Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Interviews. Show all posts

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Interview with Ben Model of Undercrank Productions


June 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of Undercrank Productions, a DVD distributor founded by silent film accompanist Ben Model. I've had the privilege to interview Ben Model at the TCM Classic Film Festival a few years ago. And now he's back with an interview for Out of the Past.

Check out my interview below. And if you're interested in buying some DVDs, Undercrank Productions titles are discounted on Critics Choice VideoDeep Discount and Movies Unlimited for a limited time.

Raquel Stecher: I really enjoyed your recent performance at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival for the Rin Tin Tin movie Clash of the Wolves (1925). It was a festival favorite for sure! Can you tell me a bit about how you became a silent film accompanist?

Ben Model: I got my start accompanying films while I was a film production student at NYU. I was a big silent film fan growing up, and also played piano. The first semester of the basic overview film history course we all took Freshman year was silent films. And I do mean silent – these were screened in 16mm prints that had no soundtracks. I don’t know what possessed me but the next year I volunteered to play for the silent film screenings, and found myself playing for 2 or sometimes 3 classes a week. I made a point of meeting film accompanists in NYC to get advice. William Perry – who was MoMA’s film pianist 1969-1982 and scored films for “The Silent Years” on PBS – was a big help. Lee Erwin, who was the organist at the revival theater “The Carnegie Hall Cinema”, became a friend and mentor – Lee had been a movie theater organist in the 1920s

Still from Clash of the Wolves (1925)

TCM's Jacqueline Stewart with Ben Model at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival

Raquel: Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of Undercrank Productions! How did your label come about and how did you come up with the name?

Ben: A few things I was interested in kind of came together at the same time. I was looking for a way to do more scoring for silent films on home video than I was being hired to do already, I was interested in the process of how DVDs get made and released, and I was looking at ways of getting some obscure and rare silent comedy shorts I owned in 16mm out to fans who’d want to see them. During 2012, I figured out the various pieces of how this could happen, and also became aware of Amazon’s just-launched manufacture-on-demand DVD platform. Around the same time, I learned about Kickstarter, which had only been around for a couple years, and realized that involving fans of silent films in the process by crowdfunding my first DVD project, that would take care of the production costs. I’m pretty sure the Kickstarter I did to produce and release Accidentally Preserved was the first time this had been done with a silent or classic film home-video release. The whole thing worked, and I kept doing one or two of these every year. 

The name comes from my fascination with the way undercranking was used and utilized throughout the silent film era and was a ubiquitous part of the movie-making process for the camera operators and the performers. I thought naming my DVD company “Undercrank Productions” would help promote awareness of this. I also was looking for a name that had a few of “K” sounds in it. 

Raquel: How have you used Kickstarter as a platform to help create awareness and fund your projects?

Ben: I’ve found Kickstarter to be a great way to democratize the process of funding these projects. For the video I made for my 2nd or 3rd Kickstarter I came up with the tag-line, “Why not be part of the ‘someone’ in ‘why doesn’t someone put that out on DVD?’”. I try to emphasize the fact that if we all get out and push, we can make this happen. Ten years ago, it felt a little funny to be going hat-in-hand on social media, but by now – even 5 years ago – I think everyone gets it.

Raquel: What is the workflow like for your releases in terms of curation, restoration, accompaniment and distribution?

Ben: If it’s a disc of comedy shorts, Steve Massa and I start with picking an overlooked or forgotten comedian and then seeing if there’s enough of their films extant and available – through collectors or, more often, from the Library of Congress – to fill up a disc. Sometimes we’ve been able to add to a playlist of shorts with a title that we’d get, through the Library of Congress, from MoMA or the EYE Filmmuseum. We’ll screen the material for completeness and image quality and make a decision from there. Because these are fan-funded, manufacture-on-demand projects, that takes the issue of whether or not we’re going to sell 1000 or 2000 units off the table. Who the heck is Marcel Perez? Or Alice Howell? Nobody knows or remembers them, but that doesn’t matter. Once I have the funding from the Kickstarter, scans are ordered from the Library of Congress, and I get high-end video files of the film or films. 

If the Kickstarter campaign goes way way over the funding goal, then there’s a budget for digital restoration. Then there’s inter-title recreation, if needed. Then the restored version of the files get graded, which means someone goes shot by shot and corrects exposure, and will also reinstate color tinting if we know what it was supposed to be originally. Once we have the final version of the restored film, then I create a screener for myself, and create the scores on either piano or theatre organ.

Once I’m at that phase, Marlene Weisman begins work on the graphic design of the Blu-ray and DVD case. She is beyond fantastic, and I think the artwork on a release is crucial. It’s your first line of defense online, and makes an important impression – just because a release is self-published it doesn’t have to have a self-published look to it. Once all the video and audio pieces are done, then the “authoring” happens, when the files get woven into something that can be burned into a disc and play in your physical media player.

For distribution, I’ve been using Alliance Entertainment to do all the manufacturing, order fulfillment and online listings on the various platforms like Amazon and DeepDiscount, et al. The final files and graphics get uploaded to Alliance, and I set the street date. I write a press release and send it out to my press list, and we mail out copies of the finished disc to reviewers… and hope for the best.

Raquel: Tell me about your partnership with the Library of Congress and your Found at Mostly Lost series.

Ben: Rob Stone, who is a Curator in the Moving Image Section of the Library of Congress’ National Audio Visual Conservation Center, came up with the idea of doing this. He’d worked out a co-branding deal with Kino Lorber in 2012 for their release of King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis. I’m one of the resident silent film accompanists at the NAVCC’s Packard Campus Theatre, and am down in Culpeper VA for a show a handful of times a year. I was set to Kickstart and produce my 2nd project, The Mishaps of Musty Suffer (1916-1917), a slapstick comedy serial, and Rob got the idea to apply what had been done with Kino with me and Undercrank Productions. It meant I’d have to put the Library of Congress’ logo at the head of the film and on the DVD case, which was a huge plus for me. I had no name recognition, but the LoC sure did. 

Anyone can pay for scans of films from the Library, as long as they’re public domain films and have no donor restrictions, and get them as files or on a disc. My co-branding relationship with the LoC allows me to do a slightly deeper dive into the collection when I’m considering a film or bunch of shorts. It’s made it possible for me to release silent films that the more established labels might not be interested in, which is a win for the Library as it helps get films they’ve preserved and worked on get out that ordinarily wouldn’t see the light of day.

The two Found at Mostly Lost DVDs are actually comprised of films that were identified at the “Mostly Lost” film identification workshops held at the Library of Congress in the 2010s. These films had been scanned and scored for a DVD included in the “swag-bag” attendees got each year. My idea was to make these available for the general public, for the folks who were interested. The workshop hasn’t happened for a few years, due to the pandemic, and while there aren’t any concrete plans for when it will happen again, I’m hoping that it’s just hibernating and will resurface in the next year or so.

Raquel: You've done a great job releasing the lesser known work from some key figures from film history including Lon Chaney, Marion Davies, Frank Borzage and Edward Everett Horton. Why is it important that these rare silents be preserved and shared with silent film enthusiasts and beyond? 

Ben: The silent movies I release, thankfully, have already been preserved by the film archives. I feel like my role in the overall process is one of feeding and enriching the interest and fandom of silent cinema, including my own, by helping to fill out the landscape of silent cinema beyond the “usual suspects” tentpole films. These are the movies everyone went to see and enjoyed back in the silent era while they were waiting for the next Mary Pickford or Harold Lloyd film to be released.

Raquel: Is there one release that you're particularly proud of?

Ben: It’s hard to pick just one. But I’m really pleased with what we’ve done to make the films of comedian Marcel Perez available. Steve Massa got me interested in these, and they’re all excellent comedies. Perez was one of the many comedian-filmmakers of the silent era, physical comedians who also had a unique and recognizable directorial style. His own grandchildren–who Steve had connected with– had never seen Perez’s films and believed them to be lost. Most of his U.S.-made films are missing and we’re hoping more of them turn up so we can do a third volume.

Raquel: I really loved The Alice Howell Collection! Can you tell me more about how you came to curate and release that collection?

Ben: We have Steve Massa once again to thank for this project. Alice Howell is on the cover of his book Slapstick Divas, which is a huge book all about the women of silent film comedy. The more of her films we tracked down, watched, and showed in film programs we worked on, the more I thought a DVD of her films needed to happen. She starred in her own series of comedy shorts for about ten years and was popular and successful. You can see a link – even if it’s one you’re threading yourself – from Alice Howell to Lucille Ball to Carol Burnett and onward. She’s also got an important Hollywood legacy: her daughter married film director George Stevens, and her grandson George Stevens, Jr. is a filmmaker, founder of the American Film Institute and is co-creator of the Kennedy Center Honors. The Alice Howell DVD wound up being a 2-disc set, and was another Undercrank Productions release that was done through my co-branding arrangement with the Library of Congress. 

Raquel: During the early days of the pandemic you and Steve Massa started The Silent Comedy Watch Party series which now has over 90 episodes on YouTube. Can you tell me how this came about?

Ben: I’d had the basic concept for this for a few years. Somewhere here I have a drawing I made of how the equipment and the piano would be set up. The second week of March 2020 we all knew something was coming and we didn’t know what, but things were beginning to close up a little, and we were starting to hear about staying 6 feet away from each other. I live-streamed the show’s pilot, sort of a proof-of-concept to see if I could do it and to see if it worked for viewers. The reaction we got was enthusiastic and heartfelt – people who posted comments or sent emails thanked us for giving them some laughs. It was that release from the stress we were anticipating we’d be under, and then a couple days later I watched every gig I had get canceled, and the shutdown happened. 

We now had to do the show, and had to continue doing it. There was nowhere for anyone to go, and we knew people really needed the laughs. This was more than just putting on a silent film show, we realized we were now helping people get through what they were going through. Marlene created the title logo for The Silent Comedy Watch Party, I figured out how we would bring Steve on from his place for his intros – for the pilot, he’d come over to my apartment – my wife Mana had to learn how to operate a camera and tripod, and she and Steve’s wife Susan worked out how they’d stage-manage the show together via text while we were “on the air”. And I now found myself in the position of silent film accompanist-presenter and also the director of a live television show, both at the same time. 

It was the comments we’d get every week from people who were watching around the globe that let us know how much the shows and getting to laugh and forget everything for 90 minutes every Sunday meant to them. Now I meet people at in-person shows who recognize me and come up and tell me how The Silent Comedy Watch Party helped get them through the pandemic. It’s very moving.

Raquel: What's next for Undercrank Productions and where can people follow you?

Ben: We’re releasing a disc of restored Raymond Griffith silent comedies on June 13th, and a disc of restored Tom Mix westerns on July 11th. We’re in the midst of production on a project of restorations of films starring and directed by Francis Ford, and I expect to announce a Kickstarter later in the year for our first collaboration with the UCLA Film & TV Archive. The month-long anniversary sale on all our releases during June will hopefully give silent film fans a chance to discover some of the many silent comedy gems we’ve released, and for any loyal fans to fill out their Undercrank Productions media shelf. My website’s the best place to check out my blog or sign up for my emails, check out my Silent Film Music Podcast, and find out where I’m performing. My Twitter and Instagram handle is @silentfilmmusic, and my YouTube channel is

You can buy Undercrank Productions DVDs at a discounted price on Critics Choice VideoDeep Discount and Movies Unlimited for a limited time.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Interview with John Stangeland, author of Aline MacMahon: Hollywood, the Blacklist, and the Birth of Method Acting

I'm thrilled to be joined by writer and biographer John Stangeland. We chatted over a decade ago about his Warren William biography (review here and interview here). Now he is back with an excellent new biography on the much-beloved character actress Aline MacMahon, out now from the University Press of Kentucky. I was honored to have contributed this blurb for the book's publication:

“Stangeland shines a much needed spotlight on one of the great actresses of stage and screen whose talent and versatility was admired by many. ... Absorbing and highly readable, this biography will rescue MacMahon from obscurity and give her the recognition she so greatly deserves.”— Raquel Stecher, film historian and critic

Now onto the interview!

Raquel Stecher: Congratulations on your new book! In 2010 you published your book Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood. How did you chose Aline MacMahon as the subject of your next biography?

John Stangeland: I had been aware of Aline for quite a while. I probably saw Five Star Final—her first film—when I was about 12 or 13. I started looking closer at her while I was writing the Warren William book, since they share two films together. That was when I first noticed how different her acting style was in comparison to the other actors of the period. I mean very obviously different—almost as if she was pulled from the modern era and placed among that earlier style of acting. That intrigued me, so I started digging into her story.

Raquel: Aline MacMahon was best known for her work as a character actress but many don’t realize that she was one of the original Method actors. Can you tell us a bit about her approach to her craft?

John: Well, this is one of the things that made this project a book instead of an article. I discovered that in America the Method goes back much further than most people know, and that Aline is not just a devotee, but is the first popular actor to use the technique on both stage and screen here in the West. Aline's initial training dates all the way back to 1923—nearly 30 years before Marlon Brando made the Method a household word. This explained to me why in 1931 she looked so naturalistic in comparison to everyone else on screen. She was applying the method technique before anyone else: using emotional recall, creating a character history, dredging internal motivation. Her most succinct description about the effect of the Method on her technique was that the lessons "taught me how to concentrate."

Aline as a Marseille prostitute in the Broadway production of Maya (1928).
Image courtesy of John Stangeland

Raquel: In your book you discuss Aline MacMahon’s rich inner life, her social conscience and activism. How did her politics affect her career?

John: Aline's maternal aunt Sophie Irene Loeb was a well-known activist and writer in New York City just after the turn of the century. Before Aline was even a teenager, Sophie would take her on inspection tours of the NYC slums so she could experience the dark side of poverty and immigrant life. From that seed Aline became a progressive liberal who believed in charity and government programs for the poor. Eventually that developed into a benign interest in Communism and issues of social justice. Unfortunately, the late 1940s and '50s was a dangerous time to be a Communist, or even Communist-curious. When the hysteria of McCarthyism spread out across America, Aline found herself blacklisted as a Communist (although she never joined the party) and largely unable to work on TV, films or stage for the greater part of a decade. Simultaneously, both she and her husband spent fifteen years under covert surveillance by the FBI. Fortunately Aline was philosophical about the situation, but as her exile lengthened she finally hit a wall. "Some dimming of the luck is to be expected," she said. "But by God, have we been condemned to purgatory forever? Life is for laughing, too...."   

Raquel: In your biography you said that even though Aline McMahon wasn’t a big star it didn’t mean that her life story wasn’t interesting. What are some other facts that readers might not be aware of that may pique their interest in learning more about her?

John: There are quite a few doors into Aline's story. In the early 1920's she became a member of the Neighborhood Playhouse, where she developed close friendships within NYC's then-underground gay and trans subculture. She had a fascinating love affair of equals; in 1928 she married Clarence Stein, a New York based architect and city planner. Clarence, well-known and highly respected in his field (there are more than a few books about him), supported all of her endeavors, including liberal politics, and her career, which took her away from New York for six months a year. They both loved exotic travel, and during the era of the steamship they went to places rarely visited by polite Americans, including India, Siam (Thailand), Bali, Iran, and, in 1937 an around-the-world cruise where they lived for three months in China. The Steins also counted as their friends a who's-who of some of the 20th Century's great figures in the arts: Diego Rivera, Isamu Noguchi, Eugene O'Neill, Moss Hart, George Kaufman, E.E. Cummings, Thomas Wolfe, Aline Bernstein and many others. The Steins also endured some Dickensian setbacks which always reminded them how fortunate they really were. They never took their success for granted and always tried to help people who did not have as much as they did.

Aline shooting a scene from Kind Lady (1935) with Basil Rathbone.
Image courtesy of John Stangeland

Raquel: What kind of research did you do for the book? Did you encounter anything surprising or revelatory that changed the course of your writing?

John: The research went from Los Angeles to New York and a bunch of places in between! It is always fun to visit the Warner Bros. archives in L.A., and the Shubert archives in New York—but the BIG revelation came when I visited Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Aline donated some of her papers there, and her husband's papers went there after he died in 1975. Looking through her papers was wonderful, but limited. Many of her other effects were in New York and the archive there had some nice things but nothing noteworthy. However, when I got to the Clarence Stein papers I was shocked to find thousands of letters between Aline and Clarence, beginning the DAY she first left for Hollywood (January 1st, 1931) and stretching for decades. THAT was exciting, and a little daunting. It took months to go through those letters.

Raquel: Can you talk a bit about what those letters were like and what they revealed about her career?

John: On one hand they were a daily diary of her time in Hollywood, with unfiltered thoughts about her directors and co-stars. (Warren William? "A ham." Edward G. Robinson? "He's getting a big head." Paul Muni? "So warm and nice." Michael Curtiz? "A violent fool who never made a good picture." Mervyn LeRoy? "My dear Svengali.") More importantly, the letters give real insight into her character. Even in her private moments she was very thoughtful about social issues and usually worried about others more than herself. She didn't dwell on bad things, and even in the worst of times—her husband's mental breakdowns and her own blacklisting—she maintained a sense of perspective. The letters reveal a remarkably intelligent woman—she was one of the few college educated women of the old Hollywood—and a compassionate one as well.    

Raquel: Do you have a favorite Aline MacMahon performance?

John: My favorite is probably Heat Lightning (1934), which was also her first starring role. For me it is a hidden gem of the pre-Code and a scorching proto-Noir. On the comedy side, she's hilarious as Trixie in Gold Diggers of 1933 and as May Daniels in Once in a Lifetime (1932), a role that she originated for the Broadway production. Lifetime is very rarely shown—I don't remember ever seeing it on TCM —but worth seeking out if you can find a better print than they have on YouTube!

Aline during the readings of the Sean O'Casey memoir Pictures in the Hallway (1956).
Image courtesy of John Stangeland

Raquel: MacMahon worked as an actress for 55 years. What do you think drove her to work for as long as she did despite the difficulties she faced with the studio system and the blacklist?

John: Aline didn't just love acting, she once said "I must act to live." When she had a great role and was operating at the top edge of her capabilities, she felt completely fulfilled. It did not equate to money or fame—one of her favorite things she did was a series staged readings of the memoirs of Sean O'Casey, for which she was paid something like $5 a performance. If it was challenging and of high quality it made her feel alive. I think she was always chasing that next opportunity to feel satisfied in her art—to work with a Eugene O'Neill, or to be in the cast of Hamlet at Kronborg Castle in Denmark, which she did in 1948. 

Raquel: What do you hope readers will take away from your book?

John: Of course I want the reader to be entertained, and hopefully learn something new about the movies, or about creative character. But ultimately I want people to get to know Aline MacMahon as more than just someone who entertains them on screen. I have developed a real soft spot for her; so intelligent, talented, thoughtful, curious, loyal and compassionate. A wonderful person to know.

Raquel: What are you working on next? Where can readers find you online?

John: The next project looks like it will be a novel. It begins in 1912 when a young man arrives in Chicago from Kansas looking to join the film industry and finds work at Essanay studios. From there we follow his path through the history of Hollywood into the early 1980s, during which he will encounter recurring characters in Charlie Chaplin, Wallace Beery, Karl Brown, George Spoor, Sam Zarkoff and others. It's early in the planning stages, but will be a bildungsroman combined with a peculiar history of the film industry.

I'm not super involved on social media, but on instagram you will find me at: #studioerahollywood and (for you comic book fans out there) #atlascomicschi. On Facebook the page is Warren William: Magnificent Scoundrel of Pre-Code Hollywood, which doubles as an Aline MacMahon / old Hollywood page.


Aline MacMahon
Hollywood, the Blacklist, and the Birth of Method Acting 
by John Stangeland
University Press of Kentucky
Hardcover ISBN: 9780813196060
416 pages
November 2022

A big thank you to John Stangeland and the University Press of Kentucky for this opportunity!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Interview with Sloan De Forest, author of The Essential Directors


I am thrilled to welcome back film historian and writer Sloan De Forest. Her new book The Essential Directors: The Art and Impact of Cinema's Most Influential Filmmakers is available now from TCM and Running Press (check out my review here).

Raquel Stecher: Congratulations on the publication of The Essential Directors! How did you come to write this book?

Sloan De Forest: Thank you! I had already written two books for Turner Classic Movies and Running Press (Must-See Sci-Fi and Dynamic Dames), so I had a foot in the door to do another. I always wanted to tackle the subject of classic film directors, and I got lucky because TCM had always wanted to do a directors guide. It was offered to me and I seized the opportunity. 

Raquel: Your book covers so much in scope that I felt like each chapter was a class on a director. What went into the research for this project?

Sloan: Even though each director profile is really just a brief overview of career highlights, every one required a deep dive into the director and their work. After all, I had to be familiar with someone’s entire career in order to know which films and facts to focus on and which ones to gloss over, if nothing else. So the research process was massive. I immersed myself in books, newspaper/magazine archives, and movies, movies, movies. Even films I had already seen several times before I re-examined closely, along with poring over interviews and quotes from the filmmakers. It was fun, but due to the pandemic, I had a hard time getting my hands on the materials, so it was stressful at times.

Raquel: What was the decision making process like to figure out which directors to include?

Sloan: It was an epic poem. First I made a long list of about 100 noteworthy directors and then with TCM’s help I whittled it down, based on who made the most significant contributions to the industry and art form. There was simply not room to include everyone or the book would have been too big to lift! In fact, we had to cut six filmmakers (or move them to sidebars) after I had already written whole sections on them. In an effort to be inclusive and thorough, I initially overwrote the book, cramming it too full. So that was a challenge, plus there is always some subjectivity involved. Ultimately how do we judge the most “essential directors?” It’s a tough one, and everyone won’t agree. That’s okay. I love how the book turned out: a compendium of pioneers who created some of the most memorable movies in classic Hollywood. It’s supposed to be curated, not encyclopedic, yet I was able to mention hundreds of directors, even if only to give them a nod.

Frank Capra

Lois Weber

Robert Wise

Raquel: Out of the directors selected, who do you think is the most underrated of the bunch?

Sloan: In the book, I write that Robert Wise may be the most underrated director of the classic era, and it’s probably true. He was not a director of the bombastic, egomaniacal variety, and so I think his artistry has long been minimized. George Cukor is another who isn’t given his full due because these men were not auteurs; they didn’t make personal films. But they made some of the greatest movies ever, so surely they were doing something right! Lois Weber is sadly forgotten today, and Frank Capra is a personal favorite whose films are often unjustly dismissed as too sentimental. But he was brilliant, in my opinion.

Raquel: I love that you included female directors like Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. How have women played a role in filmmaking during the early years before it became a male dominated field?

Sloan: In the early days of motion pictures, women directors were more common than today, over a century later—which is sheer madness, when you think about it. Also, about 50% of the screenwriters were women in the silent days, and of course half the major stars were women through the 1940s. So ladies made vast contributions to the medium in its first few decades. Hollywood only started to become a boys’ club when sound took over, and this is when many female directors like Lois Weber found themselves out of a job.

Raquel: If you were to write a second volume, which directors do you think you'd like to cover? 

Sloan: Speaking of women directors, I would love to write in more detail about Frances Marion, who was so discouraged by her work being judged “feminine” that she only directed two films, and then gave up and stuck to screenwriting. Also Marguerite Duras had an interesting career. In a second volume, I could also tackle the filmmakers of the 80s, 90s and 2000s like Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, Guillermo del Toro, and so many others that rose to prominence after the chronology of the book, which ends in the 70s. As for classic-era directors I couldn’t fit in volume one, Busby Berkeley, Charles Vidor, William Wellman, William Friedkin, Don Siegel, Satyajit Ray, and Sam Peckinpah are a few that spring to mind, but there are dozens.

Raquel: Why is it important for movie lovers to understand not only the history behind these film directors but also the era they worked in?

Sloan: That’s a great question. Understanding the backdrop of the time period is essential to form a complete picture of why these directors and their films matter at all, which is why I like to include quotes from original reviews from the time these films were released. If someone doesn’t know that Stanley Kubrick was the first to realistically depict outer space and spacecraft in 2001, they may think “what’s the big deal?” because we’ve all seen realistic outer space depictions so many times since 1968 that we take them for granted. If someone doesn’t know that interracial romances were strictly forbidden under the Production Code from the early 1930s through the early 1960s, they might ask why these directors cast Caucasian actors in non-Caucasian roles. I could go on, but you get the point. Historical context is crucial to appreciate classic films and the artists behind them. 

Raquel: I loved how in each section you boiled down a filmmaker's career into one beautiful line. For example for Douglas Sirk it was 

“he had earned the moniker Master of Melodrama for his aesthetically lush tearjerkers that immersed Eisenhower-era audiences in a world of gilt-edged passion, enriched by his signature use of oversaturated Technicolor.” 

Can you tell us a bit about how you approached capturing the essence of each director?

Sloan: In addition to “zooming in” on some specifics, I did feel it was important to “zoom out” and try to encapsulate a filmmaker’s style or career in one or two sentences, so I’m happy you feel I succeeded. That was a big deal because I didn’t want to sell any director short or misinterpret his or her place in film history. Perhaps that’s why I put some extra effort into those sentences. With everyone I covered, I would remind myself “This is someone’s all-time favorite director” even if it wasn’t mine. Then I would ask myself, “What’s so special about this person? What did they do like no one else?” Then I would find the best words I could to define it.

Raquel: Controversy is no stranger to Hollywood’s history with directors and some names including D.W. Griffith, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen now have tarnished reputations. How did you tackle including these controversial figures in your book?

Sloan: Frankly, that was the most trying aspect of the process. Some particularly unsavory scandals have come to light about these directors in recent years, and I couldn’t ignore that. Yet I also could not bring myself to omit certain directors from the book based on their actions as people, no matter how reprehensible—especially Roman Polanski, who is behind two of my all-time favorite movies, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. So the way I handled it was to discuss the good and the bad elements honestly. I think that’s any historian’s job, to present the facts as they were and not spin them into judgment or opinion, even though it’s tempting. History is history, and it’s not always nice or easy. In my opinion, every facet of film history is fascinating, the dark and the light. 

Raquel:  This is your third book with TCM and Running Press and you've contributed to others. What's it been like working with them?

Sloan: Both have been wonderful to work with. Everyone at Running Press gave me creative freedom and stood by my decisions on which directors to include—even the problematic ones—and TCM has had my back the whole way, facilitating two fabulous forewords (from Peter Bogdanovich and Jacqueline Stewart) and even inviting me on air to discuss the book with Alicia Malone, who was great. Believe me, I am not obligated to say this, but from the heart: thank god for Turner Classic Movies. Where would we be today if Ted Turner hadn’t seen the value in old films and devoted an entire network to screening them uncut? I doubt there would be nearly as much awareness of the classics, nor budgets for preserving and restoring them. Thanks, Ted!

Raquel: What do you hope readers take away from reading The Essential Directors?

Sloan: As the title suggests, my main goal was to spotlight the profound impact and influence these directors have had. Those of us who watch a lot of older movies see the origins of so many ideas and techniques that are commonplace today, and these can often be traced to one specific filmmaker. Not to take anything away from the great directors of today, but in my opinion they all owe a debt to the artists of the past who laid the groundwork, pushed the boundaries, and used their imagination to advance the art form. Every piece of entertainment we see today—whether movie, TV, or streaming “content”—is built upon the cinematic innovations of Fritz Lang or Alfred Hitchcock or Ernst Lubitsch or Stanley Kubrick or another. I hope my passion for classic movies is contagious to readers; that they will seek out movies they have never seen and discover gems from directors they knew little about. 

Book details:
The Essential Directors: The Art and Impact of Cinema's Most Influential Filmmakers
by Sloan De Forest
foreword by Peter Bogdanovich and Jacqueline Stewart
TCM and Running Press
Paperback ISBN: 9780762498932
344 pages —November 2021
Amazon — Barnes and Noble — Powell's 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Interview with Kathryn Sermak, author of Miss D & Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis

I've had the pleasure of interviewing Kathryn Sermak, Bette Davis' former assistant and author of the memoir Miss D & Me: Life with the Invincible Bette Davis. I met Kathryn at her book talk and signing at the Harvard Coop back in November of last year. She was very kind and gave everyone a bookplate modeled after the one Davis used in her own library. Miss D & Me is now available in paperback from Hachette Books. 

Raquel Stecher: How did you come to meet and work for Bette Davis?

Kathryn Sermak: It was June 1979 and I had just finished working for the Shahs Sister of Iran, Princess Pahlavi. At that time there was no organizations for personal assistants. Miss Davis was looking for someone to travel and assist her while working on a film being shot in England. Miss Davis hired Mr. Carlson, who had a company that serviced V.I.P.s. He had heard about me through the grapevine and the rest of the story is told in our book Miss D & Me.

Stecher: What was Davis like as your employer and your friend?

Sermak: In the beginning It was like “Boot Camp”. Miss D had her way of doing things that I thought we’re ridiculous and I had to learn her system. At 23, and a college graduate, I was no different than kids today - at that age one thinks they can conquer the world - the world is our oyster and I was hungry to venture out and discover it. Miss D on the other hand was 71 and felt I was unworldly and had a lot to learn. “Rough beginning make great endings” She would say. It’s through this journey, as I tell in our book, that the roles at times change (like when she had the stroke) and we became best friends. She could be so funny and loved playing practical jokes.

Stecher: Bette Davis lived an unapologetic life. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about her?

Sermak: It wasn’t until after Miss D’s passing that I started to hear all these stories about her. Because she was so private - people often thought she was the character she played in the films. They loved the character she portrayed and would often see themselves in that role. In Miss D & Me - I show the private Miss D, the woman and all she stood for… She loved her family and her work were of the utmost important.

Stecher: What's an important life lesson Davis taught you that you still put into practice today?

Sermak: Miss D always said, "March to the beat of your own drum and follow your passion." "Trust your instincts-they’re never wrong." It so true, the latter took me longer to learn.

Stecher: What was your favorite memory with Davis?

Sermak: I have so many - are we discussing the funny times, learning the lessons, girlfriends chatting, dinner parties… there are so many that I discuss in the book - it’s hard to chose just one.

Stecher: A lot of my readers are big fans of TCM and loved Robert Osborne. Osborne and Davis were quite close at the end of her life. Do you have a happy memory of the two of them together to share?

Sermak: Oh I have so many. Bob, as I called him, Miss D’s nick name for him was “Bully.” Bob would call Miss D, “Spuds” because she loved potatoes - any type, shape or form. I just went through my scrapbook and some of Bob’s letters to Miss D - they shared so many wonderful times together. Never a dull moment. On one of his cards it reads, “You are a kindred spirit someone with whom words are not needed… Happy Memories, there were many as I mention in the book. Miss D making Easter bonnets for Bob to wear at her home and he’s playing with an Easter rabbit, she named Mr. Brier. They were good friends. He was a Taurus and she was an Aries. At times - they both could be stubborn but they had love and deep admiration for one another.

Stecher: What inspired you to write a book about your years with Bette Davis?

Sermak: It’s a promise I made to Miss D many years ago. She told me, “Kath, one day you must write about our story, book first then a movie.” I always said no. She said, "Oh, yes you will - promise me - it’s a great story and there’s much in it for everyone young and old to learn from.” You will write the book first and then a movie. I didn’t understand it back then, but over the years, reading her letters to me, listening to tapes, I matured and understood what I promised her I would do.

Stecher: You and Davis recorded your conversations. How did these tapes become the source material for your memoir? 

Sermak: When we recorded these conversations, it wasn’t that we were doing it for writing a memoir. We were living life in the moment. The tapes started when I moved to France to be with my boyfriend. Even though I spoke to Miss D regularly, I made them to introduce her to life in France and she recorded all the goings on at home - just like we were there in each other’s presence. Over time - some lead for me to interview her as a reporter- (next step for a possible job opportunity- new career) At that point, it was more Miss D always looking and empowering my growth, she often said, “if women could only be more supportive to other women instead of tearing them down - they would get a lot farther. Look at the men they support one another like in the old boys club days.” She did that for me way ahead of her time.

Stecher: What do you hope readers take away from your memoir?

Sermak: There’s so much in our story for the youth today can learn so much from the elderly and the elderly have so much to give. They’ve lived life, they want to pass on the lessons they’ve learned so the youth won’t make the same mistakes but new ones moving the world forward.

The baby boomers whose parents or dear friends hit illnesses - shows both sides of what the patient and the care giver goes through. There were no books on it at that time.

For women today, Miss D was a pioneer - way ahead of her time. She was very supportive of woman as I stated earlier and I tell many stories in the book about her mentoring me. And it’s about universal love. Your readers can check out: or on Facebook:

Stecher: Tell us about The Bette Davis Foundation, Inc. that you co-founded with her son Michael Merrill.

Sermak: We created The Bette Davis Foundation foundation to raise funds to award scholarships to aspiring actresses and actors, as well as talented students in a cross section of related fields within the entertainment industry. We gave the first Bette Davis Lifetime Achievement Award to Meryl Streep in 1998 at Boston University. One of the students from Boston University was the first recipient of the scholarship.

To learn more about the foundation please visit official website.

The Bette Davis Foundation
c/o Merrill & McGeary
100 State Street, Suite 200
Boston, MA, USA 02109
Phone: (617) 523-1760

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Interview with Sloan De Forest, author of Must See Sci-Fi

Sloan De Forest. Photo credit: Manoah Bowman

I've had the privilege of interviewing Sloan De Forest, author of Must See Sci-Fi: 50 Movies That are Out of This World (TCM/Running Press). She's an actress, writer and film historian and has written about film for Sony, Time Warner Cable, the Mary Pickford Foundation, and Bright Lights Film Journal. She's contributed essays to the books Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life and Grace Kelly: Hollywood Dream Girl.

I'll be posting my review of her book (spoiler alert, it's rocking my world right now) and hosting a giveaway later this week. In the meantime, enjoy the interview:

Raquel Stecher: Tell us about your background as a film historian and your connection to old Hollywood.

Sloan De Forest: I took the circuitous route to become a film historian. I started as an actor and aspiring screenwriter. I did take some acting classes, but I mostly learned to act from watching those timeless performances by the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Carole Lombard, and others. Turner Classic Movies was my college major! So I fell in love with classic film on my own before discovering it’s in my blood – my great-great uncle was Lee De Forest, who invented the sound-on-film process for talking pictures in 1923. He was the first to capture the voices of Elsa Lanchester, Una Merkel, and others on film, and provided a music soundtrack to Pola Negri’s first Hollywood film. That was an exciting connection to discover.

Lee De Forest

Stecher: How did you first fall in love with the science fiction genre?

De Forest: It may have started the summer I turned 11, when I was visiting my grandparents in the country and there was nothing to do but watch old movies on television. I saw The Blob and the 1958 version of The Fly, which had a real impact on me. I also discovered old Twilight Zone episodes that summer. I didn’t consciously realize that I was falling in love with sci-fi, but those images stayed in my mind. Then in the '90s, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was my gateway into Ed Wood, then into Roger Corman, which led me to classics like Forbidden Planet. I think because of their outrageous production design and costumes, Forbidden Planet and Barbarella were the sci-fis that fascinated me as a teenager. Well, those and Plan 9 from Outer Space.

Stecher: How did you come to work on Must See Sci-Fi?

De Forest: As a first-time author, I was incredibly lucky. Fellow TCM author Manoah Bowman is someone I had met through a mutual friend. He knew I was a writer, editor, and Natalie Wood fan, so he hired me to contribute to his 2016 book Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life. From there, I had a foot in the door to write my own TCM book. It just so happened they were looking for someone to write a must-see guide for science fiction, and so it worked out perfectly.

Stecher: How did you curate the list of 50 science fiction movies for the book?

De Forest: With great difficulty! But seriously. There was quite a bit of friendly back-and-forth between me and TCM before settling on a final 50. Ultimately, you’re never going to please everyone with this kind of book, so it’s somewhat subjective. We wanted to include the most memorable, the most groundbreaking, and the most impactful films of the genre and I believe we succeeded. Even if we left out some that are great movies, I tried to include them in the Keep Watching section or at least mention them in the text. So I actually discuss A LOT more than 50 movies.

Stecher: What kind of research did you do for the book?

De Forest: I watched and re-watched all the films, of course, even if I had already seen them many times. Next I read books about the making of the films when I could, and went to the Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, which is a great resource for production files, press books, and clippings. I kept my online research to a minimum because—even though there are some great and highly reputable websites—I tried to avoid repeating all the same old information available on Wikipedia. But with some of these classics like Star Wars for example, repetition is impossible to avoid, because everything there is to know is already common internet knowledge. But I tried to dig deep—in old newspaper archives, for example—and find a few nuggets.

Stecher: Which movies did you leave out that you wish could have made the cut?

De Forest: I wanted to include a couple of my personal favorites, like Galaxy Quest and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I don’t think Sky Captain is strictly considered science fiction, but I am fascinated by that movie. There’s nothing else like it. As for Galaxy Quest, I’m not sure why it didn’t make the cut, but you can’t have everything! I already negotiated to get Alphaville and Barbarella back on the list after TCM suggested cutting them, so I was happy enough with those two not to push my luck. I also wish I could have written in more detail about Blade Runner 2049, but, tragically, it was released one month after I finished the book.

Stecher: How did early classic movies influence modern day sci-fi movies?

De Forest: Good question. I think there is probably a greater influence there than many people realize, because, when you stop and think about it, science fiction was a literary genre where writers could describe aliens, spaceships, and monsters in great detail without having the burden of showing them. So the first filmmakers to actually depict those unknown entities on film were really pioneers. They were taking an enormous risk, using a great deal of imagination and primitive technology or craftsmanship to show a Martian, for example, on film for the first time. It was brand-new territory they were exploring. Once these images were out there, they became the building blocks of all later sci-fi movies. No matter how original a filmmaker may be nowadays, I think it’s impossible for them not to be influenced by the classics to some degree.

Stecher: Why do you think movie going audiences love science fiction?

De Forest: Like the genres of fantasy and supernatural horror, sci-fi presents us with possibilities that lie beyond our everyday world. But sci-fi is usually more grounded in what might be possible in the future. So I think people respond to the idea that with a science fiction movie—unlike in fantasy or the supernatural—they are seeing incredible images and ideas that actually could become a reality one day. It can be fascinating to explore. Personally, I’m fascinated by watching older sci-fi because you get to see how the filmmakers imagined our world of today, fifty or more years ago. It’s not always the brilliant movies that get it right, either! Logan’s Run, for example, may not have been the greatest movie, but it predicted using technology for pleasure and ease, whereas so many others only envisioned technology that could destroy the planet or send us into space.

Stecher: What would you say to someone who is hesitant about delving into the science fiction genre?

De Forest: I would say that they are likely to be pleasantly surprised. I was someone who enjoyed sci-fi, but did not consider myself a die-hard sci-fi fanatic. Then when I started working on the book, I realized some of my all-time favorite movies are science fiction. Most people have probably already seen a sci-fi movie they love... Star Wars, E.T., Back to the Future, Alien, The Terminator... Those are some of the most popular films ever. If someone is younger and hasn’t seen those titles, I would recommend starting with them because they’re so accessible. And then see where they take you!

Photo via 

Stecher: What do you hope readers will come away with after they read Must See Sci-Fi?

De Forest:  I hope the book inspires them to seek out the films they haven’t seen yet, and to re-watch the ones they saw years ago. Even if they know all the 50 movies by heart, I discuss and recommend many more obscure titles in the book, so there are hundreds of movies mentioned. I also hope the book starts conversations. The overall aim is to get people excited about movies. That’s what it’s all about.

Many thanks to Sloan for taking the time out for this interview!

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

6 Questions with Alicia Malone on TCM's Mad About Musicals

This month TCM in conjunction with Ball State University is hosting a free online course and month long programming called Mad About Musicals. The course started on June 3rd but they've extended the deadline for signing up to 6/17!

If you're participating in the course or just tuning in on Tuesdays and Thursdays to watch musicals, check out my interview with TCM host Alicia Malone. 

Raquel Stecher: What can those who signed up for the TCM’s Mad About Musicals course expect?

Alicia Malone: I’m jealous of everyone who is participating, because you get lessons by the knowledgeable and hilarious Dr. Vanessa Theme Ament, who you’ll also get to see on TCM doing some special intros alongside Ben Mankiewicz. You also get to see special interviews, movie clips and play games to test your expertise. And all of it works alongside the programming on TCM.

Raquel S.: What can viewers expect from TCM’s Mad About Musicals screenings this June and which films will you be introducing?

Alicia M: Throughout June viewers will be able to watch more than 90 musicals, selected from the 1920s through to the 1970s, showing every Tuesday and Thursday. I’ll be introducing the films on Tuesday evenings, and I feel very lucky that I get to introduce some of my personal favorites, such as Singin’ In The Rain (1952) and An American in Paris (1951).

Raquel S.: How did musicals evolve over the 20th century?

Alicia M: Doing preparation for this month has been so much fun, because watching a bulk of musicals in a short amount of time allowed me to see how they evolved. At the very beginning, musicals were used to showcase how sound could be used in movies. They were often Broadway adaptations, with sequences filmed on a stage. But then as they grew in popularity, studios (especially MGM) saw them as important vehicles for their biggest stars, and as technicolor began to be introduced, musicals got bigger, splashier and brighter than ever. But by the end of the 1950s these productions were getting too expensive, and audiences weren’t as interested in these pieces of escapism. Though every decade there comes a few new musicals, such as La La Land (2016), which looked to the past and became a huge hit.

Raquel S.: Why is it important to learn about film history and in this case the history of musicals?

Alicia M: I actually think musicals are a fun way to start learning about film history, because the two go hand in hand. Learning about film history helps you to enjoy watching movies. You start to be aware of what was happening at the time it was made, why the directors chose certain shots, songs or stars. And everything is influenced by what came before it, so I love being able to spot how films have changed but also stayed the same.

Raquel S.: Some folks love musicals and some don’t. What would you say to convince film lovers who are hesitant about musicals that this is a genre to enjoy?

Alicia M: I would tell them to look at the artistry of the filmmaking. The skill of the dancers, the costuming, the catchy songs, how sometimes a whole script was written around a group of completely different songs. Sometimes people are quick to write off musicals as being simple entertainment but there was a lot of care put into the making of these movies.

Raquel S.: What is your favorite musical and why?

Alicia M: My favorite is Singin’ In The Rain (1952). That might be a cliched answer, but I don’t care... it’s a film that always brings me joy. It’s also the film that I saw which made me love musicals in the first place. I watched it when I was really young, dreamed about doing that wall flip that Donald O’Connor does in ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ and learned all the songs. I still put it on whenever I need a little pick-me-up. “Dignity, always dignity...” This is the movie I recommend to those who are skeptical of watching classic film in general, it has an energy that is infectious.

Many thanks to Alicia Malone for taking the time to chat with me about TCM's Mad About Musicals!

Monday, May 14, 2018

TCMFF Red Carpet Interviews

As promised in my original TCMFF red carpet post, here are the video interviews. I embedded each one individually including a quick intro from me.

This year I approached my videos differently. I invested in a microphone which helped immensely. Thanks to my friend Jonas and my husband Carlos who helped me get the right one for the project. The audio quality of my TCMFF red carpet footage is leagues better. Instead of doing compilation videos (like I did in 2016 and 2017), I decided to separate the interviews into their own videos. Now viewers can easily pick and chose which interviews they want to see. If you want to view them all in one go, complete with my intro, you can watch the TCMFF Red Carpet playlist here. Unfortunately my Dennis Miller video didn't pan out and I had one glaring issue with my Leonard Maltin one that corrected itself mid-interview. However, I was pleased as punch that my short interviews ranging from 2-4 minutes all came out really well. Enjoy!

If you enjoyed these interviews, please consider subscribing to my YouTube channel!

Monday, March 12, 2018

5 Questions with Ben Mankiewicz on FilmStruck's new TCM Select

If you haven't already signed up for TCM's streaming service FilmStruck now is the best time. FilmStruck, in collaboration with Warner Bros. Digital, will be adding hundreds of classic movies to the service. And to celebrate beloved movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, TCM Select will offer streaming classics with bonus content.

Since FilmStruck first launched it's been the go-to service for arthouse, foreign and independent cinema and now that they are boosting their service with classic movies will make this a one stop shop for the ultimate movie fan. This will mean that Warner Bros.'s Warner Archive Instant streaming service will be sunsetting in April. Many of those titles will be transferring over to FilmStruck. And I hope some of the quirkier and more obscure titles available on Warner Archive Instant will make it over to FilmStruck too.

Want to know more about what FilmStruck and TCM Select have to offer? I had the pleasure of asking TCM host Ben Mankiewicz some questions about the newly expanded service.

Raquel Stecher: What makes FilmStruck stand out as a streaming service? 

Ben Mankiewicz: FilmStruck is the only streaming service for serious movie fans. From the Criterion Collection to foreign films to arthouse films to cult films, and now to the best movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, there is no comparable service. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu all have a role to play as we go forward and reinvent how we watch something, but if you are a true movie lover there’s only one service you need and it’s FilmStruck. It’s not close.

Stecher: What role will you be playing with FilmStruck’s TCM Select and what kind of bonus content can we expect? 

Mankiewicz: I’ll be shooting introductions for the TCM Select movies that appear on FilmStruck and we’ll have a rotating library of roughly 600 movies. We’ll be curating them similarly to the job we do here on Turner Classic Movies, by putting them in their proper cinematic and Hollywood context.

Stecher:  If you curated a new FilmStruck collection, what would be the theme and what would some of the movies include? 

Mankiewicz: I’d do a noir collection and then I’d call Eddie Muller and tell him to curate it. Otherwise I’d curate a collection of movies about journalism and the media, from The Front Page through Spotlight and The Post, which we have no chance of getting on FilmStruck right now since I think one is still in theaters. I’d include The Front Page, His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane, Ace in the Hole, A Face in the Crowd, Sweet Smell of Success, All the President’s Men, Absence of Malice, and the movies of today as soon as we can get them.

Stecher: What are some of the TCM Select films that you personally recommend subscribers watch? 

Mankiewicz: What are some of the TCM Select films that you personally recommend subscribers watch? Night in the City, Jules Dassin’s last movie before he was blacklisted. Sweet Smell of Success, as good of a movie as there is about the ugly side of publicists and the media. Really, there’s not a movie on TCM Select that I wouldn’t put the full force of a recommendation behind.

Stecher: Why do you think TCM has such devoted fans and what do you hope they will get out of FilmStruck? 

Mankiewicz: Every actor, every host, every athlete has said that they have the best fans in the world, but here’s the truth, and I mean this, TCM has the most dedicated and attentive fans in the history of this business. Since we took on the mantle to protect and present classic Hollywood films, our fans have said, ‘Okay fine, but in that case you best do it right.’ So they don’t just watch us, they watch over us to make sure we don’t make a mistake. We’ve been true to our core mission at TCM and we will continue with that core mission as we expand into FilmStruck with TCM Select, and if we make a mistake, we’re certain our fans will let us know and that’s a blessing.

Many thanks to Ben Mankiewicz of TCM for taking the time to answer my questions.

For those of you interested in subscribing to FilmStruck and getting the TCM Select titles, here is the pricing breakdown and available devices. They offer a 14 day free trial so you can test it out before you commit.

FilmStruck – $6.99/month - arthouse, foreign and cult films, plus TCM Select, an exclusive rotating collection of the most iconic movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood, supplemented with hosted introductions, rare archival TCM content and bonus materials.

FilmStruck + The Criterion Channel – $10.99/month - offering everything in the FilmStruck subscription plus unlimited access to Criterion’s entire streaming library of films and special features, along with channel-exclusive original programming such as filmmaker profiles, master classes, and curated series by celebrated guests from the film world and beyond.

Annual Subscription - $99/year for FilmStruck + The Criterion Channel (a $30 annual savings) . (I have this one!)

Devices -  Roku, Google Chromecast, Apple TV 4th generation devices, Amazon Fire TV, web, iOS and Android devices. FilmStruck can be accessed via the Apple App store, as well as online and via Google Play for Android users.

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