Interview with Jason Longwell, 2/1/2010

I conducted this interview of Jason Longwell during the second week of January 2010. He was projecting a betamax film at the NW Film Center. The projection booth is clean, gleaming. All of the machines look freshly washed and frequently repaired – a far cry from the kind of booths I was used to. They have every brand of digital media projection equipment. This is one way a museum funded movie gig looks. When I commented on the tidiness, Jason confirmed my assessment. He said this was the nicest projection situation he’d ever worked in. As far as machines went, he never had to worry about breakdowns unless for some reason they were delivered a bad, breaking-down film print. Shortly after I hit record on my pocket audio recorder, Jason started the movie: TRIMPIN: THE SOUND OF INVENTION. The film was loud. Sounds of wild scales and orchestral mayhem argued with our talks. We moved from the double-wide projection windows to a small desk tucked at the top of the booth staircase, talking about my perpetual search for gainful employment and the kind of experiences projectionists enjoy.


Jason Longwell: I can’t picture you being a bouncer.

MM: It’s like the things that go down in a theater, you know: someone is being obnoxious and somebody else throws their drink at them, or somebody’s not really tracking with reality and they take their shoes off – that kind of thing.

JL: Yeah. There was once, this one time, the regulars that were there, the couple that always wants their pizza burnt, you know?

MM: Yeah, the blond bob. They’re both kinda stern looking.

JL: Yeah, exactly.

MM: They should have their pitchfork and apron.

JL: (laughs) They should. Wow.

He came back (to the concessions stand) in a huge huff. There were a couple of people sitting in front of him. {The people sitting in front were) probably late 40s / early 50s guys casually dressed but not dirty, you know, they obviously worked and were established. They (the men in front) were talking during the movie and he asked them to be quiet and they were really drunk so they said “go to hell” and this altercation arose. Apparently he said he was going to choke them and it was my job to stop them. I go in, turn up the auditorium lights, walk down there, ask these people to leave. I don’t come down there trying to solve anything, trying to have a discussion or anything. It’s like “you have to leave immediately” so of course one guy’s like “oh just start the movie, I’ll be quiet”, and I said “I’m not talking about this.”

MM: Yeah, they always say it’s going to be fine. It’s like, “No. You have to leave.”

So what was your first projection job?

JL: The Varsity Theatre in Ashland, Oregon in 1990. They have the main theater, and I think it had two auditoriums, maybe four but I think it was two. Then they had a little alley down the side of it that you would go down and they turned this back area, what had been a storeroom, into a little 24-some seat micro-auditorium. It was pretty cool and they put all the artsy European films back there.

MM: Things that really only 25 people would want to see.

JL: Yeah, that place never sold out once, strangely enough. I worked that auditorium down the back. It had its own concession counter but it was literally right up against the back row of seats and then the projection booth was right above your head there and there was a little staircase right behind. Really cute, but the bad part about it was somebody had to man the concession counter in case someone wanted some KitKats during the film. That meant I had to be in the auditorium every time every movie played; which was a drag. Still fun to get to run the movies, still fun to have my first experience of threading up a movie, starting it, turning down the lights and having a movie play on the screen.

MM: how old were you?

JL: 20.

Then I moved to Portland (that same year) and dropped of a resume at Lloyd Cinemas (before Regal bought it. It was Act III at the time) and as I was walking across the parking lot to catch the MAX one of the managers came out, walked me back in and gave me an interview and I was hired. Of course, Lloyd Center Cinemas is 10 screens. I never got to the point where I was building and tearing down prints there, ‘cause I didn’t have the seniority to be trusted but it was fun because it kept you busy, there wasn’t as much down time to wait around for stuff to happen. That job is it’s the only time I’ve run interlinked projectors where one print plays on multiple projectors. Instead of the normal length of trailer it’s, like, fifteen times that long. It’s really pretty easy, just amazingly simple: you just thread up the projector like normal and instead of going over to the platter you just go up to another roller, down to the next projector and thread that up, and down to the next one. We had Home Alone there. We showed it on three screens at one time. You just press one button and all the automation kicks in.

MM: Do all the projectors start at the same time? I heard there was a five second delay or something.

JL: Well, all the motors start at the same time ‘cause the film has to all move as one. But then when the dowsers open is delayed. [Editor note: Dowsers open the shutter, allowing light to penetrate the film and illuminate it on screen.]

MM: It takes that amount of time to travel from one room to the next.

JL: Yeah. And when you’re bored you can walk down and watch one scene, one word, one line of dialog, again and again and again. So yeah, Lloyd Center – I worked there a week within a year. I didn’t work in a theater again until probably two or three years later. I went to the Broadway Metroplex, got a job there, and that was my first time where it was kinda my booth. I worked there five days a week and I worked there Thursday nights doing all the prints and all the trailers and all that stuff and it was a lot of fun.

MM: Explain what happens on Thursday nights.

JL: Thursday nights … Fridays are the days when new movies premiere and it is also when new trailers premiere, too. So Thursday night is when all the traffic happens. You have to build every print that comes in, attach the newest trailers you have to it and tear down every movie that is leaving – make sure you don’t have any trailers on prints that are leaving or that you currently have or anything like that. Which can take kinda forever because it all needs to be done that night. Especially if you’re the only one working and you’ve got three coming in and three going out and each of them have three or four trailers on them it just takes … I remember riding my bike home at four in the morning more than once. Still, kinda fun. Still kinda fun to be in charge and how everything runs is under your control and it was fun to, you know, the whole time I worked there there were maybe one or two prints that had something go wrong. Some prints just seem to be cursed no matter what.

MM: There are prints where the film stock is brittle or there have been a lot of accidents in the past so there are lots of splices and those splices break or jam.

JL: Yeah. Some of the vintage prints we’ve shown, some of the prints that revivals theaters show, they are just like paper – they just get shredded every time. Some prints I’ve played broke every time I played them. But at Broadway I got to show a 70mm print of Vertigo because they have an old Norelco there and we were able to adapt the platters to show this 70mm print. That was fun. It looked gorgeous.

So I worked there for about two and a half years. Left (the industry) again. I had decided I didn’t like the job I had ended up with, house remodeling. So I was wanting a new job, just went out to Bar of the Gods, probably the first year it was open, sat down and this guy next to me started chatting to me and he knew someone who worked at the Hollywood Theatre who knew that they were looking for a projectionist.

So I went in, took a resume, dropped the name of this guy’s friend that worked there, and got hired there and got to be in the same position as before — five days a week, but through the summer it was six days a week plus matinees. I definitely (laughs) got burned out a little bit, got too many hours there, but it was a blast. I got to show cool movies, you know, they have a lot of different movies there. Probably my favorite projectionist experience was there; getting to show the Library of Congress movies.

The Library of Congress has a department that catalogues films. It’s not every year, but every three or four years when they inaugurate a batch of films they are going to preserve for the rest of history, they’ll strike fresh prints from the original negative and send them out. They have six or eight city tours where they have little fests and it’s just everything. We actually showed Gertie the Dinosaur which is the first ever animated movie, and Chaplin films and one of, do you know that silent movie Sunrise, it’s one of the top 10 movies on everybody’s list ever. We showed 2001, Searchers, Chinatown, Raging Bull.

MM: That’s a pretty monumental collection.

JL: Yeah, exactly. And every one of them was a brand new print, struck from the original negatives, and the only print like that in circulation. So that was a lot of fun. I don’t know how many days, four maybe, where you’re in the tiny little booth there with two giant projectors and the platter system and then like three dozen prints stacked on top of each other and each one of them plays once and once only so….

MM: You can’t really build them but you have to build them because you’re using platter feed.

JL: Yeah, exactly. But you can, you know, you’ve got to, you’re just building. You’d start a movie, tear down the one that just played, build the one that was about to play and rotate like that. It kinda was a lot of work but fun. And Hollywood is a cool old theatre. It was one of the places that wasn’t built as a movie theater, it was a vaudeville house. It has the creepiest basement I’ve ever been in my entire life, but a cool prosceniumarch and stage and everything behind the screen. They keep all the letters for the marquee in the green rooms which still have sinks and mirrors in them.

The first time I ever showed anything digital was there. This must have been the late 1990s. It wasn’t so much the projector, it looked cold and unnatural, but it was still ok. It was off some snow-boarder kid’s little camcorder so in the front half of the auditorium the resolution was so bad it looked like abstract art. You had to sit in the back to be able to watch.

We showed a movie there that was beamed via satellite. Set up a little dish antenna on the roof and had some cables coming in and a decoder to connect to the digital projector. At the time that was going to be the next big thing but it went nowhere.

That was also the time period when, well, these days (and for always it’s been this way) people ship prints on 18 minute reels, but for a while they were trying to eliminate projectionist error, you know, the less you can have the projectionist handle the print the better, which sadly is true for average projectionists, so they decided to start sending these giant reels out where there was only one splice necessary to get the movie built. It lasted for about six months, eight months, something like that. Apparently didn’t think it was worth it.

I left the Hollywood. The next placed I worked was the Clinton Street Theater. I don’t think I went straight from one job to the other, they may have overlapped. Overall, the Clinton Street will probably be my favorite theater I will ever work at if I do this for the rest of my life because it was so small, I mean, I was the main projectionist, but there was me and the two owners and that was it, that was the staff, that was who ran the theater. It was a cool little spot to work. You could get your dinner from Dots, get your [editor note: presumably after work] beer from Clinton Street Pub, and talk to the girls at K&F Coffee. So it was a cool place to work. It was nothing but revival at the time so it was everything: Manchurian Candidate, Enter the Dragon, Duck Soup; everything you’d want.

MM: You were there for a while and then you left and you went back?

JL: I stayed there all the way through but it changed owners.

MM: I remember there was a moment where you were discontent. You were “meh” and wanted to get out of there.

JL: Yeah, the owner, the person that took it over, I guess you’re not going to be in love with every person you work with. But fun place to work. Tiny booth up there. I found, dug around back in storage, strange little closets that were fourteen feet tall and fifteen feet deep, I found a cool old projector back there that looked like a spaceship from the old Buck Rogers serial, an old Carbon Arc machine. That was really cool. Also, got to show pornos there, old pornos.

MM: Lots of Troma films there.

JL: Yeah, I met Lloyd Kaufman there.

MM: He was there all the time! Every time they’d show a movie that Friday and Saturday he’d be there. He’d put someone in some goofy costume and they’d parade up and down the aisles and give away swag. Yeah, he’s ridiculous (editor note: said in a most loving and admiring tone).

JL: Yeah, he was there kinda a lot, honestly. We showed a lot of his movies. We premiered Toxie Four or Toxie Eight or whatever one was the current one at the time.

They played Rocky Horror Picture Show there forever, but they have their own staff for that. I’ve never shown it.

When I was working there I started filling in at Cinema 21, doing this thing where I was eventually going to take over Dave’s spot but [editor note: Dave still works at Cinema 21] I was just the on-call guy, no regular hours. It was really just one or two times a year that I would work two or three days. Actually, some of us are going to go watch Run Lola Run later tonight, which I projected at Cinema 21 back in 1999.

I had become disgruntled with the situation at Clinton Street, I had gone into the Laurelhurst Theater and asked an owner if they were hiring. I got on there and then got let go from the Clinton Street – technically because she didn’t have the money to pay me as much as she had been. She had an ex partner who came in and took over my hours. I think I was, must have only been a couple days a week at first at Laurelhurst. That segued into five days a week for several years. That thing at Cinema 21 (the random fill-in hours) turned into regular hours, which was the first time I cut back from the Laurelhurst. Then I moved to Tucson, AZ for a year, came back to the two jobs. Then went to Alaska for half a year and, again, back to the Laurelhurst.

MM: you also do a lot of other stuff. What else do you do?

JL: Play music some. Read a lot. I don’t know. I guess, I have tons of records (is a collector), I know a lot more about music than will give me anything. At the same time I’m 39 and saving up for a car.

MM: That may be a fault of projecting.

JL: Yeah, there’s definitely a ceiling in how much you can make in the projection booth.

MM: How do you feel about being the man behind the machine?

JL: I love it. It’s not like I sought that out. It’s not like I thought I would love it and chased it down. But there is something that is kind of exciting about it. When you first encounter movies, television and radio, even as a kid or teenager, it seems a bit like some kind of magic before you give it any thought as to how it happens.

That’s part of why it is exciting to be the guy behind the curtain or peek behind the curtain and see what’s there. It’s fun. It’s just kind of a cheap thrill. You know, I was a DJ for a while, college station, and when people would call and ask for their favorite song or say they liked the song I just played, it’s nice getting that kind of feedback and there’s a tiny version of that here, if for some reason you’re showing a movie that people laugh to or love it or something like that.

It’s kind of nice to see all those people sitting in the dark auditorium and you put something on screen and play it for them. It’s also satisfying to me in that there is so much room to perfect it, so much room for little details to break the spell, so it’s fun to stay on top of that as much as possible. To have nothing wrong, to have nothing happen that all of a sudden pops the little bubble of fantasy that people get into when they watch a movie, especially when it starts to involve getting to know more about the machines, is great.

When you’re working 40+ hours a week in a movie theater, there is a lot of down time. It’s the perfect time to get a crescent wrench and a screw driver and just start looking at things and figure out how they work and figure out if they are working as good as they can. These machines all have lots of parts that can be adjusted. You can look at what they are supposed to be doing and see if they are doing it as good as they can. It’s got this kind of technical side to it that’s really satisfying that you can teach yourself about and perfect it. You can figure out how to focus a bulb just by doing it.

MM: Do you think a lot of projectionists are trained in that way? That they get a basic training on thread up and button pushing but then it becomes curiosity that makes them learn how the machines really work and how to repair them?

JL: Yeah, especially these days when there are so few people left who really know anything about them. The ones that do don’t really work in movie theaters any more. They are ACE technicians (American Cinema Equipment). Nobody, especially in the big chain theaters, in my experience, gets shown anything – only how to get the movie on screen, how to use the focus knob, that’s it. So if you’re going to learn anything more than that, you’re going to have to follow your own inquisitiveness and mechanical aptitude. You’re going to have to figure it out. Which is part of the attraction of the job, I think. A lot of people are drawn toward working with machines. It’s fun to get in there and figure it out.

MM: That was part of the appeal for me. I have power over this giant machine that can blind people and catch on fire and do all these crazy things and makes lots of noise and it’s bigger than I am, and then you have, like you said, you can come in an hour early and you can open the lamp house and vacuum out all the dust and clean all the wires in there. It’s really satisfying to open it up and see how simple it is on the inside.

JL: Yeah, you know how the intermittent works?

MM: (nods) but describe it.

JL: It’s kind of cool. It’s one of those things people that like math or machines love. There are certain functions that can be made to happen that is impressively elegant, but it’s a mechanism – in the intermittent sprocket it’s call the Geneva mechanism, you can Wikipedia that because there’s a whole deal on why it’s called that and the history, but it’s four across, an X, each of the four points is tined, each has a slot in the middle that a little metal peg will fit into, and there’s a little metal peg on the edge of a disk. You’ve got your X and you’ve got the disk. That peg will engage the arm. At that point you will be able to translate your constant rotational motion into intermittent rotational motion.

MM: That’s because the one point is off the side of the disk. So it’s not centered or balanced with another point. Because it’s the only point, it’s off.

JL: It’s like a gear with one cog that engages once every rotation, grabs one of the four arms on this X, grabs it, moves it, grabs the next, moves it, etc. That’s one of the cool things about projectors, honestly.

MM: Instead of a person with a handle going crankity-crankity-crankity.

JL: Which, honestly, is kinda cool in itself. I mean, I’m glad I’m not that projectionist, but movies were only like seven minutes long in those days.

That to me is one of the niftiest phenomenons of that technology is that while that intermittent is actually moving you can’t be shining the movie on the screen at that moment or it will look really blurry. So there’s a shutter that shuts off the light. That mechanism engages and advances the frame, and then the shutter lets the light through, cuts it off again, advances, etc. The reason it doesn’t look like it’s blinking is because of that phenomenon of when you look at the sun and then close your eyes you can still see the sun, that image stays on your eyes long enough that you still see it before you notice the black-out. If you could see it going black and coming back on, going black and coming back on, you’d notice that the black parts are slightly longer than when it’s on screen, so, if you could actually see it, you’d realize that over half the time you are in the movie you’re just sitting in a dark black room with nothing on screen.

MM: So you think if aliens came to our planet, they would wonder, ‘what is wrong with those people?’

JL: They would probably wonder why we weren’t flashing those pictures faster.

Technology hasn’t changed much. From 1990 to now is, what, whoa, that’ll be twenty years. The way the soundtrack is read has changed – used to be a light bulb and now it’s an LED.

MM: A lot of projectors you can still see that conversion. You can see the LED and the light bulb they just pushed out of the way.

JL: That and more digital stuff. Those are the only changes.

I think there is some gene or something that makes people want to make things run perfect.

MM: There’s a sense of, as a projectionist, it’s your show. Like a costumer for the Opera, or a press operator printing a broadsheet, there’s a sense of pride that 100 people are going to see this and it needs to be sharp because I’m putting it on.

JL: In a way, as a projectionist you’re supposed to be the ultra machine. No mistake is ever made, everything happens as it is supposed to, but there’s a little bit of room too, like, if it’s a comedy and it’s a Saturday night, I’ll often boost the sound up so people when they are laughing can hear the next joke.

MM: I know you’ve been scoping out other jobs and you have another job.

JL: I have another job. I work here at the Film Center, over at the Laurelhurst, and work down at PGE in the department that prints the bills.

Everybody hates getting their electric bill in their inbox and I play a key role in getting it there. (laughs) But at the same time, even though it’s a little overly professional, and by-the-book version of humane or pleasant, there are almost no rumor mills and it’s one of the healthiest, most stable work environments I’ve been in. Probably partly helped by how well everyone gets paid down there. It’s a good company to work for. It’s in the basement. Literally no windows, it’s just white cinder block walls and concrete and machines performing the same function twenty thousand times an hour, you know, it’s not a lot of soul satisfaction. Outside of work, outside of that, I have to get something figured out. The job with PGE is temporary. I have to get something to replace it. As far as what, I’m a little scared of how easy it will be to find anything.

MM: What are the worst jobs you’ve had?

JL: Just like any sane, red blooded human, you get burnt out on customer service. I think I’m past burnt out. I just don’t want it in my life. I don’t want to have to process that, you know. I just want to remove that customer service from my life as soon as possible. So any kind of coffee shop or restaurant or kitchen … not a lot of fun.

MM: Having that anxiety of having to find a job while still holding a job becomes a second heartbeat and puts a lot of pressure on you because you’re trying to keep that extra organ pumping.

JL: It’s easy to have a lot of energy and be optimistic while things are good. Hopefully I can keep at it. Some of the worst jobs I’ve had were as grunt dudes at construction places.

There was one guy, awesome guy, had more fun hanging out with this boss, super cool guy, but he somehow learned there was a law that had been passed where if you had a heater than used oil and the tank was outside then you had to have it removed – that was his job, removing these tanks. You have to dig two feet down, weld a hole in that, scoop all the shit out, weld a hole in the bottom of the tank, then dig out any dirt down there. You have to take out all the dirt, anything contaminated. God, just being at this point eight feet down in the ground, a tiny little spot, air is choked with diesel fumes, trying to dig down there, it’s not even dirt at that depth, just rocks and gravel, you’ve been down there for three hours – it’s like, “Holy shit.” That was one job, when I left I was like, “I just can’t do it.”

MM: If you could make your own job, what would it look like?

JL: Realistically?

MM: It can be anything you want!

JL: Music reviews, movie reviews, stuff like that. Not that I have the best taste in the world or am the most knowledgeable. It’s something I do anyhow. I just tune in to what’s going on, what people are saying. I’ve seen so many movies, listened to so much music; I kinda have a background to draw on. You get kind of a universal yardstick in your head. Getting paid a lotta money, enough money to travel, spend my afternoons on the beach in Spain.

MM: (laughs) Now you’re depressing me. (JMM)

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