by Mark Zimmer
Look at over 90% of the DVDs of silent films on the market, and you'll find the name of David Shepard or his company, Film Preservation Associates, somewhere on the box. Shepard, through his ownership of the Blackhawk Films library and his film and video restoration efforts, has done as much as nearly anyone to promote preservation of our early film heritage. More importantly, he makes these early films available to the home video market, first in laserdisc and VHS formats and now through high-quality DVD releases, where the clarity and beauty of these early motion pictures can really be fully appreciated.
Born in 1940 in New York City, and raised in New Orleans and the New York suburbs, Shepard has had a lifelong love of film and has devoted most of his life to film preservation. dOc caught up with the busy David Shepard on December 20, 2000, where he graciously chatted with us for several hours about his career, his discs and future plans (including a number of extraordinary releases that will be out in 2001).
dOc: Did you go to film school?
Shepard: I did go to a French film school for one semester, but my American degrees are in other things. I was very fortunate, I had a good college education, and I grew up in a house where ideas were important and where the family always engaged in lots of discussions, and there were lots of books, but not to do with film.
dOc: What do you have degrees in?
Shepard: My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy and Religion, and I have a masters degree in American Studies, and I am an ABD, which means I pooped out and never finished my dissertation: All But Dissertation on History of Art.
dOc: Was the art connection how you first got interested in film?
Shepard: No, I've been interested in film since I was a very young child. I had an uncle who was a professional photographer, and was in the Signal Corps during World War II. He brought back from France a 9.5 mm home movie projector and a box of films, which he gave to me as a toy. I was five, at the end of the war. These films were abridged versions of things like Siegfried and Metropolis, and A Trip to the Moon was in there, and some Hal Roach comedies and The White Hell of Pitz Palu with Leni Riefenstahl, and of course I'd never seen any movies like these. But I really liked them and was interested in them. My dad was a movie buff and was sympathetic to that and began to take me to special showings at places like the Museum of Modern Art, when I was just a kid.
For my twelfth birthday, I asked everybody for money and I was able to buy a secondhand 16mm projector. This was just about the time television was really settling in. All kinds of camera stores had 16mm rental libraries, and in fact my dad used to rent 16mm films and show them for my birthday parties, and lots of our friends did the same. At that point, the rental market for these movies had dried up, because people were getting home entertainment for free on TV. The libraries were selling off the films at a dollar a reel. I had a paper route, and could afford about three and a half reels a week. The library that I was buying from, Rieger's Camera Shop in Hackensack, New Jersey, took a liking to the idea of this little kid who was interested in these old movies, and they would let me put stuff on layaway so it wouldn't get sold to someone else. I paid them off at the rate of fifty cents or a dollar per film per week, so I could keep a whole bunch of them on layaway and be sure I'd eventually get them. I built up a collection of silent films that way when I was still a teenager. Although I sold those to get money when I was in college, I've gotten some of them again.
In any event, I began making movies when I was about twelve and in junior high school. I discovered that they needed somebody who would climb up this tower on Saturday afternoons and shoot the football games on 16mm film, and then bring the film to a laboratory for processing, wait for it and bring it to coach's house. This served two wonderful advantages for me: one was that I got to use the equipment to make my own movies, except in football season, but the rest of the year I had it to play with, and the other was that the coach would let me out of gym class. I made myself a pet of his.
A couple years ago I went to my fortieth high school reunion. I had never been to any of the others, but I figured I might not make the fiftieth, so why not show up? I had really forgotten all about these films, and I didn't even know where they were. But a girl who played the lead in one of them had it, and she showed up at the reunion with the film and the projector and we looked at it. It was really terrible, but it was amazing to see it. I didn't recognize very many people in my high school class. Forty years had done quite a bit to all of us. No, not to all of us; some of the women looked great, but the guys looked pretty weatherbeaten. So I was sitting next to this guy with a fringe of grey hair and a long grey beard, and didn't know who he was. This movie came up, and he was this boy that I remembered casting in the movie for two reasons: one was that he was by far the handsomest boy in our class, and he had to play the hero, but beyond that he had and could of course ride a horse. So we devised a story that would include the horse, and cast the two of them. There was this beautiful teenager with his horse, and this old guy next to me said, "My God, is that me?"
So anyway, it's been a lifelong interest, and I've been working professionally since I was sixteen.
dOc: When did you get into restoration of films?
Shepard: Well, that was a little over thirty years ago. When the American Film Institute first started in 1968, I was among the original staff. We had great hopes about the impact the Institute might have on American film. We had what seemed like large amounts of money and a bold mission, and my job was to find and bring in for preservation the films which were not otherwise preserved in archives. At that time, it was really spotty. The total amount of silent film preserved in American archives amounted to the equivalent of about one year's production. Of course, American silent film was around for 33 years. But there were lots of material still at the studios, not being preserved because there was no commercial use for them. Lots of material in private collections and there was also the issue of the nitrate sound films, up to 1951. In those days television syndicated 16mm prints, so the studios had made 16mm picture and track negatives of those films. But they really had not spent money to convert the 35mm nitrate to safety, or even put it in sophisticated storage.
The Library of Congress was willing to take the initiative to provide storage, accept the material either as a gift of physical property or on deposit, and copy the nitrate. My job was to go around to studios and collectors, persuading them to allow the materials to be preserved in the national collections in Washington. Well, it was very successful; we brought in thousands of films and at that point began to realize that there was no very sophisticated understanding of how to copy these things and preserve them to a high standard, especially when we had only old prints to work from. The Library got laboratory equipment, and by trial and error learned how to do this stuff and get better results than any commercial lab at that time was able to deliver. Today there are commercial labs that specialize in doing restoration and you can buy very fine quality work. In those days, you couldn't.
There was also a company in Iowa called Blackhawk Films, which had a commercial business selling reproductions of old movies, lots of great 16mm film.
dOc: I remember them.
Shepard: Blackhawk had customers who remembered the films when they were new, and lots of people who would buy comedies to make the showing of their home movies bearable to their friends. Blackhawk had a pretty good library, a couple of thousand films, and they had, independent of anyone else—sitting out there in the prairie—developed their own equipment and techniques for making extremely high quality copies. So I contacted them for information, because I thought they were probably sitting on a lot of rare film that should be at the Library of Congress anyway, which indeed they were. They proved very nice and cooperative and eventually I came to feel strongly that a film that was just on the shelf in the Library of Congress for posterity, although preserved, was not alive. It didn't live until it was an emotional or at least an intellectual experience for people who wanted to see it. Blackhawk was achieving this by making films widely available at cheap prices. When they asked if I wanted to come to work for them, I had at that point been at the Film Institute for about five years, and the initial money was used up, and so were our dreams of limitless glory for our role in American cinema, and so I moved and worked for Blackhawk.
Years after I left Blackhawk, video had come in and the company had come on to hard times. I was working in the the Hollywood film business, nothing to do with preserving film, and Blackhawk was closing. They called and asked if I wanted the equipment. When I tell this part of the story, I always say that now I know how teenagers get pregnant, it's so easy to say yes! I sat down with my wife, who had also worked at Blackhawk, and we realized how much stuff we were going to be getting, and it was not going to go in the spare bedroom. We bought an industrial building to put it in, and then I started doing commercial preservation and restoration work to pay off this building. Just about the time I got the building paid off, I was offered the opportunity to buy the Blackhawk film library.
dOc: About when was this?
Shepard: That was about 1987. So we took the leap of faith and bought the film library and that became the foundation for what I am now doing, which is restoring films and putting them out in pretty high quality video editions.
dOc: You've really become quite the important name in home video for silent film.
Shepard: Well, if you make the pond small enough, the smallest fish looks big.
dOc: When you're doing a home video release for DVD, is it typically a film restoration or video restoration?
Shepard: Both. We start off with film, and I get the film as good as I can. Then, once we have a digital videotape, we start doing digital cleanup and enhancement. One can divide projects into two categories: there are the four stars, those deserve and require maximum effort., and then there are the QUADs, they're quick and dirty. Although money is not my prime thought, you have to keep expenses in some reasonable proportion to earnings. So what gets done on different projects depends a great deal on how much time I have to do it, how much I love the film, how much money I feel I can put into it, and of course, whether I am starting with something really nice, or really raggedy, and run the whole extreme. For instance, I prepared a Valentino film called Cobra, which I did primarily because the material I was able to obtain, a 35mm fine grain printed from the camera negative, was in absolutely mint condition and so stunning that one really could capture the whole visual quality of the film, which was the prime excuse for it still existing. I really had to do very little except make a tape transfer, commission a music score, and write the box copy.
On the other hand, consider a release that just came out this week, called The Civil War in Silent Films (if it goes well, we have lots more films). The anchor of that is a feature film called The Coward, assembled from several sources, and quite variable in quality. It was the best we could do, but probably has limited potential and cost a lot more work. Each project defines itself. Sometimes, as with Nanook of the North, there's a really elaborate film restoration, with hundreds and hundreds of interpolations. Then I go through it again after that, digitally, to clean it up. Sometimes it's elaborate; sometimes a very simple process. The same is true of the music. Our scores have encompassed everything from solo piano to 40-piece orchestras, which involves commissioning composers and copyists, preparing parts, then recording and editing the sessions.
dOc: I would think that an orchestral score would get awfully expensive for some of these discs of limited interest.
Shepard: Well, some of them are expensive. We did two orchestral scores for The Lost World, but The Lost World has commercial potential to justify them. It was financed in advance through television sales in Europe. It won't owe me anything by the time it's done, and we'll have a project of such high quality that it will have enhanced sales potential elsewhere. I've been really fortunate, terribly fortunate, in finding collaborators and associates who see this work as I do, a cultural activity of real worth, and are willing to take less to make it possible.
dOc: I presume you're the final judge of whether the restoration is good enough to put out.
Shepard: Well, I'm the guy who signs the checks. I try not to start something if it's going to end up second-rate. There are so many films, and the needle's eye that I can get them through is a relatively small one, so I try and only do films that I like and that I believe in, and films that I can make look pretty good or better.
dOc: Are you actually personally involved in the restorations?
Shepard: Oh, hey, I'm the whole crew most of the time. I do work with wonderful telecine operators and video editors. Once we agree on the general approach, the musicians have a great deal of latitude, and depending on who they are I sometimes never even hear the score until it's finished, although sometimes I sit down and look at the music, play it through and talk about it, ask them to do parts over and that kind of thing. I certainly don't try to think for the composers. You hire a person with creative talents you want, you're not going to turn that artist into a secretary.
Image Entertainment has one video editor, Bret Hampton, whom I've worked with for ten years, and we have discovered an awful lot of tricks together to make things look good, to do unusual fixes. Others have figured them out now and are doing the same things, but we were there first. When I'm in the facility, which costs three hundred bucks an hour, we start off with triage. We start with the problems a blind person would notice and then we move down to the less serious cases, and we do minor things or minute things, and when we run out of time we stop, and then we don't go broke. Some things have been released with faults that are still conspicuous, and I only see the mistakes, even when I look at them even years later. We simply couldn't afford to go further. The things that start off in good condition, where we can fix minute things in a limited amount of time, look wonderful.
Every once in a while, there's a chance to go back—for example with some of the films that were originally done for laserdisc, now reissued on DVD. I've been able to reopen some of those masters and make improvements we couldn't afford the first time, or add supplementary material that we could not use originally because the laserdisc was strictly limited to sixty minutes per side. DVD is effective in that you can get so much information on one of those discs; there's a chance to go back and do things that sometimes we couldn't do before. Each format has its advantages; for laserdisc, as example, we were doing facsimile reproductions of souvenir programs for some of the important silent films, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Phantom of the Opera, The Black Pirate, Orphans of the Storm, The Birth of a Nation, those kinds of things. Now the little teeny-weeny DVD, there's no room for that in the package and I haven't been able for about three years to do one. With The Lost World, we going to do a reproduction of the souvenir program down to miniature, and I think when we get done it's going to look like the Lord's Prayer on the head of a pin, but for people with sharp eyes at least, it'll all be there.
dOc: Relating to The Lost World, we have a question from one of our readers, who says he was the "William & Mary kid in the front row with the dinosaur toys at the Virginia Film Fest". He's wondering what the status is on the DVD release, what the timetable is.
Shepard: April 6 . I remember him;. I really enjoyed talking to him. I taught at the USC Film School and other places for thirty years. As a teacher, I essentially learned that I could take the temperature of a whole class, if I was fortunate enough to have a couple of people whose faces and bodies were excellent barometers of their level of interest. He was very much one of those; it was a big theatre full of people and I couldn't see too well beyond the first few rows because of the lights, but I could see him and he became my barometer.
dOc: Does this restoration include the footage that was found a few years ago in Europe?
dOc: What sort of a running time will that have now?
Shepard: Ninety-three-and-a-half minutes. So we've added approximately fifty percent to the running time of the previously available versions.
dOc: That's great! That includes animation footage as well?
Shepard: Oh yes. There was an earlier restoration of the film by George Eastman House, which we did not have access to, but I think we actually have more footage than they had. An exciting supplement we shall have is about twelve minutes of animation outtakes. It's scenes they didn't use, or scenes where something went wrong, where the animator popped into the shot for four frames, and we were able to get that material.
dOc: Great, I'm really looking forward to that one. I understand you also have a revised version of Nosferatu coming out.
Shepard: Yes, that streets on January 2nd .
dOc: What are the differences from the earlier version?
Shepard: Huge improvement in pictorial quality, additional music score by a group called Silent Orchestra and different—I think better—title cards: nice-looking, hand-lettered, parchment-like title cards.
dOc: Will it be windowboxed at all? The problem that title has always had is that there are things right out to the edge of the frame that get lost to overscan.
Shepard: In the case of Nosferatu, I was starting off with an existing tape master and there was too much quality loss when we tried to windowbox it after the fact, so I didn't. Also, you may have seen a print that was mastered at sound aperture from a silent aperture image, resulting in serious cropping. But typically, yes, I think I am the one who started windowboxing. When I began it, I was using a facility called Crest National, in Hollywood, and they made me sign a dOc:ument that they weren't liable and wouldn't have to do it over again when I found out that my windowboxing was completely unacceptable to the marketplace. Now everybody does it.
dOc: What's the original aspect ratio of that film, because I just saw it in a theatre for Halloween and it looked practically square, 1.17:1 or something like that.
Shepard: 1.33:1. But television, you see, is 1.37:1 so if you get the width of the picture right, you are losing a little bit of the top and the bottom. When you windowbox, you can crop selectively so that you take less off the top and the bottom than you do off the sides and you can compensate for that.
dOc: The print I saw looked like it was framed right and it wasn't missing the tops of heads like I usually see it.
Shepard: Well, I don't know about that particular print. Our 35mm prints are full silent aperture prints. But there's a rival DVD of Nosferatu out in a set from Elite that comes with a terrible Caligari and a terrible Golem, and the Nosferatu is not so terrible, except that they used a European print that had a soundtrack added, so the whole left edge is gone, and the top and bottom are cropped.
dOc: Plus it's running about twice as fast as it ought to.
Shepard: Well, it's running at 24, and it should go about 18. Most of the English title prints of Nosferatu—not the one that I worked with, but most of what's generally around—derive from the Museum of Modern Art. The Museum put its own titles into it, which are easily identified because not only do they use a typestyle, Futura, which wasn't in existence when the movie was made, but they also used the character names from the novel, which the original film does not. They were translations of titles in a French print. They shot them at Academy sound aperture so when those prints are made, almost invariably they print them at Academy aperture and that means that you're losing image to the left, the top and the bottom, but the titles look perfectly centered.
dOc: So that's why, when Orlok stands bolt upright in his coffin, he's usually missing the top half of his head.
Shepard: Well, I guess. I haven't seen any version except mine for ten years. I did look at a little of the Elite one to see what the competition had to offer, but I was immediately put at ease and turned it off.
dOc: I don't think you've got much to worry about there.
Shepard: Well the new one is stunning. I wouldn't have believed that such an upgrade in quality would be possible.
dOc: Terrific. Any possibility of doing any other Murnau films?
Shepard: We are just now signing a contract with Transit Film, which gives us Faust and The Last Laugh. We did have these on VHS and laserdisc until the law changed and the film came back under U.S. copyright in 1996. At that point we withdrew eight films. Now after much negotiation, my partners at Kino and I have successfully managed to contract with the Germans and we will reissue all those titles, and in several cases upgrade them for DVD.
Shepard: But to my mind the Murnaus that are earlier than Nosferatu are not particularly interesting, and the ones that are later are all covered by these restored copyrights. Of course, I was able to talk 20th Century-Fox into letting me produce a laserdisc edition of Sunrise, which is beautiful, but so far they haven't been willing to release it on DVD.
dOc: Is there anything you might want to revisit on that one?
Shepard: No, I was very happy with Sunrise. It had some outtakes on it too, and it had a choice of two musical scores—a compiled score that went out with the general release of the film in 1927, which is nice, although the recording is primitive. Then I commissioned a score from Timothy Brock, recorded by about a 35-piece orchestra in digital stereo and one could access either. We did the same thing with City Lights.
dOc: How about other German films, like Pandora's Box?
Shepard: Well, I've been doing German films most of the year, because I was trying to make up for the wonderful ones we had to take out of distribution. I produced a video edition of The Indian Tomb, which is just a jaw-dropping film. We just released Destinyof Lang last month in a beautiful edition. And down the pike, but not very far, is both parts of Mabuse. Pandora's Box is controlled in this country by Janus Films and not available to me.
dOc: So it's kind of in limbo for the moment.
Shepard: Well, it's not for me to say, because it's not my project.
dOc: Speaking of City Lights, to my mind at least, your name is most associated with the Chaplin films. What condition were those films in when you got hold of them?
Shepard: Well, that would depend on the group. The Chaplin family had material in considerable depth on The Chaplin copyright films, so it was really a matter of going to Europe and selecting the best thing to work with for each film. I found some excellent element on every film, except The Pilgrim, where the best material was damaged. We did some tricks to get a registered video transfer from it. In many cases, of course, the films had been reissued with music tracks composed by Chaplin, but these versions had little cuts in them. I was interested in putting them out as they had originally been seen and was able to get permission to do that. But the family has now changed its opinion, and when the contract runs out in September of next year those versions will probably be withdrawn, and I suspect the films will thereafter be available only in what we call the "Daddy" versions.
For video you're not bound by the speed rigidities of theatrical film, where you usually have to either run at 24 or you have to stretch-print it in some way. Jerry Epstein, who supervised the sound reissues for Chaplin, was big into stretch printing and would print every second frame twice and slow these films down to the visual equivalent of 16 frames per second. They were never meant to be seen that way, and in my opinion it damages the impact of quite a few of the films. We were able to make the video transfer to 20 frames or 21 frames or 22 frames per second or whatever I decided, and then make the Chaplin music fit them. Of course, we were able to do full aperture on films that had been seen cropped in their theatrical versions because of the matter of taking out the space for the sound track and taking off the head and foot. So in those three regards the video versions are, I think, improvements on what you could find on film copies. There was no elaborate restoration at all involved in the picture material, except for digitally removing as much as possible the effects of wear and tear. In the case of City Lights, I think there were about 600 edits to clean up defects because the negative was worn, but my gosh, the underlying material looked so beautiful. Preparing the earlier films, the Essanay and the Mutual comedies, was much more elaborate.
dOc: I was surprised at how good the Essanays looked on disc.
Shepard: I'm very glad you felt that way; that was not easy.
dOc: I take it they were in pretty bad shape when you got hold of them.
Shepard: Well, they were not in one place, and I finally came to the conclusion that there was no complete print of any Essanay Chaplin in the world. Everything really involved conflating, typically, about three sources to get one complete copy of the film. The prime work was just locating all the stuff. Not that I wasn't doing other things at the same time, but it took nine years, and several of the people who were kind enough to give me access to original film materials, and who are acknowledged in the discs, were dead by the time they came out. Once I had enough material to put the films all together, it wasn't a particularly difficult project; it was just labor-intensive because everything was in bad shape.
dOc: Were the Mutuals in equally bad shape?
Shepard: No, the Mutuals had been kept together over the years. When I was working for Blackhawk, I found all this original material with a chain of title of ownership going all the way back to the Mutual Company. Many, many original elements, and they weren't used prints, there were some original negatives and fine-grains, film that hadn't been through projectors. They looked good. I've done the Mutuals over three times; I don't think I'll revisit them again. The first time, we just prepared them in 16mm for Blackhawk, and they were revelations in 1974 or 1975.
dOc: I remember a friend buying The Immigrant from Blackhawk about 1975 and watching it on his little projector.
Shepard: I still have all my prints from that time too. Then I was able to get those films from Blackhawk in 1984 before I bought the rest of the library. I prepared fresh 35mm prints and made videos at that time using one-inch tape, which was the best format then available. A one-frame edit was a miracle in 1984. The only place one could do it was at the CBS network origination facility. A friend at CBS made arrangements, and I'd be able to go in there and work with their engineers on weekends to do the video portion of it. I still have all those materials, but by today's standards they look absolutely crummy. In 1984, I spent about $30,000 preparing that set, and that was a high-risk venture for me, because I had no idea whether there would be any way to earn $30,000 back on a group of public-domain two-reel silent comedies. Well, boy, was I wrong. By 1989 they had done well enough that I thought that I owed them something. Still using the 1984 transfers, I put back titles that had been missing, hired a composer, and re-scored them. Then by 1995, some of the original negatives and other elements were starting to decompose, and I thought it was really the last time that I would have access to the earliest generation material, which I hadn't used before. I went back and did everything from earlier generation negative and fine-grain and applied the best equipment and also the skills I had developed by that time to prepare a new edition. Michael Mortilla, who did the music in 1989, revised his work and we re-recorded that too.
dOc: Which version was used for the DVD?
Shepard: The 1995 version was used for the DVD.
dOc: So now pretty much everything of Chaplin except for the Keystone films are out.
Shepard: That's right. I've done Tillie's Punctured Romance and everything from the first Essanay, His New Job, through A King in New York; even a lot of unreleased material shows up in the supplements to the DVDs.
dOc: Are the Keystones somewhere on your list to do?
Shepard: Well, I have less enthusiasm for the Keystones. A lot of them are in such poor shape, and are not particularly interesting. I think it is very likely that I will do a selection of Keystones, but I don't think I'm going to attempt to do all of the Keystones. For example, there's a film called Twenty Minutes of Love, which doesn't last twenty minutes, it's only about a fourteen minute film, but it's interesting because it's the first one that Chaplin actually directed. Somebody provided me with a tinted nitrate print of that film that had been made in 1919, which was certainly the earliest generation element I'd ever seen of it. It's a film that Blackhawk, in all its years, had never come across at all. I worked over that original print and made 35mm and 16mm negatives. But the original negative had been printed so much already by 1919 that the copy was full of real atrocities that were printed right into it, from when it was only five years old. Only frame by frame digital restoration would bring it back, and so far the market does not support that level of investment in silent cinema. We have original camera negatives on maybe eight of the Keystones, and of course using modern techniques of wetgate and digital enhancement, those are going to look fabulous. After that, it's like walking off the edge of a cliff.
dOc: Is there any possibility of a restored silent Gold Rush, or is the Chaplin estate completely opposed to that?
Shepard: Well, the Chaplin estate produced a restored silent Gold Rush. It's not on video, but it's done frequently in concert performance. Carl Davis constructed a score for it, based on Charlie's score for his 1941 version. The L.A. Chamber Orchestra played it in L.A., and it's been done fairly widely. The film work was done by the late David Gill, and looks very good.
dOc: Looking through the Chaplin discs, I noticed you weren't listed on Modern Times. Was that an error, or was there some reason for that omission?
Shepard: It's an error. I worked hard on Modern Times and also conducted the interview with David Raksin.
dOc: I see that you did a commentary on an unused scene in The Circus. Have you done any other commentaries?
Shepard: You mean with my own voice?
Shepard: The Birth of a Nation, not through the film, but we made a half-hour dOc:umentary to go with it, kind of a 'making of', because I was lucky enough to find outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, and of course one had to deal with the race issue and the role of the Klan and other delicate subjects. I didn't want to release the film without some ameliorating material, but I also didn't want to be obsequiously P.C. So I did that one myself. But we don't do commentaries all the time. I don't regard them as necessary like flour in a cake, but when someone has something to say—I think the Nosferatu commentary by Dr. Heiss is really very good, and we are using it on the new DVD edition, but have revised it and enlarged the supplementary section. He went to Germany and took a whole series of then-and-now slides of the locations that were used for the making of the movie, which will be new for the DVD.
dOc: That should be interesting.
Shepard: I think so. The Caligari commentary is by a man named Mike Budd, a professor, who has written a book on Caligari which was published by Rutgers University Press. My line of reasoning with Mike was that more people are going to see this thing on laserdisc, and now, as it turns out, DVD, than will ever find your academic book. So here's your chance to get to a larger audience with what you have to say. He was for that. There are mind-popping commentaries by Yuri Tsivian for Strike and The Man With The Movie Camera. We're working on one now for a six-hour set of Griffith Biographs. I was down in Oakland all last week recording and working with the author, who is a Griffith scholar named Russell Merritt. The Lost World disc will have a second track commentary by Roy Pilot, who did a book that he spent ten years on, called The Annotated Lost World. You've seen annotated Bibles, where there's a page of text and a page of notes? He did that with The Lost World—it's amazing. Ten years of work, and they printed a thousand copies of the book, and the first edition isn't sold out in four years. So, it wasn't hard for Roy to see that a lot more people would hear what he had to say than would ever find his book.
dOc: I know that I'm going to look for it now.
Shepard: You can buy it on amazon.com, that's how I found it.
dOc: Have you any interest in working on sound films, other than the Chaplins?
Shepard: Well, the better American sound films are mostly owned by the major studios, of course, and I'm not very interested in working for hire. I would rather work for my own account, not so much for finances, but because I don't like people sticking their thumbs in my stuff and telling me how to do it. I do own Our Daily Bread, which I bought from King Vidor's estate, and we've put out what I think is a very nice DVD with eight films on it, including Our Daily Bread, several of the government New Deal documentaries, a little prologue I made with King about Our Daily Bread and then two really rare items, fake newsreels that MGM produced to try and arrange, successfully, as it turned out, the defeat of Upton Sinclair when he was running for governor of California on the Democratic ticket in 1934. I've got a project now, a really wonderful film called The Sin of Nora Moran, which is from 1933, and anticipates the structure of Citizen Kane. I was able to make a deal with the owner; it was an independently-owned film. UCLA did a restoration to which I contributed material, and I have access. I'm going to release that with a little B-picture that I own called Prison Train, which I really like, as a double feature. But mostly I've been sort of a silent film guy. Partially because they are what's available to me and partially because these are films that I love, and think most need friends.
dOc: Were the ten Keaton discs that you put out with Kino taken from the laserdisc transfers, or did you revisit those too?
Shepard: I revisited them, but only slightly. Convict 13 was revised, Go West was revised, and other than that the set is the same as the laserdiscs.
dOc: Is that more a matter of you're happy with the laserdiscs, or is it more a matter of economics?
Shepard: I'm pretty happy with what we did for the laserdiscs. I would say that—
dOc: I don't mean that to sound critical.
Shepard: No, I'm just trying to think of what I might change. I'm going through the films in my mind. I'm sure it'd be possible to do some upgrades on music, but I'm not ashamed of any of the music. I was unhappy about Go West; that's why I did that over. The Keaton project is now over five years old but I think I'd pretty much let it stand. I'm proud of the Keatons. I think the editions represent the films well. I don't think you could do some of those films as well today because we used original material that was quite aged then.
dOc: Touching on the economics of these films, a lot of the things you've put out are very little-known generally, like Griffith's America, or Destiny or The Affairs of Anatol.
Shepard: Or my favorite, Atlantis. I think Atlantis sold 150 copies. Yes, well, my way of explaining that is that The Phantom of the Opera pays for a million sins. In balance, I have no complaints. I get to prepare wonderful films, I've made a living, I've had a lot of fun, and I hope that people are rediscovering the films as a result of these editions, but it's not as if every one of them is done on a profit-and-loss sheet—I'm willing to work for free on a movie I like. Some of them take years to pay off. The Biograph set took four years to just break even, not counting any salary for me. I don't think Tol'able David will ever break even, but Henry King was a friend of mine and I admire the film enormously, and who else would have done it? So I felt I owed it to Henry and to the film. I discovered that movie when I was about sixteen years old, it had a huge impact on me and I still think it's great.
dOc: I really like seeing these unusual films.
Shepard: Have you seen Tol'able David?
dOc: I've bought it, but I haven't gotten around to watching it yet.
Shepard: Oh, it'll knock your socks off! Watch it. We did it right; we scored it with an orchestra.
dOc: Okay, I've been looking forward to it, I just need to find some time somewhere.
Shepard: I have hundreds, hundreds of laserdiscs and DVDs and tapes I haven't watched. Gee, I think, this'll be great. I just hope I have a good long old age.
dOc: One of the ones that I was really surprised to find in such great condition was Les Vampires.
Shepard: A lot of work went into Les Vampires, and that was actually one of the rare projects that quickly paid for itself.
Shepard: Les Vampires was a big plunge. Kino turned it down; they said nobody wants to see a seven-hour movie. I therefore had to find another distributor, and Water Bearer Films, which handled it, was really glad to get it, put in a huge marketing effort and got major, major press for it, and it kind of became the flavor of the month. It's a wonderful film. I had seen it twice before I started to work on it. I had seen it once at the New York Film Festival in 1965, in one seven-hour stretch—actually it was about a six-hour stretch, because the print didn't have any titles and you absolutely couldn't figure out anything that was going on. It's improbable enough when it tells you what's going on; if you have to get it by divining rod, well you just can't. So all that remained in my mind from that was certain beautiful images, but no sense of narrative. Years later I was a juror at a film festival in Cattolica, Italy, and it was run there as a kind of sidebar event in the afternoons; there were five or six or ten people in the audience, but they ran the episodes two a day over the course of five days and I saw it again and thought it was one of the great films that I'd ever seen. Then by blind luck, material on it just fell into my lap. Copyright was out, so we went to Gaumont and asked, would they mind, because I didn't want to burn any bridges, and they said, be our guests. So I went ahead and did it. We hoped fire would strike twice with The Indian Tomb; that went to the same distributor as Les Vampires, and it's every bit as good, maybe even better. It's not quite as long, three hours and thirty-five minutes compared to six hours and forty minutes—it's seven hours on the DVD counting the extras which I added—but The Indian Tomb failed commercially. I've been fortunate in a sale to Turner Classic Movies which will recover some of the cost.
dOc: That's good. You've got a number of the big Douglas Fairbanks movies, Robin Hood, The Thief of Bagdad, Black Pirate and Mark of Zorro. Are we likely to see any others from him?
Shepard: No, we did twelve Fairbanks films, and only the big costume pictures—which we've done all of—were successful. As to the others like The Mollycoddle, Flirting with Fate and The Matrimaniac, I could have distributed more copies standing on the corner and waiting for my friends to pass by. Although the modern dress comedies are very good, the big costume pictures have been done so we're probably done with Fairbanks.
dOc: A number of those Fairbanks DVDs have scores by the great Gaylord Carter.
Shepard: Yes, The Mark of Zorro, Don Q and The Thief of Bagdad. The scores were recorded back in the Blackhawk days, in the mid-1970's. They were not Gaylord at the end of his life; they were Gaylord in his prime. His Zorro score is really outstanding, and his The Thief of Bagdad is just great. I think The Thief of Bagdad represents pretty much the high water mark of theatrical organ performance. I dedicated that to Gaylord.
dOc: Do you have any other of his scores recorded that you haven't released yet?
Shepard: No, I think I've put all of the Gaylord scores out. A lot of them have been superseded now. For example, Gaylord recorded a score for Tol'able David which was very nice, but it was done without contemplation of the flexibility of video. It required the film to be run at 24 frames per second, which in my opinion damaged it enough that it was worth scrapping the score and getting another one and doing the image right. We have a retired Gaylord score from The Phantom of the Opera. We have a retired Gaylord score for Siegfried. They're all good, but for various reasons they just can be improved on today. There are a number of Gaylord scores still there. His Steamboat Bill score, we've been talking about upgrading with an Alloy Orchestra score, but of course, with DVD there's no need to scrap the old one; you can just have two. So I don't see in the future that we'll be retiring any Gaylord scores that still fit the film transfers that we would be using. The major reason is film speed, but there are a lot of the Gaylord scores scattered. Several of the Keaton shorts have them, several of the Biographs have them. A couple of Lon Chaneys have Gaylord scores; I know Shadows does.
dOc: One of the newer discs you've done is the Harry Langdon one.
Shepard: Well, that's not so new, but the Harry Langdon project was a QUAD, not a four-star.
dOc: Since we're talking about comedians, any chance of Harold Lloyd or Charley Chase making it out?
Shepard: The Lloyds have all just been licensed for DVD, but I'm not involved with that project. I think Charley Chase is just great, especially when he was directed by Leo McCarey. I used a couple of Chases on our Slapstick Encyclopedia series and would love to do more. The copyright Chases are controlled by Hallmark, and even though I own the nontheatrical film rights to those films, the video rights seem to be beyond the reach of anyone.
dOc: So those really are in limbo.
dOc: Most of the Mary Pickford films released thus far seem to have been released through Milestone. Do they have some sort of exclusive deal?
Shepard: Well, the Mary Pickford Foundation controls the films. They made a deal with Milestone where the Foundation actually pays for the preparation of restored editions and Milestone distributes them, and all the money that comes in goes back into restoring additional films in their library. They've done one group of about five so far, and I think about a year from now there'll be another batch of five.
dOc: The two-volume Landmarks of Early Film set omits some of what was on the VHS version. Can we expect any more of those?
Shepard: Well, there was a mistake made with the DVD. There was a longer version that was prepared and they used the wrong tape. So one of these days we'll fix it.
dOc: What sort of cooperation do you find with various archives to obtain better prints or additional footage?
Shepard: Very little cooperation. I think that there's personal resentment toward me, because the archives perceive that somehow or other I'm making money from these things, or making them accessible when they had been exclusive. I don't know. Maybe they just regard me as somebody who's ripping the stuff off. I've deposited a lot of material into archives and I often have trouble getting a hold of my own films, never mind the other stuff. We did the De Mille series based upon material that was on deposit at the Eastman House from the De Mille estate, but it only happened because I went to the De Mille family and they more or less commanded it. I did donate money to Eastman House as a thank you for access to the material, but I never would have gotten it without Cecilia De Mille beating on them with a great big stick. I've never gotten anything else out of Eastman House, except for a couple of shorts for which I paid an enormous access fee. After that, the door closed completely, which is the reason I did The Lost World. I would've been happy to license theirs, and for two years I attempted to license it. Then one morning I woke up and said to myself, "Schmuck! I've been at this for thirty years. I can do this! I don't need them." It took about three weeks to get everything that they had into my hands, plus more. So my friend Serge Bromberg and I did it ourselves.
The Museum of Modern Art has been cooperative, if I had something that they wanted enough, to let loose a few things. I obtained elements, spread over the whole nine years, on some Essanay Chaplin films from the Museum of Modern Art. But generally, no. The Library of Congress will make material available to anybody, but they won't give access to the prime film material. They do their own video transfers and their work is of such quality that by and large I find it unusable. So I've done very little with the Library of Congress, even though, because they're a public institution, they are forced to cooperate to some extent. Though they try not to; honest to God, I've been trying now for over a year to get one of my own original negatives out of the Library of Congress, and it never shows up. I call and we talk and they're very nice and they hang up the phone and they're rid of me till the next call and they never send anything. So I feel very lucky there's a lot of film outside the official archives because within the archive world these people who are supposed to be activists and custodians and one would hope promoters of their treasures, guard them like Fafnir the dragon.
dOc: Kevin Brownlow has done a lot of restorations; do you know whether any of those are going to be coming along on DVD?
Shepard: Yes, Milestone has just signed for a group of them, and they'll be bringing them out. Including some unusual ones, The Blot,The Chess Player, It, La Terre, and what would life be without another Nosferatu and another Phantom of the Opera? Kevin's work is first-rate, absolutely first-rate. When I did The Black Pirate, which probably cost more to prepare than any other single film I've done for video, it was very favorably reviewed with a whole page in Time magazine, and Kevin, who has been a friend for over 30 years, called up and congratulated me. I thanked him and said, "Yes, it's the most expensive thing I ever did." He asked how much I spent, so I told him. There was a long pause and he said, "We spend that per reel." They've been very, very fortunate to have Channel Four sponsorship. Everything I've done has had to pay its way. I've just never had the privilege of those kinds of budgets. But even if they were spending little money, I'm sure their work would be beautiful. They're very caring and very meticulous people. But I can't afford Carl Davis and fifty-five, hundred piece orchestras. They did Nosferatu with, I think, a hundred piece orchestra.
dOc: Speaking of The Phantom of the Opera, your version seems to be a blend of the 1925 and 1929 versions?
Shepard: No, it's not, it's the straight 1929 version. The first laserdisc I did had the 1925 version complete as an add-on with no music, and the 1929 version was the one that we scored. Thereafter it's just been the 1929 version.
dOc: That's the one with the Technicolor footage?
Shepard: That's right. I have the original nitrate material on that footage, which I also supplied to Kevin so it's in his version.
dOc: Is that still in good shape?
Shepard: Yes, that's in fine shape. It's shrunken but no decomposition at all. I have of course made 35mm color negatives from it.
dOc: Do you have any other Chaney DVDs coming down the pike?
Shepard: Yes, we've done four. Outside the Law, which I believe is tied to Shadows, that's out. Then we did Oliver Twist and I think that's tied to The Light in the Dark, and that's out. Then there is one that's coming, The Shock and Nomands of the North, a double feature; and I'm working now on one from 1919, called The Wicked Darling, directed by Tod Browning. That'll be out probably toward the end of 2001 and there will be something else with it but I'm not sure what
. dOc: And of course, the $64,000 question: Any signs of London After Midnight?
Shepard: No. I'm so tired of that. MGM did a nice set of Chaneys on laserdisc, which I suppose will eventually reappear on DVD.
dOc: Do you think there's any market for a compilation disc of fragments of films that are otherwise lost? I'm thinking like The Miracle Man and Thunder and the little piece of Cleopatra that's still extant.
Shepard: Once you move off the well-trod path, there is little interest. For example, in the 16mm rental days, there was a library that had almost all the Renoir films. About eighty percent of the rentals they had were for The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion, and the other 28 collectively were twenty percent of their Renoir rentals. People like to know in advance how their food will taste—that's why we have McDonalds. When we prepare these things that you were characterizing as little-known films, the sales are in the low hundreds of copies. That's why I say that The Phantom of the Opera pays for them. So, with films that aren't even complete, that nobody knows about, two reels of this great Ethel Barrymore performance from 1915—it's almost hopeless, unless there's a reel of London After Midnight to serve as the hit single!
The only way I can see to make something like that work, which I'm now trying, is to do an umbrella grouping under some category that appeals to more than silent movie buffs or old movie buffs. For example, I earlier mentioned to you The Coward, and I've packaged that with a couple of shorts and we're selling it as Civil War Films of the Silent Era because there are a great many more Civil War buffs than there are silent movie buffs. I've got one in the works now which will be sold as World War I Films of the Silent Era, and is going to consist of a feature called The Secret Game with Sessue Hayakawa and Florence Vidor, directed by William de Mille, a wonderful film that nobody would buy if it came out as The Secret Game. But I'm putting it with a German World War I film and a British one and I think that that way it'll go to war buffs and the silent movie people can find it too. I think that's the way those kind of things have to be done. The Landmarks of Early Film, Film History 101, was an exception. You can put The Great Train Robbery; you can put the rocket in the moon's eye on the cover and people will recognize those films. But that omnibus DVD that had The Great Train Robbery, sold four times as many copies as the Melies one, which included wonderful rarities that no one had seen, in beautiful copies.
dOc: That hardly seems reasonable; I bought the Melies one first and decided to go back and get the other one later.
Shepard: Well, I don't think you were disappointed in the Melies one; I think the music's really good too.
dOc: Have you yourself discovered any films that were thought lost?
Shepard: Oh, sure. Lots of them. The question is whether anyone cares whether that they were found. I would say the two that people care the most about, that I found, were Traffic in Souls and Regeneration. Regeneration: there was a man who was kind of a phone pal and was a movie buff but he was most interested in films of prize fights. He was always calling and whenever I'd come across an old film of a prize fight, he would buy it, or I would just sometimes send it to him. He was working as a meter reader in Missoula, Montana, and there was this building where he read the meters and there was a lot of film in the basement. He wanted it but he could never find out who owned the film, so he could never get it. He would just look at it every month when he would go in to read the meter. Well, eventually the building was to be torn down and all the tenants moved out, and he went to read the meter for the last time and the film was still there, so he took it. There were some fight films in there, which is what he really wanted, and among the rest he gave me my pick. And there was this original print, the only one known to exist, of Raoul Walsh's first film, Regeneration. It was already decomposing, so he sent it to me and I copied it right away, even though it was still under copyright. Then I just put the negative away until the copyright expired. I sent the original to the Museum of Modern Art. They copied it and put it in the New York Film Festival as a great discovery, but of course they never said where it came from. It was something they discovered.
Traffic in Souls: I met this merchant seaman. He traveled the world working on crews of freighters, and when they were putting ashore someplace, he would advertise ahead that he was interested in buying old films. In port he'd respond to all of the ads, and typically pay five dollars a reel, and he'd gotten enormous amounts of nitrate film out of various odd corners of the world. He shipped them home to Seattle where they went into the basement of his mother's house. She was sleeping on top of about 2 million feet of nitrate film! Then eventually he realized this might not be the best long-term thing for his mother, so he decided he'd sell the film. Traffic in Souls was among the films that he'd accumulated. He didn't realize that it was a lost film that people had been looking for for decades, and he had a lot of other really good things in there too. So I can't really claim to have discovered that; Donald Nichol, the sailor, discovered it, but I found Nichol, acquired the film and brought it back to availability.
dOc: Are we getting pretty close to the point of no return, where anything from the silent era that's not discovered and preserved is as good as gone?
Shepard: No, film still turns up all the time.
dOc: A number of the releases that you've done have some defects that could be explained if they're the only print.
Shepard: Like what?
dOc: Outside the Law has a spot toward the end that's pretty badly decomposed.
Shepard: Yes, I think my duplicate negative of Outside the Law is the only reasonable source material. That had nitrate decomposition in the last reel. dOc: The rest of it looks great.
Shepard: Yes, it does. That nitrate print came from a man who was an architect in St. Paul, Minnesota, who had a fabulous nose for film and was always finding things. He'd found that film, and I had established a relationship with him when I was working for the American Film Institute, and carried that over. He contacted me while I was at Blackhawk and that came in and was copied the week we got it. It came in in that condition, and nothing better has ever appeared.
dOc: Another one is The Bells—
Shepard: What's wrong with The Bells? I thought it looked beautiful.
dOc: Well, when Boris Karloff first appears, it looks like there's a couple of frames missing. There's a big jump that looks like someone snipped it out as a souvenir or something.
Shepard: I don't remember that but it could well be. That came from a nitrate tinted print that someone offered me just a few years ago.
dOc: Destiny looks like it's from a sound print?
Shepard: Destiny is from a reissue print, and the left side is cropped, but the full height is there. So that's why it's sort of squarish. I centered it up as best I could. It's by far the best looking print of Destiny that I've ever seen.
dOc: I haven't seen this one myself, but I've seen another website complaining about the picture quality on The Spiders, that there were blotches and damage and contrast issues.
Shepard: Well, The Spiders came from Czechoslovakia, and we got a 35mm master from a dupe negative they had made from nitrate which had long since decomposed. It was copied with a lot of defects built into it, such as scratches and other damage that afterwards could not be taken out. But I think we performed kind of a miracle on The Spider because it didn't have titles, it was all out of sequence, but we figured it out. We were able to get the German censor records and put the titles back into it.
dOc: Was that source material 35mm?
Shepard: Yes, 35mm. I tinted it, Gaylord Carter scored it. I get kind of tired of people who see the world as a half-empty glass. The Spiders is miraculous; for sixty years, nobody had seen the whole film in any kind of narrative order, with titles that made it intelligible. It took those German censor records, and it was not easy to get them, to use as a matrix to put the film together. Fritz Lang was still living at the time and looked at it and advised me.
dOc: That's pretty amazing, to have his involvement in it.
Shepard: Well, he was a nice man, he was happy to do it. I had known him before the Spiders project came along. He didn't have anything to do. It was unfortunate, but nobody was having him make any films, he was just sitting home killing time. He was thrilled to have people come up there and see him.
dOc: Speaking of Lang, have you ever tried your hand at Metropolis?
Shepard: Metropolis is one of those films that came back under copyright. Transit Film is doing their own restoration which will be unveiled next year for the 75th anniversary of the film, and they hope at that time to license it for literally millions of dollars.
Martin Koerber is doing their work and I think it's going to be beautiful. But I worked on the Moroder Metropolis, you see, and we pulled in all this stuff. We got a much longer version of Metropolis together, and Giorgio looked at it and said, "My God, I can see why they cut it." So, then he cut it. If you know the film well and you look at his version, you'll see it includes things that you've never seen elsewhere, while it's missing things that are familiar because he cut it to suit himself. We had a much longer version of the film than was finally released under his auspices.
dOc: Have you seen the so-called restoration of Greed?
Shepard: Yes, I think it's brilliantly done. I really was impressed with it and admire Rick Schmidlin enormously for pulling off something that I would have thought would be terrible, and he made it great.
dOc: What other projects do you have in the works that we haven't talked about?
Shepard: Oh, I'm pretty well booked through this year, but I don't want to face questions of "Whatever happened to this or that? It didn't appear." So, we'll just leave it.
dOc: Anything else you'd like to tell our readers?
Shepard: I'm afraid I've told your readers far too much!