Negative Cutter: Mo Henry

HAIM: VALENTINE (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) –
Printed through splice on original camera negative
visible on frame line. This is masked by the aperture
plate in the projector.

If you’re the kind of person who stays until the end of the credits in movies, you’re probably familiar with Mo Henry, who has worked as a negative cutter on hundreds of feature films from the early 90s onwards. Henry often manages a team of several cutters depending on the size of each film, and is responsible for assembling the irreplaceable original camera negative to match the final cut of the film. We were thrilled to talk to her over the phone earlier this year about how this largely invisible job works, and how it has changed over the past decade.

JA: How did you get started in this profession?

MH: Well I’m a fourth generation negative cutter. It’s all nepotism. My family immigrated from Ireland and my aunt was the oldest of several kids, she’s about 20 years older than my dad. When they moved to Hollywood she just walked up and down Sunset Boulevard looking into different businesses and asking for applications. She got a job in the early 1920s Fox studios which would up being Deluxe labs here in Hollywood. She became a negative cutter, and then she gave my dad and his brothers jobs, and then my dad gave my older cousins jobs, and then finally my dad trained me. So that’s how I got in. 

JA: What does a negative cutter actually do, and how has the job changed over the past few decades? I’m especially curious about that period in the early 2000s where digital intermediates (DIs) really started taking over, and how quickly that change affected all of your work.

MH: A negative cutter takes the original camera negative and matches it to a source from editorial, which in the old days would have been a work print from dailies. We find the rolls of [camera negative] that match the work print and compare the key numbers which are on the edge of the film on both the work print and negative. We check the first two or three key numbers in each shot to make sure we’re in the right place, and we also do a visual check. We cut them, splice them, and that becomes a reel.

That scenario I just gave you using a work print was the very beginning, that started in the late 1800s and it didn’t change much until the ’90s. That’s a long time!

The first change that happened for me was when Avid came out. Avid is a computer program that uses the information from a telecine and captures the images and the key numbers. In the old days, we would have to take down the head and tail key numbers of every shot in the work print. We would write it down in the log, then we’d also take down the Acmade (printed edge code) numbers that were applied by editorial and write that down. Then we get a handwritten copy of the editor’s codebook and we’d have to do something called “decoding”. Decoding meant that you find the Acmade number, then you’d go to the codebook and it would tell you what lab roll, scene, and take it was of each shot, and then we’d start looking for our negative. 

Instructions for reading Kodak KEYCODE, used to locate specific frames in the negative.

When Avid came out, it saved us a lot of work because the Avid list came with not only the key numbers but it also came with the lab roll, camera roll, scene, and take. So we were able to finally skip the hand logging part. In the ’90s we would still cut negative to the work print, but we’d have [the Avid] list. In the mid-’90s, low budget films were realizing that with the Avid telecine information you could cut negative without a work print. You could just use a list. I would never do that because telecine back then was so frequently wrong. 

Then someone came up with a machine called Lokbox, and what that was was this big tape deck that was attached to a synchronizer and a video monitor. We would find the negative based on the Avid list, we’d pop it into the synchronizer, and then as we moved the synchronizer back and forth the Lokbox image would also move exactly along frame by frame.

JA: That’s pretty cool!

MH: [laughing] Yeah and the tape had a burn-in at the bottom of the image of the key numbers. So we would match the key numbers against the list and the image. But then we also had to make sure the telecine wasn’t off, so we’d have to find a frame in the negative that was exactly like the frame in the monitor. For instance, if someone opens their mouth at a certain point you’d find the frame where the mouth was just about to open.

After that, we had something called DigiConform, which was created by two guys in Munich who worked for Arri. With DigiConform we’d still get a tape but it would be ingested into a PC and digitized. We’d still use the wired synchronizer but then we’d watch a monitor and didn’t have to deal with the Lokbox which had a lot of bugs in it. 

The DigiSync Film Barcode Reader, developed by Filmlab Systems International.

That takes us to about 2004. All of that said, the major studios (my clients were Warner Bros. and Sony) were still giving us workprint. Only low budget stuff and TV was dealing with DigiConform and Lokbox. But around 2002 or 2003 our very first digital intermediate came along and that was a film called Panic Room. It was really complicated because no one had created a workflow yet, and at the very beginning we would pull shots just like we would if we were cutting negative. We could fine-cut the negative and pull out the shot from slate to slate and then we’d build those rolls and send them to the DI facility for scanning.

That happened early 2000s, and kept going until about 2010. At that point scanning had become much cheaper and they didn’t really need us to build the rolls. We could send an entire lab roll to them and they would figure out the scanning. And then it finally went away completely: no one was making prints, and the Digital Intermediates were really automated. 

I had this technology, yet another system called Film Fusion that enables you to roll the key numbers through a synchronizer with a little diode barcode reader on it. We’d run those rolls through that system, enter metadata, and after the DI was done and the film was released, we would create an archive of exactly the shots that were used in the film, in order, as much as possible by event and by reel. And that’s what we do now for the most part, archiving after the fact.

JA: You’re still cutting the camera negative for that, and not necessarily including things like effects shots, so the archival cut negative will just be a reference?

MH: That’s right. For instance, we can archive a film and pull out all the shots we need for a six reel, 90 minute film, and it may turn out to be 200 boxes all together. We got a film just this week from Warner Bros. and it had over a million feet of film. So instead of storing all of those boxes of negatives and having to keep them in the local vault, we could whittle that down to maybe two or three boxes. And the stuff that wasn’t used goes to cold storage. You know, the salt mines.       

In BUG (William Friedkin, 2006) a “bonus” post credits shot is spliced into the credits before printing.

JA:  What have been some of your most rewarding projects, and most frustrating projects?

MH: Well by far the most rewarding project was Harry Potter. Because I got to move to London and work there which was fantastic! It was so exciting because as you know those books were so beloved and it just felt great to be part of it. I cut negative on the first two, and then they also went to DI.

The next would be The Big Lebowski, which was just fun from the very beginning and still one of my favorite movies of all time. I didn’t know it was the Coen Brothers; the film just arrived at the lab for me. I didn’t know that they edit their own films, and my procedure when I’d get a film in would be to get the number of editorial from the studio and call and introduce myself. I did that on The Big Lebowski and this girl answered the phone and I said, “Hi I’m Mo, I’m the negative cutter I was just hoping you could give me the names of the editor and the assistant editor.” There was this kind of dead silence and she said “um…let me check.” So I hear this muffled conversation going in the background and she comes back and says “well the editor’s name is…” and I’m making this up but it was something like, Linus Limpleburger or something crazy. I was like “How do you spell that?” and she goes “um..let me check.” So they kept me going for about 15 minutes before they finally came on the line, the Coen Brothers, and told me that they edited the film themselves. It started out with a laugh from the beginning.

The Matrix was super exciting. No one had seen anything like it ever before and it was virtually all visual effects. The Matrix was one of the most rewarding and also one of the most difficult films I’ve worked on because visual effects are the very last thing to be filmed-out. They are always at the very last minute. And that was hundreds of shots that we had to put together at the very end. 

Chris Nolan’s projects are always fantastic because of the editorial crews. It’s a pleasure because there’s never any stress, at least not that we were shown. It’s always calm and quiet. I’m sure they were all going crazy in editorial!

I was asked by Francis Coppola to re-cut Apocalypse Now and that version became Apocalypse Now: Redux. That was terrifying. I was dealing with the head of post-production and the editor Walter Murch, and I wasn’t actually speaking with Francis till the end. They said they were adding 51 minutes to the film and removing some shots, and I said we’ll have to turn everything in for interpositives which allow us to create a second-generation negative, so the original film stays intact. And they said no, we’re just going to chop up the original.

JA: Oh God!

MH: I know. I was just in shock. We went back and forth, back then I guess it was faxes, and I kept saying “Who owns the negatives? Does Francis actually own it? Or does Paramount own it?” And they’d say, “Just cut it.” And I said “No. If you don’t own the film I’m not going to cut it up without the studio’s release.” 

Words of wisdom from a guide to cutting A & B roll originals: “Exercise care, real care…” Handling original, irreplaceable camera material leaves no room for error.

That went back and forth for a couple weeks and finally everyone convinced me that I was just going to chop up the original film which was heresy to me! When everyone heard that I was finally doing it, I had all these people standing around in my room watching me make the first cut into the original film. And it turned out great and from there I was invited to the Cannes Film Festival when it was showing. 

And the most frustrating? There’s a film called Tombstone that we were working on in 1994. The process and the people with whom I worked were not frustrating but the ’94 Northridge earthquake hit and none of our film racks were bolted to the ground. Imagine an entire film’s worth of rolls of negative. 52 pick-up. They were just launched all over our cutting rooms and cutting areas. And some of the sprinklers had come on during the earthquake, so we were going through all this negative trying to find where it belonged, and had to roll through everything to make sure there was no water damage. That was awful. In the meantime, there were aftershocks and my home had been red tagged. 

And the other most frustrating, let’s call it challenging, was a film called Outbreak. A Warner Bros. film with Dustin Hoffman. Again, it wasn’t the fact that the people were difficult to deal with. It still occurs, I believe. [The] studios deal with each other about “OK, who’s going to open on Memorial Day?”, “Who’s gonna open in July?” And they trade around so that everybody gets a fair shot at least a couple days before the other people start releasing. I remember it was in October and some other big film was scheduled for this particular weekend and then they pulled out because they were having issues with the film. Warner Bros. jumped at that weekend and said, “OK, we want to open then with Outbreak.” I was brought into Warner Bros. and the head of post-production said “Alright we’re scrambling to get the film finished and you have 24 hours to cut the entire film.”

Negative splices in MAME (Gene Saks, 1974, left) and I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (Danny Cannon, 1998, right). In anamorphic projection, a poorly made negative splice may be visible on screen if the film isn’t perfectly framed or the projector’s aperture plate is over cut. For this reason, the standard aspect ratio for Scope films was eventually changed from 2.35:1 to 2.39:1.

JA: Oh my god.

MH: Yeah. So I pulled in crews, I borrowed negative cutters from other cutting businesses. We were at Universal Studios at the time, Technicolor was there, and I wound up renting a bunch of hotel rooms at the Sheraton Universal, having to negotiate with the union saying, “Look, I don’t know how to tell you how much they’re working because they’ll show up at 6 in the morning, they’ll go to their hotel room, take a nap, they’ll come back, and we’re just working 24 hours a day.” So there’s that. We didn’t make the deadline but we did get it done in 30 hours and that was just exhausting.

JA: You talked about this a little bit, but at what point in film production does your work start? Are you working alongside the editor the whole time, or are they editing separately and then you get everything in a mad rush?

MH: Again, let’s go back to when there were a lot of films being cut on negative. In the old days the negative would either arrive in dailies, or when they finished shooting they would dump the whole thing on us. I would usually have lunch with the editor and the assistant and talk about scheduling and all that stuff. On the big directors’ films that are still happening like a Chris Nolan or Paul Thomas Anderson — we did his film Phantom Thread a while back —  then we’re brought in at the very beginning to look at schedules. Because I’ll have to expand my crew to bring in enough people to deal with it. I’m basically brought in at the beginning nowadays. And we’ve almost always worked with the first assistant editor rather than the editor who’s locked in a room with the director. 

JA: How closely are you working with the lab?

MH: Very closely, we’re pretty much a team. We’re in on all the schedule meetings together. They are the ones who move the negative to us, as we cut reels. When we cut negative we actually tape the negative together, we don’t splice it in house. The laboratories prefer to do it themselves so that if something happens. For instance, if I didn’t have a hot splicer that was maintained daily or weekly and I turned in a spliced reel, it could fall apart and the lab would be responsible. So the lab splices all our reels. We’re talking each day, and historically I was always inside the lab as well. Nowadays I’m not, but it used to be constant.

JA: As a projectionist when you screw up, your movie is out of focus or scratched, or worse. What mistakes can be made in negative cutting to affect how the movie ends up looking on screen?

MH: [laughing] Well, people sometimes think I have a creative job and it’s absolutely not creative at all. I’m just a technician. The only time I’m creative is when we make a miscut and that’s when editorial has to re-edit that section of a reel. It’s very unpleasant and almost never happens. But we can scratch film just as well as the projectionist can. 

The “miscut” is the most dreaded word in negative cutting. When someone isn’t paying attention–and this is why I refuse to cut by list, because it was just too fraught with mistakes–and they cut in a shot that’s, say, a 100 feet off from what the work print or list requires. We lose frames when we have to try and piece it back together properly and then you’ll see those visually when projected. That’s kind of the worst.

JA: Well I don’t recall seeing any on any of your films.

MH: Thank you very much. You know, I gave people two miscuts per career, that was it. If you made more than two, you were gone.

JA: I like that policy.

MH: I was sort of a Nazi about it. I think the worst thing that ever happened wasn’t really a mistake, but there was a competing negative cutting company, and we were all on the same long hallway at Technicolor. And someone sabotaged us. They were walking down the hall and saw that one of our cutting rooms was open. The cutter had probably gone to the restroom or something, and stole a bunch of the film.

JA: Horrible. 

MH: Yeah that was horrible. Horrible, horrible. It was never returned. Imagine me having to call production about that.

JA: I assume they’re out of business now.

MH: Well, I know who it was. So yes they are. [laughing] But I never busted them, I didn’t say anything because I couldn’t prove it. But I knew who it was. It was awful.

JA: Are there any younger people being trained to do this type of work? Who’s the youngest person on your staff? 

MH: Well, again, we only cut one or two films a year. Traditional negative cut. And that’s when I expand. Most of my really senior cutters have gone on to work somewhere else, but they always come back when I need them. And they’re probably in their 40s now. I’m not aware of any negative cutting companies still in LA besides my own. So I kind of doubt there are many youngsters learning in LA, if any. 

Images from 1929 Bell and Howell Splicer Manual courtesy of Brian Pritchard.

I hired my son several years ago. He’s 31 and he moved up from being a PA to being a prep person, but he does not want to cut. He doesn’t want the responsibility or stress. He’s the youngest I know of. Although I’m sure there are places, I know the Academy, for instance, have younger people come in as archivists.

JA: It seems like a lot of younger people are being trained as archivists, but the focus isn’t necessarily on technical work. 

MH: Right. There are a lot of companies that do restoration where younger people will be hired and taught how to splice or repair tears. But I don’t think many people are training anymore to be negative cutters. 

JA: Is your client base still mostly Hollywood productions? There are a lot of artists still working in 16mm that need this work done, do you deal with any of that?  Or any other clients outside of Hollywood?

MH: Well, my two clients, 90% being archiving, are Warner Bros. and Sony. So I still cut their films. There are specific directors who are still cut negative on 35mm, or 65 mm negative, which becomes 70mm prints. And then I sometimes get really small projects where people come in with an old film. We’re doing something currently that was cut in the ’90s and never finished. Things like that. 

I have a newer client who is a really well-known artist in England, Tacita Dean, who was actually sent to me by Chris Nolan. They are on a committee together to save film. 

JA: I have her book!

MH: You do! Oh excellent. Tacita and I have become friends as well. And she’s still shooting on 16mm, it’s just one of the types of mediums that she uses. She also still paints, draws, does a lot of different things.

I cut three films for her last year. They’re small. And they’re actually meant to be projected on the wall of the museum, as if they were a portrait. It was the most amazing trifecta. One was at the National Portrait Gallery, one was at the Royal Academy, and one was at the Tate Modern. She has more coming up. Her films are being kept by the Academy, so she’s really in excellent hands. She makes many copies of her small loops so that they don’t wear out.

And then last year we worked on a really cool project that was a mixture of 16 and 35. It was Orson Welles’s unfinished film called The Other Side of the Wind, which was shot in the ’70s but it was never finished. They brought in a contemporary editor, who was kind of the de facto director because he was making choices on what to use. Sometimes he went off script. There are little weird things that come along that are still really fascinating.

JA: What is your favorite splicer, or some of your favorite tools?

MH: That’s funny. Well I have an absolutely gorgeous Bell and Howell 35 and 16 hot splicer, the kind that you use with foot pedals. It’s got to be seventy years old. It’s the size of a Smart Car. It still works beautifully. People come in and ask to take pictures of it because it’s so old school and it still does beautiful work. And of course our favorite tool are the scissors. And the most commonly used, a magnifying glass and gloves. That’s pretty much it.

JA: Have you seen Daffy Duck in Hollywood, where Daffy is splicing film?

MH: Not only have I seen it, but we have blow-up on one of those frames mounted above our hot splicer.  If you ever look at it again the actual rewinds are put in the wrong position. It’s cute. Yeah that’s well known among cutters.

Interview transcribed by Rebecca Lyon

Further Reading:
The Man With the Sharpest Cut“: Profile of Indian Negative Cutter Shakespear

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Will Oldham on Old Joy

In advance of our 35mm screening of Kelly Reichardt’s OLD JOY, we exchanged a few questions over email with Will Oldham, who stars in the film alongside Daniel London. Based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond, the film follows two old friends on a road trip to a hot spring in the Oregon woods. OLD JOY was the second collaboration between Reichardt and Oldham, following the 1999 feature ODE (shot on Super 8), for which Oldham wrote the score. 

Julian Antos: How did you first start working with Kelly Reichardt? 

Will Oldham: If memory serves, and it may not, I met Kelly through artist Alan Licht. I have a vague recollection of having supper in Chinatown with Alan, Kelly and Todd Haynes.  Some time around that point, Kelly asked if I could make some music for her ODE film. This was my first experience with scoring. Kelly sent me ODE scenes with temp music in place.  I was beginning to experiment with a crude looping pedal that I’d acquired after seeing Mick Turner use one. I’d also bought an old Gibson acoustic tenor guitar. Writing and recording for ODE was a great opportunity to learn how to futz with both the looping pedal and the tenor guitar. 

JA:  What were some differences in the collaboration process when writing a score for a film vs. acting in a film, specifically with Kelly Reichardt but also generally?

WO: There’s no comparison between acting in a film and creating music for a score.  Most importantly, I could work on the music at home. Working at home can make a big difference as far as fostering experimentation.  My brother Paul recorded the music and also played bass.

JA: One of the reasons we’re showing OLD JOY is that we’re doing a series of films shot on Super 16mm. OLD JOY is particularly interesting because the camera that was used can only hold about five minutes of film per magazine, and I’m curious if that came into play at all during shooting. Did you have any sense of that time pressure? 

WO: There were pressures coming from many directions in the shooting of OLD JOY.  These pressures were accepted as a part of the process. Likely they helped infuse the experience with a helpful urgency.  There was nobody breathing down our necks, just the tyranny of gear and a small budget.

JA: OLD JOY focuses on a relationship that has gently deteriorated, and that really comes through in a genuine and moving way. Was there much rehearsal time for this film? Had you known or worked with Daniel London before? 

WO: I hadn’t known Daniel before, and our rehearsal prior to shooting was minimal at best.  On ‘set’, we did have ample time to work through the scenes. The crew was very small, and actors in general can have a lot of ‘down’ time.  We had no dressing rooms to retreat to, so we were pretty much always together during shooting days with nothing on our plates but the task at hand.

JA:  You’ve talked before about losing interest in working as an actor because of the lack of direct communication (having to deal with agents, assistant producers, etc). Do you find that’s less the case when making records and performing music, or is it easier to avoid? Do you think it’s easier to have successful collaborations on a smaller scale? 

WO: This is a bit less true now, but for most of my life the distribution of music has been far more audience-fueled than the distribution of movies has been.  And making a record is cheaper than making a film, overall, which means that fewer folks are trying to steer the work. It’s always easier to have successful collaborations on a smaller scale.  When I showed up for WENDY AND LUCY, a small film itself but larger in scale than OLD JOY, I felt a bit lost. I make records on what can be considered to be a very small scale. It’s the recording engineer, the other musicians, and myself.  And the budgets I work with are usually tiny in comparison to those of many recording artists that you might perceive as working on a similar level to me.

JA: What did you love most about being in OLD JOY?

WO: During production, I loved the togetherness of cast and crew.  I loved the accountability. When I finally saw the film screened before an audience, I began to love the experience of shooting all the more for the power and effect of the resulting film.

JA: Would you want to act in more films if there were more films like OLD JOY to act in? Are there many filmmakers working on a smaller scale today that you could imagine yourself working with? It was great to see you in A GHOST STORY!

WO: That’s a funny question. There aren’t many films like OLD JOY.  My scene in A GHOST STORY was a party scene, full of ‘extras’, and yet most of the folks in the scene (and on the set) had weight; they had a story, a reason for being there, a connection to the film and the filmmakers.  Unity of purpose goes a long way. Unfortunately, the world of making music and the world of making movies differ in a crucial logistical way, in that musical endeavors are often scheduled much farther in advance than film endeavors are.  A movie shoot, small or large, is often finally scheduled and defined within weeks or days of the shoot; I usually book a recording session a few months in advance and live performances as much as a year in advance. This makes it very difficult to coordinate.  My first love was cinema, and it was heartbreaking to grow into the knowledge that I was not built for that world, that I had got my perception of it almost completely wrong. Whenever forces align that allow me to be a fruitful part of a film, I am very happy. I think I did my favorite work in David Lowery’s short film PIONEER, and I can’t imagine the experience of that film, for me, will be topped.

OLD JOY screens on Wednesday, January 15th as part of An Expanded Celebration of Super 16, a series presented by the Chicago Film Society recognizing 50 years of the Super 16mm format. Frames pictured are from the 35mm print being screened.

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Filmmaking through Machines: Hal Hartley on TRUST

In advance of our screening of TRUST on June 10th, we exchanged some questions over email with director Hal Hartley about his early films and independent film distribution.

JA: A theme I admire in your films is a respect for people who work with their hands and do technical things. Robert Burke is a mechanic in The Unbelievable Truth, DJ Mendel fixes typewriters in Meanwhile, and Martin Donovan builds computers in Trust. I think that respect comes through in your films, which feel very carefully constructed – no loose screws or defective parts, and honest! Does working on a small budget play into this? Did you have the usual confluence of people breathing down your neck to make the film something you didn’t want it to be? How have you managed to resist the forces of capitalism?

HH: Gradually, through trial and error in my early years of writing and shooting, I began to appreciate the beauty of strong, clean gestures—in dialogue, in physical activity, in shot composition and so on. But I would have worked that way even if I were telling the story of someone totally incompetent—say like Henry Fool. I think the interest in what people do—for a living, certainly, but as a vocation too—this came from my upbringing. My father was a skilled laborer, a structural steel iron worker, as were most of my uncles. All union men. We were raised with a particular work ethic that—without being discussed much (they were not a talkative bunch)—took it for granted that doing one’s job well was the least you could do for your fellow man. As I got more and more into film and reading I gravitated to characters like that and the obstacles they encountered. It seemed to me to be the most relevant thing to make stories about.

One way or the other there are always show biz professionals whose expectations I need to address and, usually, counter. I usually countered by saying I needed half as much money. They would usually acquiesce at that point and I could go do my work in peace.

I’m not sure it’s possible to resist capitalism—or, at least, I haven’t got an option. I’m a commercial producer of non-mainstream entertainment and, as things go, I do okay. But it’s true: I don’t need much. I don’t drive. That seems to be the most significant factor when my family and I compare our relative financial needs. I have a lot more freedom of movement because I don’t have a car, cable TV, or a need for weekend vacations.

JA: There’s not much time between the release of your first feature (The Unbelievable Truth), and Trust. Were you planning both projects at the same time? How did funding come together? If IMDb is to be believed Trust cost about ten times as much as The Unbelievable Truth! Still not a lot though.

HH: Trust cost about nine times more than The Unbelievable Truth—$600,000. The first film was getting some serious festival screenings and was already picked up by Miramax and other foreign distributors when I met Scott Meek of Zenith Productions in London. I was at the London Film Festival. He read the script of Trust in an afternoon and just wanted to know if Adrienne was to be in it. Then we were in business. We made three films together—Trust, Simple Men, and Amateur.

Different versions of Trust existed in the late ’80s. But when I had the chance to make that first feature, I sat down and wrote The Unbelievable Truth the way I did because I knew I could make it for $65,000, which was all we had—it had to be that simple; a few characters, a few locations, the willingness of my extended family to put up with the “circus” again—which is what they called me and my filmmaking friends who would show up in town about once a year to make another of my strange movies. But directing Adrienne Shelly made me rewrite Trust and get it ready in case I had the opportunity to make another film.

JA: Can you talk a bit about working with Michael Spiller on your first several films? Again, the work is very careful and deliberate, and the camera feels very sympathetic to the characters.

Mike and I met at SUNY Purchase. We were classmates and friendly, but did not run with the same crowd. I admired his application to the technical aspects of our training, which were always a trial for me. I was always impatient with machines. Mike loved machines. A car, a camera, a jukebox, a cigarette lighter—machines delighted him. Semester by semester, as I became more obviously a writer and director, Mike became known as a DP. I asked him to shoot my junior year dramatic scene exercise and we became friends. And it just kept going through 1999 when we worked for the last time together on No Such Thing. (He decided to move towards directing TV.) Mike got me over my reticence with machines and showed me—as he himself learned—what a dolly could do, or a dolly and a boom—a dolly and a boom while panning!! And lenses! Exposure! The engineering of shots became my chief joy once something was written.

Trust was shot on an Arri BL. Standard issue 35mm machine back then. Noisy as hell. But solid. Once during Trust I watched as Sarah Cawley, the first AC (who would become my principal DP after Mike) took the camera apart and put it back together again to find out what was causing the noise.

JA: What was the original theatrical release of Trust like? Do you remember how long it screened? What did people make of it? If you look at the US poster, Fine Line Features was marketing it like Pretty Woman or something like that!

I don’t remember. I was busy making Surviving Desire and Simple Men when Trust was released. And I spent most of 1992 in foreign countries promoting all of these films. I wasn’t impressed with any of the distributors. They were dead set on not recognizing what Trust was. They needed it to conform to some norm that had nothing to do with it. They’d ask my opinion about posters or trailers or whatever. I’d say what I’d say and they’d complain I was a naive self indulgent bastard. The American distributor demanded I never refer to Godard or Fassbinder again in interviews. So I just shut up and made the new films. The French distributor did okay, but only because he had a smart publicist who totally got the film and talked the guy into taking it on.

JA: For a while the only thing available on Trust was a PAL DVD, but now you’ve been able to put out these great Blu-Rays and CFS was able to make some beautiful 35mm prints. Can you talk a bit about what the process has been for getting the rights and elements to your films back? Are there any that are still studio owned?

Basically, I’m the only one who has remained in business. And, luckily, I had always negotiated half-ownership of the films. So that put me in a good position to take control of them when everyone else dissolved. But in the US, for Trust, I had to wait for the existing license granted to Republic Pictures, and subsequently bequeathed to Paramount, expired. They had no interest in monetizing it.

Only Fay Grim and No Such Thing are owned and controlled by other companies. But with Fay Grim I’ve been able to gain control over sales on behalf of myself and the owner. I’ll try the same thing with No Such Thing. But it can take years to work through the corporate bureaucracy.

I was paying attention as digital technology and the internet evolved. I know it means different things for different people, but for me globalization means I can manufacture and distribute my work directly to the people who want to see it without the imposition of costly intermediaries. I’ve got a small but sustainable business being a maker of art films.

JA: Did you envision eventually owning the rights to your films and distributing yourself or is this something you’ve become more interested in recently?

No—I didn’t see it coming back in the early days. But I learned that from Spiller: everything we do as filmmakers, no matter how artistic, is through machines. And when I met Kyle Gilman, who would become my editor for many projects, he too trained me to see how everything was becoming computer based—virtual machines. So I’m constantly learning new technologies so that, recently, I can preserve and monetize my old films. It’s wild.

Trust screens on June 10th at the Music Box Theatre in a new 35mm print commissioned by CFS. Click here for tickets.

For more on Hal Hartley, visit

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Taking Auteurism Too Far: The Short Films of Jacques Tourneur

The mythos of Jacques Tourneur often begins with his innovative and atmospheric horror film Cat People, the talent fully formed from the very beginning. Of course, when Cat People arrived in 1942, Tourneur was thirty-eight and had been working in movies for the better part of his life. He began as an assistant to his father, the distinguished French director Maurice Tourneur, and subsequently to David O. Selznick. The younger Tourneur directed features in France shortly after the coming of sound, as well as several ‘B’ features in the US before the feline breakthrough. He made some twenty short films between 1936 and 1942, which constitute one of the most underappreciated runs in the annals of American movies.

The shorts are not entirely unknown. Chris Fujiawara’s singles out these one- and two-reel M-G-M films on the second page of his critical biography Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, and goes so far as to cite no less than seven of them as masterpieces. That designation might sound faintly ridiculous when applied to titles like  “Killer-Dog” or “What Do You Think? Tupapaoo,” but the challenge in evaluating Tourneur’s shorts ultimately speaks to broader problems in getting a handle on the genre as a whole.

It’s one thing to celebrate short films that premiere in festivals and tour the country in packages, like the annual Oscar shorts programs or the Spike and Mike animation showcases of old, but it’s another thing entirely to elevate the hundreds of shorts that filled out theater programs in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Upon reviewing a Chuck Jones retrospective offered by the Gene Siskel Film Center in the Chicago Reader, Fred Camper highlighted the basic credibility issue: Continue reading

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Taking the Taboo Off the Cinema: A Million Bid

Very few people have seen Michael Curtiz’s A Million Bid (1927), but it’s an interesting picture, moreso than its meager reputation would suggest. The film merits barely more than a paragraph in James Robertson’s The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz and earns a passing mention in Alan K. Rode’s newly released Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film. (Rode provides additional context on A Million Bid in his recent interview with Ben Sachs.) Yet the story of its production, release, and restoration of A Million Bid suggests a film of enduring, imponderable mysteries. Rather than attempt a critical evaluation of the film, I hope to demonstrate how rich and contradictory a record A Million Bid left behind in primary sources alone.

The neglect of A Million Bid is understandable. The script is rote melodrama, and the film itself (presumed lost for decades until a copy was rediscovered in Italy) is somewhat extraneous in assessing Curtiz’s legacy. It was Curtiz’s second American film, but his first, The Third Degree (1926), long ago preserved by the Library of Congress, seemed a sufficient example of his work from this period. The Third Degree was released amidst of flurry of Warner Bros. publicity, touting the studio’s newest filmmaker (already a veteran director of sixty films in Europe) as a technical wizard. “I do not see a scene with my eyes,” boasted Curtiz in a Los Angeles Times profile, “I see a scene with camera-eyes.” The film earned decent reviews, with favorable comparisons to E.A. Dupont’s Variete, one of the German imports frequently invoked as a rejoinder to pedestrian Hollywood technique.  Continue reading

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An Interview with Filmmaker Danny Lyon: Part II

I made this recording with my parents Danny and Nancy Lyon in March of 2017, sitting in their apartment on Avenue A in New York City where I was visiting for the occasion of my dad’s 75th birthday. This is Part II of a two-part interview. Part I can be found here.
– Rebecca Lyon

Willie (1985) – Murderers (2005)

DL: By the middle of the ’80s, photography is starting to take off, and I’m going, “Well, here I am, I’m probably the greatest photographer of my generation, I haven’t taken a picture in fifteen years, everybody’s making money, this is crazy.” I might as well announce that I’m still alive and still a photographer. And I start doing photography again. And I did the Haiti book [Merci Gonaïves]. We go into self-publishing. But the big period of making films that were mostly ignored and in that sense failures, is from around ’70 to ’86, and that includes Los Niños, ending in Willie, and all the films in between.

RL: I wanted to ask you about Michael Guzman. Because that’s such an amazing story about filming him later in life and then realizing he was in an earlier film.

DL: Right, so the great film I had made at this time was Willie, and ironically I made it while I was living in Long Island, not when I’m living in New Mexico. But you and I and the family had gone back to Bernalillo because we would go back on different summers and I was there, I think, with the camera. This might have been around ’82 or ’83, whenever I was shooting Born to Film and I took the camera with me.

I went downtown and I came back and said to Nancy, “I just saw Willie.” In fact, he had recently been released from  prison  but I didn’t know that at the time.

I had filmed Willie as a child in Llanito,and I had filmed him as a teenager in Little Boy and then he had kind of vanished. In fact he had vanished into the penitentiary for five years. But that day I was so stunned and I said to Nancy, “You know I’ve got to film him.”  I did film him, and by the time we returned home, I said, “I’m going to make a film about Willie because I have the earlier footage.”

Continue reading

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An Interview with Filmmaker Danny Lyon: Part I

I made this recording with my parents Danny and Nancy Lyon in March of 2017, sitting in their apartment on Avenue A in New York City where I was visiting for the occasion of my dad’s 75th birthday. Many toasts were made on the eve of his birthday party the night before, most of them to Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of them to Eleanor. My dad finished his first film in 1969, and continues making them to this day.

After becoming a member of the Chicago Film Society last year I finally had some co-conspirators to help me lure my dad out to Chicago for a screening of his films. We will be screening two of them on Thursday, April 20 at the Logan Center for the Arts: Willie (1983) and Born to Film (1982), both in 16mm prints from Anthology Film Archives. This is Part I of a two-part interview. Part II can be found here. – Rebecca Lyon

Danny and Nancy Lyon in the New Mexico State Prison filming “Willie”. Photo credit: Jack Foley

The Traveling Filmmakers

DL: So you were saying we never talk about film. I was saying we never talk about anything.

RL: That’s not true. We worked together! I helped you make two films. We did Two Fathers together…

DL: I think the perfect helpers for me don’t say anything. They just do what they are told [laughing].

RL: That’s why you like me, because I don’t ask any questions.

DL: Nancy [Lyon] was the perfect sound recordist. And I thought, well, this is great, I’ve met the perfect companion, let’s put her to work. And our tax form has said ‘traveling filmmakers’ ever since.

We made many films, five, six seven films together. Nancy did the audio, but she also helped with the editing. Nothing happened without mom seeing it. She was an assistant editor on some films. She’s been involved in everything. So… you want to talk about the films?

RL: Do you want to start a little farther back?

DL: My formal education ended at the University of Chicago. I was a history major, ancient history mostly, and a philosophy minor. Self-taught in photography. I think the first movie camera I actually picked up was in Chicago, so I would have been doing The Bikeriders by then. So I was already past the Civil Rights [book, The Movement], and had done Uptown and The Bikeriders. So I think at that point I already was interested in film. Continue reading

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Fantastic Prints and Where to Find Them

For the past couple years, Silver Cinemas’ Market Square Location has been one of the only places to see new Hollywood movies on 35mm. On this visit INSIDE OUT and ANT-MAN were both playing on film, with the other three titles on DCP. About 5 months into its run, the print of INSIDE OUT had probably been run over 400 times (and still looked very nice).

Even for those paying close attention, the conversion from 35mm to DCP on all of Chicago’s multiplex screens happened with very little fanfare.

In December of 2010, Regal City North 14 was playing True Grit on 35mm, but by the time Super 8 came out in June 2011 all screens were DCP – some bitter irony. Kerasotes Webster Place (best worst 7th grade date spot) installed its first digital projector around February 2009, was taken over by Regal in May of 2010, and by August of 2011 all screens had been converted. The AMC-owned Piper’s Alley simply closed in May of 2011 without a word. The Logan Theater (best $3 date spot) closed for renovations in September 2011 and reopened in March 2012 as an all-digital 4-plex, with inaugural DVD and Blu-Ray screenings of The Wizard of Oz and Enter the Dragon – one 35mm Century SA projector and Christie AW3 platter was kept for special events. The Landmark Century was the last major holdout: Samsara screened on 35mm in August 2012, but The Master opened on DCP in September, with all projectors being swapped out and installed the night before. The single-screen Patio Theater closed Argo on November 21, 2012 and added a new, Kickstarter-funded digital projector the following week.

The Music Box and the Gene Siskel Film Center can still run 35mm and do with great frequency for repertory programming, but as far as first-run art-house movies go, the 35mm well pretty much dried up by mid-2012. Any subsequent runs on film would be anomalies, usually at the request of the filmmakers à la Son of Saul or The Love Witch, and many independent and arthouse titles that were shot on film didn’t have the luxury of 35mm release prints (most notably Certain Women, Queen of Earth, the partially-shot-on-65mm Sunset Song). Continue reading

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2016 in Review: Not Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

What makes a movie?

This is a richly theoretical question that’s often been answered by glibly practical guidance. The most common criterion is highly circular: if it’s exhibited in a movie theater, then it’s automatically a movie.

Never mind that there have long been grey areas—misfit media whose very names suggest their dual identities, like ‘made-for-TV movies’ or ‘direct-to-video’ feature films. By dint of their general disreputability, these works were rarely regarded as deep challenges to the established boundaries of cinema. In the 1980s, a number of long works produced for television by established art house directors—Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Edgar Reitz’s Heimat—successfully slant rhymed their way to festival success. Treating them as films, rather than TV miniseries, was an honorific gesture, an acknowledgement that their high artistic ambitions automatically marked them as works of cinema. There was no other vocabulary to describe them.

By the conclusion of 2016, these distinctions were lying in shambles, if they ever mattered at all. To talk about the year in moviegoing necessarily requires engaging with this shift. It wasn’t the first year that disruptive new entrants to the film business—Netflix, Amazon, and assorted VOD proponents—sought to change the way we conceive of movies, but it may well be the year they convinced a substantial portion of the public to go along with them.

The year saw countless think pieces proclaiming that movies had been firmly supplanted as the center of popular American culture. The real energy, the driver of the proverbial water cooler conversations in increasingly anachronistic office parks, was peak TV, or perhaps Pokémon Go. The Los Angeles Times even inaugurated a series devoted to the topic: The Blur. Veteran movie reviewers wrote from a defensive crouch; a great new work, like Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, was first and foremost a refutation of the “death of the movies” narrative. Continue reading

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David Shepard: A Lion (1940 – 2017)

I heard last week that my friend David Shepard was in the hospital with pneumonia again, but not to let word get around. Yesterday I learned he was, in fact, in the hospital with stage four cancer and had been taken off life support. This morning I learned he had passed on. My last letter arrived too late.

No obituary can detail all of David’s achievements. Most film scholars and collectors know him from his days at the American Film Institute or Blackhawk Films, through which he saved and preserved countless films. A later generation knew David through the laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays he produced under his Film Preservation Associates banner and released through Image Entertainment, Lobster, Kino, and Flicker Alley. But how many know that David also worked briefly for the Director’s Guild of America, through which he arranged campus appearances for a vanishing generation of film pioneers like Henry King? How many knew he was also a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

I interviewed David five years ago for this blog, and that conversation should serve as a modest introduction for those who knew never him. In the very least, it should give you a sense of David’s droll, old-fashioned verbal gentility. I guarantee that no one else working in the home entertainment business would ever describe a successful release as “selling like hamburgers.” Continue reading

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