Bill Lawrence in Conversation
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The 70mm Newsletter
|Interview and photographed by: Thomas Hauerslev, October 2018 in Roskilde, Denmark. Transcribed from audio recordings by Mette Petersen. Lightly edited for continuity and clarity. ||Date: 29.01.2019|
|"The more I thought, the previous night came back to me. I had been watching a film just the previous night! At that point I decided that I was obsessed by movies, and that I needed to do something with my life that meant working with movies".|
William Lawrence (1954), obsessed by movies since his early 20s, started his cinema career in York (UK). Bill continued his work in the cinema industry and became Senior Film Programmer at the NMPFT in Bradford. One of many achievements at the museum was creating the original Widescreen Weekend - a celebration of all that is extraordinary in large format film. His dedication to presenting CINERAMA and 7OMM was highly respected by both festival guests and colleagues alike. He is living in Halifax (UK) and still organizing film festivals and cinema events through his company Reel Solutions.
TH: How did you start in the cinema business? Was it a conscious decision or did it happen by accident?
Bill: It was very much a conscious decision. It was my second choice of things that I wanted to do. I remember very distinctly, where I was when I had the thought. It went through my mind that I really wanted to go and see a film. And I thought that "when was the last time I saw a film"? It seemed like a long time ago. The more I thought, the previous night came back to me. I had been watching a film just the previous night! At that point I decided that I was obsessed by movies, and that I needed to do something with my life that meant working with movies (going forward). I always felt that, given that you spent about 30% of your life working, it is best to make that time as much fun as possible and not to end up doing something that you get really bored by. The things I was qualified for was probably things like book keeping. I think I would get bored by that. I have since considered that maybe there might have been more exciting aspects of accountancy that I could have got into, such as doing the account with the Mafia or something like that. But I decided to go for film instead, because I enjoyed it. I was doing the University Film Society. We had a film theatre, which was showing films two days a week or so, on normal commercial terms, and they needed somebody to become the front of house manager. They did not have any staff, but they were going to employ somebody to run the shows each night on those two nights. And I phoned up the chairman of the organization and said that I am interested in the job and he said "you can have it". I had been going to the cinema and I had been an usher, and been tearing tickets and things like that. I said I think somebody else want it as well. I think he said "Yes, I know someone else who wants it, but he can't have it. You can".
TH: That was kind of a career shift, because you were educated as an engineer and mathematician. It is a big change from being in the university environment to go to the cinema environment.
Bill: I was still there at university. I was doing my PhD in mathematics at the time. My plan had been to become a maths lecturer in university, because I liked doing maths, and lecturers get really good long holidays, so you could do other things as well. But it turned out that there weren’t many jobs. There were other people who were better than me. So I never applied for a job as a maths lecturer, and after 6 months of research I realised that that wasn't going to happen and I got involved in University Film Society. At that point I was enjoying watching the films, I was enjoying choosing the films, I was really enjoying selling tickets to customers as they came along and I just kept on doing that. And it was only that day that I suddenly realised what I wanted to do with my life, when I was walking from York University to central York. I can remember the exact spot. I was down Heslington Road on the way into town, when this realization suddenly hit me, "I wanted to go see a film" and realising that I had just seen one the night before! And okay, this is getting really deep inside me. Now if I think I haven’t seen a film for a long time, and it had only been 12 hours, I need to take it seriously. The job at the film theatre came up three years after I started my research in 1979 and that was the first time I got paid to do work in the "film industry". And I did that two nights a week. I got paid by the hour. If we did double bill, that meant I got 5 hours pay, so it was good when we did the double bills. And I kept doing it. I did everything. I prepared the films for projection and I sold the tickets. We had one of the good old Automaticket units, all mechanical. They had a lever and the tickets shoot out of the metal trap on the front and people pick up their tickets. And they were brilliant, because it had 4 buttons, so you could sell five tickets with just one push.
We used to show films in the central hall at York university. The most we ever got in for at show was 950. I think that was "Annie Hall", but we also had "My Beautiful Laundrette". That did similar sort of business and we would open at 7 o'clock. We didn't have advanced tickets, so you had to sell all those tickets between 7 o'clock and 7:30 when the film started. And when people would start to arrive, the queues would then get really busy. As soon as the queue got really busy, then I joined the cashier, so there was two of us working from one cash desk, selling all these tickets and keeping it going. We would sell over 900 tickets in 40 minutes and we would start the film about 10 minutes late. But you can't do that with modern computer systems. There is no way you can do that. But at the end of it, after 40 minutes, you would come off it and you would be as high as a kite. It is so fired, selling tickets, and taking money, giving change, moving on to the next one. You just keep going through and that was brilliant. And I was learning everything about cinema. Selling tickets, doing returns, talking to distributors, to putting up posters in front of the house, front of house stills. We were selling books as well. I was taking the films from delivery, taking them to the projection box, preparing them for reel changes in 35mm projectors. We had the University technicians come in, who did the projection work as I wasn't allowed to, because it was University equipment. I could prepare the prints because they weren’t University prints, so I get it all prepared. And that was great. Then one of the local cinemas closed down, or was closing down, and I ran petitions to get it kept open. Then I got in the local paper because of it, and said we needed the Cinema in centre of town. The museum in York then ... the curator there contacted me and said "Why don't you come and do films here at the museum? I am thinking about getting the Auditorium Retro Theatre redesigned, and put cinema type seats in and we could work together on it." So we talked about it and we needed to raise £10,000 to get a projector and a screen in.
I met the wonderful Paul Chesmore, who was the Director of Leisure Services at the City of York Council. I think it was sort of December 13th 1986, something like that anyway, so just before Christmas. I met with him and the curator of the museum and we sat down. It was 4 o'clock in the afternoon and we talked about 5 minutes. "How are you, how are things, how is it going?" Getting ready for Christmas etc. and then Paul said "Well, what is it you need? How much money do you need for this cinema?", and I said "I need £10,000", and he said, "Okay, you get on with it and I'll get the money". Then at 10 past four we chatted again about our personal lives and preparing for Christmas and 4:30 we went. And that was the quickest and easiest £10,000 I have ever raised in my entire life. And we opened in May 1987. That was in York and we still have the University one and then we were doing Friday nights there as well. We had a Century projector with a tower system and then I was projecting. So, I was picking up the films, preparing the films, putting them on the tower and quite often I was running the show as well. And again, I don't even think we were using the Automaticket unit, we were just using rolls of tickets which I had brought from the University. So, we just tore the tickets off and sold them. We never knew how many people (we had) in the auditorium, but we knew we had 300 seats. Then when it got close to time, I was running up and down the stairs, looking for empty seats, making sure we got everybody in. And once everybody was in, then I was back upstairs in the projection box to start the show, and to run the film. That's the scariest thing I have ever done in my life. When you have got 300 people there, waiting for you to start a film, and you know you are not a good projectionist, and you don't know whether the tower systems tension is wrong and it's going to snap the film or where its goes through in rack. I wasn't a clever enough projectionist to set it up properly, so it came in properly in rack, you know. Half the time it came in out of rack, so I quickly adjusted it. Partly, because I was chasing around doing too many other things as well. For pre-digital I learned everything there was to know about running a cinema and I did it for very little money, but it was great. And that's how I got into film.
TH: Did you enjoy it?
Bill: Yes, I loved it. It's the best job I have ever had. It was wonderful. I didn't want to leave it. You know, Friday night in the Museum gardens in York, the whole back yard to St. Marys Abbey, which is one of the Abbeys which sort of got trashed by Henry VIII, and the ruins still stand. The vertical walls are lit up at night and I would stand there with 300 people behind me, watching a film, everybody satisfied and think "it doesn't get any better than this". And it did. It got better than that in different ways, but that was the time when I really was most comfortable and happy. But there was always a bit of me thinking, what can I do? How far can I go with the cinema business? I have to try and do different things, other than just continue doing that same thing indefinitely. But we got some fantastic audiences, we had very good turnouts.
|More in 70mm reading:|
The Projected Pictures Trust. A Visit to the archive in Halifax, UK
Widescreen Weekend, Bradford, England
Planning the Wide Screen Weekend
Creating the Widescreen Weekend
Academy of the Widescreen Weekend: Bill Lawrence
The Golden Elephant Award
in70mm.com Interview & People
|TH: What did you call the cinema in York?|
"And once everybody was in, I was back upstairs in the projection box [in York] to start the show, and to run the film. That's the scariest thing I have ever done in my life."
Bill: We called it City Screen, because we had the University Screen, so we created this one called City Screen. And it was a 300-seat old lecture theatre which was built in, I think it was 1910, round about that time. And it had wooden benches and it used to have the local signs "Lecture" and things like that. And they did that for years, but then decided that they would have it upgraded. We had a little projection box built in the back and the Century projector / tower system put in there, and we had a compromised sound system. It was a bad hall to do cinema in. We did get it checked at one point, and the acoustics, there was too much reverberation. So that was another thing. Paul Chesmore [City of York Council] was having this new venue built so they had acoustic engineers to check it out. Paul said "I'll get them to come look at the Hall, and they will check the acoustics at the Hall". And we found that there were so many reflections coming off these concrete walls, because it was one of the very first reinforced concrete buildings in the country and so, it wasn't very good from that point of view.
TH: Was that where you began?
Bill: Yes, and we were getting a lot of sound interference. The sound would come out from the screen and hit the side walls and bounce back in, and it would cancel out if you were sitting in the middle of the auditorium. We ended up with a lot of the midrange frequencies getting killed. Women's voices came through okay. Men's voices got muffled, but the great thing was that with subtitled films it didn't matter.
TH: When and how, and in which capacity, did you start at the museum in Bradford?
Bill: Well that was the difficulty. You asked if I was happy doing the job in York and I was. I didn't want move out, but I realised that I had got to a point where I had established myself doing film work. I had managed to get into the film industry, in a way that I wanted to. I was earning money from that and I was earning money from a couple of other jobs. One was a job I was doing as an administrator for a film and video community production workshop. I was learning a little bit about making films. Then I was also doing some work for the local art centre as well. So it was sort of three part-time jobs. By now I was in my mid-thirties, and again .... you hear people talk about some celebrities or well-known film makers who talk about how lucky they have been, with various lucky breaks and things like that, and in a smaller way that's happened to me.
I had been lucky in York when I phoned up and said that I was interested in doing the job. I didn't even do an interview, we just met over the phone and "yes you can have it"! We knew each other well. We had worked together voluntarily for the film theatre for quite a while, so it wasn't as crazy as it sounded. Then, when it came for the Bradford job, to go and work at the museum, I didn't apply for it. I got a call one day, from somebody who worked for a local arts funder, who said that he just offered somebody a job to work for the arts organization. That person had been on the short list for the job in Bradford, but he had taken that person off, and he felt another person should go on it and "Was I interested?". And it just turned out that by that point, things had changed over a couple of months and suddenly I was interested. He said "Well phone up this guy, who is currently at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and tell him "Is it too late to go on short list?"". The closing date had gone, and I got a hold of him and he said, "Yes, just send it along to me and I will have a look". I ended up on the short list, and I got the job where the deadline had long since gone. I missed the deadline by about a week and I still got through and got the job. In most cases they would say "No, the deadline has gone". That's it, end of story, but I ended up getting the job. That was just tall luck.
TH: What was the job?
Bill: The job title was Senior Film Programmer. And I found out later that the word Senior was put in to make it sound better, because I was the only programmer. There was not a Senior, junior or middle management or whatever. It was just the Film Programmer. That was it.
TH: Was that for the Imax?
Bill: No. It was working between the museum in Bradford and the Bradford Playhouse and Film Theatre and there had been a sort of a falling out between the two of them, and with the British Film Institute, and they had come to an accommodation that they would employ one person between the two organizations and that was the job I got. I was working between the two and it was tricky because although I was there to work between the two, the two weren’t working together. And so I had a desk in one venue and I had a desk in the other venue. It was difficult to figure out how to work it. It often came down to who was having meetings, and if I had a meeting at the museum on the morning then I would go over to the Film Theatre in the afternoon. Or, if there were no meetings that day, I would sort of get off the train and decide which office to go to. I would go to that office, and at lunch time I would walk across Bradford, pick up some lunch and go over to the other office. So that was what it was.
It was interesting, because the cultures of the two organizations were very, very different. Bradford Playhouse and Film Theatre were much more like an amateur theatre that filled in the gaps between theatre productions by showing films. So the film kept it going and that is how they got the money, but the film was treated very much like a second class citizen. It was very hard to do things. We came with some plans for them, but it was difficult, whereas the museum was very professional and very concerned about film and very interested about film. I arrived in 1991 and they opened Pictureville Cinema in April 1992. I programmed it and the VIP night was the 8th of April and they showed Steven Spielberg's "Hook". Thursday the 9th of April, was general election day in the UK and we screened "Les Enfants de Paradis" in the evening and when I got back to York, I found out that we had sold our house, so we were ready to move across to Halifax. That was an interesting day.
I programmed it from "Les Enfants de Paradis" onwards. The first big film we screened there was "Hear My Song". But it [Pictureville] had been built already at this point with Cinerama in mind. Willem Bouwmeester had been quite busy trying to convince the museum to do it and Keith Swadkins had talked about it. So when they built Pictureville Cinema, they took over the Library Theatre which belonged to the Bradford Council and refurbished it and they built a curved wall in too. At that point they were already anticipating Cinerama going in and they had the roll-down screen for the main 35mm daily screenings.
|TH: Was the Pictureville cinema previously a theatre or a library?|
"The museum nominally put in 250.000, the Council put in 250.000 and the European Union put in 250.000. So there you go. People in Britain do get things out of the European Union. Pictureville Cinema is a product of the European Union. It is good to get that in."
Bill: It was a live theatre. You see where the curved screen is and then you got that lip at the front, so that whole area was a stage area for people to perform live theatre on. There was a lot of annoyance from the dramatics people in Bradford, who would lose their Library theatre, but the Counsel couldn't afford to run it any more. It was either going to stand empty or the museum was going to do something with it. It was given to the museum as a building for the museum. The museum nominally put in 250.000, the Council put in 250.000 and the European Union put in 250.000. So there you go. People in Britain do get things out of the European Union. Pictureville Cinema is a product of the European Union. It is good to get that in [laughs].
TH: We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the Widescreen Weekend in October (1993), how did it start originally?
Bill: Well that was actually another lucky accident. In 1992 we opened the cinema. The 10th anniversary of the Museum was June 1993. Willem, Keith Swadkins and John Harvey had been involved in helping the museum get Cinerama up and running. The plan was to open the first public screening of Cinerama in June 1993, and that did take place in June 1993 with a print Gunther Jung had provided. Thereafter we did regular screenings of "This is Cinerama". I think we started off by doing it once a week, but there wasn't a big enough audience for it and then it quickly went to once a month. My boss at the time, Rod Varley said that given the uniqueness of the museum, with IMAX and Cinerama, then we should look at widescreen and we should try to do a widescreen festival. In 1993 we did in fact do a widescreen festival. It took place over a week. We had Imax screenings going on and I am pretty certain that we screened "Lawrence of Arabia" and "2OO1: A Space Odyssey". I think the information about this is on in70mm.com website. I remember we screened "The Big Trail" and we did a double bill of "The Haunting" and "The Innocents". Both black & white CinemaScope. That was a nice double bill. I think we also did some Dario Argento scope horror films. I can't remember what else we did. It was quite a mixture of different type of things. And then we were working from the Playhouse and Film Theatre. In 1994 we did an Italian film festival and we were looking to see if we could combine them. We brought the two together in March '95 and we did the first Bradford Film Festival. Within the Bradford film festival, I think we did 70mm, and I think we had "2OO1" back again. We did a few screenings then, but we had 70mm dotted throughout the festival.
I think it was '96 before I first recognized that there were maybe a dozen people with the same faces, who were at each of the widescreen screenings during some of the festival. Predominantly around one weekend and there might only have been about three or four shows, but these same people were there. I thought if I push it all in to one place, you know Saturday and Sunday, people would come and stay for the weekend. I can fill up the whole weekend with widescreen shows and will get more people to watch it, because they would actually come to Bradford for a screening on say the first Saturday and then come back again on a Wednesday for a screening and then come back again on the second Saturday for a screening. It was just not going to happen. A few dedicated people would do that, but it's not going to build. I can't quite remember how it played out. I think I did start to get more together in 1996 around a weekend and I found that we had about 30 or 40 people who were coming. And then in '97 it was definitely the Widescreen Weekend and more people would come in. And it was getting a lot busier.
|TH: How did you reach out to get in touch with the audience, because the audience seems to be very dedicated?|
"I stood there and watched "How the West Was Won" finish. I watched all these grown men, get out of their seats, coming towards the door, with tears in their eyes and hear them say "I never thought I would see that again". It was genuinely the most extraordinary experience. It was like a resurrection."
Bill: Well it was people like you and Johan Wolthuis doing The 7OMM Newsletter. We could promote it a bit through there. But this was pre-social media days where e-mails were happening only professionally. It wasn't something that everybody had domestically. So you didn't get in touch with people like that. A lot of it was fax machines. Including the famous fax I got from Udo Heimansberg, saying "I know were there are four Cinerama prints in the basement of the cinema in Essen". And okay! So we sent Willem to look and he said "YES!, there are four Cinerama prints". "How the West Was Won", "Windjammer", "[Cinerama] Holiday", "Seven Wonders [of the World]". So we got "How the West Was Won" and "Windjammer" and John Harvey got the other two, and I think we got the best deal. But it was great. And I can't remember quite when that happened, and how it played out. I'd have to go back to check the record on "How the West" did in 1996. And that was great, because we had the print over here. So we had this print of "How the West Was Won", with a German soundtrack and German titles. Great! That's a start. Then I gather - it might have been Willem, it might have been Johan - who said "I know Jean-Pierre Verscheure, has an English soundtrack". Brilliant! So the English soundtrack comes over from Brussels.
Then [projectionists] Duncan McGregor and Tony Cutts having got this English soundtrack and the German print, realised that the German cut is slightly different to the English cut, so we work from the English soundtrack and rather than cut the English soundtrack we put black spacer in where the cuts take place in the German film and marry it all together. I think it was something like mid-week, like a Wednesday night, when we screened it for the first time and it was absolutely packed. I was there for the beginning, which is something like 8 o'clock, where it started, listening to the overture and Alfred Newman's score, which is absolutely fantastic. This whole crowd of people were in, it was full you know. People watching it and it starts up, absolutely brilliant. Real goose bumps stuff. But once it started I had to go over to Bradford Playhouse. I had organized to do a script-to-screen of a film over at the Playhouse and I was interviewing the director after the film. Fortunately, the film was only 70 minutes long and the interview was only about 30-40 minutes long, so that could take place easily. I came straight back to the end of "How the West Was Won" and stood there and watched it finish. I watched all these grown men, get out of their seats, coming towards the door, with tears in their eyes and hear them say "I never thought I would see that again". It was genuinely the most extraordinary experience. Just to see people so moved by the occasion. It was like a resurrection. They were seeing something. Something inside them had died and suddenly it was resurrected and they came out so full of passion again. Again it was just one of those crazy lucky things, that Udo took the trouble to send me the fax and tell me. And then the people in the chain, people like Willem, people like yourself and Johan and all connected things together so this thing can happen. If it hadn't been for that network and that luck that Udo is prepared to fax, and the fact that not everybody would have responded to the fax. I would take some credit to the fact that I responded, and we made that happen. And you know this was the beginning .... we didn't know it at the time, but this was the beginning of the 70mm revival. You know the whole 70mm Cinerama stuff. It was the first 70mm festival in the world and after that, people like Seattle Cinerama got going again, Cinerama Dome took it more seriously, Karlsruhe started up and Jan Olsen did the Oslo 7OMM Festival. Now there is a proliferation for it in North America, which is fantastic. I don't know how many 70mm festivals there are in the world, but it is easily in double figures, it must be 20, you know. And I think it is because of what we did in Bradford. I could be exaggerating the importance of Bradford in the scheme of things, but I think it all comes down to re-creating Cinerama in Bradford and consolidating it through the 70mm widescreen festival.
|TH: The audience seems to be very dedicated about projection, and very passionate about the Cinerama curve. Why was that in your opinion?|
"Howard went to every screening until he died. He was such a lovely man and so dedicated to it. He adored Cinerama." Bill Lawrence and Howard Rust in 2003. Picture by Richard Greenhalgh.
Bill: I think it is a resurrection thing again. We had wonderful people like Howard Rust who had seen Cinerama when he was living and working in America. Howard lived over in Cheshire, which is probably about an hour or two drive from the museum. Every Cinerama Saturday, first Saturday every month we used to screen "This is Cinerama". Howard went to every screening until he died. He was such a lovely man and so dedicated to it. He adored Cinerama, and he didn't believe that Cinerama would come back. When he had left America, he had thought "That was it". He would never see it again.
TH: Was he an American?
Bill: No, he was British, but I think his parents had moved over there after the war, and he had grown up as a teenager in America and worked early on, as a salesman. I think his parents died and he came back to the UK, maybe in his thirties. And then [many years later] he found the museum and he was so dedicated. And Howard was the reason we started the Widescreen Academy. I started it almost as a joke, because Howard would come to every single show. The number of times he must have seen "This is Cinerama", I have no idea. But he came every time, and he was such a lovely man. The Widescreen Weekend by that point had become such a strong family, that I just really wanted to do something. I don't know, just something a little bit silly, but also something to, say "Thank you" to Howard, for being such a dedicated supporter. And so I gave him the "Freedom of the Cinema". Not that anybody in the museum knew about it. That was something you could do in those days. You could just decide to do something, and if you didn't tell anybody, you got away with it. So, in front of the wide screeners, we presented Howard with a certificate. And then John Belton was the second one. By then it was serious. But it was lovely, and Howard was so flustered and so taken and I am sure it made him a very happy man. And it was a nice thing to do.
It was clear by that point that there were interesting things going on, because people like Jean-Pierre Gutzeit, who came over one year, sidled up to me and opened his bag as if he was offering me drugs, but it was a full reel of 70mm of "Porgy and Bess". And he said, "Can you find a time to show this in the festival?". So we screened it, I think on a Sunday morning, when we had a gap and God! I had never seen "Porgy and Bess" before. That was incredible. It was amazing and so Cineramacana was born. I made that title up on the basis of Americana, a well-used word and it just seemed that Cineramacana totally summed up what we wanted to do, which was to show bits of films people brought along. Like Jean-Pierre who brought that piece of film along, which gave a lot of people a thrill to be able to see 15 minutes of it. Other bits started to arrive and we would collect everything together on a Saturday night and put a program together for the Sunday morning, and then progress our way through it. Or did it start before then when we showed "Windjammer" on a Sunday morning?
TH: As I recall, Jean-Pierre was one of the first who came along with a reel of "Porgy and Bess". The following year we showed the entire film.
Bill: And then we were showing short films like "Sky over Holland", that you were talking about, and the immortal "A Year Along the Abandoned Road", which came. I just recently found the correspondence with Hans-Kristian Bukholm about "Svalbard Arctic Seasons" and the scratched print. That was a great film. Absolute stunning. And all sorts of little films, that will never ever get shown in cinemas, which are around and people will never have seen them apart from at the Widescreen Weekend and in Cineramacana. It became this extraordinary slot for showing, even ... we premiered the breakdown reels in Cineramacana and then we used them properly. Regularly [laughs]. Those were good times. We never knew what was going to come sometimes. It was just wonderful. Just little bits and pieces and then antique trailers from great movies. There were experimental things as well, as we talked about, as the 70mm that showed every page of the Bible, the Torah and the Koran ["Tanakh Bibelen al-Quran"]. People who got access to 70mm cameras and decided to do something interesting and different with them. And stuff we brought in from America as well.
TH: Did you get any feedback from the audience?
Bill: One thing about the widescreen cinema audience is that they are never short of wanting to tell you what is wrong [laughs].
|TH: What was wrong?|
"The Widescreen Weekend is a celebration of all that is extraordinary in large format film and has become a highlight on the [Bradford] Film Festival calendar". Bill Lawrence, 2001
Bill: We had all sorts of strange things. I didn't really answer your question about the curved screen. People are very dedicated and fascinated by the curved screen. And the interesting thing was, when we did the curved screen in Bradford, we did the proper louvered screen. Cinema technology and screen technology had moved on so quickly, to such a degree, that you could actually get modern screens that you could have installed on a curve, which would have been solid. Not solid, but complete rather than the narrow vertical "strips" of the louvered, which would have caused internal reflections. The whole point of the louvered screen was to avoid creating internal reflection across the curve. But being a museum, we always felt it was important to do it correctly and nobody else is ever going to see a louvered screen. Bradford was the place to do it and install it, and it was problematic. There were thermal problems between backstage and front stage, and because you've got a louvered screen, then you have plenty of gaps for the thermal currents to go through the screen. As the thermal current went through the screen it would vibrate so you would get a slight apparition, so you could often see the lines down it.....
TH: But that's part of cinema
Bill: That is part of the game. That is what it is. It is the show. Some people, such as myself even, would think that the whole purpose of Cinerama and 70mm was the high resolution you would get on such a large picture. Suddenly you have actually ruined that resolution by having these thin lines down all the way through [laughs]. So it is a negative there. You know one of the greatest artists in 65mm in the 1960's was Freddie Young who always fillmed for David Lean. David Lean hated the curved screen. To the extent - I can't remember what it was for, but it was probably "Lawrence" - where he commanded the curved screen be taken out of the Marble Arch [In London], so it could be shown on flat. We, being a museum, we had felt we had to do things correctly. If we were showing a David Lean film, we showed it on the flat screen.
I remembered screening "Ryan's Daughter" and I can remember what he looked like, I can't remember who he was, but I remember one man bought a ticket. He walked in through the door of Pictureville, saw the flat screen and just turned to me and said "Are you showing this on a flat screen?". I said "Yes", and he said "I want to see it on the curve". I said David Lean didn't. David Lean hated the curve, so we show it on the flat screen. That was what David Lean wanted. It is a 70mm print from Norway and that is how it has been shown. Then he said "I am not staying for that" and he walked out. He didn't ask for his money back or anything. He just walked out in disgust [laughs]. So bless him. He knew what he wanted. We had all these people who would rather watch a film on the curved screen even though it have ned been made for the curved screen, or wasn't rectified for the curved screen. And it would have a lot of distortion on the curved screen. The curved screen had something different. Very definitely the curved screen provided a form of 3D perspective on things. If you sit in the middle and watch things on a curved screen, you do get a kind of surround, even though the Pictureville installation isn’t as good as it could be, because the Pictureville installation has the screen much further away from the audience than the traditional Cinerama setups would have. But even with the Pictureville Cinerama setup, you still get a sense of it surrounding you and you get a sense of things moving in your peripheral vision which creates a sense of depth that you don't get from seeing things on the flat screen, no matter how big the flat screen is. So that was an ongoing argument, over the years. We did this for about 12 years to 2008 and that was always an argument. It never stopped. It was "Yes, I know it is a modern CinemaScope film, but can you please show it on the curved screen?" "Well, yes but it looks ridiculous". "Well, yes, but it doesn't matter. It is the curved screen. I want to see the curved screen". I don't know why it was so compelling for people, but it was - and is. It is a deep 146 degree curve. The Todd-AO is 125 degrees, isn’t it? 128 degrees, but Todd-AO also takes its curvature from a different focal point, so it is even shallower. It's very shallow compared to Cinerama, so it is special. It is different.
TH: I remember one showing of "Where Eagles Dare" and we simply asked the audience. "What do you think – curved or flat screen? And the flat screen audience had some hands in the air. It was overwhelming when we asked about the curved screen. The majority of the audience wanted the curved screen.
Bill: Quite often people would use it just to file the argument – "I have seen it on a flat screen before, I have never seen it on a curved screen. Let me see it on a curved screen". So, it is fair enough. It is a unique experience. We had all sorts of interesting people who used to come for unique experiences. We had this lovely guy who came up from London called Clive. Clive used to phone me up - probably about two months ahead - and ask, "What are you planning to show?" I would say a certain title and he said, "Are you going to show that with the intermission?" And I said I am not sure. He said "I have seen it before, but I have never seen it with an intermission. I want to see it with the intermission". Clive was an intermission collector and his extraordinary idea of collecting intermissions. He collected things that don't exist [laughs]. There is an existence, you know, quite a lot of times the intermission had its own music, but it also had that point when the film actually stops and intermission comes up. There is something there, but it is a strange thing to actually want to see the film with intermission. But for years he came, he was such a sweetheart, Clive. He was lovely.
TH: I think it is extraordinary to have a cinema, with the audience, and you asked them before, "Do you want to see the film on the curved or the flat screen?" And actually, let the audience decide by majority. I mean, where else in the world can you get an opportunity like that?
Bill: Well, I think that is true. They talk about democratic cinema, these days, where people are choosing a movie, but they have never done it with an audience in the auditorium to start up with, as far as I know. And, you also got a projection team that should be willing to do that. A lot of projectionists would say "To hell with that, I am not doing that. I have set it up for the flat screen. It is flat screen or out". [laughs] So, they were a really great team and they were prepared to do some complicated stuff. I mean, they loved it when the digital came along, because it made it so much easier for them. I thought it was so disappointing, because they didn't have to work as hard. And when we did Cineramacana and we where switching between 35mm to 35mm 1,85, to 35mm scope, 35mm Academy ratio and change over to Cinerama screen and projecting stuff like that, I thought that it was really exciting, doing so much different stuff, and so many chances for things to go wrong as well, which I thought was fun as well. And I was usually the one in front, having to deal with the audience. They didn't have to deal with the audience. They were in the projection box, they could get on with it. I had to stand in the front and tell jokes and keep people quiet and keep people happy until we got moving again. So it was all part of the fun. They worked in the cinema overnight and just kept going overnight until 3 or 4 in the morning, when they had plenty of time and nobody interfering with them. Just to put a bit of black space in. Link it up, lace it it, run it. "Yes that looks ok. No we need to trim it a bit more to get it to keep the loops going to keep it in time". You know, you are dealing with three different prints, that you are trying to line up against one audio print. There is a lot of room for error and mistakes there. But they were fantastic. It was some great times.
|TH: You often told me the core audience felt like your second family. What are your thoughts about that statement?|
"When you are doing things like Cineramacana you stand there in the front, and relate to this audience of about a 150-200 people in a very intimate way. You put yourself out there, and once you put yourself out there and become warm and accessible, then people start to talk to you."
Bill: What are my thoughts? Well, it was partly my beliefs on customer relations. I felt that it was important, when you recognize people, to try and make them feel welcome. To make them feel that they are comfortable. That this was their home. And so progressively over the years, at the Widescreen Weekend, I would try to get to know more people, and get to know more names, so that I remember them year in and year out. There are many of them that I do still remember. You know, people like Peter Andrén [Sweden], who came for the very first festival and who turned up every year. There was a lovely woman who came from Netherlands, called Mieke Niekamp who came for about the first 2-3 years. She must have got another job and done something else. I have never seen her since. She used to say to me "Why are you so friendly?" I said, "Because I want you to come back". It is that simple. If I make you really happy here, I think that you will come back. So I wanted people to be happy. Once you had gone on that journey, once you make that step, quite a few people become closer and connect more. And also, I think when you are doing things like Cineramacana you stand there in the front and relate to this audience of about a 150-200 people in a very intimate way. You have to, if you are going to fill in the gaps. You have to be prepared to put yourself out there. It is not just about reading from a script. A break happens in a film and once you let the audience out of the auditorium, it takes 10 times as long to get them back in again, so you get held up. If there is a break in the film, the last thing you want is the audience to leave the auditorium. You have to entertain them, to stop them moving out of the auditorium. So you put yourself out there, and once you put yourself out there and become warm and accessible, then people start to talk to you. You know what it's like during the Widescreen Weekend, doing breaks between films. People are asking you questions all the time, and they come up and ask you these questions, like you are some expert in 70mm, which you are not. You are just making it up, in the same way as everyone else is, because you are trying to learn stuff as you go along. Everybody is asking you questions and so you get to know them. Some people demand more time, because they think they have more rights to you than the one quietly standing back, waiting for you to be free, and they are sometimes the more interesting ones.
But because of that, you do get to know people. I wouldn't say you get to know them well, in the sense, you know who they are, you know who they are married to, or you know their children. You don't know that sort of thing, but you get to know them well in the sense that you know what sort of personality they are and how they are going to behave. It can get very warm and I think the crucial thing is, because the Widescreen Weekend was something during the Bradford Film Festival, I used to give all my time to it. From the point when people start to arrive, maybe on the Thursday night. Friday it really started, but from Friday morning through to Monday afternoon I was totally immersed in the Widescreen Weekend.
I would stay in Bradford Friday night in a hotel. I would get up for breakfast. I would see people at breakfast. I would be across to the museum. I would be running stuff right through until the end of play on Saturday and same again Sunday. Monday morning, we would have the final shows and saying goodbye to people on Monday lunch time. That became a very emotional experience. People were really sad, because they enjoyed the weekend. They had a really good time and for many people it was the highlight of their year. From Monday afternoon when they left, they were looking forward to next year. And it wasn't like – "We will wait a few months to figure out the dates for next year", it would be saying "Okay we will be back next year when you say". They were already booking their flights from wherever. And it was that sense of people coming together for one thing from all over the world as well. The people who came from Australia. The people who came from North America. The people who came from various European countries, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Holland, France etc.
It was really quite surprising and they all had something that they wanted to contribute. I think because of the intensity of it, and the pleasure and emotion that people were getting out of it, there was that sort of bonding that took place which became sort of familiar. Family always seemed as a good term to use and also people stayed in touch through the years. Not everybody, but people would send e-mails to find out what was going on and send news, information and things like that. It wasn't just that it happened there at the festival anyway, like it does at a lot of film festivals; it was people who formed a community.
|TH: I often heard this from the guests "This is the best Widescreen Weekend so far", and they come back next year regardless of the program. Why do you think they did that?|
Bill Lawrence receiving a special 2004 Widescreen Weekend Popular Audience award called "Lord Protector of the Cineramacana" from the German delegation presented by Hans Helf (Germany).
Bill: Some people did. Some people decided to give "2OO1" a miss, because they thought it was boring. But I can cope with that. Some people would give "The Bible" a miss, because they knew it was going to be boring. Some people would sit through "The Bible", despite it being boring. Because it is a unique opportunity for them to see it. To say that they came here in respect for the program is an interesting thing, because I think that they did come in respect of the program, but they always complained about the program. So, the program was always pre-eminent, that was the thing that they complained about. Either what the films were or how narrow the gap was between films. Those were the things people complained about most of all. So to say irrespective of the program, I think it is actually correct, but the program was always the core of their reason to come. But beyond that I think it was because it was the only time when a lot of them met each other, so they would come. On the Widescreen Weekend they would renew friendships that had been in abeyance since the previously one. It was a chance to reconnect and say hello again.
TH: A long list of extraordinary film people related to widescreen have attended the weekend and mingled with the audience. I can name Ken Annakin, Louis deRochemont, Stanley Long and Jack Cardiff. How did you convince them to come and participate?
Bill: That wasn't difficult. Some of them are just show offs anyway. Stanley Long was a show off. There was no problem in getting him to come. He was really enjoying himself, bless him [laughs]. Louis deRochemont, I think, was your achievement [It was David Page, ed]. I mean people like Dick Babish as well. But some of those Cinerama people, I think they were just ... well Louis deRochemont was, you know, it was quite extraordinary to meet him, because of the connections he had with film and the film industry going way back. And I think he was just amazed that people was still talking about "Windjammer". I think it is a film that he had left behind years ago and almost forgot that it existed and suddenly people were talking to him about it again. I am not too sure why people were getting so excited again. I like to think that it was because we started showing it again, that got people talking, but I think also, I think that there was a Christian Radich Society that was getting more active, by that point. I don't know which came first, but it was certainly an interested group from those early screenings. Of all the 3 strip films "Windjammer" was always the one that everybody enjoyed most of all for sheer pleasure. I think people enjoyed "Windjammer" more than anything. I think for excitement in old Hollywood style, "How The the West was Won" was the other one. But people were generally happy to watch any Cinerama film, because it was a genuinely unusual experience for anybody, even young people. But Ken Annakin was something Tony Earnshaw wanted to do, because of a few films Ken had done and we realised that he had been quite principle to a lot of the big roadshow movies. "Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines" was one and "Battle of the Bulge", so that was a great excuse to show those two again, and get him to come and talk about them. And then the great Hans Helf in the front row, chastising Ken Annakin for making the Germans look bad again during the 2. World War [laughs]. I don't know who's side I was on at that point, but I don't see the Germans in the 2. World War actually covering themselves in glory.
TH: Then there is dear Jack Cardiff.
Bill: Jack came quite a lot. I first met Jack in 1996, when ... because it was the Centenary Cinema year for the UK. Centenary Cinema was 1995 for the French, but Cinema didn't arrive to the UK until 1896. So, we were doing Centenary of Cinema then. And I think we got the University [of Bradford] to award honorary degrees to him and Douglas Slocombe. There was a big dinner that they were at, and I was sat at the table with him and Douglas Slocombe and also Ossie Morris, you know the great UK Cinematographer. So that was the first time I met Jack, and Jack was a real sweetheart. I remember sitting at the dinner table. There were probably 15-20 dinner tables at this big hall and 10 people at each table. There was 6 people at my table, Jack and Nikki Cardiff, the Slocombes, and then there was myself and my partner Rosemary, so I can't remember who the other two were. I was opposite Jack and I remember when the speeches were going on, I looked over across to Jack and Jack had his head tilted down, eyes closed, and I thought - Jack must have been in the mid to late eighties - and I thought, he is asleep. And suddenly his eyes opened, and he just looked at me and winked [laughs]. I think we had a bond after that. But we loved Jack. He was such a lovely man, the sweetest man I have ever met and somebody who has lived through the film industry. He had started out as a boy actor, at the age of six I think he was, and then became one of the very first Technicolor camera people and did all those fantastic movies with Powell & Pressburger. So we wanted him to come back and talk about cinematography on a regular basis. We did good shows with him, presenting "A Matter of Life and Death" and talking about the Technicolor camera and demonstrating how a Technicolor camera worked, what an extraordinary opportunity for anybody to see one of the original Technicolor camera people operating the Technicolor camera and opening up and telling how it used to work, now the three reels of film, different colour separation and stuff like that and to be doing that in Bradford at the museum was fantastic.
|Bill and Rosemary Lawrence, outside Pictureville Cinema, 1999.|
But Nikki, his wife, was very good, I still know Nicky, but she was quite a bit younger than Jack and she was determined to keep Jack out and about and so she kept taking him to various festivals. Even when Jack was getting very weak, he could sit there and you could just say something to Jack – "Jack did you meet Marilyn Monroe?" And then he would just light up and start talking about Marilyn Monroe and the stories would come out. It was extraordinary stories he could tell and he would slightly hold things back, but it was pretty clear that he was desperately in love with Marilyn Monroe, also Sophia Loren. How many of these he had affairs with I don't have any idea. I think that the story is that the love of his life, was Sophia Loren, but that never happened. I don't know what the truth of any of it was or how close they ever got. But it was to hear these stories about people that you have seen on screen and to know that you were one degree of separation away from these people. To know, that you knew somebody, that really knew somebody.
I remember as a teenager and adolescent I had seen Sophia Loren in "Arabesque" and thinking, that she was absolutely stunning and utterly gorgeous. Then there is this moment in "Arabesque" when Gregory Peck was trying to escape on the back of this Arab stallion. But Sophia Loren is wearing this tight dress and she can't get on to the horse because she cannot separate her legs. So he tears the seam on the dress, so she can then leap on to the back of the horse, legs on either side of the horse. This is one of the most extraordinary metaphors for sexuality that you have ever seen in a film. It is stunning. She had such great legs. But to know that Jack knew her. You are one person removed from that person who, as an adolescent, you lusted after is just extraordinary. He had all these stories and was an amazing storyteller.
TH: I remember one of his stories. During "War and Peace" Jack wanted to photograph the beautiful Anita Ekberg [29 September 1931 – 11 January 2015] and invited her for a session in his Rome apartment. He was in a very small two-person lift, with Anita who was a well built woman when the electricity disappeared and...
Bill: ... and Jack was a very small man, and he loved to tell that story [laughs].
Bill: He was wonderful. But he was great to have, you know, and Jack came back on a regular basis and talked about "The Story of William Tell", which was a film he made with Errol Flynn. It never got completed, but here we had some out-takes from it and so he talked about that, and he worked on 70mm films and then we had another excuse because we had Mike Todd Jr.'s "Scent of Mystery" in Smell-O-Vision. Jack directed that, and would come and talk about it. We had Jack and Herbert Lom talk about "War and Peace". He came several times and he was always great value. He had some really nice ideas about "Scent of Mystery" and how he was going to have this smell of the killer in the auditorium, floating around. Every time the killer was somewhere in the vicinity you would not see him on the film, but you would suddenly smell him being off-scene somewhere, being there in the building, which creates a sense of tension. I thought that it was a really brilliant idea, but Smell-O-Vision didn't really work. You can never focus the smells in the same ways you can focus the image.
TH: Do you remember if any of these guests were happy to see these films on the big screen?
Bill: I remember one film we screened first in 1993, when we got to Peter Greenaway come with "The Baby of Mâcon" a film I do not like at all, but he saw it and said that this film projected really well. Jeremy Thomas also came to talk about "The Sheltering Sky", we had the 70mm print of that, even though it is at 35mm blow up. That is a stunning print and Jeremy Thomas was really amazed how good it looked in the cinema. I am not too sure of other people. Kenneth Branagh when he came and we screened "Hamlet" in 70mm, I think he was really impressed by that. Alex Thomson who did the cinematography on that, he came, and generally the quality of the projection of Pictureville was really strong. I am also now remembering Walter Siegmund who came. He and his wife Lois, they were absolutely delightful, and it was great to have those technical people there. I remember Walter gave me a little [Taper] lens as a present which I still have and they were great. I also remember that he had only been there for half an hour and he took me to one side and said – "Before you go any further Bill, I just have to apologize for George W. Bush" [laughs]. He was deadly serious. I said "It is OK, Walter".
|TH: What is your best memory of Widescreen Weekend?|
"People like Duncan and Tony they were impeccable and they knew exactly how to time stuff." Pictureville Projectionists Duncan McGregor and Tony Cutts looking through the louvered CINERAMA screen in 2006.
Bill: The one that comes to mind straight away is the start of "How the West Was Won". The first time we got it back up on screen. That one jumps out for me. I mean, there are many, many good memories, but as soon as you asked that question – the first thing that comes in to my mind is that I remember just standing there as it started. You know one of the things I love about cinema is the smell of a full house. Most people would talk about seeing all those people. There is a smell of a full house. Some people talk about how you can smell fear, but you can smell anticipation and excitement too. When there is a full house of people, then you can smell this sense of anticipation from 300 people who are just waiting for something. And so you smell that. You sense that. Then the projection skills, people like Duncan and Tony - they were impeccable and they knew exactly how to time stuff. If they were going to start the film 7.30, and it was 7.25, they would put on a piece of music for the last 5 minutes, so then they didn't have to fade out music to start the film. The music had to end. Because when it ends and it goes to silence, it creates an anticipation in the audience and then the audience are on edge. That very gentle exiting edge, while they are waiting. Then suddenly the chords are crashing in and the music starts, and the lights are subtly adjusted and you see the red tabs there, and they stay there, and the music goes and get stronger and stronger. Then you reach that key point in the music and the curtains just starts to pull back and pull back and Alfred Newman's score is just charging along and you just think "This is goose bumps time". This is seriously goose bumps time and it is so exciting. The first time that that happened, that we got it running again to that audience, with all those sensory elements coming together, I thought, THAT was cinema at its peak. That was wonderful.
Duncan would do things like that. I remember once outside the Widescreen Weekend, when we were showing "Hamlet", when it was released, and I went to see it. I was sitting close to the front and I had probably taken my seat right about 20 past 7 for a 7.30 start. I was chatting to Rosemary and I suddenly noticed the music that Duncan had chosen to play was the Te Deum from Kenneth Branagh's "Henry V", and I thought – great, fine - and suddenly the music seemed to be dominating the audience. I asked Duncan afterwards, and what Duncan had been doing, between the start of the Te Deum and the end of it, he was slowly, gradually turning the music up, getting it louder and louder. So by 27 minutes past 7 the audience could no longer speak because the music was getting so loud. The music has just kept cranking up until the beginning of the film and then hit the peak at the Te Deum, and then silence, and then "Hamlet" started. He got the audience to shut up, just by turning the music right up. He didn't make them stop talking by starting the film. He made them stop talking before the film even started. And actually, "Hamlet" could not live up to that. But that is a great projectionist. That was showmanship. That was a man in a projection box who was controlling that audience and getting the audience to respond to the film before the film even started. The opening to "How the West Was Won" was that level of showmanship, where it was working on the basis, that the audience was being primed and getting ready. When the music came in - the music overture - it just did the same thing again, it took it up to another level. By the time the film starts you are at peak level of excitement and you are ready to go with it. So that is the big memory that stands out.
TH: What is your favourite interest in cinema and films? Do you have personal favourite among films?
Bill: I have a favourite film that I always kept as a stand-by as a professional, because when you end up doing a lot of radio interviews and a lot of press interviews, people ask you what your favourite film is. I decided very early on it was just a good idea to set on one and keep it simple so the answer was always "Sunset Boulevard". I always chose that one and for a mixture of reasons. One is I can talk about it very easily. I can probably give a very quick 5 minutes lecture about the wonders of "Sunset Boulevard", without any problems. If anyone ever asked me to extend, I could quite easily extend. I love Billy Wilder. I don't think that anyone else but Billy Wilder could make this film. It is an extraordinary film, a history of film making up to the 1950's. It covers silent era cinema, clips of Gloria Swanson and "Queen Kelly". You got Cecil B. DeMille and he is the bridge between the silent cinema and the contemporary cinema from period he is talking about. I think of people like Buster Keaton, with his little joke around the bridge table. You got William Holden, who is absolutely fantastic, and it is just the mechanisms of film-making about a scriptwriter who is there to try and to write a script, to bring a star back from having been forgotten and who is just living in this Hollywood mansion. You see the mechanisms behind the screen of Cecil B DeMille making this film, and the fact that he wants to hire this car which turns out to be her car, which will unite them. But it is about props, and how you use props in movies, and things like that. It is about opulence of Hollywood and celebrities. There are so many different aspects to it which I just find extraordinary. It is a strangely cynical movie as well, but it is such a memorable movie. It left a deep impression on me from seeing it on TV, when I was a teenager, right through my adult life. I don't watch it very often, partly because I can remember it too clearly, but it is an extraordinary film.
But I have very wide range in taste in films. I enjoy a film I saw in Berlin earlier this year called "Where I Never Lived" – which is an Italian/French melodrama. It stars on my favourite French actress Emmanuelle Devos, who doesn't get seen very often outside of France, but she has made a lot excellent French movies. I have seen her in film festivals around the world and whenever I see her name listed in a program, then I go and watch it. But that was one of the best films I have seen this year. I think it is just really well made. Last year my favourite film was "I Am Not Your Negro". A documentary about James Baldwin, the American writer which I have seen 3 times, since I first saw it last year. I find it a fantastically watchable film and it is so relevant because it is about the civil rights issues in America in the 1950s and 1960s and I think that part of the reason that Raoul Peck made it is because those civil rights are just as important. Black lives matter more in America now than they did then. Things have moved on, but they haven’t fundamentally changed. So that is a bit of diversity for you.
I think my favourite Widescreen movie is possibly "Zulu". I have seen that in the Widescreen Weekend in 70mm and that was a real exciting time. I was looking forward to seeing "Patton" in 70mm, eventually in the Widescreen Weekend. I was really ill that weekend and I had waited so long to see that film, that I watched it in a terrible state of flu, just to watch it, and having seen it, then went home. "Patton" is extraordinary. To see those tank battles on the big screen, which is the only way you can see it, is extraordinary. You start to understand the nature of battle when you see a film like "Patton". That is really tremendous. Only Widescreen can do that!
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