Striking Gold

When I found out last year that we’d be working on Days of Heaven, I got goose bumps. It’s always been one of my favorite films, and I had wished it could be in the Criterion Collection ever since I started here twelve years ago—that and Sixteen Candles (I’m very diverse). Paramount titles were always off-limits to us, until last year, and when we put it on our wish list to them, I thought they’d never say yes. But they did.

Fast-forward to a year later, and I began work on Days by evaluating Paramount’s existing film and video materials. The transfer used to make the previous DVD was good, but it was almost ten years old and could stand to be improved. The studio had two interpositives (the second-generation film element made from the original negative, and the film most often used for a transfer, since it’s a protection of the original and has timing lights), but after a critical evaluation of them, we noticed they had some problems. The original IP was gorgeous, but it had these chemical stains on the left side of the frame that would creep into the picture as the film reels advanced. It was incredibly distracting in an otherwise perfect image. The second IP, made in the nineties, was awful; it had no life in it, and was soft and muddy.

Man, was I depressed. I called Terrence Malick and told him of my evaluation. We discussed that we’d most likely have to transfer the original IP, but that I was going to try to get Paramount to make a new one. Much to my surprise, they agreed, and Criterion and Paramount chipped in to fund a new restored positive at Triage Laboratory in L.A. Paramount’s chief film archivist, Barry Allen, supervised the new film element and was as excited as I was about the project. As we kept moving forward I began to realize how many people just love Days of Heaven. When folks would ask me what I was working on lately, and I told them it was Days, they would light up.

I called Terry to tell him about the new IP with Paramount, and he was really happy to hear the news. He knew that the film needed this, so this was exactly what he wanted to hear. Six weeks later, the IP would be finished, and we’d start the new transfer. At first Terry said to simply match the existing transfer because he’d always liked it. I pleaded with him that this new transfer would be the definitive one and that it was really important to have him in the room with us when we color corrected it. He finally agreed, and a date was chosen to do the work in L.A.

I had just finished working in New York with legendary cinematographer John Bailey on Paul Schrader’s film Mishima, so John and I spoke a lot about Days of Heaven. I hadn’t realized that he was the camera operator on the film and had worked closely with Nestor Almendros on the photography. John said that he would really like to be in on the transfer of Days, since he would have a lot to add. I mentioned it to Terry, and he ultimately liked the idea. It would be Terry, John, editor Billy Weber, myself, and my mentor, Maria Palazzola, overseeing the work. Behind the wheel was Criterion’s favorite colorist, Gregg Garvin, manning the color corrector. This really was a dream team.

When Terry initially came into the room, we had done a general color correction pass on most of the film, using the old transfer as a guide. Before he arrived, I wasn’t sure how hands-on he was going to be with the color. As soon as he sat down, though, Terry made it clear that the new transfer needed to feel natural and not too “postcardlike.” We weren’t allowed to use words like golden or warm. The natural beauty of the land needed to be represented, since that was what they were going for when shooting. When we first started to take out the gold and the warmth, it was heading toward a really different place from the previous transfer. Not bad, mind you, just different and definitely more natural. I would sometimes joke in the room that such and such a shot was pretty, and then I would say to Terry, “But not too pretty!” We’d all laugh. DVD producer Kim Hendrickson was also with us one afternoon, and when she started to say out loud how pretty it was, we all turned in our chairs to cut her off and simultaneously say, “Shhh!” After three days of Terry, Billy, and John’s expertise, we were finished. It looked beautiful, but boy, was it different. I told Terry that people were really going to be pretty surprised by this new transfer, since it was such a radical departure from before, but he said it was perfect.

Back at Criterion a couple of weeks later, our New York crew went to work on the restoration. I came into the room where Betsy Heistand was cleaning up some damaged frames, and I said, “So, what do you think?” She said, “It’s beautiful.” I had to see it again for myself to make sure we really did everything right, since I was still a bit nervous about how different it was from the old transfer (especially with DVD Beaver around!). I sat down in our QC room, turned off the lights, and watched the entire film on our great 24-inch Sony Pro-monitor. Betsy was right: it was beautiful. Days of Heaven finally looked the way it should, and I got goose bumps once again.

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