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Story of Mozart returns to the big screen — through the eyes of the film’s director

by Peter Crimmins Special to the Daily Planet
Friday April 05, 2002

The advent of DVD technology for home theaters has made the concept of “director’s cut” nearly obsolete. With so much “alternative” footage and running commentary for most movies packed onto those little discs, there is very little thunder left to merit a theatrical re-release of a film. 

“Amadeus: The Director’s Cut” proves the exception, if only for the soundtrack. The return of the 1984 fictionalized account of the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which swept the Oscars by winning eight statuettes, delivers Mozart’s music sweetly, at times languid, at times bombastic. If you tell the projectionist not to be shy with the volume knob, the big theatrical sound comes close to doing justice to the genius at the center of the film. 

There are also 20 added minutes, bringing the running time up to just more than three hours, including one drawing room scene which had been completely excised from the original that featured some clever sound design: while attempting to audition as a potential tutor for the daughter of a rich dog-lover, Mozart’s harpsichord is drowned out by howling hounds. The baying dogs are as irritating to the audience as they would have been to Mozart’s ear. 

The scene is useful to illustrate Mozart’s underappreciated gift; a musical muse the film’s narrator, contemporaneous rival Antonio Salieri (Oscar recipient F. Murray Abraham) contemplates as a divine mystery. How could a merciful God speak through the music of a crass, vulgar young man like Mozart while leaving the chaste, petty, career-oriented Salieri with a desire to compose holiness that was far greater than his mediocre talents could produce? 

The soundtrack is not the only thing at play. It is reined in to support this central question of divine grace bestowed or eluded, and the hubris of a man cheated by God. The real Salieri may or may not have plotted to kill Mozart, as he reportedly ranted in his old age, but the facts and the rumors and the fictions assembled by playwright and screenwriter Sir Paul Shaffer make for a ripping good murder mystery backed with some tasty theological doubting. 

Now that we’ve been a lot of computer-generated bells and whistles in movies – meteors and dinosaurs, etc, that look impressive but nevertheless fake — “Amadeus” has a unique quality to the construction of its fiction: truth. From the buildings to the furniture to the wigs, “it was all authentic,” said the film’s producer Saul Zaentz, owner of the Saul Zaentz Film Center in West Berkeley. 

The film was principally shot in Czechoslovakia, where you can turn a camera 360 degrees and never leave the 18th century. Zaentz and director Milos Forman were also able to get the Tyl Theater as a shooting set, the oldest all-wood theater in Prague and a carefully preserved treasure. The performance of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” was shot there almost 300 years after Mozart himself conducted it’s premiere in the same theater. Czech firemen patrolling their national treasure nervously watched the film crew replace the electric chandeliers with 6,000 candles imported from Germany. 

“It’s always a search for the truth, if you can get it,” said Zaentz. “Pre-production is more important than post-production, and almost as important as shooting, when the actors come in and it’s better than they imagined.” 

Zaentz said he was under constant surveillance for three months in Czechoslovakia, and not for putting their Tyl in danger. “The government didn’t want us there because they thought we were spies,” he said.  

A man in a leather coat and leather hat “out of bad casting” was posted outside his rented apartment. It was hardly a secret. They waved to each other every morning. "The idea of a totalitarian government, either left of right, is to instill paranoia," reasoned Zaentz. He said they bugged his phone then later advised him what not to say to colleagues. 


Back in Berkeley, Zaentz owns the somewhat less grandiose Fantasy Building on 10th and Parker streets. Although the boxy, squat building boasting seven floors of 60’s tiered architecture does not inspire awe among passersby, inside is a filmmakers paradise. Affordable office space has been rented to an array of award-winning filmmakers and documentarians: currently Francis Reid and Deborah Hoffman ("Long Night’s Journey Into Day") and Gail Dolgin ("Daughter From Danang") are based there, among many others. The Alan Spelt sound mix theater on the third floor has attracted big Hollywood productions. 


Zaentz said he tried to build a film community inside his building, and often offers facilities and post-production staff for no charge to tight-budget tenants making promising films. "We get it back if they sell it," Zaentz said, applying a businessman’s acumen to the projects of shoestring filmmakers. "They always believe in it, but we have to believe in it, too." 


The facilities can be available to tenants if they are not being used for "cash projects," i.e. big-money film productions. Which is happening more often as directors and producers venture north from the Hollywood enclave. Many filmmakers, like Gus Van Zant and John Waters, are repeat customers. "They find they guys here more sympathetic," said Zaentz, "much more so than people in L.A."