At the turn of the century, while others were worrying about the millennium bug, San Francisco filmmaker Rock Ross was creating a short film (Stupor Mundi) in defiance of the new age, and producer-director Milford Thomas was making a silent movie with the same type of camera used by cinematographer Charles Rasher to film Mary Pickford in the 1922 Tess of the Storm Country.
“I really think that silent film is more powerful than sound,” says the 35-year-old Thomas. “A silent film can be more of a dream-like experience—it all goes into your head, and you absorb it and interpret it a little differently than the next person.”
Based on an ancient Japanese fairy tale, Kaguyahime (Princess Kaguya), Claire recounts the saga of an elderly farm couple whose lives are transformed after they find a changeling who becomes their adopted daughter. Thomas discovered the fairy tale while working in Japan for Fuji Television during the early 1990s. When he started to plan the filming of Claire, he relocated the story to the American South of the 1920s.
Thomas’s interest in silent film began when he saw Francis Ford Coppola’s 1981 release of Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoleon (based on Kevin Brownlow’s 1980 restoration), and he was inspired to adapt Kaguyahime as an homage to the silent era after seeing a scene in Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), which was filmed as if it were an early newsreel. “I was watching this sequence that looked like it was lifted from Lumière, and suddenly there’s Winona Ryder and Gary Oldman, and I was amazed by the contradiction of the old film technique and the modern actors,” Thomas says.
Claire was produced as if it was made in the 1920s. All of the special effects in Claire were created “in-camera” via multiple exposures, with no post-production trickery. On the advice of his cinematographer Jonathan Mellinger, Thomas sought out a Mitchell Standard handcrank camera, a model that was in production from 1921 to 1970.
Thomas purchased model #444 (out of a total production run of approximately 2,000) from a North Carolina antique dealer. According to L. Sprague Anderson in the Society of Camera Operators magazine (July/December 1997), Mary Pickford herself bought Mitchell Standard model #8 in 1922, and Charles Rosher bought model #61 in 1925. The antique dealer told Thomas that the camera had been used by the United States military to document bomb tests. As if destiny had chosen to balance the karmic scales, Thomas used #444 to shoot a gentle fairy tale about love and acceptance.
Originally planned as a ten-minute short set to Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” Claire expanded to just under an hour. Composer Anne Richardson, whose score is as integral to the film as the photography, drew on Debussy, Maurice Ravel, and Aaron Copland for inspiration in composing the music. Richardson was taken by the film’s visual style. “I was consistently amazed at how very musical it was,” says Richardson. “The images on the screen often spoke to me, as if the music were already there, waiting to be put down on paper.” After scoring Claire, Richardson is considering pursuing a doctorate in film music.
Claire was made on location at various rural spots in the Southeast, and in an Atlanta warehouse loaned to Thomas by a friend who was preparing to convert it to loft apartments. Filming began in August 1997 and took 21 days—over a two-and-a-half-year period. Between filming sessions, Thomas devoted himself to raising funds through special events and creative financing. “I’ve just refinanced my home for the third time,” he says.
Thomas and his cinematographer experimented unsuccessfully with a variety of ultra-slow film stocks, trying to emulate the look of the silent-era films. They ultimately used modern monochrome film stocks and overexposed most of the shots. The result is an image that bears a great resemblance to silent films such as Tol’able David (1921), Way Down East (1921), and Thomas’s favorite silent, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), which he singles out for its visual storytelling. “It’s beautiful! I really appreciated the way he could communicate a whole story with maybe four or five title cards in the whole thing.”
There are two instances in Claire where modern technology proved necessary. An underwater sequence was shot with a contemporary camera, as the Mitchell Standard could not be easily rigged to withstand a dunking. And for budgetary reasons, the film was edited on video first, then the videotape and the unedited footage was given to a film-cutting laboratory for final assembly.
There are one or two other elements that separate Claire from the silent era, the most obvious being the elderly farm couple in the story, who are both men. Although Thomas is gay, and his film has received financial support from gay organizations, Thomas doesn’t think of Claire as a “gay film.”
“The interesting thing is, I didn’t really think about the alternative, loving nurturing untraditional family that they provide,” Thomas said. “It’s claiming a mythology. There should be room for everyone in these stories.”
Claire also succeeds as a silent film, a remarkable achievement for a picture made at the cusp of the 21st century. Using the tools and techniques of cinema’s original craftsmen, the support of a talented cast and crew, and his own considerable skill, Thomas has proved that it is still possible to make a genuine silent film, not merely a film without sound.
And it’s proof that today’s filmmakers don’t necessarily embrace the technological status quo, but seek to reconnect themselves to the great innovators of the silent era. Or to quote Rock Ross, whose Stupor Mundi presents a pixillated vision of the eternal struggle among Liberty, Justice, and Death that might have sprung from the last century: “It’s my reaction to the digital revolution.”
Presented at SFSFF 2003 with live music by an eleven-piece ensemble conducted by composer Anne Richardson
Preceded by short film Stupor Mundi (1999, d. Rock Ross) with live music by Nik Phelps, Tim Dent, and Dennis James