Dennis Doros and Amy Heller have made a life together sharing their love of film. In 1990, shortly after getting married, Amy and Dennis left their respective jobs at New Yorker Films and Kino International and launched Milestone Film & Video. Since then, the boutique film distributor they run out of their home has become one of the most acclaimed and respected champions for independent film in the world, particularly for its work in film restoration. Bringing exotic, shot-on-location works like F. W. Murnau's Tabu and Mikhail Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba back to life, or introducing new audiences to the work of underrecognized filmmaker Shirley Clarke, Milestone has worked with partners such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, and Jonathan Demme, and been feted by the likes of The National Society of Film Critics and Turner Classic Movies. For Valentine's Day, and in anticipation of their visit to the Wex February 22 for the opening night of Cinema Revival, we asked Dennis and Amy to talk about how they work together and the film they're bringing to Columbus, Lois Weber's socially progressive 1916 drama Shoes.
How did you two first meet?
Amy Heller: In November of 1988, when Bush Sr. was elected, our friend Jeff Capp, who we both knew from the film business, and his roommate Wayne Salazar, who I think was at Cinecom at the time, had a party in their double-wide loft in Clinton, right near the Lincoln Tunnel. We still have the invitation. We were both friends with Jeff and we had a lot of friends in common. We both basically had the same job but for different companies. So we had both been invited to this party. Dennis, do you have that invitation?
Dennis Doros: It says, "Calling all comrades, homosexuals, illegal aliens, feminists, Marxists, atheists, nudists, weight lifters, artists, dreamers." I guess we were one of the above.
AH: We were very good friends. Jeff’s still a good friend.
DD: "Cross-dressing optional."
AH: Well, neither one of us did that.
AH: So we met at the party. And we had met once before, I’d interviewed for a job at Kino before I went to work for New Yorker. I don’t know, we met each other but nothing really happened. But we really spent time talking together at the party and then Dennis… pursued me.
DD: That’s about right. It took a few months for her to realize that.
What went into the decision to go into business together?
DD: [laughing] Your side first.
AH: Well, we got married.
DD: And I had been restoring some films on my own for… practice, amusement, whatever you want to call it.
AH: As a hobby. So Dennis had been working on a series we’d later call "The Age of Exploration", films that were shot in the silent and early sound period in remote locations: Murnau’s Tabu, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’’s Cheng and Grass, films that were shot in Antarctica, a whole series. And my background was in history so I started doing research too. And then that series needed a home, and we weren’t sure what was going to happen with it or who was going to release it. So we started thinking about what we could do, and I was ready to leave New Yorker at that point—I’m not a great employee, I’m kind of a pain in the ass. And when I did think about leaving, my friend Philip Haas said he’d give me his documentary films. If we’d had a moment of clarity, we would’ve stopped and thought that, you know, obscure documentaries and films on location in the early sound and silent period were not really a great launching place for a distribution company. As a business plan, not so much. But we did have a plan so that saved us. So I left New Yorker shortly after we got married and then, shortly after that, Dennis realized he wanted to join me, so he did.
Were there any initial concerns about working together that closely, about fusing life and work like that?
DD: From everybody else.
AH: I think we sort of thought, OK, well, we’ll just do it.
DD: It’s always been a reality; it hasn’t been anything we thought about. Nor was there much thought behind starting the company. We just started it.
AH: Other people have often said to us, "I could never work with my husband. I’d kill him." And I can understand that, but we just didn’t feel that way. It’s not that we don’t disagree and get on each other’s nerves, but somehow, it’s OK.
DD: We like our work and we’ve found a niche that keeps it going for us.
AH: And though sometimes it’s claustrophobic to work from home—which is what we’ve done almost all the way through—when we became parents it meant that we could see our kid, and that was good.
DD: I think if you do it, you find a way, because there are a lot of husband-and-wife working couples.
AH: I think you figure out ways to communicate that you don’t kill each other. Every couple is a different story. I have no words of wisdom, but we haven’t killed each other, so there you go.
How do you choose the films that you focus on at Milestone?
AH: That, too, doesn’t exactly have a business plan, to put it mildly. Films have come to us in all kinds of ways and continue to come to us in all kinds of ways. I would say that our criteria has always been that we should feel the film is something we’re passionate about, that we believe in. And believing in it usually has several levels: we believe in it as cinema, as a document to present to the world, as important in history, a whole bunch of things.
AH: Politically for sure! That has taken us all over the place. We’ve done new features. We’ve done lots of documentaries, and we started with restorations—our first films were with archives—but that became a real niche, and Dennis got very involved with the Association of Moving Image Archivists. He knows all the archivists and has worked with them so that became a real joy, because we were able to find films, bring out films that were newly restored, or we could brings films to the archives to be restored.
DD: Starting in 2007 with Killer of Sheep, it became not only about restoration, but films that… Amy, you want to do this one?
AH: We’re interested in the politics of inclusion, in films that represent a wide variety of filmmakers—women, people of color, dealing with issues in the lives of all kinds of people—so that’s always been what we’ve been looking for. And since 2007, we’ve focused a lot on American filmmakers, simply because there’s a lot of work to be done, but also because we have a great relationship with Turner Classic Movies. Dennis embarked on restoring all the feature films of Shirley Clarke, and that’s just been amazing and an unbelievable amount of work, but amid a lot of joy. As we’ve done with other filmmakers, we feel like the work that we do brings their films and their art into focus for a lot of people.
DD: And their voices.
AH: And their voices, and their politics, and their images, so we feel like we helped. With Charles Burnett, of course he wasn’t an unknown filmmaker, but people didn’t get to see the films. We’ve done his short films, and My Brother's Wedding, and Killer of Sheep. And three of the four Shirley Clarke feature films, plus Dennis did this incredible labor of love, all these short films which just were released, called The Magic Box. Dance films, incomplete films, rough cuts, home movies, experimental films, like eight hours of programming, right?
DD: Yep. And we just did Kathleen Collins [the first black American woman to make and release a feature film]. What’s up on my second computer screen now is, Kathleen Collins did this class in 1984 that’s just amazing, and her daughter just found a tape of it so we’re going to put it up. And her voice is amazing.
How did you get involved with restoring Lois Weber's Shoes?
DD: Through friendships with the archivists. When I got on the board of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, I became more involved with the international archives, and one of our closest friends is the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam [which restored the film]. We had already done Lois Weber's The Blot. When I saw this film several years ago, I just fell in love with it. I have lunch with them every year and I said I have to do Shoes , but I want to do it with [Weber's] The Dumb Girl of Portici. They're completely opposite films—one is interior, one is way exterior. And that took about three or four more years before the Library of Congress finished it – it was hard, hard work on their part. So when we finally got Dumb Girl of Portici last year, I acquired Shoes at the same time.
Lois Weber is a known entity by name, but no one has ever really watched her films. [Shoes and Dumb Girl of Portici] are her best, really. Again, a forgotten voice and definitely a political voice.
AH: And a feminist voice.
DD: I did not know this, but Universal Studios and Carl Laemmle were willing to back her. Her voice was getting attacked by the general populace, by politicians. Universal defended her, by hiring her, by going to court for her [to fight censorship], again and again. What’s really interesting is how people talk about Lois Weber's stories and how transgressive they were. What no one talks about is that she was the equal of any director in her era, including Griffith. Her panning shots and editing are as sophisticated as anybody. She was a great director, period.
AH: Shoes is just amazing, and the lead performance by Mary MacLaren, who was sixteen years old, it’s so naked, and it’s really beautiful. It’s so interesting to hear people’s reactions. I can’t wait. It’s one of those films that just gets people feeling things.