Punk promoter, nonprofit rule-bender and notorious art-world disturber David Ferguson isn’t the first name that pops to mind when you think of silent film. So who knew that he’d be the driving force behind Big Sound, the San Francisco-based company responsible for the painstaking frame-by-frame restoration of G.W. Pabst’s iconic Pandora’s Box playing at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Interested to hear what I knew would be a fresh take on the vitality of silent film as a modern art form, I scheduled an interview with him. He didn’t disappoint, sharing a great deal of insight not just about Pandora but also about the nature of art itself, an excerpt of which is published in 7×7 online. I’m excited to print the full interview here.
David Ferguson: One of the most interesting parts of this project has got to be Hugh Hefner’s involvement. I’ll bet you can’t wait to hear that story.
Keyframe: It was actually going to be my first question. I have all kinds of ideas in my head about it.
Ferguson: Well, Anita Monga, who runs the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was very helpful to us when we started this project back in 2005. She had once mentioned how much Hugh Hefner loved the film’s star, Louise Brooks, and that he had also produced a documentary on silent films. So we got in touch with him about what we were doing with Pandora.
Angela (Holm) and I were as surprised as anyone else was to find out that Hefner was such a film scholar. What people often don’t know is that he’s spent tens of millions of dollars to restore silent film theaters in Los Angeles. The first screening of Pandora was actually at one of those theaters, which was invitation only but had about a thousand of his closest friends at it.
Keyframe: I’d imagine that Hugh Hefner has quite a few close friends.
Ferguson: It was so full, and there was a phalanx of bunnies surrounding him—not your usual film scholars. It was very exciting. To be dealing with someone who used to have Marilyn Monroe on the payroll, that’s about as iconic as it gets.
The screening of ‘Pandora’s Box’ was so full, and there was a phalanx of bunnies surrounding Hugh Hefner—not your usual film scholars. It was very exciting. To be dealing with someone who used to have Marilyn Monroe on the payroll, that’s about as iconic as it gets.
Keyframe: In one of the scenarios I was considering, he discovered it in his childhood and it began his sexual awakening. (Laughter.)
Ferguson: That could have happened, perhaps. (Laughs). Honestly I have to believe it was Louise Brooks. To see what Louise Brooks has done in the film… as a non-actor, bringing both an intelligent and believable sensibility—as an actress and a person—and to not take any guff from the industry. I can see why it would appeal to him. She was a D.I.Y. person that just jumped into her work with great spontaneity, and different from the other actors at the time, and in Pandora. Of course they’re also great as well, but I think she did something very important that resonates with contemporary people in a very clear way.
Keyframe: So how long, in total, did it take for you and Angela to restore this film?
Ferguson: It took seven years, and we weren’t the first to begin working on it.
Keyframe: I’d love to hear more about your restoration company, Big Sound. Can you tell me about how it came to be, and why you’ve made this leap from something that seems very transgressive to something so much more classic?
Ferguson: I have been fascinated for decades with the idea that the silent film, as an art, is a great equal with music… that they complement each other in a perfect way. The first time it really hit me was when I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s restoration of Napoleon in San Francisco. It blew me away. A lot of people bemoaned the introduction of talkies, including Charlie Chaplin, who was actually also a composer of much of the music for his films—he was a very accomplished cellist—and I think that in a way they were upset about the destruction of that link between music and film by the introduction of so much dialogue. When I’ve taken people to see silent films at Silent Film Festival and at the Castro in the past, it has always been the revelation of the music and the film together that has knocked them out.
I have been fascinated for decades with the idea that the silent film, as an art, is a great equal with music, that they complement each other in a perfect way. The first time it really hit me was when I saw Francis Ford Coppola’s restoration of ‘Napolean’ in San Francisco at the Castro.
Ferguson: There’s another something about the influence of Pandora’s Box. How many composers wrote scores for it, without being paid… it’s really the film that launched a thousand scores! To realize that so many people have been moved by the film enough to generate their own soundtrack is wonderful.
Keyframe: It’s much like Metropolis in that way.
Ferguson: It is, although Metropolis was created with a soundtrack. Pandora’s Box didn’t have a soundtrack when it came out. It was just scored, as many other films were then, by the organ players at theaters, who were very well versed in these sorts of performances, having done them time and time again.
Keyframe: I’m sure a commissioned score was quite an expense at the time, perhaps more than a lot of film expenses.
Ferguson: Certainly. There are certain films, for example, Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, with the original Prokofiev score, that are just right—they are an amazing document of their times—and the film and score just go together perfectly, but Pandora’s Box was inspiring to so many people because it didn’t have its own score.
Keyframe: While we’re speaking of classics, how is this different from the Munich Film Museum version that Criterion has released?
Ferguson: Criterion is an excellent company and we’re big fans of what they do, but they were limited by the print they had, because they only had one print to apply the digital technologies, the technical magic, to. Because of Mr. Hefner’s funding, what we were able to do is go to museums and archives all over Europe and in Russia, which is where we found some of the material. The print we got from the archive from Paris was especially amazing for us.
Keyframe: Did you unearth any lost canisters or make any new discoveries when you were restoring Pandora? Interesting to think that with each new print there is, in essence, a new film.
Ferguson: Martin Kroeber, the fellow that had restored Metropolis had that experience, and when they found the other print in Argentina, he went back and recut the entire film! Martin was actually the one who had begun working on Pandora—he had been searching for 13 years, and even with the funding of the German government, it wasn’t possible.
I was told that Marlene Dietrich originally lobbied to get the role that Brooks ultimately played, but that Pabst didn’t want her. He thought she would be a little too… hardcore.
Keyframe: If German cultural funding couldn’t make a dent, I can only imagine, they’re usually quite generous.
Ferguson: I can’t really tell you… but let’s say It ended up costing somewhere in the mid six figures.
Keyframe: I’d wondered if there were any missing pieces that could have been responsible, in a way, for how unappreciated the film was in America. I suppose with something as risqué as Pandora the level of censorship done on the American release had something to do with the film’s failure.
Ferguson: There were a lot of problems: It was just when the Depression hit. There was a lot of anti-German sentiment right after World War I that stopped those films from being seen in America… Listen, there’s a lot of material from the silent film era that is boring, that’s racist, that’s stupid. Not every film is a masterpiece, despite what certain people would like to believe. Once in a while there’s a film that’s absolutely a treasure, like this one. One that absolutely needs to be shared with the world. This is Berlin in the 1920’s! This is the real deal. Even though Louise Brooks is an American, she makes it so real, and acts so naturalistically, before the time when people did that in film. I just love the idea that an American actress could go over there and it portray the real Germany better than anyone. It wouldn’t happen if wasn’t a silent film.
Keyframe: It still always wows me to hear people so invested in restoration work. Especially with the echoes of auteur theory still ringing, it’s often made out that completing a film is this very lonely pursuit, undertaken by one person, maybe two. It’s amazing to see so many people, and companies, come together and show so much love someone else’s work.
Ferguson: You know I’ve just finished restoring the work of my record label, CD Presents, and it was great to go through all of these things that I knew were bona-fide hits—and it was wonderful for me, doing this for the second time, to not have to worry about losing my shirt if I re-released a live concert by Black Flag… I think that if companies know there is an audience that they’re very very happy to work on a product and give it all their attention.
We did get a lot of the work for very little from the companies who were doing it—I don’t think some of them made a profit! In my mind this kind of project represents a wonderful convergence of the golden era of high tech and connectivity that we’re currently in—you have a restoration that took so much work on the part of so many people, that introduces the first lesbian character, that’s playing in the Castro Theatre, one of the last in the world of its kind. These aren’t insignificant connections: There are deep levels of resonance here.
Keyframe: I had read in Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet that Pandora introduced one of the first fully fleshed-out lesbian characters in film.
Ferguson: She was very well finessed by the director. I think he got her to behave in a really believable and truthful way. I get a feeling that the actress playing her didn’t know quite what was happening in the film. It seems to me that Louise understood much more about the vagaries of the script.
Listen, there’s a lot of material from the silent film era that is boring, that’s racist, that’s stupid. Not every film is a masterpiece, despite what certain people would like to believe. Once in a while there’s a film that’s absolutely a treasure, like this one. ‘Pandora’s Box’ absolutely needs to be shared with the world. This is Berlin in the 1920s! This is the real deal. Even though Louise Brooks is an American, she makes it so real.
Keyframe: Maybe she didn’t know any lesbians?
Ferguson: In Berlin in the 1920s? There were all kinds of things around at that time! I was told that Marlene Dietrich originally lobbied to get the role that Brooks ultimately played, but that Pabst didn’t want her. He thought she would be a little too… hardcore.
Keyframe: She’s certainly a little more hardcore than Louise Brooks.
Ferguson: It would have been a very different film. (Laughs.)
Keyframe: I had read that the film premiered at the Berlinale. So this will, in effect, be only the third showing?
Ferguson: We were invited to premiere at Berlin, but couldn’t finish the print in time, so we’ve only screened at the Hefner event, and again at the British Film Institute last year. The Hefner event wasn’t open to the public, even though as I said, there were quite a few people there, and the BFI wasn’t very large, so this is essentially our first truly public screening. All-in-all though, it’s the third showing, yes.
Keyframe: I’m sure you’ve been thinking a great deal about Pandora, is there anything else you’re looking forward to seeing in this year’s Silent Film Fest?
Ferguson: (Mauritz Stiller‘s) Erotikon sounds very very exciting, and also the same orchestra is going to play along as with Pandora. The original Mark of Zorro—how could you do better than Douglas Fairbanks jumping around and doing all of his own stunts? Every kid in San Francisco should see that.