Interview: Author Lars Nilsen on Warped & Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of AGFA
Author Lars Nilsen on Warped & Faded: Strange Wednesday and the Birth of AGFA
Chronicle of cinematographic archeology
November 30, 2021
At the turn of the millennium, a motley group of genre film fans and print collectors gathered at the tiny Alamo Drafthouse cinema in Austin, Texas to helm a series called Weird Wednesday. At midnight, the projectionist began to shoot a rarely screened exploitation film. These were often damaged film reels, typically left unattended in a warehouse or storage unit for decades since their last tour in drive-ins and economy cinemas nationwide. Screenings were free and attracted a rotating assortment of misfits and moviegoers.
Although the Alamo Raffle House has grown exponentially since we were a lonely single-screen cinema, the Weird Wednesday series is still going strong after two decades. In the meantime, the reels and reels of horror, kung fu, sexploitation and other subgenres accumulated by the team at Weird Wednesday have become the founding collection of the American Genre Film Archives, a nonprofit that preserves some of the craziest and almost forgotten movies in cinema.
In the new book Warped & Faded: Strange Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archives, former curator Lars Nilsen retraces, with the help of many friends and fanatics who helped make it happen, the genesis of Weird Wednesday and its early years of programming. There are stories of unique screenings and filmmakers’ Q&A, a chronicle of film collecting at the start of the Internet age, and tales of incredible films rescued by these cinema archaeologists. Think: the adventures of Indiana Jones, but with conservationists caving in damp warehouses instead of trapped temples.
The first part of Warped and faded is an oral history of how Weird Wednesday came together; its largest section is a comprehensive movie guide covering the movies that have been screened. A “Hall of Fame” section contains essays on the series’ most frequent filmmakers and stars by some of the greatest cult film historians writing today, and an epilogue details how the American Genre Film Archive, or AGFA, was born. Best of all, the book is chock-full of posters and commercials, scans of scratched and faded film prints, and original series calendars – so much art that any exploitation geek will waste hours flipping through them.
Author Lars Nilsen jumped on the phone with us to talk about the book, the Weird Wednesday legacy, and the number of cinematic quirks that may still be waiting to be discovered.
Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: For much of the history of Weird Wednesday, you have been the host and curator of the show. For people who weren’t there, how would you describe the vibe of these weird free late-night movie screenings?
Lars Nilsen: It was like a poker night, in a way. It was really a lot less structured than you think, when you think of a series of films. It was done by word of mouth more than anything. If you think about midnight Wednesday, it’s such a difficult time. It’s a brutally difficult time to have a series of films. I don’t care where you are, even Midtown Manhattan, it’s a really tough time to run a movie series and have enough people for it. Austin at that time was a much smaller city than it is today.
There was almost a barrier between the normal ones and the people who would actually show up for [the Weird Wednesday] series. It was automatically a strange group of people. Creatives, musicians, and a few die-hard unemployed, let’s say, who would show up for this thing. The people who went there were sort of paying their dues, because they were going to lose sleep, or they were already living outside the restrictions of society. It was really a poker night for those kinds of people. When I say “poker night” I just mean we weren’t playing poker, but it was so informal. It’s not like the crowd is sitting there and caring about the movies or anything, but before the movies, after the movies, a lot of the shared memes that we would have together were about the movies. We could make references to certain lines in the movie, so it really became an underground culture around those movies.
Most of the films shown as part of Weird Wednesday were considered disposable. After earning their initial money, most of these fingerprints were treated like garbage until they got into your hands and those of your colleagues. In your opinion, why those movies, considered little more than garbage for so long, worth reviving and preserving?
Well I have to say that basically all film prints were considered garbage. They were disposable. There were hundreds of copies of films from Bonnie and Clyde that went into a dumpster at one point. There are hundreds of copies of almost every movie that ever existed that went into a dumpster because you really only needed to keep a few to meet the needs of the repertoire. These were films that weren’t even curated to meet the needs of the repertoire. They were really movies that ended up somewhere, usually in a depot or warehouse, because once their run was over, no one wanted to pay the return shipping cost.
This really is the most basic and straightforward answer to how these films ended up with us, and they didn’t end up in a lab or standalone storage facility. Once they’ve played the drive-ins, and they’re out and performed in all the different theaters, unless they’re sent out of the country to another English-speaking territory like Jamaica or Jamaica. ‘South Africa, they were languishing somewhere because nobody was going to care. pay the $ 15 or whatever it costs at the time to send it back to the owner of the print.
The owner of the print didn’t care enough to think about it or make a long distance phone call to ask them to send the thing back. These just ended up sitting in a depot somewhere, or sitting in a warehouse, or sitting in a theater box office, or sitting in a theater warehouse. This is how they came back to us. There would have been a process of re-accumulation, where the people who would go to auctions or rent out those old warehouses and so forth, were left with all these prints on their hands and didn’t know what to do with them. They would call whoever spread the word about it, or generally Large spool magazine, to let them know what they had and wanted to sell it. They didn’t know what they had, and that’s how it all ended up coming back to the “magnetic affinity” people, who I would say were people like us who cared about us.
Are there many movies that you are aware of, whether through incomplete impressions, trailers, or reviews, that you still haven’t found? Are there still any lost treasures?
Of course, there are a lot of movies that we haven’t found. There are some movies that the community at large hasn’t found, like Voodoo heartbeat, which has a really enticing advertising carpet. Everybody want Voodoo heartbeat by Charles Nizet. It’s probably not such a great movie, I bet, but it’s one of our holy grail movies. Yes, there are a lot of movies like that. Chris Poggiali, who directs Schlock temple, has a series called “The Endangered List” and he covers a lot of his movies that have commercials but nobody has any. The movies are either lost or they were under such an impenetrable renaming that no one knows what the movies that were advertised were.
Sometimes when there are allegedly “lost” films, the film itself is not lost. It’s just that some things have been renamed a bunch of times. A lot of times we would show a movie at Weird Wednesday, and then a different title would all come up together, and half the audience would say, “Oh, my God, they’re showing the wrong movie. But then the other hip half of the audience knows, like, “Oh, yeah.” These films would be re-titled regularly. Someone would literally go to Eckerd Drugs and print 35mm camera footage of a new title. They literally took a 24-frame roll of film from a new title card, printed it at Eckerd Drugs and put it on the print. It literally happened. They would pin him and give him a new title.
A big reason for this would be that they didn’t want people to know that they were paying to see a movie that they had seen before. Also, distributors could run, say, a cheerleader program, and then they would have a movie that had nothing to do with cheerleaders, but they would rename it. The hot cheerleaders and paste that title on it, and then you’d be looking at an Italian giallo or something.
Access to many of these films has grown significantly since the heyday of Weird Wednesday. There’s digital commerce, on the one hand, then labels like Arrow and Vinegar Syndrome and even AGFA’s own video releases that have made many of these films more widely available. One has the impression that an “obscure” film has become less and less synonymous with impossible to see.
Don’t worry, there aren’t a lot of obscure and wonderful movies out there, because there are are. Sometimes it almost seems like we are living in a singularity, as more and more weird things keep popping up. It’s almost like the Hand of God just comes back into the timeline and takes it all over, and drops an amazing 1984 movie that we find now and say, “Holy shit. I can’t believe this movie has been around all this time and we never knew it. All of this continues to happen. These strange metaphysical phenomena continue to occur.
Say you have a mysterious viewer in a theater or screening room and you don’t know anything about their cinematic tastes or personal sensibilities. Could you pick a movie from this book to watch that summarizes the topic of Weird Wednesday?
I think there are a number that really do. i could say something like Switchblade Sisters. I think it’s such a competent job. It’s pretty inexpensive, but it’s also extraordinarily well done. It is extraordinarily ambitious. It is Shakespearean. There’s also this stuff that a lot of these movies have, it’s a war movie where people get killed, but it’s just happening in a high school. People shot and it never even made the headlines. It’s not a big deal in this suburb. Yes, all of that. The film works. The acting is fantastic. The direction of the actors is fantastic. The dialogue works and I think people can watch it.
It’s not the most obscure movie, but it’s also a movie people don’t hear about Switchblade Sisters on, I don’t know, TCM or whatever. For a lot of people, they might be like, “Wow, are there any other movies like this? I think this is an impulse that you would really like to cultivate. “Wow, are there any other movies like this? If you hear that, you really feel like you’ve rang the bell.