Dennis Doros and Amy Heller created Milestone Films in 1990, a company dedicated to the restoration and rediscovery of forgotten and neglected films, be they classic or contemporary. They first brought Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Mabarosi (1995) and Takeshi Kitano’s Fireworks (1997) stateside and they distribute such silent landmarks as South (1920), Beyond the Rocks (1922), and the films of Mary Pickford. But their greatest legacy lies the area of cinema archeology. They rescued the 1964 Russia/Cuba collaboration I Am Cuba from near oblivion, restoring the film and releasing it to great acclaim in the U.S. in 1995, and stepped up to distribute Charles Burnett’s 1979 landmark Killer of Sheep for the first time in theaters and on DVD.
They have since resurrected a number of American independent landmarks, including On the Bowery (1956), The Exiles (1961), and Winter Soldier (1972). Their current mission (dubbed “Project Shirley” by Dennis Doros) is to restore and re-release the films of American director Shirley Clarke, an overlooked pioneer whose films have been almost impossible to see for decades. The Connection was released in 2012 and the restoration of Portrait of Jason is underway.
Partners in business and in marriage, Dennis and Amy continue to run Milestone Films from their home, though they have upgraded their facilities from a New York apartment to a house in Harrington Park, New Jersey. I caught up with Dennis at the 2012 Association of Moving Image Archivists conference, which took place in Seattle. The following interview began in person in Seattle but the bulk of it was conducted the week after AMIA via phone so I could talk to both Amy and Dennis in the relative calm of their New Jersey home. I was lucky to catch them between trips.
Keyframe: Can you talk about the process of restoring a film like The Exiles or Killer of Sheep or the current Shirley Clarke films? Not just the technical process of physically creating a print, but from discovery and tracking down materials to clearing rights. What does it take to restore and re-present a film is effectively unavailable to us?
Amy Heller: Each restoration project that we’ve done has been a completely different story. It can range form the easiest, which is a film that has just been restored, you can get the rights, you can bring it out. That’s really simple and it occasionally happens that way. But it also happens every other possible way. For instance, in the case of Killer of Sheep, it had been restored by UCLA. However, the music rights hadn’t been cleared, so that was an epic and very expensive journey finding out where all the rights owners were, clearing all the rights, paying for all the rights clearances. So that was a different kind of scenario. In any number of scenarios, we brought the films to the archives, most recently with Portrait of Jason.
Dennis Doros: Also Ornette and The Exiles.
Heller: In the case of Ornette and The Exiles, we knew where the materials were.
Doros: Actually, The Exiles was missing and I told the family that if they could find the negative, we would do it, and they sent the cinematographer to USC and he went through the vaults and found them. They were actually missing until we said, We’d love to distribute it if you can find it.
Heller: And in the case of Portrait of Jason, it was a film that had supposedly been restored and when we went to look at the restoration, it just didn’t look good. And the terms MOMA wanted in order to move ahead with it were not just financially but aesthetically difficult for us so Dennis began this long, long, long, convoluted quest to find if he could figure out where the camera elements were. That took all kinds of research with all kinds of people all over the world. So sometimes you have to be a sleuth and sometimes you just have to write the check. It just depends. Sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s hard.
Keyframe: In the case of Killer of Sheep, were you able to work with the director?
Doros: Each case was different. Killer of Sheep, of course, Charles [Burnett] was there and he was there for the timing of the film with Ross Lipman [of UCLA] and he was there for the film-to-digital with Ross. For The Exiles, the three cameramen were alive and two of them worked with us.
Heller: The filmmaker died many years ago. And Shirley [Clarke] has been dead for many years. In the case of Ornette, Dennis worked with Ed Lachman [the cinematographer] and the producer, Kathelin Hoffman, everybody but the filmmaker that could be there. And for Portrait of Jason…
Heller: Nobody, because Shirley shot it and the DP is dead and so there really wasn’t anybody to bring in.
Doros: But we had the original print to look at.
Heller: Dennis found a 16mm interpositive that was one step from the final edit, from which they made the 35mm negative, and then he found, through a really good leap of faith, a telex saying that the Swedish Film Institute could lend their print to Belgium. He went, ‘They have a print?’ and he got in touch with the Swedish Film Institute and they still had the print, and they lent us the print. It was a really good quality print so it could be used as a timing guide and a film-to-tape transfer guide. And Dennis was there for that. Each case is really different, challenging, interesting. It’s why this is still such a fun job after all these years. It’s never the same.
Keyframe: You also do an enormous amount of research into the filmmaker and the filmmaking. What does that bring to the process?
Doros: We try to put ourselves in the place of the filmmaker and try to take what he was saying, what he was doing, how he was making the film, what he wanted to say. Or she, of course. It tells a better story and is far more important than us saying what we think. So when we deal with a filmmaker who is alive, or in the case of Shirley Clarke with Wendy, we are asking everybody who ever worked with her, What was she like, what was she doing on that day? Bob Fiore said he got paid $2.50 an hour. I said, I can’t believe she only paid you $2.50 an hour, and he said, ‘Well you have to understand that my rent in Greenwich Village was $45 a month and I was sharing that rent with three other guys.’ That put me in Greenwich Village in 1967 and that put me in the place of Shirley Clarke making the film. That money was actually decent money for the time and I had not thought about it. The more you learn, the more you find out about them, the more you can appreciate the film and express that to the audience. And I think that’s what we try to do, that we put ourselves in their place and try to understand what they were doing. And I think that’s something that archivists and distributors need to more of.
Keyframe: What kind of materials do you have access to in connection with Shirley Clarke’s films?
Doros: I have 10,000 papers on Shirley Clarke and I’m going to get 10,000 more before I finish. I haven’t gone through the diaries yet but I have been through a lot of the papers on Portrait of Jason and The Connection and everything else. It gave me the confidence that she wanted Portrait of Jason to look rough. She complained in a 1969 documentary that “The Connection” was too pretty, which also gave me an idea of what The Connection looked like. There are a lot of letters, there are a lot of notes about the films that gave me more insight to her personality than anything else.
Heller: You were also able to find the editing notes and the editing bills and who worked on the editing. All that was really helpful. In fact, the one person who is alive who was on the production of Portrait of Jason is our friend, Bob Fiore, who also made Winter Soldier. That was another source of information and we’re going to be interviewing him for the press kit too.
Doros: I think that’s something that archivists and distributors need to more of. It’s great to bring out Children of Paradise but I would have loved to have seen the diary of the filmmaking because that was one of the great, treacherous film shoots of all times. The Nazis saying, ‘Excuse me, what are you going?’ ‘Don’t worry…’
Keyframe: How important is the digital version—DVD, download—to the whole package of restoring the film?
Heller: Well, now we also need digital to do the initial release. Theaters are switching over to DCP and even theaters that haven’t switched to DCP, many of them are screening films on HDCam or Blu-ray. So having a really good digital master is essential right from the start. Digital brings up different issues because sometimes you can do so much cleaning up digitally that you can effect the texture and the look of the film, so you’re always walking a fine line between cleaning up too much and leaving in too many scratches and we always try to be as careful as possible not to make everything look too smooth, too clean. But you still want to have as much definition as you can get because it’s beautiful to be able to see the grain and every little detail. And in the case of Portrait of Jason, because it was a 16mm interpositive, it’s been restored to 2K and we’re going to be making the 35mm print from the 2K, like most films are made now. It’s a film print made from a digital file. The meaning of digital and analog keeps changing for sure.
Doros: There were decisions to be made because there is still a lot of dust and scratches on Portrait of Jason, but they were there on the original print in much worse condition, in fact. So any clean-up of the film would make it too clean. So we left the material there because it was that way on the opening premiere.
Keyframe: Your DVD and Blu-ray releases have an abundance of supplements.
Heller: Because Dennis has no self control when it comes to bonus features. He’s a madman! [Laughs.]
Doros: Amy allows me to do a lot of it because she’s writing the checks and balancing the books, so it’s a combination of what we want to do. But it is a fun part of the job. It’s creative.
Keyframe: And it brings a certain amount of context to the film.
Heller: For Portrait of Jason, we’re working on the press kit, and there’s very little known about Jason. We know he’s from New Jersey and in the press notes that went with the Second Run DVD from England, they quoted from his obituary in the Trentonian newspaper. I was looking online but you can’t find the Trentonian online but you can get in touch with the Trenton Historical Society and they supposedly will get it to you. So I gave this information to Dennis and Dennis spent the whole weekend emailing back and forth with another crazy woman, like us, at the Trenton Historical Society who kept unearthing more stuff and sending us more information. So now we have the obituaries for Jason’s parents, we know they ran a restaurant, we know what the restaurant’s name was, and also a couple of notices of where he played in the forties and the fifties.
Doros: And I found his high school photo in a high school yearbook.
Heller: Right. So you see where you can get to and you just keep trying to make it richer because it’s more interesting. When we do these releases, we get one shot to get as much information out there as we can, to make these films as significant—culturally, historically, in every way—so we try to take a good shot and get as much information out there as possible so people will have the resources to use these films in different ways and interpret them in different ways. And it’s really gratifying when people do.
Keyframe: What other projects are you working on?
Doros: In the Land of the Headhunters is what I just started working on in L.A. after I left Seattle.
Heller: It’s one of the very first feature-length documentaries and it was made with the Native Americans on Vancouver Island. We had it available, restored from 16mm, but this is a brand new restoration which includes 35mm material, the original tinting….
Doros: ….and the original storyline. What happened was that University of Washington professors recut it to their tastes and redid the intertitles to their and the Kwakiutl tribe’s tastes. And now we are bringing it back in its original storyline with the original intertitles from UCLA. The Kwakwaka’wakw is the name of the tribe now. It took us a while to get that.
Keyframe: You have a history of finding the least commercial properties to invest your time and resources in. How do you manage such a track record?
Heller: We’ve got one now that’s I think may be less commercial than any of these. We picked up these two films by a black woman filmmaker who was a really wonderful playwright and, sadly, died very young of breast cancer. Her daughter rescued her materials from DuArt. Her name was Kathleen Collins and she made a short and a feature called Losing Ground, which is about a crisis in a marriage. It’s a black couple, she’s a professor of philosophy and he is an abstract expressionistic painter, and it’s a wonderful film on a very low budget. And we don’t quite know what to do with it but it’s really good so we’re going to give it a shot. If we don’t do it, no one will.
Doros: Usually when we go around and people ask what we’re doing next and we start describing things, there’s blank faces.
Heller: That’s sort of the way we wanted it, you know?
Doros: It’s a lot easier and more profitable, probably, to do The Red Shoes, but we can’t afford to be Criterion. We found our niche, starting really from day one, bringing out films that had been lost to history. I Am Cuba had a terrible reputation, Mamma Roma, Pasolini and everyone else said was a terrible film, and then you see them and say, Wait a second, that’s best on either seeing it in 1964 or, in the case of Pasolini, he had such a horrible time with Magnani, he hated the film. But it’s wonderful. So really early on in our careers we realized that this is what we wanted to do, was to discover films that had been lost.
Heller: Someone at Criterion said to us, ‘You guys bring out the films we don’t want to do,’ and Dennis said to them, ‘We bring out the films that you don’t know you want to do until we do it.’ [Both laugh.] They’ve taken a couple of films from us. But I don’t think they’re ever going to Losing Ground, I gotta say. It’s a very small film and it’s not what they do. That’s why we have to do it.
Keyframe: As members of the AMIA, the Association of Moving Image Archivists, can you tell me what that organization has done to promote and encourage the kind of cooperation and collaborations between archives and individuals that is common today?
Doros: That’s easy. That it is its mandate, to foster cooperation among the archives, the studios, professors, academics, students, and film aficionados. It’s been around for 26 or 27 years. When I got into the field there was a lot of antagonism between commercial and non-profits. Bringing everyone together in a yearly conference, just between the platform it gives and the social aspects of it, there is so much cooperation between the archives themselves, we all depend on the studios now to work with the non-profits. It has been a complete turnaround from when I started in the field. The fact that I can be on the board, the fact there are studio people represented, there are archives represented, it’s all really been extremely successful in this mandate of fostering cooperation, not only in the United States but around the world.