Thursday, May 14, 2020

Behind Lee Grant's Retrospective: A Modern Way to give New Life to Classics in Theaters: Interview with Curator Taylor Purdee on how this Model Could Help The Independent Theater

By Suzanne Ordas Curry

If you're not familiar with the work of Academy Award-winning Actress/Director/Producer Lee Grant, you can now get familiar with her work in the comfort of your own home (while still supporting local theater) by viewing the Virtual Cinema series 20th Century Woman:The Documentary Films of Lee Grant . This retrospective was curated by Actor/Director Taylor A. Purdee out of New York City. Though curation is not a novel concept, new times call for new processes and this series, which started as a series of screenings at New York City's Film Forum before Covid, has now become a series of films and clips available to view anywhere through the websites of local theaters. Virtual cinema is a relatively new concept that gaining a lot of traction since the pandemic. Independent theaters can still make money without bodies in their seats. And, in the case of 20th Century Women: The Documentary Films of Lee Grant, the viewers get to view a package not seen elsewhere.

We talk with Taylor A. Purdee who put this retrospective together, Taylor is filmmaker with, as they say, folks in showbiz. His dad is popular daytime star Nathan Purdee (known for One Life to Live and Y&R), and his mother Roberta is a producer who has worked for years with Lee. In this interview we talk about how he found himself putting this series together, how he's introducing them to a new generation, and how something like this might just be around for quite some time.

Taylor, I asked Lee if she every thought she would be the subject of virtual cinema. Her answer was "never". Tell me how this started.

Taylor A. Purdee: One day I just kind of found a few old prints of the films in Lee’s closet. I think it was What Sex am I? and Battered. And it was right around the time that Kaitlyn Jenner was having a very public transition. And Lee sort of said “I think we made a film about that.” Which of course she had, and we found that a clip of it was on YouTube and had tens of thousands of hits so I thought people might be interested in the rest of it. And it just kind of spiraled from there.

Lee Grant, Taylor A. Purdee and Mary Beth Yarrow
I was at the Film Forum opening, and the run there seemed to go so well, but tell me about this retrospective via virtual cinema.

Taylor A. Purdee: That was a series on Lee as both actor and director, with the director part being made up of this documentary collection. And we’d been hoping to take those films to a few other art houses before they became available for streaming. But when the shutdown hit obviously that changed. And honestly that’s kind of where the “curated” part came in. Because it seemed like if this was supposed to be a “virtual” “theatrical” experience we should do our best to handle it the way the art houses would have. 

So I started putting together interviews I’d done with Lee over the years that either had only been seen in a limited way, or making new ones altogether. Finding older materials, photos, all that kind of stuff. And each film has something different, those interviews, or photos, and I got to write the program notes for the series which comes with every film. We just wanted to capture the sort of experience you’d get if you went to an repertory theatre from the safety and comfort of your couch. 

And the series supports the movie theatres?

Taylor A. Purdee: Yes! That’s what’s so special about it. Half of every ticket goes directly to the theatres so that they can continue to, yeah, generate income, but it also provides them with curated films unavailable anywhere else they can premiere to their audiences. So you sort of pick your local theatre, or one you want to support, or is in the town your parents live in or whatever and you can watch it in their “virtual screening rooms.” It’s super cool. And as someone who goes to the movies multiple times every week the whole movement’s kept me from feeling completely reliant on whatever’s just streaming or popping up in my twitter feed the most. 

Are Virtual Theaters really a good way to show new films, or is this corona-specific?

Taylor A. Purdee: Well the jury's still out a bit, but most distributors are reporting that the venture’s been generally positive, and a great way to keep on keeping on in an insane situation. 

And some arthouses are considering an adapted version of it once everything’s running again as a way to extend to runs of some films after they play in the physical theater, but this will never be at odds with the theaters themselves. This whole invention came out of the indie theaters and indie distributors who are used to being more mobile and more inventive than the studios.

Hope Runs High, the distributor for Lee’s films, was one of the first few company’s to work with the theaters this way and in the early weeks the collection made up probably a third of all the film’s that were available for virtual screenings. So she’s still breaking new ground even now! And it’s really exciting to see. 

This is an exciting concept, which can help theaters. 

Taylor A. Purdee: It’s certainly the first film series to be distributed this way, there aren’t a lot of “curated series” roaming around multiple theaters as it is, certainly never one in so many markets or in such a way as this. AND it’s the largest retrospective of her documentary work, and that all’s been pretty wild to be curating, and to be a part of. 

And you’ve worked with Lee a number of times?

Taylor A. Purdee: Yes, and to look at us of course you’d never think we were a tag team. Who else her age has found a way to support Art house movie theaters via the virtual magic of the internet? The woman’s a powerhouse. But yeah we’ve been working with these docs, made some little things of our own, and she was kind enough to pop up and provide a crucial voice-over in a feature I’ve just made that should have been coming out right about now, but then, you know, it can’t quite yet. 

I think you're reaching new generations with her work.

Taylor A. Purdee: Yes. I mean there’s that ‘every generation rediscovers the last’ thing. But honestly, when it comes to her career as an actor there’s just something entirely unique about the 70’s New Hollywood films. Something that I think can’t help but resonate against the controlled and stylized avengers/Instagram aesthetic of our pop culture today. And that speaks to people my age certainly. 

But when it comes to the docs, I mean, ahead of their time is an understatement and the absolute truth. “What Sex Am I?” was only the third doc of its kind and the first to go as deep. And it feels like it could have been made today. The prescience and “wokenees” of those documentaries is as fresh and NECESSARY today as ever, if not more. There was an interview with Lee a few months ago where that the writer begins by saying ‘A Lee Grant pop-culture Renaissance surely seems possible.’ And if people are watching these, and they are, it’s gotta be true. 

Please explain how these films are rolled out. Is there a timeline in each particular theater that the films are rolled out? Or do they all become available at the same time?

Taylor A. Purdee: Ok so, they began at Film Forum as part of that series with the intention to then show them at a few more art houses. But the shutdown changed that and these were some of the first film's offered to virtual cinemas. Now they're in WAY more places then we could have hoped, and with all of these bonus features and interviews and trailers, all kinds of things we did to help keep going to the cinema, virtual or otherwise, a special experience. The roll out depends a bit on the theater. Most theaters whether they are art houses or chains, are running the films all at once. 

Lee Grant onset with Goldie Hawn           Photo from Lee Grant Facebook

The first four, Down and Out in America, What Sex Am I, Battered, and When Women Kill were one week with The Willmar 8 the next, and finally A Father... A Son... Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (which just opened at New Jersey's Princeton Garden Theatre). Some theaters run them as double features, some add one every week instead of all at once. It all depends on what's good for their unique audience.

How long is this virtual retrospective going to last? Is each film only available for a certain time period and is that time period the same in each of the participating theaters?

Taylor A. Purdee: So that's a really good question. Again, it largely depends on what each theater and community needs. A number of films in "virtual cinemas" started with very limited runs that were then "extended," but from what I can tell, nearly every movie that has played in a virtual theater is still running. That said, it really has only been a bit over a month since this whole thing got started, and most movies try to bounce around theaters for at least 3 months if they can, and now there's no reason they can't. In the case of our collection, we're adding new theaters all the time, so I hope that it'll be available for as long as theaters need them. Though, you never know when your local theater will phase last month's films out for the next month's.

Lee Grant at book signing at Film Forum in NYC with Patrick Wang and Roberta Morris
What does it cost?

 Taylor A. PurdeeThe film's cost the same ALMOST everywhere, though there are a few regional differences that pop up. Generally a ticket to one of our films is $6.99-$9.99 everywhere depending on the film. Some theaters are offering double features at $10-$12. We do really hope people will buy the films from theaters in or near their communities. But if that's not possible pick a location you have some affection for, or write your local theater and tell them what you want to see. Technically though, you can view them in whatever "theater" you want.