By Michael T. Toole.

For the last two weekends of March in Oakland’s Paramount Theater, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF) presented Abel Gance’s, thrilling, sweeping epic, Napoléon (1927). This showcase had the air of a once in your lifetime happening, and for many of us that very well could be the case. With celebrated historian Kevin Brownlow currently working on a digital restoration of Gance’s silent classic, this print, also restored by Brownlow, may be the last we could see in this country.

Although it’s been 85 years since its premiere, time has not diminished the incandescent power of this film. Despite a total running time that hits five and a half hours and many intermissions, the interest level never flags. Filled with stunning camera movements, beautifully mounted montage sequences, resonating performances, ambitious flair (the three screen climax of Napoléon’s invasion of Italy will unlikely be forgotten by any audience member) and Carl Davis’ dynamic score performed by a full orchestra, SFSFF arguably created their high water mark in the organization’s 20 plus year history. Rob Byrne, President of SFSFF, sat down with us at Film International to explain in detail how such an enormous undertaking came to fruition.

Film International: Rob, we have to start with this question, tell us a little about your background and how you came to love silent cinema?

Rob Byrne: Growing up in Richmond, Kentucky, in the late ‘60s, my parents opened me up to silent cinema. I was around 12. We had a home movie 8mm projector and two films really blew me away, City Lights and Modern Times by Chaplin. After that, I was hooked. There was a company back then called Black Hawk Films from Davenport, Iowa, and they sold full prints of silent era films. They sold them as Regular 8, Super 8 and 16mm and they were $18.99 a piece. I saved my money and bought a Super 8 projector and I was given an old 16mm projector as a gift. I ended up with six or seven of my friends and we collected a lot and selected films that complimented each other. We’d commandeer a class and come into the classroom and roll films as they were, just silent, since we didn’t have any accompanying music. At home when we did supply our own music, I should say that bluegrass works with anything by D.W. Griffith, and Pink Floyd is to be utilized too [laughs]. Seriously, with Phantom of the Opera, The Cabinet of Dr. Calagari, The Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, The Gold Rush, I knew there was a passion that would burn for a long time, and it has.

Quite a coup getting Kevin Brownlow to attend, how did this come about?

Kevin Brownlow has been a friend of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival for a long time and he is on our advisory board. Around three years ago, when I became President, I approached Brownlow’s business partner, Patrick Stanbury, about the possibility of showing Napoléon. The timing wasn’t right, until one day in the summer of 2010; I believe we were talking over dinner in Los Angeles during Cinecon, that I dared to ask the question again. This time he said it was possible and that we should talk about it some more. I was very excited and we did discuss, at great length about showing it during Pordenone [Silent Film Festival] that year. We discussed it all: the budget, best possible presentation, the Carl Davis score and his conducting. We spent six months planning and working out the details. It was this time last year that we nailed down the proposal to secure the rights for these four performances and executing and solidifying each piece. Showing the film part is the easiest part, securing and preparing everything beforehand is painstaking work.

What made the Paramount the right choice?

The Paramount was the only practical venue. It’s a gorgeous movie palace from the era during the Great Depression. They have changeover 35 mm projectors, variable speeds – remember you can’t splice these films – and we’ve installed three temporary projections. Also, with 3,000 seating capacity and not to mention that they have room for a big orchestra pit. It was a natural and it’s proven to be.

The crowd at these screenings have been an eclectic mix of various generations; film buffs as well as the intellectually curious and some students. You’re probably not surprised by this?

The eclecticism is what I was hoping it would be. It was a nice crowd, not just a grey hairs crowd. The mix of historians, university students and hipsters –  silent film touches so many different areas. Once people get past the stereotypes of what they think the crowd will be like, it really becomes an event that welcomes everyone.

This event differed slightly, with two Oscar recipients from this year in Kevin Brownlow and Alexander Payne in attendance.

Yes! Absolutely! The word of mouth factor was huge. And you’re right; it didn’t hurt to have Brownlow and Payne to up the celebrity factor! It’s great to see the electricity in the air for these presentations; everyone seems to have a faraway look in their eye. The energy surrounding these screenings is so rewarding.

The SFSFF really connects to the audience with their material here. We have no shortage of both contemporary and historical film festivals. How do you keep the ball rolling?

San Francisco has such a smart film crowd. We put up $700,000 for the four screenings of this but we had confidence in our city that it would be a success. San Francisco and the Bay Area for that matter is full of sophisticated people, and the city is very open-minded culturally and very culturally adventurous. They knew the silent film wasn’t stodgy and antiquated and they were rewarded, by a masterpiece. Also, San Francisco is a great destination for people to come and visit, so coming to see something presented by us I’m sure is just one highlight on their vacation.

This question is inevitable, but what sense of awareness and popularity are you seeing since The Artist won the Oscar for Best Film.

Well, people have a lot more questions about silent film, with both Hugo and The Artist being such big hits last year. Still, I can’t say we have had a huge upsurge in the festival since these films came out. I’m grateful for the overall awareness that films like The Artist bring to silent cinema, but keep in mind, we’ve always had a strong, devoted following, it’s not like we had empty houses and then suddenly full houses.

In this economy, it’s harder for non-profits to survive, what keeps SFSFF going?

Our investment portfolio reflects some good diversity. We have generous donors, small grants, a strong membership base and a wonderful audience that understands you need art, and the combination of those different pillars has kept us with a positive outlook for the future.

Can we expect anything else from SFSFF on such an ambitious scale, similar to Napoléon? Granted, it’s a tough second act!

I won’t throw a title, now! [laughs] Seriously, once you scale Everest, it is – as you say – a tough second act. Look, we don’t want Napoléon to be the last of the grand things we present. We have some amazing ideas in the works, so just stay tuned!

Michael T. Toole is a film journalist and filmmaker. He spent ten years writing for the Turner Classic Movies website and is currently working on a book on Harry Rapf. He is also the author of a Las Vegas travel guide, Las Vegas on the Dime (Johnston Associates International, 2001).

Read Janine Gericke’s review of the film here.

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