Exclusive Wholly Cinema interview with Craig Rogers, Co-CEO/Co-Founder of Arbelos Films

Blog post by Ross Munro for Wholly Cinema.

In the late 1960’s, Hollywood studios, still reluctantly clawing onto the last death throes of their growing anachronisms of taste and tradition, eventually couldn’t avoid being swept up in the cultural sea change of the prevailing times.

At the very real risk of financial and artistic irrelevance, the gate keepers of Hollywood desperately handed the keys to the cinematic kingdom to what’s now referred to as the “New Hollywood” generation of young, auteur inspired American mavericks to wring to new life into the corpse of the old studio system.

One of those brash filmmakers was the long-haired, intense rebel Dennis Hopper who was fresh off directing and starring (along with his long-time friend Peter Fonda) the unexpected and seminal smash hit indie “Easy Rider”, about a duo of coke dealing hippies on a cross country Harley journey in search of America who, instead, find the real cost of freedom.

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A hit at Cannes as well, it seemed nothing could stop Hopper as the major studio gave him carte blanche to tee up his next cinematic passion project- what would eventually become the beleaguered and, at the time of release, critically and financially failed “The Last Movie”. Released in 1971 to only a handful of theatres, the film then disappeared seemingly into oblivion despite having won a major prize at the Venice Film Festival but still managed to slowly build up a cult following all these years later.

The great news is that today, courtesy of the hard-working folks at Arbelos Films, we now have the pleasure of the rebirth of Hopper’s ahead-of-it’s-time “The Last Movie” as it finally makes its way back into theatres courtesy of a pristine 4k digital restoration.

A big thank you goes out to Craig Rogers, Co-CEO of Arbelos Films, for taking the time to answer some questions from us sincerely movie lovin’ types here at Wholly Cinema as “The Last Movie” launches theatrically in New York and San Francisco (other North American cities to follow).

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Wholly Cinema: How did you come into contact/get involved with the restoration of “The Last Movie”?

Craig Rogers: I had worked with both David Marriott, Ei Toshinari and Dennis Bartok when we were all working at Cinelicious.  In early 2017 we left Cinelicious to form Arbelos, sub-licensing the Cinelicious Pics library in the process.  I am Co-CEO (with Marriott) and I lead the digital restoration of our archival releases (BELLADONNA OF SADNESS, PRIVATE PROPERTY, FUNERAL PARADE OF ROSES, THE LAST MOVIE, and next up, SATANTANGO). Very few films have the wild backstory that THE LAST MOVIE does.  I can’t think of another film that has had so much written about it, so many documentaries made about it, yet so few people have actually ever seen the film itself.  Prior to his death Dennis was able to regain the rights to his film and had plans to restore and re-release it.  Sadly he died before he was able to achieve that.  Luckily our guys were able to secure the rights from the family and The Hopper Art Trust.  Dennis’ dream of THE LAST MOVIE getting the release and recognition it has always deserved is finally at hand.

WC: Was there a lot of difficulty in bringing the restoration to fruition (i.e.- rights issues, red tape, estate objections, etc.)?

CR: You would have to speak with David and Ei regarding rights issues, red tape and/or estate issues.  I know it was a very long process.

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WC: What was the biggest challenge in the whole process?

CR: The biggest challenge…I’m sure if you asked everyone on the team they’d each give you a different answer.  For me the biggest challenge is always finding the perfect balance between restoring a film to a level which modern audiences have come to expect, yet making sure it retains it’s original character.  My mantra is always “Film should look like film”.  That means leaving in a level of “imperfection” that makes film the living medium that it is.  Digital tools, when abused, will remove not only dirt and scratches, but all of the film grain, all of the subtle, fluid fluctuations in color and density, all the minuscule movements in the frame.  Many of these things are only noticeable at a nearly subconscious level, but when they are all removed the film feels dead.  I spent hours putting flying insects back into the movie that the software had removed!  No one would have noticed if they were gone, but I would have known!

My goal is always to make our final product look like the show print that would have been projected at the film’s opening night premiere.  Those show prints were usually the only ones struck from the original negative (most prints people saw at a theater came from duplicate negatives), so we want our images looking bright, sharp, colorful and free from dirt and scratches, but it will always look like film.  It will have grain.  

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WC: What did you see in the film itself that you thought would resonate with today’s cinematic audiences?

CR: Personally I enjoy it for it’s art.  Dennis was trying to paint with film and I think he accomplished that.  When people see Van Gogh’s THE STARRY NIGHT they don’t say “the sky doesn’t really look like that!”.  Sadly when Dennis released this film in 1971 people didn’t either understand or care that he was trying to do something new.  Something more.  I really hope audiences today understand what he was doing and embrace it.  It’s an amazing film.  …and honestly many of the techniques he was using in 1971 are quite commonplace today! 

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WC: What has the reaction been so far as you roll out “The Last Movie”‘s release?

CR: Everyone is just very excited to finally get a chance to see it!  I think they’ll be blown away at how beautiful it is.  László Kovács’ photography is gorgeous.  

WC: Along with the upcoming restoration of Welles’ lost film (by Frank Marshall et all) and, of course, your efforts on “The Last Movie”, are there any other dream projects or lost movies that you’d love to work towards restoring?

CR: Well, we are already hard at work on Bela Tarr’s SATANTANGO (7.5 hours at 4K!  What are we thinking!) and have a few more coming that’ll be announced soon.  Personally I’d love to get our hands on some early work by Vittorio Storaro.

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WC: Is there something you learned about Dennis Hopper as an artist that, perhaps, you didn’t know while bringing this little-seen film back to life?

CR: I was a casual fan of Dennis Hopper.  I knew his films.  I particularly enjoyed his small role in TRUE ROMANCE.  He seemed so genuine in that film. He was always known for his huge over-the-top roles, but I really liked the calmness of that performance.  It seemed to mirror his real life at that stage.  AFTER this experience, I’ve come to appreciate what a dedicated artist he was.  Film was his medium (both motion pictures and especially still photography).  I have to get my hands on a copy of that big beautiful Taschen book full of his photography!

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WC: What are your earliest memories of movie going and what defining events/experiences created your passion for movies?

CR: I grew up watching movies. That’s all I cared about. If I wasn’t going to the theater, I was watching VHS tapes at home (or laserdisc!) I was fascinated by everything about them. The acting, the cinematography, the dialog, the camera work. Everything – it all fascinated me. Two people’s work in particular really effected me. Robert De Niro, and through him, Martin Scorsese. To me, they were the absolute best of what cinema could be. Together, in TAXI DRIVER and especially RAGING BULL they created stories on screen that changed my life. I wanted to be a part of something that could effect people like they had effected me. So, I packed up from my little town in Maine, and moved to Los Angeles. I’d been accepted to film school.

Within 5 years I’m working at IMAX. I had a large hand in their move into remastering “Hollywood” films for their giant screens.  I found myself one afternoon standing in the IMAX lobby awaiting the arrival of Martin Scorsese to view our remastered version of his Rolling Stones concert film, SHINE A LIGHT. I shook his hand, and then sat in the theater and watched the film with him. Looking up at the screen at a huge 50′ tall image of Martin Scorsese, then turning my head and seeing him sitting there next to me smiling was surreal. The emotions were so strong my eyes welled up. Thank god it was a dark theater! It seems foolish to have such strong feelings…he’s just a man, but without his work, I’d never have moved from New England. I would not be working doing what I love today.

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Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie” 4k Restoration release (arbelosfilms.com)

Premiering in NYC, Aug.3/18
http://metrograph.com/film/film/698/the-last-movie

Premiering in San Francisco, Aug.3/18
https://drafthouse.com/show/the-last-movie-4k-restoration

Viva La Cinema!