Pioneers of African American Cinema: An Interview with Kino Lorber’s Bret Wood

For more than 40 years, Kino has been a fearless leader in classic film restoration and distribution. Since its Kino-Lorber merge in 2009, their stronghold on the home video market has only intensified, producing Blu-ray/DVD releases from a treasure trove of more than 700 titles, making available everything from silent masterpieces to studio era classics to underground features and documentariess. Their titles aren’t meant to merely entertain, but foster critical thought discussion.  Kino Lorber’s veteran producer Bret Wood has breen with Kino for over 25 years and has played a key role in bringing many archival and silent classics to vigorous life, and is currently involved in Kino’s most ambitious silent project to date: a definitive multi-disc Blu-ray/DVD anthology of African American silent films: Pioneers of African American Cinema. Wood recently sat down to discuss this monumental passion project with The Retro Set– a vital project many years in the making … and several decades overdue.

The Retro Set

Tell us a bit about your role as a producer at Kino Lorber.

Bret Wood

I shepherd projects through the entire process of acquisition, including negotiating with licensors and archives, I supervise the mastering and digital restoration; curate special features, usually design the box covers, write the liner notes, and work with the sales and promotional team to help promote the films once they’re released. My specialty is in archival and silent films, while Frank Tarzi produces our Studio Classics line and Rob Sweeney produces our contemporary international films. We all help each other out and look over each other’s shoulders.

The Retro Set

Which of the many projects that you’ve worked on have been your biggest passion projects?

Bret Wood

My all-time favorites are probably the four-disc EDISON: THE INVENTION OF THE MOVIES, Louis Feuillade’s LES VAMPIRES, Stanley Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE and Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER. I also did a collection of exploitation films from the early 30s and I’d like to revisit those in HD in the not-too-distant future.

The Retro Set

I’m assuming you’ve been a film lover your whole life. Do you recall the moment when you knew you wanted to be involved with film?

The Retro Set

When I was young, I was obsessed with film, but being a kid in Chattanooga, Tennessee, actually working in film seemed like a complete impossibility. Of course, back then, I didn’t realize there were so many facets of the industry beyond studio production. And this was the early-to-mid ’70s, before the birth of home video.
It wasn’t until I was 14 years old that I began to think maybe it wasn’t completely beyond the realm of possibility.

The motivating event for me, was reading an interview with John Carpenter, in which he talked about being in film school—I hadn’t realized there was such a thing— and making DARK STAR on no budget, building a spaceship interior out of junk and gadgets purchased at Woolworths!

The Retro Set

So, as a kid, you read Carpenter’s interview and the light went off that, hey, maybe you just might have a chance to be a filmmaker too.

Bret Wood

Right, exactly. And I didn’t necessarily have to work on a studio soundstage.

The Retro Set

You were a by-the-bootstraps producer, then.

Bret Wood

(Laughs) Yes—movies with a Super-8 camera. I went to college at the University of Tennessee but they didn’t have a Film Studies track at that time, and certainly not a Film Production program. It was just a class here, a class there. So I started working as a projectionist. The University had a film society—remember those? They showed movies 5 nights a week, and that’s where I got my film education. Seeing a diverse range of films, having intelligent conversations about films with friends … it was what I dreamed of as a kid.

The Retro Set

What were those movies in the dark that influenced you the most?

Bret Wood

Well, the screening experience that changed my life was DAWN OF THE DEAD, which I saw in the unrated version, in a full theatre, at age 13. I was shell-shocked but inspired beyond words. And then to learn that Romero was also an independent filmmaker also buoyed my confidence.

But I still remember the films I saw as a projectionist that stick with me: COCKFIGHTER, SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS, GANJA AND HESS, THE NAKED KISS, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, BLUE VELVET…

The Retro Set

That’s an amazing lineup

Bret Wood

Yeah, it was a cool group of people. I really miss those days.

The Retro Set

So when did Kino come into the picture? That’s a long way from a little projection booth in Tennessee.

Bret Wood

A couple of years before I graduated, one of our film society’s special screenings was of the restored Erich von Stroheim film QUEEN KELLY. Dennis Doros (who worked at Kino International) supervised the restoration and he attended the screening. By that time I was also interested in silent films, and Dennis shared his knowledge and recommendations with me on the subject; my brain was like a sponge. After I graduated, a job became available at Kino, and Dennis gave me a call and asked if I wanted to apply. That was 27 years ago.

Gloria Swanson in Erich von Stroheim's QUEEN KELLY (1929).
Gloria Swanson in Erich von Stroheim’s QUEEN KELLY (1929).

At first I did non-theatrical sales, but as that part of the market began to die out, during the rise of home video, I started doing more design work: posters, VHS box covers. I began doing some minor post-production work, supervising some editing and film transfers. And eventually I learned enough of the trade to begin supervising all of Kino’s archival releases. All of this was back when the company was owned by Donald Krim. Since then, he formed a partnership with Richard Lorber, and the company became Kino Lorber. Don has since died, but several loyal members of his team are still there.

The Retro Set

If I might be selfish and step back just a minute: what got you interested in silent films? They weren’t terribly easy to come by in the ‘70s.

Bret Wood:

At first I was interested because they were a chapter of film history about which I knew very little. And, yes, it was very hard to see silent movies, since they never showed on television, and this was years before Turner Classic Movies existed. I saw Chaplin films, I managed to track down a 16mm print of Tod Browning’s THE UNHOLY THREE. METROPOLIS, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, and NOSFERATU, of course. I remember watching a Super-8 silent print of INTOLERANCE in my dorm room, and trying to stay awake.

You see, a crucial part of my individual interest in film has to do with the hunt; searching for films that were elusive. Films that I had heard about, but never had the opportunity to see. Films that had mysterious reputations, or that I’d seen images of in a book. The quest to find these rare and obscure films kept me glued to the television in the days when there were only four or five channels on TV. When video emerged, it fueled this appetite to find and acquire films. If I had come of age today, when films are so easily accessible, I don’t know that my interest in film would be as strong … it would certainly be different.

The Retro Set

The effort involved is what made it special. Today, when you can just Google a rare film and get a domain copy right there on YouTube, it’s easy to take things for granted.

Bret Wood

Yes, exactly. There’s a certain victory that comes from staying up until 4:00 in the morning to catch a screening of a film you’ve wanted to see for years. I always identified with the main character in FADE TO BLACK. It’s not a great film, but it really nailed that absolute obsession with film that I was feeling in my teen years. And obviously, this impulse is still alive in me today.

In 2003, I made HELL’S HIGHWAY, a documentary about the gruesome driver’s education films of the 1960s, and that whole project evolved out of this obsession with elusive, almost mythical movies. I wanted to find these films that I’d heard rumors of as a teenage, and to see if they could, in fact, be real. Once I found the films and saw that yes, they were real, I wanted to track down the filmmakers and get the story on how these films were made.

I still feel a deep satisfaction when I help release a movie that has never been released on video.

The Retro Set

Hey, I grew up in the analog world, and I can understand where you’re coming from. When I was in High School, the AMC network was in its American Movie Classics heyday, so I was spoiled because I had easy access to so many fantastic films. But the internet was still in its infancy so really learning anything worthwhile about cinema required endless research sessions at the library. Kids these days don’t know how easy they’ve got it.

Bret Wood

You’re right. And I’m sure you would also get the weekly TV section of the newspaper and circle the movies you wanted to see throughout the week. And find friends who have HBO and Showtime and camp out at their houses with a VCR when a particularly rare film is being shown. Am I being too geeky? Is this scaring you?

The Retro Set

Um. You have no idea how non-scary that is. You are in good company here.

Bret Wood

(laughs) Ok. Whew.

Concept art for Kino Lorber's PIONEERS OF AFRICAN CINEMA, due February 2016.
Concept art for Kino Lorber’s PIONEERS OF AFRICAN CINEMA, due February 2016.

The Retro Set

Speaking of rare films, the big news with Kino at the moment is your ambitious new project PIONEERS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CINEMA which is scheduled for release in February of next year. For those of our readers who have not been made aware of it, can you give us a brief description of what this project is and just why it’s so unique?

Bret Wood

It’s going to be a four-disc collection of early films by African-American filmmakers. We had originally planned on 8 features, but our Kickstarter campaign has been going over so well, I’m hoping to expand to 12. Plus fragments of incomplete films, shorts, trailers, interviews with historians, archivists, and filmmakers.

The Retro Set

Which African American filmmakers will be included in the set?

Bret Wood

It will include familiar black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux and Spencer Williams, but also some lesser-known filmmakers like the husband-and-wife team of James and Eloyce Gist, who made religious films for screenings in churches. Historian Steve Torriano Berry is currently working on the reconstruction of the Gists’ HELLBOUND TRAIN. We’ll also have films by the Norman Film Company, including an aviation adventure film called THE FLYING ACE. The novelty of THE FLYING ACE is that they had no way of shooting aerial footage, so the plane never actually leaves the ground.

The Retro Set

We’re talking special effects?

Bret Wood

It’s the kind of low-budget renegade filmmaking that I adore. Well, the plane is positioned against a blank backdrop with fans blowing smoke past. I don’t think they could even afford miniatures.

The Retro Set

How familiar were you with early African American cinema prior to this project?

Bret Wood

It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I saw Spencer Williams’s THE BLOOD OF JESUS and GO DOWN, DEATH years ago, and it’s always been lurking in the back of my mind, waiting for an opportunity to come to life.

But we didn’t want to just do a couple of films; that would barely scratch the surface of the movement. And it wasn’t economically feasible to produce a four-disc set like we’re doing now.
So, we decided to mount the Kickstarter campaign to generate the funds… and suddenly my dream of a cornucopia of rare black films became possible.

The Retro Set

How is the campaign coming along?

Bret Wood

In just over a week, we hit our goal of $35,000, and we still almost 30 days left of fund-raising, so we’re brainstorming about ways to keep the project going. We’re announcing new films, introducing new features to the collection, in hopes of building the level of contributions to around $50,000. Even that amount won’t fully fund the entire project, but it takes away the financial risk and allows us to be more ambitious in production.

We expected to succeed, but the groundswell of support has been much greater than any of us expected. Paul Miller, who is better known by his stage name “ DJ Spooky”, really got behind the project as Executive Producer, and is helping us reach beyond Kino Lorber’s core audience of cinephiles. In Hollywood, I guess they’d call that “synergy.”

The Retro Set

I’m glad you brought that up because I would like to ask you about DJ Spooky’s involvement as an executive producer. Silent film scores are crucial, so how are his contributions fresh and unique to this project?

Bret Wood

As you may know, he toured a “remix” of D.W. Griffith’s THE BIRTH OF A NATION, with an electronic score, called REBIRTH OF A NATION. He sees that by juxtaposing a more contemporary music style, it can help audiences look at a film with fresh eyes,. and not see it as an antiquity.

Now, I know that many people among our customer base do not particularly like scores that are provocative or unconventional. So, to satisfy everyone (and for the sake of historical accuracy), we’ll be including alternate tracks for all the silents, with a traditional keyboard or small orchestra score.

The Retro Set

Case in point, the Moroder Metropolis

Bret Wood

(Laughs) Yes. That’s not the version I usually watch, but I have to say I enjoy what Moroder was trying to do… and a lot of it is genuinely effective. Except when the vocals kick in.

The Retro Set

I realize this project is still quite new, but so far has there been anything you’ve learned about either the filmmakers or the production of these films that that stands out?

 

PIONEERS POSTER ART

Bret Wood

The eye-openers so far are the widely divergent views of religion in the films. Some films, such as GO DOWN DEATH and HELLBOUND TRAIN, have a traditional message, with characters dressed in a devil suit, complete with horns and tail.

But then you have a filmmaker like Micheaux who has a very cynical view of religioun, and depicts pastors as manipulative and dishonest, as in BODY AND SOUL and WITHIN OUR GATES.

The Retro Set

Far from your typical Spiritual.

Bret Wood

Exactly.

The Retro Set

How do these films differ from the Hollywood race films such as Vidor’s HALLELUJAH or Minnelli’s CABIN IN THE SKY?

Bret Wood

Well, they are clearly not made for the white audience, as those are. Some of the films in the collection are made by white directors, but the difference between our films and films like HALLELUJAH or GREEN PASTURES is that those films were intended for a broad audience. These were strictly made for the segregated theatre circuit, and so you don’t have the conventional stereotypes that populate the Hollywood versions of the “black cast” film.

The Retro Set

You mean that African Americans were actually allowed to behave as intelligent human beings?

Bret Wood

I know, shocking, right? And since these filmmakers weren’t trying to appeal to a white audience, they didn’t feel the need to pull their punches. At times it’s very uncomfortable for a white viewer to watch these films … as in Micheaux’s WITHIN OUR GATES, where there’s a scene in which a lynch mob whips a woman and then shoots a young African-American male in the back. So the films have a wide range of tones… from unsettling… to romantic… to thrilling…. to inspirational.

The Retro Set

I’ve only seen a clip of that moment. Doesn’t the lynch mob start to congratulate each other after they shoot the boy?

Bret Wood

Yes, because it’s all fun and games to them.

The Retro Set

That’s not just uncomfortable for a white audience, that’s uncomfortable to anyone with a beating heart.

Bret Wood

And sure, the films are very raw when compared to Hollywood studio films, in terms of production values and editing styles. But to me, the rough edges only enhance the viewing experience; they make these feel like true indie films. They violate the standards of style (and content), as opposed to being mere “entertainments.”

The Retro Set

Would you consider the African American filmmakers of the 20s the prototypes of the independent film movement?

Bret Wood

Oh yeah, absolutely. Micheaux used to raise money for his films by pre-selling bookings at theatres.
It’s very much like crowd-funding… getting the money in advance for a film that is yet-to-be-made. And one of the many beauties of the films is that, being produced outside of Hollywood, and not intended for screening in the mainstream theatres, they were seldom subjected to the censorship of the Production Code.

I’m not saying all the films are cynical or anti-authoritarian, but they seem to not be censoring themselves. It’s almost as though the filmmakers thought, “the white censors will never see this; white audiences will never see this; so we can do whatever we want.”

The Retro Set

Were these films popular within the African American community? Were there any filmmakers that one could consider a dependable moneymaker among the segregated theatre circuit?

Bret Wood

I know that Micheaux was popular in the earlier years when he was making silents. But in the sound era, you had a lot more white companies making films featuring black musical acts, such as Bessie Smith in ST. LOUIS BLUES or Duke Ellington in BLACK AND TAN FANTASY, or Cab Calloway in several Paramount shorts.
The line between the two groups of films became blurred.

And since the Hollywood films were more polished… with more famous performers… the independent films suffered in the marketplace. Nevertheless, Spencer Williams was making films well into the 1940s. But you see much less of the social commentary in the films of the ’30s and ’40s. Micheaux’s film GOD’S STEP CHILDREN is a drama about “passing,” inspired by various Hollywood film, is surprisingly critical of certain factions of the African-American community

The Retro Set

Is there one film in particular in this anthology that you think anyone interested in African American cinema needs to see?

Bret Wood

These films have the power to surprise you, and every now and then you find a film that surprises you in other ways. There’s one called ELEVEN P.M. that blends dreams with reality. And in the end, the main character, who has died, takes possession of the body of a dog and kills the villain. And they superimpose the man’s face over the dog’s body, and the effect is downright baffling.

The Retro Set

There’s a long way to go until it’s release next year, so how can interested people (like our readers) get involved? Can they still contribute to the campaign?

Bret Wood

Yes, the Kickstarter campaign runs through March 21. And even though we’ve hit our primary goal, every dollar that is contributed to the campaign will go to expand the collection in other ways — whether it’s additional films, additional interviews, or possibly even a fifth disc. The finished collection will retail for $99, and for a $100 contribution you will get the finished collection delivered to you next February. So we’re not asking for money for nothing. Think of it is pre-purchasing.

The Retro Set

Most of the films are in archives, according to Kino’s website, so what’s the process between the neglected archival print and the like-new results on Blu-ray?

Bret Wood

What we’re doing is restoration, not preservation. The archives have all preserved these films– that is, created photochemical negatives that should not decompose over time. We are accessing these preserved elements and making them presentable to the contemporary viewer.

The Retro Set

How is that done?

Bret Wood

That means mastering the films in HD, doing minor digital cleanup, adding soundtracks to the silent films, cleaning up the soundtracks of the sound films. We do not use an excessive amount of noise reduction. This tends to erase the detail in a film. So, some of these films will still have the natural grainy texture. We’ll digitally remove obtrusive splices and visual debris, cue marks, etc. And we’ll erase the loud pops that occur when a bad splice goes through the optical sound gate.

While I can’t give you the details yet, I am proud to say that our efforts are going to result in the photochemical preservation of a film, not just digital restoration. One film exists only in a nitrate 35mm print. Because of this project, the archive that holds this original print is going to make a 35mm negative and save it from potential decay. Right now they’re checking around other archives to confirm that this is, in fact, the sole surviving 35mm print.

The Retro Set

Speaking of archives, how many are involved with this project so far?

Bret Wood

We’re negotiating for films from UCLA Film & Television Archive, George Eastman House, Museum of Modern Art, the British Film Institute, the National Museum of African American History Culture, the Tyler Texas Black Film Collection at SMU and private collectors—we’re calling in all favors.

All the archives have been cooperative with this project, but the Library of Congress has been particularly supportive. They genuinely want nothing more than for these films (and other rare films in their vaults) to be brought out before the eyes of the world. And they know Kino Lorber isn’t making millions on these films; they know we genuinely care about the presentation of the films… so we enjoy working with one another.

The Retro Set

One last question for you: are there any personal projects you’re interested in working on in the near future?

Bret Wood

Well, I’m also a filmmaker, and I’m now trying to work out distribution for my latest feature, THE UNWANTED.

The Retro Set

So you write and direct?

Bret Wood

Yes. My affinity for bootstrap filmmakers comes from experience, having made three features, plus some shorts, and a feature-length documentary.

The Retro Set

Well, it’s clear to me that your work with Kino in film restoration isn’t just a career; it’s a way of life
As someone from your target demographic can I just say it’s clear that PIONEERS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CINEMA is going to be an important achievement, not just for film scholars and academics, but for the African American community itself.

Bret Wood

That’s definitely our ambition. And I’m trying not to be intimidated by the months of work that lie ahead, but it’s rare to have a project that generates so much enthusiasm as soon as you describe it. So I think it’s going to be a gratifying experience on a number of levels.

Learn more about PIONEERS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN CINEMA by visiting Kino’s website and don’t forget to contribute to their campaign on Kickstarter. You can also follow Bret Wood’s latest feature THE UNWANTED on Facebook and learn more about it on the film’s website.

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