Inside Synapse Films with Don May Jr.
by Rich Rosell
When it comes to an eclectic catalog of impressive DVD releases, Synapse Films is certainly in the forefront. With titles ranging from the controversial Triumph of the Will to the kinky horror of Vampyros Lesbos, Synapse has earned a stellar reputation as a company that treats the term "high quality" as a mantra.
dOc recently had the opportunity to chat with Synapse Films founder Don May Jr., who also co-founded Elite Entertainment, and pick his brain on the trials and tribulations of remastering a title, the DVD format, and his fascination with the horror film genre.
dOc: How did you get started in the business?
DM: I started in the laser disc business way back in 1993, when I started doing laser discs with Vinnie over at Elite. We formed a company, Elite Entertainment, and did Night of the Living Dead. I was just out of college, and I was really into laser discs. It was the geeky thing: "Laser discs are so cool. They look so good." I got a job working as a buyer for a laser disc company here in Bloomington (IL), which has since closed, unfortunately. When I was doing ordering, Vinnie was the guy that worked at another distributor that I used to buy from. We'd start conversations every day, and talked and jabbered about how Criterion was doing their thing, and all of these other companies were putting out these beautiful special editions of these movies, but they weren't doing anything with science fiction and horror stuff. We thought wouldn't it be great if somebody did something like Criterion, but only did science-fiction and horror. I went out to the Night of the Living Dead Convention, met Vinnie there, we struck up a deal, and we started a company, and then we tackled George Romero and company to let us have permission to do a new version of NOTLD.
dOc:What was the first disc you released under the Synapse banner?
DM: Under Synapse, our first two titles were two risky titles—two documentaries. One on Dario Argento, called Dario Argento's World of Horror, and a special edition of Document of the Dead, the making of Dawn of the Dead, with commentaries, extra footage and interviews with George on the set of Two Evil Eyes that weren't available before.
dOc:I imagine those hold a sentimental spot in your heart?
DM: I really wanted to work with George again. We had done Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead, with Elite, and I had continued to want to work with George. We hooked up with George, and the producer of Document of the Dead and we did a brand new, digitally restored version of that, and that was the springboard I needed to get my new company going. Once we got a couple of titles out, it was back to business, just like with Elite.
dOc: When you go to digitally remaster a film, how long does the process take? Obviously it must depend on the original print quality.
DM: It depends on the elements. Vampyros Lesbos was one of those titles that took me about a year and a half to finally get out. That was our third disc release. It was just a nightmare. Dealing with a lot of foreign horror films that are produced overseas, you have to deal with a lot of foreign companies, and that can be a major stumbling block until you get their trust. They don't want to send the negative, because they're concerned it is going to get lost or stolen in transit to U.S. It also depends on the film elements. We're doing a restoration on Blue Sunshine right now, and that's taking quite a few months. I started that about six or seven months ago, and we're still going at it, remastering the audio into 5.1. We take the original audio mags and do separations on the effects.
dOc: And you're hands-on for that, right?
DM: Oh yeah! That's actually one of the things that makes Synapse Synapse, is that I like to have my hands in everything. It's also one of my weaknesses, too, in that I don't trust anyone to do anything without me being there to see it. I guess you can also consider this one of my strong points. For example, if I wanted to do something with Blue Sunshine, I have to go to L.A. I don't want anyone to do anything on Blue Sunshine unless I'm sitting right there with them, because you never know what's going to happen. I have to get over that.
dOc: That's not a bad thing, necessarily.
DM: It's not. But I'm so hands-on and anal and paranoid when it comes to my work that I just don't like putting anything in anyone's hands but my own.
dOc: If you go with the hands-on approach, then are most the titles you release largely personal favorites? How do you go about selecting a film to release?
DM: There are some titles that just come to us. It's amazing. I probably get three or four movies a day, and when I have time I go through them. Every film I do, of course, I like, but also we have to think that it's a really bad decision to do only films that you like. You have to think about what your audience may or may not like as well. My partner and I have had a few squabbles over certain titles we've done in the past, but we don't let the hands-on thing get in the way of that. For example, somebody came up to me with only the A/B roll negative for Deadbeat at Dawn. We didn't have anything—no film prints, nothing. We had to go back and do every shot one at a time and assemble it back together again. I did it because I like the film so much.
dOc: In terms of really kinky titles, you've got the S&M epic The Image coming out soon. How do you anticipate reaction?
DM: That's a big risk for us, but I thrive on controversy. I wanted to do The Image because it is pornography. It is a very adult movie, and it's not something you're going to be able to buy at Best Buy. We knew it was going to alienate a lot of our distributors, because a lot of them wouldn't carry that sort of thing. But I love the film, and director Radley Metzger is one of the nicest people I have ever met. It is pornography, and we thought maybe we should we put our names as aliases, or should we put it under a different label than Synapse. But then I thought that you're just hiding the fact that you did it. Everyone is going to know, whether we come out with it under Synapse or not.
People are excited about The Image. It's not just pornography, it's actually a very respected art film; it's not disgusting porn. It is very well done—beautiful people, great plot. We took a risk, rolled the dice, and the pre-order sales have been much more than we anticipated. We were offered the shorter, R-rated cut of the film, but I refused to do it. I want to put this out the way it was originally filmed. I'm not going to cut the movie and try to make a buck. I'm not that kind of guy. I'm going to put out the movie in the best possible quality, uncut, that I can. If I don't sell any, I don't sell any.
dOc: I think when you say "uncut" to most DVD buffs, that's a magic word. That's one of the attractions of the whole medium, to be able to see the uncut version of a given film.
DM: Exactly. The Image was probably our riskiest title, only because it does a complete 360 with the content with the kind of titles our fans are used to us doing. The disc looks phenomenal, and Radley Metzger is absolutely thrilled, because the movie has never looked this good. Hopefully when the public sees it, and word gets around, we'll sell quite a few more. I think a lot of people aren't familiar with the title, so they're holding off. But when reviews come out, and people see that there are some really fascinating, for lack of a better word, [things about] this film, they're going to be rushing out to get it.
dOc: You had a similar experience with Triumph of the Will. That was also a kind of departure for you.
DM: We got a letter from someone asking, "How can you glorify this film?" What people don't understand that [Triumph Of The Will] is regarded as one of the best and most influential films ever made. This is like film school material. We weren't out to do this film to create controversy, we did this film because I finally had the opportunity to work with Robert Harris, the guy who restored Vertigo and Lawrence of Arabia, and he's doing work on a new version of It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I had known Robert via phone for years, even back to my Elite days, and this was something he had offered us. I jumped at the chance. You have to remember that this film does not glorify the killing of anybody, it doesn't say "come join the Nazi party, we're great." This isn't a film that says "kill the Jews." A lot of people have that misconception, people that have never even seen it.
dOc: It's the same as the people who were protesting The Last Temptation of Christ, they were the people who hadn't seen it. If you've seen Triumph of the Will, it's obvious it's a visual landmark film.
DM: Even George Lucas has stolen from Triumph. Look at Star Wars: The stormtroopers, and the end shot where all the people are standing, that's right out of Triumph. This is one of the most influential films ever made, and I'm not going to not do it if I'm offered it. It's educational. It was great a film to do also because I hadn't done a film that old before, and it was interesting to me see how I could take a film that was over sixty years old and make it look good. That was another title that took months and months, but overall I'd say it was worth it. We did get a little bit of flack from people asking how we could put this film out, but they just don't understand.
dOc: Those are the people who will unfortunately never really "hear" your argument in defense of it.
DM: Yes, that's true. It has been incredibly well received by schools, and when it was first released it was in the Amazon Top 100. Controversy is always a good thing for me. I might not do movies that everyone wants to see all the time, but I've got to throw a few in there to make people go "Hey, who's that company?" I still get people who call me to this day, having seen Triumph of the Will in Suncoast, and they want to find out what else we've done. It introduced me to a whole new group of DVD buyers.
We've got another title coming out called Singapore Sling that is probably one of the most controversial titles. It's a title probably no one has ever seen around here, except for a select group of lucky folks, but it is really one of the most insane, controversial films we will ever do. It's one of my personal favorite exploitation films, and I call it an exploitation film because that's what it is. It's a beautifully shot and constructed film, but it's very exploitive. It's unbelievable.
dOc: You're also working on an uncensored and uncut version of Castle of Blood, correct?
DM: My hair's going gray over that right now. We ended up finding a very rare, uncut French version and it had all of the footage from the U.S. cut, but it also had some of the nudity and lesbian overtones that were deleted here in the States. We're taking the English soundtrack over the scenes that are in English on Castle of Blood, it's like what Anchor Bay did with Violent City. The rest of what's missing is going to be subtitled in French. It's about an extra six or seven minutes, I believe.
dOc: When it comes to securing rights on some of these older titles, like Castle of Blood, Exorcism or Beast From Haunted Cave, is that generally a big pain?
DM: It can be. It's funny because Exorcism just sort of fell into my lap. Exorcism was a title that was bought by Image Entertainment in a package deal with some other titles. I was visiting Image and was told that their Standards and Practice department didn't like some of the material. I was asked if I wanted it, and I said "Sure!"
dOc: That's an endorsement.
DM: Yes. They objected to the animal torture and the whipping and the this and the that.
Some of the others, like Beast From Haunted Cave, you can find from other public domain companies for $5. The problem with it is that their Beast From Haunted Cave is not an anamorphic uncut widescreen transfer. A lot of people request a lot of older science fiction films, like Wasp Woman. Not to pat myself on the back, but if I were to do something like Wasp Woman, I sure as hell could do a better job than all of these other companies are doing with them. They look cruddy. I've seen a lot of these releases with three titles on one disc.
dOc: You get what you pay for.
DM: You really do. They look terrible. If they would just spend a few bucks to make the film presentable.... A lot of people are taking old 3/4" and 1" masters and making them anamorphic, and putting them out on DVD, and it's the most asinine thing I've ever seen. Not only does taking a non-anamorphic NTSC transfer and making it anamorphic cause a loss in lines of resolution, it makes it blurry and disgusting and the audio sounds terrible. I'm not the kind of person that would do that. I would hate to do something like that and make others [think] badly about me. If I start doing cheap-ass, crappy transfers because I can, then I might as well just hang my hat up and go do something else.
dOc: I'm sure you've come across some really horrible prints, in terms of physical quality. What was the worst condition you've discovered a film to be in, of the titles that you've released?
DM: Vampyros Lesbos was pretty bad. I put that one together from a couple of different sources, and it still looked better than it ever had. But if I had been able to secure the original negatives I could have had better luck. I'm very picky. Some of my transfers look really great, but there's a couple that we've done that I've wished we could have put a little extra into. Other people say "What are you talking about? This looks great! This is perfect!" I'm like, well, I could have done better.
dOc: That's like when you paint your house. You're the one who sees the spots you missed, nobody else does.
DM: That's exactly it. You hit it right on the head. Other people look at it and go "My God, look what you've done, this is so beautiful" and I just think I could have done better.
dOc: Have there been any films you've passed on because you couldn't get the remastering process up to your standards?
DM: The one that immediately comes to mind was Lucio Fulci's Touch of Death. We were offered that title, and I thought the masters were the most ugly, disgusting things I've ever seen in my life. I asked if I could get the negative, can I get a print—can I get something better? They couldn't get me anything better, and they argued and argued and argued with the licensor, and they couldn't get anything. I said, "Fine, we're not going to do this film." Then of course, what happens is that Touch of Death comes out on DVD in PAL, using the same exact transfer I was given, and the reviews across the board were disgusted. They said the print was awful, the compression was awful, and the PAL transfer was awful. Unfortunately, Touch of Death was just something we had to say no on. We moved on to do something else, and decided to do Flavia the Heretic, which looks phenomenal.
dOc: You've been branching out slightly from the traditional horror genre, with Triumph of the Will and The Image. Where do you see Synapse in five years? Still primarily horror?
DM: We are branching out and doing different things. We started doing horror, and then everyone jumped on the bandwagon. When we started with Elite, we were the ones paying attention to the horror stuff. We started getting successful, with Night of the Living Dead, Chainsaw, Nightmare on Elm Street, treating them with the respect they deserved. There are now companies out there with millions of dollars and hundreds of people on the payroll that are buying up every horror and sc-fi film left, right and center, and putting them out. I don't have one guy doing the artwork, and another guy doing the QC, and another guy doing the liner notes, and another guy doing the transfer.
dOc: That's because it's all you. You're the guy.
DM: Right. It's all me. We are the little underdog that keeps on ticking. I'll continue to buy a movie here, buy a movie there. I realized that all of these companies jumped in and grabbed a bunch of horror films, and a lot of the good ones are taken. A lot of the ones that are dear to my heart have been taken, because someone with a lot more money came in and took it right out from under me. It would be silly for Synapse to just concentrate on sci-fi and horror, because a lot of them are being bought up by other companies. There's a lot of amazing independent films out there, like The Deli, which we're getting ready to release, and Six Days in Roswell as well. I just fall in love with these things.
dOc: Like A Better Place?
DM: A Better Place is one of those films that came to us because of my reputation. When I started doing Synapse Films, Vincent Pereira (the director of A Better Place) said "I want Don to do my movie," because he had seen my previous work. The same with the director of The Deli (John Gallagher)—he called me and said he thought we were the right company for it. We're small, and a lot of these movies are very small. A lot of these directors do $100,000 and $500,000 movies, and don't want to turn [them] over to a big corporate studio. Keeping it with a smaller company gives them better control. At the time A Better Place came out, I don't think any other director was actually credited as a producer on their own DVD. Vincent Pereira came in and helped design the cover, the layout, the chapter stops, all the supplements—the whole thing.
We're doing another independent film called Night Train, which is kind of a film noir, shot in black & white to emulate the old Orson Welles style. The director of the movie is very close to the DVD project. He's there approving everything, designing the screens, telling them what he wants. That's the beauty of a company like Synapse, over MGM or Paramount.
dOc: Those are the kind of touches that film fans appreciate. When the director has that kind of hands-on involvement, it makes the resulting DVD that much more satisfying.
DM: Us little guys have that advantage to work with filmmakers to make them feel more comfortable, and I think that's one of the strengths we have over the bigger studios.
dOc: What's your impression of the current horror/sci-fi genre?
DM: Honestly, I haven't been scared, absolutely horrified since The Exorcist. I go to horror films all the time, no matter how good or bad. It's really hard now to come up with new fresh ideas, and that's the problem I have with any genre, really. Look at Attack of the Clones. It's an OK movie, but everything in the film eludes to other movies. You've got the end right out of Gladiator; you've got the assembly line chase from Chicken Run. It's all been done before. When is somebody going to come up with a new, fresh idea? I don't think it's possible. Even George Lucas borrowed half the stuff from his own movies. The last really fresh movie, even though I, honest to God, didn't like the film, was The Blair Witch Project. I can just imagine how much Artisan must have freaked out over that ending, saying "We can't end it that way, because audiences just won't get it."
dOc: I've always been a fan of the traditional monster movie, and I really liked Jeepers Creepers. It didn't try to build a franchise, it was just a fun monster movie.
DM: You bring up an interesting point. I thought it was a lot of fun. The person I was with absolutely loathed it. The reason: "Why is he doing this? Where is he from? They don't explain everything." Do they have to ? Do they have to spell everything out for you? That's one of my pet peeves, when the studio, director or producer feels that the audience just doesn't get what's going on and they have a character explain something in a line of dialogue. I hate that.
dOc: If you had to pick one director of the horror sc-fi genre, past or present, as your favorite, who would it be?
DM: George. George Romero. A lot of people have issues with some of his films. I love everything. I think all of his movies are great. It might have something to do with the fact that he was the very first director I ever worked with in this business, and he was like God to me when I started watching horror movies when I was a kid. I must have seen Dawn of the Dead a million times. He's the one guy that I look forward to seeing anything he's done. He's the man. He has the uncanny ability to take a horror story and, God forbid, add some humanity to the characters. He's the one director, in my opinion, that's been able to pull that off with his characters.