Well, we release films, of course... but for us, distribution is a process that also entails rediscovery, restoration, and a whole lot of research. And in recent years, we have added another layer to the process — going back and re-restoring films we premiered decades ago. Combining powerful digital restoration tools with even more study and information, we are now able to make some of the gorgeous films we have long loved, even more visually thrilling and powerful.
A great example of the Milestone process is the new digital restoration of Mikhail Kalatozov and Sergei Urusevsky’s masterpiece, I Am Cuba (USSR-Cuba, 1964). When we first released the film in 1995, it had played (unsubtitled) at two US film festivals, but was largely unknown around the world. Almost a quarter of a century later — thanks in large part to Milestone’s rediscovery of the film and the support of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola — I Am Cuba has transformed the cinematographer’s art and is acclaimed as a cornerstone of international filmmaking.
First up:, the restoration.
Way back in the early 1990s, when Milestone first decided to try to license I Am Cuba, the questions was: How? Our friends at the Telluride and San Francisco Film Festivals had screened an unsubtitled print from Russia in 1992 and 1993. So it seemed that Mosfilm should be our first stop — but we did not even know how to contact the studio. In those pre-Internet days, a fax number could be a lifeline, so Milestone co-founder Dennis Doros paged through a stack of old copies of Variety until he found a listing. Next came protracted negotiations between Milestone and the Moscow-based production company — negotiations that were marked by some inevitable mutual mistrust and cultural misunderstandings. But persistence paid off, and so did we… after wiring more money than we could afford to Russia, we received a 35mm interpositive fine grain and 35mm mag tracks for the film from Mosfilm and the Russian archive Gosfilmofond (along with three 35mm prints). Those preservation materials proved to be key in the 2018 restoration.
In recent years we dreamed about starting a 4K digital restoration of I Am Cuba. We wanted to improve the image quality, reduce or eliminate an annoying flicker, and clean up bad splices, photochemical blotches, scratches, and various other problems typical of any film of that age. But the cost of the project kept delaying the start of the restoration. Sometimes cash flow can really slow down even the most passionate restorationist!
But then Milestone received an email from director Julian Temple, who was producing a new documentary Habañeros on the history of Havana. Temple had spent a small fortune for the rights to license clips from I Am Cuba from a European distributor of the film, only to find that the materials delivered were inferior and unusable. Temple’s production company and Milestone agreed to split the cost of a new 4K scan (to be done at Colorlab in Rockville, Maryland) from Milestone’s 35mm interpositive.
Milestone then took Colorlab’s 4K transfer to Metropolis Post in New York, where Jack Rizzo’s crew of Jason Crump (colorist) and Ian Bostick (restoration artist) spent hour after hour meticulously timing, cleaning, stabilizing, and de-flickering the original scan. Unlike most films that have traditional sets and cinematography, I Am Cuba’s wildly moving camera made it impossible to use the standard “automatic” computer programs to clean up scratches and dust. Most of that work had to be done manually by Ian, who spent many days working on the project. Milestone came in near the end to approve and fine tune the restoration.
Step 2, the trailers.
n 1995, we worked with post-production wizard Bob Warmflash to create a trailer that would introduce this unknown film to filmgoers in the US and Canada. His version worked so well that the film played in 120 theaters in the first two years of its release.
Planning the 2018 release, we turned to our friend and former intern, Adrian Rothschild, who has cut so many of Milestone’s best trailers. We met Adrian when he was a college student at Wesleyan University and have cheered on his many career successes — he is now a producer at Viacom. We”re so glad he still finds time to work on our projects. Adrian’s trailer highlights both the extraordinary visual beauty and the Spanish-only soundtrack of the new 4K restoration. In the 1995 release of I Am Cuba, the soundtrack featured a Russian overdub of the Spanish soundtrack. So you would hear a woman narrator recite “Soy, Cuba” and then immediately a male Russian voice would chant “Я, куба” (Ya, Kuba). It was weird and in some ways it added to the disorientation created by the film’s dizzying visuals. But for the new restoration, we were able to marry the Spanish-only soundtrack with the crystal-clear images. The final result helps the viewer focus on the film’s compelling narrative.
The original 1995 I Am Cuba trailer…
and Adrian Rothschild’s brilliant 2018 trailer for the 4K restoration:
Next, the press kits.
Right from the start, we have been obsessed with making Milestone’s press materials as insanely comprehensive as possible — New Yorker film critic Richard Brody has even urged us to publish them. But time has definitely allowed us to amplify our efforts. The original I Am Cuba press kit was a meaty 17 pages… but the 2018 version has grown to 50. And back in the 1990s, when press kits were distributed on paper (remember, this was before there was an Internet!), we were limited by our Black & White photocopier (yes, we had one in our one-bedroom home/office). Happily, we are now able to add color images… plus two decades of additional research.