In the Fall 2010 issue of MovieMaker, Jerome Henry Rudes writes on the efforts of Sanda Schulberg to restore Nuremberg: Its Lessons for Today. Stuart Schulberg’s 1948 documentary on the post-World War II war crimes trial at Nuremberg was not screened in the United States for over 60 years following its completion.
In this companion piece to the printed article (“Lessons from Nuremberg: Justice and Film Preservation Converge”), Rudes discusses the necessity of restoring classic films—and the difficulties that doing so entails—with several experts in the field of film restoration: Richard Peña, program director at The Film Society of Lincoln Center; Sarah Finklea from Criterion Collection/Janus Films; Dan Berger from Oscilloscope Laboratories; and Dennis Doros, founder of Milestone Film & Video and member of the board of directors of the Association of Moving Image Archivists.
Jerome Henry Rudes (MM): How do you select a film to restore for contemporary audiences?
Sarah Finklea (SF): Janus theatrical releases and Criterion DVD releases are designed with an eye to what our audience would like to see. We listen to our audience. We also try to keep the schedules diverse, with a variety of countries, studios, directors, and time periods balanced.
Dan Berger (DB): The film’s accessibility and the pedigree of talent attached are major factors. In the case of our release of The Law, there was a well-respected yet still under-appreciated director in Jules Dassin. The film has a cast of some of the biggest international stars—Mastroianni, Lollobrigida, Montand, Mercouri and Brasseur. Also, The Law was relatively obscure; Oscilloscope was able to introduce something new rather than rehash what was already known.
Dennis Doros (DD): At Milestone, we are looking for films that are remarkable and will be appreciated over the years to come. Over the course of restoration and release, we have to see a film from 50 to 150 times, so it had better hold up for our own sake. We are not looking for films that are already considered masterpieces like The Red Shoes or The Blue Angel; we are looking for films that have been missed by the critics and historians over the years. There’s nothing better to us than bringing I Am Cuba or The Exiles into the canon.
MM: What are the technical hurdles involved in restoration?
SF: There is a tendency to overuse state-of-the-art digital tools. We try to stay focused on the cinematic quality of the film to retain the original look and grain. One of the biggest technical problems is a continuous vertical scratch, very difficult to remove completely. We undertake digital restoration in-house for our DVD and Blu-ray releases, but when projects need true film restoration, we turn to our colleagues at more traditional film institutions, like the Film Foundation or Academy Film Archive. In the case of Jean Renoir’s Rules Of The Game, we created a completely new digital intermediate after restoration because the elements were lost and the film was in dire need of help.
DD: Every film that we have restored is completely different in its technical problems. Each one always has some unique problem that we have not come across before and that needs to be conquered. We find solutions by working with the best labs and archivists. . . Rights can be the most difficult hurdle to overcome. It took us 15 years to find the rights holder to Anthony Howarth’s People Of The Wind. Sometimes we have to give up on a dream film because the rights are impossible to find or too expensive to acquire.
Richard Peña (RP): I think one should remain as faithful to the original work as possible, which becomes tricky, especially with re-recorded soundtracks.
MM: What’s the actual market for archival movies?
RP: This depends on the film itself. The ideal is to program a film that crosses over to a younger audience who may have heard of it, but never seen it. Certainly never seen it on the big screen. We recently showed some Sergio Leone westerns and were all delighted to see both the size and the youth of the audience. Sometimes restorations are for older, more hard-core film buffs.
DD: After 20 years, Milestone has a number of theaters that appreciate our taste. They know that our films will look magnificent and that Milestone will provide good posters, postcards, trailers, and encyclopedic press kits to market them. We still depend on print ads, though I know it sounds old-fashioned, and we have young employees who have created great websites for us. We also have very good relationships with the bloggers.
SF: Aside from the DVD market, there is a solid theatrical market for archival films. Most larger cities have at least one cinematheque or major art-house theater. Many have more than one, so the classics, particularly new restorations, end up playing in the same venue as newer art-house films. Unfortunately, TV almost never covers revivals and newspapers are cutting back on film coverage. The Internet is getting the word out to the right audience. Specialized sites along with Facebook and Twitter have helped to solidify the existing audience for revivals in theaters.
MM: Tell me a personal story relating to an archival film that you worked on?
DD: One of the first major films we released was Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba. Back in 1995, tensions were still pretty high with Russia and we had no idea how people would react to the politics. We had risked all our money on acquiring the film, creating great materials and publicizing it. At the time, you had to go to the New York newsstands at 11:00 pm to get the next day’s paper and read the reviews. As we were walking down from our West 96th Street apartment, we were discussing what a terrible mistake we had made and what we would be doing after we disbanded the company. We were trembling as we purchased the Times and opened it to the Arts section. There was a huge photo of I Am Cuba gracing the page and an ecstatic review by Janet Maslin. We were absolutely in shock and deliriously happy. Fifteen years later, we still like to work as if it’s the last film we’ll every get to release and are thrilled when our hard work leads to any degree of success.
DB: When pulling out the film cans of The Law from the shelves of the French archive (the film was broken up into 1,000 foot reels, as opposed to today’s standard of roughly twice that), there turned out to be 14 reels of film. Taking the runtime into consideration and doing some math, there was too much film. All the reels, including the mysterious extra can, were sent to the States for inspection. We discovered that the extra can contained an elongated ending for the film, including a scene entirely cut from the final movie. It’s a campy, risqué scene, completely unnecessary in the context of the film, and rightfully cut. But it provided some interesting insight into the editing of the film (the scene was likely cut due to censorship concerns) and we’ve included it as an extra on the DVD.
SF: After we released the new restoration of Rules Of The Game, a critic called to say that he had seen the film many times in the past, but when watching our print in the theater he noticed a frog sitting on the base of a statue in one of the key scenes. He had never known it was there and was so excited that there were still new details to notice in such a revered classic.
RP: A few years ago we presented an Ang Lee retrospective, for which he offered to premiere the director’s cut of Ride With The Devil, featuring a few new scenes and some extended ones. As soon as it was over, I went up on our stage with Ang Lee for the Q&A, and the first thing he said was “That movie’s really too long now, don’t you think?”
MM: Can you describe how it feels to bring to the screen a film that hasn’t had an audience in many years?
DB: Absolutely worth the effort, even if the acquisition, preparation and release of the film was difficult. When The Law opened theatrically at BAM [the Brooklyn Academy of Music], I went and bought a ticket like any other spectator. It was definitely a fulfilling experience. There is something to be said about seeing the end result of a nearly three-year journey manifest itself in a room full of other filmgoers who really enjoy it. There’s nothing more fulfilling.
RP: Sharing great art is always a joy.
DD: Our biggest thrill is bringing out a film that never really had an audience, like I Am Cuba, The Exiles, Mamma Roma and Killer Of Sheep, and make them part of the current film discussion. People always tell us afterward what an easy decision it must have been to pick those films to distribute. Just a few months before, people were questioning our sanity. We are attracted to films with an extreme degree of difficulty, then trying to make the impossible happen. The effort is worth it because of the nature of our product. Film can change lives. We have worked with filmmakers who have greatly enriched our own lives. To share these people and their films with friends and audiences is really a joy.
SF: It was very gratifying to put out Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon and the Chaplin retrospective this past year, but even more exciting has been watching mounting interest in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House as it tours around the country. This relatively unknown Japanese film from 1977 has found a new audience in the US. Being able to work on a project like that is amazing.
—Jerome Henry Rudes