Happy anniversary, class. Today marks the 50th lecture in the Free Film School here on CraveOnline, and I'd like to thank the humble and eager students who have been following the classes. If you've been following me since the very first class (and been doing all the important homework assignments), then, by now, the 50th week, you've pretty much completed the entire first-year course. You are that much smarter. Stick with me, kids. It only gets more fun from here.
As an anniversary gift to me, though, I implore that you allow me to indulge in a little self-reflection. This week, I'll be looking back at my own film education, and tracing a list of seemingly unconnected films that all served to feed my passion for the cinematic form. I will, in short, be writing a brief diary on the movies I grew up with. This will not, necessarily, be a boring litany of classes I took; we all know that the classes in the Free Film School are the only classes you'll ever need on any topic ever. This will be a roadmap of the “tentpole” movies that had me, and me personally, sitting up and taking notice. Will these films do the same for you? Perhaps not. These are the ones that were – and are – important to me. Embarrassingly enough, many of these films aren't necessarily classics. But they did point me down to the road to proper film obsession and passion.
Witney Seibold Interviews Himself
CraveOnline: What was the first film you ever saw?
Witney Seibold: I remember seeing a re-release of Disney's 1940 film Pinocchio when I was small. It was re-released in 1984, so I was about 5 or 6. Like many youngsters, I was scared more than enchanted, especially during the scenes wherein the criminal street urchins mutated into donkeys. The whale, Monstro, was scary too, but it was the transformations I remember. Going back even further, though, I do recall seeing the 1978 Superman. I don't remember the film much, but I do have a clear recollection of the scene wherein Clark Kent throws a crystal into the Arctic snow, and The Fortress of Solitude grew out of the ice. My mom likes to tell a story of when she took me to see Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was about that age. I, although small, was asked to safeguard her popcorn. There is a scene near the beginning of Raiders where Indiana Jones turns around, and the camera pans quickly to a close-up of Alfred Molina, dead, with the tip of a spear sticking out through his forehead. According to my mom, I was so startled, I threw the entire bucket of popcorn over my head. Too scared to see anymore, I spent the remainder of the film on the theater floor carefully retrieving every last dropped kernel.
Were you always a film nut?
Not always. My first nine years of life were not saturated with movies the way my life came to be later. There were plenty of films I saw, of course, and many I loved. But I wasn't one of those kids who was constantly pumping my parents for info on old American classics. As a kid, though, I was always drawn to horror movies and scary stories. They scared me a lot, and I was too afraid to watch horror movies, but I was constantly grilling my peers for information on the latest decapitations they had seen on cable. We didn't have cable TV, so most of my films, for the longest time, came through network TV broadcast.
You didn't have a VCR?
Oh, we had a VCR, but it seemed that my family was one of the last to get one. I didn't resent this. I was happy to get one when it came in. The new VCR meant regular pilgrimages to the local video store, 20/20 video on Wilshire and 12th in Santa Monica, CA. It's gone now. It's a hairdresser. Wandering around the video store, though, was sort of where my film education began. Browsing what was available, learning about various genres. Teasing and scaring myself with scary video boxes. The cover to the 1988 horror film Black Roses stands out in my mind, because the cover was embossed. I spent most of my time in the comedy section, but was tantalized by every genre. The term “cult” was especially alluring when seen on a signpost in the store's corner. There was an incident when I was about 8 that I recall with great clarity: I had decided I wanted to see my first horror film. I had never seen one before, and made a categorical decision. On the advice of my big sister, I rented Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper's 1982 blockbuster. Yes, the film ruined me. I had nightmares for weeks. Yeah, I was a fearful little kid. And even though I was too frightened to get another horror film for a long time after that, I was still drawn to the section in the video store to, once again, look at that image of Ash being strangled by his own severed hand on the back of the Evil Dead 2 box.
We only owned a few films of VHS. We had George Cukor's Little Women, Man of La Mancha (which was pretty awful), and the 1949 version of The Secret Garden. I watched these, but was unimpressed. The one that I watched incessantly was The Wizard of Oz. By age nine, I think I had the film memorized. Later, Tim Burton's Batman made its way into our home, and that added to the canon.
So you were a video store rat.
Very much so. Although I, like so many kids, typically rented the same few films over and over. The Goonies and Gremlins 2: The New Batch were, much to the chagrin of my big sister who wanted more John Hughes-like movies. Thanks to my love of Spaceballs, I went through a long and intense phase of watching as many Mel Brooks films as I could. Mel Brooks was probably my first proper film obsession. I was, at the time, rather fond of Blazing Saddles and History of the World, Part I. The humor was way too naughty for a kid my age, but my parents allowed these films nonetheless. Between Brooks, The Wizard of Oz, Batman, and no small amount of video games, my childhood was full.
So when did you actual film obsession begin proper?
When I was about 15. I landed my first job. I was the proud, vest-wearing, broom-toting filth-smith at The Criterion, a movie theater in Santa Monica, CA. The pay was lousy, the atmosphere was dark and dull, and I became permeated with a popcorn smell that I could not seem to wash out of my hair. But I loved it, because I loved being so close to the movies. I started talking with co-workers, and started learning the jargon of film insiders, and about films I had never heard of before. The name Stanley Kubrick was whispered in hushed tones. Some talked about Evil Dead 2 like it was a sacred object. Ideas of film directors and supporting actors and various film trends entered my vocabulary through osmosis.
What's more, as a perk of working at the theater, I got to see as many films as I wanted for free. I could go to all the local theaters too, provided my boss called first. I soon adopted an attitude of seeing films because I could, and not necessarily because I wanted to. I needed more in my head. I needed to expand my education. I became obsessed with the mere mechanical act of going to a theater to see a movie. Between late 1994 and late 1996, I saw hundreds of new movies. Often on a whim. Sure, I'll see A Simple Wish. It's free! Why not see What's the Worst That Could Happen?? I did this to engage in discourse with other film nuts, and recommend films to friends. Yeah, I saw a lot of crap, but I saw some greats in there as well.
It was during this time, about age 16, that I saw John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness, which remains important to me, despite being a largely unregarded and disposable horror cheapie. I can't really put my finger on why the film struck me so hard. The style, the writing, the surreal imagery. But something about the film got under my skin. It was this imperfect little genre throw-off that blew my mind open, and made me realize that films could do more. It's embarrassing to admit this. Many famous filmmakers or critics talk about the first films that “cracked it open” for them, and they're usually legitimately and universally great movies like La Dolce Vita or Citizen Kane. Few people mention In the Mouth of Madness in any context anymore. But that was the one that set me on my path. Credit where credit is due.
Did you major in film or film journalism?
I was actually a theater dweeb in high school, and was infected with the acting bug, so I majored in theater at The University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, WA. The theater program was fine there, but my studies into Anton Chekhov and Luigi Pirandello weren't enough to distract from my film obsession. Indeed, in college, my film consumption probably increased. I would try to finish all my studying on Saturday so my Sundays could be spent in the local theaters. I would see at least three films every Sunday, often four, sometimes five. Six, if you count Rocky Horror. The local video store also had a Friday special of five movies for five days for five dollars. My selections weren't always arbitrary. I did see a lot of garbage, but I did pick and choose very carefully. It wasn't so much classics I was interested in, nor was it the popular material. My wheelhouse was the mid-pop stuff, horror movies, and surrealist classics. At some point along the line, I saw David Lynch's Eraserhead, and that became my gold standard for the longest time. I saw almost every film in the video store's horror section.
So no, I wasn't in film school as yet. I did, however, land a gig as the film critic for my college newspaper. The first review I ever had published was a review of I Know What You Did Last Summer, which I called a blatant bank-in on the Scream craze. This gig led to my first published review in a legitimate newspaper a year later. The Santa Monica Mirror published a review I wrote of Lake Placid. I submitted many reviews, but that was the only one the paper published. I was never paid for that. At this point, they can keep their $50. I'm not hurting for it.
Yeah. I’m drawn to movies that bank on surrealism and dream-like abstraction.
Ooh. Like that film Stay?
Next question, please.
Did you go to film school at all?
Yes. Although it wasn't a filmmaking school like at USC. I attended the Academy of Entertainment and Technology, wherein I majored in Show Business. Yes, that was the actual name of the major. My passion for theater, while still large in my heart, was replaced by a practical need to make films. The Show Business major did teach classes on storytelling and screenwriting and even animation, but also focused on the more practical aspects of the film world, like how to pitch a film to a studio, and how to work on a budget. I figured that I could easily write the movie I wanted to make without a class, and only needed to know how to sell it. I graduated from the two-year program in 2000.
Did you make any movies while in school?
Well, I have an animation demo reel. Back at UPS, I made a short horror film with my girlfriend and another friend for fun. But, no, I have made no features. I did write a feature film I was very hopeful about. It was called Reality (I know, I know) and it was a hopelessly arty and abstract horror film about nameless patients sharing hallucinations in an insane asylum. I forced more than one girlfriend to read it. I thought it was the next Eraserhead. I think I still have the screenplay somewhere. No, you can't read it.
So you are kind of a professor.
So what then? Did you get a job in the industry?
Sigh. This must be so boring for you.
Well, like most college graduates, I supported myself with crap retail jobs. I worked in a video store briefly until I was fired. Sorry, Vidiots, for missing so many days. Part of The Academy's deal was a hookup with an unpaid internship in a local studio. I was happily given a job with the legendary Roger Corman. I was little more than a glorified copy boy who did more heavy lifting than set work. But I was exposed to the world of budget film production in a big way. Actors would come through the offices regularly, and I could hear Mr. Corman patiently spinning some brilliant deals. One film was missing footage, and he shot what he needed on the roof of the office. The secretary was the hand model for a few video boxes. The place was professional, of course, but everything was done on the cheap.
I worked largely as a development aide. This means I was a scriptreader. I had to read hundreds of scripts sent, largely unsolicited, to Corman's office. It was my job to read through them and recommend the ones I thought were worthy of consideration to the head of the development department. That’s a sad truth of Hollywood: the bigwigs probably aren’t ever going to read your script. The ones in charge are the unpaid interns.
I also started up my ‘blog at about this time, and, while I wasn’t being paid, I was staying sharp by reviewing movies in my spare time. I too, like so many, am a longtime internet pundit.
It’s often said that authors write for a specific audience in mind. For whom do you write?
Myself at age 15.
Here’s a tough one: In an age where anyone with an internet connection can consider themselves a film critic, how relevant is film criticism?
I would say that in a media-saturated age, having experts is vital. True, film writing as a mere activity has exploded over the last decade, while film writing as a profession has withered. Only a few well-known professionals seem to remain. One could postulate that amateurs have infiltrated and become common. Thanks to the internet, though, pop culture has seeped all over the map, and the sheer volume of entertainment – the overwhelmingly ubiquitous amount of content – has blurred the vision of the common consumer. Even before the internet, the sheer number of films was overwhelming. Now we have [rambles off an itemized list of significant websites and forms of quick, easy entertainment]. Choose a single website, and you can lose weeks to it. In such an environment, it’s not only handy but downright necessary to have someone who is relatively well-educated and experienced in their field to guide you.
Are you that guide?
Only if you like my writing and respect my opinions.
What’s the best movie ever made?
John Leguizamo’s The Pest.
Do you know John Leguizamo?
He’s my niece.
Is it true that you once gave a semi-positive review to The Adventures of Pluto Nash?
This interview is over.
Because I have a review here that calls the film…
Wait! What was the first record you bought with your own money? [series of muffled noises]
Homework for the Week:
What films set you on the path to film obsession? What was the first film you saw in a theater? Otherwise, take the week off. You deserve it.