The Stock Interview - Max Cavanaugh

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Nitrate Stock is happy to present the second in a series of interviews designed to bring you closer to your NYC film community. From the people who program the films to the ones who pop the corn, our aim is to broaden the dialogue and further personalize the experience.

Max Cavanaugh is a graduate of the film program at Hampshire College in Boston, Mass. As a member of the 1st generation of video store brats, however, his film education began some time before that. In his professional career he's spent time as assistant editor to famed documentarian Albert Maysles (The Making of Wes Anderson's "Life Aquatic", Masada at Tonic) and post-production manager on the doc Better Than Something: Jay Reatard, as well as working just about every job title at Manhattan's Film Forum. He is currently technical director and an associate programmer at Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema.

 

What was your favorite movie when you were 12 years old, and is it still your favorite?

That'd be 1990. The Columbia re-release of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA had just hit VHS. I hate to answer with an obvious choice, like the Beatles are my favorite band, but seeing LAWRENCE in widescreen...my aunt had bought it, and VHS was still pretty expensive to buy back then. My dad made it a point to say to me "you'd better borrow that, I want that." So I sort of smuggled it out of Worchester to our house in New Caanan.

I don't think I fully appreciated it when I was 12, the history, the politics, but it was the first widescreen movie I'd ever seen. It was the catalyst for a 2 or 3 day conversation with my dad about film, why certain movies were widescreen, the films of David Lean. That movie was my dad's favorite when he was younger, and that's my pick too.

Still your favorite?

Yes, it is. RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a close second, I vacillate sometimes between the two. But I always come back to LAWRENCE.

Were there any directors or actors in particular you were following back then?

I was certainly aware of directors like Spielberg and Ridley Scott, the contemporary greats. Hitchcock, Huston, those names came a little later.

In film school?

Yeah, but earlier too. One of my first jobs was at Grammaphone Video, which was a pretty conservative store when I started, mostly new titles. But shortly after I was hired they started up a classics section. Between that job and my dad's passion for film that's where my education started, where I started exploring the careers of the masters.

Sounds like your dad was a pretty powerful influence on your film education.

Like I said, we'd talk film constantly. In essence he was my first programmer. He had an incredible amount of film knowledge, and we'd watch and discuss movies he thought important for me to see. He was also the person who first impressed on me the solemnity of the movie theater, that it was as sacred, as Scorsese puts it, as a church.

Beyond my dad and Grammaphone video, I should also mention my high school had a film program, starting in freshman year. Actually, I remember the moment film sort of shattered for me, when they screened Roman Polanski's REPULSION in my sophomore year. That was when film went beyond Spielberg, Hitchcock, the whole Hollywood machine. My teacher that year was Peter Kingsbury, a sort of eccentric intellectual. He had his own grading system different from the school's. I also took his photography class. REPULSION showed me there were more stories to be told and different ways to tell them.

Mr. Kingsbury also exposed me to Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, to reading about film, to really immerse myself in cinema.

What books?

Eisenstein's Film Form, Walter Murch's In the Blink of an Eye, Lumet's Making Movies, then later in film school Tarkovsky's Sculpting in Time, all the Faber director-on-director titles, the Don Seigel Interviews book was a big favorite, and so is he. Seigel was, as Scorsese would put it, a director-as-smuggler, inserting material subversive or otherwise objectionable in mainstream cinema disguised as familiar genre fare. He was one of the last of that group, along with Robert Aldrich and Nick Ray, who began in that era and worked into the more permissive 70's. Today, as markets change and Hollywood product becomes increasingly brand-based, I wonder if a next wave of that type of filmmaking is coming? It's certainly not coming from the Roland Emmerichs of the community.

Which film school did you attend?

I went to Hampshire College, whose most famous alumni is (documentary filmmaker) Ken Burns.

I sense that East Coast film schools tend to focus more on Arthouse cinema and West Coast on more commercial filmmaking. Is that a fair statement?

In a way. I was exposed to more experimental cinema, film theory, video art. And my ambition was to work for ILM, so it was an ill fit sometimes. I learned 16mm Bolex, darkroom skills, developing our own film, techniques of cinematography, the practical stuff. But the school itself was experimental. There were no grades. Instead of writing a paper and getting a grade, making a movie and getting a grade, you basically completed a set of projects and then turned in a thesis at the end of the four years. But I did take a documentary film course that opened me up to the work of the Maysles brothers, Leecock, Pennebaker. It changed my focus drastically. USC, UCLA, they were more commercially based, but in my time at Hampshire I was learning about cinema I'd not been exposed to, that was very engaging, and I wouldn't trade that experience for anything.

Where'd life take you after film school?

My goal after graduating was to work for the Criterion Collection, but I lucked into an internship with Albert Maysles, which is a pretty prestigious gig. Oddly enough, as notoriously difficult a position it is to win, I called Albert directly. A mutual friend gave me his number, and I just phoned him. I parlayed that into a paid gig as editor that lasted for about 2 years, a really educational experience. During that time I also joined the staff at Film Forum for supplemental income. That job lasted almost 9 years.

What was the Forum gig like?

It definitely opened my eyes to the world of cinema, that it was this experience that needed to be preserved. I really got into it, and I really embraced it fully. It was a great circle of friends I made there, lifelong friends.

Was that where the programming bug bit you?

It came later. I met my buddy Andrew Miller there, and we became fast friends. He's a true kindred spirit. We had one 4-hour shift a week in the box office and we had some great film conversations in there. We conceived our first series as co-programmers, Basic Cable Classics, over our mutual love of Mark L. Lester's COMMANDO. Spectacle, which is basically a bodega transformed into a makeshift screening space, was our first venue. We screened Phillip Noyce's BLIND FURY and Tony Scott's THE LAST BOY SCOUT, and Anthony Jeselnik agreed to host for nothing. We packed the house, but ironically it was too successful. Our profile was too high and the Spectacle could've been shut down. Plus, we couldn't show 35mm there, so a change of venue was necessary.

Cristina Cacioppo was running the repertory film arm of the 92YTribeca (since shuttered). She was the entire program there, overseeing series like Overdue, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, her own Beer Goggles, she really created this wonderful little community for a hot minute. Without her support and my experience with Andrew I certainly would never have considered pursuing a career programming repertory cinema.

It was the first time I'd done something professionally purely out of love for the medium, to share my passion for the cinema. I didn't do it for money or accolade, I did it because I wanted to talk movies and see them in 35mm.

How'd you come to your current home, the Nitehawk Cinema?

In an effort to make some cash based on the success we'd had at 92YTribeca, Andrew and I met with (Nitehawk head programmer) John Woods, and proposed a Basic Cable After Dark series. We had an instant rapport. He suggested our first screening be a midnight show of Frank Henenlotter's FRANKENHOOKER. So we booked it and it sold out both nights. They asked us back, John thought Roy Frumkes' STREET TRASH would make a great follow-up. We said YEAH! We got through to Frumkes, he had a 35mm print in his apartment. We pitched the idea. Roy's a total sweetheart, very generous. He agreed, we showed it two nights. He intro'd it both nights. It sold out, too. Big hit. Once I'd gotten my foot in the door it occurred to them that the Basic Cable Classics series was perfect fodder for screenings accompanied by craft beer and hot food. After that they offered me a job, and I realized I'd never get this opportunity anywhere else in NYC.

How easy or hard is it to secure the films you want to book?

There's actually a really good community of programmers online. Cristina's a part of it. There's the Creative Arts Center in Long Island, Jonathan Demme's non-profit in White Plains, the New Beverly in LA, the Alamo Drafthouse. We're all part of this Google collective. Basically you post what you're looking for and someone jumps in to help. "I'm looking for a 35mm print of Paul-Michael Glaser's THE RUNNING MAN." "The NuArt just screened that, I think it's Park Circus." Everyone's looking to help each other out. Then if you're looking for something harder to track down there are private collections. In that case you have to pay both the studio and the collector. We also have access to the larger university and studio vaults because we're archival certified now, so we can get stuff from UCLA, MoMA, the Film Foundation.

What's your mission as a rep film programmer, what separates you from, say, Film Forum or BAM Cinématek?

I want to see my Basic Cable Classics series continue, to continue showing contemporary genre classics on the big screen. I want the audience that'll see what I've booked and go, "OH! I haven't seen that in awhile!" People who are plugged into the rep film scene in NYC, who care that they're watching a good 35mm print as opposed to a BluRay.

Do you think more people are paying attention to the format? Is the rep film crowd changing in that regard?

Yes, I think it is. I think there will always be an audience for it. It just remains to be seen whether it'll be profitable. The jury's still out on whether the future of 35mm screenings will earn enough for venues to book them. The cost differential between celluloid and DCP is pretty wide. It does warm my heart, though, to hear from the occasional ticket buyer who's disappointed that we're not screening something in 35mm.

There seemed to be a lull in repertory booking in the aughts, when everybody was investing in home theater systems and building DVD libraries. Now it seems to have come back with a vengeance. You've observed this audience for years, beginning from your time at the Forum to the present. Do you think that crowd just wanted the communal experience back?

Yeah, I do, they want the experience back, but also the pocket communities that sprang from the experience, the particular film-centric people whose company they enjoy pre- and post-screening. Has that community grown? I don't know. I tend to think not. Film students and retirees will always be there, but then again it depends on the day. If I go to a screening that's poorly attended then I'm pessimistic, and vice versa. I'm not sure the resurgence in the rep community is a trend, per se. NYC's uniquely situated in the sense that it's full of film schools, and people in general just want to get out of their apartments and do something. It's in our nature to gather to be entertained.

My hope is that 35mm will still be in demand. Film is still king. The half-life of the DCP drive is something like ten years? If you want to talk about something that lasts, it's film. 200 years from now there will be film. Who knows what the DCP tech will have morphed into at that point? Future generations will look at celluloid as more unique, exotic. It'll probably become something you pay more for, like 3D. That might be the business model going forward.

 

NITRATE STOCK LIGHTNING ROUND

Lee Marvin or Toshiro Mifune?

Lee Marvin.

Universal Horror films or Warner Gangster films?

Warner Gangster films.

Dan Duryea or Elisha Cook Jr.?

Elisha Cook Jr.

40's noir or 50's noir?

40's noir.

Fleischer or Disney?

Disney.

French New Wave or New Hollywood?

New Hollywood.

Wyler, Wilder or Wellman?

Wilder.

Ray Harryhausen or George Pal?

Ray Harryhausen.

Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee?

Christopher Lee

Favorite member of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN?

Yul Brynner

Favorite member of THE DIRTY DOZEN?

Lee Marvin.

Favorite member of THE GREAT ESCAPE?

Steve McQueen.

Favorite 007?

Sean Connery.

Cinemascope or VistaVision?

Cinemascope.

Bogart or Mitchum?

Mitchum.

LOGAN'S RUN or SOYLENT GREEN?

LOGANS RUN.

Favorite version of BLADE RUNNER?

The original theatrical cut.

Finally, Howard Hawks or Howard Hawks?

Howard Hawks.

Howard Hawks is the correct answer! Thank you for playing.

 

Max Cavanaugh's ongoing series, The Deuce, dedicated to the exploitation classics that unspooled during Times Square's more squalid (read: more fun) grindhouse era, screens monthly at the Nitehawk Cinema. The theater is located at 136 Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They serve awesome tater tots.