Q+AWes Anderson Takes Us Inside Metrograph, New York City's Awesome New Indie Cinemaplex
It has two theaters. A curated candy shop. A restaurant, a bar, a miniature bookstore, and four highly trained projectionists who handle the rare archival film prints. It's Metrograph, the coolest new theater in the world. Here, indie auteur Wes Anderson interviews Alexander Olch, Metrograph's mad-genius founder.
Wes Anderson: Jumping right in, how did Metrograph start?
Alexander Olch: It started about seven years ago. I was traveling to theaters around the U.S. with a documentary I directed, The Windmill Movie. The man who released that film theatrically was Jake Perlin, and an idea came into my head that there was a way to fill a theater with Jake as the artistic director. And I suppose that, slowly but surely, Metrograph has become my latest feature film.
It's been a great thing to watch, because what we've seen over the past 20 years is our favorite cinema houses dying off, one by one. Film Forum remains, Walter Reade and the various screens at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art remain, but practically nothing has been added into the mix—except Metrograph. For a lot of us New Yorkers, it's been a totally unexpected, wonderful surprise.
Even the theaters that inspired me growing up in the city are all gone. I fell in love with movies going to the Beekman, to the Plaza, to the Ziegfeld.
Even the Ziegfeld is gone.
Even the Ziegfeld is gone. All those places had a sense of something special in the building. They had glamour. When I was a young boy, it had started to fade, but you could still sense that there was something special, something beyond the films. That's part of what made me fall in love with movies in the first place. That feeling has been slipping away, and it was very important to me to rekindle some of that excitement.
As you know, we used to have repertory theaters all over the city. It was kind of the center of the moviegoing world. Now we have more old American movies showing on any given night in Paris than in New York. In Paris, you can go to see Ruggles of Red Gap on a Wednesday night at 9 p.m. and the room is full. That almost went away from New York for a while, but you're bringing it back.
And in Paris, the schedules are so insane—I remember it from when I was young. There were six showtimes for six different films in the course of one day. And now, somewhat to our projectionists' chagrin, we are doing that here at Metrograph. When we were designing the marquee, there were questions about how many lines of letters we needed. How many movies could we put up on the boards? And we actually ended up with enough lines that we can have signage for six different movies playing on the same day.
Tell me if you think this is true: I feel like one of the most
powerful things about movies in general is that a movie is a kind of
time machine. —Wes Anderson
Wow. Have you had six in a day? Have you filled the signs yet?
We have definitely filled the signs. The letters we use on the marquee are handmade tiles that stick onto the wood board with magnets. Then there are special red tiles that say “Sold Out,” and happily we had to make more of those.
That's the dream of the proprietor: placing an order for more red “Sold Out” letters.
When you were young, how important was actually going to the movies?
We had one repertory theater in Houston, where I'm from, called the River Oaks Theatre. And that was one of those where they eventually split the balcony into two small screens. It became an art-house triplex. They had The Rocky Horror Picture Show to keep the place alive. In fact, the two giant multiplexes within a few blocks of the place were built and flourished and then died, but the River Oaks is still there.
But mostly we went to multiplexes like AMC and Loews and so on. Later, I went to University of Texas in Austin. The screens at the university itself showed all kinds of old and new movies. There's a great big room called Hogg Auditorium, where they showed 35-millimeter prints, and there was a smaller room called the Union, which ran 16 millimeter. I was a projectionist.
Not the supervising projectionist. I was a second-tier one, but I had my own set of keys. One night, Owen [Wilson] and I secretly screened the two Godfather movies for ourselves at about 2 a.m. We watched from the seats right in front of the booth. There's obviously a way a movie is really meant to be seen, and it's not on an iPad mini. Although that works, too.
Amazing. Well, first off, we have to invite you to be a guest projectionist for a night.
Keep the regular guy on standby. I'm not sure how good I'd be with the threading at this point.
To your point about the iPad—there's a lot of chatter of Well, now people just watch things on iPads. But I think that if you want to stay at home, you're going to stay at home. If you want to go out, you're going out. The key thing is that going to the movies needs to be an experience that's special. So I don't think it's about whether or not you can watch the film somewhere else. It's about whether or not you want to come for an amazing experience.
I could see a lot of young people becoming real movie buffs watching things on their phones and so on and then arriving in New York and going to Metrograph three times a week.
Yes! And there's real energy in the room. I recently stood in the back of the theater for the opening credits of Phantom of the Paradise, the De Palma movie, which I had never seen before. I wasn't going to watch it, but I stood completely still for the entire movie. It was a sold-out house. And the place went nuts during the film. It blew me away. I'm still reeling from that screening. People were leaving the theater and coming over to the bar and going into our restaurant talking about the film, getting even more excited about it.
That's great. And, you know, that's one of those movies that you really couldn't see for years and years. It had kind of disappeared. And I expect that audience at Metrograph was a much better—I don't know if Brian De Palma was there—
He wasn't. He's coming tonight for Hi, Mom! and Dressed to Kill.
I think, if he had been there, he might've said, I wish it would have played like this back in 1974. You know, it's very exciting to me that you started this movie theater and you're having Jake program it. I remember when Jake first started getting into distribution. To have a young person doing distribution was unheard of to me. One of the first films was Small Change, the Truffaut movie. The entrepreneurial side of the movie business you normally associate with multinational conglomerates or shady hustlers. Not potential Cahiers du Cinéma writers.
Jake started at Film Forum. Then BAM. Then he was at Lincoln Center. So he cut his teeth in more of a museum environment. And now we're here, as entrepreneurs. It's tremendously exciting to have somebody of our generation laying down a gauntlet, saying, This is the new canon of films that our generation cares about. And it's not just films that I saw when I was little—The Bicycle Thief and The Third Man. He's looking at films from much farther forward. When we were first hanging out, I remember we were having a drink at a bar and somehow we got to the topic of Eddie Murphy. And he said, “Well, Beverly Hills Cop III is the masterpiece.” As that sentence left his mouth, I knew I loved this guy.
What else? Here's something. Tell me if you think this is true: I feel like one of the most powerful things about movies in general is that a movie is a kind of time machine. At a basic level, every movie is a documentary of what happened during those takes. You step back in time and space to the place where the camera was rolling. So I love that while almost every movie theater in New York is showing movies that are brand-new, Metrograph is the rare place that is going to really take advantage of this extremely powerful, compelling thing about movies.
I agree with you. In business terms, our highest-grossing film to date is a documentary about South Williamsburg called Los Sures that's from 1984. It is everything you just said. New York audiences are fascinated to see their own city—and that neighborhood in particular, which has undergone so many changes—the way that it actually was in 1984. We ran it sold-out for seven weeks. The other thing is that when I saw Gilda, I had never seen it in a movie theater. And on that big screen you're seeing so much more detail. You see so much more of what was actually happening at that moment, on that particular take. And then came that moment where she appears and she flings her hair over her head.…
Right. I've seen that on television, but I had never seen it on film, and I thought to myself, as she flung her hair, That actually happened. She actually did that on that particular day.
They probably did it 30 times, because it's perfect. Although, I don't know. They were pros. Maybe they knew how to get it right in 15 minutes or something. That's an extremely well-lit movie.
The way that shot plays, I think it's one of those that's just magic, and they knew they had it, whether that was the first try or the 30th try.
Anyway, they had to feel good when they saw the dailies.
Absolutely. I think that there's a lot to that idea of the time machine. A lot of people, to say that a movie is good, they say, I didn't even feel the time pass. So I thought a lot about that experience. And also what happens outside of that cinema room—that you don't want to just jump right out onto the sidewalk and into a taxi. You want to preserve that feeling of having traveled somewhere. That's what we're trying to do. We have a lot of enthusiastic guests here. People who will come to a movie, hang out, and then go right back in for another movie that starts half an hour later.
That's the way it's done. Do those people—I guess they've got to buy another ticket.
For the most part, yes, they do. We did do a couple of double features. Noah [Baumbach] actually did one. He played two films that had never before and might never again be played as a double bill.
The Imaginary Manhattan double feature.
Right, it was Babe: Pig in the City and Eyes Wide Shut. Unbelievable. And we are also coming up with a ten-film pass.
That's great. Have you noticed any stragglers who are there night after night?
Very much so. And since we have reserved seating, a lot of people have their favorite seat. There's a particular gentleman who I've come to know who likes to sit in AA-7. And there's someone who likes G-1. And there's something really nice about that. They get the seat they like, and they get the candy they like—we have all sorts of unusual candies—and so there's a real rhythm to the experience. There's almost a ritual to seeing films.
I remember reading a New Yorker profile of Errol Morris by the very good writer Mark Singer. It was some years ago, during the time of The Thin Blue Line, I think. And he's interviewing the guy who was the director of the kind of cinema thing at Berkeley, and he was also the guy… I think he may have started Telluride Film Festival. He describes how Errol Morris would come to their cinematheque place every single night. They knew him as a regular customer. But he would always sneak in. No ticket. And finally the Telluride man started confronting Morris about it and saying, you know, I know what you're doing. Tom Luddy is his name. So Luddy would say, I'm not gonna stop you from sneaking in, but I want you to admit that's what you're doing. But Morris refused. Maybe, to this day, he refuses?
I like the person in the auditorium for whom something's brewing. Something movie-wise is brewing in this person's mind. It's gonna help sustain the place later, when his or her movie comes in.
Absolutely. When I was designing the restaurant here, the fantasy was that there's someone who's writing a great screenplay here. We're even adding a writer's menu, which is small dishes you can eat with one hand while you're writing with the other hand.
That's good. We can use that.
It's really a place where you could spend a full afternoon, work for the day, see some movies at night, eat dinner, meet up with friends… If you were enthusiastic about it, you could almost make it a lifestyle. There are working film professionals who—I'm pretty sure they're buying their tickets, not sneaking in. They're supporting Metrograph and seeing many films and dining on many meals. That makes me really happy. It's the full 360 degrees: the watching, the inspiration, the trying, the making, the watching again. It's a complete ecosystem.
Well, the great thing is: We're not having a nostalgic conversation about an important institution that died. That's the normal thing we do now, but this is a new one, and it's working. It's a great thing for the city.
That's not a bad way to end it.
The wrap-up. That's what I was aiming for. But we can add more. I've got an animated movie I'm doing that's happening across the room from me right now. So I can see a long list of e-mails from people on the set whom I now need to address.
*Okay, this one is good. We need to make it a little darker here. We need to move the cup over to the left.
I didn't realize you were doing something animated. We played the documentary about the Eameses—Charles and Ray Eames, who designed the Eames chairs and so many other cool things. I had never seen their Toccata for Toy Trains* on a big screen, where they animate all the trains moving around. Oh, my God, it blew my mind.
Oh yes. That's a good one. Because of the scale of the filming, the focus issues are really prominent. You know, the way the focus changes frame by frame, so it's like the most precise focus throws anybody can do anywhere. Have you seen Powers of Ten?
Yes, Powers of Ten is amazing. They even did an ad for the Herman Miller chair. It's beautiful. There's this little black-and-white stop-motion of the carpenter, the guy who's building the chair. It's like a two-minute piece. And it's one of the chicest—it's not quite an ad, it's sort of like a presentation you might give at a furniture conference.…
Yes, an industrial. Thank you. It's the chicest industrial I've ever seen.
You know, there's one more thing. I guess we can say, That was a good ending, and then we just keep going. Have you seen this film De Palma made of an op-art opening at the Museum of Modern Art around something like 1964 or something?
It's on YouTube. It's maybe 25 minutes or so where he documented an opening at the MoMA. Wandering around the party. Filming people and pictures.
Interesting characters. Some people we know. Anyway, it's one worth looking at on your iPad mini or your Apple wristwatch.
Absolutely. Most importantly, thank you very much. And even more importantly, good luck with the movie that's across the room.