Seth Willenson, who died this week at the age of 74, was a good guy. I know that sounds like faint praise, but in a business that thrives on over-stuffed egos, it actually means a lot. He was also someone who loved movies, understood the structural ins and outs of a complicated and constantly changing landscape, and found success seeing opportunities where others didn’t. He was also a great judge of talent and mentored many a young aspiring film executive.
I first met Seth when I had just started in the business. I was a non-theatrical salesperson at Cinema 5, a small independent distribution company. Seth was the head of sales at Films Incorporated, which was the largest non-theatrical distributor at the time, and handled films from MGM, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, among others. For the uninitiated, “non-theatrical” meant renting 16mm prints of films to college film societies, public libraries and other such venues. It was a fairly large business at that time due to films having no other outlets after their theatrical runs. There was no such thing yet as home video, and television networks didn’t have that much movie programming. Continue reading “Seth Willenson, Innovator and Good Guy”
Interviewing Lina Wertmuller in her apartment in Rome was one of the highlights of my life. But it was hardly an easy interview. First off, I don’t speak any Italian and she speaks very little English. We had an interpreter, but that only interrupted the flow of the conversation. And when I brought up subjects that I thought would be interesting or provocative, she would just blow me off. This clip is a perfect example of her contrarian spirit.
“Monty Python & the Holy Grail” was the biggest hit that Don Rugoff ever distributed. In this outtake from “Searching for Mr. Rugoff,” Producer John Goldstone talks about the origins of the film and the large role that rock and roll played in getting it financed.
The “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” project began and hopefully will evolve as an oral history of art film history in the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s. Interviews with many of the key people from that period were meant to serve two purposes–for possible use in the film, but also to capture the personal histories. The interview with Joanne Koch didn’t make it into the final cut of the film, but it contains many great stories of the period and most importantly captures one of the key figures in New York film history. This clip is just a taste.
Meeting Costa-Gavras was one of the real treats that came out of the making of “Searching for Mr. Rugoff.” The interview was arranged through Unifrance (thank you!) and was done in his apartment in Paris. I could tell that he was a bit suspicious of my intent at first, but when I explained what the film was about, he immediately brightened up. Don Rugoff was clearly a huge influence in his life and he told me wonderful stories, only a small portion of which made it into the film.
This particular outtake is about how after the success of “Z” he was offered to direct “The Godfather.” Instead, he ended up working with Rugoff again on “State of Siege,” another masterpiece.
With news of the passing of Robert Downey today, it seemed appropriate to share a bit of the interview I did with him for “Searching for Mr. Rugoff.” There are lots of great moments with him in the film, but this particular one didn’t make it to the final cut. It’s a great example of how affable he was and what a great storyteller! I’m glad I had the chance to spend time with him.
The idea for a documentary of some sort had been rumbling around in my head for a long time. At first I thought it would simply be a way of capturing a bit of history by interviewing people that I knew were getting up in age and had great stories to tell about the early era of independent film distribution.
It was 7 years ago this week that I heard Roger Corman was being honored at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, an event that I have attended yearly for quite some time. It dawned on me that this was an opportunity to capture one of those interviews for my yet to be defined project. I reached out to Michael and asked if I could interview Roger at the festival. The resulting interview was just as informative and colorful as I had hoped, but as my project took shape, it turned out that Roger did not make the final cut. However, I decided that this interview, and the many others that followed, deserved to see the light of day as a sort of side project. My goal is to eventually create an online oral history about this particular period in the business.
In any case, below is a small portion of that interview.
A few days ago, I announced the long-awaited release of my film “Searching for Mr. Rugoff” (long-awaited by me, anyway). It’s been a protracted journey with many twists. I’ve begun to reflect on the many decisions I made along the way–fortunate and not–and thought some of it might be instructive for others (the teacher comes out in me!)
The project itself was years in the making, and at many points I wondered if it would ever actually add up to anything. I was once told that narrative features are a sprint, but that documentaries are a marathon. Trite but true. There were many times when I thought the film was as good as it could be, only to get feedback that made me take yet another look, leading to yet another version. The process was often frustrating and infuriating, but with each iteration, it seemed to get better. I had work-in-progress screenings for the students at Columbia, at the offices of Kartemquin Films in Chicago, at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, and at the 2019 Art House Convergence. And while audience reactions were very encouraging, I always walked away with more notes—sometimes completely contradictory. Continue reading “A Little Glimpse Behind the Scenes of the Release of My Doc”
A number of years ago, I wrote a piece about Movie Theaters I’ve Known and Loved. It included the story of how I had one of my most formative movie experiences in a modernist masterpiece of a theater that was on the Edens Expressway in Northbrook Illinois. Yesterday, I stumbled across a YouTube video about the theater and its demise that had been made for local TV in the ’90s. For those of you who are fellow movie theater geeks and others who are interested in architecture, you might find this as fascinating as I did. Little did I know that the theater featured that largest hyperbolic paraboloid in the world. If you want to know what that means, you’ll have to watch the video (which by the way is separated into five short parts.) Enjoy!