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In Full Frame: Director Rose Troche and Sundance Institute’s John Nein on Restoring the Lesbian Classic Go Fish

Go Fish

“It’s very much like having a kid out there in the world doing its own thing,” said writer/director Rose Troche last month as she was finishing the restoration of her debut feature Go Fish, which screened as part of Sundance’s 40th Edition programming this week, three decades after its original premiere at the festival. “It’s one of those films that has never gone out of the conversation, this funky movie made for $17,000 that launched these careers.”

Troche is right —while many films from Sundance in the ’90s never made the leap to digital distribution, the lesbian drama Go Fish really has never gone away. The first film ever to be bought during the Sundance Film Festival — producer’s rep John Pierson sold it to the Samuel Goldwyn Company, who released it that summer of 1994 — it followed the Goldwyn Library to Amazon MGM and has been available on Tubi, Screenpix and other digital platforms. But the version currently streaming, a video transfer of the 16mm-shot picture’s 35mm blowup, doesn’t represent the film that first screened at Sundance. “The restoration takes it back to 16mm,” said Troche, “and all the framings are so much better. With the 35mm [blow-up, which was presented in 1.66] you would lose the tops and the bottoms [of the frames].” 

There’s another restored element as well. “It’s a filthy film,” Troche laughed. “I mean, it’s just so hairy it’s not even funny. When it was on 35mm blown-up, all the stuff that was in the gate you wouldn’t see. Now all the hairs are back. If we have a little bit of money left in the budget, there are some heinous hairs that we’d like to address and erase.” 

With restorations of ultra-low-budget work, there’s always the question of how much of an original lo-fi look to accept and how much to try to “correct.” Said Troche, “I went for that kind of rough aesthetic in the first place, so we just kind of embraced it. We weren’t going to touch the film’s Super 8 [footage] because I had put a red filter on it to make it even more high contrast, which is why there’s ping-pong-size grain. But we were able to fix a lot of the flickers.” Dolly shots — “when we were rolling the camera on like an office roller chair” — received some stabilization in the restoration. But the edit itself remains the same, even as Troche remarks, “I’m looking at the job I did editing and am like, ‘Oh my God, I’m really trying to make this thing into a feature and get to 79 minutes!” (She cited the haircut scene as one that as an editor she’d trim today.) As for sound, “There’s some super bad ADR,” said Troche, “and moments when the jazzy score battles dialogue” that she addressed. 

The Go Fish restoration — a 4K scan from the original 16mm A/B rolls and 35mm magnetic soundtrack —was a collaboration between the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Amazon MGM Studios, Frameline, Sundance Institute, and UCLA Film & Television Archive. John Nein, Sundance Programmer and Director of Strategic Initiatives, has been working on the restoration for nearly a decade. In an interview before the festival, he said, “It started with me remembering the film and understanding the place that it had in the history of Sundance and in what Ruby [critic B. Ruby Rich] dubbed the New Queer Cinema. I saw this film as being relevant to the work that we’re doing, which is restoring films, bringing them to new audiences and celebrating important moments in Sundance history. And this was one of the moments that I think defined Sundance, the relationship we had to LGBTQ cinema and to the idea that [this cinema] was part of what ‘independence’ was. You had a lot of films by gay male filmmakers — Rob Epstein, Todd Haynes, Todd Kalin, Isaac Julian, Gregg Araki — but it really felt like Go Fish was the film that was reasserting lesbian cinema into this new world of possibilities of independent filmmaking.”

Nein first reached out to Troche and executive producer Christine Vachon in 2014 to suggest the restoration, inquire into the location of the film’s various print elements and to determine its ownership status. “We got the elements over to UCLA probably about seven or eight years ago with the idea that we would at some point embark on some kind of formal preservation,” said Nein. “And it’s just taken that long to muster the resources, figure out who owns the rights, and figure out how we could practically proceed in digitally remastering the film.”

Some of Go Fish’s materials were in Troche’s personal storage. Materials that had been held by Pierson’s old company Islet had been transferred to MGM, and the Samuel Goldwyn Company still had some elements. “And then there were some elements we found elsewhere,” continued Nein. “You pull from the best materials you can pull from.” 

As for the legal trail, said Nein, “It’s the nature of the business that there are company ownership and library changes that make it more difficult to even ascertain who owns the rights, or where the original elements are. Islet no longer exists as a company, so there was a very long process that went into figuring out who even owned the Islet catalog. You would think that was one of those things that everybody just knew, but that wasn’t the case.”

The Sundance Institute’s Archives & Collections program was established in conjunction with the UCLA Film & Television Archive over 25 years ago, said Nein. “It comes from a time when Sundance and [former Festival Director] John Cooper in particular began to recognize that there were really important films that weren’t even that old that we couldn’t find and we couldn’t play as part of retrospectives or other public programming.” 

In its earliest days, the program prioritized collecting prints and also providing video access to research scholars wanting to view films at UCLA. But in the last 15 years, the focus shifted, said Nein, towards preserving original elements of the work and both archiving and restoring them. “The UCLA Film & Television Archive is one of the most state-of-the-art archives on the planet. You are basically safeguarding that original negative, the original sound master, and pre-print elements in an archive where people will know how to find them and access them as formats continue to change in the coming years. We’re trying to get filmmakers to be aware that their negative or pre-print materials should be someplace safe, particularly for those older films from the ‘80s going into the 2000s.”

As for Sundance’s restoration work, “The truth is, we don’t have a lot of resources,” admitted Nein, “so what we try to do is partner with other organizations, whether they’re archives or foundations, or in some cases, current distributors who have an interest in licensing the film and re-releasing it.” Go Fish currently does not a re-release distributor attached to it, but in the past Sundance has worked with, among others, Criterion, Kino Lorber, and Oscilloscope — the latter on restorations of films such as River of Grass and The Hours and Times.

As with Go Fish, restorations often involve detective work. “Certain films have challenges in terms of their preservation status,” said Nein. “They’re missing important elements. Nobody knows where the negative is. They don’t have any kind of inter-negative or sound elements missing. Every single project becomes trying to cobble together the resources in order to create some kind of restored or digitally restored version of the film.”

About the current restoration, Nein, like Troche, is thrilled by seeing Go Fish in its original 1.33 aspect ratio. “You now that iconic shot of the four women whose heads are on the ground together in the center [of the frame]? It’s a beautiful, slightly wider image when you see it in the original camera composition, and as you will see in the restoration, it looks great.” 

“I’m super happy that the restoration has happened because the movie [exists] in a more pristine way than I’ve ever seen it,” concluded Troche. “It struck me the other day when I was looking at the scenes that, God, everybody in this entire thing is gay! Everybody, even all the extras! It was really made out of community and born out of activism. All of our conversations at the time were about visibility. [Guinevere Turner and I] were in ACT UP and Queer Nation, and so many of the people who worked on it were in those organizations as well. I think what has kept it around is that sense of community. It’s not really a cynical film.”

Read Holly Willis’s original Filmmaker cover story on Go Fish here. 

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