Once a film is finished shooting, the post-production team begins to assemble most of the printed footage into what is often termed a “rough cut” to give them a better idea of the editing task that lies ahead. The next step is usually to create a “workprint”, which pares down the rough assembly a bit and adds in cards indicating missing scenes and special effects footage and utilizes a “temp track” of music taken from other films for the soundtrack. From there the director and their team really go to work to whip the film into its final shape as the time counts down to its premiere.
Workprints are occasionally shown at test screenings so that audience reactions to what has been assembled so far can be used by the studio to impact the final cut in ways that can sometimes be positive, but are more often that not detrimental to the vision of the filmmakers. Sometimes, in the case of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a workprint for a major Hollywood tentpole blockbuster wannabe gets leaked to the Internet days or weeks in advance of its theatrical release.
Even with the advancement of cutting edge home entertainment technology that allows deleted scenes to be included as extra features on DVDs and Blu-rays of the films they were cut from, these alternate cuts are highly sought out by collectors and hardcore film buffs for the footage they contain that has never been publicly released. You can typically find workprints for many a classic work of cinema hiding out on the web among the torrent sites and bootleg DVD retailers.
Every so often, a workprint manages to find its way onto a legitimate video release, such as the collector’s edition DVD and Blu-ray editions of Blade Runner. But most of the time you have to search high and low to find one that is snatched from the clutches of the studio that financed it, digitized, and set free for all eternity online. Case in point….the four-and-a-half workprint of This is Spinal Tap.
Few filmmakers make their directorial debut with a bonafide masterpiece, but that is exactly what Rob Reiner did when he made Spinal Tap. It was released to critical acclaim in 1984 and over the years became a highly quotable cult classic. There are good comedies, great comedies, and comedy classics. Spinal Tap is all three and then some. It was truly a collaborative effort between Reiner and his stars/co-writers Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, and Harry Shearer. The characters had been developed for years even before the film was made, and by the time cameras the actors were so ensconced with their respective creations that they were able to ad-lib most of their dialogue.
Comedies, especially ones that rely heavily on improvisation, are often the most difficult kinds of films to edit unless they are rigidly scripted and performed from the very beginning. The final running time of Spinal Tap is 82 minutes, but there was enough material resigned to the cutting room floor to make a pair of sequels. None of the deleted footage ever saw the light of day until the 1990’s when the Criterion Collection released Spinal Tap on a special edition laserdisc that included about an hour of outtakes among their generous selection of supplements. This material also made the cut when the laserdisc extras were ported over for the DVD edition, one of Criterion’s earliest on the format. Both the Criterion laserdisc and DVD releases of Spinal Tap went out of print and became collector’s items that fetched high prices on sites like Amazon and eBay.
When MGM unveiled a digitally-remastered edition of Spinal Tap on VHS and DVD in 2000, both versions featured cut scenes from the film as a bonus feature. The VHS edition only contained around ten minutes’ worth, but you could find over an hour on the DVD. The same outtakes ended up as special features on the subsequent Blu-ray edition. To this day, no home video release of Spinal Tap has included all three hours (and change) of the deleted, extended, and alternate scenes from the rarely-seen workprint, but you can find a few excerpts floating around the web somewhere (I’ve included a few uploaded to YouTube here below). You may even be able to find the whole bloody thing.
I’ve seen it and it’s a shapeless mass of celluloid that only resembles the legendary comedy at the rarest of moments. There are plenty of moments that work, scenes that go on far too long, and jokes that land with a deafening thud. But a workprint is always far different than the final product. Watching one such as the 4.5 hour Spinal Tap gives you an insight into how crucial the editing process is when it comes time to reach deep into a miasma of improvisational comedy and pull out a classic of the genre that anyone who sees it will quote to their grave.
Just think of the workprint as the film equivalent of “Jazz Odyssey”.
This is Spinal Tap is now available on Blu-ray from MGM Home Entertainment. Purchase your copy HERE.