A Deep Dive into the influences and inspiration behind the cinematic tome.
After reading through Warped and Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive for my review, the opportunity presented itself to chat with one of the authors, Lars Nilsen. Nilsen was the programmer for Weird Wednesday at the Alamo Drafthouse from roughly 2004 to 2013. Given that the folks at the Drafthouse tend to wear a lot of hats, I would often catch his name from time to time in different write ups when I first began my journey into the “outsider art” that is genre cinema, seeing him behind a particular program or the curation of a particular film I dug. That eventually led me to checking out his playlist for Weird Wednesdays, which I began using as a source of recommendations, since I lived nowhere near a Drafthouse in rural Pennsylvania.
Written by Weird Wednesday programmers Nilsen and Kier-La Janisse, Warped and Faded is a cinephile feast that can be easily broken up into three courses. The first course is an informal oral history of the Alamo Drafthouse and, by association, how Weird Wednesday came to be. The next course is a catalog of films that played Weird Wednesday, with capsule reviews culled from years of blurbs courtesy of Drafthouse calendars, spanning decades. The final course in this buffet of celluloid madness is the Weird Wednesday Hall of Fame. This section digs a bit deeper into some of the auteurs and stars whose films were staples of the program and its subsequent book.
If you’ve read the book, interviewing Nilsen is exactly as you’d expect. While sharing his memories on his time at the Drafthouse and some of the films in the book, he’s humble, thoughtful, introspective and slightly self-deprecating. With this conversation, we dug into not only how the book came to be, but the labor of love it was for all those involved.
Dan Tabor: So, first I’d like to say thank you, because your programming over the years is what got me into a lot of the films I’m into now and introduced me to the joy that is Snakes (1974).
Lars Nilsen: That’s an amazing movie. I have a theory that maybe John Landis may have made that movie, because, if you look at the other stuff that Art Names did, there’s nothing to indicate that he could make such a competent movie. You know? Snakes is a really competently made film, there’s solid actors in it, but then also like the whole recurring motif of throwing the car over the cliff, that’s brilliant stuff. Like it’s a brilliantly funny comedy.
And then the other reason I think it might be John Landis that secretly did it is, “See you next Wednesday”. Every John Landis movie, there’s an in joke where he says, “See you next Wednesday”. Snaky says that in Snakes and I don’t know, I’m not saying that it’s like, a well-founded theory and I haven’t done any of the legwork, but it started occurring to me that like, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing that ever happened. If John Landis secretly directed Snakes.
Tabor: I know it’s finally getting put out on Blu-ray. I’m super excited about that.
Nilsen: Yeah, I’ve internalized that film, so I don’t need to actually own it at this point. I know it by heart.
Tabor: I am just excited to see it not on VHS.
Nilsen: Now is the tape you have titled Holy Wednesday or Fangs?
Nilsen: Now I own the tape that is under Fangs and I own Holy Wednesday as well, which was the original title.
Tabor: So film guys tend to be book guys. So what books sort of inspired you to write a book on film?
Nilsen: That’s very perceptive and I am definitely a book guy, and books led the way for me into film. In fact, even from the time I was a kid, it was reading books about horror movies that made me excited about horror movies. The books that made me an expert in these kinds of film were Phil Hardy’s The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror and Sci-fi. Those were huge for me, particularly the Horror. I bought multiple copies of it because the binding fell apart. Also, both Psychotronic books from Michael J. Weldon were huge for me. All the Cult Movie books by Danny Peary, I think three or four iterations of that, it was enormous for me.
Then also the books that kind of made me a critical thinker about film were all of Pauline Kael’s books, believe it or not, as well as Richard Meltzer, his book Gulcher (Post-Rock Cultural Pluralism in America), just like in terms of forming my critical aesthetic, and also his book, A Whore Just Like the Rest: The Music Writings of Richard Meltzer. Then I got to say, even though he’s younger than me, Grady Hendrix when he was writing for Subway Cinema, I used to print those fuckin’ things out on my dot matrix printer or whatever, you know, and I would just read them like they were books because I loved Grady’s writing so much.That kind of seemed to point the way for me to these kinds of blurbs that I was writing for Drafthouse and for Weird Wednesday that are collected in the book.
Tabor: I can see the connections, I love Pauline Kael too, she’s great.
Nilsen: My writing is nothing like Pauline Kael’s, she’s an incredible essayist in that she’s talking through her entire thought process and her whole set of critical criteria, which are not theoretical at all. She’s not writing film theory, she’s sort of like showing you, here is what I respond to as a human being and she has these little anecdotes. I mean, she’s just the greatest writer about film and she’s leading us through the way that an intelligent, humane person experiences film. I’m sure film school is well worth every dime of the $478,000 that it costs, but I got all of that from reading Pauline Kael’s books.
Tabor: That being said, I definitely enjoyed your write ups. You sell a lot with so little, and it’s definitely got me looking to track down a few of those films thanks to your blurbs. What was your writing process?
Nilsen: It’s not critical writing, it’s ad copy, it’s ballyhoo. The idea was just trying to sell the films. That makes it different from, you know, even though they’re approximately the same length as Mike Weldon’s write-ups or Steve Puchalski’s write-ups, you know, it has a different aim. Steve Puchalski, when he writes his reviews, he’s going through and being clear about what he thinks about the film, but I tend to soft pedal some of the least exciting aspects of the film. I’m really trying to amp up the exciting and exploitable aspects of the films.
I’m going through the book right now and I’m looking at some films and I’m like, wow, yeah, I don’t know if I ever will watch this again, but then I’m gonna read my write-up and it’s like slam bang, what a great time. You may find this, if you’re trying to watch through the book, you know, go through it and say, well, I’ve never heard of this. I’m going to watch The Pink Garter Gang or something, and after you watch it you’re like, wow, that really was not very good. The write-up made it sound great, well, mission accomplished. That was the idea.
Tabor: So how did you decide on the format of the book? Because I like how the book has like three functions. It’s an oral history of the Drafthouse and Weird Wednesday and also the films that played in it, paired with an amazing collection of artwork.
Nilsen: Well, Kier-La Janisse, whom you may know, was the editor of the book. So Kier-La, once Tim League decided that he really wanted to do it, he sort of tasked Kayla with doing that. Kier-La came up with this plan of what it was going to be. Because I had been thinking about this before and my plan was to make it a big coffee table book that was nothing but frame blow ups. So it was going to be like a big passion book, you know, back on our book guy kick here, it was going to be frame blow ups and then all the guides would be interspersed, possibly in like a different section of the book, which we did end up doing, because there was a hell of a lot of frame blow ups in the book.
Once Kier-La got involved it changed for the better entirely. So we came up with the idea of doing the oral history, which she worked like hell to make happen and to put together, as well as a collection of blurbs, which frankly, I worked like hell to go back and source because it was not easy. Then, she and I, and Sebastian del Castillo of AGFA, got together and we did all the frame blow ups. Then she hired the graphic designer, Luke Insect, to go through and do this incredible graphic design, which for Kier-La involved finding a lot of stuff, and it was all kind of just sort of mustering our resources to get all of those posters, stills, ad mats and stuff. I mean, it’s a graphically dense book. God knows if you look on my shelf, I have a lot of books that are graphically dense but are ugly looking, and have that terrible thing that was happening in the 90s particularly where the posters would be at a 30 degree angle or whatever for no reason.
Tabor: Or all pixelated…
Nilsen: Like, why the hell did they do that? It’s a beautiful book. I know it sounds like I’m being gauche trying to sell the book, but it’s also like a really beautiful book. That’s Kier-La and Luke totally.
Tabor: Yeah, I mean I was looking through it and I was amazed you tracked down some of these posters and art for some of these films, because that couldn’t have been easy. All the artwork looks crisp and like it was pulled from a film that opened yesterday. You can tell there was a lot of time and love spent on making it right.
Nilsen: Well, we spent years making this book and nobody will make the monetary equivalent of the time that they put into this, so it really is a labor of love. It’d be nice at the end of the day if Tim doesn’t lose money on it, because he’s the guy that every time we made a choice, he’d be like, “Yeah, sure.” Glossy cover? “Sure, that’s fine, do it.” He kept signing off on things as the book got progressively nicer, you know? Because it’s only a $35 price point, which is like, it’s kind of a money losing proposition, frankly. But we wanted to have something that was a real memorial to those days of us discovering all this stuff, winning the war against “so-bad-it’s-good” and all that kind of stuff we delude ourselves into thinking that we did.
Tabor: My favorite chapter is where you talk about the last night, at the Colorado street location, when you had Susan Tyrrell there. It almost sounded like the plot from some 90s indie film. How did you decide what beats to hit history-wise, and was there a story or anecdote you wish made it in there that didn’t?
Nilsen: Golly, Kier-La really did the editing of the oral history and I think a thing that happens when you do a thing like that, the good stuff tends to rise to the top. The stories that are just too good end up getting more emphasis, because there were more people amplifying them.
The only thing that I think would be really hard to get across was just the feeling of just every week, that it really was every week, every week, every week for so many years.
So many of the same people were there and you would just check in with the same people every week, and there are people that you would never meet before the series started. By the time you were a few years in, they were among your best friends. I think it’s hard to really convey what that’s like to be not only in that mix, but for me to be like the guy that’s choosing these movies. So there’s sort of like a feeling of incredible responsibility choosing these films, because you’re trying not to lose your friends. You know, if you program too many boring movies in a row, you just lost three friends, that’s a very unique sort of struggle that I faced that other people who were just showing up and enjoying the series were not facing. But for me it was like, okay, I don’t want to show movies that have like rapes or something, because then it’s not a fun series for everybody, you know, arguably not for anybody, and I don’t want to show movies that have long sections of boredom because then it’s like not a fun movie for everybody and we lose some people.
So that whole feeling, the feeling that the series was continually on this thread, because I mean, when it was Wednesday at midnight, like, think about all the inertia, all the social inertia that is working against that, having a series on a weeknight at midnight. Even if it’s free, that’s a hell of a tough time flat.
Tabor: Yeah. I mean, that definitely comes across in the book too. It’s got this kind of undercurrent of this underdog story embedded in the oral history when you come in after Tim, as a regular who ends up taking the reins. I was like, I just want Lars to succeed with Weird Wednesday.
Nilsen: That was a lot of my experience with Weird Wednesday. I would show up, I’d be pretty high and so everything would be amplified, and I already have terrible social anxiety. I’d be stoned and then I’d be sitting there and if the movie wasn’t very good, then I would start getting flop sweats while I’m watching it. You know? On the other hand, there was the other side of that coin too, which is this incredible triumphant feeling of a movie I was hoping would work, and then it works. There are only four better feelings than that.
Tabor: Yeah. I’ve been in some of those situations where you’re watching a film with an audience and it transcends from simply watching a movie into this communal experience and you can’t replicate that high ever.
Nilsen: Yeah. No, it’s just, you’re just on it. It’s like the celestial harp is playing inside your viscera, you know, there’s nothing like it.
Tabor: Do you ever miss Weird Wednesday?
Nilsen: You know, I program for Austin Film Society and I’m up introducing movies all the time and I’m not just doing exploitation films, I’m doing all different kinds of films. But frankly doing 14 years of it, you know, as much as I love it, I had done it.
Tabor: Fair enough. So one of my favorite things about the book is you make this point about audiences then versus now, especially when you’re talking about viewing transgressive cinema in a transgressive space, such as a Weird Wednesday. Why do you think folks go to these screenings expecting them to conform to their sensibilities?
Nilsen: Yeah. I don’t know. I’m not that axe-grindy about it, honestly. Maybe a couple of years ago when we were doing the book, I had different feelings about it. I feel like the youngest fringe of our audience, which is a pretty young audience at AFS, I gotta say, feels less like it has to be the equalizing principle. I think for a lot of years, the young people were really feeling like they needed to be the equalizing principle, that they had this responsibility, which has gotta be tough, you know?
It’s something that I feel inside myself as well, as someone who has a responsibility to programming. It’s like, let me program using this sort of equalizing principle and try to reflect my own feelings about social justice, let’s just say, two words that should not be dirty words. But let me reflect all of that in my programming, but I haven’t really felt like I need to actively try and seek and be a justifying principle for others, if you know what I mean.
Tabor: Finally, what was a grail for you, that you’d always wanted to screen at a Weird Wednesday but never could?
Nilsen: Well, there are definitely grail movies that you’ll never come across at all, like Voodoo Heartbeat or something, you know? I know I would love to have shown Ron Ormond’s The Exotic Ones, I don’t know if there’s ever been a print of that that’s really been floating around. That’s probably kind of a grail. That’s a movie that you can find on video, but you couldn’t find a print of, to my knowledge. Also, Joe Sarno’s Red Roses of Passion wasn’t available back when I was doing the series and it is available now. That’s one that I would’ve played happily.