets and Technology, it wasn’t technically Galvao’s job to find out, but he’s been getting to the bottom of such mysteries for years now. His adventures in film restoration have seen the creation of Superman II: The Donner Cut, Woodstock: 40th Anniversary Edition and Blade Runner: The Final Cut, which earned him a Jules Verne Artistic Achievement Award. Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut proved an especially unique challenge, however, since even Oz himself seemed certain that the footage was lost to time. At least, that’s what he claimed in interviews. To set the record straight on just what was involved in this project, Galvao took some time to speak with VFXWorld about how he brought the horror back to Little Shop.
VFXWorld: Tell us a little bit about your career. How did you find yourself at Warner Bros. restoring films and working on post-production?
Kurt Galvao: Well, that’s a long story. I came to Warner Bros. many years ago as a film editor in television and they’ve been great to me. They’ve allowed me to work in television (Scarecrow and Mrs. King, ‘87-88; China Beach, 1990) and work in post-production in theatrical as well (Troy, 2004; Blood Diamond, 2006). When they made me an offer to go corporate I couldn’t refuse. My primary job is theatrical post-production so I work on the current films that go out. The restoration part, I call it my hobby. I’m one of those: I’ve got my corporate hat I’ve got to wear and then I’ve got my creative side I need to feed and that’s what this does for me. I’m not a desk job kind of guy, so whenever Home Video asks me ‘what can you do with this?’, or ‘have you looked into that?’ I’m happy. And sometimes I find things and I’ll bring it to them and say ‘what do you think of this project?’ so thanks to them, it’s given me an outlet to continue to be creative.
VFXW: At what point did the studio decide it wanted to consider restoring Little Shop of Horrors? Was it after the 1998 DVD release – which included an unfinished work-print version of the original ending in black and white – was recalled and became an instant collector’s item? Was that what caused the studio to realize there was real interest in the lost footage?
KG: From what I learned, it was always of interest. Fans have always wanted it and it just could never see the light of day in the sense that there were costs involved and there were all kinds of different numbers tossed around. Even though I think everybody wanted it here (at Warner Home Video), it always got squashed. There were numbers tossed around that were crazy. When they asked me to look at it and see what we could realistically do to make it look pretty as can be, we were able to figure it out this time. I think they were other attempts in the past, but they just didn’t know where the elements were, so we gave it another stab.
VFXW: Did Warner Bros. know all along that they had color versions of the negatives tucked away?
KG: Nobody knew exactly who…see…what happened was…I mean, yes, they all thought or knew it had to be there. Frank Oz, of course, shot everything in color, so it had to be around…
VFXW: And Frank Oz thought it had to be around as well?
KG: It had to be there. What we wound up doing was searching out the color and lo and behold we started finding pieces. Part of the equation was that some of the visual effects, which at the time were all photochemical opticals, were partially built and put away thinking someday they’d use them again. And thank god they did put them away. Lots of times, unfinished work is dumped, especially back then. Nowadays, we don’t dump anything!
VFXW: Thank goodness!
KG: We were just fortunate. Some of it was really hard to find, but we just kept going through the negatives over and over. It was in places where it wasn’t supposed to be. Over the years, things get moved around. The industry used to store things in trim boxes, which are cardboard, and they start falling apart and labels fall off and it just makes it a real challenge.
VFXW: Was Frank involved from Day One?
KG: No. I didn’t have that luxury. We wanted to present it to Frank. We put it together the way we felt he left off. My team of twelve went through all the notes we could find. He knew broad strokes, like “this person was working on it and he was on this continent” but he wouldn’t exactly know where things were stored so we were looking at finding notes.
Near the end of the film, there’s a group of soldiers firing at Audrey II and one looks up and says “what the ____ !” and you don’t hear what he says, but you know what he says. Well, there were notes specific to that from Frank, saying: “do not use the language”. And then we also used information from his commentaries that he’d done before on earlier discs and VHS, for that matter. Really, the reason I didn’t have him involved in the beginning was that we had a big puzzle and I didn’t know that we could achieve it. We had parts coming in at the last moment, like the dance club scene. At one point I thought, “we’re screwed if we don’t find that piece” and at the 11th hour we found it.