Stacey Wisnia, talking silent pictures

Sean Uyehara July 9, 2007

Stacey Wisnia has been a vibrant fixture in the San Francisco film scene for years now. She recently became the Executive Director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which since 1992 has presented the best restorations and revivals of silent film classics in the Bay Area. SFSFF is coming up (July 13-15), and the program is packed with gems. sat down with Wisnia to get the scoop on this year’s fest and the direction of the organization.

SF360: Where are you from?

Stacey Wisnia: I was born in the Bay Area, but I mostly grew up in South Lake Tahoe.

SF360: How did you get into the film scene in the Bay Area?

Wisnia: While I was studying film at SF State, I had an internship at SF Cinematheque and ended up volunteering for them for about three years. I ran their box office when they were at the Art Institute, organized their filmmaker archives, wrote program notes, etc. When the Fine Arts Cinema in Berkeley re-opened as a rep house in the mid-‘90s, I lived across the street above King Dong and helped them work out some of the kinks of their new business. Then I moved to New York for a couple years and worked at Film Forum as the assistant to their Repertory Programmer, Bruce Goldstein. Bruce gave me an incredible film history, exhibition and programming education. When I moved back to San Francisco, I started managing the Castro Theatre and got to know all the fantastic local festivals including the Silent Film Festival — which I looked forward to every Summer.

SF360: Is it strange to go back to the Castro Theatre after managing it and sustaining it, and now coming back as a Festival director?

Wisnia: Yes, but knowing the theater and its eccentricities so intimately is also a great advantage for us. I know what to look out for and what to expect.

SF360: The schedule of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival looks terrific. I’ve been hoping to see ‘A Cottage on Dartmoor’ for a long while now. Who is programming the fest?

Wisnia: Thanks. Stephen Salmons and I co-program the festival. We are really looking forward to showing ‘A Cottage on Dartmoor’ and introducing our audience to Anthony Asquith. This is a terrific example of how sophisticated the acting and camerawork were in the silent era, especially in the late ’20s. We are bringing Stephen Horne from London to provide piano accompaniment. He’s played his fabulous score with this film at a few other festivals including the silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy.

SF360: Do you attend the Pordenone film festival?

Wisnia: Yes, I’ve gone the last two years and hope to make it an annual expedition. This is a wonderful festival and a great place to meet musicians and archivists and learn what they are working on. The relationships I’ve made — or built upon — and the films I’ve seen in Pordenone have played a role in some of our programming. In fact, this is where I met Stephen Horne. This festival also inspired our idea to include a free preservation program, Amazing Tales from the Archives, which we are bringing back this year due to the popularity of last year’s program.

SF360: Didn’t you also check out an archive in Bologna? What was that like?

Wisnia: Cineteca di Bologna is an incredible place and organization. I was very impressed with them. They have a huge collection of international films — and lots of silents. They also have their own film lab, a theater that operates year round, a film library that is open to the public where people can come to watch videos of films from their collection, fantastic film publications, and an internationally renowned film festival which happens right before ours, so unfortunately, I may never get to go to it. While I was there, they showed me some films on a flat bed.

‘Maciste,’ which we are including in our festival, had just been restored by them and I had the pleasure of seeing it in Pordenone a few days after my visit to Bologna.

SF360: Is the direction of the SFSFF going to change at all now that you are the Executive Director?

Wisnia: Well, this is still a relatively young festival and we are beginning to outgrow some of the ways we have been operating, so some change is inevitable. Our mission to expose the public to entertaining silent films and educate them about this incredible art form will not change. I’m very excited about the future possibilities for the festival and I have many ideas about ways we can grow over the next few years. We are trying out some new things this year, as we did last year. Since I’ve joined The Silent Film Festival we have slowly expanded the programming — adding the preservation program and a ‘mini festival’ in the winter. This year we added another program to the Festival and moved our Saturday reception to become an Opening Night Party, something we haven’t had before. As we expand, there is more room to be adventurous with our programming choices. This is also a result of our audience’s curiosity growing as they are exposed to the diverse range of silent films through our festival. We have tried to connect more with silent film lovers throughout the year by starting a monthly email newsletter where we let our subscribers know what we are up to as well as informing them about other silent film events going on around the Bay Area.

SF360: It seems like we always talk a little about this. Would you consider allowing less traditional musical accompaniment to the films you present? It is against the ethos of the Festival?

Wisnia: We want our audience to experience silent films in a way similar to how they would have during the silent era, and the music is a big part of this. I agree that pairing silents with contemporary musical accompaniment is a great way to introduce younger audiences to silent film, who otherwise wouldn’t consider seeing something without sound or even black & white. For now though, this isn’t a direction I see us going anytime soon. This is why co-presentations with festivals like the SF International are so fun for us. It gives us an opportunity to collaborate on something a little different from what we would produce at our festival — with limitations of course.

SF360: I noticed on your schedule that you have a ton of sponsors, but one that caught my eye is the McRoskey Mattress Company. What’s up with that?

Wisnia: Yeah, we have a great bunch of sponsors and our festival would be much smaller without their generous contributions. The McRoskey Mattress Company has been an especially good friend to us and our audience seems to love them too. They have been making mattresses in San Francisco since 1899 and they are amazingly still operated by the McRoskey family. And, they are crazy about silent films! This is a great partnership.

SF360: And, you are giving away a mattress, right?

Wisnia: This year we are having our first raffle fundraiser and the grand prize is a $5000 shopping spree at McRoskey, which can get you a really nice new bed. We are putting a McRoskey bed on the Castro mezzanine during the festival too. Hopefully, there won’t be any riots over who gets to lay on it during intermissions. These are very comfortable beds — and you know how wild these silent film folks can get.

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