Recreating titles for a 1915 film — Milestone intern, Austin Renna reports

Milestone summer interns Luyao Ma and Austin Renna

Having just graduated college and completed internships at The Criterion Collection, Janus Films, and The New Jersey Film Festival, I didn’t know what my next move was within the film industry. I learned a great deal at all three internships: from how to run a small-scale film festival, to seeing first-hand how a film becomes a finished product on DVD, to how to prepare for a theatrical re-release of a cult classic, but I didn’t quite know where I should head to next. I was fortunate enough to hear about Milestone Film & Video through some former colleagues and to my surprise they had a large catalog of incredible and unique films. I was disappointed in myself for never having heard of them before so I reached out to the company to see what opportunities were available and what I could do to help them out. I knew I wanted to do something different than my previous internships and different is exactly what I got.

As my internship here at Milestone comes to a close, I want to express my gratitude towards Amy & Dennis for bringing me on board and letting me work on some very exciting projects. The most intriguing thing I got to work on over the summer was rewording and restructuring the intertitles for a 1915 Italian silent film called Filibus. The film was recently restored under the supervision of Annike Kross at the EYE Filmmuseum in 2K from a preserved 35mm print that meticulously matched the original tinting and toning of the 1916 print from the Desmet Collection.

I also assisted in the research and writing of the press kit for the film. With that there was a lot of time spent translating a variety of documents from Italian and Spanish into English. The reason being was a lot of the details about Corona Films, the company that produced the film, and Mario Roncoroni, the film’s director, was only available in those two languages. With the help of some Italian books, and our friend Eduardo Sastre Gómez in Spain, I was able to add a wealth of information to the press kit about these two subjects.

Back to the main task; the problem with the intertitles in the current restoration was that they originally came from a Dutch print of the film that was distributed in 1916. The Dutch intertitles were then translated to English sometime in the 1980s. The issue with that translation was that it was a very literal, one that didn’t account for the nuances and complexities of the English language. The translation was also littered with several grammatical and spelling errors and very awkward sentence structuring. All of this is what led me to tackle the revision of the intertitles for the new version of the film that is coming soon.

In preparation for the project, I became acquainted with the style and flavor of the language of  1910s detective fiction. Dennis entrusted me with a nice copy of An Arsène Lupin Omnibus and I got to work reading a few chapters. If you don’t know, Arsène Lupin was a gentleman thief and master of disguise who was charismatic, charming, and above all, cunning. It’s fair to say that Filibus would’ve been a worthy rival to Lupin, as they both share the same sly characteristics. Being immersed in these stories really did help me figure out what exact language I should be using when writing the intertitles. One specific example came early on in the film. There’s part of an intertitle that says, “Detective Hardy requests all who have any indication or information to report at the office of notary Desmond.” When rewriting this specific intertitle, we decided to change “notary” to “magistrate” because it was a word commonly used in the crime stories of Arsène Lupin, and we believed it fit the tone of the film better.

Another thing that helped prepare me for the task ahead was my studies and practice of poetry at Rutgers University. I was always very interested in what words sounded best next to each other and how a specific combination of words could make a person feel a certain way. I’ve written a lot of poems about films I’ve seen, people I’ve met, and memories that I want to keep safe. While I haven’t written a standard poem in a long time, I’ve transitioned now into writing fictionalized diary entries from the point of view of two different characters. I’m still waiting to see what shape this project will take, but it’s helped me a lot with just expressing very intimate and personal ideas in a removed sort of way. Above all, what interests me most about poetry is how words and symbols come together to accumulate meaning. That’s the point of view I took with revising the intertitles as well. To me, it was clear we had to get the right combination of words to make the meaning really shine through.

When the time came for me to start on this project, I was fortunate enough to be working off of an early draft that Amy & Dennis had already wrote. This provided me with a nice foundation to not only double-check their work, but to also offer my own spin and suggestions on things. It’s funny working on a project like this with multiple people because everyone has their own idea and unique vision of how sentences and words should be structured. It definitely allowed for some great debates and deliberations at Milestone HQ; we even had Amy & Dennis’ son Adam, our other interns Malu and Zach, and Rodney Sauer (Director of The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra), weigh in on certain phrasings and ideas. It was a great big party in some regards, even if the debate got pretty heated at times 

Here are a few examples of what the intertitles originally looked like and what we decided to change them to:

This intertitle comes at a point in the film where Detective Kutt-Hendy is trying to frame Filibus for a crime with a tiny spy camera. Filibus is much too cunning for this, so she decides to use Kutt-Hendy’s trap to frame him for the same crime. The original intertitle doesn’t really do justice to the meaning of what’s actually happening in the film. It’s quite melodramatic and the word “fight” is kind of a leap from what Filibus is actually doing. We decided to change this intertitle to:

“I shall ensnare him with his own device!” This more accurately reflects what Filibus is doing and the verb “ensnare” makes much more sense than the word “fight” in this scenario.

Here’s another example:


This intertitle comes after the point where Kutt-Hendy finds that a mysterious object, with handprints on it, has been planted on him when the lights go out at a party. As you can tell, the main idea of the intertitle is there, but it’s shrouded in awkward phrasing and punctuation. We decided to change this intertitle to: “There is an excellent magician among us. Who is it? Please don’t feel insulted, but I would like to collect the handprints of everyone present.” With this we wanted to expand the main idea of the intertitle and make it more coherent. We decided “conjurer” wasn’t the right tone for this situation so we deliberated between “magician” and “pickpocket” before finally settling on the former. We also took out the ellipses and made the language much more straightforward and clear.

There’s definitely a fine line you have to walk when revising and editing intertitles. You want to make sure you’re not straying so far from the main idea of what it was originally trying to say. It’s important to note the style, tone, and nature of films released of that time period, and in that specific country, and honor the history and tradition that they set for themselves.

I can’t say I’ve ever really worked on a project like this before, but the experience felt similar to the process of editing a poem or piece of writing. For me, when writing a poem or diary entry, every word and every punctuation mark matters. If you were to ask any of my friends, they’d tell you that sometimes it takes me an hour or so just to write a short diary entry. This is because I’m always so concerned with the words and punctuation I’m using. I always want to be proud of the writing that I put out into the world. When I was editing these intertitles, I felt the same way. I knew there would be new audiences coming to see this film so I felt it was my duty to make sure everyone on the team was satisfied with the way the intertitles were worded and written. I believe it’s important to care about the work you do and the words you choose on a daily basis; this project felt like an extension of that very belief. It was a great honor and privilege to work on  Filibus and it’s exciting that audiences will be able to see these revised intertitles, complete with a new text designed by Allen Perkins, and be totally immersed in the world of Filibus.