While attending the Berlinale I had the privilege of conducting a personal interview with directors Michael Epstein and John Kirk who were accompanying the 1980 film Heaven’s Gate (directed by Michael Cimino), along with the documentary film directed by Epstein, Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate. Epstein’s film was taken from Steven Bach’s book Final Cut: Art, Money, Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists. Although my interview was not directed at discussing the films, it was invigorating as I listened to the press conference with these three men as it related to the films. This took place immediately after the showing of both films. It was the longest press conference I had attended at the Festival but it seemed like the shortest. I think the audience could have sat and listened to them expound on the topic for much longer. They were all extremely articulate and interesting. After this full scheduled day, and ready for a much needed break, Epstein, Kirk and I talked over coffee at a typical European café. With all due respect for their amazing work with Heaven’s Gate, I had the privilege to mentally whisk them away from the topic of the film in order to peek inside their career choices and to seek advice for future generations who would follow in their footsteps. I was so proud that I had been given the chance to meet these gentlemen who displayed a great deal of integrity in their field of interest and passion for the art of film.
Michael Epstein: director, writer, producer with Viewfinder Productions, Inc., Academy Award nominated for documentary film The Battle Over Citizen Kane and, among other works, the newly released documentary film Final Cut: The Making And Unmaking Of Heaven’s Gate.
John Kirk: director of Technical Operations for MGM Studios, film historian and restoration expert. Among his notable works, he has just finished the restoration of Heaven’s Gate.
Karen Pecota: I always enjoy listening to people’s history; how did you get into the film industry?
John: My education was directing me into the area of Foreign Service, but I had never been out of the United States until I went to Europe at the age of 18. At that point in my life anyway, I realized that I was not ready to live in a society that was so different from my own. Therefore, I had to totally re-think my career choice. Movies were what I knew best. My mother had started taking me to movies when I was six weeks old. She was a single mom who worked all day, and the only kind of entertainment that she could afford and had the time to do was to go to the movies at night after work, so she would take me with her…I literally don’t remember a time that I did not go to movies. And we did it several times a week. So after graduating from college, I actually went back to school…not to get another degree but to take some courses to learn something about TV and film work.
During that process I discovered that editing was what I wanted to do. I left Texas and ended up in LA (after a brief detour in New York) where I started in the proverbial mail room of a production company. Four weeks later, I was moved into another department, and two years later I finally got the job that I really wanted – in editing.
Things went well for a few years, but then I went through a rather lean period of work for about a year and finally got a chance to work for a small film company called Cannon Films. They made low budget action movies – the early Chuck Morris and Jean-Claude van Damme action pictures. Sometimes they put out some good movies like BarFly and Little Dorrit, but the company ended up being bought by Giancarlo Parretto, who then bought MGM a couple of years later. I managed to survive the merger of the two companies and have been with MGM ever since.
My job assignment there started because of my training in foreign languages. I had taken a number of languages in school and had a double major in French and Italian at the University of Texas. At MGM, I was put in charge of the foreign versions of the films to make sure that the various translations were all correct in the languages and that the sound was synched up properly. That is how I actually got started in maintaining a film inventory. Over a period of years, I began taking over the general film library and being responsible for making sure that the studio had good prints (frames) of a large number of films in the library.
Michael: I somewhat stumbled into films but every time I say that, I know that it is a little disingenuous. I think that anyone who finds their way into movies, has movies in their blood. They loved going to movies as a child. There is something about cinema that touches them, and they want to be a part of it. I was no different. I never went to film school nor did I formally train in film. But, here I am almost 40 years old, I am in the film business, and I am seen as an accomplished and well-established documentary film director. I am honored that kids just out of school contact me. I am honored when people solicit me for work. There are times when I don’t feel worthy of their honor! For example, sometimes I feel like the ice is very, very thin and that I have gone way out towards the middle and at any moment the ice is going to break through and I am going to be sucked into the cold water (chuckling) and my whole family is going to be starving. So, there is a whole dissidence on how I see myself and how others see me.
I came to film by accident. I have most but not all of my graduate degree in architecture and urban planning/design. I had a lot of interest (and still do) in city living and politics. I had wanted to tell the story of a housing project in Chicago that was notorious and really a terrible place. At that time, I was at the University of Michigan, and I found myself actually in a documentary with a friend of mine, David, about race relations on the college campus. We were featured in the documentary. Through this experience, I became friends with the producer, and I told him that I want to make a film about a housing project but I don’t know what to do or how to make it. He said, “Well, come to New York”, so I moved to New York and worked for him for six years. By the end of those six years, I had The Battle Over Citizen Kane under my belt. It was a paper I had written from the only film class that I had ever taken at college. I had every intension of trying to write it as a narrative script, a feature film (starting with Orson Wells, the night of the broadcast of War of the Worlds, and ending somewhere around the Academy Awards for Citizen Kane, where he was booed at the Oscars..). I sort of kicked that around for a long time, and then the opportunity came along to pitch somebody for documentaries. We pitched it as a documentary and then as you know…the rest is history.
Just because you are noticed doesn’t mean that you will always have steady work. People frequently ask me, why did you make Final Cut? I made Final Cut because, aside from the incredible story it told, it was a film that I could get financed, a film that I could find interest in, and I knew Steven and his book. The elements were all there to produce a good piece of work. Much of what you make, you make because you can sell. You have to acknowledge this fact. If anybody goes into cinema, whatever capacity, documentary or God knows, feature film, you need to be prepared for this insanely long hard road, and there is no guarantee at the back end.
Karen: I saw a documentary on young filmmakers going into major credit card debt. Why?
Michael: The problem with film is that the studio system does not have a legitimate linear way to work your way through, to where you learn on B movies and work your way in…The challenge today, even in my documentary world, is one has to ask these questions:
• How do you get noticed?
• How do you break out?
• How do you have enough of a track record?
• Do you have enough of a resume?, etc.
There are a number of people who write great screenplays and get somebody attached to it and get noticed that way. There are people who make a great short film and get noticed because the film is phenomenal. The reality is, even with someone like me with Final Cut, you go into debt with the anticipation that if you can make something that people take notice of, more work will come your way. It is possible that MGM will never release the DVD or give me the opportunity to sell Final Cut to foreign television or on home video. As nice as a project like Final Cut is, in dealing with finances, it can be stressful. Honestly, I have accrued some personal debt, but work has also come my way. I got myself out there, people see me, they say that was a great film and say we need a Michael Epstein, etc. Without the risk I took of incurring some debt, I may not have had the other opportunities. You go into debt because you have no other choice or option left for you. It’s crazy and absolutely insane! (Michael turning to John, “Does that make sense to you?”)
John: Well, yes, I …
Michael: John’s lucky…
John: I am! I am not in the position of spending my own money. I was hired by the studio for my position and it pays my salary. Many people think that if you work in Hollywood or in film, you make a lot of money. That is not true! I do my job because I like the work I do, but I am not making the big bucks.
Karen: Looking back on your own experience, what advice would you give to the next generation that follows in your footsteps?
Michael: I don’t know if you would do this, John. I tell people not to go to film school unless you want to make movies in Hollywood, but then try to get into the intern program at either USC or UCLA. However, for undergrad work, study History, Art, Science, etc. Have something to say when you get a chance to make a movie because if all you know is movies, you are limited to what materials you can draw on.
Honestly, this is part of the problem of movies today, there is nobody coming up that has anything new to say, or, very few people have something new to say. At the present, and oddly enough, those who do have something to say are the non-fiction filmmakers. Every year you hear at Sundance (Sundance Film Festival) how the fiction wasn’t so good but the documentaries were really good. This is because life experiences – to know loss or pain or peace of life – is being tapped into by the industry. The audience wants that!
When you learn the skill of depth of fields or film stocks, or how to write a script, how to direct an actor or be an actor or whatever skill you do, and then are lucky enough to be given that opportunity to use those skills, you will need to have something to say. Your life experiences and knowledge of other fields will be invaluable. Just because you can afford a video camera and shoot a little footage doesn’t mean you are a filmmaker.
John: Well, what I would say…looking back, is not so much to recommend going to film school…but particularly for somebody who literally wants to come to Hollywood and try to make it there…get either into USC or UCLA if you can afford it….and if you can’t, take a film course at LA City College, because the interns who are taken on by all of the studios, the networks and other companies, are the ones who get the great jobs – after they have proven themselves as great interns.
It is extremely rare that someone can get a job just walking off the street and turning in a résumé to an HR Department. In my case, and almost with everyone else’s I know, I didn’t get that job in the mail room just because I asked for it…I knew the daughter of the owner of the company, and she got me the job. She said, “Dad, my friend needs a job, and he said OK”!
I agree with Michael that there are a lot of people who think they can pick up a video camera and make something, but most of them really don’t have anything to say. If fewer movies that were better were made, I think we would all be better off. That is not to discourage everyone from becoming filmmakers, but make sure that you honestly have the talent for it.
When you show people your films, are you getting a lot of positive feedback from objective sources, not just from Mom and Dad and your best friends? Not everybody who likes movies needs to be a filmmaker! For example, I doubt that I would be a good director and would not presume that I could do it. For me, that was one benefit of taking an introductory overall course in film and TV. In the class, we students had to do everything! I could never be a director of photography because my depth perception isn’t very good. I don’t want to be a director, because I realized that I don’t want to be responsible for controlling a zoo of activity at one time, day after day. However, I discovered that what I was good at, as I had been in high school and college with writing, was the editing process. I can take something that someone else has filmed, put the material together, or tell people how to fix what they’ve already tried to put together. I can do this much better than I could come up from scratch with some ideas of my own, and I think this may explain to a certain extent why I have become good at film restoration. I could never come close to something like Heaven’s Gate, but I think I did a good job of recreating the original version after it had been butchered. Everyone should find out what (s)he’s naturally good at!
Michael: There are a lot of films on the market and many of those are made with hundreds of millions of dollars (chuckle, chuckle) and really should not be seen. When I come to a festival like the Berlinale or elsewhere, it is eye-opening experience because I have friends that don’t have films showing in places like the Berlinale Forum or the Berlinale Panorama but who are in the market. However, they are having a hard time getting people to come to the market to see their films because there are just too many films in the market. Amazingly these are people who have already gotten a distributor to say yes and will take it to market, but it’s tough! I don’t know if I want to pour cold water on the next Scorsese or the next Spielberg……
John: But, don’t you think that they knew they were good?
John: Really? Or, maybe that they did have something to go on?
Michael: Well, I think that Spielberg, for example, had moments of doubt with Jaws. Some came back from that shoot thinking that it had been a complete disaster. Sometimes you can’t tell what will go over the top. But when you preserver… for your dream…. even though it is a struggle, you just keep pushing through.
I came to New York, and in my heart (I don’t know if I have ever really let go of it), I wanted to direct feature films. However, I found my way into non-fiction documentary, and I am genuinely very happy. I love the storytelling, and I still create something. People go to the theaters to see my films. However, it was not my initial dream or the reason why I left Chicago. I think everybody finds their water level, at some point in life, and you have to know when you find it.
Karen: Mentorship is a big topic today in many circles; what role did a mentor play in your career?
Michael: I went through hard times because of my mentor.
John: I did too actually.
Michael: My mentor took credit for work that wasn’t his work.
John: That didn’t happen to me – in fact, she was very quick to tell our producers about anything that was my idea. My hard times came about as a result of her leaving Hollywood to move back to Norway, where she originally came from. I had worked for her for so long that when she left, I couldn’t find work because no one else really knew what I could do. This was a tough time.
Michael: I had made The Battle Over Citizen Kane and as I mentioned, it was a paper that I had written in my film class that I took in college. Well, in 1996, we were at Sundance and in the Forum at the Berlinale. When the film started to do exceedingly well, at Sundance and then nominated for the Academy Award, my mentor took all the credit and went so far to say to me, if I insist on talking to the press, he will bad mouth me in the business. I’ve learned that success sometimes is like a dead uncle and everybody fights over the will. This is something that I think that people need to be prepared for, that the business can be ruthless.
I had an experience with a cable station group. They approached me and said we want you to make our next film for us. I was delighted. So I began by doing a lot of my own original research with the project and came up with an idea, concept and proposal. I asked them about it, they loved it and encouraged me to do further research. I agreed! Then quite abruptly, they told me they were ending the project. Later, what I found out was that they took my proposal and turned around and gave it somebody else who promised to do it at half the cost that it would have cost me. I am now on a campaign to keep everybody away from this group.
John: I already do….I stopped watching the channel years ago when they started putting commercials in the middle of their films.
Michael: This group is a terrible company, and they behave in an unethical way, and oddly enough… they don’t deny it. There is a side of the business that tries to take advantage of you, and people should never lose sight of this, mentors aside, because it is all about trust. Find individuals in the business who either touch you or you can deal with in an honest way – unfortunately, there may not be a lot of those people. But, when you find them, don’t let them go! Whatever the cost of staying loyal to someone is, do it. Your own individual integrity or loyalty to people is incredibly valuable.
Karen: So, is that how you have survived, finding trustworthy people to work with?
Michael: Yes, I think so…I am lucky because after The Battle Over Citizen Kane, I found a nice woman named Susan Lacey in public television with the series called the American Masters. She had confidence in me and let me make two films for her: one on Alfred Hitchcock, and the other one on Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller. Those films did reasonably well, and well enough so that I could then make Final Cut. Along the way you do other jobs. At times it is a hop scotch journey with people because the industry does change. There are other things that I would also like to try within the industry. Because these types of films are getting harder and harder to find a market for, and the truth is television is a primary source right now of work.
John: Yes, true!
Karen: When you think of the word Berlinale, what words come to your mind?
Michael: I will let John answer this because he has frequented the Berlinale more than me.
John: I don’t go to many film festivals during the year, but I have attended a good number during my career. I think that the Festival here in Berlin is unique in the sense that it is the one of the largest festivals to show both new movies and old films. There is a place for me as a film restorator in this setting, so I can come here and show work that I have done. It is big and very well organized. The organizers are supportive of the work I do. I find a wide range of films to see – documentaries and narrative features from all over the world. The scope of the Berlinale is wide and I always look forward to coming to Berlin.
Karen: Are you proud to be here?
John: Oh yes, absolutely! I am particularly grateful to the Festival this year for bringing the screening for Heaven’s Gate. It’s a wonderful launching place to get the film shown in Europe.