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Happy Groundhog Day from White City Cinema

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Film Producer Interview: Erica Mann Ramis

Over the summer I had the great pleasure of hosting a very special guest in my Intro to Film class at Oakton Community College: Erica Mann Ramis. The occasion was the screening of a terrific 2012 documentary that Ramis produced, Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance. The film combines archival footage with incisive new interviews to paint a vivid portrait of the fascinating relationship between the Joffrey Ballet’s co-founders, the larger-than-life personalities Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, and shows how the evolution of their company over the past half century has mirrored changes in American society. Below is a transcript of our informal interview, which occurred in front of my class, immediately prior to the screening.

erica Erica Mann Ramis (right) with dancers Trinette Singleton and Charthel Arthur

MGS: Oh my goodness, I feel like James Lipton right now: “Tell me about your childhood.”

EMR: (laughing) You don’t want to know.

MGS: (laughing) Actually, I really do.

EMR: My father.

MGS: Yes, I mentioned to the class that your father, Daniel Mann, was a noted stage and film director. He worked with everyone from James Dean . . .

EMR: On Broadway.

MGS: Yes, to Marlon Brando in Teahouse of the August Moon. And, of course, he directed Liz Taylor in her first Oscar-winning performance . . .

EMR: Butterfield 8.

MGS: Yes, and also one of my favorite actresses, Anna Magnani . . .

EMR: That was his favorite actress.

MGS: Really? He and I have similar tastes then.

EMR: The Rose Tattoo.

MGS: Yes. That must have been a really interesting environment to grow up in.

EMR: Here’s my answer: it was! My father made a lot of films. He made many of them in New York. So, even though I grew up in L.A., we went to New York a lot to be with him. It was a whole different world of moviemaking then. There were studios. If you were a director you would sign with a studio for, you know, whatever, 10 films. And, you know, my father wore a suit and tie to work. And there’s photographs of us as children really dressed up to go to the set. My father started on Broadway. He did Come Back, Little Sheba on Broadway and he did Paint Your Wagon on Broadway — the musical. And actors loved him, actresses loved him. It was a different world. The business world and the creative world were very separate. In my father’s world he was the creative one. And always, the business world, they were there to cut you down and make you come in under budget. But he worked really, really well with actors. And, later in his life he taught directing and I got to sit in on some of his classes. And working with people to see a scene done that you could’ve fallen asleep (during), and then see him work with people to get it to the point where you were absolutely emotionally involved, it was pretty remarkable to see. He just had incredible communication with people. He was tough. He was very tough. He had very high standards. He was very concerned about society and issues and social justice. He was not a Communist but many of his friends were card-carrying Communists and were blacklisted during that time. There were many people over that were artists and intellects and musicians. And it was the kind of thing as a kid when you’re running in and out of the house, you would hear interesting conversations that somehow sunk in. A woman and her husband, Salka and Peter Vertiel, owned our house before us and all the German expats, they had a salon: like Greta Garbo and Charlie Chaplin and all those people would come to our house. So when I was a child their mail still came. Letters came for Greta Garbo and I collected them . . .

MGS: (laughing) So you opened them and read them, right?

EMR: They were mostly not much personal but . . . I’m not sure I really answered your question. But I skirted it.

MGS: No, you did. That’s amazing. It sounds like an amazing environment to grow up in. Did you feel like going into the “family business” as a kid?

EMR: I still feel like it.

MGS: Well, you have. When you were growing up, were you interested in pursuing an acting career?

EMR: I always wrote. I still write poetry and I have some unfinished screenplays that — maybe now that our youngest child is going to college — I’ll attempt to finish. I always wanted to write and I did study acting although it was sort of to see writing from another point of view. And I loved it. I really, really loved it. I had fabulous teachers and some horrible teachers. I think it’s so important in anything like that to trust your gut even if you don’t know a lot. If you aren’t feeling like you’re being opened up and uplifted, I’d say go somewhere else. The hard thing with my father, as his child . . . There were many hard things but one of them was when I first wanted to study acting in high school, he said, “Nobody can teach you to act. You either come into the world with this gift or you don’t have it.” I’d sit there and go, “Well, I mean, I just want to take a class. I’d like to get on the stage.” And the truth is, whatever he meant by that, he also taught acting and he taught directing and he was talking about some untouchable . . . something you can’t even say to a child. It wasn’t right, it was not okay.

MGS: It was too advanced.

EMR: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

MGS: So, speaking of acting, you were in Club Paradise.

EMR: I worked on that movie as an assistant to the director (Harold Ramis) who ended up being my husband.

MGS: But you had a bit part in the film as well . . .

EMR: I did, I did. I worked for the producer on that movie. The bit part had no words. They were all internal (laughs).

MGS: What is your credit? Isn’t it “Girl . . .”?

EMR: It’s “Erica Mann — Girl at Bar” (laughs). It was a lot of fun to do. I was with Eugene Levy and Rick Moranis. Club Paradise was one of Harold’s movies that came and went rather quickly but I actually like it. It was a lot of fun to do. We were on the island of Jamaica for four months — the cast and crew and all and it was pretty great.

MGS: Were you still pursuing acting then or were you more interested . . .

EMR: I was more interested in writing. So working in production had really little to do with my love but I thought it was a great opportunity and a great way to learn. And I loved moviemaking. I’ve been on movie sets all my life. I still — if I’m going on set or if I’m in L.A. and go to a studio — I still get butterflies. I just love it. I love taking nothing and creating something, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent. I mean, obviously, good is great and bad is not so great but when you’re making a film, everyone — even the worst of movies, I promise you — when people are working on them, everyone believes in the film. Because you’re working 14, 16-hour days and you’re suddenly like on an island, figuratively speaking, with 150, 200 people and you’re making magic one way or another.

MGS: I’ve made a couple of short films and I know exactly what you’re talking about — the synergy between the cast and crew. It’s a labor of love for everybody because they’re not doing it for the money.

EMR: No.

MGS: And your husband has an enormous amount of integrity to be working in Hollywood in the present day. It’s tough, I think, to navigate a career in Hollywood today.

EMR: But he was very lucky. I mean, the first screenplay he wrote was Animal House, and the first movie he directed was Caddyshack . . .

MGS: And that success has allowed him to do more personal work in recent years?

EMR: Absolutely.

MGS: Groundhog Day is one of my favorites. I actually show that in class a lot. And, also, I’m a big fan of The Ice Harvest.

EMR: Are you? Wow, I’m gonna tell him you said that.

MGS: That’s a really underrated film.

EMR: It is. I think when people are successful for being in comedy, when you change your tune a little bit it’s very hard to be well received. And Ice Harvest is kind of film noir-ish and edgy in a way that Harold never really had done before.

MGS: Right. It’s a black comedy.

EMR: Yeah, and I really like it. I agree with you.

MGS: And it’s a great Christmas movie too.

EMR: Yeah, it is.

MGS: (to class) You all should see The Ice Harvest if you have not — with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton.

EMR: And Oliver Platt.

MGS: And Oliver Platt who kind of steals the movie . . .

EMR: I love him. Very funny.

MGS: Okay, let’s talk about Joffrey now. How did this movie come about and how did you end up producing it?

EMR: Gerald Arpino, who is one of the partners — he and Robert Joffrey started the Joffrey in the 50s in Seattle. Harold and I first moved here in 1996. I think the Joffrey had come maybe that year or the year before to Chicago. And we had the opportunity of meeting Gerald Arpino. And I kind of fell in love with him. And I think he kind of fell in love with Harold. But that’s okay. (laughs) No, he loved me too.

MGS: And were you a fan of ballet before that?

EMR: Oh yeah. I did study dance. Dance and poetry were my first loves. So I studied, not ballet, but modern dance for many years through college. I love dance. We initially met Gerry because Harold came up with an idea for a ballet, a big story ballet. And it was a wonderful idea. We had lunch on a yacht. It was so dramatic. We had lunch and we went out on the lake and we had just moved here and suddenly there was this huge thunder and lightning storm. I was absolutely terrified. I kept just wanting everyone to say, “You’ll be okay.” And Harold told him the whole story. And he (Gerry) loved it. But he said to do a ballet of that caliber would be millions and millions and millions of dollars. It was impossible to do. But we really liked each other and so we all just got together a lot. If they had, like their season here, let’s say it’s, I don’t know, 10 shows or whatever it is, I would go to see the same show every single night. Because I loved it so much and I just connected with Gerry’s choreography. So the way it happened, we have other friends from Michigan and they were down — we all went to the Joffrey Gala some years ago and Gerry was quite elderly and frail. And I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years and it really was surprising to see. And as we were leaving, we were both in our separate cars and we called each other and we all four had the same idea at the same time: “Why don’t we just get Gerry on film? Let’s just tape him. Let’s interview him. He might not be here very long.” And I don’t think he’s ever been interviewed that way before.

MGS: To tell the story of the company?

EMR: Yeah, and about him and about dance and whatnot. So we knew about this documentary film house called Media Process and Bob Hercules who directed it. So we called him and said “Right now we just want to get Gerry on tape.” So at first we just did these interviews with Gerry that were fabulous and we had some of the dancers doing rehearsals in the studio with him and that’s the last time . . . it was his choreography. It was his first piece and his last. And that was the last time we ever saw him. It was so incredible.

MGS: So powerful.

EMR: Yeah. So once we had that, then we thought “What if we develop this?” And then we met with the heads of the Joffrey and with various people and it all just started happening. We were very lucky.

MGS: It sounds like when you started out, you didn’t really know what the final form of it was going to be . . .

EMR: No. At first we didn’t even know we were making a film. We knew we wanted him and from that we’d see. After we had that we thought “It’s crazy not to make a film.” And then with the director and Una Jackman, who was also my producing partner, we did a lot of research and read a lot of books about the Joffrey and started calling and traveling all over the country to do interviews with people connected and dancers. And then Bob the director started talking about form and it was really like having a puzzle. Here was this footage with Gerry, which turns out, as I think you’ll see in the film, we couldn’t use a lot of it because he really looked like he was on his last legs. And he was. It was very poignant.

MGS: But that (interview) was the seed?

EMR: But that was the seed. And then the rest of putting it together came from: “Who will we interview? What are we asking them? What’s our goal here?” Once we got all of that, it all had to be transcribed, you know? And then you start piecing it all together and we filmed actual dancing and rehearsals. And it was wonderful.

MGS: And I think that’s a good place for us to stop. Thank you so much for chatting with me.

You can watch Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance in its entirety on the PBS website:



Woodstock from Welles to Ramis: A Photo Tour

I recently drove 50-odd miles northwest of my fair city of Chicago to visit, for the first time, the quaint suburb of Woodstock, Illinois. The purpose of the trip was to take pictures for possible inclusion in Flickering Empire, the forthcoming book that I co-wrote with Adam Selzer about the history of early film production in Chicago. I specifically wanted to visit the former location of the Todd Seminary for Boys where Orson Welles, an alumnus, co-directed the film The Hearts of Age in 1934 when he was just 19-years-old. Although I knew the Todd School had closed in 1954 and that all of its buildings had since been razed, I wanted to see where it once stood and hopefully take photos of any surviving landmarks — such as a giant outdoor bell or a distinctive gravestone — that contributed to such striking images in the movie. I also knew that historic downtown Woodstock — standing in for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania — was where Illinois-native Harold Ramis had filmed Groundhog Day in 1993. Since Groundhog Day is one of my favorite comedies and a movie I frequently show in film studies classes, I decided to try and visit prominent locations from that film as well. Below is a photo tour of my day-long expedition.

Here’s Orson Welles and his classmates in front of the residence building known as Grace Hall. This photo would’ve been taken sometime between 1926 and 1931. Click on the photo to enlarge it (Orson is the tall lad standing in the middle — his head is directly beneath the window on the far left side of the building):
orson Photo: Woodstock Public Library

No one knows exactly where The Hearts of Age, Welles’ debut film, was shot but it was almost certainly somewhere on the Todd campus. Here’s 19-year-old Welles heavily made-up as “Death” in a still I created from the DVD of the film:

Tragically, Grace Hall, the final building standing from the original Todd School campus, was razed in 2010. It was reportedly still in excellent condition when the owners demolished it in order to build new “duplex” housing for seniors:
grace Photo: Woodstock Advocate

Here’s the same location (318 Christian Way) as seen today:

Welles also performed at the famous Woodstock Opera House. Here he is (bottom left), with fellow summer-stock players Michael MacLiammoir and Louise Prussing, onstage at the Opera House in 1934:

The exterior of the Woodstock Opera House as seen today (note the Italianate bell tower, which probably inspired the climax of Welles’ 1946 film The Stranger):

Speaking of which . . . one of the many ways Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day character, Phil Connors, attempts to commit suicide in the film is by leaping from the tower:

Here’s a frontal view of the Opera House. Located at 121 Van Buren St, it also plays the “Pennsylvania Hotel” where Andie McDowell’s character, Rita, stays in the movie:

Phil, meanwhile, stays at a bed and breakfast known as the “Cherry Street Inn.” In real life, this gorgeous Victorian mansion is actually a private residence:

Here’s the Woodstock Theater, which plays the “Alpine Theater” in the film, as seen today. The address is 209 Main Street (sadly, Heidi II was not playing when I visited):

The “Tip Top Cafe,” where Phil has breakfast with Rita and Larry (Chris Elliot), is now a taqueria. It is located at 108 Cass St:

Woodstock Square, which plays “Gobbler’s Knob” in the film:

Some of the most memorable moments in Groundhog Day involve Phil’s repeated run-ins with annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson (Stephen Tobolowsky):

The same sidewalk as seen today:

“Watch out for that first step. It’s a doozy!”:

There are some very impressive Orson Welles celebrations planned for Woodstock in 2014 and 2015. You can learn about them on Wellesnet, the invaluable Orson Welles Web Resource, here: http://www.wellesnet.com/?page_id=5387

You can learn more about Woodstock and Groundhog Day here: http://woodstockgroundhog.org/pages/tour.html

Unless otherwise noted, all of the above photos were taken by me.

Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)


22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)


21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

19. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

la ceremonie 2

18. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

17. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

16. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

15. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

14. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

13. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)


Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

12. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

11. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

10. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

7. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

6. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)


Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

5. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

4. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)


3. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)


Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

2. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)


1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.

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