An Interview with Phil Serling

Phil Serling at Syracuse Cinefest

by Donato Totaro Volume 6, Issue 2 / February 2002 15 minutes (3723 words)

Interview Conducted in Syracuse, March 2001

When did Syracuse Cinefest begin and how has it changed since it began?

This is our 21st year. Well actually we did a Cinecon before that, and then we started doing this.

A Cinecon here in Syracuse?


There was a group called the boys and girls of Cinefest. Was that how you started.

Well they were getting itchy over the winter and there was nothing to do. Somebody said why don’t you get a room or one two and will bring some films and did run some films for each other. I said that sounds great to me. So I went and got a hotel, some rooms and the next thing you know people are hear about this, they start calling to know what is going on has. Then it started getting bigger and bigger, you know we do not advertise. As far as changing the only big change is that we have a lot of students coming now. But otherwise we try not to change. We try to keep it as originally intended that is show movies. Show films that could not be seen anywhere else and that were not on video or disk. And some of them are terrific and some of them are awful, but that is the fun of doing this I think.

Was it just a few of you in Syracuse that collected or were there more.

Well basically I started it because I think I am the biggest collector around. So I started it and then everyone started helping around, the regular bunch, cinephile. We have a regular film program that we do every Monday night here and a we have been doing that for many many years.

Where is that done in a cinema?

No in restaurant. One of our members owns a restaurant and he gives us a room upstairs, and people, and have dinner if they want to, most people do, and we charge a couple of bucks. We show a movie or two.

Serling Overlooks Arthur Lennig’s Book Signing (on Stroheim)

Do you show recently discovered films?

Well we try to show films that are less common. We do not have a big group, about 40 to 60 people that will come every Monday night no matter what we show. It is not a very big group but a very loyal group.

How did Bill Everson become involved?

Well Bill was our mentor, and opened many doors for us. Once Bill became involved, giving us films and making suggestions that is when things started to take off. He opened the doors to the archives and everything else he could. Well we were close friends and he was really very good to us, as he was to everybody.

But it seems to me that he was much more involved in this event.

Yes this was his favorite. As you know when he was dying his last wish was to come to Syracuse and they brought him in a wheelchair because he could see all his friends here. If you are home somebody calls or send you a card, but here he could see hundreds of his good friends.

How many people actually register for Cinefest, 300?

Oh no way more than that I had a pre registration of more than 400 and that was a month or two ago. I think last year we had a if you count also people who just came in for the day close to 1200.

Is this your second hotel that you have been using your second location?

No this is our third actually, we started at the hotel Syracuse downtown not a good location because it was difficult to get to and did not have quite the set up we wanted. So we went out to another one of the Quality inn, which turned out to be terrible and it got worse. Maybe it should be called the non Quality inn! And finally they forced me to move because it just got too bad the food was terrible and the registration was awful. They would lose your registration and people would come and find that they did not have room. So we moved in here the Holiday Inn and things have worked out well. The general manager here is a friend and he tries to do a little extra for us like this room that we have here, we’d call it the schmoozing room where people come and to sit and talk, Network make deals have a sandwich or something.

Did you find that when Everson was a major part of Cinefest that he shaped the type of films are shown?

Oh sure. Bill would make all sorts of suggestions. That is how we got to see all of those pre code films and the early Fox films stuff that has not been shown since and that is part of his collection which we do not have access to at the moment. We got a really good look at many of those pre code films which up until that point nobody had seen. Or a very few people had seen. Plus a good foreign film that he would throw in. and then everyone else started to give us stuff. We were very fortunate.

I remember for years he would tell me that I should come and I used to think why should I come to Syracuse. And of course then I came once and that is it 15 years later I am still coming. There have been so many amazing things like I can remember North of 98 The Clarence Brown film.

The Trail of 98. That was a 35mm. A lot of the films that we have shown over the years were cases of people seen them for the first time, for a public showing.

You are not showing so many films now in the 32 to 33 period. is that because you have run out of titles?

Well now a lot of those titles have been shown and we have is shown so much of it.

What were you doing Phil when this started 21 years ago?

Well yes I was working and collecting films, I was always collecting. That is my thing, collecting. I have a little theater in my basement and I have a few films.

So you store your films where you live?

Yes I had shelving built, I have about 2,3 rooms full.

Has the Internet help you at all in collecting?

I am not on the Internet. I am lucky I can use the telephone. I am still working on the telephone!

Would you say that somebody has filled or try to fill the void left by Everson?

Well yes a lot of people have. We are very fortunate that the collectors will give us films that they will not give to anyone else. We really have a tough time programming because we have so much. I’ve turned down a lot of films because we just don’t have the room.

How far in advance you start preparing for next year’s festival?

Way ahead, we already have titles for next year. People start giving us titles now for next year. Great stuff for next year. Actually I could probably put together a whole other show. It gets easier, plus the stuff from the archives. Eastman House, the British Film Institute and of course of the Library of Congress is good to us. Most of the archives actually, we get films from Luxembourg, they are very good to us.

There is a film that we all remember that seem to divide the Syracuse audience, from a few years back called Maldone, a French film by Jean Gremillon.

Yes that was a very interesting film. I pick that out from the Eastman House and I had some people who loved it and some people who hated it.

Well we loved it.

Yes I know you did, I remember and a lot of people did. But that is usually the way it is here, some people love it some will not. And then there’s all kinds of discussion, and you do not know what you’re talking about, blah, blah, and it gets hot and heavy sometimes. But that is the fun of doing these things and in the meantime you are getting to watch films you would not ordinarily see. It is important.

It is great that people like Paulo Urchai Usai and Chris Horak who used to not be involved are now becoming more involved.

Yes we try to bring as many of our film students as possible, although it is quite a bit farther than Rochester. We used to get at least eight to 10 students coming.

Yes we have a bunch coming from Moorhead and I had some come in from Ohio State they drove in a dilapidated car but they made it.

In one year Donato had an assignment in one of his courses that let people write about the festival and we had about 15 students that year.

Yes each student had to write a journal based on the four day experience.

What that is interesting.

Well it must be pretty sad that each year a friend dies like this year Ted Larson past away.

That was a big shock, we were all very close, Ted and I were very close.

He taught at Moorhead State right.


They have their own archiving there is that correct?

Oh yes quite extensive. We always get several things from them every year because they have rare films or they are always restoring this or that, so they have always been very good to us also. we have known each other for many years and everyone tries to help anyone else out. And it seems every year more and more people find out about us, even though we do not advertise. The New Yorker magazine calls us the unknown film festival. They did a feature on us and they asked us how come you don’t advertise. Well we do not need to, we sell out the hotel already as it is, except for the rooms the set aside for the airlines. We also put people in the Ramada Inn across the way. We do not need more people. The only thing I worry about is the viewing room.

I am surprised that there is so much stuff still being restored too, like Morehead State they restore to 16mm right? How does that work out do you sometimes have a lot of trouble getting stuff because you show 16 mm? Would it be easier in 35 mm?

No for me it is easy to get 16 mm, there is so much stuff out there because we are dealing with the collectors more than the archives. I could do a whole show without doing the archives, easily. We try to put in something from the Eastman House or at the British Film Institute.

When I started first coming to the festival it was the second full weekend in March and then he shifted back to the first weekend and at first I thought it had something to do with basketball the Syracuse college basketball.

No it has to do with the availability of people. we have a lot of people who work on television and the sweeps so we wait until this sweep or rating period is over. Like Leonard Maltin for example, so we adjust the date to our people. We want to make sure our friends, and that everyone can get here. If we have a bunch of court people who cannot make it that date we will change it, why not.

How did the auction start with Leonard Maltin?

The Sunday Morning Auction with Maltin, Always a Cinefest Highlight

Well we always had the idea of doing an auction and Leonard said that he would like doing it, so we said let me do it and I said OK.

I think Leonard Maltin might have been a stand-up comic in a former life as he is very funny at the auction.

Yes and he loves doing it just loves it. And it is a lot of fun. And on Sunday after the auction we do the B movies and we get more and more people staying for that.

Yes this year I am staying for the first time this Sunday night. So I am going to watch all of them.

Yes we have some very good ones this year. Because these B-movies, some of them are terrific movies and again where are you going to see them? They are not around. And you would be surprised at how good some of these little B- films are. I like some of them better than the big A films. Some of them have a terrific characters and actors in them. Not Clark Gable, but people like Warner Roland and J. Carroll Naish. And if they are so fast these films just move. They had to they were just about 60 minutes long, so they had to move.

Has anyone actually ever approached you about doing a history of the festival, either on in book form or as a documentary. Because by now it has quite a history with some very interesting people behind it. Even the catalog notes themselves would be very interesting to have on record in a permanent form.

I know that people collect our programs, I know a lot of people who have a complete run of the programs. When Bill Everson was doing at programs they were great programs. Now they are OK but not up to bill’s standards.

Well people are trying to do something with his notes. Oksana Dykyj has been scanning his notes, and it has been quite successful so they are going to have a look at the results of that and in the not too distant future.

I’m curious in terms of the programming have you ever included the running time of the film? Because I thought it would be helpful to have the actual running times of the film.

Well we try not to, and besides with some of those films we just do not know, you look up one book and it says 70 minutes and another book will give you another running time. So we have been stuck with that before by writing down 60 minutes and finding out it is a 75 minute film.

Well with the silence you always run them at 24 frames per second?

Well as depends on what year.

We notice with the programming that on Friday evenings and Saturday evenings program certain types of films like a haunted house films or that campy college films. You want to encourage a bit of revelry right!

Yes well late night I guess so, you are here to have a good time. Those films are fun.

So who actually works out the actual program, in terms of the sequence of the films?

Well I do that. I get a lot of input of course.

To think in terms of a ratio not only in terms of silent and sound films but American and non-American films?

No we do not, absolutely not. No formulas, no seminars, no banquets. We do not honor anybody just their fellow comrades.

Well you are very strict with the years. Because it is very rare that you show anything later than the 30’s. At other festivals they do not stick to that but you do.

Well we were showing one film called Sweater Girls from I think 1942 but that is quite a rare film. And supposedly from what I hear it is supposed to be a terrific film.

Wasn’t that the nickname for Ann Sheridan the sweater girl?

No that is not her. She became known as that later in the 40’s.

So maybe that is where it came from.

This one is with June Preisser and ….. I am having a senior moment here. I’ll have to check my notes, Eddie Braecken and June Preisser.

I do not even know who June Preisser is.

Well there are some to June Preisser fans out there.

The highlight for us is to the comedy programming is that sensed by everyone as a very popular programming?

Well there really is no rhyme or reason to our programming. We can show 80% silent films one year and then the opposite the next year 80 percent sound and 20% silent. It depends on what is offered and what have.

It seems that with the with comedies, like the Hal Roach, the Charley Chase, Lupino Lane’s, they do not date at all.

Well the good that we’ve done is that we have resurrected a lot of people over the years who were forgotten about, like Lupino Lane, we started with him.

Max Davidson?

Yes Max Davidson, nobody knew who he was. And even years ago the George Arliss films, and Warren Williams, we brought him back into the limelight of sorts.

I figured something out, anyone with the name Williams Everson liked! All the directors William K. Howard, William Wellman.

They love these films and then of course we started getting more. Arliss and Will Rogers and stuff like that, which at that time people were not showing and we kept showing them.

Do you travel to other festivals Phil?

Yes I try to. I used to go to California, the Cinecon, but I haven’t been out there in a while.

Did you go to Columbus?

Yes I used to go to Columbus. But it is a long drive for me. It also depends on what is being shown. If they are common titles then I probably will not make a big trip. To see films that I probably own myself.

How many films do your own?

I have no idea. We always keep saying we should catalog it but we never really get at it.

Are the four days touring the festival the time were you can really just relax?

Oh no I do not relax until the thing is over with. Because anything can happen and everyone complains. And the people that complain the most are the people who register first for next year!

What type of complaints do you get?

Well why are you showing so many silent films, why are you showing so many talkies, why are you showing so many foreign films, why are you showing that English crap, what don’t you do this, why don’t you do that. Why don’t you show more common films or Technicolor.

So what are you tell them why don’t you start your own festival!

That is the problem with a lot of these festivals, they will show films that they like, but we try not to do that. Because the festival is not just for us but for all of these people who come. we try to give them a variety. I mean we’re not going to show them Potemkin or Citizen Kane to this bunch.

I have always said this is my favorite weekend of the year and a lot of the people tell that to me. Now John Locke and Oksana Dykyj, I was talking to them last night and if it was over Christmas they still would have to come. They would miss spending the time with their family. This is really important for a lot of people.

Yes it seems to be I hear stories all the time about how they get here and why. And what they had to do to get here. They are crazy some of them. Father Wood was just here and he was saying that he had a couple of funerals and he put one off because he had to come here. He was not lying about that. Well we’ll put the stiff in the garage…. (laughs all around)

You have had so many memories over the past 20 odd years, I am sure, is there anything that summarizes Cinefest for you?

There is so much.

Maybe something involving Bill?

With Bill there was always something. Of course when he was dying he was in his wheelchair and I felt so bad for him he looked up to me and grabbed my arm, squeezed it and said “ it’s been a good run, it’s been a good run.” That really tore me apart. But Bill did so many fun things, he was a very funny man, people did not know that they thought he was dry. One year he was doing the auction because Leonard had to leave and he did it with Herb Graff and they were just hilarious. They should have took that show to the road. Bill said something about spelling and he was putting these cans up for auction and says here is a guy who misspelled M. What a guy he was. What a man.

Well we are all very grateful to you for putting on this fantastic event.

Serling Surrounded by Two of the Many Ever Grateful Montrealers, Totaro and Rist

I am happy that people come, I mean coming to Syracuse in March, that is not one of the great ideas of all time!

We have not even talked about the great work by the piano players.

Well I think we have three of the best in the world, I really honestly do. Gabriel Thibaudeau, and Phil Carli who I consider the best, not putting anyone down, and certainly John Mirsalis, he can really do a job when he wants.

Thibaudeau Prepares Before a Cinefest Screening

He is really good with melodrama.

Yes they all have their specialty. They are all very eclectic and do things differently. We have three of the best and they decide up amongst themselves what they are going to play. I do not get involved in that. They come up here and donate their time.

Yes Gabriel Thibaudeau plays in Montreal every Friday night at the Cinémathèque Québécoise.

He came in from Norway this year. But he would not miss Syracuse. He flew into Montreal and then drove down. We’ve had cases where there were storms and people had to turn back and they drove back the next day. Crazy.

Well we both like to thank you very much for taking the time. I know you are very busy and tired.

Yes you ever feel like sometimes taking a nap …!

(Earlier Serling Interview)

An Interview with Phil Serling

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 6, Issue 2 / February 2002 Interviews   cinefest   cinematheque quebecois   experimental   leonard maltin   phil serling   silent cinema   william k everson