Interviews

A New Documentary Restores the Legacy of Alice Guy-Blaché, One of the First Filmmakers Ever

Director Pamela B. Green talks about the eight years she spent making Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché and how that journey was both a creative endeavor and archival mission.

Alice Guy-Blaché (on camera platform behind camera tripod) on the set of The Life of Christ in Fontainebleau, France, in 1906 (courtesy Collection Société Française de Photographie)

Alice Guy-Blaché wasn’t just one of the first women filmmakers, she was one of the first filmmakers, period. Guy-Blaché is credited with making over 1,000 mostly short films, including 22 features, between 1896 and 1968. The artifacts of her work are currently spread across around 60 different archives around the world. There are so many firsts in her biography it’s hard to keep track. She was, for example, among the first to use synchronized sound in her movies in an era when silent films reigned, as well as hand-tinted color. Film historian Alan Williams calls her “the first great comic director” and notably doesn’t qualify this on the basis of gender.

Hired as a secretary to Leon Gaumont of Gaumont Studios in Paris in 1894, she eventually became head of production — another first: she was the first woman film studio head — and began directing her own films. In 1896 she made her first film La Fee Aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), which is considered to be one of the first narrative films ever made, and as such Guy-Blaché was a pioneer in helping expand the idea of what a film could be in a time when most films were concerned with documenting real life.

But despite her groundbreaking achievements, many filmmakers are unaware of Guy-Blaché’s existence. Over time, historians and film critics mistakenly attributed many of her accomplishments to her husband Herbert Blaché and other male filmmakers, effectively distorting her legacy in the historical record. But with the newly released documentary Be Natural: the Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché director Pamela B. Green hopes to finally restore the landmark filmmaker’s legacy in cinematic history. The film premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, and having received distribution from Zeitgeist films and Kino Lorber, is launching a nationwide theatrical release starting this month.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché poster (courtesy Adrian Curry, Zeitgeist Films)

The feature-length documentary — narrated by Jodie Foster, who is also an executive producer on the project — is presented like a true crime case with Green as the detective searching for living descendants of Guy-Blaché, as well as her missing films, at a relentless pace. In the process of making the film, Green and her team actually uncovered a “lost collection” of 10 films that Guy-Blaché directed or produced.

The film has interviews with dozens of Hollywood directors, actors, and producers, as well as film critics, archivists, and historians. But the most impactful part of the documentary is a running montage of Guy-Blaché’s films, whose techniques we now take for granted. For example, actor Andy Samberg compares his famous SNL sketch “When Will the Bass Drop” to Guy-Blaché’s The Irresistible Piano, pinpointing how it has the energy of a modern sketch comedy in its depiction of how “music causes a frenzy amongst the people.” Guy-Blaché’s The Drunken Mattress — where a drunk woman gets sewn into a mattress and havoc ensues — epitomizes her brand of slapstick comedy. Above all, she wanted audiences to form an emotional connection with characters as real people they could relate to, an idea which was radically innovative in her day.

Following the film’s Los Angeles premiere last week, I spoke to director Pamela B. Green about the eight years she spent making Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché and how that journey was both a creative endeavor and archival mission.

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Photo of Black Butterfly (1916), shown in Be Natural (courtesy Adrian Curry, Zeitgeist Films)

Beandrea July: In the process of making this film you had some of Guy-Blaché’s films restored. When you started out making this film was that part of your objective, to work on her archive, as well as make the film?

Pamela B. Green: I preserved one and I transferred many. The restoration takes a long time. Just to preserve one took two-and-a-half years. I got several film archives to go in their archives, look at what was there, and whatever condition and format it was in, I made them transfer it to something that was available for me to cut into the film, so people can see the work. To really go out there and collect the material and put it in one place and show it. So this is definitely for the first time you’re seeing a full body of work. I purposely made the film clips short. I wanted to show as many of her films as possible, to show the range. To make a film about a person and show the body of work and tell the history of cinema. It’s a lot.

BJ: My understanding is that there is no one place where all of her work is archived, right?

PBG: Yes. Gaumont has a lot of her French films, but in the process of making the film we helped get them higher resolution files that they wouldn’t have had access to if I wasn’t requesting and paying for them in different archives. There is a Gaumont DVD. The American films are not really represented on the DVD. So my goal is to start a foundation so monies can continue to preserve or restore any new material that is found and also to be able to create the DVD for the American collection and hopefully get a streaming deal so then people can really see the work.

Photo of Playing With Fire (1916) in Be Natural (courtesy Adrian Curry, Zeitgeist Films)

BJ: The American collection is that lost collection you refer to in the press materials, that were like 10 films that were found from her relatives?

PBG: Two films were found in a barn while I was working and we got them transferred so we can put in the film. Then one of the tinted versions is at the Library of Congress. We had to pay to get that one transferred. There’s a lot at the British Film Institute. Those had never been transferred, they were just sitting on nitrate. So I think finding new films is amazing, but also actually showing the ones that are discovered is as important because otherwise they’re just sitting there and nobody can see them.

BJ: How did you find her relatives? 

PBG: I took her memoirs and I made an excel of everything, every single person. Then I went ahead and went through all of her papers at MOMA, I had everything photographed so I could research every single piece. She had an address book and I was like, there’s got to be somebody that’s still alive from that address book. I just started calling people that I could connect to the address book that would possibly be alive that might have known her.

I started reading all of her writings, articles. I had everything translated and I’ve collected letters around the world from different archives and different places from 1906 all the way to 1964, so I can really understand what went on, stitching back together how it all went down in history, finding the correct editions of the books where she was written out and where she was written in.

Alice Guy-Blaché portrait (1912) (courtesy Adrian Curry, Zeitgeist Films)

BJ: That piece of footage that you used a bunch in the film of her being interviewed in older age, where did that come from?

PBG: It was from Belgium. There was a black box on her mouth and I couldn’t figure out why was she covered and when I finally found the source and contacted the people, then I realized that the issue was that the film had burnt in Dutch subtitles, covering her mouth and her chest, so I had somebody digitally remove those so we could see her face and she’s a beautiful lady. Every single thing took an insane amount of archaeology and work.

BJ: I wanted to just focus on her specific accomplishments because I feel like sometimes they can get lost. So, she was one of the first filmmakers ever directed, period, right? And she’s credited as directing some of the first narrative films?

Photo of Soul Market (1916) in Be Natural (courtesy Adrian Curry, Zeitgeist Films)

PBG: Yes, so what’s special about her is she’s creating the grammar of cinema that we know of today and there was nobody at the beginning. Very few people were even thinking about infusing story, they were just thinking about the equipment, so she’s pushing the medium forward technically but she’s also thinking about how is the audience going to react because nobody cares about a machine. She came from a storytelling family. Her parents were running a bookstore. She’s thinking, what can I do to make the audience laugh? What can I do to make the audience connect? What can I do to make them feel like they can relate, that it’s their own story? It was weird she was able to do what she did and get away with it at a time when women couldn’t even vote.

BJ: You, probably more than anyone, have seen her body of work the most. How would you describe her filmmaking style and the trademarks of her work?

PBG: Very sensitive. Very bold. Definitely understands composition coming from photography. She cares about the common people that are buying the tickets to see the films, the relatability. That’s one of the reasons why I took this on because I couldn’t believe her films were made this early. Her movies felt extremely contemporary. When you have a good story, it’s always going to travel. We need to support her story because we don’t want her to get lost again.

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