For some time now, Milestone Films president Dennis Doros has been interested in bringing back films lost to history that explore the borders between fact and fiction.
For him and his company, started by Doros and the woman who would become his wife, Amy Heller, the turning point was Milestone’s release of “Killer of Sheep.” L.A. Rebellion filmmaker Charles Burnett’s naturalistic film was well-respected and in need of a proper release a few years ago. “It was an impossible challenge for myself,” says Doros. “It was very difficult to clear the music rights, and after six years and $150,000 we got those cleared. We spent a total of $450,000 on the restoration. Burnett was a well-respected director but wasn’t commercial. The film grossed $660,000.”
Noting the company’s — and his — role in revitalizing historical films, Doros adds: “Somehow this really changed our company. We’ve been able to work on [Kent Mackenzie’s] ‘The Exiles’ and Shirley Clarke’s films. It’s been great to see people like A.O. Scott and Richard Brody write a whole ton of stuff about films like ‘The Exiles’ and ‘Killer of Sheep.'”
Doros is currently working on restoring a series of films by Clarke, a filmmaker who, Doros says, “blows apart the connection between fact and fiction.” Talking about his devotion to restoring Clarke’s work, Doros says, “She shared offices with Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker, who still adores her twenty years after her death. She’s making fun of cinema vérité. She breaks all these traditions.”
Doros has worked with several archives and collections to acquire Clarke’s films (he claims to be one of the few distributors that pays for negatives and fine-grain prints; “we don’t just digitize and leave,” he says), and he is now currently working on a major renovation of her film “Portrait of Jason,” a documentary about a black, gay hustler. After getting a grant from the UCLA archives to work on the film and putting in some of the company’s own money, Doros is looking for the last third of the funds on Kickstarter.
Doros and Heller describe their journey in the video below, but here are the Cliffs Notes: The duo found out that an archive at the University of Wisconsin-Madison had a copy of a film about the same length as the only pre-existing print. The archivists there insisted the footage was just outtakes, until they looked at it again and realized it was Clarke’s first cut of the film, which she showed to her friends before releasing it more widely.
Milestone is working hard on the Clarke collection, but they intend to unearth more American indies from the mid-Twentieth Century over the next few years.
In addition to Doros’s work with Milestone, he also serves on the board of AMIA (the Association of Moving Image Archivists), an organization that, according to Doros, is all about people in the archiving and restoring world helping each other out. It was at an AMIA meeting that Doros first found out about a print of “Killer of Sheep.”
Independently, he keeps a strong interest in copyright and intellectual property law since he has put so much of his own money up to restore films that have a limited audience and, like “Killer of Sheep,” are sometimes pirated widely. “There are several projects where we’ve just hoped to break even,” Doros explains. “The revenues that distributors have expected in the past aren’t there anymore. There needs to be some compromise between user and filmmaker. To allow films to thrive in the future, the real answer is government help, but I don’t see that happening. We need to respect the work that people are doing. Things like crowdfunding are a sign that in some places things are changing.”
Below is the Kickstarter video for the “Portrait of Jason” restoration and a list of Doros’s film favorites:
Most Exciting Restoration Someone Else Did:
“Taxi Driver” — Sony, supervised by Grover Crisp. Because it was the first digital restoration that looked like a 35mm print and kept all the grain and flaws.
Most Fulfilling Restoration You Were Involved With:
“Queen Kelly” by Erich von Stroheim (Kino International), because it was my first and set me on my path.
Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Terrence Malick and Charles Burnett.
“I Know Where I’m Going,” “Days of Heaven,” “Harlan County U.S.A.,” “Grass” (1925), “The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On,” “Children of Paradise,” “Killer of Sheep,” “Pass the Gravy,” “Begone Dull Care” and “Rabbit Seasoning” — and from that, my favorite line: “Still lurking about,” which is very apropos of us and Milestone.