SPECIAL FEATURES #1 – PART 2: The Celluloid Sorceress talks about her film life

Have you spent a lifetime loving film? When did you first realise you were smitten? In our continuing series of interviews with London’s independent curators, The Celluloid Sorceress discusses her film life and the vital importance of 1981.

Completing the first of our new series of interviews with London’s independent film curators, Rebecca Nicole Williams, aka The Celluloid Sorceress aka Sorceress Of Film, discusses how her parents influenced her film life, why 1981 was such an impactful year (followed closely by 1984, 1987, 1989 and, quite possibly, 1993…), and the importance of ensuring there’s always ‘show’ in the business.

> Read the first part of our conversation with Nikki here.

Nikki’s next London screening is THE BOUNTY 35mm + Q&A with editor Tony Lawson at The Cinema Museum (26 APR 19:00). Billed by Nikki as “a revisionist masterpiece, overlooked upon release, that has grown in stature and is considered by many among the finest epics of the 1980s”, THE BOUNTY is presented from a rare US 35mm print.

Radiant Circus Screen Guide - Now Showing - Films in London this week: THE BOUNTY at the Cinema Museum (26 APR).
THE BOUNTY at the Cinema Museum (26 APR).

RADIANT CIRCUS [RC]:
We might as well start with a very basic question which is, if people don’t know, how would you introduce yourself and how would you explain The Celluloid Sorceress?

CELLULOID SORCERESS [CS]:
When I talk to people outside of the film community in other jobs I do from time to time, and in a completely different industry, they’ll say, well, what do you do with film? Now this is really happening I find myself saying with more confidence that I’m an independent film curator and historian because that’s effectively what I do by default. I don’t know if you necessarily need a qualification to do that beyond having an extensive knowledge of film history. And even though my knowledge of film history is deeper, more concentrated in one area than others, everybody has their specialisms. So I guess that’s what I qualify for: I’m curating films. Some people say programming, but programming, curation…

[RC]:
Is there a difference? Does it matter?

[CS]:
I think there are similarities and differences, but to some degree it comes down to your distribution contracts and what a commercial cinema is obliged to show. And in terms of repertory, what they have in terms of availability time-wise to screen around it. I think about this because people ask me what course I took, and I tell them I was lucky. I grew up around cinemas, which was my most formative experience, being so heavily influenced by my dad, who I’ve talked about at events. He was a cinema manager and former publicity man.

[RC]:
I was going to gong to ask about your dad because, I’ve been listing your events for a while, but the first time I actually saw you talking was at the Cinema Museum fundraising events – THE LAST MOGUL and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD – and you were speaking very movingly about your Dad and his career. I thought that was inspirational. Could you just say a bit more about him and how his life helped you with your film life?

[CS]:
My Dad was a cinema manager. He was born in 1925. My Grandfather had his own business. He was a printer’s furnisher, which is different to a printer in as much as you’re making the printing press, you’re not doing the printing on it. So he was an established local businessmen in quite an industrial city. My dad was born in Nottingham. I was born in Nottingham. My Nan was an usherette in the Music Hall which is no longer there, The Empire Theater. Right from the start with my dad there’s that whole thing.

He was in the navy towards the tail end of the war and he went to work for the World Service and decided that his interest, by and large, was in theater and cinema. And so he wrote to the Rank organization – that was the way you applied for jobs back in the late forties, early fifties, you just wrote a letter to somebody and said: “Hey, I would like to be employed by you. I can spell, so please employ me”. And they did. And he really took to it.

He was kind of a frustrated actor like show people can be; You can’t get on the stage, so you put on the show and you manage the show around it. He wore glasses, as do I, and he wanted to do Shakespeare and I’m probably sure he was just a ham really. He was a funny guy and all three of us, my brother, my sister and I think we’ve kind of inherited our articulacy and ability to stand and talk in front of people, from my father and my mother.

My mother was also very articulate and they actually met at the cinema that he was working at. He joined the Rank organization – he went through London Films, British Lion and Columbia as a publicity person back in the days when they’d get on a train and go up to Scotland and organize a regional launch event, travel back, go somewhere else and do that again. Then settled down, became a manager, but they moved you around. I don’t know if they still do that, but they move you around. Could say “Hello, this is ABC, you’re one of our managers here in Nottingham, but we want you to move to Romford”. It was actually in Romford – or Hornchurch, one of those places – that they actually met. My mother was from Romford.

The certificates and the photographs that I put in the little slideshow that I kept on loop were of that era. The Cinema Museum is a great place to be able to do that because that’s what they’re all about. There’s all these odd photographs from West End press shows in the late1950s of random Odeon managers, many of whom, Like my Dad are now gone. Back in the day, it was a very boozy industry. My father drank very much in moderation because he saw a lot of his colleagues develop health issues from bad eating patterns and alcohol when I was still hanging around in the cinemas as a child / teenager / early twenties… my Dad out-lived a lot of the people that he worked with in the theater.

And that was where we ended up. He ended up in the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, which the Empire Music Hall was next to. Obviously it wasn’t there in my lifetime, but he ended up back in Nottingham as the General Manager of the theatre next door to where his Mum had worked. Moss Empires eventually sold the theatre to the council and by his retirement Dad was one of four House Managers, managing that and the Royal Centre. But of course, he knew all the managers of the local cinemas because they were his mates from the circuit. So it was like “Bring Nikki to see this new one by Steven Spielberg that’s packing them in in the States” in exchange for “Here’s some theater tickets, if you can’t use them all give them to the staff” and that’s the way it was. Lots of gentlemen’s agreements, really quite an amiable bunch. I think some of those traditions do still carry among cinema professionals, there are codes of conduct, there are territories, projectionists are territorial, curators can be very territorial – “That’s my film!” – but you do have to respect that. If somebody puts a lot of work into something then I think it’s all good. There’s that mutual appreciation.

I knew some female managers back in the late seventies, early eighties as well, including one very nice one who used to give me a lot of movie posters, certainly in the eighties. She’d been an usherette, then become an assistant manager, ran the box office. Renee Edis her name was. I don’t know if anybody’s ever heard of her? Any relatives out there still. But if anybody does know anyone from my Dad’s era give us a shout because that would be great.

So, I got to spend a lot of time out Front of House and, out of the three of us, the three kids, I was the one who fell in love with film the most. I got really, really into it almost at an obsessive level, from an early age.

[RC]:
At what point did you find out because, with your dad working in that industry, cinema was always there… what was the tipping point?

[CS]:
1981. I can give you something very specific. I think about this a lot because I’ve maintained a diary since I was 11 years old, which is really quite detailed – where and when I saw things – and that’s helped keep my memory of my first experiences of films alive.

[RC]:
What was that moment in in 1981?

[CS]:
It was the summer holiday. My mom had taken me to see some Disney films when I was really little but cinema really wasn’t her thing in such a big way. So by the time you’ve got STAR TREK and FLASH GORDON, my sister got to take me and then – I didn’t see STAR WARS first time round, I saw THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK first – by the time Dad took me to THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in 1980 and the other films that came around at that time, there was a definite interest there, a light going. But the summer of 1981 was a really big deal. Really big deal. Six weeks school holiday. And you’ve got: CLASH OF THE TITANS, TIME BANDITS, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS. I actually saw BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS in the cinema, in 1981. What a programme over the course of the six weeks for someone just starting junior school! Plus, that was the summer my parents took me abroad for the first time, to Italy, so I remember it all very well. If I have years that were of a particularly big influence on me they’re 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1989…

… and I’m starting to think 1993 might have something about it as there’s quite a lot I’m programming this year from 1993, which of course it’s 25 years ago now and it’s hard to think of these things in those terms when you remember the buzz around a movie when it was the hot new release.

Radiant Circus Special Features - The Celluloid Sorceress talks about her film life and the importance of 1981: RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK poster.

[RC]:
Taking us back to 1981 for a moment, was there a particular one of those titles that stood out?

[CS]:
RAIDERS. I mean, I love TIME BANDITS then and now, but definitely, definitely RAIDERS. Raiders was a big, big deal. Partly because of Marion Ravenwood. It wasn’t all about Indiana Jones. I’m not going to get into all the gender stuff, but I was trying to cover my tracks in the playground by acting like I was Indiana Jones when it was really all about Marion Ravenwood.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK was just epic and I’ve always enjoyed those first three Indiana Jones movies, more than I’ve ever had an affection for the STAR WARS trilogy, it just caught me at the right time. But equally, there were creepy crawlies and stuff in it and I used to be pretty horribly terrified of that when I was a kid. I remember walking up the steps to screen one with my Dad and the manager, Ronnie Crockett going “This is a good one”. I used to know all the advanced gossip, all the buzz about stuff: “This is the one we’ve been waiting for, this is by that guy Spielberg and it’s got that fella from STAR WARS” was what I’d been hearing for months.

But actually, RAIDERS wasn’t a big hit at first. TIME BANDITS that summer, opened in the Screen 2 at the local ABC, a little Handmade film, George Harrison. It did such good business it displaced RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK on Screen 1. It wasn’t until 1984 when it got its re-release off the back of TEMPLE OF DOOM that RAIDERS became such a mega smash hit where I lived. I remember sitting on the bus on the way home in 1981, though, humming that tune…

So, 1981 and jumping to 1984 and potentially tied with the sequel. But again, that was a big summer: GREMLINS and GHOSTBUSTERS in the States. I went to the States for the first time that year. There’s a story about about my Dad I haven’t told since I was a moody teenager.

I went to America in 1984. We got some friends living out there and of course everything came out like six months in advance. So, you know, I was there when GHOSTBUSTERS was released. ROMANCING THE STONE was out. TERMS OF ENDEARMENT was a PG! He could have taken me to see anything, but he was like “No, we’re on a holiday.” I had to wait, although that’s quite good because I’d have seen the uncut TEMPLE OF DOOM, which would have freaked me out a little bit…

[RC]:
It goes a few a steps further than the bugs in RAIDERS doesn’t it…?

[CS]:
1984 was a big year all round. In 1987 I was going to see a lot more 15 certificates. I mean, I was only 13 or 14, but that was an advancement. I was watching movies like PLATOON, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED and HOUSE, the Sean Cunningham movie, and RAISING ARIZONA (there was no 12 certificate then). COLOR OF MONEY was a movie that was a really big influence on me. And then THE UNTOUCHABLES hit and THE UNTOUCHABLES displaced RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.

[RC]:
That’s another point of significance then. How did that manage to trump RAIDERS?

[CS]:
Gangster movies were a big deal in my family. My mother wasn’t that big into films, but THE GODFATHER was a big deal. There was a story about how my Mum was pregnant with me when my Dad took her to see THE GODFATHER. The manageress – as they used to call them at that time, because I want to highlight again, there was a female manager of the ABC at that point in time – was really, really concerned: “Don’t take your wife in, she’s too close. She’s too expectant. This movie’s going to stress her out.” And of course they went in and my Mum and Dad loved THE GODFATHER, it was fantastic.

My Dad didn’t really censor what I watched. My mum tried to censor what I watched, I didn’t get to see THE GODFATHER until I was about 15, which I was quite glad about. There’s a right time to see things sometimes. I think that’s why people rediscover movies. They’ve seen them at the wrong time and sometimes they see them again and it just hits that sweet spot. Obviously THE GODFATHER was talked about and there was this legend that I was so warped because my Mum had sat there watching the Horse’s head and all of that. Then there’s SCARFACE. SCARFACE came out at the end of 1983 and my interest in film was really developed by that point in time to the point where I knew I was going to start a diary and the managers, they started giving me bits and pieces, posters, and press kits. I started becoming an obsessive collector – “just give me everything now!”. I wish I still had most of it because it was quite an archive.

[RC]:
Can I just pick up talking about your Dad being a ‘ham’ and a ‘showman’. I’m wondering if that influenced the way that you see films because, one of the things I think has changed massively over my life in the cinema is what I would call showmanship, or a less gendered term. There must be a better way of describing it, but something has gone…

[CS]:
’Show’ is what it’s all about. ‘Showman’ seems a bit dated because you’ve got Hugh Jackman out there as Barnum and it’s very gender specific. But ‘showperson’, ‘showpeople’, ‘showfolk’… Terminology goes all the way back to carnival traditions. You’re in the business of show. I wrote an essay for the blu ray release of EYES OF LAURA MARS last year for Indicator and I came across this quote by Jon Peters from the late seventies where he’s saying “show business is two words and I like both of them”. It is show business, the relationship between art and commerce. Now, I don’t particularly want to think of myself as Jon Peters, but the ‘show’ has become lost and you can build a screen a zillion feet tall and a billion feet wide and cram the seats as close to it as you want in as small a space as possible but that is not all there is to the business of show. That is pre-packaged, in and out quick as you can. And that sense of the theatrical is what’s gone. And to the degree that my shows are retro, I don’t think my shows are retro in the sense that I’m trying to recreate something. But what I am trying to do is go back to little pointers or little signifiers that hark back to a more theatrical technique without being labored, without being overly nostalgic.

That’s why I like to use venues that I use, like the Duke of Yorks or the Phoenix or the Regent Street or the Prince Charles, because those venues carry on that tradition as best they can within the parameters that are set. If I’ve got tabs that I can open, I will open them. One day, I would love to stand in Bradford in the center of the screen and just go “THIS IS CINERAMA!”, and have the curtains draw back, which I’m sure many people have done, but it is that whole thing… You go to the IMAX and you get the big countdown – “10, 9, 8, 7…” – and it’s in 3D and it’s just coming out of you, and I love that. I love that because there’s more ‘show’ in the product. Although sometimes the dudes on the mic aren’t very funny…

Radiant Circus Special Features - Independent film curator The Celluloid Sorceress talks about her film life: FALLING DOWN film poster.

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Featured image: THE BOUNTY (1984).

Radiant Circus