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Bringing Horror back to 'Little Shop'

WB’s Kurt Galvao on the creation of The Director’s Cut decades in the making.

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.

Kurt Galvao, Warner Bros. Pictures Vice President of Feature Post-Production Assets and Technology

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.

An Audrey II offshoot goes clubbing. Except where otherwise noted, all images © 2012 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Image captures part of a larger set provided by Imgur.

VFXW:  Where was it hiding?

KG:  Oh, it was in the trims and it was mislabeled and we just kept opening all the boxes again.  I was telling the gang “look – it’s not where it’s supposed to be, but supposedly they didn’t throw anything out, so we have to just look everywhere.”  So we went methodically, frame by frame, in every roll, in every box, in every can and we did find it.  The idea to for me anyway was to present it to Frank and David (Geffen, Producer) and see if they liked it and were happy with it, and could we then say it’s final.

VFXW:  At what point in the process did you show the ending to Frank?

KG:  We’d scanned all the original negatives and all the opticals and then we started working on the visual effects that weren’t finished.  There was a guy running up his fire escape with a shot of the two monsters in the background going by laughing while he panics.  Well, that whole fire escape was kind-of transparent so we had to finish that off and things like that.  We did all that and then presented it to Frank in a way that was complete, but everything was in data form so at that point if he wanted to make changes, we still could.

VFXW:  These places where pieces of the film turned up in the UK and Kansas – they were all WB facilities?

KG:  Yes, here in our vaults.  Then in Kansas, there’s a vault that many studios store in, so we have our own vault in the facility there and we have vaults in another facility in the UK, so we searched through all three locations and picked up what we could from each place.  And it wasn’t just the picture: it was also sound.  We had to find the original recordings.  It wasn’t too bad but we had some damage in the tracks that we were able to repair.

Audrey (Ellen Greene) dies in the arms of her beloved Seymour (Rick Moranis).

VFXW:  I heard you had some issues with one of Ellen Greene’s recordings…

KG:  It’s the one where she’s dying…

VFXW:  In the alley?

KG:  Yes.  Her track had this distortion in it, and I don’t know if you know what sideband radio used to be – I’m dating myself – but her voice sounded like it had this additional distortion in it, like a radio that was changing frequency.  It was like “what the heck is that?”  Our sound department did a great job with filtering that out and bringing her voice back in, nice and clean.

Various Audrey II plants create chaos in the streets.

VFXW:  People have noticed that the rampaging Audrey IIs don’t sound like the late Levi Stubbs.  Was it ever an option to use old audio that was recorded during the course of the film so they could all sound like him?

KG:  Well, actually, we did!  We had that whole ending, the people screaming in the streets, the old couple in bed, the people in the disco, but we had none of those audio tracks, so we created them all.  But when it comes to Stubbs and his voice, I made sure when we had multiple monsters running through the streets that they didn’t all sound alike.  They’re all separate monsters.  So in some shots we used his laughter from other parts of the film, and then we added additional ones because again, there were multiple monsters.

VFXW:  That makes sense, since they’re different plants and offshoots of the original.  Regarding the club scene you mentioned earlier, would you have gone ahead with the release if you hadn’t found it, or delayed the release date so you could continue searching?

KG:  I have a feeling, though of course I’d want David and Frank’s blessing on it, but I guess we’d have had to put the Blu-Ray out without it.  You don’t want to hold it up because of one shot, but I felt that A) we had to stick to Gospel and B) people saw on YouTube, for example, some of this black and white footage.

To be truthful, there were multiple versions in black and white.  In other words, as the film was progressing, like any other movie, there were different versions.  I wanted to be sure that we’d use the definitive last version that they were looking at.  So we went through every black and white piece we could find and checked the dates to them, because they did preview screenings to see how it would do in front of an audience.  We made sure we went to the last version they were working on before they stopped going that direction and changed it to the happy ending.

Ronette (Michelle Weeks), Crystal (Tichina Arnold) and Chiffon (Tisha Campbell) warn of impending doom.

VFXW:  There are some minor differences between the footage on YouTube and this new restored ending.  For example, at the very start of the disaster sequence, you see the three-woman chorus in front of the American flag.  In the Blu-Ray version, they’re rising up on a platform in front of the flag and in the work-print, they’re already in front of it and walking towards the camera in-step.  Were there multiple takes you could choose from?

KG:  There were multiple takes and again, we tried to go to the last version they used.  In that particular case, the take that was in the black and white version we could not find, but we found the take that we used, which was in one of the other black and whites and worked just as well.  The performances were just as good and the tracks sounded great, so since it had been from one of the other cuts of the film and it was complete and clean, we didn’t see any reason not to use it.

VFXW:  How many different black and white versions were there of that original ending, because you said you found several…?

KG:  Oh my.  I don’t know how many there actually were, I can just tell you how many we found.  (Pauses)  We found four versions of different parts of the film.  Now, I don’t want any misconceptions that there are four versions of that ending!  When I say “four versions”, they would have cut the scene a little differently and then tried that in the mix.  Then the next go-around, they would change that scene a little bit but bring the first one back to the way they had it originally.  It’s that kind of scenario.  It’s not like we have four more versions of that ending waiting to be seen!

An Audrey II conquers Lady Liberty.

VFXW:  In the very last shot of the film, an Audrey II plant ascends the Statue of Liberty and wraps its roots around her head.  It’s a chilling climax and especially fantastic to behold in color.  I did notice, though, that in the Blu-Ray the shot seems to be a little shorter in length.  The words “The End” are overlaid rather quickly, whereas in the work-print the camera lingers for a while before cutting to “The End”.  Was there a need to trim that final shot down a bit for soundtrack reasons, perhaps?

KG:  If I remember correctly, I think that’s what it was, yeah.  Again you have to remember that the black and white dupe was a temp.  The track that everyone heard online was never finished or properly mixed.  I’ll give you an example: remember when Seymour confronts the plant and the plant decides to tell him who’s boss and busts out of his pot? Well, the effects in there originally had this little “dink, dink” sound.  He has these massive roots coming out and all you hear is this little “dink”!  So you have to keep that in perspective.  We had to massage it so it worked well with the music and sound effects and ultimately make it complete.

VFXW:  Which of those shots in the destruction sequence was the most difficult for you?

KG:  One was the one I mentioned, with the guy running up on the fire escape, because it kept disappearing in the shot and became almost translucent.  The other was when one of the monsters busts through the movie marquee.  If you look in the background you see a motorcycle that goes towards the left, just in front of the theatre.  There were wires and stuff, so we did wire removal, not that that’s so difficult, but then we added more dirt and texture and smoke to help that shot along, so those were the two challenging ones.  The other one that was kind of difficult was the monster on the Brooklyn Bridge.

VFXW:  That shot is especially compelling on the Blu-Ray because the black and white footage was simply too dark to really see what was happening.

KG:  In the screening we had in New York, people cheered at that one!  It was wonderful!  It felt so good!

Storybook images of the deleted “Meek Shall Inherit” fantasy sequence. Image © The Geffen Film Company.

VFXW:  There was one sequence cut from the film that some fans were hoping would make it onto this Blu-Ray.  It’s a fantasy sequence during the song “The Meek Shall Inherit” which features Seymour reconsidering his actions in an ethereal misty realm.  Did you ever come across that footage during your search, and was it ever hoped to include it on the Blu-Ray as a deleted scene?

KG:  No.  To be honest, not that it’s something that’s isn’t important, but my concentration was on finishing the film properly.  I’d love to dig into it and find that stuff.  Maybe we could add it in.  The next time we publish the disc, we’ll look into it.

VFXW:  Now that they can put alternate endings onto DVD or Blu-Ray, do you feel like studios are more willing to let the director’s vision come through and less likely to put a controversial ending in a box and store it for twenty years?

KG:  The answer is “yes” but I think you have to be careful.  You don’t want to take a piece of art and belabor scenes.  So the idea of just putting in more takes so you can see more coverage of an actor doesn’t make it better.  You have to be careful when you do these.  I know on a high profile film that people love, they want to see more and that’s all great and that keeps us going, but sometimes you don’t want to ruin a film by throwing in everything including the kitchen sink.  You have to be careful.  There’s got to be a balance.

VFXW:  Do you have a white whale you’d like to find?  Scenes from some film that you’d love to reconstruct at some point in the coming years?

KG:  I’m always just kind of searching.  What I’m working on now, I can’t really say what it is, but I’m always working on something or another and always looking in our vaults because there’s a treasure of stuff in here.  Just to give you an example, when it came to the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock, when we started looking into that, we found we had 15 hours of music in the vaults.  It’s that kind of stuff that I thrive on.  Sometimes, with some projects you hope there’ll be more and there isn’t.  Other times, it’s like “oh my god, we’ve got a bonanza here!”  So that’s kind-of how I operate on this.

VFXW:  So you’re working on other restorations at the moment?

KG:  Yup.  I’ve got a couple of things that we’re doing the initial analysis on that aren’t actual projects yet.  It’s analysis in the sense of “okay, what have we got, how can we use it and how do we bring it to light” and then we’ll come up with the actual plan and green-light it and so on.

VFXW:  Well, we’ll look forward to hearing about those.  Thank you for all the work you did on Little Shop!

KG:  Oh, I loved it.  I told Frank’s wife at our premiere, “don’t tell Frank, but I still get goose-bumps watching it.  He’ll think I’m sucking up.”

Little Shop of Horrors: The Director’s Cut is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.  Many thanks to Kurt Galvao, Ronnee Sass and the team at Warner Home Video.

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James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms.  His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.

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