Every time you go to a midnight screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, a tall man with a big beard and lots of tattoos comes up to the front of the theater and tells a few anecdotes about the film you’re about to watch. This is Mark Anastasio; the man, the legend.
With a great depth of knowledge, both of the significance of the films being screened and the stories behind their making, Mark is something of a cultural icon in the Boston area. I was fortunate enough to get to speak to him about movies, what goes on behind the scenes at the Coolidge, and what makes him tick.
MA: What I do here is – it’s a lot. It’s not just curating our film series – that stuff gets input from a lot of the staff here. I guess one film series that I have total control over is our midnight film series, but I do have input in just about every other repertory program and even some of our first-run stuff – all the staff has the ability to suggest films and see them played if they feel that they’re important enough. Aside from that, I manage everything that happens in the building on a day to day basis. I keep our schedule, create our showtimes, and makes sure everything’s running like clockwork.
AS: What brought you to Boston?
MA: Um, a girl brought me to Boston, mostly, and then education. I came up here from Connecticut after spending way too long out of college and getting into things that, you know, were not as wholesome as college. I decided to enroll in school and, after taking some community college courses in Connecticut, I transferred to UMASS Boston. The gorgeous campus of UMASS Boston. Yeah, so, that’s what it was. It was UMASS. I was able to finish there, but the Coolidge was actually – this was the first job I got in the city of Boston back in, this was 2006? 2007? I started off as box office staff and took every available job until the program manager position opened. I’ve been working in programming full-time here for about three years now and part-time ever since I began.
Coming from Connecticut, where there is no culture, seeing a midnight film the first weekend that I worked here… It was Jodorowsky’s ”El Topo”. That’s the story I always tell – what roped me into the midnight movie scene. I was like, what’s a midnight movie? You mean like when they play Avengers the night before it comes out? You know, I had always been into cult cinema, but I hadn’t seen anything that fucking weird before. Ever. And to see it that late at night, in this gorgeous moviehouse, with a full audience was really cool. Started me on the path for sure.
MA: I’d always been into movies. I was a VHS collector. When I was a kid, and even in high school, and just after high school. I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18 – I had this really great apartment and it was definitely full of strange DVDs. Mostly horror stuff. My house was the house where people would come over and go through the collections, see something with a really fucked up title or something that looked particularly gross, and we’d throw it in while partying. I would spend a lot of time trying to find strange films to put on while we were throwing house parties. Just to put people at ill ease.
So yeah, I’d always been interested in film. I was an English major in college and spent a lot of time with short stories and then a lot of time working on my own comics. I was self-publishing comic books for a long time, but only actually producing a handful of books that I worked very hard on. I’ve always been into storytelling and cool stories so it’s kind of a natural progression. I get that question a lot – a lot of people study film in Boston. I think everybody in this office, in particular, holds at least a bachelor’s in film if not a master’s. So I’m the one that gets to sit here with the program manager title and a bachelor’s degree in English.
AS: Well, maybe that’s for the best? For me, a good movie is something that uses all the elements of cinema to tell a story in the most effective way possible.
MA: I’m just into good stories. I used to spend a lot of time actively writing film criticism, but now I don’t do that. At all. Because there’s things that I love and things that I hate. I don’t spend time writing about them – if I love it, I’ll play it. If I love it, I’ll advocate for it. I tend to love most of the things I come across. I find something redeeming in most films. We’re playing “Scanners” tonight (7/12), which is a cult title, a great film for a midnight crowd. I don’t know if it’s a good movie after watching it again last night, even with the crowd. I kind of got that vibe from the crowd as well. I love Cronenberg, but with Scanners… I can’t believe I’m shitting on “Scanners.” I’m not really shitting on it. It’s a really weird, psychic espionage film that for the most part is just really horrendous 1980s fashion. You know, the head explosion scene is within the first 15 minutes and it really sets the stage, but the film then kind of lulls until the end. There ARE bits and pieces of the film that make it absolutely fantastic.
AS: You talked about what you love about films. What makes you feel less inclined to enjoy a film? What detracts from your film viewing experience?
MA: As far as what’s in the film or the audience around me? I think in this day and age, the biggest detraction comes from people not knowing to behave in movie theaters. I guess I’ve gotten even pickier as I’ve gotten into this gig. Any sort of talking or texting takes me immediately out of the film. There’s not a lot that I don’t like in movies. As long as it’s genuine, as long as whoever’s crafting it is taking it seriously, I’m okay with it. There are a lot of people that try to do and be things that they are not in cinema. I’m going to try to find examples and it’s all going to be crappy B movies. Um, “The Room.” This film. Are you familiar with it? That film is terrible yet over the years I’ve built a relationship with Tommy Wiseau, even though I can’t believe I just said those words, and he is genuine. The picture that he made – that is real. That was his script and his statement that he was trying to make. Since then, there have been a lot of films coming along that are purposefully terrible. I guess that’s something that I hate. I believe wholeheartedly that “Birdemic” was purposefully bad. We started playing a new one recently called “Fateful Findings” at midnight, which is from a filmmaker named Neil Breen. The jury is still out as to whether or not he is presenting an honest piece or just attempting to recreate the “so bad it’s good” type of stuff. I don’t know. That wasn’t a very good answer. What do I dislike about cinema?
MA: What you don’t like? Yeah. I mean, I spent so much time watching every type, every genre of film. I don’t think there’s any specific sort of movie that I actively despise. I like most of what I see. That kind of makes me sound like an idiot (laughs). I’m trying to think of a good example of something that I’ve absolutely hated recently and aside from… Yeah, there’s a few that I want to name that we’re going to be playing here in the next few months, so I guess shouldn’t.
AS: That’s fair. For me, I mean, I also like most movies. If get into the story, or if something about is entrancing to me…
MA: It could be a single character or a single performance. It’s all it takes. Sometimes.
AS: I really don’t like these movies or the hype around them tries to make it seem like they are very complex, deep movies. For example, and some people get angry at me when I say this, I hate ”Donnie Darko.”
MA: It’s fine to say that. That’s totally fine.
AS: I don’t like ”The Waking Life” because it’s kind of like philosophy-lite.
MA: Heady stuff. I can hate on heady stuff.
AS: Especially because I’ve seen good heady stuff.
MA: Where it’s done well.
AS: I don’t want someone to make it dense and hard to understand just to make it dense and hard to understand. Not that I think the one’s I just mentioned are hard to understand.
MA: “Donnie Darko” has such a midnight run here. It played at midnight here for six months. It had such a crowd. I remember loving that film when it first came out and just being totally blown away by it. But now, when I sit down to watch it, it no longer does for me what it did back then and it could be that don’t do as many drugs as I used to. I mean, that might be a huge part of it. I find that my tastes have changed over the years. I remember being completely wowed by the Blockbuster Video discovery of The Boondock Saints.” That was a film that I watched over and over again – I was like this is it! This is pure movie magic and it, it isn’t. It’s a bad movie, but it has a wonderful performance from Willem Dafoe. I wish I could think of more films that I didn’t like.
AS: That’s okay. We don’t have to stay negative.
MA: I have a board here (AS: the board features a neat flowchart of sticky notes, each of which has a movie written on it). This is the beginning of the Halloween marathon. This is the process. By this point in July, it should be much farther along, but it isn’t. There’s only one title at the top. For the marathon in particular, I need to come up with a double feature. A pairing that I think will draw enough to sell out the event, and then I’m able to book an additional six titles that stay secret so I don’t have to pay rights to those distributors. Otherwise, it’s not really affordable to run seven movies for one admission price.
Last year, we ran “Psycho” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. It was the first time I had ever attempted showing a black and white film to the Halloween marathon crowd. It’s not that I didn’t think that they could handle it. It’s just that leading with Hitchcock for what is typically a very bloodthirsty audience was a bit risky. But we paired it with “Texas Chainsaw” and what we had going for it there was they were two incredibly different films: “Psycho” really changed horror films when it was released and Texas Chainsaw did the exact same thing, just 14 years later. And they were both based on the same original subject matter of the real life serial killer Ed Gein. So that was just a simple thing that tied them together.
When crafting months of midnight movies, I go back and forth between trying to have a set month that follows a theme. I’ve found that for the most part, when you’re trying to get press for a theme, people might notice it and appreciate it, but the general audiences don’t really see what you’re going for because they’re only going to come the one time. So, if I do set up a theme of shows, I try to vary the titles that fall under it so that they’re as different as possible. Now, even though I’ve just said that, that completely goes out the fucking window for August because we’re doing a zombie film series. A series called “Postmortem: A Midnite Examination of the Modern Zombie.” I gave it a title that academic just so I can play a whole month of splattery, corpse-ridden films and not have anyone on the administration here sort of bar my way. They’ll ask me what I’m doing in August and I can tell them the title and they’ll say, “Oh, wonderful.” For that, for that series, I think we’re varied enough in the type of zombie film that we’re playing.
I’m getting kind of confused in how I want to proceed with this. It brings up another point – the reason I’m doing all this horror in August has to do with who’s left in town. August is always abysmal for turnouts, so I’m catering to the people that I know are here. Whenever we play horror films, we’re successful. So I’m hoping to draw people out week after week with this particular series.
I always do something goofy with introductions. I have a lot of – this is the weird part of the job – a lot of costumes. That ape suit hanging on the door I’ve used many times. I tend to dress up before “Jaws,” “The Big Lebowski.” For the zombie series, I’m going to put on a lab coat and have a slide presentation of exactly the type of film and the type of zombie that we’re presenting each week.
September’s going to be much more light-hearted and student-oriented because we get such a huge influx of new people to the city. I want to play things that will bring them out. Fulci’s “Zombie” in mid-September? That’s not a good choice. So, we’re going to play “Spice Girls.” My box office staff has finally broken me and I think that film will do incredibly well. ”Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion” is on the line-up as well as “Wayne’s World” and a screening of “They Live”, which will be neat.
AS: As kind of a layman of cinema, and for a lot of people as well, what really is the advantage of 35mm?
MA: In my opinion, it looks better. The official statement is that digital projection, the digital cinema packages (DCP), that these studios put together (especially in 4K resolution – it’s 4,000 pixels across the image that you’re seeing) make for a pretty clear image. I don’t know if I’ve ever been able to articulate it yet, but I feel that you’re missing something in the digital projection. I’ve softened my stance. I had gone on record speaking against it at first. I’ve seen plenty of restorations come through. DCP restorations that people have worked hard on. The Texas Chainsaw restoration was one that I got a lot of hate mail for screening even though I’ve played that film from the 35mm print at least four times in the last seven years.
AS: What are some things about the Coolidge that no one would know? Are there any secrets here?
MA: What kind of secrets? Sure there’s secrets. This room is full of them.
AS: Do you guys have any secret events? Is there a ghost in the cupboard? That kind of stuff.
MA: Yes. We have ghosts. We have secret events. Where to start? Staff screenings – those are secret events, although we haven’t been doing so much of them recently. If there’s something exciting being released that we have access to early, we’ll run a screening just for the staff where we party and get the best party sense of a film. Just to familiarize everyone with what we’re selling. Those are always fun and it’s great for camaraderie.
The theater does have a ghost. I just came from watching “Ghost Adventures” and shit on the Travel Channel so this is actually where my mind is at tonight.
Moviehouse 2 used to be the balcony of Moviehouse 1, it became its own cordoned off theater in the mid to late ’70s, but the projection both that’s at the top of it used to hit the main screen in Moviehouse 1. So that booth up there is the original, the oldest projection booth, and it dates back to I’d say 1933, when this place opened as a movie theater. In those booths, back in the ’30s, theaters were running nitrate film. If you’ve seen “Inglorious Basterds,” you’ve learned, I was looking at the poster – fuck “Inglorious Basterds,” that nitrate is incredibly flammable. In our projection booth up there we still have the steel shutters that are held up by rope, just slightly above where the film is mounted. If the film were ever to catch fire, the fire would burn through the rope and slam down the steel shutters of the booth, trapping the projectionist inside and burning them to death. This is not going to get as cool as you think it is or as grim. I don’t have anything on record saying that that was ever something that happened here, but something has happened a couple of times just in my time working here.
We used to run film on 6,000 foot reels so you’d have one changeover. Big film like a big reel of tape. There was only so much clearance between the film and the wall on these giant, fucking projectors that are not bolted to the floor, but these things weigh a couple thousand pounds. Now, we’ve had instances where the projectionist closes down for the night, takes the film off, sets it where it’s supposed to go, goes home, and comes in just eight hours later to put the film up and the projectors are a good 12 inches closer to the wall. Both projectors somehow slid closer to the booth windows and to pull them back took about five guys all around it sliding it back into position. That’s something that happens up there from time to time. So that’s kind of spooky. And then the lighting in Moviehouse 2. Sometimes it flickers and the stage lights come on in certain configurations and we can’t figure it out. I mean it could just be a short, but a lot of people like to say there’s still a projectionist up there that prefers his projectors closer to the wall where they would be back when they were running full changeover, which is just one 20 minute reel at a time. It’s like somebody is saying, “These things belong here.”
AS: Are there any staff or personal superstitions you have before screening a film?
MA: There was a weird one, but I don’t do it anymore. Before I used to go down to do my intros, back when I would be really nervous, I used to have to listen to one particular song from The Doors to get myself psyched up. And I don’t even like The Doors. It was like, “Can’t you see that I am not afraid? It was that promise that you made” (with slight melody). It was basically just the horn – it would get me dancing. Sometimes, my projectionist would play it through the loudspeakers before I would go up to the mic.
MA: Yeah? It’s not really cool (laughs). That was years ago. I’ve gotten a little better at speaking in front of crowds, especially now that we have decent attendance. There’s nothing harder than speaking in front of 12 people who aren’t into it. When you have minimal crowds, that’s when I’m at my most nervous and that’s when I tend to get the most heckled. We had a crowd for, I forget what it was for, but we only had like 20 people in the audience and I was telling a story or some kind of anecdote about the film. I could tell that I was losing everyone, I was sort of stuttering, and I finished to like zero reaction then some kid in the back, with the most perfect comedic timing, just as the sweat started to come down my face, belted out the most perfect, “Cool story, bro!” I just dropped the mic – “Thank you for being here.” They laughed at that kid, but not anything I was saying.
“Twin Peaks” too. “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.” Worst crowd I’ve ever encountered and that was different because there were like 250 people here. It was back when Twin Peaks was on Netflix, it probably still is, and all everybody wanted to talk about was Twin Peaks. So I booked the film, it got a great house, but I had never seen these people before in my life. Or maybe it was because I was making Netflix jokes, but it was like the whole crowd turned on me. If they had vegetables, they would have been thrown. I think I actually started arguing with them to the point where I was like, “You people are supposed to be cool. You’re into David Lynch, right? That’s why you’re here.” They were like, “Sit down, four eyes.” What are you jocks doing here? You jocks are into Agent Cooper? Anyway, jocks can like movies too. That’s fine.
AS: Well, you do have “The Room” crowd.
MA: Presenting to “The Room” crowd is actually the only time I’ve been drilled in the face with a football by a member of the Boston College football team.