One of the many documentaries I enjoyed at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Paul Mariano and Kurt Norton’s These Amazing Shadows. The movie takes a look at the films that are in the National Film Registry and the work of preservationists to keep film history alive. While at Sundance, I got the chance to sit down with the two directors and talk about the picture. We discussed how they first became interested in the Registry, areas where the National Film Preservation Board could improve, and which films they want to see get into the Registry, among other topics.
Hit the jump to check out the interview and click here to read my review of These Amazing Shadows.
So how did you all first become interested in the registry?
PAUL MARIANO: I read an article back I think in December of 2007 about the selection school of registry. I always considered myself to be a cinephile, and I had never heard about the National Film Registry. So I took at the selections and took a look at the background of the registry, and I was amazed at what they were doing. I talked to Kurt, my film partner and friend, about it. We discussed the possibility of doing a film about this, and the rest is history.
After all of the research that you have done and documenting it, was there anything were you thought, “The registry can do this better.” Do you think there is something that can be added to it to make it even better than it already is?
KURT NORTON: Public awareness. That is it. It’s a great program. A wonderful program administered beautifully by the government. It’s a government program that works. But the registry itself does not have any budget for public awareness. They put out a press release and that is it. They actually don’t want to give out awards or a certificate. When you are selected into the registry you’re not even…if your film is selected to the registry you don’t get a notice. You don’t get a letter or anything. That’s how it’s run. It’s barebones and very practical, but it does great work. So public awareness is the only real flaw. There is a second one that the national film preservation board that helps make these selections needs to be more diverse. It’s a bunch of old white guys, really. They are adding more women members, but there are very few people of color. It needs diversity.
The composition of the group. I noticed that there a lot of professors in the group. Is it also critics and filmmakers? Is it diverse in terms of profession?
MARIANO: Yes, it’s very diverse in terms of profession. I mean, there are critics on there such as Leonard Maltin and Jay Carr on there. There are professors on there. There are filmmakers on there. There are scholars on there. So it’s really diverse occupationally at least. But as Kurt said, one of the things they have lacked is that kind of sexual and racial diversity. Everybody has their favorite movies. Everybody has films that have impacted them for whatever reason. We all bring our prior experiences to the table, and when you have that diversity of experience, you are going to get a greater diversity. We’ve done a great job. We’ve done an incredible job in highlighting the diversity of American cinema, its importance to our cultural heritage, and to us as individuals. But that diversity, I would echo Kurt’s thoughts, is important.
NORTON: There are issues about sexual preference – films that have themes and stories that center on the gay experience in the United States. That type of thing is lacking in the registry. As time goes on, they will be included because more films are being made based around those themes because they haven’t been made. It’s kind of a reflection of our film history as it is, but the members and make up of the board needs to be expanded.
One of the things I was a little unclear about was is in terms when they select a film for the registry, which version do they select? I know that Star Wars is in there, but George Lucas says, “That’s not mine. That’s not the one I intended. The special edition is the one I want!” So is the one that goes in there the 1977 version? Is it sort of like, “Sorry, George!” Is it more about the film that arrived?
NORTON: Yes, it’s mandated. It has to be that way.
MARIANO: It has to be the original version.
What about a film like Baby Face? Is that in the registry?
NORTON: Yes, it is.
Are both versions in the registry?
NORTON: No, just the original. It’s a little bit tricky because it’s the release version. The language says the released version. So Baby Face was released as a censored film. So, you’re right. I wish George Willeman was here to help us answer this question because every film has that issue: which one is it and how does this work? As far as we know, it is the censored version that is the registry selection version. However, they have the pre-censored version.
MARIANO: It was just actually because of fortuity that they wound up having the additional five minutes. George, by luck, found two cans. One spool was bigger than the other, and that is when they discovered it.
I absolutely love that scene. I’m a film nerd. I majored in Cinema Studies and just seeing those side by side. I actually think that one of my professors is in the film.
NORTON: We love Jennifer! Yeah, she is great. She is an example of the board expanding their horizons. Expanding the diversity of the type of people they have on the board. She is a great example of it.
The film isn’t just about preservation. It’s also about talking to filmmakers about the films that they love. I think that is great because we are on the junket circuit and we talk to filmmakers all the time, but it’s in a very specific way. Rarely is it about talking about the general love of cinema, and I love how the film does that. Personally, when you were approaching this film and looking at the films that were preserved, did the love of your personal favorite films involve the selection of the films that you focused on?
MARIANO: In a roundabout way to get to the answer of your question, we started out making a movie about film preservation. Then, it quickly became a movie about film appreciation. We finally learned that unless those two go together, you don’t have either one. Unless if you have appreciation for film and its significance. The importance of it aesthetically, culturally, and historically that you’re not going to have any film preservation. I think that the selection of our films was based on two things because right now there are 550 films in the registry. It was probably based on some of our own personal favorites, but also the access that we could get. Could we get access to someone who had selected the film for the registry? One of the board members who had personally heralded or championed that film? The filmmaker, like John Singleton or Rob Reiner, that had made the film? Were we going to get access? Did they and that film represent something that we wanted to say in our movie?
NORTON: That’s right. We had to fight against the temptation to keep steering toward our own personal favorites. We actually said out loud, “Let’s make sure we stick to our rule not to steer us into the films that we like and let the story tell itself.” We would ask questions to the interview subjects about films that we thought were important, and we would find time and again that the interview subjects would not respond to that film. They would tell us what films were important to them and we had to respect that. We had to make the story center on what our interview subjects wanted to talk about and what passion they brought to it. We didn’t want someone simply answering a question because you ask it. It would be devoid of any sort of passion. You want them to talk about the films that had impacted them. So you allow the story to unfold without forcing it into a square with a round peg.
When you were making the film, was there anything surprising that you learned? I studied film since high school and there is stuff in this film where I am like, “Oh my god! That is so cool! I didn’t know that!” Especially in terms of the female directors. I wasn’t really aware of their work. I’m curious if there was anything that stood out for you while going through the research?
NORTON: I have to admit that I was never a fan of avant-garde or experimental film. I love film, but that stuff I just didn’t get. Speaking to Robin Blaetz, one of our interview subjects, within two minutes, or less than that, of her describing how one watches an experimental film – I got it. It was an epiphany that I can not describe. Now, I appreciate them. Now, I understand them. Now, I like them because I had to be told how to watch them. It’s kind of ridiculous, but that’s true. That was a complete revelation for me.
MARIANO: My answer is probably a little bit more mundane. I think the thing that probably most fascinated, intrigued, and motivated me was the statistic that is in the film, which is that 50% of all films made in America before 1950 are gone. They no longer exist in any form and that 80% of the silent era before 1920 are non existent. I thought about it in terms of, and I’ve talked about this before, is my mother’s favorite film. I could never watch it. It was gone. At that particular time, my mother had Alzheimer’s so it was something that we couldn’t really discuss in great depth. The other thing that was most impressive to me was the passion that the people who are involved in film preservation bring to the occupation. I always thought of it as something that was very boring. It was, like, nuts and bolts and being in a lab. It was chemicals and lab jackets. It was not something that I would ever be interested in. But they had such a love of film and what film meant to us, both personally and a nation, that that passion spilled over into us making the movie. That was very impressive to me.
When talking to film preservationists, were you ever able to get their input on how they feel about transitions to digital medium? It’s not so much that film is being forever left behind, but we are moving to zeroes and ones rather than the actual subsistent film. Did they have any comment on that and do you have any comment on that?
NORTON: It’s consistent. They are warning us of our trust of digital technology. We should be very careful and they all understand it much better than the average American. They are always telling people to be careful and to watch how digital media keeps changing. It’s morphing and transitioning from one thing to another and another. That we don’t know how long these formats are going to last. That we don’t know how long DVDs last. They are always ready and willing to put out the call to be aware that modern technology is not the answer just yet. We don’t know how long these things are going to last.
MARIANO: There is a great quote that didn’t make it into the film by John Ptak, the agent and producer. He said, “Everybody thinks that digital is forever, but until forever comes, we don’t know exactly know how long that is.” As Kurt implied, if you don’t have something on digital, what do you play it on 10 years from now? You know, because 10 years ago what was then playing and popular is out of style. They have these transmission formats at the library of congress that I had never seen before so that they can play a film from 1930 when they find it, because it’s a format that no one has anymore.
That was another one of my questions. They are preserving the film, but do they also do upkeep on the actual machines required?
NORTON: They do. It’s fun to go. It’s not like a graveyard, but it’s like a bunch of cocooning machines that are ready that the library is keeping up and trying to figure out how to maintain and how to keep working. How to be ready to play all of these media formats that most of which have been long forgotten. It’s fascinating to go into the Packard campus and to go into these rooms and see every machine. For a techie guy, film nerd, digital nerd, or whatever it is these days – it’s fascinating to walk into that place and to see what they have to do to maintain our heritage. It’s not just putting something on a shelf and keeping it at the proper temperature. It’s maintaining the means for us to view it. That is a real challenge. My god, it’s so complicated.
They are preserving film, but where is the line between preserving film and restoring it. How does that work and did that question come up when you were putting the film together? The thing with The Godfather restoration was really fascinating, but I was wondering how much of that was preservation and how much of that was Paramount paying out of pocket to put that together?
NORTON: Yeah, it’s funny. It took me I think 6 months to realize the distinction between preservation and restoration. I kept thinking that they were the same, you know? But it really comes down to money. A lot of what the Packard campus and the Library of Congress does is preservation. It’s to stop the deterioration. Then, restoration is a whole other ball game. That is all about money. That is all about who is going to pay for it, what is the motivation to raise the money to pay for it, and is this particular piece of film a priority in our culture that people need to see this. For example, there was a great restoration of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. There were all kinds of people who wanted to see that film restored because of its cultural significance. So the money was there for it and the library did a beautiful job. In the case of The Godfather, there was a strong economic incentive by Paramount Pictures to save that. But there are so many films that are preserved, but need to be preserved. That is a really challenging thing.
MARIANO: There is a misperception that even the 550 films that are in the National Film Registry have been restored, which is absolutely not true. I can’t remember what the statistic is that they told us, but I think it’s less than half. It’s amazing because when we went in there the first time we thought, “Well, at least they’ve certainly restored. I mean, they didn’t just take them and put them in a vault somewhere. They actually made sure to be at least pristine or opening night quality.” But they haven’t, but they are doing the best they can with the limited funding that they have.
NORTON: It’s overwhelming the amount of films that need help. Oh my gosh, it’s ridiculous.
Does a film have to be inside of the registry in order to be preserved or are they just trying to collect everything they can? What is the distinction there? You have these older films and no one has seen them so they can’t be recommended for the registry, but they are obviously a cultural artifact. Where does that dividing line go between general preservation and then the registry? How does the film registry go between it?
NORTON: George Willeman talks about the constant flow of material coming in. A lot of nitrate film collection is unknown as he says in our film. So they are constantly going through it. There is a huge amount of film out there sitting in the Library of Congress in nitrate vaults and there are vaults in general that are being preserved, but they don’t know what they are. So you don’t have to be in the registry to be preserved. You just simply have to get it to the Library of Congress. They bring it in and process it as fast as they can, but it’s overwhelming and crazy.
MARIANO: The Library of Congress is only one of five major houses that are doing preservation and restoration work. There are a number of smaller ones throughout the country. They usually work very harmoniously and in a collegial way to share film clips. I mean, when they were restoring Mr. Smith Goes to Washington they found the best pieces of sections over here and the best pieces over there. They brought them together to make the best restoration possible.
Do you guys have any films that you think should be added to the registry? Anything at the top of the list?
NORTON: [laughs] Yeah, we have a number.
MARIANO: Obviously, I put my favorite film in the world, which is Two for the Road. It is a 1969 Stanley Donen film with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. I absolutely adore that film. I can remember seeing it back in 1969 and I had gotten married the year before in 1968 and it spoke to me, as George would say. It spoke to me about what a marriage is. It’s this kind of bantering semi-fighting, but in a very romantic way. I’ve always loved that film. I don’t believe that there are any Stanley Donen films in the registry and that is a shame because he was an incredibly good director.
NORTON: That is pretty good. My favorite films are in the registry, but to me there are several that I think are slam dunks. I think that Key Largo would be a fantastic choice. I think The Candidate, with Robert Redford. I don’t mean to kiss up to Mr. Redford.
Go ahead. I think that it is an important film in terms of political culture.
NORTON: Yeah, I think it’s a great film. Personally, I would love to see Guns of the Navarone in the registry, but that is just my own personal opinion, or even The Great Escape. Those kind of really ridiculous kinds of films that were so important to me as a kid. But it may not really rise to level of cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance. But they have personal importance to me, so I would support their selection. However, I think films like Key Largo and The Candidate are important snapshots of our nation’s history. They really deserve it and I think they will get in at some point. It just takes somebody to champion them. Somebody on the board or some public nomination to build some momentum. Perhaps this year, Paul and I will dedicate the entire year to getting these films in. It may cost millions or billions. [laughs]
MARIANO: We are responsible for getting Airplane into the registry this year!
NORTON: We take responsibility for that one, but it’s not true.
MARIANO: Did you know that?
I didn’t know that. I knew it made the registry.
MARIANO: The movie Airplane was on the list the year before in 2009 when we were at the board meeting. We went to the board meeting in 2009 and John Ptak, who is a big part of this film and has been incredibly supportive and helpful, considers him to be very much a populist. He has been very much involved in getting films like The Rocky Horror Picture Show on. He has always wanted to get Airplane on. So we started a grassroots campaign where we got all of our friends and family around the country to write in to the Library of Congress to get Airplane on. It took a year, but they put it on. [laughs]
That’s fantastic. I might start my own campaign for The Big Lebowski.
NORTON: The Big Lebowski. When was that?
NORTON: 1997? Oh, great. Then, that qualifies easily. The thing is that the library likes to make a difference between legitimate grassroots campaigns and astroturf campaigns. [laughs]
I don’t need to do an astroturf. I would just get everybody from the Lebowski Fest to just write a letter.
NORTON: They were suspicious of us at first, but we had sincere desire for Airplane to be on the registry. So that is why we started this. As two citizens, we are entitled to do that.
MARIANO: We are indeed.
NORTON: They did tease us and say, “Is this a grassroots or an astroturf?” So they have a great sense of humor. I don’t mean to keep harping about Congress only because Paul is right about the fact that there are many archives that do great work like UCLA and the Pacific Film Archive. But the Library of Congress is so great because they are so open. They really are honest about everything and they will say stuff like that to you about the astroturf campaign and tease us about that because that is the reality of it. They want to make sure that these campaigns are legitimate, and they should be. They really should come from the heart, like you say with The Big Lebowski. That comes from your heart, and that’s where it should come from and not some sort of political agenda because some documentary would benefit from Airplane being on the registry.
MARIANO: The other thing that is great to me about the Library of Congress and The National Film Registry is that, first of all, it is a list. Everybody loves lists. You really get behind then and that somehow separates them. The other thing that fascinates me is that it is part of the United States government. We, whether we are left or right of the spectrum, tend to be opposed to the government. We are angry at the government about something. This is something that everyone can support and say, “Our government is doing a really good thing.”
I was wondering if you have any other projects coming up that you are turning your attention to now?
NORTON: We are still kind of flailing around and looking. As a documentary filmmaker you are always looking for the right story at the right time. We have one in mind that is sort of akin to this project. It’s a continuation of the idea.
MARIANO: It’s called Lost in Translation and it’s about audio dubbing American films for European and Asian audiences. What we found out was that normally a country will have a single voice person to represent, like, Brad Pitt. So there is a French, German, Italian, Spanish, and a Japanese Brad Pitt. What we were going to do was take a very famous well known American actor or actress like Brad Pitt or George Clooney and then follow around the globe kind of showing the story about them. The disparity of these individuals, but also the humanity. Then, obviously, getting the original– the Brad Pitt or the George Clooney to just show. The voice over work that is done is absolutely fascinating because, obviously, the person themselves who does the voice over work doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with. They don’t sound like them or look like them. We found stories, like this girl in France who does voice over work. The three voices she does are Madonna, Courteney Cox-Arquette, and Whoopi Goldberg. Those are the three characters she does and that was a fascinating story to us, and one that hasn’t been told yet.
NORTON: These actors are famous in their country for doing those voices. So they are known as actors who do those voices. So they are celebrities in their own right, which is very interesting. This whole culture really reflects American movies again. It reflects the impact we have on the world. There was a story about a woman who grew up in Italy and saw John Wayne for years with the Italian actor voicing John Wayne. She then got to the United States, heard the real john Wayne, and said, “He sounds like that?! Ugh.” So it’s that kind of distortion of culture. Yet, the embracing of culture by the rest of the world about our culture.