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”
At the Sundance premiere of Steve James’ film about Roger Ebert, “Life Itself,” I found myself sitting next to Barbara Kopple. Barbara and I have known each other for a long time, and I’m a huge fan of her work. When I worked at Cinema 5, I did co-op advertising for “Harlan County USA,” and many years later I worked with her to find the financing for her “Woodstock ’94” doc. Since both of us are New Yorkers, we see each other a lot at screenings and other industry events.
Before the Ebert film began, Barbara and I were chatting and the subject of Don Rugoff came up. Barbara told me a couple of stories about her experience with his distribution of “Harlan County,” and it was one of those moments where I wished I had brought a camera with me to capture them.
Later, when I finally decided I was making a film about Rugoff, Barbara was on my list of people to interview, but she was going through an extraordinarily busy period in her career, so it was near impossible to find a time to do it. I caught her off guard at an event and sprung my camera on her, so the interview was impromptu and rushed. It turned out, unbeknownst to me at the time, that the camera was acting up, so you’ll have to forgive a few moments of soft focus in this great outtake clip, in which Barbara talks about the early history of “Harlan County,” when she had no idea that it would become the sensation that it later became.
Sarah Kernochan is a screenwriter, director, author, songwriter, performer and two-time Oscar winning documentarian, and a friend. I saw her first doc “Marjoe” as a young cinephile, not realizing that years later, I would end up producing her first fiction feature as director, “All I Wanna Do.” In this outtake clip Sarah talks about why she thinks Don Rugoff, who distributed “Marjoe,” is a significant figure in the history of independent film.
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.
Bob Shaye was in the early stages of starting up what became New Line Cinema when Don Rugoff was at the height of his success, and he refers to Rugoff in the film as his nemesis. This outtake clip has Bob telling the story of how he got into the business, which started with his realization that film distribution was not that different from his father’s business–wholesale groceries.
For those of you who don’t know, Bob was my boss when I founded Fine Line Features as a division of New Line.
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.
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”