Interview: Photoplay Owner Michael Sayers

[Note: this interview was previously published at an earlier incarnation of this blog, and it was also featured on the New York Times‘ City Room blog here. Many thanks to the editors.]

Michael Sayers is the owner and manager of Photoplay Video & DVD, a movie rental and sales store located at 928 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The store has been a staple of the Greenpoint community for nearly a decade. Michael is formerly the Programmer at Film Forum (he was once interviewed by Leonard Lopate!) and his knowledge of cinema is astounding and encyclopedic. I have been a part-time employee at Photoplay since 2003 and Michael has been a truly great friend over the years. He doesn’t give a shit about publicity – he recently half-jokingly referred to business promotion as a “sign of weakness” – and I’m sure he only agreed to this interview because he’s very generous and because he loves talking about movies. I hope you enjoy my chat with the extraordinary Michael Sayers. -Dan Redding

In his natural habitat.

Dan Redding: Can you tell me about a film that’s been a particularly memorable theatergoing experience for you?
Michael Sayers: I remember seeing Blue Velvet at the Waverly Theater at midnight, the week it opened. And just being completely blown away by it. Not knowing what (David Lynch) was doing or what it was supposed to be… I’m just remembering how funny it was. Amazing. Seeing Scarface at 42nd Street with a late night crowd was another great one. People were just going apeshit, you know?
What actor bothers you more than any other?
(long, long pause) There must be some that I hate, but I can’t think of any.
(laughter) That’s okay. You seem to have a very positive disposition, so-
Well, I’m never very fond of, um, what’s her name? Chipmunk face.
Charlize Theron?
No! I like her.
Drew Barrymore.
No. The one who ruined Appaloosa.
I didn’t bother watching that one.
She’s in those Bridget Jones movies. Zellwegger.
Oh, God, she’s the worst! Fucking Zellwegger. She and Nicolas Cage are one and two on my shit list.
But Cage is a talented actor! You can’t ignore his good movies.
Sure I can.
Oh, no, he’s amazing in those movies! Adaptation, Wild at Heart…
I kind of think of those movies as great in spite of him.
No, I think he helps make those movies great. Face/Off. Brilliant.
Face/Off is so obnoxious! Cage’s bad films greatly outweigh the good. He reminds me of DeNiro in a way… DeNiro is perhaps the most revered actor of his generation, and rightly so, but he hasn’t been in anything good – or even decent – in many years. Do you think that DeNiro could ever make a comeback?
I don’t think he’s ever gonna make a comeback. I don’t think he’s interested, obviously, since he chooses what scripts he’s in. I don’t think he’s interested in taking on any serious dramatic roles, clearly. He hasn’t done any in twenty years, right? Twenty-five years?

Open daily from noon to eleven.

What actor will you go to see at the theater no matter what he or she is appearing in?
Isabelle Huppert is a very interesting French actress. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is always picking good stuff. Charlotte Rampling. Julianne Moore I’d usually go to see.
What did you think of Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Doubt?
Didn’t see it. I guess it’s not true then (that I’d always see him) – I wouldn’t go see that. There’s nobody I would go see all the time. Some actors have a good, like, seventy percent standing. That’s the best it’s gonna get.
Huppert seems kind of obscure. She’s not in that many movies.
Oh, she is, actually. She’s been in two Chabrol films, she was in The Piano Teacher, Ma Mere…
You’ve just mentioned Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. Haneke famously said that his desire as a filmmaker is to “rape” the audience with his films. Why do you think there is a large audience for such a violent style of filmmaking?
I think it’s just a fascination with the darkest elements of human existence that he portrays: murder, acts of random violence and cruelty, suicide… People are fascinated by the extremes of human experience, which he tends to portray.
I never go to a theater hoping to be ‘raped’ by a film.
I don’t think he actually does that; I think that’s misleading. I think he wants to maybe brutalize the audience in some way. Unlike a rape, his movies leave you enriched in some way. I think his description is a little overstated.
Enriched? I find Haneke’s films so frustrating.
Even Cache?
Especially Cache. I found the lack of resolution in the narrative to leave me feeling incomplete and disappointed in a way. I guess I’m a traditional viewer in that sense; I like a traditional narrative. I like it when it’s experimented with, but not when certain parts that I depend on are obliterated.
But maybe he’s touching on subjects which have no possible way to be closed off. He’s dealing with colonialism and racism; issues which are still unresolved in France. He may be treating those subjects more accurately by not tagging on some kind of device that would end the film more comfortably.
Over the years, I have only witnessed you strongly object to a few films. Can you tell me why you dislike The Royal Tenenbaums?
I think it’s cartoonish, empty, whimsical… It pretends to deal with events that are of consequence, but in fact, it doesn’t deal with them. It presents this perverse, entitled, all-white New York, with ethnic stereotypes thrown in in the background – usually for laughs. It’s some kind of fantasy of a rich, white New York where the personal problems of bored, wealthy people somehow dominate. Which is disgusting.
Can you tell me why you dislike The Last House on the Left?
I don’t like films that portray rape as entertainment. I just find them abhorrent. Something is soul-killing in films like that. The idea of degradation as pleasure for an audience is something I find pretty unbearable.
I agree. There seems to be a modern school of filmmakers that draws on those ultraviolent seventies films as inspiration. What did you think of Hostel?
I liked Hostel, because I felt like Hostel turned the tables. You have these young Americans overseas trying to exploit women for their own purposes, taking advantage of the economic situation in Eastern European countries… And then, in fact, (those Americans) wind up as the victims of far wealthier, more powerful people. I felt like it was somehow a commentary on American economic power… Although Hostel II was terrible and had none of that subtle social commentary.

Fool's gold.

Are the Academy Awards an honorable ceremony or an elitist farce?
An elitist farce, I think. At this point they’re just a way for studios to market their films. I don’t know that they indicate any more than who’s promoted their films most. They’re pretty silly.
Are there any new or emerging directors whose work you find exciting?
Charlie Kaufman’s first directorial effort (Synecdoche, New York) was pretty amazing. Um…
I thought you might mention Funny Ha Ha director Adrew Bujalski in response to this question. You seemed to be a fan of his.
Yeah, I liked that movie a lot, and the second one (Mutual Appreciation) a little less. But yeah, he’s kind of interesting. We’ll see where he goes… The director who did Calvaire (Fabrice Du Welz) is interesting. His second feature, Vinyan, was kind of interesting, too.
Dreamworks executive Jeffrey Katzenberg believes that an oncoming trend of 3-D movies will be a revolution equivalent to the transition between silent and sound. Do you foresee a future in which the art of filmmaking is revolutionized by technology?
No. That’s a ridiculous statement. I think 3-D movies will be only interesting for people seeking sensation. It’ll appeal more to, like, video game fans, or people looking for some kind of virtual reality… They’ve been playing with 3-D for over fifty years and it just doesn’t interest most people.
It just seems like technology is evolving at such a rapid pace.
I think technology may create other entertainment options, but the structure of narrative film hasn’t changed that much in eighty years, really. I don’t think technology is gonna make any changes in the way people watch film. It may dictate where they watch the film, but the structure will remain intact.
Robert Altman once said, “Decent films are just disappearing. Everything’s being made for kids.” Do you agree?
No. I think he was probably responding to that first wave of blockbusters like Star Wars and Jaws, which kind of changed the way people marketed films to teenagers. I think that was probably a pretty dramatic shift. In the early seventies, interesting films were being made for very sophisticated audiences. Between ’67 and ’75, let’s say. After Bonnie and Clyde, when the ratings system fell away… Look at the films Altman had made: M.A.S.H. and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Images and 3 Women and Brewster McCloud. These were very strange, sophisticated films which were being championed by critics and found cult audiences. But after the mid-seventies, that changed; there was much less of that going on. He had a lot of trouble getting things produced after that point.
You once recommended to me the great novel Flicker, which is about haunted film dating back to the origins of filmmaking. You were also a big fan of David Lynch’s Inland Empire, which concerns the filming of a haunted narrative from the past. What do you think it is about the history of Hollywood and the history of filmmaking that is so intriguing and mysterious to storytellers?
Well, the history of Hollywood has such a dark side to it. It’s filled with suicides and scandals and murders… like the stories told in Hollywood Babylon by Kenneth Anger: these outrageous ups and downs of various directors and producers and actors, and this dark underside that permeates the industry itself. It’s a good premise for a ghost story. Inland Empire is about a script that had been around; they’d maybe started shooting it and there were some mysterious deaths… the story itself was dangerous to tell. Which is also the premise of The Ring. The idea that a film can hurt you.

He shoots but never shits.

You once watched a whole season of 24 in 24 hours consecutively.
I did.
How would you describe that experience?
Exhausting. Stimulating. That show is pure sensation, pure action, pure narrative. It’s an awful lot of fun. Preposterous. Invigorating.
Does Jack Bauer ever take a shit or drink a coffee?
He has no time for that, no. That would be unacceptable.
I recently had a Freddy Kreuger nightmare as well as a dream in which I was being directed by Scorcese in his new feature. Have you ever dreamt about movies?
(long, thoughtful pause) I don’t think I ever have, actually. That’s funny. I seem to get them out of my system during waking hours. They don’t enter my dream life.
What inspired you to open a video store in Greenpoint?
Wanting to work close to where I live and having something that I could do exactly the way I wanted to do it. I’ve always wanted to be around movies because they’re the best thing in the world.
When you were a kid, were you an avid movie watcher?
Yeah, even as a very young kid, I would circle all the movies in TV Guide that I wanted to watch. My brother and I went to the movies and saw a double feature every Saturday. During my entire childhood. There was a second-run theater in town, and they would show two movies, and they would change them every week, and we would go see whatever was playing. I always wanted to go to the movies.
Does anything stand out from those double features in your memory?
I remember seeing Breakout with Charles Bronson, and seeing a man killed by an airplane propellor, and being stunned. Just stunned by the violence. And it was only a PG, but he splattered like a watermelon on the tarmac. Horrifying…
[At this point, Michael seems to have a visceral reaction to the memory; I try to begin another question but he is clearly distracted]
Wow! You’re still feeling that!

It really got me, yeah.
Have you watched it since?
Yeah, it’s not so bad. But at the time, it was the most violent moment I’d ever seen on film.
I guess there’s something especially compelling to young kids – especially young boys – when they see a movie that’s more violent than anything they’ve ever seen before.
Yeah, and I was only eleven or so.
What’s your favorite movie theater on Earth?
I guess my favorite is probably the Castro in San Francisco. Old movie palace with an organ. That’s as good as it gets. Huge screen.

Photoplay Magazine

For the record, what is the meaning of the name Photoplay?
Film studios once wanted movies to be referred to as ‘photoplays.’ They felt it was a more sophisticated word than ‘movies’ or ‘talkies.’ They felt that it just had a little more class to it. And then it was a very, very, very popular magazine from the thirties through the sixties, which covered movie star gossip and such things. But the word never caught on with the general public.
I’m always happy when I see an issue of Photoplay magazine pop up in a movie. It pops up in The Postman Always Rings Twice, John Carpenter’s The Thing
It was the movie magazine for quite a while if you were interested in the private lives of the stars. But yeah, it does pop up in movies once in a while, usually as an anachronism. It never seemed to show up in old movies, but in movies about that time period, it shows up.
You seem to have it all figured out. What’s the secret to happiness?
(laughter) I wish I had that figured out.
If you were going to recommend one movie off of the new release wall today, what would it be?
I would recommend Obscene, the documentary on Barney Rossett, who founded Grove Press, because it was an amazing story about someone who built his own strange empire based on his own strange personal tastes in literature.

Many, many thanks to Michael Sayers and Photoplay Video.

2 Responses to “Interview: Photoplay Owner Michael Sayers”

  1. […] at the studio. I recently designed a t-shirt for my friends in Stephen Kellogg & The Sixers. This blog article was featured on the New York Times’ City Room Blog. I’ve been having fun designing […]

  2. […] browsing the shelves of Photoplay today, my eyes were awestruck by the cover for the Criterion edition of Whit Stillman’s The […]

Leave a Reply