For 30 years, Woody Wise has entertained his friends on Saturdays in his Los Angeles-area home. The fun usually starts with donuts or bagels in the morning, followed by a healthy serving of a movie serial, a short subject or a “B” western and a vintage feature film with a lunch break taken somewhere during the schedule.
Along with Woody, 73, an avid film collector and retired video distributor, the patrons of the bi-monthly screenings has been comprised of a diverse group of friends – now all seniors – who would feel right at home as character actors in an old John Ford movie.
There’s Dennis, a former rockabilly crooner; Rocky, a boisterous Italian fellow from Brooklyn; Bill, a retired animator for Walt Disney Studios; Tim, also an animator and a cartoonist; Richard, a one-time school teacher; Jack, who used to drive a fish truck; and Eric – aka “the Irishman” – once a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
Their nickname is “The Cliffhangers,” the name given to the movie serials of yesteryear.
Oh, the stories they tell, the arguments they get into and the friendship they share!
“The Cliffhangers” are the subject of Brotherhood of the Popcorn, a warm and spirited documentary directed by Inda Reid which will screen at the year’s Reel East Film Festival on August 22, 2014. In the film Reid chronicles the lives and times of “The Cliffhangers” as they share their common love for movies and the fate of getting old. As one would find while viewing this movie, however, the feisty group is not apt to fade into the sunset.
Before meeting Woody and company, Reid – decades “The Cliffhangers’” junior – had directed the award-winning The Making of the Nutcracker, a look at young dancers’ preparing for a performance of “The Nutcracker Ballet” at Temecula, California’s The Ballet Studio.
In the following interviews, executive producer/star Woody Wise and filmmaker Inda Reid discuss “The Cliffhangers” and how Brotherhood of the Popcorn became a reality.
I. A Talk with Woody Wise
When you decided to let director Inda Reid film you and “The Cliffhangers,” were you afraid she would interfere with your routine?
Woody Wise: I’ll be honest. We worried when we heard she was going to do it. She used a small camera and she became part of the family quickly. First, she came a couple times to watch movies, then she started to shoot. It was like she wasn’t there most of the time.
What was the most difficult part of making Brotherhood of the Popcorn?
WW: The Hollywood Boulevard sequences where we all wear tuxedos. We started at 5:30 in the morning at my home getting dressed. We used four cameras and we had to borrow some cameras. It was a guerrilla shoot. We didn’t have permits. It was during the TCM (Turner Classic Movies) festival so everybody thought we were there for the festival. Thankfully, the police let us go there. We got down there at 7 in the morning and it all worked out.
One of the segments of the film deals with Peter O’Toole and how you found him a copy of the obscure 1977 film Rogue Male, a World War II thriller, which was the actor’s favorite performance. Can you tell us how this came about?
WW: I loaned the film to The Telluride Film Festival. Peter found out they ran it. His attorney asked them where they got it. So, his attorney called me and asked what I wanted for a copy. I didn’t want anything. It was just great for me to do something for him. All I wanted really was an autographed photo. The mail comes in and there’s a handwritten letter, four or five pages long, from Peter, with all this history. Then I get a call from TCM and they said that want us to be a guest at his handprint ceremony at their festival and have dinner with him and his family and some of the others attending – co-stars like Paula Prentiss. Angelica Huston, Barbara Hershey. We sat with him at Musso and Franks having lunch. lt was a great day. He treated us just like we were family. We took pictures with him. He was the honoree at TCM Film Festival where he put his footprints in the concrete in front of the Chinese Theater.
There is such camaraderie on the screen between all of “The Cliffhangers.” Do you socialize outside of your twice-a-month screenings?
WW: Very seldom. The only person I socialize with is Tim Walker. It’s hard to explain – we watch the films every two weeks and we’re together for five hours.
Explain your routine to us.
And who picks the films?
WW: I do. When I first started, I started to give them input, but it’s hard to do. One year I asked for a list, but I try to mix it up. Every now and then I throw in a new one in. Sometimes I throw in a silent film like Safety Last with Harold Lloyd. We just ran the serial Spy Smasher.
How have things changed with the technology elements evolving in the film and video world?
WW: Originally I ran in 16 mm only. Every Saturday I would change my office into a theater. When I moved, I built a small theater. I had one of the first video projectors, so I alternated the screenings between 16mm and laserdisc. I love to run films but it got to the point where I ran lasers, then DVDs and now Blu-rays.
In the film, everyone seems well schooled in classic films. Are they hardcore film addicts?
WW: It’s a very diverse group of guys – they’re anything but film buffs, though. We’re more of a social club who likes movies. I can’t call them movie buffs. They all came from such different backgrounds, which makes things interesting.
Is there any film you showed that they really didn’t like?
WW: I ran the new Lone Ranger (with Johnny Depp). That didn’t go over too well. They got through it. Hardly ever do they really hate something, though.
Do you impose any rules to follow?
WW: I try to run things like a theater. They are no longer allowed to talk and no cell phones. Rocky has to turn his phone off and leave it on the table downstairs.
How does Sandy, your wife, react to her home being invaded on Saturdays?
WW: She’s happy with it. She s either at her computer or she goes off shopping. She always has things to do on “Cliffhanger Day.” She says “hi” to the guys and has a donut.
On Friday nights she has her girlfriends in and they watch movies. She gets to pick the movies and they’re often romantic comedies and more recent films.
II. A Talk with Filmmaker Inda Reid
Can you tell us how you met “The Cliffhangers”?
Inda Reid: There’s a donut shop in the (San Fernando) valley, a tiny place that reminds me of a New York deli. It has three little tables and a few chairs. (Cliffhangers) Rocky and Bill would be there every time I went there and they talked really loud and boisterously about the movies they were seeing. I was really fascinated. I love all movies. Every night I will fall asleep to a classic. When I told Rocky I loved old movies, he said, “You don’t know what you are talking about.” He made a list of movies for me to see and when I told him I had just made a documentary, he told me he was part of this group and he would ask Woody if I can sit in.
At what point did you know you had something that was a feature film?
IR: I was going to do a five or ten minute piece for festivals. Woody said it was fine, so I went by and met all the guys at 8 in the morning. It was very interesting. I walked in and saw what they were doing and how very serious they were about these films. Woody thought I was making a documentary and I told him I was going to do a short little slice of life film. But it turned into a full-fledged documentary about the guys.
How did you decide what to focus on?
IR: The more things I observed, the more the project grew. I started to build a story in the editing room. It took on a life of its own, and now, four years later, we have a feature film. I am happy you feel the love of the guys in the film, the love for their Brotherhood and for each other. That was my goal.
You have acted and worked as a photographer and at a casting agency and directed an award-winning documentary. How did you find the time to do this project?
IR: Up until a year and a half ago I was working on it in my spare time. I saw it as a glorified memory album for them to remember. Then I decided to do the guys justice, so I put a lot more time and effort into it. When they saw the first cut, they said stuff like, “You have to move this and edit that.”
While working on the film, you hit a snag because of a tragic incident.
IR: Another person working on it who was operating a camera had a seizure and ended up drowning. The members of the Cliffhangers felt they were the ones who should have died, not her. She was relatively young. She was sweet and intelligent. We shut down for several weeks, and the film is dedicated to her.
Did working on the project affect your thoughts on getting old?
IR: For me, I look forward to it in a strange way. It kind of looks like fun. Look at the scenes set at the The Jocelyn Center (a senior facility). They are having the time of their lives. It’s good to know they are so full of life and they are energetic – it’s reassuring. These guys are vivacious. They’ve only slowed down a little bit. They get up at 6 am each morning. They know they are coming to the end of their lives and they are trying to make the most of it. It gave me a great feeling to be around them. They have such a great sense of humor. I’ve changed my perspective.
We would imagine you shot a lot of footage during the years you worked on the film.
IR: Hours and hours. Maybe 20 full days of film, maybe 500 hours. The deadline was supposed to be last year. I thought I was done. At some point you have to stop tweaking I realized.
Do people know what the term “Cliffhanger” means?
IR: I need to go slow when I say it and explain it to people.
Did the group’s attitude change at all as the film went on?
IR: On the first day (of filming) they were dressed better and their hair was neater. They were a little self-conscious at first, but as I spent more time, they ignored me. They didn’t play to the camera very much. And that started to happen after the first month. I sort of became kind of a mascot. I listened to their comments and watched the films all the way through. Rocky was the worst. He would talk to me…”So how was your week?” But that’s his character – he’s going to know you are there so you gotta know he’s there.
How did you decide on the form of the film, which seems observational and allows the characters to reveal themselves rather than relying on a narrator?
IR: When I was editing, I didn’t have any narration in mind. You usually write the script first and predict things. To me, it feels you are being preached to. That’s not my style. I’d rather let the viewer take what they want and learn what they want.
Irv Slifkin has written for Movie Fanfare, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and The Hollywood Reporter. He’s the author of Videohound’s Groovy Movies (Visible Ink Press, 2004) and Filmadelphia (Middle Atlantic Press, 2006), and has taught film and journalism at Temple University.