Arrow Films Special: An interview with Producer, Editor and Writer, Michael Brooke
Michael Brooke is a freelance writer, editor and producer, who works across the board of Arrow Film & Video titles, but especially on the ‘Arrow Academy’ releases (NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and THE LONG GOODBYE are two of his – you can thank him when you meet him).
You might also have come across his work at the BFI – he produced their Svankmajer and Quay Brothers collections. He’s also a regular contributor to Sight & Sound (his piece on Frantisek Vlacil opened my eyes to a phenomenal film maker, if you haven’t seen that man’s work yet, PLEASE check it out) and can be found in the booklet that will accompany the upcoming BFI Blu-Ray for George Franju’s sublime EYES WITHOUT A FACE.
Knowledgeable and generous to a fault, Michael has a lot to say; all of it worth listening to. Safe to say, I could have talked to him for even longer. Get comfy...
(NB: this interview was conducted late summer 2014 before the Borowczyk Box Set, and a number of other titles referred to here as "upcoming"‎, had been released to considerable acclaim).
What exactly does your job as a producer entail?
MB: The short answer: “proofreading subtitles, and lots of them”.
The long answer: I supervise everything to do with the creation of a Blu-ray or DVD. With Arrow, what usually happens is that I’m assigned titles that they’ve already licensed, and given a production budget that varies according to the perceived popularity of the film - so something like THE BURBS will be fairly generously budgeted while something like L’ASSASSINO, a film that, for all its undoubted excellence, is pretty much unknown in the UK, is put together on a comparative shoestring. At the time of licensing the main feature, extras from earlier DVD releases might also have been picked up as part of the package - for instance, THE LONG GOODBYE recycled two documentaries from the old MGM DVD, and I was also able to revive the commentary that Terry Jones originally recorded for Universal’s DVD release of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS. So there’s a chance that there might be a halfway decent package already in prospect.
What I then do is thoroughly examine the main feature, existing extras and, if I can get hold of them, releases on other labels. If they have good extras that are affordable, they can sometimes be licensed (especially if they were created by third parties, as is often the way), although I try to resist the temptation to throw in everything, as my BFI mentor Roma Gibson impressed upon me that overlapping information is something to be avoided at all costs. (Although admittedly it’s hard to avoid completely - a commentary and a featurette involving the same people may well include the same anecdotes, and it seems needlessly nit-picky to cut them from one or the other.) A particularly good reason for licensing third-party material is that they may feature people who have since died - this is true of two of my upcoming projects.
But possibly my favourite part of the job is creating brand new extras, and Arrow generally likes to have at least one per disc, in order to put a personal stamp on it. Sometimes this involves going out and shooting original material (for instance, filming writer Kevin Jackson eulogising Sullivan’s Travels at his home), sometimes I can do much of the work in my office with the aid of Final Cut Pro X and a lot of very large hard drives - the De Palma Digest on SISTERS being a good example, where critic Mike Sutton wrote and pre-recorded the soundtrack and I set it to assorted still and moving images, depending on what we had the rights to. I still get a huge buzz out of seeing the end result on a commercially-produced disc that you can buy in HMV, largely because I’m that much closer to the material.
At the same time I’m also planning the booklet, for which I usually commission a new piece (or, if the budget is tight, write one myself) and get hold of two or three archive pieces. For Arrow’s Academy releases I also compile a ‘Contemporary Reviews’ section, which is great fun - especially if the film is now considered an all-time classic but got some real stinkers on its original release. Although, that said, it’s quite sad seeing just how much THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER was slaughtered by critics on both sides of the Atlantic - even the nicer ones advised Charles Laughton not to give up his acting day job, and it’s a tragedy for film history that he took their advice.
Oh, and the sleeve artwork is also commissioned - Arrow usually likes to run new stuff alongside reversible covers of the most memorable original posters, although in the case of the Borowczyk titles we ended up opting for large stills and a similar title treatment, partly to give the discs a unified feel (this will continue if we release any later Borowczyk films) but also so that we could divert the budget into other areas.
That’s the fun bit. Then I have to bring it all together into a viable package, which is where the dreaded subtitle-proofing comes in, and much else besides.
We generally know upfront how good the master of the main feature is likely to be - sometimes the existence of a particular restoration can trigger an acquisition in the first place (L'ASSASINO being a case in point). Sometimes we don’t, and it has been known for projects to collapse because the master turned out not to be good enough - that happened recently to one of mine, although fortunately at a very early stage. I’ll be liaising constantly with Arrow’s technical producer James White about any likely issues - sometimes the master is so good that it can essentially be slapped straight onto the disc (THE KILLERS, L'ASSASSINO), and other times it needs a bit of clean-up (THE LONG GOODBYE, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS), which is carried out at Deluxe under James’s supervision. I’m hardly ever physically present during this process, not least because I completely trust his judgement - James and I go back a dozen years, to when we both started at the BFI in 2002.
While James is doing his thing, I’ll be liaising with the rightsholders of the extras, trying to obtain the best possible materials - although in this case we rarely bother to restore them, as it’s generally cost-prohibitive. For instance, we were offered versions of the documentary ‘Tonino Guerra - A Poet in the Movies’ with or without subtitles, and opted for “with” on the grounds that the budget was only just enough to be able to licence the documentary in the first place, and we didn’t want to incur any additional costs in commissioning optional electronic subtitles. The downside from the viewer’s perspective is that the subtitles can’t be switched off, but for an extra this is generally a price worth paying.
When the disc actually goes into production, I’ll be liaising regularly with four groups of people: Arrow themselves (either to reassure them that I’m on the case, or to seek more specific advice, since this is notionally their project), the authoring house (most commonly IBF, UTD or freelancer David Mackenzie), the subtitlers (if different: IBF does them in-house) and the designers of the sleeve, booklet and on-disc artwork (usually Obviously). Emails are flying thick and fast by this stage, although I generally know everyone concerned well enough to leave them alone to get on with it. Happily, Obviously’s Jack Pemberton and Emily Fordham, who’ve worked on all my Arrow releases to date, are that rare thing: graphic designers who can actually spell, so they’re a dab hand at typesetting too.
And then the proofs arrive, which are sent as PDFs in the case of printed materials, and DVD-Rs and BD-Rs in the case of discs. I then have to scour every square millimetre for potential problems, as this is the last chance I have to fix them. In the case of the PDFs, this amounts to old-fashioned proofreading, paying particular attention to things like catalogue numbers, barcodes, BBFC certificate numbers and specific contractual requirements - who gets listed in the credits, whether the disc should be region-locked, etc. In the case of the discs, I sit down and watch absolutely everything from beginning to end, multiple times if there are multiple soundtracks, keeping a keen eye out for anything that might be fixable.
Examples of things that get spotted at this stage: subtitle typos (it’s almost unheard of for these to be perfect first time), onscreen digital glitches (a mysterious green square that turned out to be an encoding error), out-of-sync soundtracks, incorrect aspect ratios, typos in menus, menu buttons that don’t do what they’re supposed to, etc. etc. etc. My Blu-ray setup in my office has been professionally calibrated (by David Mackenzie, who does a fair bit of the authoring), and so in theory I should be seeing exactly what I’m supposed to.
And then once these mistakes have been flagged up to the relevant people and corrected, I’m sent copies of what should notionally be identical to the release version. Hopefully nothing else untoward will get spotted at this stage (although it does happen…), and then I formally sign off on the project. When that happens, all the artwork and the disc info are uploaded to Sony’s pressing plant as digital files, and they take over from there.
And then, aside from chatting to Arrow’s PR/marketing people about how best to promote it, that’s it for my involvement: a fortnight or so later I receive a complimentary copy the final product, and usually don’t dare to take the shrinkwrapping off, lest I somehow jinx it. The Borowczyk box is going to be particularly terrifying as it involves eleven discs, five sleeves and a book that we’ve had printed in Poland to save money. What could possibly go wrong? (Don’t answer that!)
It's an enormous amount of work and much of it is about the fine details. How much time do you usually get for a project?
It varies: usually a few months, at worst a few weeks. But this depends on all sorts of variables relating to the individual project, its level of ambition, availability of materials, etc. - for instance there’s no way we could have got the Borowczyk set done and dusted in a few weeks (we needed a six-week extension in the end, and used every minute of that!), but the development of the much simpler L'ASSASSINO was comparatively rapid. I took on the job in late February and everything was signed off more or less exactly three months later.
Of course, when I say “it took three months”, that doesn’t mean that it’s a full-time job, or anywhere close - the only three really time-consuming jobs for me personally on that project were (a) editing Pasquale Iannone’s intro to add clips, posters, stills, titles, etc. (he supplied just the barebones straight-to-camera intro); (b) giving the subtitles on the main feature a heavy going-over (the translation was a little too literal and over-zealous, with the inspector’s regular onomatopoeic exclamations rendered unnecessarily as text); (c) copy-editing the booklet. Other than that, it was just a case of picking the right people - booklet essayist Camilla Zamboni, artist Jay Shaw - and letting them do their thing, which in their case they both did superbly. (Guess how bothered my face looked when Camilla apologetically submitted a 4,000-word piece instead of the 2,000-word one I’d commissioned and paid for?)
In terms of creating new extras, how much of a free hand do you get with that? I'm assuming it's a mix of budgetary and time considerations... in terms of keeping costs down, does that mean you're shooting as well as editing some extras? A one man mini-studio if you will?
Yes - my goal is to keep the budget as low as I possibly can, and so the more I can do myself the better. Or indeed my colleagues: Daniel Bird’s Borowczyk extras are similarly largely one-man shows in terms of production and initial editing.
Thankfully, modern technology makes this much more straightforward than would have been the case only a few years ago - for instance, I can now take a self-filmed digital file of Pasquale Iannone speaking to camera, cut in stills and high-definition clips, add subtitles to the latter where necessary (lifted from the main feature), round everything off with credits in the style of the overall packaging, and squirt the resulting twelve gigabyte file straight to encoder David Mackenzie for slapping straight onto the disc. Whereas very recently indeed we’d still have been faffing around with professional videotape and the extremely expensive equipment that comes with it. In other words, the total production cost is in three figures rather than four (and not even high three figures at that), and that makes a big difference on projects like this where every penny counts. I’m very proud of L'ASSASSINO, which turned out rather better than I thought I’d be able to achieve with my production budget - although it helped that the existing restoration looked stunning from the start.
Even collaborations are often carried out online. On THE BURBS, for instance, I edited the deleted scenes into a 20-minute package, uploaded it to a password-protected Vimeo stream, and then Joe Dante recorded his commentary on the other side of the Atlantic, offering some editorial advice along the way. He and I never had any direct contact (Ewan Cant, the project’s producer, would have handled all that), but the buzz was indescribable - especially when he broke off from the commentary to suggest to “Mr Arrow person” that I might make such-and-such a tweak. (Naturally, he got every wish: I’m not going to argue with someone whom Roger Corman described as the best trailer editor in the business).
I know you have had some production experience with features, so being able to keep a hand in on such a creative level must be hugely satisfying.
Well, one feature, and if the experience taught me anything it’s that feature filmmaking wasn’t for me! But I do love working on small-scale projects like this, without harbouring any illusions as to their ultimate artistic worth.
Something I note about the companies doing the best work in this arena, the reason they're running rings around studio releases, and I'd suggest why they're persist and survive in a market where physical media is under threat, is that they're all invariably run and put together by people who are film lovers first. They're not just studio employees, but empowered, passionate creators willing to go the extra distance because they can - with digital media, the means are there - and because their passion means they WANT to.
Yes, I completely agree. Although I haven’t instigated most of my projects, Arrow knows my taste well enough to hand me stuff that they think I’ll really get into - even if it’s something previously unknown to me like L'ASSASSINO.
And of course another crucial element is finding contributors who are also passionate about the project - in the case of L'ASSASSINO one name immediately leaped out at me when scouting around, and that was Camilla Zamboni, who’s been engaged in a one-woman crusade to elevate director Elio Petri’s reputation to the status of contemporaries like Fellini, Pasolini, Rosi and the Tavianis. She contributed more to that release than her credit as booklet essayist suggests - in particular by putting me in touch with other useful people.
It’s wonderful when you tap into someone else’s rabid enthusiasm. We had two bona fide celebrities contributing to the Borowczyk release - Terry Gilliam and Patrice Leconte - and they were just as impassioned as any fan, which of course they were as well. And when I filmed Kevin Jackson on SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS we did it virtually in one take: I arguably should have done a second one for technical reasons (I tried to hide it as much as possible in the edit, but towards the end it’s clear that we were losing the light and the focus was slipping), but I suspect it wouldn’t have had the same freshness and spontaneity.
In fact, I’ve just approached someone as a contributor to a future release over the last few days - as soon as Arrow told me they’d cleared the rights to a particular film, I immediately contacted a fellow S&S contributor who was arguably the UK’s leading expert on the subject of both the film and its director. Would he be interested in discussing it in whatever form he felt most congenial - booklet essay, commentary, video essay, etc.? He got back to me within about five minutes to say he’d gladly do anything I wanted - and this is by no means an uncommon reaction.
There's something inherent in cinephiles that they WANT to share. For all that watching movies is a singular and potentially solitary experience, still the first instinct of most film fans when they meet others is to say "have you seen THIS?" "I have to lend you THIS!". It's the desire to have other people share their passion, share the overwhelming emotional experience that a great film will have on you. I think it's that aspect that turns some fans into film makers, others into critics, exhibitors etc, and makes companies like Arrow such a success. Theirs a directness, a shared ethos, shared approach and aesthetic that fans respond to, as well as the extremely high quality of the product. Is that your experience your experience too?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, that’s one of the really exciting things about the Borowczyk project: next Easter marks the thirtieth anniversary of me getting to see most of his output (thanks to a near-complete ICA retrospective in 1985), and I’m FINALLY getting to share this stuff with other people in copies that actually do it justice. And sometimes I myself get to see things properly for the first time as a by-product of projects like this - I’d seen all of Jan Svankmajer’s shorts prior to working on the BFI box, but I hadn’t seen THE CASTLE OF OTRANTO or THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER with subtitles before I commissioned some myself. And with Borowczyk’s DIPTYCH, although I’d seen it in 16mm twice, the print was very badly faded, and the intended contrast between the grainy black-and-white first half and the dazzlingly stylised colour of the second simply didn’t work as intended - indeed, I didn’t fully appreciate WHAT was intended until the restoration.
In a lot of ways I view the choice of films that Arrow (or any label) puts out to be basically like programming in a cinema. Even more so on this kind of level, where I really think that the likes of Arrow, Masters Of Cinema, Second Run, Criterion and so-on are like the repertory houses that some of us grew up with. Outside the capital, the rep houses (at least as they used to exist) are few and far between now. In the past, TV filled that gap - BBC2 and Ch4 in particular through the 1980's was the repertory experience for many of us living outside of London. That kind of richness is gone now. But the kind of Curated Brand that Arrow represents has stepped up. They have built the kind of loyal following that a well programmed rep house once had, where you show up to a film even if you're not sure of it. And even if you don't love it in the end, you'll know it was worth it. It was interesting. You can see why it they programmed it, or in Arrow's case, why it was put out. You can't buy the kind of loyalty that has people blind buying your titles. It has to be earned…
Very much so. And I spent much of the 1980s in various London rep cinemas and helped run one myself in the 1990s (the Everyman in Hampstead, when it still showed daily-changing double and triple bills), so I’m particularly conscious of the fact that there are far more similarities than differences. Indeed, when we used to show new-print revivals at the Everyman, the process really wasn’t that different from what I do at Arrow: we’d pick a film, order a print, sometimes commission new subtitles, write a press book and so on. We’d also think about how to market it to new audiences - notoriously, in the case of a 1992 revival of BELLE DE JOUR we tagged it “the Rolls-Royce of sex films”, gambling that those who knew what the film was wouldn’t be put off (BELLE DE JOUR hadn’t been seen in cinemas for years, and its last telly outing was nearly a decade before) and those who had never heard of it might be enticed. It broke the house record at both its opening venues, so it clearly worked!
In fact, I’ve even had the bizarre experience of an “extra” getting more attention than the main feature. In 1990, we hosted the British premiere of Michael Roemer’s THE PLOT AGAINST HARRY, which was filmed in New York in the late 1960s but for various reasons it wasn’t completed for another two decades. It just so happened that the BFI had acquired a 35mm print of Samuel Beckett’s FILM, which had never had a non-festival release in Britain, and could we think of how to present it. It didn’t have much in common with THE PLOT AGAINST HARRY, but both films were filmed in NYC in the 1960s, so why not double-bill them? And I have particularly fond memories of the result because despite only middling reviews THE PLOT AGAINST HARRY turned out to be a substantial hit in its own right (Jewish-themed films, especially comedies, always did well in Hampstead), while FILM attracted a disproportionate amount of critical attention aimed at a different audience - in fact, Philip French actually led his column with it, on the grounds that it was the only important film opening that week! Indeed, we actually had people buying a ticket for FILM on its own and leaving after it had finished! (I also remember our staff having mixed feelings about its success - because FILM was totally silent, bar a single ironic “Sssh!”, they had to stay absolutely silent while it was playing because their foyer conversations were clearly audible in the auditorium.)
And with the rep programming in general you’re absolutely right about the branding. At the Everyman, each day had a particular flavour -Friday was cult/student-oriented, Saturday was recent mainstream, Sunday was slightly less recent mainstream, European arthouse on Monday (Bergman/Bresson/Rohmer triple bills), Tuesday (and Sunday matinees) was classic Hollywood, Wednesday was comparatively recent mainstream, while Thursday was our “anything goes” day, where we’d take sweeping risks and if they didn’t pay off the idea was that they’d be cushioned by the success of more commercially-oriented fare. But when we had a hit on a Thursday, it was sometimes massive - I have particularly fond memories of the sellout success of a three-hour programme of very early short films by world-class directors, something ten a penny in the DVD extra/YouTube era but virtually impossible to see twenty years ago.
(The other crucial thing that actually working in a rep cinema taught me is to respect the bottom line. I still vividly remember the buzz of coming into the office on Monday morning and seeing how well the weekend’s box office had performed - or of course poorly. And I have possible future Arrow projects whose greenlighting is understandably conditional on existing releases performing well.)
On the subject of branding, I think a current label that does this particularly well is Second Run, whose entire business ethos RELIES on people’s willingness to blind buy, since so much of their catalogue is so obscure, in the sense of being completely outside the normal film canons. Because they have a reputation for such extraordinary sureness of taste, people are prepared to take that risk - and often they’re richly rewarded. But the label is only too aware that they have to work to maintain that reputation: they can’t just put out any old crap for the sake of making a quick buck, as they’d be rumbled very quickly indeed.
I've worked in cinemas myself. At what I think of as the 'tail end of the Golden Period for Arthouse Cinemas (1999-2003 - while Katrina Stokes and Dylan Cave, who I believe you've since worked with at the BFI, were there) - I was working at the Picturehouse in Oxford and got an extraordinary opportunity (I didn't realise until much later how unusual the opportunity was) to programme regular Late Show seasons, based purely on my passion and my stepping up to do it. I very much based my ethos around my idea of the Rep Houses I'd not had access to, but which were legendary to me. The specific thrill of sharing the films, writing film notes, putting programmes together (cut and paste on a photocopier), then seeing the audience connect... seeing what Arrow and labels like Second Run put out - and the way they do it - I get a very specific sense of that same excitement and thrill behind it...
It’s a real buzz, isn’t it?
Incidentally, I dealt with Katrina very recently indeed - she was the one who facilitated the transfer of a previously unbroadcast 1985 interview with Borowczyk from the original master tapes onto a ProRes digital file for the big Borowczyk project. As luck would have it, Large Door Productions who made Channel 4’s ‘Visions’, donated all their materials to the BFI a few years ago, including unbroadcast interviews - and I found the Borowczyk tape when I was originally planning to develop a Borowczyk DVD for the BFI. So I was able to get DVD-Rs struck, and passed them onto Daniel Bird, who then created a whole documentary around the interview - but the actual footage looked fairly crappy in the rough cut, so I was delighted to be able to go back to the originals.
You mention not having instigated the projects that you've worked on for Arrow, but that they try to match their films to the right producers. They're coming at that from past connections with you in other areas of the business, but also based on your previous Producing work, and your work as a critic. Am I right in saying that you DID instigate the Svankmajer and Quay Brothers Box Sets that you produced for the BFI? How did those come about? How did you move into producing in the first place? And how much have they stood you in good stead? Certainly, from an outsiders perspective, they're a hell of a calling card!
The Svankmajer set came about because as a BFI staffer I was automatically sent an all-staff email listing recent rights acquisitions - and there were a handful of Svankmajer films - this was circa 2003. So I dashed off an email to Erich Sargeant, the then head of BFI Video Publishing, and said that I had a certain reputation as a Svankmajer expert and if he wanted any assistance he was most welcome to call on it. He called me down to his office and asked if I’d like to produce the entire project. I said I’d never produced a DVD before. He pointed out that my main job at the BFI involved multimedia content development (chiefly for Screenonline), and said that DVD production was pretty much the same sort of thing. So he assigned one of their regular producers - Roma Gibson - to keep an eye on me and offer advice, and it all took off from there.
Although it didn’t really take off as such: the original plan was just to duplicate the twelve shorts that had previously been released on VHS onto a single Blu-ray, and I forget precisely when Erich decided to go for a complete edition, but when he did that necessitated renegotiating everything (not least because many of the additional titles came from the same rightsholder). We were still only partway through development by early 2006, when the Quay Brothers project was first mooted - and because they’d clearly liked what I’d done with Svankmajer, and because I was already a friend of the Quays’ producer Keith Griffiths, they offered me that one as well. And in the event it came out first: November 2006 versus May 2007, largely because everything was conveniently London-based and the twins were very actively involved (they remain good friends to this day).
And then I tried to get two similar projects off the ground - one of which was a Walerian Borowczyk set! - but both foundered for various reasons. Not least the fact that there was a change of emphasis at the BFI, with far greater stress on British films and the BFI’s own holdings. And they also stopped using freelance producers round about then (this would have been 2008), although I was very heavily involved with INSTITUTE BENJAMENTA and ALICE (and even got a co-producer credit on the latter, although I was more of a consultant than a producer proper).
And yes, these two releases have been very good to me indeed - although from the BFI’s perspective it was a complete win-win, as they capped my fee from the start, knowing perfectly well that I’d put in however many hours it took to get them just right.
You're especially well known for your knowledge of Czech cinema, it was through your article in S&S, and Second Run's DVD releases, that I discovered Frantisek Vlacil (for which, many thanks!). You also had some involvement with the BFI restoration of Svankmajer's ALICE, working with James White who is now the restoration supervisor at Arrow. That's a hugely important film for me, not because of the political aspects of its making etc., but on a very primal level. It absolutely conveys to me the way I processed the world as a child - the absolute mix of reality and imagination, the very vividness of the world around me. It's one of my favourite films... it's also the film I'll often use to demonstrate to people what I see as the beauty of Blu-Ray. Because that film is so textural, so aware of touch and texture as a sensation, and the Blu-Ray just makes it POP. The light and colour are gorgeous, but the texture is so vivid I find it almost overwhelming.
ALICE took ages to develop - I think the original plan was to release it round about the time of the Tim Burton film, but in the event it came out a year later. The reason for that is that tracking down decent materials took forever: every single previous video release had come from the same analogue tape master created by Channel Four in the 1980s, but that was obviously unsuitable for Blu-ray. I wasn’t directly involved in the lengthy process of finding the original 35mm materials (thanks to the film’s clandestine production it was by no means obvious where they were), but they were finally found - and we ended up having direct access to both the original camera negative and the original 35mm interpositive, which is an absolute Holy Grail situation: we literally couldn’t have done any better. (And can you imagine giving Svankmajer’s other films similar treatment? The 35mm materials could potentially generate transfers just as good!).
The other bonus is that with those materials came the original Czech soundtrack, although I strongly recommended retaining the English track for nostalgia reasons. But to our surprise, it didn’t sync up especially well, and on closer examination it turned out that the C4 version had made a few small cuts to the original, presumably to tone it down for what they thought was still primarily an audience of children. Fortunately, there was very little spoken content, so we could pad out the cuts with material from the Czech track.
James has been a good friend for the better part of a dozen years - totally coincidentally, we joined and left the BFI at roughly the same time (2002-11) although for different reasons: I took voluntary redundancy, while he took up a job offer that didn’t work out. And as luck would have it he started freelancing at the exact point that Arrow was looking for someone to beef up their reputation. So by a very happy coincidence he’s worked on every single one of my projects, unless the supplied master materials were so good that his involvement wasn’t necessary - THE KILLERS and L'ASSASSINO.
Oh, I PRAY the other Svankmajer movies can get the treatment that ALICE received! They really deserve it. He’s an extraordinary film maker and the images so textured that they’re crying out for the bluray treatment.
Your first project as Producer for Arrow was their BD of Charles Laughton's NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. You've mentioned that was a little frustrating because you didn't have the budget to go as far with the extras as you'd have liked, but you must have been proud of it. It's a wonderful transfer and the main extra "Charles Laughton Directs", really is extraordinary in and of itself... it's one of the greatest documentaries I've ever seen about the making of a movie.
The issue with THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is that at the time and indeed to date it’s the only disc I’ve produced where I knew even before taking the job on that I couldn’t match the standard set by a rival edition - in this case Criterion’s amazing two-disc blow-out. So I had to adopt the mindset that the Arrow would be about half the price (even with the strong pound, you’ll be lucky to get the Criterion for less than £20 new, whereas the Arrow is going for nearer a tenner), but considerably better than merely half as good. As you say, we had an excellent transfer (not the same as the one that fuelled the Criterion, but sourced from the same UCLA restoration) and what I sincerely think is the best “making-of” documentary ever made. And, for what it’s worth, Arrow’s booklet is a fair bit more substantial than Criterion’s - that wasn’t an accident.
Of the titles you have produced at Arrow, which do you feel you achieved the most with? Whether in terms of the overall content, the transfer, or the ability to help really push a film toward rediscovery/keeping it in the cultural conversation? It was so good to see Don Siegel getting the push that he so clearly deserves. I really think his name has been a bit lost to younger film fans. I'm guessing however that the Boro Box Set looms large on the horizon…
Borowczyk, no question: nothing else I’ve done has been anything like as important. It’s not just the fact that we’ve compiled pretty much a complete edition of his personal work over a sixteen-year period (plus three commercials: Wikipedia’s filmography is admirably extensive, but a lot of the titles it lists aren’t really “films de Borowczyk” as such!), but we’ve done it in high-quality high-definition copies and contextualised the lot - with the upfront aim of completely rehabilitating his reputation. Forty years ago, he was regarded as a potential successor to Buñuel (and this isn’t hyperbole: I’ve done some extensive library trawling). Thirty years ago, he was “that arty pornographer” - and not unfairly, as by the mid-80s his post- IMMORAL TALES work was all that was easily available. That said, I’m second in the Borowczyk production credits for reasons other than alphabetical order - this is primarily Daniel Bird’s baby.
So if I had to name a favourite Arrow release that I oversaw myself, it would be SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, not least because I created two of its extras largely single-handedly (Kevin Jackson’s estimable contribution aside), so I feel closer to it than the others. And while the jury’s still out on whether it’s sold enough copies to greenlight a full-scale Preston Sturges box on Blu-ray, the excitement when Arrow dropped that hint was thrilling - someone even incorporated the suggestion into his forum signature!
A Sturges Blu-Ray set would be wonderful. I have the DVD set that Universal put out a while back, the films and the style are still so fresh and dynamic, and surprisingly edgy at times. And yet I do feel that Sturges seems underappreciated or maybe underknown at the moment. Certainly among the generation who've had the internet and geek culture as their primary reference point. He's a name that gets lumped in with the likes of Capra, and while the best of Capra still stands up, I think that there's a greater percentage of Sturges' movies that hold up better. There's just a greater verve. I said this about Joe Dante recently, but Sturges movies are effervescent. They're fizzing with jokes and ideas, intelligence and wit. I'd love to think that more future film makers might be influenced by him.
I had to watch virtually everything back to back when working on the SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS disc in general and the Preston Sturges Stock Company featurette in particular (for which I didn’t so much watch as scour his back catalogue), and it was wonderful - as you say, they really do stand up phenomenally well. In particular, the core message of SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS hasn’t really dated at all.
And of course Sturges is still very influential to this day, most notably on the Coen Brothers.
The wheel is always turning, new fans are always finding their way through the cannon of great cinema. Each successive generation of film fans discovers and rediscovers certain films and directors. Inevitably there’s a potential for just rehashing, re-releasing the same movies over and over again. It seems now part of the duty of film critics and film labels (and film fans) to introduce and champion new names, new discoveries and rescue/defend/re-evaluate works and artists that have fallen out of favour, fallen through the cracks. Arrow really seem to be at the forefront of this, of embracing this idea and making it a fundamental part of their ethos: De Palma, Jack Hill, Preston Sturges, Don Siegel, Elio Petri, Lucio Fulci, and now Walerian Boroczyk... how important is that to you, and to the future of the industry?
Very. I’m acutely conscious of the fact that many of the films that I saw in the 1980s and 1990s in 35mm simply aren’t available in decent copies any more, and equally conscious of how many gaps I was unable to plug back then. The digital revolution has brilliantly catered for both - in fact, when I wrote a Sight & Sound ‘Lost and Found’ column about the Taviani Brothers’ ALLONSANFAN, I realised that although they were arthouse darlings in the 1970s and 80s, we only ever got to see the middle chunk (1974-93) of their lengthy career (1962-2012) - and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve been able to catch up with the others, and still haven’t seen some of their work with English subtitles. But I have at least SEEN it, which is a major step in the right direction.
Although it’s always a challenge getting all the funding and materials together - a single independent UK label can’t realistically fund anything too obscure from scratch (as you know, we had to turn to Kickstarter for the Borowczyk project, and Arrow’s feeling is that crowdfunding should be used sparingly for really eye-catching but commercially tricky stuff in a similar vein), so we’re massively reliant on the work of others. For instance L'ASSASSINO was dictated by the availability of a 2K restoration by the Cineteca di Bologna rather than us singling it out from Elio Petri’s back catalogue (excellent though the film is) - and the decision of three UK labels to pass on acquiring Jiří Trnka’s work in his centenary year a couple of years ago was dictated by the lack of decent materials. I hope the Czechs will fund a proper restoration eventually, but the ball is very much in their court.
I’m glad you mentioned film fans as well as film critics, as I think they’ll be playing an increasingly important role. They always have done, of course - after all, they buy the discs and keep the label afloat - but social media has facilitated far more interaction, and this can be very valuable indeed, once you’ve established what’s actually possible. But then again, the Borowczyk project must have seemed completely pie-in-the-sky a couple of years ago - in fact, whoever would have guessed that we’d see HD box sets devoted to him, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Werner Herzog, Pierre Etaix, Jacques Demy and Eric Rohmer by now?
Anyone else on your radar for the Borowczyk treatment? Or whose work you think needs/deserves it? Or would that be tipping your hand?
I could come up with any number of names who deserve it, but sadly there’s nothing anything like that ambitious on the horizon. In fact, I’m working on another box set right now, but everything in it has been released on HD elsewhere, so it’s nowhere near as exciting - although I daresay region-locked UK customers will be pretty grateful!