Do you remember that first, disastrously awful Blu-ray edition of ‘The French Connection’? With a video transfer that completely changed the original photographic style of the movie and looked like garbage, yet was supposedly director approved, the disc was one of the most controversial releases on the high-def format. In new interviews, director William Friedkin claims that the problems with that disc were a manufacturing defect, that somebody at the studio screwed up, and that none of it was his fault. Can he be believed? Do I owe William Friedkin an apology?
For those who didn’t follow these developments the first time around, here’s a quick summary:
‘The French Connection’ was first released on Blu-ray in February of 2009 with what was reported to be the full participation and supervision of William Friedkin. For the video master, the director put the film through an elaborate digital overhaul that radically altered the photography to give the movie what Friedkin described as “pastel” colors. (Because the gritty realism of ‘The French Connection’ really calls out for a pastel color palette, right?) The exact process that the film underwent is described in the supplemental features in the 2-disc set. The results on Disc 1 looked terrible. The video suffered from jacked-up contrasts, smeary colors and a sickly purple tinge over almost everything. Character faces literally glowed. It was a cartoonish facsimile of the original film, and a downright travesty.
Many viewers were left aghast at what Friedkin had done to his own movie. Among them was ‘French Connection’ cinematographer Owen Roizman, who rightly described the disc as “atrocious.” This then led into a war of words between Friedkin and Roizman, in which Friedkin barely stopped short of calling his former colleague incompetent.
Some time after that, Friedkin and Roizman mended fences. They collaborated together on the Blu-ray edition of ‘The Exorcist‘, which looked fine despite Friedkin’s earlier proclamations that he intended to give that movie the “pastel” makeover as well. Then, in March of this year, 20th Century Fox released a brand new Blu-ray edition of ‘The French Connection’ with little fanfare as an exclusive to the Best Buy retail chain. The packaging on the Filmmakers Signature Series disc says that it has a “New High-Definition Master Supervised by Director William Friedkin and Cinematographer Own Roizman.” While the new transfer still has some of its own problems, it’s free of the “pastel” nonsense and is an improvement overall.
So, does this mean that Friedkin came to his senses, realized his error, and took action to rectify it with a re-release? Not exactly, according to the filmmaker.
In recent interviews to promote his new movie ‘Killer Joe’, Friedkin was asked about the ‘French Connection’ debacle. Here’s what he told The AV Club:
Oh, The French Connection Blu-ray, the master that we made was absolutely perfect. Then when Fox took it out to reproduce it, mass production, it goes through four different companies. It got screwed up badly, and I didn’t know that. I had only seen the master; I never saw any of the playback copies. And Owen Roizman, the cameraman, got a copy at Best Buy and said it looked like shit! He denounced it. I said, “What are you talking about?” He brought his copy in, and we ran it next to the master, and he was right. The prints were badly made. So we remade them, he and I supervised a new version of the Blu-ray, which went into a Best Buy exclusive, for I think six months, and then it’ll go broad—it’ll replace the other one. What I learned was that Fox, when they put that DVD out, there was a little warning inside the box that said, “This may not play well on your home receiver. If it doesn’t, write to w-w-w dot so-and-so, so-and-so. We’ll send you a disc that will make your own playback receiver compatible.” This was like a caveat emptor. And Roizman was right. The copies were all over the place. That’s not a perfect process, either. We made new ones that should be great, because we had a different company do the mass release. They’re at Best Buy, and when their exclusive expires, they’ll be everywhere.
Along similar lines, here’s what he said to Twitchfilm:
Q: Can you address the similar debacle with the French Connection Blu-Ray?
The original master that we made back then, what I saw, is perfect. I never saw any of the copies they made. The copies go through four different companies, making different stages of the disc.
Owen Roizman, the cameraman, bought a copy at Best Buy. He took his copy home and it looked like shit.
He went nuts, and he called me, and I said, “Hold on Owen, the master looks great”, and he said, “this copy is shit, Billy!”
He brought his copy into the video house where we made the masters, and we put them up side by side on monitors, and he was right, the master was great, the copies were grainy, and the colour wasn’t there, he was correct. We ran both the master and copy on different systems, and the copy was bad.
In fact, when they sold these copies, they put in the little leaf, inside the front cover, as a warning to buyers that you might find that this copy doesn’t play well on your home video receiver, so send us an email to www something, and we’ll send you a disc that will run through your playback device to make it compatible with this new technology.
And this was bullshit.
So, we made a brand new Blu-Ray of the French Connection, and I brought Owen in with me. As far as we know, the copies they made, from one house now, by a different manufacturer are fine. And those are signature copies, it has my signature on the front cover of the film.
The other copies are shit!
I can’t look at every damn copy they make, it just so happened that the cameraman bought one, and it was terrible, and it’s his work, and he was right!
Q: One thing that came out of this were those arguing about whether it’s your right for the film to look the way the director wants it to look, even if it diverges substantially from the original intent of the first release.
The choice of the colour and the density is mine, but the point of it is, all I was ever trying to do was make it look what it looked like when I looked through the viewfinder. I wasn’t trying to change anything!
Now, you have to adapt to the new technology, if there’s scenes in black or darkness, you have to make them blacker in a video procedure, it’s not the same as printing 35mm. The difference was not to change the look, it was to revive the look to what it first looked like when we printed it.
I supervised all the prints when they went out originally. I never thought I had to supervise copies of a digital master, and yes you do! So I hopefully will never make that mistake again. So, it was a series of errors, that I know hurt the film on digital. But, I felt that the cameraman was right – he had been long retired, I didn’t even contact him to look at the master, I simply told him, you know, all I plan to do is make it look like when we first saw it, and he said, “great!”
He came in and looked at the master, and said, “Great, the master’s wonderful!” So I brought him in on both Exorcist and French Connection while we were colour timing them.
If Friedkin is to be believed, all he ever wanted was to make the Blu-ray look true to the original photography, and it’s not his fault that somebody else messed up the digital copies after he finished his perfectly-faithful master.
This immediately set off my BS detector. The problem with Friedkin’s story is that, in the “Color Timing” featurette on the original Blu-ray (conveniently omitted from the re-release), Friedkin himself described in detail how he extensively manipulated the movie’s transfer to give it the so-called “pastel” appearance, which he felt looked better than the original photography.
You see, Friedkin decided that he wanted to make ‘The French Connection’ look like John Huston’s 1956 movie adaptation of ‘Moby Dick’, which was shot in Technicolor and processed in a unique manner that separated the black & white image layer from the colors and then recombined them later. This had the effect of making the film look like black & white photography that had been colorized after the fact. Friedkin fell in love with the style and decided (38 years after completing the movie) that he wanted ‘The French Connection’ to look that way too.
So, that’s just what he did to ‘The French Connection’. He had the entire color palette of the film digitally stripped away, which left him with black & white image. He then took the color layer, oversaturated it, defocused it, and bled it back in on top of the black & white layer.
In the featurette, Friedkin sits down with his colorist in the studio where they performed the work, and compares the raw film scan to the processed version. Friedkin complains that the colors in the raw scan are too vivid for the gritty tone he wanted, and almost make the movie look like some 1950s musical. He says that he prefers the processed version because it’s more “subtle.”
The featurette has several clips from the movie on which Friedkin and the colorist demonstrate before-and-after comparisons. While writing this blog post, I took a closer look at those clips and then compared them against the movie proper on Disc 1. Surprisingly, I found that Friedkin is correct that the movie on Disc 1 doesn’t look exactly the same as the clips in the featurette. One of the (many) problems with the movie’s transfer is that it suffers from boosted contrast levels that crush detail in both bright and dark parts of the picture. For example, in the scene approximately an hour into the film when the villain Charnier goes to Washington D.C., the whites of Capitol building in the background behind him are severely blown out. The same clip in the featurette doesn’t look nearly as bad.
At this point, I might believe that something may have happened in between the time that Friedkin completed his master and the studio’s disc authoring that caused the final product to differ from what Friedkin wanted.
However, contrasts are still a little elevated in the featurette clips, and characters’ flesh tones have an odd and unnatural glow. The colors are also weirdly skewed in that “pastel” way that Friedkin likes.
Where Friedkin’s story really breaks down is the appearance of the later Filmmakers Signature Series disc, which is the allegedly “corrected” product that brings the movie back in line with what the director always wanted. That disc looks nothing like the “pastel” version that Friedkin demonstrated in the featurette. In fact, it looks very close to the raw film scan without any processing. Contrasts are toned down, with much more detail in the Capitol building than either previous example. The colors are also a little oversaturated, which is precisely what Friedkin said that he didn’t want. The Signature Series disc has clearly not gone through the “pastel” processing at all.
So, what really happened here? This seems to me to be a situation where everyone screwed up the first time around. First, William Friedkin devised the ridiculous “pastel” scheme, and then the later contrast boost only exacerbated the problem. But make no mistake, the transfer was already flawed at the time of Friedkin’s involvement. His recent comments strike me as an attempt to pass the blame without admitting his own culpability in the matter.
Sadly, we still don’t have a truly definitive version of ‘The French Connection’. The first Blu-ray release is nearly unwatchable. The remaster brings the quality up to the level of mediocre, yet suffers its own share of issues (including the oversaturated colors and a teal push). After two attempts, I doubt that the studio will try again on Blu-ray. Maybe, if we’re lucky, the film will require yet another master for some future 4k format, and hopefully someone will get it right at that time.