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Interview #7: Curtis Tsui (Criterion Producer)

"Old cats can open doors, but only ghost cats can close them again."

House (1977) is an experience that cannot be explained.  A lighthearted Japanese fairytale acidtrip intercut with dizzying visuals, dancing skeletons, and floating heads that bite bums.  You’ll have to see it for yourself.  Luckily Criterion has inducted it in its esteemed archive, marking its first North American release on DVD and Blu-ray.  I had the distinct privilege of discussing the film at length with Criterion producer, Curtis Tsui.

Can you describe your first experience viewing House?

Sure, absolutely.  House is a movie that, strangely enough, coincides with my first move out to New York around 97 or 98.  I have something of a long history with it, I moved out here to go to school and a friend of mine was visiting from LA.  Both of us had read about this movie in a book called Japanese Cinema: The Essential Handbook, by a guy named Thomas Weisser.  Weisser was tied in with a fanzine called Asian Trash Cinema and perhaps also Video Search of Miami, not entirely sure on that.  But he was someone who wrote a lot about cult movies and Japanese cult movies, so we were obsessed with finding this movie.  We trekked out to Kim’s Video out on Saint Mark’s Place, the late great Kim’s Video, and we found it on the shelves.  This battered, 10th generation, unsubtitled VHS, but we were happy.  We were definitely film buff enough to watch movies without subs, this is how I first saw movies like Tetsuo: The Iron Man, various Hong Kong movies or Dario Argneto’s The Stendhal Syndrome.  I have to see these movies NOW and if they’re not subbed yet, it’s cool, I’ll watch them.  So we checked out the video and brought it back to my place, watched it.  We were raving about it the entire night, the next day we brought it back, we were raving about it to the guy behind the counter who has since become one of my really good friends.  He watched it and loved it, so it started this kind of little cabal of House fiends.  So to be able to work on a movie that actually dovetails with my first years here in New York is kind of great.  I don’t want to say it brings things full circle, but it definitely ties things together pretty nicely.

What do you think it is about House that piqued Criterion’s interest to add it to their expansive catalog?

Well there are a couple reasons why I think House is part of the catalog now.  One of them is that the movie is unlike any other movie out there.  It’s a film that defies easy categorization, it has motifs of a horror movie, but it isn’t purely what we would end up calling a horror movie.  It has a lot of features that we would consider of a fairytale narrative.  These girls going into a forest finding a house, there’s a figure like an evil stepmother, things like that.  But because it can’t be pegged very clearly, it makes it entirely unique, and I think Criterion does try to find movies that stand out in that way.  Regardless of whether it’s a genre film, a drama, or a comedy.  Something that’s exemplary, that stands out is what they try to get.  I will say this too, the other reason I believe it was added is because of a guy by the name of Marc Walkow, who does a lot of independent DVD production right now.  He had championed this movie for a long time and folks listened to him and they ended up taking a look at it and picking it up.  I have to give Marc, who is actually a Consulting Producer on this DVD a lot of credit.  I mean I love this movie, but I can’t say I went to the mat for it in the way that he did because he really believed it could be put out there.  I mean this movie’s so loony, there’s no way it’ll get an audience!  I would have never considered suggesting it go out there beyond, I don’t know, me and like five friends (laughs).  But he really fought for the idea that it would be something that could garner a mass audience, and I believe he’s being proven right considering how much press there’s been about this movie, and what a groundswell of appreciation there is.  So Marc deserves a lot of credit.  Equally important in building up a die-hard House fan-based were Sarah Finklea and Brian Belovarac of Janus Films. They were the ones who first got theaters to show HD projections of the movie, and the reaction was so strong that an actual 35mm print was made. I couldn’t believe it when I heard that happened. For demand of that magnitude to develop for this movie was beyond anything I would’ve imagined. So I think those guys deserve a lot of credit for paving the way for this DVD and blu-ray.

Well House is an incredibly stylized, special-effects laden endeavor.  What are some of your favorite tricks that Obayashi employed?

There are a good handful of tricks in the movie that I think are great.  Of course the piano eating sequence, as someone who’s practiced piano for many years as a youth, I had a pretty standard Asian male upbringing (laughs).  It’s a pretty fantastic scene, not just in terms of the imagery of it, but the overall execution.  When you look at it, sure, from a contemporary standpoint you can see the matte lines, you can see the fact that these are quote-unquote “effects”, but there’s purity to the way they’re made and executed that I think is a lot more appealing to see.  You can see that somebody really worked at this as opposed to the seamlessness of CGI, which can sometimes be kind of deadening.  I can appreciate good CGI just fine, but seeing in-camera effects like this, everything from a simple iris to these kinds of painted matte backdrops that you end up getting with these stunning house vistas when the girls first arrive to the village.  Things like that, they all look great, I mean the saturated colors, and it’s fantastic.  One of the parts that I always return to is when the girls first go on the train.  They go to the train station and the Godiego song “Cherries Were Made For Eating” is playing, and they look through this book, then the movie gets rendered in the painted style of the book.  Afterwards you end up seeing a flashback in the form of an old movie and things like that.  There’s just an onslaught of different styles and techniques that just keeps going and going.  It’s something where, taken on its own it might seem completely random, but everything makes sense as a stylistic choice internally.  It all works beautifully and it pays off, it doesn’t feel like it was just done for its own sake.  I mean there is a certain attention-getting aspect to it for sure, a certain self-consciousness, but there’s something to it where I feel it’s not just being smart-alec-y.  It’s trying to render a certain kind of emotion or a kind of memory that you would end up having, if you were thinking about the past.  And when you’re talking about a situation where a lot of people in Japan at that time with a memory being the bombs dropping in Hiroshima.  To see them presented in that way, where there’s a combination of childlike innocence, but also the matter-of-factness of old movie footage.  It’s kind of stunning, I look at that sequence a lot, and I think its fun when you watch it in a certain way, because it’s so flamboyant, but at the same time it’s very touching.  To see a filmmaker juggle that many stylistic devices, but also not make the tone so obvious to the viewer, so you kind of have to work at it.  It’s fantastic!

Yeah there is a workmanship that is prevalent in that film that you often don’t see any more.  One of the things I really miss about that age of the in-camera tricks, the prosthetics, showed a degree of skill that seems, I don’t want to say absent, but lacking in modern films.

I would agree with you though, I find a lot of contemporary movies, particularly FX ones, difficult to watch.  I like that kind of stuff, I like fantasy stuff, I like genre, and I like horror movies.  It’s just that I feel that without this kind of tactile quality, regardless of whether or not it “looks realistic”, it just kind of loses me.  In a certain way I like the storybook aspect of seeing something that has a degree of artifice to it, but still has a physical quality when it reacts to light.  When people can interact in a certain way with something, when somebody’s got great prosthetics on.  I miss that kind of stuff, I don’t want to sound like I’m too much of a Luddite or a grumpy old man (laughs).  A lot of the newer movies don’t have that same kind of magic; they spend so much time trying to make the fantastic seem realistic, that ultimately those details don’t have any real kick anymore.  I think the fantastic should always be fantastic and otherworldly.  That’s the beauty of this movie, when you see Gorgeous coming home and she meets her father after he’s come back from Italy from some movie with Sergio Leone (laughs).  The stepmother comes in and the background is completely fake looking, saturated with oranges and blues, and the scarf is billowing in the air.  It’s all so over the top, but at the same time you get the impact for this girl when she realizes, “oh dad’s with another woman I don’t know about.”  All those details play off each other nicely and I don’t think that would have played as well had it been rendered in a “realistic manner”.

Right, I definitely agree.  There’s just something more charming about it too.

Absolutely, and it’s certainly more memorable.  It’s the type of melodramatic scene that in any other movie you’d want to hit fast forward, but here there are a lot of details going on that make you want to sit there and watch it.  You kind of can’t believe what you’re seeing at the same time.  It’s a great thing for a viewer to feel like you’re being challenged or being engaged in that way.

Exactly.  The transfer, which is marvelous, is derived from the original 35mm camera negative.  What were some of the challenges faced with cleaning up the image?

Surprisingly House wasn’t in particularly bad condition in terms of picture; the elements were actually in good shape.  As opposed to say something like Seven Samurai or Stagecoach, where the possibility of finding genuinely good elements is almost non-existent.  In this case Toho actually had really good elements, so luckily there’s not much to say about the trials and tribulations of restoration because they had decent materials to work with in the beginning.  Then it was just a matter of a certain degree of clean up.  I suppose the thing that deserves mentioning here, because it seems to be something that people are bringing up sometimes, is that we’re presenting it in a full-frame aspect ratio.  This is the way it was shot and the way it was intended to be presented.  There is at least one other DVD floating around with an aspect ratio of something random like 1.54:1.  I don’t know where that decision was made and I don’t want to sit around pointing fingers, but I can tell you that we asked the director in this case.  It’s not exactly a director-approved edition in the sense that he didn’t sit in on the transfer and analyze it like Guillermo del Toro did for Cronos, but he said it was full-frame.  The reason why he shot that way was because he shot for TV, you have to remember he was a TV commercial director.  When you see the opening logo of movie that comes up, it’s in a square, that’s the way he framed.  Even relatively recent movies he did, he still shot in full-frame, and it’s not like he all the sudden switched to scope.  He liked that as his aspect ratio.

As far as supplements go, revisionist horror filmmaker Ti West had a video homage, how did his involvement occur?

Well it was actually blind luck, I had gotten in touch with him and ran the idea by him, and he had just seen the movie somewhat recently when the German DVD came out.  The German DVD was, I believe, the first to come out that had English subtitles.  He and his sound designer, Graham Reznick, had watched the movie.  He loved the movie and was more than willing to talk about it.  He’s young; he has a lot of really astute things to say about genre movies.  If you ever read any of his interviews about his own films or see them, you know he’s very well-spoken.  He’s a fast speaker, but he’s very well-spoken.  It just worked out that I was able to do it, the challenge was making sure I’d be able to do the interview around his Innkeepers schedule.  He was shooting his new film and I thought, “Oh well it’s just not gonna happen.”  Then some scheduling changes happened with House, and then at the moment I was going to shoot another interview in LA he was able to meet.

Excellent, it’s a great contribution.  Were there any special features you couldn’t salvage for the release?

We were lucky with supplements, going back to Marc Walkow, he had become friends with the Obiyashis through some other filmmakers.  He went out there and shot those interviews, which were edited together into Constructing a House.  Without him I am inclined to say those interviews may have not happened, it’s possible they may have said yes, but the fact that Marc already knew them and was able to get them going was a massive contribution.  So I can’t really say we lost out on anything.

Lastly, can you touch on any other future Criterion releases that you’re supervising?

I think a project I can safely say I’m working on right now is Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success from 1957 with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.  That’s my newest production that’s on the horizon.  One that might be of most interest to genre fans that’s coming out soon is the DVD and Bluray edition of Cronos coming out in December.  There’s a supplement on there I have to say is pretty cool.  Guillermo del Toro does a video tour of his home office where he stores all his memorabilia, things he’s collected since he was a child, products of all his work and film, things like that.  If you’ve ever heard of Acker mansion in Los Angelos, that the late Forrest J Ackerman had, Famous Monsters of Filmland, where it was filled with props and all sorts of books.  It’s the exact same kind of thing.  You walk into this house and it’s overwhelming and yet meticulously organized in a lot of ways.  This video tour gives a detailed tour of everything in this house, but also a peak into what makes Guillermo tick as a filmmaker.  He really lays it out, the specific inspiration that he derives from the things he keeps in the house.  So it’s not just the house of a hoarder, there’s something going on that’s resonate for him and he explains it all.  It’s pretty great, I don’t normally go around raving on supplements I’ve worked on, but this one turned out nicely.

Very awesome, Guillermo del Toro’s debut on Criterion, that’s something to look out for!  Well Curtis, I appreciate you taking some time out of your schedule.

Thanks for having me.

Thank you, Curtis Tsui!

*All images courtesy of the Criterion Collection