Last year, Ben Solovey discovered a workprint of Manos: The Hands of Fate and set out to complete a high definition restoration of the film. After a successful crowd funding project and months of hard work, the restoration is complete and will be screening tomorrow at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. We recently had a chance to catch up with Ben Solovey and ask him all about the restoration project and his love of Manos:
When did you first become aware of Manos: The Hands of Fate? What was your initial impression of it?
Ben Solovey: Like most people, I first saw “Manos” on Mystery Science Theater 3000, more specifically on a VHS release of that episode. It’s one of the few episodes that has consistently been available in stores thanks to the public domain. My first impressions were of the griminess of the film, but also that it had a pretty good soundtrack for a no-budget regional film. “Night of the Living Dead” had been forced to use stock music, but the “Manos” crew apparently sprang for a jazz combo.
For our readers who are unfamiliar with your project, can you tell them about your crowded funded restoration?
Ben Solovey: During the summer of 2011, I purchased the contents of a storage space in San Diego that contained the remaining prints of a defunct distributor. Among these were several films that had ultimately appeared on MST3K: “The Atomic Brain”, “Hamlet”, and supposedly, two 16mm prints of “Manos”. When I looked closer, it became clear that the second print was actually an Ektachrome workprint, plus miscellaneous A/B rolls, materials used in the editorial process and potentially good sources of image for a restoration. On Thanksgiving of last year I began a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for a transfer of these materials to Blu-ray. When the fundraiser ended, I’d made over four times my initial goal.
With the project making almost 5x the initial goal, how did the additional funds help?
Ben Solovey: With an enhanced budget, I resolved to create a more comprehensive release of the film with better extra features, as well as putting more resources towards audio and image restoration. This has taken more time than a simple transfer to Blu-ray would have, but I believe the results will be well worth it. A work-in-progress version of the restoration screened in El Paso in August at the Plaza Classic Film Festival, while the “final” version will premiere on December 4th at the Hollywood Reel Independent Film Festival. A detailed timetable on the Blu-ray release will soon follow.
Since the project was funded earlier this year, can you tell us about the work that has gone into restoring the film? Have you encountered any challenges?
Ben Solovey: When I first took the Ektachrome workprint out of the cans and examined it on a rewinding bench, it looked like it had been run over by a truck. Not only were there fingerprints, oil, tape, and even handwriting all over it, but many perforations on the edge of the film had been torn. That was the main challenge that we faced from day one- the best materials that survive of “Manos” today had been printed specifically for the editorial process, and had never been intended for public consumption. Even so, it is a patchwork quilt of first gen Ektachrome dupes and Ektachrome material straight from the camera: the image is sharp and detailed, the colors are brilliant, and the picture is at the full silent aspect ratio that the film was shot and framed for, not the cropped academy aspect ratio that it was ultimately released in.
It was necessary to physically clean the reels with an ultrasonic machine- two passes were required to gently dissolve away the chalk and oil. Then, it was scanned on a DFT Scanity, a 4K capable archival scanner with a sprocketless movement. This machine also created an infrared map of surface irregularities on the film- automated damage detection which saved us countless hours of manual work. Then came months of detailed cleanup and color work to bring the film to a consistent level of quality. Some damage, particularly in the form of persistent vertical scratches, cannot be removed effectively even with today’s technology, so “Manos” will always have a certain “Grindhouse” feel to it. However, the current state of the film is like night and day to how it initially looked, and worlds away from the cheaply done theatrical prints that circulated in the late 60’s.
Most people probably know the movie as being one of the best Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes ever produced. Do you feel the film merits serious reassessment now that you have undertaken this restoration?
Ben Solovey: I grew up with MST3K- my sister and I bonded over our shared love of the show. I can’t emphasize enough how it helped to shape my own personal sense of humor. However, I believe movie riffing is best left to the professionals. Respect other members of your moviegoing audience and please silence your cell phones, won’t you?
I think that every film, no matter what its perceived merits or flaws are, deserves to be preserved and presented in the best way possible. Because I ended up owning the editorial materials of the film and personally had the time, resources, and desire to scan and reassemble it, the ingredients were there for this project. However, without the film existing in the public domain, and without enough members of the public wanting to contribute to the restoration, absolutely none of this would have been possible. At every stage of this process, it’s been clear that Manos: The Hands of Fate resonates with enough people to make this all worthwhile. Yes, it gets goofy, but it’s such a weird personal vision and a time capsule of El Paso, Texas, in 1966 that I find it very enjoyable to watch.
Do you know why the title of the film was changed from Lodge of Sins to Manos? Were you able to discover any more details about the alternate title on your workprint copy of Manos?
Ben Solovey: The anecdotes seem to differ on the details, but we know that the title was the subject of some indecision and went back and forth on the slates and the raw editorial reels even during production. In pre-production it is “Lodge of Sins”, later on at least some script copies it is “Fingers of Fate”, and slates are visible on the workprint that simply read “Manos”. As for the origins of the full title, Tom Neyman distinctly recalls pitching the final amalgamated “Manos: The Hands of Fate” in a production meeting to everyone’s general approval, and others have backed up this account.
The film recently screened in its home town of El Paso. How was it received this time around?
Ben Solovey: The El Paso audience, which showed up fresh from a Rocky Horror screening at the incredible Plaza Classic Film Festival, was particularly bemused by the film when scenery that they recognized kept showing up. They kept our Q&A with Jackey Neyman Jones, who played Debbie in the film at the age of six, going for almost two hours afterward. I also had the pleasure of meeting a woman who had been friends with Hal Warren in his community theater days, and a gentleman who had been at the original premiere 46 years before, on the very site that we were screening. They had some great anecdotes about El Paso in those days that confirmed some things we believed while bringing other sides of these people to light. Did you know that William Jennings, who played the sheriff, was known for his terrific singing voice, and that Hal Warren himself could dance a mean tango?
Have you had a chance to play any of the older video games inspired from the movie or the recent iOS game? If so, what are your thoughts of them?
Ben Solovey: While I don’t have an iPhone, I’ve struck up a conversation with the designer of the game and he’ll be sending me over an early copy of the PC version to check out. The gameplay videos I’ve seen are hilarious- a comprehensive parody of the lovable films shown over the years on MST3K.
Having spent so much time with the movie now, why do you think it still has the cult following it does?
Ben Solovey: In many ways, “Manos” represents the most extreme end of the spectrum for independent film, which as a genre barely existed in 1966. While great filmmakers are capable of making entertainment in a seemingly effortless way, the sheer effort put into “Manos”, as well as the inevitable deficiencies of technical skill, are all on the surface. For that reason, it seems to resonate with moviegoers but, interestingly enough, with experienced filmmakers as well.
Are there plans to release this film on Blu-ray/DVD for those that were unable to donate? If so, when can we expect to see it released?
Ben Solovey: The Blu-ray and DVD will be made available to the public in 2013, but donors will be the first to enjoy the movie at home.