Travels ‘Round Cozart

James Cozart (1940-2017) Photo stolen from Larry Smith

Many of you know that James Cozart passed away on March 25.  I can’t say that I knew him well.  I can say that I knew him, and that he was one of the most fascinating people I have ever come across.  James knew more about film than anyone I ever met.  He knew more in his little finger about film than I know in my whole body.  And he was wonderful in putting it together into a whole picture.  He knew different film stocks, different color processes, different sound recording techniques, even the way different studios sounded internally.

But James wasn’t wired the same way most of us are.  If you want the classic absent-minded professor, it was James.  Not that he was senile or anything, far from that.  But he was focused so much on his work that he sometimes would miss the big picture.  He would tell me things that I found hilarious, and I would laugh, and he would look at me, not understanding what was funny.  If you had a problem with a film that he could help with, then he was so dedicated, so giving, that he would sometimes work on things to the detriment of his personal life.  I know this because I caused some of these to happen, so I became careful when I asked him questions.

I can’t really spin a good narrative about James.  I miss him a lot, and was saving some questions for him for Columbus Cinevent.  What I can do is give you some of my favorite Cozart stories in a non-linear fashion.  It’s not the best way to do this, but it’s the only way I can.

For those of you who don’t know, James was a fixture at the Library of Congress since at least the mid-70s.  I don’t really know when he started.  (Update: Cynthia tells me that he started in 1984.  Shows what I know.)  He was always in charge of quality control at the labs, making sure that what came out looked good, and he was picky about it.  We all have him to thank for that.  He worked on literally hundreds of films, but because he worked at an archive, he didn’t take credit for his work.  It’s very possible that no other person ever worked on restoring as many films as James has.  Let that sink in for a moment.

***

I was at the Cinecon in 1995 sitting next to Ted Larson (now also sadly deceased), and we were listening to Sylvia Sidney have an attitude attack about her career.  She’d written off the whole group, because someone who made up the program book listed her as Silvia Sydney, prompting her response “I’m not even here!”  She was further upset that they wouldn’t let her smoke in the theater at UCLA, because it was a nitrate screening.  “Nitrate, schmitrate,” she yelled, as they started her film, Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936).

Years later, I was discussing with James the change in carbon arc projection that occurred in 1940 or so, and how Technicolor changed the balance of the colors to accommodate the change in the color of the carbon arc.  James said that the early prints would look yellowish today to balance the older bluer arcs.  I mentioned the screening of Lonesome Pine (I hadn’t even been aware that Cozart was there, but he was.)  I said that this print didn’t look yellow to me, at which point James politely interrupted me.

“That wasn’t a 1936 print.  That had a Realart logo on the front of it, which would have made it a 1948 reissue print.  Still nitrate, but balanced for the newer arcs.”

“James, you remember a screening from 15 years ago with a logo that couldn’t have been on screen for more than 5 seconds.”

He looked at me, surprised, and said, “Well, yeah!”

***

I was discussing with him the ways he’d spliced zillions of films over the years.  Jokingly, I told him, “James Cozart is the kind of guy who doesn’t know where his own shoes are, but if you asked him where he spliced a film 20 years ago, he could tell you within 10 feet.” 

He looked at me seriously, and said, “No, I think within 5 feet.”

Later on, when one of his co-workers found me alone, she laughed and told me confidentially that James occasionally came in with mismatched shoes.  I’d had no idea that was true.

***

Back in the early 90s, one of my first encounters with James was when he put out an APB for flickery old silent films.  He described the special kind of flicker, saying it was Kinemacolor.  I remembered that I had some of it in an old Castle newsreel.  I sent it to him so that the Library could copy it.

He wrote me back, saying that this was Kinemacolor, but he remembered seeing the footage before.  He thought it was in an old Warners newsreel.

After months, he found the newsreel and printed that instead.  He restored the color to it and showed it at the next Cinesation.

I asked him if I could get a print of the material.  He told me it was impossible.  I reminded him that I’d helped, and that I’d be happy to pay for the print.  He then went on to explain archive procedure, and I learned a lesson then: too much red tape for me.  That’s why I don’t work at an archive.

But remember this. It will come back again…

***

A few years ago in Rome, NY, I was discussing with James some of the films he’d brought.  He then started to describe this rare nitrate that the library had been given, which he was inspecting.

He had, just a couple of nights before, been locked into the building in Culpeper, VA.  The Library of Congress has a strict security procedure and they close the doors, shut out the lights, and turn off the elevators at a certain time.

James had been in his office inspecting this print, which he’d gotten at 2pm, and then at 8pm (which was at least 2 hours after closing), they’d shut off all the lights.

He had to call security and tell them that he was still there, so he could get out.

I laughed, and he looked at me again, with one of those looks that meant he didn’t understand why this was funny.

“You didn’t eat, drink, go to the bathroom, call anyone, or even look out into the hall for six hours, because you were looking at that film,” I said.

“Well, no.”

“And you don’t understand why that’s funny?”

***

We were in Osgood Indiana seeing a theater called the Damm Theater, which was really its name.  This was a treasure trove of wonderful stuff, and it was when the Library archives were still in Dayton Ohio.  The family that owned the theater, the Damms, had never thrown anything away, and so the place was full of antiques.

I contacted James and said that he needed to see this place.  Osgood isn’t that far from Dayton, so he agreed to come and spend the day.

James identified pieces of projectors, Vitaphone disc players, and glass slides, all stuff that even I didn’t recognize.  We had dinner with the Damms and we all seemed to enjoy ourselves.

The owner, Bob Damm, had some health issues, and he died a few years later.  It was after the Library had moved to Culpeper.  I spoke with his widow, and by happenstance, the next day, we met James in New York.

We’d just attended a screening of a print of Starevitch’s The Mascot and I’d noticed that the Library of Congress print had some footage in it that my print didn’t have… but my print had some footage in it that theirs didn’t have, too!

I mentioned this to James, and he started to ask me some questions about the film.

Before I got started, I told him about Bob Damm.  Yes, he remembered, and there was a cursory, oh, sorry.

“But tell me about the soundtrack of your print… is it English or French?”

That would have offended a lot of people.  They would consider it mean and inconsiderate.  But I smiled.  It was just James.  That’s just how he was.  He was seeking out material for a restoration!  James couldn’t be mean if he tried.  It just wasn’t in him.

***

We were in the parking lot with James’ wife Cynthia a couple of years ago and she told us that it was their 40th anniversary.  James was a few feet ahead enthusiastically carrying a DVD player he’d found.

I scooted up and congratulated James.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, “But did I tell you about this DVD player?  It plays all the regions, and breaks out the copy guard, and you can directly access the MPEG layers on it.”

If I’d been Cynthia, I’d have smacked him.  But she understood better than I did.  I looked at her and smiled.  She shrugged knowingly.

***

James was a supporter of a television museum in Ohio.  I’ve never been to it, and I’m not even sure which one it is, but he would restore TVs and donate them to the museum.  One year at the Columbus Cinevent (it was the last year they had it in this hotel, so it would have been 2014), someone broke into James‘ car.  By this time, the hotel was getting to be in a rather poor neighborhood and several people had cars that were vandalized.

James told me that they’d broken the front window and stolen his cell phone.  But he was confused, because there was a fully restored 1949 television in the back seat worth $3000 that they just left.

I mentioned that this TV was probably 80 pounds and more than they wanted to carry.

“Yes, but the cell phone didn’t even have the charger with it. I can’t find the charger.  How much good can they get out of that?”

I didn’t think much of it until the next day.  He came up to me and said, “I found the charger.  It was in my suitcase, inside my shoe!”

Glory burst out laughing.  He didn’t understand why.

***

Remember that story about the Kinemacolor?  Well in the ensuing years, I have become a rambling film historian, and I do a show on old color processes in films.

I decided that I was going to FINALLY get a print of that Kinemacolor footage even if I had to do it myself.  So I did it myself.  There’s an amazing amount of documentation online, so I ordered a scan of my old Castle newsreel and went into Photoshop to recreate this effect manually, in preparation for putting this back onto film.

But it didn’t work.  It looked funny and yellow.  I couldn’t understand it.

I emailed James and told him what I was doing.  Probably three lines in an email, just asking what was wrong.

The next day, I got a seven-page letter back.  He explained that Kinemacolor was shot with different filter than they used to play it back, so if I simply changed the filter color then it would all work out, which it did.

But it took seven pages of detailed documentation to tell me this.  By the way, it was terribly interesting and very pertinent, but seven pages?  That was James.  He had to be complete.

***

I did a restoration on King of the Kongo, and I’d consulted with James a little on it.  This was before the days when we had all the tools like DropBox that we have now.

I uploaded the huge file to one of my servers, but Earthlink kept slowing it down due to traffic.  Eventually, it would time out and you couldn’t get to it at all.

He emailed me and said that he’d figured out their throttling algorithm, and that if he’d get up at 3am, it wouldn’t slow down until 6 and he could get it.

I told him to wait on it.

“Why?” he asked.

“James, it’s Christmas Eve,” I said.  “Spend some time doing something else.”

***

We did a screening of Kongo at Syracuse Cinefest, and I knew James would have something to say. Nothing about the film, nothing about the sound I’d worked on, only this:

“I saw that before on the computer, but when I saw it on the big screen, I noticed that the white areas had halos around them.  Who did that scan for you?  They didn’t use enough bit depth.”

It was the last time I used that company for scanning.  He was right.

***

I mentioned Leni Riefenstahl to James one time, and he told me that he’d spoken with her.

“Yes, I threw out some film she made.”

“Why?”

“I was working at a lab and she’d had the film developed, but she never paid for it and never printed it, so we sent her a letter, and she didn’t respond, so we threw it out.”

“Wow!”

“She called and started yelling at me in broken English, and I told her it was lab policy.  I just handed the phone to my boss.  I didn’t want to listen to that.”

***

The topic of Astoria (NY) studios came up once (I’m not sure why), and he perked up and said, “You can always tell a movie that’s shot there, because the sound is bad.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the ceiling is some sort of glass vaulted dome and it reflects the sound back downward, so there’s a bad echo in it.  You can always hear it when you’re watching a movie.”

“I’ve noticed the films there don’t sound that great, but I thought it was because of the early sound process.”

“No.  When I was with the military in the late 50s, I helped design a sound baffle in there so we could shoot in that studio and make the sound come out right.  I think they took it down later.”

***

James famously never knew if a film was any good.  He only knew if it was rare and he knew if the print quality was good.  He couldn’t identify the actors in the films by seeing them.  He told me that he didn’t register faces well.  If it was really a terrible movie, then he’d know how bad it was, because the actors weren’t good, but sometimes a great movie went past him.

Ultimately, I realized that he wasn’t seeing the same film the rest of us saw.  He saw a collection of actors, frames, effects, gamma changes, and little flaws that may or may not have been fixed.  And that was OK, because he enjoyed that.  He could tell you what sort of film stock was used in the original, what lab was used, etc, etc.  He knew all of it.

He told me once about Victory (1918) that had a scene in it with Lon Chaney falling off a ledge.  He said that in the nitrate, if you looked really closely, there was a thin wire on Chaney’s ankle that stopped his fall before he broke his neck (there’s a similar scene in Chaney’s West of Zanzibar.)  James then told me that this was un-seeable on the DVD issue because they had duplicated the nitrate poorly.

The catch?  He couldn’t even remember that it was Chaney in this scene, so he referred to him as “the actor.”

While we’re on the topic of Chaney pictures, he was watching The Scarlet Car (1917) and there’s a scene in it that has the headlights of a car in a key scene.

James was really interested in this since he knew that the color of headlights in those days wouldn’t register on the sort of film they had in 1917.  So he watched the nitrate over and over to figure it out.  Finally he noticed the lights flickered a bit.  AHA, he thought!  AC wiring.  He looked, and you could just barely see the long extension cords being run to power the headlights so that they showed up in the film.

***

James usually rented a van to drive up to Capitolfest in Rome NY, so he could save shipping expenses on the films.  They are in big, sturdy cans, and not a lot is going to hurt them. Anyone else would just have thrown the films in the back of the van and moved on.

Not James.  I helped him pack the films in the van a few times, and he always put the films in the seats and fastened seat belts around each can.

***

I’d visited Bruce Lawton’s grandfather in 2004, and he had a print of Baron Munchausen that we watched.  It broke in one section, and Bruce’s grandfather just took out the frames and handed them to me.

A few days later I visited Rome NY for the first time at the Capitolfest, and James was there.  I handed him the frames without saying anything.

“Agfacolor from the 1940s!” he exclaimed.  “But wait, this base isn’t triacetate, and it’s not nitrate either.  I need to take this to the lab and examine it.”

I never did find out if he figured out what it was.

***

You’d think that James only understood film, but he was a technology master.  He worked on lawn mowers, television sets, cobbled together computers from pieces, and understood and used digital restoration technology.

I hate to imagine all the parts he’s left behind.

Five Questions with Lassie Lou Ahern

From Little Mickey Grogan. L to R: Frankie Darro, Lassie Lou Ahern, Jobyna Ralston
From Little Mickey Grogan. L to R: Frankie Darro, Lassie Lou Ahern, Jobyna Ralston

Along with Baby Peggy (Diana Serra Cary), Lassie Lou Ahern is the last living silent film star.  Let that soak in.  We have only two left.  It’s also why we were so excited to find another of her films in France (Little Mickey Grogan.)

For those of you motivated now, have a look at Jeff Crouse’s GoFundMe project to restore Little Mickey Grogan ( https://www.gofundme.com/2fpwc9w ).  Lassie Lou has seen a quick copy of it, still very rough with French titles, and she’s helping Jeff restore it.  (Full disclosure: yours truly is involved in this project!  I’ll be helping with the restoration, and I’ve researched Meehan and the Stratton-Porter films for years!)

There are still enduring mysteries in the study of film history.  One of them is this: When Gene Stratton-Porter died, her son-in-law, James Leo Meehan, continued making movies based on Stratton-Porter’s books.  She had been a pioneering woman in cinema.

But Stratton-Porter’s daughter, Jeannette (also Meehan’s wife), was instrumental in keeping her mother’s legacy alive.  She worked on all of the films, either as an advisor or scenarist.  When Little Mickey Grogan was made, it was a departure: Meehan made the film, released through the FBO exchanges, just like Stratton-Porter’s films had been, but it was not based on one of her books.

So the question arises, “Was Jeannette a part of Little Mickey Grogan?”  There’s no evidence she was, but there’s no evidence that she wasn’t either.  We’re not even completely sure that Meehan just didn’t make this film as a one-off on for his contract with FBO.  There’s some evidence that Meehan signed a separate contract at FBO, but then he also continued directing films for Stratton-Porter’s company after this.

We also know that a lot of the technical people, including scenarist Dorothy Yost, worked on both Little Mickey Grogan and the Gene Stratton-Porter films.  It’s Meehan’s only extant silent!

Why is this so important?  Well, it’s part of the history of women producers in film, and it’s a part of FBO history, which we just don’t know a lot about (FBO’s film survival rate is less than stellar… probably the worst studio of them all.)

So when I got a chance to interview (through courtesy of Jeff Crouse) Lassie Lou Ahern, you can bet what my first question was…

But Lassie Lou also worked with Charley Chase on one of his most beloved shorts, and with legendary schlock-meister JP McGowan, all people we read about but have no first-hand accounts to discuss.

I didn’t want to bug her for the customary 10 questions (after all, she is 96!) but we did do five…

1) Did you ever meet Jeannette Porter Meehan, the wife of director James Leo Meehan? Do you have any memories of her? There’s an open question about whether she worked at all on Little Mickey Grogan.

No, unfortunately, I don’t recall her. I was too busy palling around a lot with Frankie [Darro] on the set with us enjoying [walking] stilts made by the crew!

2) On Webs of Steel, you worked with serial and western king J. P. McGowan. He made hundreds of pictures, very cheaply. Do you remember anything about him?

My biggest conversation with McGowan happened when he explained to me the scene in Webs of Steel where I’m on the railroad tracks and how men on the front of the cowcatcher would rescue me before the train ran me over! When I asked how he knew it would stop in time, I could see him repress a smile while assuring me that everything would be fine. We really talked about this scene. I remember him being a nice man. I worked with another director named McGowan, but his first name was Robert. Robert McGowan directed most of the Our Gang films of the 1920s and was a fixture at Hal Roach.

3) Little Mickey Grogan was your last movie until the 40s, and even then you were hardly 20. Was there a reason you retired and then came back?

I retired after Little Mickey Grogan because my father thought that with the coming of sound, movies were becoming more violent. He wanted my sister Peggy and I out. I had studied dance under Ernest Belcher, the father of Marge Champion. My dad opened his own dance studio and in time Peggy and I toured the country and the world with our dance and acrobatic shows. By the end of the 1930s, we both got married. Yet once Peggy married, she was no longer interested in performing. However I married a musician, Johnny Brent, who, after our being married in New Orleans, went back to California and joined the hard-to-get-into Los Angeles Musicians Union. There he played in the big studio orchestras. Meanwhile, I had our two small boys. I told Johnny that I wanted to return to performing, and after my boys were born, I went on to work in early Donald 0’Connor musicals at MGM like Mister Big (1943) and Top Man (1945). He was my favorite co-star of them all. I also had a small scene with Joseph Cotton in Gaslight (1944) where I was a stand in. Decades later, in the 1970s, I met a wonderful casting director from Paramount whom I met while working at a health spa outside of San Diego. She adored me. From her I got several TV roles, including small parts in Love, American Style, The Odd Couple, and other shows.

4) Have you seen His Wooden Wedding recently? It’s now considered one of Charley Chase’s better films. What did you think of it?

I have a copy of the film. I remember going to the set feeling rather ashamed because I didn’t have any lines. Instead it was a brief walk-on. I remember wardrobe lifting my dress to strap my lower leg to the back of my upper leg, above the knee, while affixing the wooden peg, all to give the impression that I had a wooden leg. Because they weren’t able to take the artificial leg off and on so easily, I had to wear it all day. (Laughing) Not fun!

5) I know you’ve seen Little Mickey Grogan recently. You worked at a lot of small studios that didn’t save their films. Is there a particular film you’ve not seen that you’re still hoping to find?

There are two films I’m hoping to find. The first is The Forbidden Woman (1927). In it I play an Arab girl, and it starred Jetta Goudal and Joseph Schildkraut. I remember there’s a scene of me laying on a couch, but I could have had more [scenes] in it — I don’t recall. The biggest memory I have of The Forbidden Woman, however, is the wrap-up party — which, because of the drinking, I usually didn’t attend. (I was only six or seven years old.) But Schildkraut approached my dad on the last day of filming to ask if I’d especially attend. He said yes. After I got there, Schildkraut got the room quiet and made an announcement. I remember him first giving me a loving look, and then saying aloud to me and everyone, “Here’s to Lassie Lou, the loveliest actress I ever worked with.” I thought that was so sweet. It makes me really wonder if I only had a single scene in that film to get that kind of response!! Thinking about that reaction makes me curious to find out.The other film I want to see is the Ronald Colman film, The Dark Angel (1925), where I played a flower girl.

Editor’s note: (Thanks to Jeff Crouse) Lassie also appeared in John Ford’s 1925 lost film, Thank You, a Norma Shearer comedy, Excuse Me (1925), and a Leatrice Joy film, Hell’s Highroad (1925).

10 Questions with TONICK

I can’t remember when I first met Nick and Toni. It was in the far dim days of the past. I was aware of them for a long time before they actually spoke much with me. Film conventions aren’t the most social of gatherings, and the people who attend them are often not particularly social themselves. We’re not there to talk and schmooze. We’re there to see as many rare films as we can.

But Nick and Toni were always at these conventions, bubbly with enthusiasm. Eventually they told me about their documentary project. Several people told me that they were reluctant to talk to me because I seemed unapproachable! (I have to admit that this was partly the genesis of the Dr. Film character, because it was at that time I realized that I just come across as pompous and condescending, regardless of my intent, so I wrote the Dr. Film character knowing full well that I could play that!)

Their energy and enthusiasm for this project has continued unabated for years. They always have had some sense that it will be finished and it will get the word out. It’s a quality I admire in them, because it’s easy in this business to be told that your pet projects are worthless and to give up on them. They never have.

(I must also add, parenthetically, that I have seen their poster with me in it I was never that buff ever, so it is rather embarrassing.  I have been known to get stuff out of the trash on occasion, though, so it is fair, I guess…)

Now, after a zillion years of working on this, they’re out of time and money, so they are turning to crowdfunding for cash to finish this. I completely support this (yeah, like why wouldn’t I?), so this is my contribution to the cause: getting the word out.

Nick and Toni on set in Chicago (photo by Dana Lyons Photography)
Nick and Toni on set in Chicago (photo by Dana Lyons Photography)

Q1: You two are not going to be familiar to a lot of readers here. Can you each give me a brief bio of who you are and what you do?

Wow Eric, first of all, thanks for having us on your blog!

T: I’m Toni Carey (Antonia G. Carey).

N: And I’m Nick Palazzo.

T: We go by TONICK (long O sound) because Nick noticed when we were dating that our names fit together and that’s just sort of a quick shorthand name for us so we’ve used it ever since. Like most of your readers, we’ve been classic film fans since we were kids. (This was, of course, when Fred Flintstone was young and people hadn’t even heard of videotape. You watched what was on one of the 5 or 6 television channels and that was your world.)

N: As kids we’d wait for the Sunday paper to grab the TV guide so we could plan our lives for the week around watching films on tv. As we got older, we both developed a love for foreign films as well.   Toni’s mom worked nights but would let her stay home from school to watch classics like Black Orpheus or The Red Shoes on tv (as long as she maintained a B average in school). Her dad would let her stay up nights and watch classic film and taught her the difference between Ward Bond and James Bond.

T: Yeah, it would be decades before I’d realize that Dad’s home life was pretty rough and that he was actually raised by Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry because his parents would send him to the movies on Saturday mornings. Could you imagine sending your kids to the movies today and letting them be raised by the characters on screen now?

N: I’m first generation Italian-American so I was immediately drawn to films by Fellini, and Pasolini before branching out into Italian Neo-Realism.

When we were in our early 20s, (and single), we’d go to Facets Multimedia’s, a 60 seat theater in Chicago during the Christmas holidays where they’d screen Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise annually.  And after we met, and shared our love of movies, we discovered that we were going alone and sitting in that little theater together, but didn’t know it!

Toni: Coming from working class families, our folks couldn’t really afford college much less film school so we both worked office jobs during the day and once we got together and talked about our dreams of making films, decided to do whatever we could to learn how to make film.

Nick: Toni had done some acting over the years and got cast in a student film at Columbia College here in Chicago. She explained she was really interested in working behind the camera. They said they needed her to act and she bartered a deal where we would trade our skills (acting and being a set Production Assistant) in exchange for second hand film lessons from the students. We worked on a lot of student films!

Toni: They were good kids and taught us how to read light meters, change film and some basic lighting. When we got into writing screenplays, Nick’s background as a creative writer and an award-winning poet really helped. Eventually we sold our first screenplay.

Nick: We tried learning wherever we could. We took classes from different places including Chicago Filmmakers where we had a teacher, an Editor for Lucasfilm named Kate MacDonald, who saw how hard-core we were and offered us a gig apprenticing on a film she was working on. It was called Amerikan Passport directed by Reed Padget, a kid who had taken his film school money and traveled the world doing a documentary with it. It actually won best Documentary at Slamdance in 1999.

Toni: Of course at the same time we were shooting little films and entering them in different festivals. Always trying to emulate great filmmakers like Jean Cocteau or even the silent films.

Q2: Tell us about the documentary you’re making.  

It’s called Reel Heroes. But once upon a time, it was called Great Lovers of the Silver Screen. We thought that title was too flowery. (“Actually Nick did,” says Toni) And we didn’t want people in line at the film box office to say that long title.

pic2
The Old Working Title for Reel Heroes – a bit of a mouthful

We called it that because it’s about a group of underground film collectors and preservationists working outside the system, to save and share whatever films they can get their hands on. We’re trying to show how heroic they are, especially considering that they’re supporting themselves with day jobs, or whatever funding they can acquire.

Having become a video collector back in its infancy (paying $80, I remember for a really terrible video copy of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bette), we discovered a publication called “Big Reel,” which at the time, was a sort of swap meet on paper for film collectors. I remember calling about a festival in New York and talking to a really sweet guy about how we could attend. The man was Phil Serling and he was one of the founders of the Syracuse New York Cinefest.

Turned out we couldn’t go so we tried a festival that was closer called Cinesation. It was held in Saginaw, Michigan at the time in a 2000 seat theater called the Temple. We were so entranced by the whole experience of being in a movie palace-type theater, and seeing all the incredible films we’d never be able to see on TV or DVD, we were hooked!

pic3
Early 1990s photo of the Temple Theatre Cinesation, Saginaw, Michigan

Somewhere during this time, Toni was able to land a gig as apprentice editor in Chicago working for Academy-Award winning editor Gerry Greenberg (French Connection, Apocalypse Now, etc.) on a John Hughes (Breakfast Club, etc.) production and got in the Editor’s union.

Once we learned that conventions like this were being held in other parts of the country, like Columbus, Ohio, Syracuse, New York and even Los Angeles, we were like, “Oh, we’ve GOT to go to as many of these as possible!” We then devoted our vacation time to traveling to these conventions and seeing as many of these films, and meeting all these great people. Something dawned on us after going to a few of these conventions, which was: “Hey, no one’s ever done a film about these guys. We should do one.”

So we brought a camera, lights and plenty of enthusiasm and spent the last 12 years traveling all over the country (including trips to London and Paris) to interview as many film collectors as possible, and capturing the activities at these various conventions.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Q3: What inspired you to do this?

At first we thought it was going to be a kind of “look how quirky and sweet these people are” type documentary.

But the more people we interviewed, we were uncovering some serious stuff; for example, that the FBI staged a series of investigations and raids into people’s homes who were film collectors in the 1970s. The most famous person busted for this was British actor Roddy McDowall. (P.S. anyone who knew Roddy or was involved with the film collector witch hunt of the 1970s that’s willing to be interviewed, please contact us! We’d love to tell more of this story.) Then we learned that even though our favorite films were made in 1927 and 1928 and should have been out of copyright by the early 1970s, we still couldn’t see or share them with friends due to the fact that copyright laws had been unfairly renewed and extended so that they wouldn’t be available until something like 2025. It’s really hard to get people interested in these early works when they are being unfairly kept from the public domain. We realize we’re preaching to the choir mentioning this to you, Eric, as you have MANY good stories about this yourself but then people will have to see the film to hear some of them 😉

So our intention then changed to, “let’s shine a light on what’s happening to film and our film history” before it’s too late.

Q4: I know that I’m in this (it started way back when my beard was still dark.)  Who else do you profile?

Hey, there’s always Grecian Formula for Men, so it’s still not too late, ha.

We profile collectors from pretty much all walks of life, from kids who are collecting their first super 8 silent comedy films like AJ Boggs, to people working in the industry like Gremlins director Joe Dante, and Hollywood VFX Professionals like Linda and Miller Drake.

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Gremlins Director (and Film Collector) Joe Dante at his Hollywood Office
Linda and Miller Drake, Hollywood Professionals and Film Collectors
Linda and Miller Drake, Hollywood Professionals and Film Collectors

But I guess the subject we’re most proud (and lucky) to have is Kevin Brownlow. He’s always been one of our personal heroes because his work has had such an impact on our lives, ranging from the Hollywood series to of course the monumental restoration of Napoleon. It was so wonderful that the Academy finally recognized him for all of his amazing work with an Honorary Oscar for Film Preservation – the first ever given.

Academy Award Winning Film Preservationist Kevin Brownlow at his UK office

We also had the amazing opportunity to interview Bruce Lawton & Ben Model of the Silent Clowns Film Series out of New York which eventually led to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Bruce’s legendary grandfather, Karl Malkames. Karl actually takes us through his collection of historic film cameras, like one of those that captured the Hindenburg Zeppelin disaster and another that accompanied Admiral Byrd to the North Pole. Really incredible stuff! He also gives us a glimpse on camera of his famous souped up Biograph printer, which he motorized in order to put over a million feet of film thru for various archives in order to reprint copies from original Biograph negatives. Unfortunately, Mr. Malkames passed away in 2010 but we were so lucky to get the footage because his collection is not open to the public.

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Karl Malkames and his amazing historic camera collection (note photo of Don Malkames in back)
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Karl Malkames (2nd from Left) in an old Pathe Newsreel about the Pathe Cameramen

And in case you didn’t realize when we made YOU the focus of one of our film poster designs, (you do cut a nice figure leaping triumphantly out of a studio dumpster!) you are certainly one of our most important subjects as well. We’re excited to allow people see you at your best up against some staggering odds as you bring film to new audiences.   It’s amazing all the films you’ve introduced us to over the years at these various conventions and the work you’ve accomplished so far with the restoration of Keaton’s Seven Chances color sequence and the King of the Kongo serial! Now, if only we could trim your beard…ha!

The Reel Heroes Poster Version Featuring Eric Grayson!
The Reel Heroes Poster Version Featuring Eric Grayson!

And you’re doing this all by yourself! If that’s not heroic, then we don’t know what is.

Q5: You’re starting an IndieGoGo campaign.  What are you trying to accomplish with this?

We’re trying to obviously get the word out to the crowd funding world and raise enough money to cover the costs of post-production, legal work, accounting, perk fulfillment and a host of other things. I guess the thing worth mentioning is that ultimately, we aren’t making any money on the campaign, even if it gets fully funded. We’ve put too much of our own money into the film already. At this point, we’re just trying to get it finished and in a way that brings honor to everyone involved.

A really cool perk we’re offering for the holiday season is the “Credit for Christmas” perk that allows a funder to buy a loved one screen credit for a present. Once they purchase the perk and give us the to and from names, we create and email them a neat certificate they can print out and package up as a present to open (suitable for framing of course).

You can buy a credit in a movie for a Christmas present and support indie film at the same time!
You can buy a credit in a movie for a Christmas present and support indie film at the same time!

One disadvantage we’re finding is that because we’re known in collector circles but not generally, we don’t have any social media following. We only joined Facebook and Twitter a few weeks ago, so we have some catching up to do in terms of getting the word out there, but our page is already getting some traction. If any your readers can help spread the word, that would really be appreciated.

Q6: I know you’ve recorded a ton of footage.  How much footage do you have, and what’s your goal to end up with?

Gosh, we have over 80 hours of footage and that’s before we ask for some clips we really need in order to tell the story. We have the last known on-camera interviews not only with Karl Malkames but also Sam Rubin, the founder of Classic Images and co-founder of the original classic film conventions and Steven Haynes, the co-founder of the Columbus, Ohio Cinevent film convention before his untimely death earlier this year.

While we definitely have enough footage to do a mini-series, we are trying to get the film down to a run time of somewhere under two hours.

Q7: What’s the message you’d like your audience to get when they see your film?  Do you want them to be inspired to watch older films, or go into preservation, or just to know what some of the film preservationists do?

Yes! All of the above. Years ago there were a lot of documentaries about preservation and restoration but these days, we’re concerned people aren’t really even familiar with the importance of film. To be fair, they don’t really have many places where they can get access to it. Even the multiplexes are going digital. We think the story of the fight all of our guys and gals are waging against great odds in trying to keep film alive is an heroic one. And also, it’s a great chance to meet a lot of loving, funny, brilliant folks that should inspire all of us to go after what we want, despite the odds.

Ultimately, the message is about Love and we love movies!

Q8: What did you learn about the world of film and preservation while making this film?  Were there unexpected things that you discovered?

Geo Willeman in the old Library of Congress vaults in Dayton
Geo Willeman in the old Library of Congress vaults in Dayton

 

Well, we always considered archives as places where everything was kept. We certainly didn’t realize that there isn’t room for every film ever made to be stored as film in their vaults or that people couldn’t necessarily get access to them if they wanted to without special permissions. We didn’t realize that studios don’t even always know what film copyrights they hold and that there is actually such a thing as an orphan film where no one owns the rights so no one can ever see it.

TONICK with New York Times Bestselling Author Mike Dooley
TONICK with New York Times Bestselling Author Mike Dooley

Then there’s all the “woo woo” stuff: As you can imagine over the past 12 years, everyone including us has evolved a bit into other interests and areas of study. For us, it’s been an interest in let’s call it, the occulted rules of wave and particle theory of quantum physics that make life so interesting. In pursuing those fields of study, Nick and I became certified Infinite Possibilities trainers by Mike Dooley and we have certifications in Solar Spectrum Sound Therapy healing modalities and systems including Sound Therapy, and Brainwave Entrainment. We’re also studying with Dr. Joe Dispenza whose work involves neurology and its effect on the quantum field.

Who cares and what does all that mean? It means, we took a step back and noticed that part of what we’ve managed to capture on film is people making their dreams come true. We realized that many of them are unconsciously using elements of these teachings to change their lives. And as we studied these concepts, we noticed that there was something else afoot involving film; studies that showed film’s curative powers and how because of the way our brains are built how seeing certain films is, to the brain, the same as having the experience first-hand. That led us to the question, “if seeing is experiencing to our brains, and all that is available to watch are computer graphic war, violence and dysfunctional behavior films, then is there possibly a larger reason why the classic films of the past aren’t accessible to modern audiences?”

Boy we bet you didn’t expect that answer! Ha! But that is one of the things we’ll be touching on in the film.

Q9: Once this film is finished, what are your plans for it?  Are you going on the road, etc?

Our dream is to premiere the film at the Telluride Film Festival in 2016. Telluride holds a very special place in our hearts as the people who used to program Facets Multimedia’s Children of Paradise showing now run that festival. And that is where we first met Kevin Brownlow face to face. It’s a place where film (not commerce) matters most and we’d like the opportunity for our film to premiere there. Of course it’s all predicated on the film being good enough and being done in time for their deadline (July 2016) which is why we’re running the Indiegogo campaign.   Without the funding, we can’t make the deadline.

Q10: I always get interviewed myself by people who don’t quite understand what I’m doing, so I’m sensitive to the fact I may miss the point.  Tell me what question I should have asked you and answer that, please.

Well, there’s no way you’d know to ask us this, Eric but you might ask about the newly surfaced controversy involving our film. We had two subjects pull out based on a 1 minute and 5 second sneak peek trailer that dealt with the FBI witch-hunt portion of the film. The trailer’s been taken down and of course is no longer available to be seen since we had to recut it to omit those folks but it actually opened the way to an exciting new possibility!

We have the opportunity to interview collector extraordinare, Stu Shostak and young blood cartoon preservationist Tommy Jose Stathes! Stu’s big heart and wonderful personality would be a fantastic addition to our lineup of heroes and Tommy is just such an incredible younger generation preservationist/collector/sharer that he would really show our audience that there is hope for the future of access to rare film and cartoons. Again, it will be up to the Indiegogo campaign if we can make these interviews happen but we are excited these guys exist and hope to tell their stories as well.

10 Questions With Julia Marchese

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A random photo of Julia Marchese that I stole from her blog.

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie that makes me jump up, cheer, and cry all at the same time for many years. Julia Marchese’s film Out of Print made me do just that.

There have been a lot of films lamenting the loss of 35mm film projection, which is a loss I feel pretty deeply.  I am not a huge fan of the digital projectors that have replaced 35mm, and I’ll be tackling just why that is in an upcoming blog, by popular request.

But there’s no question that digital is here to stay.  It’s easier and cheaper, so it’s going to stick around.  It does have certain advantages, but it has a lot of disadvantages too.  Alas, the 35mm projectors in most theaters have been unceremoniously ripped out like a rotten molar, to sit languishing in theater lobbies or (sometimes) street corners.

And what’s sad about that is that there are zillions of films (and I don’t have a precise number, so zillions will suffice) that will never be available for digital projectors.  It’s a miracle that some of them are available on 35mm, but they still are.

Marchese’s film makes the elegant point that this is a real tragedy, because it’s going to mean that many less-known films that still exist are going to be unseen, because it will be too expensive to remaster them digitally.  If you don’t have 35mm, then you can’t play them.  Yet the studios in many cases have insisted that the 35mm projectors be removed as a condition of financing the change-over to digital.

This is partly why I champion saving old formats.  I believe in this quite passionately.  A lot of readers here dislike 16mm (they call it the “children’s format”) but there are a ton of things I can get in 16mm that were never in 35mm.  There are films on VHS that were never on DVD, films on DVD that will never be on Blu-Ray, etc.  And you can argue that the good stuff will make the grade of the marketplace and be on all the new formats.  It’s an argument I’ve heard before.

But there’s so much stuff that hasn’t been seen for so long… how do we know that the marketplace has gotten to choose all of the good stuff?

And Marchese expertly weaves this conundrum in with her film, which I love.  The problem is that film is an art form that’s intended to be seen with an audience.  Film requires a community and those communities are dying out.  It’s becoming harder and harder to see a film on a big screen in a theater.

More and more, we’re seeing films on NetFlix, with our stinky feet on our coffee table, which isn’t the way these films were designed to be seen.  Marchese uses examples of the New Beverly theater in LA to show how this community functioned, and some of the audience members there.

(As a side note, I remember running Young Frankenstein this past October for a local theater.  It was a brutal pain, and I had to lug heavy 35mm projectors in to do it.  BUT… when the film got going, we had a wonderful audience.   And as I watched it, I realized that the film is carefully timed to match audience laughter and reactions.  It’s cut to the jokes.  And if you’re just one guy sitting there, the movie can seem a little slow, because you’re not laughing at everything.  With an audience, it’s perfect… that’s what I’m talking about here!)

Marchese talks to audience members and New Beverly staff members about the culture of film and what it means to them.  It’s just an absolutely wonderful, electrifying experience.  It’s all of the things I always want to say but can’t… because people have me shut up after a few minutes.

The movie has an odd coda that deserves to be mentioned.  After the film was completed, Quentin Tarantino took over the New Beverly and tore out the digital projector.  Tarantino is a staunch 35mm advocate.  Marchese lost her job there (not due to Tarantino).  The New Beverly is still there, and yet it’s not.  Tarantino is doing all of the programming, using mostly films from his own collection.

You can read about it in her blog here.

I asked Julia Marchese for a brief bio, which I normally would try to weave into my rambling narrative, but in this case I’m just going to reproduce it:

Julia Marchese is a filmmaker living in Hollywood. She is originally from Las Vegas, and has lived in California for over 15 years. She is an actress, writer and director, and Out of Print is her first feature film. It is currently touring internationally on 35mm, including the Film Archival Museums in Frankfurt and Vienna.

I really can’t recommend this film highly enough.  It’s a must-see.  If it comes to your area, please come see it.  I’m going to try to get her bookings where I can.


Trailer for Out of Print
 

Q1) Can you give me some background on who you are and your history with film?

I’m just a film geek who made a flick about something I’m passionate about.

Q2) I saw your film and I noticed that you are like me in that you’re not trying to trash digital projection, but rather trying to say we need to live with film and digital together. I love this idea. So many people are firmly in one camp or the other, and I think they both have advantages and disadvantages. Tell us a little more about your take on this.

My dream is that digital and 35mm can live together harmoniously forevermore. There is absolutely no reason why that can’t happen, except that the studios want digital only to be the future. There are so many little theaters around the world who want to show 35mm prints and either are denied access or hampered by the studios’ rising rental costs.

Q3) Your film has a lot of great bumpers and ads from the 1950s and later. Where did you find all that stuff?

Thank you! Everything came from the Internet Archive, an amazing website with a gigantic selection of public domain clips! It’s an amazing resource for filmmakers.

Q4) The idea of film and theaters as a community and a shared experience is something I’m afraid may be dying. Your film celebrates this like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s just right along my own views on this. Why is this so important to you?

Because the most important thing in the world is human connection and our society is running away from it as fast as possible. Watching a film in a sold out theater, on the big screen with an enthusiastic audience vs. watching at home by myself on my computer? There’s no contest.

Q5) We all know Mike Schlesinger here and we love to make fun of him. I note that he is one of your interview subjects. Is there something silly that you can share so we can make more fun of him?

I got nothing, except to say that he is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate. Sorry!

Q6) You’re actually making film prints available! Bravo! How much does a print cost you? Lab prints are fierce these days. I ought to know.

Deluxe/Fotokem were so incredibly helpful and generous in helping me make a film print of Out of Print. I won’t tell you how much they charged me for the print, but I will say that you should get in contact with them if you’re interested in making a print of your film. The worst they can say is no, and possibly they’ll say yes!

Q7) If we see your movie, then we miss out on the fact that you were axed from the New Beverly after it was finished. How has that affected you and what are you doing now?

Yeah, that kind of adds a melancholy air to the movie that was never intended. Honestly, losing my favorite place in the world broke my heart. I’ve spent the last few months in a dark place, but I’m trying to look to the future and find another job that I will love as passionately.

Q8) If someone wants to see and book your movie, how do they do it, and are you available to make personal appearances with it?

They can contact me at fightfor35mm@yahoo.com – I am available for Q&A’s!

Q9) After your film was completed, I know that Quentin Tarantino took over the New Beverly, ripped out the digital projector and is programming everything himself. Some have applauded this, and some say it’s killing the community at the New Beverly. Do you have any comment?

I think Quentin Tarantino is an incredible person who saved the New Bev with his own money and is dedicated to keeping 35mm alive – he will forever have my respect for that.

Q10) I get interviewed all the time and people never quite seem to understand my work. If there’s something that I didn’t ask you that I should have, please let me know, and answer that question here!

Why is the music in Out of Print so crazy awesome?

Because it was composed by my brother, Peter Marchese – the lead singer of Tokyoidaho!

10 Questions with Tommy José Stathes

I’ve known Tommy Stathes (rhymes with Mathis) for a few years, and his relentless drive to pick up cartoons is fascinating.  Not only does he have original 1920s Kodascopes, but he collects old film prints of cartoons discarded in the 50s.  He knows all about the different versions and cuts available.  I hate to use the word obsessive (which might apply), but he certainly tries to get things right and tries to spread the word (and joy) about cartoons.

Like me, Tommy goes out on the road and does shows with live film projection.  I particularly like the answer to his last question in which he talks about the need to promote, promote, promote… even though it might be a little embarrassing.  But we’re both promoting stuff that few people know about and fewer people care about, so getting the word out is critical.

Those of you who follow this blog know that there’s a running thread about the fact that TCM has never even acknowledged my existence despite my efforts otherwise.  It therefore, galls me to no end that TCM is now presenting the second special with Tommy’s efforts, and that they found him on the web because of his work.  But NOOOOOO, they never found my site.

This leads to another topic: Tommy and I are constantly ribbing each other.  Most film historians take themselves pretty seriously, but I don’t especially and neither does Tommy.  If you don’t follow either of us on Facebook, then you may not know that he loves to poke fun at my hatred of Disco.  He finds the most horrid Disco songs, sometimes bordering on unlistenable, and posts them on my page.  He’s also fond of something called YouTube Poops, which I have to admit I don’t understand at all. (Mr. Stathes has asked me to clarify that he personally does not like YouTube Poops, and he doesn’t particularly understand them either, but he does enjoy posting them on my Facebook page to annoy me.)

In retaliation, I have posted things on his page playing up his resemblance to Senator Al Franken, and accusing him of running nothing but dupes.  Dupes are inferior copy prints made on film.  It’s considered a prank to wait until a collector’s pride-and-joy print hits the screen in a darkened theater and then yell DUPE.

Now, just because we have a Facebook war doesn’t mean we hate each other. Some people have actually taken our jokes seriously.  I have to admit I have a grudging respect for the punk.   I tried to let the air out of his tires, but he doesn’t drive.

Tommy Stathes contemplates that lost Bray cartoon, or perhaps he smells a whiff of vinegar.
Tommy Stathes contemplates that lost Bray cartoon, or perhaps he smells a whiff of vinegar.

Q1.  You’re going to be on TCM with your own time slot in October.  Please give this a plugola for the readers so we know what to expect.  Keep in mind that I’m insanely jealous because it’s been a running tale here that TCM doesn’t even open my mail, much less give me a WHOLE TIME SLOT (you evil….)

That is correct! On the night of Monday, October 6th, TCM is dedicating the evening to rare, early and classic animation programming. I’ve provided an hour’s worth of rarely seen cartoons produced by the Bray Studios from 1913 to 1926. Bray was the first successful cartoon studio and many of animation history’s notable animators and studio heads got their start at Bray. The films come from my early animation archives and TCM asked me to co-host the program with Robert Osborne, which was a surreal task for me. Maybe you’ll see my stage fright showing through.

Q2. I’ve often said that film is the least-respected art form.  But cartoons are the least-respected films. You save black and white silent cartoons, which most people would never even bother to watch.  Why is it that you save them when almost no one else even cares about them?

I can’t tell just how sarcastic you’re being, because I know you like and collect some of them too, though, as you know, there are actual film historians and archivists who openly dump on cartoons. [Ed note: I wasn’t being sarcastic at all.]  I care about these films and save them firstly through a personal interest in animation and in film history, and secondly because there have been no long-term, grand scale archiving efforts outside of a small handful of private collectors who have helped carry the torch in recent decades. I think every vein of pop culture history is inherently of value for several reasons, and it’s the niche I decided to research and preserve. You’d be surprised, though. For every seasoned film buff and historian who might turn their noses up at old cartoons, there are two dozen or more bright-eyed and fascinated ‘civilian’ attendees at my film screenings who are completely charmed by these films. At the end of the day, they ARE fun and charming films, whether you understand their history and value or not.

Heeza Liar 1
Col. Heeza Liar, a popular JR Bray character.

Q3. You’re particularly excited about John Randolph Bray.  Please tell us a little about him and what makes him special.

As I began to hint at earlier, Bray is an extremely important figure in animation history. Without him, there would have been no bona fide animation industry, or its birth would have been delayed or played out in some other way. Bray was born in Michigan to a minister’s family in 1879, and though a creative and industrious person, he had an unsuccessful stint at college. Bray then got into journalism and finally cartooning once he moved to New York City in the early 1900s. By 1912, Bray had seen some of the earliest cartoons that were made, such as Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911) and he began thinking of ways to translate his own comic characters to the screen. There’s an old rumor that he posed as a reporter to gain access to McCay’s studio, learned about animation techniques that way, and proceeded to run back home to start animating..and eventually patented those techniques as his own. Bray had a reputation for being unscrupulous that way, but these and other moves he made led to the founding of his studio upon securing a distribution contract with Pathe. Bray is often called the Henry Ford of animation–unlike no animators before him, he kept up with regular release schedules by applying the assembly line method of production in his studio, which, coupled with the animation techniques and shortcuts he developed himself and ‘borrowed’ from others, sped up the process and allowed theatergoers to begin seeing cartoons regularly. What many people don’t realize is that all this happened years before Disney became famous.

Q4. Tell us about the master want list.  How often do you recover a cartoon that’s on it?

The infamous 16mm Silent Cartoon Want List! It’s a semi-complete list of silent-era cartoons that were known to be available in 16mm. Sometimes I go for a few months not finding anything on it, and sometimes I’ll find a dozen things in one month. You can never really know when stuff like this will turn up, or where. In the three or four years since I started the list, I estimate I’ve found and taken over two hundred titles off of it.

Q5. I am on record for hating cutesy Spielberg films, but you have a special love for …batteries not included.  Why do you love this film so much?  Doesn’t it have to do with a different type of preservation?

This is one of those situations where I saw the film and fell in love with it at age 5 or 6. So, Spielbergy and 80s Hollywood schmaltz aside (which I think is far more endearing than the quality of Hollywood films today), I love the film for several reasons. It takes place in disappearing Old New York, showing the boarded-up and abandoned period of the East Village. I’ve always loved distressed old buildings so a film centered on them is eye candy for me, as is any film taking place in my native New York prior to the 1990s. Then there’s a great story about an elderly couple who are trying to live out their final years in relative peace. The husband is trying to hold onto his old tenement building and the cafe he’s ran for decades, and the wife is battling dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. We see their and other residents’ struggles to carry out their lives while a real estate firm is trying to level their block for new luxury high-rises. For mainstream Hollywood, comedy and cheesy elements aside, I think the story is told quite beautifully. And how could you go wrong with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy? I’m not usually big on sci-fi films so the elements of the story surrounding the little flying saucer repairmen is just a novelty to me, and not the focus of the story or the film. It’s fantasy-based but the conclusion is a victory for those of us who are sensitive to the plight of average people and those of us who are architectural preservationists.

Q6. I know you hate to speak before a group about your films.  How is it that you spread the word about watching these films and that they’re cool?  Do you get word of mouth at your shows?

Well, I wouldn’t say I hate doing it. It’s taken me a few years to get comfortable with it, and I don’t have the gift of gab in general, so it’s always a bit of a challenge. The word about my work and shows is spread through a lot of online promotion, word of mouth, and carefully written programs given out to attendees of a screening.

Mr. Stathes unspools another of his spotless original prints for an unsuspecting audience.
Mr. Stathes unspools another of his spotless original prints for an unsuspecting audience. (Photo by Joel Esquite)

Q7. Your site is called Cartoons on FILM.  Why are you so into FILM when most people want blu-ray or DVD?  Is there something special about film for you?

I will always feel that there’s something intrinsically charming and special about holding a reel of film and seeing the little individual frames spooled up in a roll. I was born in the VHS age, but became instantly hooked when I saw a projector up close and all the care and mechanical components that went into making the apparatus work. While the technical working of machines isn’t my immediate forte, the joy of running a projector and showing people a movie off of a DVD or digital file is galaxies apart. Physical film and projectors win, hands down. There are always people who are also fascinated with seeing the projector up close and I think that’s half the attraction of my screenings.

Q8. It’s known that I constantly make fun of you.  It’s actually upset some people, so I have to mention it here.  Please state for the record that I really am mean, don’t like you, and am completely dismissive of your efforts.  Feel free to mention the dupe joke if you like (even though I’ve had to declare a moratorium on it.)

If you’re really truly mean, then my name is Senator Al Franken. You and others also call me Senator constantly. I can’t win! People should know that you’re only [half] kidding when joking about my spotless original prints.

Q9. I’m aware that you especially like Disco music, which is an “art form” that I really do find vile and disgusting.  I’ve often said that those of us who lived through the 70s are embarrassed about Disco.  We don’t want to celebrate it at all.  Just because this is your time here, please pick a relatively inoffensive Disco tune and I’ll post it with your comments about it.  Lawrence Welk covers of Disco tunes are not to be discussed.

Oh, no need to torture you any further with a specific disco tune or my thoughts about it. All I’ll say is something I’ve said before: Not everyone who lived through the 70s is embarrassed about Disco. Sure, there was a lot of tackiness about some of the music within the genre and some of the culture connected with the music, but that’s true for most popular genres of any media. I think the tipping point and the reason a lot of people were annoyed by it is because it went overboard and infiltrated too many corners of life, rather than remain one genre of music and culture that you just heard about once in awhile outside of being a true disco king or queen in constant immersion. Some of it is very beautifully orchestrated music with a catchy, clean beat or melody. For me there’s a sentimental aspect to it and it’s one of several kinds of music I like. Get down on it and dance, dance, dance Dr. Film!

Q10. I hate it when people interview me and don’t really understand the point of what I do.  What important question did I not ask you, and how would you answer that?

I think you got everything down pretty well, since you have a practically perfect understanding of what I do. I think there are two remaining questions: A. Where are you going from here, and what else do you want to do? B. What are some challenges involved in being an independent archivist and exhibitor?

My answers: A. My basic long-term goal is the same as it’s always been. Find, reunite and preserve as much silent-era animation as possible in one location. The additional things I want to do include finding more ways to get these films out to larger audiences, which includes home video, hopefully more broadcasts, and possibly some “modern” things like streaming, while retaining some sort of control and a method for making some kind of revenue. I’m not employed by an archive or university so, as you know, guys like us need to have a sort of proprietary lordship over the films we work with, even though our mission is to share them with the public as much as possible. B. Well, I just answered part of that question already! The only other thing I’ve had to learn is how to be my own promoter. Again, being independent means I have to promote, promote, promote, almost all on my own. I hope my friends understand that I’m posting about my shows and projects on social media all the time because that’s the only way I can keep it going and stay afloat, not simply because I’m obsessed with the medium. In my non-film walk of life, I barely even get into discussions about my work or film with the general population. I may be a showman and put on public events but if you ran into me in the street and had a chat with me, you would never know I do this sort of thing.

A shot from How Animated Cartoons are Made
A shot from How Animated Cartoons Are Made

The Ghastly Skeletons of Paul Bunnell

I know I’ll get some complaints here.  “Hey, you just did a blog about that Blamire guy! Do something else!”  Well, I haven’t sold my soul to Larry Blamire or to Paul Bunnell.  I promise that I’ll write blogs about other topics at some point.  Right now, I’m deep into the National Film Preservation Foundation restoration of King of the Kongo, so when someone tells me that I can get a new article, that I don’t have to do anything, and that it has to do with film and history, well I have to post it.

And besides, Paul and Larry are making films that I particularly enjoy, and Paul even sees the light about real film.  (Larry, not so much, but we’ll work on him!)

Paul’s film The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is one of those independents that was shot with love as a tribute to the films of the past.  I particularly enjoy Paul’s description of Kevin McCarthy.  The more I hear about Kevin, the more I regret that I never got the chance to meet him.  He sounds like a really amazing guy.

And, while I’m on the topic, Larry Blamire’s Kickstarter project to fund The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us is winding down.

So, while I’m on enforced hiatus from the Dr. Film blog, here is an interview with filmmaker Paul Bunnell by filmmaker Larry Blamire.  Can you get any cooler?


Paul Bunnell (left) and Larry Blamire check each other for melon-oma.  (Lost Skeleton Returns Again)
Paul Bunnell (left) and Larry Blamire check each other for melon-oma. (Lost Skeleton Returns Again)

LARRY: Paul, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is such a refreshing blast of entertaining individuality. Can you recall a singular moment in time when the idea for it was born? Or was it a gradual birth, like a kind of slow mental ooze that happened while you slept?

PAUL: There was not a singular moment in time the idea was born, although that would have been wonderful!  It wasn’t a slow mental ooze, either, and to be honest, thinking about it probably disrupted my sleep.  It was more like a caterpillar, in that the basic idea came to me, not fully formed, but inspiring enough that I started filming.  Then, as you know, production went into a sort of stasis, or cocoon, to follow my metaphor, during which changes were made to the style and the story.  Finally, quite a bit later, the finished film emerged as a beautiful, wacky, black and white butterfly, still bearing a resemblance to its beginnings, but quite different from the original concept!

LARRY: Are you concerned about the current glut of Dark Comic Sci-fi Musical Romances?

PAUL: Actually, I’d be thrilled to see many, many more Dark Comic Sci-fi Musical Romances.  The world could always use more entertainment, and GLJX, of course, is ready, willing and able to lead the way!

LARRY: The film seems to take place in an alternate reality 50s, yet it’s very consistent that way. How did you describe its world to your cast, designers, etc., without them doubting your sanity?

PAUL: There was never any question; my sanity was doubted since day one. I had very specific ideas for sets and props and wanted to give the film an artificial studio look without being condescending or cheesy.  One of the things I wanted to replicate were the craggy exterior sets from Bride of Frankenstein. I told my production designer: “You can mess up the other sets, but no matter what, get this one right!” It was a challenge to achieve the desired effect for the money we had to work with, but Lawrence Kim figured it out and my hat will forever be off to him. By the way, where is my hat?

LARRY: Talk about your casting process; any cattle calls? Mostly folks you already knew?  [Ed. Note: In show business parlance, a cattle call is “a theatrical audition at which many performers are seen only briefly, often in groups.” Just in case you didn’t know.]

PAUL: Some I knew, some I didn’t. I discovered one of the gang girls working at a coffee shop. She was this striking beauty with classic features. I told her about my upcoming movie AND that I was married. I didn’t get a date, but she did happen to call me about a year later when I was casting and I gave her the role of “Annette.” I discovered another Ghastly One at a nightclub in Los Angeles; Morris Everett was the real rockabilly deal, complete with tattoos and a zany personality, so he got the part. Finally there was a very good friend of mine, David Slaughter, a fellow film aficionado who was rather critical of my movie That Little Monster. I put him in GLJX so he would have a birds-eye view of the struggles it took to make a movie. To this day he has never negatively criticized GLJX. Everyone else auditioned for their roles through the casting call process, except for Mr. Projector (Aaron Ball), who will always be invited to appear in every movie I make.

LARRY: Creed Bratton is particularly terrific–how did he become involved?

PAUL: It’s a funny thing to admit, but I had no idea who Creed Bratton was before I cast him. I was trying to get my friend George Chakiris (yes THAT George Chakiris from West Side Story) to play Mickey O’Flynn. He was on the fence about it. I then met Paul (Phantom of the Paradise) Williams and decided he would be absolutely perfect to play Mickey – and after a couple of meetings he said YES! Four years later when I finally got the money to finish shooting, I contacted Paul but couldn’t get his schedule to correlate with ours. I went to my casting director for ideas. She put out a notice and received hundreds of submissions, one of which kept finding its way to my attention. That “one” was Creed Bratton. His agent mentioned The Grass Roots and that he was the real deal from the sixties and so on. I decided to meet with him to discuss the role. During the meeting I mentioned I didn’t own a cell phone. Creed immediately took his phone out of his pocket and threw it into a nearby tree. I knew at that moment he was going to play Mickey O’Flynn. Happily, Paul Williams was able to give us one day and agreed to play the talk show host. His scene was shot on the first day, which also happened to be Creed’s first day. At the end of the day Paul took me aside and complimented me for casting Creed, saying how perfect he was for the part. I had to admit he was right.

Creed Bratton as Mickey
Creed Bratton as Mickey

LARRY: We’ve each had the pleasure of directing the wonderful Kevin McCarthy. Was he just as quiet and reserved on your set?

PAUL: No. He was actually quite feisty… in a good way.

LARRY: Okay, I was kidding right. He was wonderfully insane on our set.

PAUL: That’s true .. and I had the pleasure to witness the insanity when you filmed his cameo in Trail of the Screaming Forehead. What a fun day that was!  When Kevin came to film his role in GLJX I was a bundle of nerves. I just wanted to please him, but everything seemed to go wrong that day. The 35mm camera stopped working and we had to send out for a replacement; this shut us down for a few hours. Kevin kept suggesting changes in the script. One thing he didn’t like was revealing the resurrection suit at the beginning of the movie. He also re-wrote some of his dialogue, which I happily approved. Oh, and that wonderful hat! Kevin thought it would be a good idea for his character to have some kind of a hat and I agreed. A week later I received a magazine clipping in the mail. It was a caricature of the rock band DEVO wearing their signature hats. Kevin drew an arrow to the hats and wrote: “These look interesting.” I thought it was very funny since I was sure he had no idea who DEVO was. The idea was so inspired that our costume designer (Kristina West) created a modified DEVO hat for his character. All thanks to Kevin!

JX Bunnell & McCarthy
Kevin McCarthy (in Devo hat) being directed by Bunnell (left).

LARRY: Kate Maberly’s delightfully wacky in this. Can I say “delightfully wacky”?

PAUL: You bet! Any actress from the UK who can play an American valley girl is the mutt’s nuts — that’s British slang for “delightfully wacky.”

Kate Maberly is like a valley girl.
Kate Maberly is like a valley girl.

LARRY: How tight were you to the script? Any improv?

PAUL: Occasionally I would call out “Start Acting” instead of “Action”.. but for the most part we stuck to the script. The only time we veered was when Creed Bratton or Paul Williams was on set. They came up with quite a few zingers, most of which made it into the final cut.

LARRY: Paul Bunnell: fun to work with? Or Fritz Langian nightmare?

PAUL: I always try to keep my sets fun and positive. There was only one “incident” where I lost it with a pushy Assistant Director. I guess he didn’t understand my Langian working method.

LARRY: Did your concept of the film shift at all over the period of making it?

PAUL: Somewhat. The script was heavily revised and re-written during our six year “hiatus”. In the original story there were two concerts and Mickey O’Flynn was the villain. This changed and Mickey became more fun loving and cartoon-like.  I then added the delightfully wacky Dandi Conners character and the big set piece at the end. A major change was the musical aspect itself. Originally GLJX was NOT a musical – not until I brought Scott Martin on board to write some songs for Mickey O’Flynn. I liked them so much that I decided to add a full blown musical number in the diner. That one turned out so well that I decided to add more songs while waiting for our money. If it wasn’t for the six year break there would only be a couple of songs in the movie – and if it took any longer we might have had more songs (or no movie at all).

johnnyxonesheet-web-xlLARRY: I know you’re passionate about shooting on film–and it looks gorgeous–can you see any circumstance where you would try HD? (come to the dark side, Paul… come to the dark side…)

PAUL: I believe that film is still the best way to capture the image. I finished GLJX without using a digital intermediate and made a few 35mm release prints from the original camera negative. I also made a beautiful 2K DCP (Digital Cinema Package) version of the movie. Both versions are beautiful to watch. If you don’t have a skilled 35mm projectionist there is always a chance something could go wrong with the presentation (missed changeover cues, focus issues, etc.). But with digital projection there is a controlled presentation every time which reduces the odds of something going wrong. So for today’s modern audiences I would prefer to have it seen digitally in a theatre, but for myself, I prefer the look of the 35mm print.

LARRY: How did you get the last of the Eastman Plus-X Negative Film? Burglary?

PAUL: I started filming 2nd unit stuff for GLJX in November 2002 on Kodak 35mm Plus-X black-and-white film stock and continued with it in 2004 when the actors came on board. Then there was the long break between filming and a lot was changing in the industry during that time. When we finally got the money to finish in 2010 I heard that Kodak had just discontinued their Plus-X stock. Luckily there was a small amount of Plus-X in various Kodak facilities, but it was going fast. It seemed that every filmmaker was buying up whatever they could get their hands on. My sales agent pulled some strings and got us just enough to finish the movie with some rolls coming as far away as France.  So that’s how GLJX became the last 35mm feature film shot entirely on Plus-X.

LARRY: Were you a monsterkid? Come on, ‘fess.

PAUL: I used to watch all the classic monster movies every weekend on “Fright Night with Seymour” .. so I guess you could call me a bonafide monsterkid.

LARRY: What was the first movie monster that ever scared you?

PAUL: For some reason I remember being creeped out by War of the Gargantuas. By the time I got a color TV set I was over it .. but that wasn’t until I was 40.

LARRY: Off the top of your head, give me five films that influenced or affected you greatly, but not in alphabetical order?

PAUL: How about in year of release order: Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931); James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935); Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937); Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958); and Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

LARRY: Who’s your favorite painter?

PAUL: Earl Scheib (he painted cars when I was a kid).

LARRY: Did you make home movies as a kid?

PAUL: Yes. I made my first one in 1974 on super 8mm film with no sound. My first “talkie” was a year later in which I played the role of “Count Dracula”. I followed it up with “Bite of the Werewolf” featuring a classic Don Post mask. I made a total of 22 films during the 1970s-1990s

LARRY: Loved the talk show scene; a good example of the film’s High Strangeness. Is surreality a goal of yours? Or do I just see what I want to see?

PAUL: I love the surreal. The sound designer had all this canned laughter and applause that sounded like it was coming from a huge studio audience. I decided it was way too much and dialed it back to almost nothing. I wanted to give the scene a feeling of awkwardness. I wanted the sound of the actual audience watching GLJX to be the laugh track. It was probably a risky choice, but I think it works and helps give the scene a High Strangeness feel.

LARRY: The score is fantastic. Nice to see the Moon-Rays involved. Tell us about Ego Plum and Scott Martin.

PAUL: Ego Plum and Scott Martin are a couple of multi-talented musicians whose work compliments each other nicely. Scott is a classically trained composer who writes his score on paper, like Amadeus did back in the day. He rehearsed the singing parts at his house and was present for all the recording sessions. He really is quite brilliant. Ego Plum is one of those self-taught musicians with a great ear for arranging and composing music, although I’m not sure about his other ear. He orchestrated and performed the music for Scott’s songs, which gave them a unique sound. He also composed the film score which took several months to complete. I was usually there for the sessions and helped out with bongos, phone books and bicycle tires. The Moon-Rays title track is a delight and pretty much encompasses all things musically ghastly, but in a good way.

LARRY: The production numbers are ambitious and very nicely done. Nightmare to stage or Fun Time; you decide!

PAUL: I usually had a vague idea for staging but wasn’t completely sure until I surveyed the set. I would walk around the sound stage with headphones and listen to the songs before filming. The choreography was worked out well in advance with ample rehearsal time. For the numbers I worked with choreographer Carolanne Marano and let her co-direct with me. This method worked really well and I think the quality shows on the screen.

LARRY: I remember seeing That Little Monster first listed in the Sinister Cinema catalogue and being intrigued. Talk a little about how that film came about.

PAUL: I wrote a script for the television show Monsters with high hopes of getting my directing career started.  I met with producers but there was little interest so I decided to make it myself. TLM turned out to be more of an experimental art film with an appearance by Forrest J Ackerman at the beginning and a cameo (his very last) by Bob Hope at the end.  I never got directing work based on its odd nature but the Sinister Cinema and Elite Entertainment releases did get me some much needed press. It was then I decided to make GLJX. Like TLM I decided to shoot mostly on weekends. This went on for five months until the money ran out. I was just about to give up after trying unsuccessfully for six years to raise finishing funds when in the eleventh hour a former grip on TLM (and good friend) Mark Willoughby came to my rescue! He financed GLJX and was quite pleased with his promotion to Executive Producer. Who would have thunk it?

LARRY: Radiator girl from Eraserhead? True or false?

PAUL: False. She is actually known as “Lady in the Radiator”.. but if you’re referring to De Anna Joy Brooks’ expanded cheeks makeup in GLJX, this was not inspired by Radiator girl.

LARRY: What are distribution plans?

PAUL: We had a small theatrical release and quickly became known as the lowest grossing film of 2012. Strand Releasing became our official distributor in 2013 and released a beautiful DVD edition, chock full of exclusive bonus features.  Also, GLJX is currently available to stream on Netflix.

LARRY: Can you give us any clues about what’s next for you? Already working on other projects?

PAUL: My next movie is called Rocket Girl; about a young girl’s adventure on Earth in the futuristic year of 1967. There’s also a bio-pic about 1960’s pop icon Tiny Tim. But the one I’m really itchin’ to do is a reimagining of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.

[Ed. Note: It’s interesting to hear these guys gush on about The Man Who Laughs.  I was a contributor to the Kino DVD of that film.]

LARRY: Okay, that is way cool. One of the first movie monster paintings I ever did was one of (yeah, I know he’s not really a monster) Conrad Veidt’s startling images from the 1928 film. Not to give too much away, but would it be a period piece?

PAUL: My version of The Man Who Laughs will be reimagined to take place in a 1930s mythological setting; more of a fantasy driven fairy tale than an authentic period piece.

LARRY:  Sounds like another piece of unique entertainment from the mysterious mind of Paul Bunnell!  Thank you very much for the interview, Paul.  This has been perfectly ghastly, but – as you say – in a good way!

jx poster_style d


Just in case you missed all the hyperlinks, you can read more about Paul Bunnell’s Ghastly Love of Johnny X here.

Larry Blamire is trying to fund his next movie, The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us here.

And, if you’re a first time reader, this blog is promoting a classic film TV show that I’ve been trying to launch for years. It’s here.

10 Questions With Larry Blamire

Back in 2003 or so, Mike Schlesinger was promoting a trailer for a movie that Sony had just picked up.  I saw the trailer and howled with laughter.  Mike told me that it was a real trailer for a real movie.  I asked him if the filmmakers could keep that pace up for the length of a whole feature, and he assured me that they did.  It was a little film called The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,  and I bugged Mike mercilessly to find me a theater where it was playing.

Making a movie is a tricky thing, and independents doubly so.  It’s almost a delusional state, or a psychological malady.  You need to have a crew of at least a dozen people working together on a project that the odds say may never be seen outside of the 2am-4am time filler slot on TNT.  Most don’t make money, and most lose their investment entirely.

This is why I’m often enchanted with the can-do spirit of 1950s filmmakers.  As much as we like to make fun of him, Ed Wood was a successful filmmaker.  He beat the odds.  He got films made and released.  Roger Corman was and is a successful filmmaker.  His films hit theaters and TV.  Were they silly?  Sure!  Cheap?  You bet!  But they got made… and the directors came back to make more.  I’d guess that 90% of movies that are started are never finished, and maybe half of those that are finished are ever released in some fashion.

I sensed an immediate bond with writer-director Larry Blamire’s creation when I finally got to see it.  A lot of people don’t really understand what he was trying to do.  The most clueless critics (I’m not going to link to a clueless review… find it yourself) say that Larry is spoofing 1950s-60s movies and making a deliberately bad film.  He’s not.  He’s making a tribute to those films, and he’s even limited in much the same way they were.  Sure, it’s funny, and it’s a little more over-the-top than the originals were.  But it’s clear that Larry loves movies, low-budget or not.

One of the marvels of Lost Skeleton was the way Larry aped that poetic but tin-eared dialogue that we know so well.  Ed Wood is famous for it, but you can hear it ring through epics like The Conqueror and most of the Roger Corman films of the period.  It’s the sound of “Get it done by tomorrow morning so we can shoot this.”  Larry nails it.

And it takes a special kind of actor to be able to read that sort of dialogue without sounding like he’s an idiot.  John Wayne couldn’t do it, but Charlton Heston could.  Lyle Talbot did it in Glen or Glenda.  But all of Larry’s talented stock company does it brilliantly.  It’s a joy to watch these folks tear their way through the film, with innovative reaction shots, and clever but not-quite-hammy portrayals.

When Larry premiered Lost Skeleton Returns Again at a convention in Kentucky,  I drove for several hours to see it.  I did it again to see his cut of Trail of the Screaming Forehead.  (I even resisted the chance to throw spitballs at Mike Schlesinger when he won the Rondo award, and that was self-restraint, people.)

But now Larry is spearheading a brilliant and innovative Kickstarter campaign to make the third Lost Skeleton film.  I couldn’t let this opportunity go without talking to him about it.  Most Kickstarter campaigns are pretty static and dry (like mine was),  but Larry has a new video or hook every couple of days.  It’s quite cool.

For the record, The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us is a project I endorse wholeheartedly.  But then again, I’m that guy who has a popular blog for a TV show that he can’t sell!  Still, we all must do our part, and this is mine!

I INTERVIEW NOW!  (Did you see what I did there?  Well, if you didn’t, then skip it.)

Writer/director/actor/producer Larry Blamire
Writer/director/actor/producer Larry Blamire

Q1. You’ve done some clever satires of popular genres.  Your first picture was Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. That’s been discussed to death, but I’d like to talk to you about the pictures that inspired it.  It has a very Bert I Gordon/Roger Corman/even 50s Universal feel to it.  These pictures have a feel of “Wow, these poor guys had nothing to work with.  It’s amazing that the film even got finished.”  You seem to celebrate that spirit.  Would you discuss that feel of 1950s filmmaking and maybe give us some films that gave you some inspiration?

LS1LB: I wrote a play in the late 80s, a comedy-with-heart called Bride of the Mutant’s Tomb that had an Ed Wood-like director scrambling to finish his film in Bronson Canyon while everything seemed to go wrong.  I didn’t realize that would be me several years later.  Although everything wasn’t going wrong for us of course, it was still a mad scramble and that now almost seems a “method” approach to what we were emulating.  My relationship with 50s low (or medium) budget scifi is complex; I chuckle with respect.  That is to say no matter how unintentionally funny some of them were (and plenty weren’t) I still admire that they got it done.  It’s almost heroic.  And I love when a film like my oft-mentioned Attack of the Crab Monsters conveys genuine atmosphere, a sense of doom.  It’s crazy.  They often touch a surreal vein in me, the incongruous imagery they present, whether consciously or not.  The reversed footage of The Blob running up the old man’s arm, giant eyes crawling around snowy mountaintops, even that skinny big-headed monster in Fire Maidens of Outer Space lurking in a lush natural Eden-like setting.  Unconscious strangeness is still strange.

Q2. I really loved that your sequel to Lost Skeleton was not just a rehash of the original, but it was a much bigger-budget production that went in a completely different direction.  From an artistic standpoint, tell us how you like to approach the idea of sequels.  I know that a lot of the 1950s sequels don’t do a good job of changing direction and become rehashes.  One particular film that does it well is Revenge of the Creature, which is quite a different film from the picture that spawned it, Creature from the Black Lagoon.  On the other hand, the Godzilla pictures really started to get old quickly after a promising start.

LS2LB: I agree.  And Revenge of the Creature is a great example.  I enjoy that film as much as the original (though every time I watch it I do want just a little more monster-on-the-loose action).  I do dislike sequels that rehash.  I only did the second Lost Skeleton movie because I had a different idea, and I went from dead set against it to “I gotta make this movie.”  Even the music reflects something entirely different; from the low budget scifi style production music to the Herrmannesque feel of Morgan and Stromberg’s score.  I love both but the latter reflected the matinee adventure perfectly.  Expedition, jungle, monsters–I still love that formula.  And guess what–it still worked for my favorite Jurassic Park movie, Jurassic Park 3, another example of a sequel treading different ground.  Hell, it was more fun than either of its forerunners.  Do a sequel if you have something different up your sleeve, otherwise don’t bother.

Legendary Bob Burns with gralmanopidon (Frank Ippolito) for Lost Skeleton Returns Again
Legendary Bob Burns with gralmanopidon (Frank Ippolito) for Lost Skeleton Returns Again

Q3. As everyone knows, you’re currently trying to finance the third Lost Skeleton movie, which I understand is a departure from the last two.  Your Kickstarter campaign is really brilliant.  What did it take for you to get this going?

LB: Well, thank you and it’s taken a lot of work.  I tried to start it up last year but I was taken away by other projects.  Several months ago I began making the videos that I felt were necessary to try and get across that we do some wacky and different stuff.  It started with the “lost” footage from the original “silent” Lost Skeleton, which was created to be only one small part of the faux documentary A World Without Lost Skeleton.  And that piece was a (something) load of work for me, some pretty intensive editing.  But I have to say I was as happy with the outcome as anything I’ve created.  It sets up the conceit of the Lost Skeleton being at war with me, which I thought might be an amusing arc to keep the Kickstarter interesting.  Add to that exec producer Mark Stuart’s mighty effort with the pledge incentives and you’ve got a lot of work put into this.  As to The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us, once again the story came to me and presented something very different from its predecessors; the characters living in the suburbs circa 1963, with Dr. Paul experimenting with atmosphereum while a series of “radiation murders” is going on, and the Lost Skeleton moving in next door as he seeks to get his full power back.  It reaches new heights of absurdity, which is always of interest to me.

Q4. You made a number of episodes of Tales from the Pub, which are quite hilarious.  Those are great spoofs of 1950s “spooky” shows, particularly One Step Beyond and even some of the John Nesbitt shows.  I particularly like the way that you have a nasty film-like splice in the credits of every episode, just like a bad syndication print would have.  Can you talk a little about the 1950s shows that inspired you for this?

LB: We were having meetings in Dan Conroy’s basement pub like once a week, looking to plan our next project and it came to me as something of a creative outlet; these perfect little economical pieces that we could shoot on our own and post online just to keep ourselves sharp, and of course have fun.  I’m pretty sure I had just seen a fairly creepy episode of Lights Out (I think it was) called “The Martian Eye” that had something of a claustrophobic paranoia to it.  These were infectious for me; the more I wrote the more came to me–and I really enjoyed the challenge of having to tell a story in just a couple pages.  The cast was game and everyone chipped in wearing different hats; shooting, lighting, etc.  One Step Beyond was probably the closest model, but like our movie parodies I hesitate to add that I really do enjoy that show.  It’s nothing like, say, spoofing something cause it’s “bad”, it’s spoofing it because it’s fun.

Production designer Anton Tremblay with his  old dark house model for Dark and Stormy Night
Production designer Anton Tremblay with his old dark house model for Dark and Stormy Night

Q5. I almost feel that your spoof of “old dark house” pictures, Dark and Stormy Night has too much material to spoof, since it’s never really been done before.  You caught everything in these pictures, from the scheming relatives to the rigged seance, the dumb “wait, that’s impossible” character identity switches, and the hidden gorillas in the basement.  I’d like you to talk about this genre a little and how it inspired you.  Give us some specific vintage titles you’d recommend.

dasnLB: I really do love old dark house pictures–Jen [actress Jennifer Blaire] and I have been known to binge on them–and it’s sad to think we may be (incredibly) running out of ones we haven’t seen (I’m still hoping Columbia’s 1933 Fog, which sounds like an old dark house on an ocean liner, may turn up).  I decided it would be absurd fun to incorporate every ODH setup there is (some of which you mention), combining the will, stranded travelers, washed-out bridge, curse, escaped lunatic, etc.  When Jen and I watch them we have strict criteria; for instance if the night lasts only one act, or if the police arrive and the setting is no longer so isolated, we’re inevitably disappointed.  If there’s no storm, that’s a letdown–at least give us some howling wind for crying out loud.  In fact, atmosphere might just be the most important ingredient for us.  And even though DASN is a comedy I wanted it to have some of that.  Just to rattle off some favorites: The Phantom of Crestwood, The Bat Whispers, Night of Terror, Menace, Rogues Tavern, One Frightened Night, House of Mystery to name a few.  The Old Dark House is wonderful of course, though highly atypical, and Rene Clair’s And Then There Were None is probably the classiest, and a wonderful film in any category.  Of the made-for-TV movie heyday, the best would have to be the excellent but unfortunately titled She’s Dressed to Kill (1979).  Of course I love the alternate venues, like the old dark baseball stadium in Death on the Diamond or old dark movie studio of The Preview Murder Mystery.

Larry with his wife, actress Jennifer Blaire
Larry with his wife, actress Jennifer Blaire

Q6.  I know you’d rather not be typecast as “that Lost Skeleton guy” because you have a lot more ideas to offer.  Please discuss Steam Wars and what you’re doing with that.

LB: Steam Wars is my epic and it’s coming into its own, starting with the first three books of a graphic novel, the first of which is almost at the printer, followed by action figures–all leading up to a movie (and possible franchise).  I’m partnered with Jerrick Ventures on this, which is Jeremy Frommer and Rick Schwartz.  SW incorporates everything I love about big action movies, swashbucklers and cliffhangers and involves massive Victorian fighting machines shaped like armored warriors and manned by crews.  It’s steampunk, though I was developing it before there was such a term.


Teaser trailer for Steam Wars
Q7. Rumor is that you’ve worked a little with Ray Harryhausen… I’ll tip my hand and admit that I am a big fan of Ray’s.  Just because I’m a fan… tell me a little about that experience…

LB: Well, I would never say I worked with Ray (if only!).  However just to have his blessing on Trail of the Screaming Forehead, in that we were using traditional stop-motion, was a thrill for me.  Hell, hanging with him on several occasions was a thrill.  One of my boyhood inspirations and idols, the last true cinema magician.  The Cyclops emerging from the cave in 7th Voyage of Sinbad was a defining moment for me.  I’m proud to have Trail called a “Ray Harryhausen Presents.”

Andrew Parks blazing The Trail of the Screaming Forehead
Andrew Parks blazing the Trail of the Screaming Forehead.

Q8. Trail of the Screaming Forehead is a departure from the Lost Skeleton genre, but a subtle one.  It’s more of a bright Technicolor film, much like some of the color 1950s and early 60s fare. Can you discuss the different artistic “feel” of Trail and what films inspired you on this?  I keep thinking of Invaders From Mars for some reason…

LB: Definitely, as well as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Small town residents gradually taken over until the heroes become more isolated and paranoid.  I wrote it immediately after the first Lost Skeleton and it just came to me; again, a need to do something quite different but with a similar humor.  This one had no “strings showing” though.  It looks slick and polished, as though made by different folks in the early 60s.  Mike Schlesinger calls it Douglas Sirk meets Body Snatchers or something like that.  It definitely has that look.  Are you familiar with that great book Still Life, with those ridiculously rich color photos from 1950’s movies?  Like that.

I should also mention I’m writing the audio Adventures of Big Dan Frater, with Brian Howe, Dan Conroy and Alison Martin reprising their Screaming Forehead roles in a series of outrageous tales. The great Philip Proctor (Firesign Theater) is narrator. These will be available soon, and ongoing.

(Dr. Film responds: I’m not familiar with Still Life.  I suppose I should be.)

Q9. I know you shoot digitally, which is a particular preservation problem.  The version of Final Cut Pro that you used to cut Lost Skeleton is now unsupported and obsolete!  Do you have any plans to preserve your films so that the master materials are not lost?  (I didn’t make a pun about the Lost Skeleton becoming lost, so you’re welcome…)

LB: Thank you for that.  No, you know, I really don’t.  But I should.  Definitely.

Q10.  I often get interviewed by people who have no idea or understanding about what I do, and I think they don’t ask questions that are entirely relevant to the point.  What question should I have asked that I didn’t ask, or what would you like to answer that I didn’t ask?

LB: I actually really liked these questions because they’re somewhat different than what I’ve gotten before.  The only thing that comes to mind is something like “what are you watching now?” which may or may not be of interest.  I just finished With Fire and Sword, Jerzy Hoffman’s 1999 epic that wraps up his trilogy set in 17th Century Poland, which I found beautifully entertaining and richly satisfying.  It might even edge its way into my top ten favorite movies which changes gradually over time. René Clément’s Les Maudits made it on there not too long ago.  Blowup  may always be at the top for me.

The Religion of Vinegar Syndrome

 

Of all the things I encounter in the film world, vinegar syndrome is one of the saddest.  It’s a deterioration that hits acetate film and turns it into a smelly dry plastic that smells of a rancid salad.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone.  The film gets brittle and unusable.

The belief system of how vinegar syndrome works and affects prints has become unshakeable.  It’s much like a religion, the difference being important: real religion covers matters untestable and unknowable.  Vinegar syndrome is testable and knowable.  I sometimes post about this in various groups and inevitably I’ll come across someone who just hammers me about it, calls me an idiot, and propagates the same untested beliefs.  It’s gotten to the point that I get a little sensitive about the whole topic and don’t discuss it much.   Lately, however, a bunch of people have asked me to cover it in a long blog.

Now, the problem with this is that film people, almost by definition, are not technical people.  They don’t understand the technical aspects of why the film has started to deteriorate.  There’s also a problem between the archival and the presentational aspects of film history, too. I’ll discuss that a little as we progress.

I have this problem, you see.  I come from a technical background.  I’m an engineer.  I love to test things.   I suspect that there will be a lot of controversy and some people will call me a blasphemer in the religion of vinegar syndrome.  If it gets too nasty, I’ll just disable the contents on this post.  I love blogs.  You may notice a bit of hostility here, and I assure you that it’s because I’m really tired of having to defend myself.  I’ve done the tests and shown the saved films in public.

Since I’m flying in the face of established religion, I’ll steal an idea from Galileo, a guy who flew in the face of established religion in 1632, when he wrote his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.  He had a character named Simplicio advocate for a earth-centric model of the universe, while saner heads debated him.  So I’ll do the same thing here.

Simplicio: What is vinegar syndrome?  I hear it’s a disease that spreads from film to film and destroys them

Dr. Film: Vinegar syndrome is a problem associated mostly with tri-acetate film.  As the film ages, it outgases a little bit of acetic acid, which is vinegar.  As it accelerates, the film base becomes thin and brittle, and the film may buckle, tear, and become unprojectable.

Vinegar syndrome is not a virus, not a disease, not anything but simple chemical deterioration.  It affects different films in different ways.  If a film was developed poorly,  stored in bad conditions, stored with things that caused it to deteriorate, or is on unstable stock, it will tend to go vinegar.

I have had prints go completely vinegar while sitting right next to other prints that have not gone vinegar at all.  I therefore dispute the claim that it spreads… however, exposing prints to vinegar is not a great idea in general.

Simplicio: Why is that?  Does that make the disease spread?  Shouldn’t you quarantine the films that are vinegar in sealed cans?

Dr. Film: No, vinegar is an acid.  In solution (that means the air around the film), it will tend to eat at the film base, like any acid would, which causes the film to outgas more vinegar.

Putting vinegar prints in sealed cans is a sure way to kill them.  The vinegar builds up, and eats at the film, causing more vinegar to be expelled, but there’s no place for it to go, and it becomes an autocatalyzing process, meaning it gets worse and worse.

Is this tested?  Sure.  For many years I wanted to test the theory and I wondered if there was someone who’d accidentally done the test for me.  In 1998, I discovered that someone had done the very test I’d wanted without knowing it.  I went to an auction that had a bunch of 16mm films for sale.  Many of these were films from the 1930s from Goodyear.  They had been stored in a milk crate for 40 years or more, and the auction house hadn’t even bothered to remove them.

What did I find?  The films that were in the cans, without exception, had some degree of vinegar syndrome decomposition.  The films that had been stored in open air had NO vinegar decomposition.  And the films without the cans, in many cases, were older than the ones in the cans.  I realize that this is an anecdotal one-off answer, because it does not take into account that this particular set of films may have had a unique temperature/humidity range for storage that caused this reaction.  However, in subsequent years, I have repeatedly found this same situation in collections from all over the world.

Simplicio: I was told by my favorite archive that you could put in Kodak’s molecular sieves and it will stop this problem.

Dr. Film: The idea behind the molecular sieves is to neutralize the vinegar in a sealed can.  Whatever chemicals are in the sieve react with the vinegar and take it out of the air surrounding the film.  In theory, the molecular sieves are a wonderful idea, but they don’t work out so well in practice. If you have a huge supply of them and you change them every 6 months to a year, then great.  It’s perfect and it will help.  Otherwise, the sieve and the vinegar end up completing their reaction, and you have a full (now essentially chemically inert) molecular sieve and the vinegar syndrome marches gleefully on.

Simplicio: So when a film gets vinegar, we should just throw it away, right?  There’s nothing that can be done.  That’s what my friend told me.

Dr. Film: You can do what you want, but there are things you can do to slow down the progress of vinegar syndrome, regardless of the conventional wisdom.

Knowing about these various methods and working with deteriorating old film, I wanted to find out what worked and what didn’t.  I decided to do a control study.  That’s where you make a test and change only one thing in the test to find out if it helps.  Several years ago, I bought a 35mm print of She Couldn’t Say No (a 1950s movie with Robert Mitchum) which was affected by vinegar syndrome and warp. I bought this because I didn’t particularly care about the film, and I figured that I could use it for control tests: one reel left alone, and each reel treated with something else.

There are these things that I have personally tested:

1) Vitafilm: this is a film cleaner that is quite nice in some circumstances.  It has a STRONG pine smell, enough that some people gag at the first whiff.  No one is entirely sure what is really in Vitafilm, so I can’t answer for what it does chemically.  I can say that in tests, these things happen:
a) The film becomes more pliable and warp tends to flatten out (this may require rewinding several times, but it does work.
b) Tape splices (other than Kodak tape) loosen and must be reapplied.
c) The cleaner will dissolve most other plastics, including reels, cores, and a lot of projector rollers.  Do NOT project a wet print; it could destroy your projector.  (Take it from someone who has learned this!)

2) Glycerin: this is a plasticizer that evaporates into the air around a film within a can.  Again, it does take vinegar out of solution and it does make the film more pliable.  Since it’s liquid, it gums things up, and it cannot be put in direct contact with the film (it makes the film mooshy).  However, I have successfully used this on a number of films.  It was particularly helpful on a trailer for The Robe which was so stinky that it would knock a normal human down at 30 paces and was actually getting sticky from base melt.  Glycerin stopped it in its tracks and the print is still around.

3) Camphor (solid).  Camphor is used as a spice in Southeast Asian cooking, and it still used (in small quantities) in cough syrups.  It is a plasticizer, but in people it is also a vasodilator, which means it causes a person’s blood vessels to dilate a bit. This is great for sinus conditions and coughs, which we associate with camphor’s strong smell.  Unfortunately, it is possible to “OD” on camphor (look it up) by ingesting too much of it, so it’s now on the FDA’s bad list.  Fortunately, there are a lot of Asian grocery stores that still stock it, and it’s wonderful stuff.  Why?
a) Camphor works, like glycerin, as a plasticizer, but does not affect the film if in direct contact!
b) It does not dissolve splices, affect other plastics, etc.
c) It’s self-limiting, which means that you can throw camphor in with your prints and the camphor will vaporize and be absorbed to just the level that the print needs.  A desperate print will suck it up faster than a print with no problem.

Simplicio: My friend at the archive told me that camphor is just a stunt and it will reduce the long-term stability of the film.  It really isn’t good for the film at all, and it doesn’t stop vinegar syndrome.  

Dr. Film: This depends on how you define “long-term.” An archive isn’t in the same business I am.  I am in the business of saving and sharing filmsAn archive is in the business of saving films.  The archives were charged with the responsibility of saving copies of films for future generations, not particularly with making them available for anyone to see. (That’s not a criticism… that’s what they were intended to do.)

Archives are also notoriously underfunded, so a print may languish in storage for years until someone gets around to inspecting it and getting it ready for preservation.  This means an archive is understandably nervous about any chemical coming in contact or proximity with the film.  They don’t know what it is, they don’t know what the long-term effects are, and the whole thing is just very, very scary.

Now, again, I’m not in that business.  Sure, I collect rare films, and in most cases these are films that are beneath the notice of the major archives.  They archives are so busy preserving mainstream history that they miss the little rivulets of the story that fascinate me.  This is not intended to slight them: I’m glad they’re out there, and they do a wonderful job of what they do.  It’s just not what I do.

For me, if I have a film that cannot be shown, then it’s not of much use.  If it’s too shrunken, brittle, or ripped to run, then it may be saved but not necessarily shared.  These are the kinds of films I may donate to an archive in the hopes that someday they might be duped or something…

However, if I can do anything to extend the projectable life of a film, then I’m on board.  Does that mean it might be projectable for another 10 years but it will shave 10 years off the longevity of the print?  If that’s so, then I’m still on board.

Let me give you an example: I have a print of The Ford in Your Future, which is a really cool short that promotes Ford’s new 1949 cars.  It’s a Technicolor print, and a real stunner in Technicolor.  It shows off the process well, and shows why it doesn’t look the same as it does on video.  I also am well aware that this is not the only print in the world (in fact, I’m sure it’s on YouTube in a highly compressed, muted color version).  When I got the print, it was horrible: warped, vinegary, shrunken, etc.  Some careful treatment with camphor for a few months, and the whole thing was vastly different.

It was, in fact, so different, that my lovely assistant, Ms. Greiff, said, “When did you get a new print of this?  It looks so nice!”  I informed her that this was the same print that has caused focus flutter and heart failure in a projector just a few months before.

If that takes ten years off the overall life of the film, then it’s fine in my book…

On the other hand, I don’t think it probably will.  Again, I don’t know for certain, because we don’t have tests, but…

Camphor has been known about as a plasticizer for years and years.  In fact, when we get old 1920s prints on diacetate or single acetate film stock, it was commonplace for a projectionist to throw a chunk of camphor in with it.  Some cans even had a little holder built in for a chunk of the stuff.

So we know that camphor has so far not particularly hurt the longevity of 1920s safety film.  We also know that camphor was used on nitrate.

Does it hurt triacetate?  I think probably not, but I don’t know that.  I’m not going to contribute to the hoodoo nature of this by speculating without tests.

Several people have told me that camphor, glycerin, and Vitafilm don’t help because the overall acidity of the print doesn’t change, given that they’ve tested them with A/D strips.  These are little strips of paper (I think… I’ve not seen them) that test the overall acidity of a print.

I have not tested this, nor do I know of a good place to get A/D strips.  I know that from personal experience that I’ve gotten years use out of warped, brittle prints, and I can absolutely state that several have lasted 8+ years with camphor.  Some have graduated to not being with a piece of camphor all the time and they live out in the open air again.

I know that some people are very nervous about vinegar and so test everything with an A/D strip before purchase or sale.  If someone would point me to a source of these, then I can test them.

Again, I say that the base deterioration may continue, but the print is useful for a long period, and so this is still a good call for me.  My untested “gut reaction” is that in some cases the base deterioration slows or stops, but I have not tested this to find out.

Simplicio: There’s a new film cleaner on the market that says it stops vinegar syndrome.  What do you think of it?

Dr. Film: I haven’t tested it.

Simplicio: So you’re advocating against the use of film cans and for the use of camphor, just the opposite of what the archives do.  You must hate the archives.

Dr. Film: No, I love the archives.  I also love the safety of what film cans give you, because I’ve had films ruined by external factors that cans could protect against.  However, it’s been my experience that films need to breathe and dissipate their vinegar vapors, and so I don’t use cans.

And I’ve explained why I do use camphor.  A few little blocks of it in a film can works miracles.  I do use film cans for camphor treatments.

Simplicio: Has anyone reported problems with any of these treatments?

Dr. Film: Some people report a white powder that forms on the film.  This is probably a residue of wax or anti-line treatment that is dissolving.  I would advocate a good cleaning if this occurs.  In no case has this damaged the film.

Simplicio: You’re a radical, mean guy who is dangerous to the world of film and all it portends.  You scare me.

Dr. Film: I’ve heard that a lot.  Don’t believe it.  Test it first.

10 Questions with Glory-June Greiff

Author-historian-performer Glory-June Greiff is just the sort of multi-hyphenated person that I need to associate with, because there isn’t a lot she can’t do, except hold still.

Glory is the author of two books, Remembrance, Faith, and Fancy: Outdoor Public Sculpture in Indiana and People, Parks, and Perceptions: A History and Appreciation of Indiana State Parks. These are both available for the best prices from the author (and you can get them signed in time for Christmas!)

Not only does Glory write books, but she does one-woman shows as authors Gene Stratton-Porter andBeatrix Potter. She does presentations on the WPA and CCC, among other topics. She’s written countless National Register nominations, done treks across the country in search of odd history fragments, and she’s always the first to climb into the rafters of an endangered building to figure out how to save it.

Glory is what Ben Model calls an artrepreneur, someone who is in the arts and does a lot of things. This is both because she’s multi-talented and because artists need to be versatile in this challenging economy.

When I wrote the pilot for Dr. Film, I created the role of Anamorphia for Glory, because I knew she could play it, that she’d have fun with it, and most importantly, that she’d show up!

Glory has her own web page, which is under construction, but her blog is here.  It is generally a little less ranty than mine, but you’ll probably enjoy it all the same.

•••

Q1: You’re not really a film preservationist, but you do preservation of another sort.  What is it that you do?

I’m not even sure why you want to interview me, although I certainly am a rabid proponent of preserving film!  My work and my passion of the past several decades, however, has been in historic preservation–the saving, interpretation, and appreciation of historic buildings, streetscapes, landscapes, and roadscapes.  I am a public historian by trade.

Q2: You’re also a big believer in slide film over PowerPoint.  Why?

I hate PowerPoint.  I hate most PowerPoint presentations, but that’s really a different story. (You know the ones: the speaker is up there reading the words on the screen to you.  It makes me scream.)  PowerPoint has certain advantages,  such as an interactive component, which are seldom used.  I can count on one hand the PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen that could not have been done the same–or usually, better–using slides and real talk.  And then they would have looked better, too.  Nothing as stunning as Kodachrome slides!

By the way, in the old days I used to create slide/tape programs with all kinds of production elements, like variable pacing, background music, themes, mixed voices.  I used to be radio (and radio production) so I did the narration. People would come and talk to me after saying how much they liked my “movie.”  How satisfying was that!?

Q3: Weren’t you a Kodachrome die-hard?

I was. I am!  I still project my beautiful Kodachrome slides for various talks I give.  And yes, I shot several rolls of Kodachrome after Kodak ceased production (I had stocked up), and was among those who got the last Kodachrome processed at Dwayne’s in Kansas in December 2010.  Heartbreaking.  Nothing like it.

Q4: You have always been a fan of old movies.  How did you get started?

Ah, well.  It’s in the genes, I think.  My mother loved old movies–of course to her, they were the films of her youth and held memorable associations as well.  Her own mother sought escape in movies from a hard life during the Depression and World War II.  My dad liked going to the movies, too.  We’d bundle into the car with a pot full of popcorn on weeknights (cheaper!) and go to one of about eight drive-in theaters in our area–all the way from Michigan City to Mishawaka and Niles, Michigan–we were really blessed!  The one we visited most often was only about three miles from our house on the old Lincoln Highway, but it was wiped out by a tornado when I was a kid!

Of course, that was golden age of old films being shown on television, and one was usually just starting when I arrived home from school.  Mom would tell me when she first saw it and about the actors.  My father liked the westerns and war stories shown at night or on weekends, which I didn’t always enjoy as much, but the adventure movies, like the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, I very much did!  (I think I can still recite most of the dialogue of Captain Blood.)  But the films I most cherished watching with my dad were the late Saturday night Universal horror movies and 50s sci-fi.  (“They’re here!  They’re here!”)

My grandparents lived next door to us when I was growing up, and between my mother’s and grandmother’s subscriptions, I think I had access to three or four film magazines.  When I was in junior high, I got a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland.  Always was a pretty weird kid.

Q5: I know that Eric really got you stuck on silent films.  Do you have some favorite films or actors to recommend?

Hmm.  Tough one.  Lon Chaney is a genius, and Eric, who has huge collection of Chaney material, really turned me on to his work–far beyond Hunchback and Phantom, which everybody knows.

I like comedian Charley Chase, who I find to be right up there with his more well known contemporaries.  “Limousine Love” is a scream!  And of course, Max Davidson, largely forgotten today, is hilarious and I never miss a chance to see his films, which are best viewed, of course, with an audience.

I’ve become a huge fan of Charley Bowers, and I had never heard of him before I met Eric.  Actually, I’m quite fond of several silent animators, none of whom I had known much (if anything) about before.  I’m astonished at the content and effects of 1920s animation shorts and cartoons, and I wonder what these guys were smoking!

More prosaically, perhaps, I like Clara Bow a lot.  And the under-appreciated Marion Davies, particularly in her non-costume roles.  To ease my eyes:  early Gary Cooper, hubba hubba.  Buddy Rogers, ditto.

And I love Douglas Fairbanks–love how he moves!  (Mind you, it was his more handsome son I noticed first, but Fairbanks, Sr. just looks like he’s having so much fun in his films!)

Q6. How do you support Eric’s film preservation work and how does he support your preservation work?

We do have a cooperative arrangement that usually works pretty well–unless we each have a gig at the same time, which happens!

And sometimes I’ve sacrificed going to events or even given up getaways; there was this time when we were going to leave for northern Michigan, and suddenly an emergency film restoration project arose.  Personally, I think I should get a credit on the restored version of  Seven Chances!

As a rule, I play the part of the “lovely assistant” and help Eric set up his film showings, run interference when necessary, act as shill occasionally, and answer secondary questions.  I hope the best thing I do is keep encouraging his work, because I think it is important and it is not always recognized.

As for my work, Eric plays a similar part, assisting with my various programs and also coming along and helping with fieldwork and research.  Sometimes we are both called to the same place; this is a usually a closed or underused theater, and Eric pokes through the projection booth while I clamber all over the building!

Glory in character as Anamorphia

Q7: You’re in the Dr. Film pilot episode as Anamorphia.  What was it like to play that part?  You’ve been a fan of movie shows like this for a long time.  How did it feel to be in one?

You know, these are wonderful questions.  I had a dream since I was a teen of doing a sort of vampire woman horror-host TV show–bear in mind I had never seen Vampira or Elvira.  (I grew up in northern Indiana.)  I worked in radio for some years and never had much thought to venture into TV–unless the opportunity had arisen to do a gig like that!

So this is the closest I’ve gotten to it.  I do think my director has me go a little too over-the-top, but maybe that’s appropriate!

It’s fun; I love doing theater of any sort–and I wish someone would pick up Dr. Film so we could shoot more episodes!

Q8: You’re a big supporter of the Dr. Film show, and you want Eric to keep trying to get it out there.  You even wrote a guest blog about it.  What makes you so passionate about the show?  You seem even more gung-ho about it than Eric is.

That was a nice segue from the previous question, wasn’t it?  I don’t know, maybe it’s because I have been working in field where you simply don’t always win–in fact, often do not–but you just have to pick up and keep trying because it’s the right thing to do–and you must pursue your passion.

Dr. Film is the kind of show that SHOULD be out there–more so now than ever, I think.   I grew up just knowing about a lot of movies just because they were THERE–but they aren’t there anymore.  We are losing our cultural references.   And anyway, film history is fun!  

Q9: What are some of the craziest things you’ve done to get things preserved, either in the film world or otherwise?  I hear you’re pretty dedicated sometimes.

Crazy things?  Why, what do you mean?   Well, one of my very first preservation efforts involved a beautiful early 1900s office building in downtown Indianapolis.  I set up pickets with signs and a petition campaign.  We made the newspapers, but didn’t win; the forces against preservation were too great.  But you have to keep trying.

A year or two later I spearheaded a campaign to save a beautiful abandoned New Deal-era apartment complex.  We did guerilla renovation on one apartment and brought everyone we could out there to see it to try to change the minds of the powers-that-be.  It took four months of my life, full time, but that remains one of my proudest efforts–even though we didn’t win.   Those apartments were built to last; it took the city months to tear them down at far greater cost than they thought.  Ha!

To this day I am known to run wildly into abandoned buildings and dance along abandoned stretches of old highways.  As for film, how many times have I ridden in a car full of film that smells like a salad? (That would be indicative of vinegar syndrome.)   And about that time I gave up my trip to northern Michigan. . .

10.  What question did I not ask you that I should have asked?  And answer that question, please.

Why do you dance all the time?

Why do you breathe? (Thanks to The Red Shoes.)

Why do I take the old roads and shun interstates?  Same answer.

10 Questions with Mike Schlesinger

This is Mike accepting the Rondo award.  Rondo is on the lower left!
This is Mike accepting the Rondo award. Rondo is on the lower left!

I’ve known Mike Schlesinger for a number of years.  Just how many, I’m not sure.  I ran into him at a film convention some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and laughed at one of his T-shirts.  Despite what he says, he has a collection of odd shirts, always film-related, most I’ve never seen anywhere else.  We also share a fondness for really stupid jokes and bad puns.

Mike is very modest and soft-pedals his various accomplishments.  I can tell you, and without hyperbole, that for years he was the only guy in distribution at any of the studios with a clue about movies made before 1950.  Today, the vast majority of them still don’t have a clue, and many actively don’t care.  (There are more people who care now than when I started, but we can still use more.)

With most studios, it was, “Do we own that?  Is that ours?”  The really inept ones would tell me that they didn’t own the film when I knew they did.  It was too much work to look it up.  Mike would immediately know if a print was on hand, and if the film had changed hands, and he always knew who to call to help me book an odd print.

And while Mike may also downplay his contributions to film preservation (I deeply admire all the guys he mentions), he has done a lot behind the scenes to make things happen.  When he was at Paramount, old Paramount titles got reprinted, and when he was at Sony, old Columbia titles got reprinted.  As I always say, access is half the battle for preservation, and Mike was great about making sure prints were out there and could be rented.


Mike’s trailer for Lost Skeleton of Cadavra
 

Q1. You have a long history with film preservation and working at the studios. Tell us a little about each place you’ve worked and some of the things you’ve done. Are you really Leonard Maltin’s favorite film executive? Does Leonard really exist, or is he a figment of my imagination?

Actually, I’ve never preserved a foot of film in my life. Others, such as Dick May, Grover Crisp and Barry Allen, oversaw all that work. My job was in distribution. I have indeed made suggestions of specific titles, but again, I never had my hands on film. Think of them as the chefs and me as the waiter. I worked at MGM/UA, Paramount and until last December, Sony (Columbia). Each was a unique and largely satisfying experience, though ultimately I’d always run afoul of people above me who didn’t understand what I did and why it was important. Among my most fulfilling experiences (aside from the ones discussed below): bringing out the “director’s cuts” of The Boy Friend, Wild Rovers, 1900, The Conformist, Wattstax, Darling Lili and getting the ball rolling on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; prying The Manchurian Candidate, Broadway Bill and White Dog out of movie jail; the record-breaking 50th anniversary reissue of Citizen Kane, and the extended version of Major Dundee. Striking new 35mm prints of numerous Columbia cartoons and shorts was also a treat. (Plus I made a number of trailers which, if I do say so myself, were, as the kids say, pretty freakin’ awesome.)

It was Roger Ebert who said I was his favorite Hollywood executive. Funny story: When that hit print, I e-mailed him, “Who came in second?” He replied, “What makes you think there was a second?”

Leonard does indeed exist. I’ve even hugged his lovely wife Alice.

Q2. You’re a long-time Godzilla fan. Tell us about your involvement in Godzilla 2000.

Well, that’s not a short story, but I’ll try to make it so. Sony’s distribution chief Jeff Blake (whom I largely owe my career to) happened to be in Japan when G2K opened and was breaking records. Since the Emmerich version didn’t turn out to be the most-beloved film of its generation, the studio was unsure of how to proceed. Jeff felt that releasing G2K here would be at least a place-keeper and at best a make-good to the fans who felt let down by the Emmerich.

We had a screening, and there was considerable concern: the pace was slack and the dubbing was pretty dire. Jeff was having second thoughts. I assured him that with some judicious editing and a new dub it’d be right as rain. He said, “Okay, then you do it.” And just like that it was in my lap. He figured, I hope correctly, that I was the only one there who’d actually seen some Godzilla movies and would have the right handle on it. So with a release date breathing down our necks, I dove right in.

Jimmy Honore, then Sony’s post-production czar, provided me with an editor and a sound man. Toho’s local guy, Masaharu Ina, was also involved, as every single change had to be approved by Tokyo. I wrote a new script, hired a swell bunch of Asian-American actors to reloop, and worked with the editor to sweat nine minutes of fat out of the film (over 130 individual cuts) and restructuring scenes to increase the tension. We rebuilt the soundtrack from scratch, adding some new music cues (including a couple of classic Ifukube themes) and creating foley for scenes that had been played in total background silence. I even did directional dialogue in some scenes. The sound guys were brilliant and completely supportive, and very complimentary whenever I came up with a suggestion that worked. Happily, Toho (albeit a bit grudgingly at first) admitted that our version was a big improvement; so much so that they even re-released it subtitled in Tokyo, as well as a few other countries, like India. The reviews here were mostly positive (if sometimes patronizing). It made money. And best of all, I got a six-week crash course in post-production that has served me very well. Even I was surprised at how quickly I picked it up. And I have the unique honor of being the first person to put a line of Yiddish in a Godzilla movie.

It's-All-True-documentary-posterQ3. Wasn’t It’s All True one of your pet projects?

THE project, though more for its importance. After the Kane reissue, I was approached by Myron Meisel and Bill Krohn, who had been trying to put the picture together, but Paramount owned the footage. Balenciaga was willing to pay all costs in exchange for distribution in France, Germany and Italy. So it was basically a free movie. I managed to get everyone into the same room, and after 14 needlessly drawn-out months, the deal was done. The film was completed on schedule. We were premiering it in the New York Film Festival–the first Paramount picture with that honor since Nashville. And then the distribution heads, for reasons still unknown, decided to kill it, and me in the process. It won the L.A. Film Critics Award for Best Documentary, and no one from the studio came to the ceremony. (I went on my own dime.) It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done…and hardly anyone saw it. 🙁

Q4. You picked up Larry Blamire‘s Lost Skeleton of Cadavra at a time when indies were barely being picked up, and it actually got a theatrical release. Few indie filmmakers are so lucky. Let’s hear about your discovery of Blamire and your involvement with his other films.

God, at this rate there’ll be no need to write my autobiography! Cadavra was a happy accident. The American Cinematheque used to showcase independent films on Thursday nights; I read the synopsis in the paper, it sounded fun, and as I had nothing better to do that night, I went. The theatre was packed: over 500 people laughing their asses off. During the Q&A with the cast and crew, they said it cost “well under” $100,000. I said to myself, “That’s it, I have to have this movie.” I got Larry’s and Miguel’s phone numbers from the Cinematheque, and told them I was interested. As the only other offer they’d received was a lowball from Troma, they were naturally thrilled. Jeff agreed that Sony couldn’t get hurt at such a low price and okayed the acquisition, though there again, it took over a year to get the contract signed. The rest is history, though as Larry himself later acknowledged, getting picked up by a major studio doesn’t guarantee success. It really didn’t find a wider audience until it hit cable. Now it’s the world’s tiniest franchise, and I’ve co-produced Larry’s three subsequent films, with hopefully more to come, including the highly-anticipated conclusion of the first trilogy, The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us.

Q5. There’s a legend in the film world about your long-lost Godzilla script, which was almost shot by Joe Dante. Please, relate the whole story, down to why it didn’t get made. Is there any hope for it now?

Legend? Seriously? Wow. Anyway, it’s doubtful it’ll ever get made, what with the new Warners version coming out next year. It started, as so much of my life does, with a joke. I ran into my friend Jon Davison one day; he was at Sony producing The Sixth Day. I told him about what Toho was doing with my version of G2K (as related above), and he said, “Yeah, you’re really Mr. Godzilla now.” I laughed, “Yeah, and if these guys were smart, they’d get you, me and Joe to do the next American one.” He said, “Hey, we’re there.” Later in the day, I was pondering this and thought, “Well, why not? Who better to save the franchise?” So I called them both and asked if they were interested. They were, so I went in to the Columbia production head and pitched the idea of a “Wrath of Khan”-like sequel: a modestly-budgeted, man-in-suit picture, using Toho’s effects people, but set in America with English-speaking actors. I said we could do it for $20 million. He was intrigued, but said he really couldn’t authorize it. However, if I wanted to write it on spec, they would certainly consider it if it came out as good as I said it would. That was fine by me.

So I went home and got to work. I set it in Hawaii for various reasons, among them that I’d need no tortured explanation of how Godzilla got there, not to mention the unlikelihood of any actor turning down a feature being shot in Hawaii. (My suggested tagline: “Say aloha to your vacation plans.”) I decided to follow the Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Rule–make the human scenes funny and play the monster stuff straight. I wrote it with genre favorites in mind for the cast: Bruce Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Scott Bakula, Christopher Lee, Leonard Nimoy and of course Joe’s stock company. After jokingly giving it the temporary title of GodzillaEast of Java, I settled on Godzilla Reborn, which referred to not only the franchise but also the storyline, in which he’s killed and eventually resuscitated. Sid Ganis eventually came on board as a producer as well. Everybody adored the script. It shoulda been a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, by the time I finished it, Columbia had a new production head, and he wanted no part of it. Wouldn’t even read it. It takes balls to say that to Sid Ganis, who’s a former Academy president, but he did. And there ya go. Now everyone’s too old for their parts and Warners has the franchise. A damn shame; it would’ve been a monster hit. Pun intended.

Q6. How did your legendary collection of film t-shirts get started? What are some of your most popular?

Huh? I have a bunch of T-shirts, but I’d hardly call it “a legendary collection.” I just buy them like everyone else.

Q7. What the heck is Biffle and Shooster? They weren’t originally your idea, because I found them on YouTube. Who created them and how did you end up with them?

Once again, it started, as so much of my life does, with a joke. Nick Santa Maria and Will Ryan created the team, but they hadn’t really done a great deal with them. Then one day, Nick posted a picture on his Facebook page: the two of them holding up an empty picture frame and mugging. I replied, “From their classic two-reeler It’s a Frame-Up, with Franklin Pangborn as the art dealer.” And then I had a brainstorm. After I mopped up, I called them and said, “Hey, why don’t we actually do this? A B&W, 1.33:1, authentic-as-possible 1930s two-reeler, like it was one of a series.” They loved the idea. I wrote a script, went on Kickstarter, fell short by a razor-thin 89%, and then broke the two rules of The Producers and paid for it myself. I rounded up a bunch of the Lost Skeleton people, and filled in the remaining slots with some incredible industry vets. We shot for 4 1/4 days in December, and had the cast & crew screening in early March. The first public showing was at Cinefest in Syracuse about two weeks later–which is where you saw it–and now it’s out to festivals. We’re also treating it as a pilot for a potential internet series, since we have titles and loglines for 19 more. I’ve already completed the script for another and started a third. Nick and Will are each writing one as well.

Q8. If It’s a Frame-Up! is successful, what are your plans for the future? (And if it is successful, could you put in a good word for the Dr. Film show? A bad word would be fine, too.)

Well, part of the original intent was to use it as a calling card to raise money for more features for Larry (and me). But as noted above, an internet series would be fine as well. Worst comes to worst, I figure I can make two more, shoot some bridging material, and create an ersatz feature, The Biffle & Shooster Laugh-O-Rama. That at least I could sell to TV and/or make a DVD deal.

Q9. I think this is a stupid question, but it’s been asked too many times for me to ignore it: Why go back and make a cheap, impoverished-looking 1930s short? Shouldn’t you make one that’s BETTER than they were in the 1930s?

I made a cheap, impoverished-looking short because that’s all I could afford to make. If we get any kind of financing, then we’ll do the “earlier, more expensive” ones. And I didn’t make one better than those from the 1930s because NO ONE can.

Biffle and Shooster fighting the Tong War.
Biffle and Shooster fighting the Tong War.

Q10. I get asked questions by people all the time that aren’t particularly germane or interesting. What question did I NOT ask that I should have asked?

Why does sour cream have an expiration date? Is that when it turns good?

It is part of a global conspiracy.  Expired croutons also become fresh bread.  Hey, you were warned about stupid jokes, folks.