Speed Streaming: The Walker Dialogues on Film

Curator of Film Dean Otto reflects on his years working on the Walker Art Center Online Archive Experience: 30 Years of Dialogues and Film Retrospectives. 

This week the Walker Art Center Moving Images department launched an online archive to highlight the 30 years of their Walker Dialogues series. It presents retrospectives of major directors and actors with an onstage dialogue between the filmmaker and moderator, usually a critic or a colleague who elicts a fascinating conversation peppered with clips from films in the retrospective.

In 1990, I had moved to Minneapolis to intern in the Film/Video Department of the Walker, so I was around from the program’s inception with the first dialogue featuring Clint Eastwood highlighted by a preview screening of White Hunter Black Heart. I was involved with a majority of the events all the way through the Christopher Nolan Walker Dialogue and Retrospective in 2015.

The programs provided an opportunity to highlight the work of artists with the rigor that a museum can provide.  When the series was launched by Walker Film/Video Director Bruce Jenkins the filmmaker was invited to take part in a robust retrospective of his or her work (typically with an area premiere of a new work) and to travel to the Walker to discuss their careers, techniques, and inspirations with a critic for a live program. The critic was also commissioned to write a new piece for a brochure that included a detailed filmography and the brochures became great tools to entice other artists to come to the Walker. From the beginning, these were gateway events, often selling out the 340 seats of the Walker Cinema in minutes of going on sale.

There was only audio documentation of the first several years with video documentation started in the late 1990s prompted by the idea of creating a series of dialogues that could be broadcast.  Logistical challenges and huge fees for licensing the film clips sidelined those plans, but a dedicated video crew headed by Julie Hartley and Tom Adair provided a consistent presentation to share the dialogue experience well beyond the event. The edited dialogues were eventually streamed on the Walker Channel and now we have the opportunity to see and hear the dialogues throughout the history of the program along with the portraits of the filmmakers that were taken the evenings of each dialogue and scans of the brochures.

An excellent writer, Bruce Jenkins crafted heartfelt letters of invitation to secure dialogue guests and the flattery secured results.  Bruce had been teaching at the University of Minnesota in addition to working at the Walker, so he rarely traveled to film festivals.  Instead, he would carefully track the announcement of productions of films in trade publications like Variety and send notes of encouragement for interesting projects to the production offices.  That usually elicited correspondence and connections that helped to secure area premieres of the films at the Walker and dialogue guests as well.

When I joined the Film/Video staff as the department assistant in 1995, Bruce guided me on how to work with artists of that scale. I was quickly thrown into the world of working with levels of handlers who needed approval on every aspect of a visit. I needed to arrange a new level of travel—private planes, limousines, first class flights, the best accommodations, and security. There was a spectrum of this depending on the artist, but overall there was an insistence that comfort and wishes of the artist were paramount.

For the retrospective screenings, we had to present the best 35mm and 16mm prints of the films available and we went to great lengths to do this.  Loans were arranged from studios, archives, distributors, filmmakers, and private collectors all over the world.  For the Béla Tarr retrospective, the prints came from Hungary piled on a pallet with shipping and customs clearance at great expense–the key film in the retrospective, Sátántangó, had 24-27 reels of 35mm film for its seven-and-a-half hour running time alone. Some films which we thought would be easy to find turned challenging given that independent distributors often would not strike new prints after the theatrical runs had ended.  Joel and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple proved difficult as our connections were turning up dry or with prints that would not have been of sufficient quality for a retrospective screening. The Coen’s assistant helped out and a 35mm print was discovered in a storage locker, but the directors wanted to see it projected before sending it to us. We reached out to Mike Maggiore of Film Forum, who had been the Walker’s Film/Video Department Assistant during the early years of the dialogue program to see if we could set up a screening of the Coen’s print at Film Forum for the directors.  Mike was thrilled to help out and an early morning screening was set up and the print was approved.  Christopher Nolan had specific prints that he used for special screenings and each studio took great lengths to make sure he was happy. The Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York had struck new prints of several Claire Denis films including L’intrus that came directly from the lab.  I remember tearing up with projectionist Joe Beres as the print was running through our projector for the first time thinking of how privileged we were to have the best projectors, ideal screening room, and a pristine print. For a great example of the lengths that a museum would mount to locate a proper print, the tenacious Program Manager Jenny Jones detailed the search for a 35mm print of Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth in this blog post.

On top of this, up until the period of films being screened from DCP, we insisted that the clips be screened from film cued up to the sections chosen by the moderator to make a point to inspire discussion. This was a logistic challenge that was a daunting task for all but the best projectionists. A clip list was submitted in advance, the sections had to be located on the prints (often making sure that it was not in a changeover between reels). A clip tech session with the moderator was arranged on the afternoon of the event to make sure the clips were what was intended. Next, the projectionist had to re-cue all the reels of the clips prior to the public event.  The projectionist had to pay careful attention during the dialogue to wait for the moderator to set up the clip, dim the lights, and strike the projector lamp at just the right time for a clean start to the clip. As most dialogues had between four to seven clips, the projectionist had to switch between projectors removing reels after the clips and preparing the next. There were moments of panic when a moderator may have switched the order of the clips, but those challenges were always met with professionalism–maybe a few swears from the soundproof booth.

The production of the brochures also provided an opportunity for longevity of the program beyond the event.  When a critic was commissioned to write an essay for the series there was great anticipation for the delivery of the piece to read his or her approach to the artist. In the meantime, we’d be doing the deep dive to assemble the complete filmography.  The fact checking became a real challenge as film sources are notoriously inaccurate—especially running times which could differ depending on edits to the film, director’s cuts, and different versions put into release. The Walker editors were incredibly thorough and their great work made these incredible keepsakes.

We’d also need to hunt for great stills for the films and the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Stills Library was a great source for images until public access was closed. At the time one would need to fax a formal request for images and Mary Corliss, MoMA’s Film Stills Librarian would call you and describe the images over the phone to you—there was no way to obtain sample images in advance, so you would need to trust her. Dupes would be ordered and shipped to the Walker.  Honestly, she always could be counted on to find just what was needed. The brochures were produced through the mid-2000s and later supplanted by the essays being published online instead of in print.  It’s incredible to have access to all of this great work or writers, designers, and curators to celebrate the work of the filmmakers.

Reading through the list of artists triggered many memories of past dialogues:

Two French directors were the only ones who led to their dialogues to be rescheduled—one by over a decade. The retrospective of director Agnès Varda had already begun when I received a call from Varda with an urgent request. She had just found out that she was to receive a lifetime achievement César award and the event was conflicting with the dialogue.  She requested that the dialogue move a week later.  It meant shifting flights and hotel bookings for both Varda and the moderator, but all was possible to accommodate the monumental figure in the history of cinema.

The other was more complicated.  We were a week out from the dialogue of director Claire Denis in 1998 and I was in the office early on a Saturday to catch up on preparations for the event. My stomach sunk when I checked the fax machine and discovered a letter from Claire Denis.  The funds had come through for her next film and she needed to fly to Djibouti that day to start with location scouting and she would not be able to travel to Walker. I phoned Bruce Jenkins at home and he scrambled to get in contact even going as far as calling every hotel he could find in the country and asking to be connected to her. He eventually reached her, but nothing could be done. The film prints had all been shipped, so the retrospective went forward with a promise of a dialogue in the future.  I held a grudge about this until I got to see the film that had sidelined the event, Beau Travail, which, to this day, remains one of my favorites.  In 2012 Denis finally came to the Walker for a full retrospective and dialogue, which was worth the wait.

Prior to traveling to Minnesota for his dialogue, director Werner Herzog was in Italy working on an opera and was experiencing insomnia. While awake, he decided to compose his thoughts on documentary film and faxed a draft of his Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary that was to be a surprise for audience members at the dialogue. When Herzog arrived, he stood over me as I inputted his revisions and I have never been more flustered over my poor keyboard skills.

During his visit, I drove up to the hotel to pick Herzog up only to be parked in by a limousine that had pulled up next to my car. The driver of the limo left his door open when he got out to escort his guest into the hotel. Herzog got into my car and saw the situation.  Without a word, he jumped into the limo and drove it forward out of the way.  The driver came out and was waving his hands in dismay and Herzog waved back and shouted back, “You’re welcome.”

Michel Gondry was traveling from Manhattan with his teenage son on the day of his dialogue, but they had missed his flight as New York’s Pride Parade had traffic in gridlock. They were booked on the next flight out that didn’t arrive until a few minutes before our posted start time for the sold-out event. We arranged two cars to meet them at the airport–one to race Michel to Walker where he would pull up in front of the Walker and be whisked directly backstage as if nothing had happened while the other would escort Michel’s son to Walker with all of their bags. Despite a speeding ticket, the event went forward close to the original starting time.

Some of the directors had requested to see more of the city during the visit. Stan Brakhage had me drive him to comic book shops where he hoped to snare a rare edition. Terry Gilliam, who had grown up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, wanted to find his childhood home on Medicine Lake. William Klein traveled throughout the city shooting pictures throughout his trip. Olivier Assayas and Kent Jones wanted to me to drive them to view the Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the area.

Jessica Lange was the easiest artist to host as she had driven herself in from her home in Stillwater, MN. She later returned to the Walker for the area premiere of the film Cousin Bette sneaking in the back with her partner Sam Shepard as the lights went down and sneaking out before the credits rolled.

Jodie Foster’s dialogue in 1991 came at a major point of transition in career. The Silence of the Lambs was just to be released and she was in the process of directing Little Man Tate that would come out later in the year. A large part of my year interning was dedicated in compiling research on Foster under Nancy Robinson, the Walker’s Film/Video Assistant Director.  I had created an extensive bibliography that included articles in Crawdaddy, located her press conference for Taxi Driver delivered in French, and even found a trailer for her 1972 Disney film Napoleon and Samantha that was screened at the dialogue which elicited the story of her being picked up by the lion during the shoot to the horror of everyone on the production.

John Waters insisted on a “monologue,” given that he did not want a moderator and took extended questions. His retrospective was accompanied by a series of his favorite films organized by Walker Teen Arts Council member Eric Luken. On the night of the dialogue Luken gave Waters a suite of screen printed images of JonBenét Ramsey, a piece from WACTAC’s project on appropriation with Glenn Ligon. Waters was thrilled and had the piece shipped to his apartment in New York.  A couple years later, the New York Times reached out for permission to publish an image of Luken’s work for an article on Water’s apartment.

This introduction to the Walker helped to pave the way for the invitation for Waters’ exhibition Absentee Landlord pairing works from the collection along with interventions throughout the museum including the sound of car crashes piped throughout the parking garage.

October and November of 1996 produced two back-to-back Walker Dialogues and Retrospectives for Tom Hanks and Spike Lee. There are usually many months between dialogue programs as they’re so labor intensive, but Bruce Jenkins had taken advantage of rare opportunities for both. Spike Lee had already confirmed his program for November as his visit was also in conjunction with a conference on film financing.

Jenkins had received a request from Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson to tour the museum in the morning before it opened to the public as Wilson was in town shooting the film Jingle All the Way. At the end of the tour, Jenkins mentioned the dialogue series to Hanks who had just finished directing his first feature film That Thing You Do!  Hanks was excited about the offer and wanted his visit to coincide with the release of the film barely two months away, so the two dialogues were scheduled one after the other for a major coup for the Walker.

A severe cold snap in February 1996 led to the moderator Terrence Rafferty to cancel his plans to interview directors Timothy and Stephen Quay on the night before the dialogue. Bruce Jenkins had to step as the moderator and the producer of the event.

The dialogue with Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami provided a number of logistic challenges. Given the sanctions between Iran and the U.S., we could only screen his films that were in release outside of Iran. This meant his early short films only available in Iran would be out of the question given restrictions of shipping and trade at the time.

Another hurdle was arranging travel from Tehran as his flight needed to be booked from a European travel agency as there was no way to book a flight directly from the U.S.  A stopover in Paris was arranged in order to obtain a visa and Joan Mondale who was on the Walker’s board worked with us to make sure that Kiarostami would be welcomed at the U.S. embassy in Paris.  All went well and he was warmly received at the embassy, something he had not expected.

There was overwhelming enthusiasm for his visit by the Iranian American community in the Twin Cities, and they wanted to make sure that he would be treated well.  Chitra Ghafari had offered to help with the outreach to the Iranian community and was asked to be on-hand in the front row of the cinema with a microphone in case Kirostami needed help with translation as he was a bit uncomfortable with plan for the dialogue to be conducted in English.

When Kiarostami entered the Cinema for the program he greeted the audience in his native Farsi and the Iranian American audience members, about half of the audience, cheered.  Kiarostami then decided that he’d feel more comfortable answering questions from moderator Richard Peña in Farsi with the translations to be provided by a stunned Ghafari who had only thought that she may be asked to translate a word or two, not the entire conversation on behalf of one of the world’s leading directors.

His dialogue was one of the first to be video recorded and the change in the program provided an additional editing challenge.

The publication of all of this material related to the 30 years of Walker Dialogues and Retrospectives is a monumental achievement marking nearly seven years of work.  Prior to starting at the Speed in the fall of 2015, there was nearly two years of work conducted by Pauline Stakelon Lopez in locating all of the materials related to each dialogue including contracts, clip lists, portraits, brochures, transcripts, and making initial inquiries about sharing the material online. To now have this material available to everyone is a gift that will be treasured by other filmmakers and film fans for decades to come. Bravo!