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’Cleopatra’ :: Looking Gorgeous At 50

by Bill Biss
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Sunday Jul 14, 2013
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As Senior Vice-President of Library and Technical Services at 20TH Century-Fox Film Corporation, Schawn Belston is one of the top management people at the studio who initiated the studio’s "Film Preservation" program.

Belston garners respect for his position by painstakingly restoring such Fox titles as the vivid 1945 melodrama "Leave Her to Heaven," the classic "The Sound of Music," Martin Scorcese’s scathing satire "The King of Comedy" (with Jerry Lewis) and Bob Fosse’s dazzling "All That Jazz." Belston and his team did this so that audiences could see the films in optimum presentation, rescuing them from the inevitable decay of film stock.

Belston’s most recent project is one of Fox’s most famous (some may say infamous) titles: "Cleopatra," the 1963 historical drama made famous by the off-screen antics of its stars (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) and its escalating budget. Upon its release, it was the most expensive film ever made (44 million-the equivalent of $323 million in 2012 dollars), nearly bankrupting the studio in the process. Though it was the highest-grossing movie of the year, it still was considered a box office failure because it didn’t come close to making back its production and marketing costs. Nominated for nine Oscars, it won four (for costumes, art direction, cinematography and visual effects); though only Rex Harrison was the only cast member to receive a nomination (or good reviews). Taylor was said to have been so devastated by her bad reviews she took to her bed in a London hotel room for days.

Schawn Belston speaks to EDGE of the challenges, the history and the mystique of the costly historical drama, from Elizabeth Taylor’s literally "gut" reaction to seeing the film for the first time, the surprising response for the restored 50th anniversary edition at Cannes Film Festival and a high-caliber description explained in simpler terms on the restoration work. "Cleopatra" is a masterpiece of Hollywood madness and magic at its best.


The restoration process

EDGE: For someone who isn’t knowledgeable in regard to the technical side of restoration, please tell me about the ’Lowry Process?’ Is that pronounced like the seasoning?

Schawn Belston: Exactly (laughter) although, the ’Lowry Process’ wasn’t used on ’Cleopatra.’ I could tell you all about it...but.

EDGE: Oh no, please don’t. I had read an article on the restoration of ’Leave Her to Heaven’ [1945] and ’Drums Along the Mohawk’ [1939].

Schawn Belston: I did work on those. We did do those with the "Lowry." You know, they missed an opportunity... they should call it the Lowry seasoning, shouldn’t they? Those were with the ’Lowry Process.’ (Editor’s note: the advanced digital scanning process is named for its developer, the late John D. Lowry.)

’Cleopatra’ was a different story. We did that a different way.

EDGE: Is this a newer way?

Schawn Belston: It’s just a different way. So, in Liz Taylor’s contract to make the movie, it was specified that the movie be made in ’Todd-AO.’ That was the large format, 70-millimeter format, developed and owned by Mike Todd (Taylor’s husband at the time) aimed to rival the more cumbersome three-camera Cinerama process.) And, of course, she inherited the company when he passed away (in an plane crash in 1958). So, she had it in her contract that the company that she owned be used (in filming ’Cleopatra.’) The movie was shot in Todd-AO which means it was physically twice as big as normal.

We went back for the actual restoration, back to the original Todd-AO material. First of all, we made an old-fashioned photo chemical copy... like you would at a photo mat. We did this to make sure that the movie is archived on film so a hundred years from now, somebody else will be able to use it if something happens to the original. Then, we scanned that new print digitally and we made a 4-K (four thousand lines of resolution) scan, and then 2-K. We started the process two years ago...


Did Liz see it?

EDGE: So, Elizabeth Taylor was aware of it?

Schawn Belston: She was aware that we were working on it. Yeah, we never were able to show it to her, unfortunately. Actually I’m not sure she would have wanted to see it.

EDGE: Yeah, she said she got sick to her stomach [after watching the film for the first time].

Schawn Belston: The original road-show ’premiere’ version of ’Cleopatra’ was four hours and eight minutes long, which is how long the Blu-ray is. But, at the time, she avoided all the premieres of that road-show version. It wasn’t until the movie was released in London... that she saw it. She went to the London premiere which at that point, the movie had been cut down again to a shorter version for general release. It was a shorter version of the movie which by all accounts, she was highly displeased with the shortened version.

EDGE: What’s the next "big" thing in regard to Blu-ray?

Schawn Belston: That’s a tricky question. Yes, it looks as good as it can look with what we have today, in terms of technology. Tomorrow, will somebody invent some ’better’ whatever? Perhaps, the only way to see 1964’s "Cleopatra" is if you have access to a 70-millimeter print from the original camera negative. There are only a couple prints that exist. It’s nice that we could make it, for sure.


At Cannes

EDGE: Please share a bit of your journey to Cannes to present the film on opening night of the film festival there.

Schawn Belston: I didn’t actually go. I got sick. I couldn’t go. I missed it... They sent me over to London to do some press... some fashion press about ’Cleopatra’ and the filmed story of the movie and so on. I ate something that I shouldn’t have, I guess, because I was sick. I didn’t make it to Cannes. I heard it was a great party.

You know what I heard; that I was most tickled about the whole thing was the audience. Nobody left. It’s funny, restoring movies. It’s not my movie. I don’t own it. I’m only the custodian to try to help to perpetuate it. I take it personally. I’m always very concerned that people like the movie. I didn’t make ’Cleopatra,’ but I care very much about it. So, the movie is four hours and eight minutes long and I was terrified as you’re in the Riviera and I’m sure it’s gorgeous outside... it seems like a lot for someone to sit through. Apparently, the entire audience sat through the entire movie. I was thrilled. That was good.


"Cleopatra" is available on Blu-Ray. For more information visit the film’s Facebook page.

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