When I worked at Premiere Magazine, we often conducted oral histories with everyone we could find connected to a popular film and edited the interviews into a compelling narrative. Lo these many years later, my colleague Tom Roston, a New Yorker who writes the Doc Soup blog for POV and has contributed to many publications, from The New York Times to The Guardian, decided to do the same thing with filmmakers remembering their connections to their neighborhood video store. Riffing on Pauline Kael’s famous book “I Lost It at The Movies,” he forged ahead, confident that yes, eventually, he would land the two interviews he absolutely had to have: Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) and video store grad Quentin Tarantino.
The book “I Lost It at the Video Store” hits bookstores this week. It’s a fun read: breezy and as entertaining as the people he interviews, from Allison Anders and John and Janet Pierson to Columbia professor Ira Deutchman, who I can vouch, always gives good quote.
On my way back from Telluride during a layover in Denver, I hung out with a fellow film festival maven and while I tried to do some work, passed her Roston’s book; she devoured it in one sitting. It’s a nostalgic look back for any film fan, as well as “a narrative about the relationship between the filmmakers and the video store,” as Roston puts it. But it also offers delectable observations from smart industry insiders about what we’ve lost–and where we are now.
Anne Thompson: How did you come up with this idea?
Tom Roston: Oral histories are a real pleasure for writers. I did one on the PMRC fight for music labeling for Spin, did another on Windows on the World for Manhattan Magazine. That’s the pleasure, to be able to go to people, to hear the stories they tell and weave them together in the way you see the story that comes out of multiple voices.
The seed of the idea came when Blockbuster shut its last stores. A lot of journalists and film critics were writing things about the death of the video store as the end of an era. I started thinking about it, how meaningful it was to me, how suddenly it was upon us and then gone. It was so important to many of us. Every day that’s what we did and it was gone. Then I saw an Indiewire piece on critics voting on the best video store. All these ideas were going around in my head. I asked, “What about the filmmakers? Wouldn’t we want to hear what filmmakers have to say about this?”
It was true that these filmmakers experienced the video store just like you and me. They weren’t journalists, but like everyday film fans, they did the same things, maybe experienced them even more because they made film their careers and spent more time in video stores.
Who did you go to first?
The first person I thought of was Tim Blake Nelson, who I’ve known since my years at Premiere. We both went to Brown at different times. I knew that he thinks about film in a way similar to me, he’s critical but he’s also a passionate fan, and he’s far more articulate than I am, so I went to him first hoping that he would agree to talk to me; we have a good relationship. I’d test him out to see if the idea would work, if he was able to say things that would sound good in an oral history. The first thing he said to me is what I put in the intro: “What video stores and the proliferation of videos did was to democratize access to movies and to film history.” The guy talks in quotes. He’s not a sound bite guy. Once I got that frisson of a journalist: “OK, this is it.”
The first two months of reporting I didn’t know if I was going to have a book—I needed Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino—and I got them two months in. I was sweating. No one was going to read this book if I didn’t get these guys. I can safely say I have never laughed more in an interview then when I was talking to Kevin Smith. He was the only one I had to edit down, he’s from New Jersey, every tenth word was a curse. A lot are still in there.
Did you know them?
I had no relationships with them. Kevin’s still a cool down-to-earth guy: you can get to his assistant. For Tarantino I had to use my journalist wile and guile. I talked to his producer, Richard Gladstein, who helped open the door, he was essential to the story, he was the money guy who made it happen. It wasn’t just about the filmmakers, it was also Gladstein and Larry Estes, the video guys, who were on the vanguard, putting money into small quality American independent films, a story I knew marginally, but it became an important part of the book, one of the pillars. Without them there’s no “sex lies and videotape,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “One False Move,” Gas, Food Lodging.” That’s the way it was done at the time. I was super psyched to get John Sayles, who had already been making movies. He knew the way it was before and during, how to ride the wave and get ten times the budget he was getting before.
How did you get James Franco? Did he surprise you?
The way the reporting would work was, Tim has a good relationship with James Franco, “So, OK, I’ll contact Franco.” Largely because of that relationship I got to talk to Franco. I built from there. Yeah, he did surprise me. Not entirely. I’d spoken to him before, I’m a fan of his. I appreciate all the directing and writing he does. He’s like Tim, he’s an obsessive film culture guy. Getting so quickly into Franco’s childhood memories, and feeling that empathy between us about the experience, he was the first filmmaker to mention “Aguirre the Wrath of God.” We all have our own video store movies that beckoned to us. I remember “Aguirre” with Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski’s eyes on the poster. I was 14. What was that weird movie with a sense of mystery and seduction? I identified with the experience of the film and its ideas when Franco mentioned them. I was super psyched again, picking up crumbs as different filmmakers said similar things. I mentioned the movie to Darren Aronofsky who was like, “Oh, yeah, I loved that image. That’s why I have the poster in my office.” I felt like a tennis player hitting the sweet spot.
How did you come up with the title?
It was lucky. You and I have spent time writing heads and decks. I came up with it early. When you come up with a good title, that’s when you know the work itself is going to follow.
What have we lost with the video store?
We’ve lost part of our culture, a part of ourselves, in a way. That is not to say there isn’t something new that our children and millennials will be able to replace it with, but we lost a place where we go to experience movies in a tactile, conversational, personal way. We’ve lost a way of interacting with film. That’s why I love the title.
In a way, Pauline Kael embodied the first video clerk, she wrote the blueprint of what the quintessential video clerk would become. She was opinionated, and could be a jerk about it, but she was in love with those films and spoke about them in an erotic way. That’s what those clerks became. For most of us film fans there’s some element of that in us. Some of us may write online, usually very quick for too little money. Now that we have less time to spend with the words and the films, we’ve all lost something.
With Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, what was most poignant was what they personally have lost. When he asked me, “Why did it happen?” Tarantino feels he’s really lost something. I do think it’s sad and tragic. Most of the filmmakers I speak to, minus Tarantino, are psyched about streaming and the democratization of film and all the ways to see stuff. You can’t get too pinned down in the melancholy of it.
Do you still visit video stores?
I don’t go. I hadn’t gone for years. I’ve been to a few since I started working on the book. I used to go in Vermont to Just Videos, where I went as teenager. Working on the book and a story for the New York Times I went to Aaron Hillis’s Video Free Brooklyn, every interaction he had with someone in the store was like a eulogy, so sweet.
Mom got an extra free movie: “What should I get?”
“Maybe get a Chaplin movie, get ‘City Lights’!”
Aw. That kind of interaction is pretty much gone, where it used to be an everyday experience. In terms of what we’ve lost, that said it all.
How did the chapters emerge?
Maybe halfway through the interviews—after I’d finished Tarantino and Smith— I started to focus on themes, possible chapters. Critical Press is a new operation open to new and old journalists. It was a quick process. I couldn’t spend too much time. Time is money, putting a pitch together to make sure this could happen. I’ve taken a risk investing the amount of time and energy on this. This is my Quixote.
The indie horror paradigm quickly arose, as David O. Russell, Joe Swanberg, Kevin Smith, Alex Ross Perry and Darren Aronofsky were watching horror at the video store in a way that I wasn’t into. In fact all the filmmakers and Tim Blake Nelson were experts on the impact of horror. The business angle took over one, two, three chapters, and important certain films like “Clerks” and “Reservoir Dogs” and Larry Estes jumped out at me as deserving their own chapters.
You have some optimism for the future?
It’s fascinating that Aronofsky is making his films with the iPad-watching audience in mind. That’s revelatory. Talking about film geeky stuff like the sound editing and the framing: he’s thinking about people looking at it on small screens. Tarantino is flummoxed by that thought process; he’s doing his 70mm thing. That’s where the book starts looking at where we’re at now and where we’re going. His tendrils go back to the video era. Now we’re seeing someone like Aronofsky talking about making his films in new way for a home viewing audience on small screens. That rocked my world.
Why are there so few women in the book?
I was conscious about asking women. I don’t want to talk out of school and give you the names of number of female directors who declined to speak to me. I did get a small minority who knew me. The majority did [interviews for the book] because they care so much about the video era. Maybe Tarantino and Smith identify with the video store era whereas the women directors don’t as much. Nicole Holofcener and Allison Anders were great gets and the book wouldn’t be what it is without them.
I mention it in the introduction: I’m the first person to say it’s a flaw in the book. I hope there’s a second edition where we can add more voices. The joy of the book is the diversity of voices, and more diverse voices would only be a richer story, so that people who bought the first edition would have a reason to buy the second!