Movie Memories: Charlene Lydon on the Light House, awkward Q&As and hopes for reopening
Many a movie lover in the fair city of film is dying for the day when cinemas are back open again, but as we all know, a cinema is only as good as its programming. At the Light House Cinema in Smithfield and the Pálas in Galway, that selection is curated by Charlene Lydon, a genuine buff with a storied career and a fine eye for film.
In the latest Movie Memories, Film In Dublin spoke with Charlene to get more info on her own background, the secrets to a good slate of cinema and her hopes for the future as the chance of a return to Screen 1 becomes an ever so slightly bright light projected on the end of a long, uncertain tunnel.
Film In Dublin: What are some of your own earliest memories of going to the cinema and what was the cinema when you were growing up?
Charlene Lydon: The cinema for me, growing up was the Colosseum in Carlow, which was like a one screen, rat infested, possible hellhole, but at the time for me, when I walked in there it was just like I was walking into a palace, my parents and everyone would be like, oh, that place is awful and I would just say what are you talking about?? This place is Heaven! It just seemed so big and fancy. But looking back on it, everything was brown and covered in dirt so, it wasn’t very fancy, but it was just an amazing little cinema. I wish it was still there, but it’s been knocked down for a multiplex as is usually the case.
My first, I think it was probably like someone’s birthday party or something, I remember going to see Sister Act and I would have been like 8 at the time, so that that would be one of my earliest actual memories of going to the cinema. I know I saw certain things in the cinema, but I don’t really remember them, and that would have stood out because I would have been I guess going with some friends to the cinema, maybe with that kind of independence? I went to the cinema often enough when I was a kid, my sister would bring me, not my parents so much, they’re not big fans…Plus, it was just one of the few things to do in Carlow!
FID: And when you were a little older, do you remember what the first type of film similar to what you might screen in the Light House you might have watched?
CL: It‘s hard to say ’cause I always really liked films, but my thing was always that I would watch a film and then I’d watch it 1000 more times and there were really random films like Ace Ventura, Pet Detective but also Some Like It Hot, you know, that I would just take a notion that I loved. But definitely I remember being under 14 and always looking at what the Screen Cinema was playing in the paper where they had the listings, because it wasn’t accessible to me because the cinema in Carlow just had whatever was out that week, the bigger films or whatever, and I remember just thinking about all these weird little films. As soon as I could I started to get the bus to Dublin to watch films and I would have gotten to see things like The Royal Tenenbaums and Big Lebowski and stuff like that.
There was a period of time in my life where I would watch a film and I wouldn’t really quite get it, but I knew that I liked it…but I didn’t know why. I remember watching Fargo the year it came out when it was nominated for all the Oscars. And I was really into the Oscars, so I remember watching it and just being like, ‘That was so weird, why? Why did I like that? Was that bad? Was it good?’ And being attracted to its weirdness? I guess I developed just a sort of taste for stuff that was a little bit unusual, I’m using examples of quite mainstream films, but it was just this kind of notion that films could be something different to normal and I could be confused by them and they might be very complicated, but that I still liked them, you know?
FID: One thing that stands out over the last year in terms of how people have tried to keep up with watching films and engaging with films, with watch parties, live tweeting and more is that they still do want a curated, communal experience. Can you talk a bit about how you got into that world and that career path of film and festival programming?
CL: I always knew I wanted to work in film, but I knew very early on that I didn’t want to make films ’cause I wasn’t good at it and didn’t relish being on film sets, so l decided this is not the angle for me. But I definitely wanted to be involved in film, so I studied film theory and history and then there was no jobs...I was doing a bit of film reviewing and stuff for a while and l was doing unpaid stuff for a long time and then I got an internship with Element Pictures in their Script Development department which I really liked. Working with writers and trying to find new talent and trying to find the hot new book and all that stuff that was really interesting but that was just a nine-month thing.
When I was finishing up there, they came to me and mentioned their Volta platform, the Irish video–on–demand platform. They were looking for someone to program that, select the films and I obviously had shown an interest in Irish films and in indie films. I just liked watching films, it’s basically my superpower and so I started working with that and because of my background with film writing, I was also the editorial manager, putting together an articles section on the website. It opened up an introduction to how the movie business sort of works, and how distributors work and sales agents and all that sort of thing, and then shortly afterwards Element took over the Light House, and at the time it was kind of like, Charlene, would you mind coming into this meeting for a minute and then it was like, well, maybe you come to this meeting every week and it sort of just developed from there and it took me a while to be fully in there, it just kind of happened over time. it was sort of a weird career path but also in that way that it felt like everything I had done had led me there.
FID: Film programming, it’s not just a case of taking old films that are available and throwing them out there. To you what makes a strong film program or a strong festival program?
CL: I think part of it is an appreciation for curation, and I think people want it as you’ve said, but also the knowledge that people who love films don’t love just one type of film. They love screwball comedies, they love horror. They love European films from the 60s, musicals, all kinds of different films. So for every time we’ll screen a Kubrick film, we’ll screen a Rocky film, and I think it’s really nice to make sure that all your audiences are covered, because I say ‘all your audiences’, but they’re all the same audience.
People like different things. I think when I approach putting together a season, it’s almost like first of all I suppose is this the time for this person to be discussed or for this genre to be looked at. Quite often I’m like nah it’s not there yet, or we’ve done something similar recently, but I think it’s about curating stuff and appreciating that there’s such a broad base of taste out there, and everyone needs to be facilitated. Ultimately you want to have something that might not sell 200 tickets to a certain film, but that I know the 30 people who go to that film, that’ll have made their week.
Quite often you come up with some random seasons too, I’ll use the example of the season we did about four or five years ago called Hacks, about journalists and films about journalists. And so you get All the President’s Men. But then you also get to play Anchorman and you get to play Zodiac and you get to play The Devil Wears Prada and it just felt like a really nice season because in in one way you get to show really broad films, that are completely different, but you’re also putting them in some kind of context which is about how Hollywood represents journalism in lots of different ways. And we did some panel discussions and that’s kind of part of it, but also not part of it.
By putting them together, you’re instantly creating a little bond between all these films those are the season that I really find interesting, ones that sort of explore how things are presented to us. And I don’t mean that in this extremely serious way, but it’s just like here’s a bunch of films about journalists. One of them we’re going to have a moustache party for. Another one is Almost Famous and we’re going to have a karaoke afterwards and another one is The Devil Wears Prada and we’re going to have a bunch of people who work in fashion magazines come in and talk about their industry and it was just all really interesting. If all seasons could be like that, I’d be so happy. It’s just about finding common threads within a bunch of films that I think an audience will respond to.
FID: There’s a tone balance as well, that really gives a programme a lot of personality and a lot to latch onto as an audience when you have a cocktail for a particular film or even the artwork that the cinemas commission. At the Light House and Pálas, how do you develop ideas like that and the creative direction that runs alongside particular seasons of programming?
CL: Well, we have a big, long list of all the seasons that we’d like to do ever, you know, and every now and then we’re like, probably time to do a season, which one will we do? We talk about that, myself and David Kelly, who runs our social media, but also has kind of got his fingers in programming, and we’re generally the ones who do the deciding. Once you’ve settled on your season, then it’s just kind of like you know what’s the right tone for this like or what are the films that we really feel: A) will pack them in and B) need to be in there for some other reason you know?
You might as well be having a chat in the pub, it’s two people who go to the Light House who love films talking about what we feel suits us as a brand or a space or whatever and then work almost like extra little things. We always like to try and have a party, a little event of some kind and some seasons lend themselves better to that than others. But you just got so excited when you come up with a stupid idea and you’re just think everyone else is gonna be really into this stupid idea, so give everyone a fake moustache when they’re going in to see Anchorman and have a Scotch cocktail. I’m delighted by that, so therefore everyone else will be delighted by that. That’s probably a ridiculous thing to say, but it is also like I am the Light House’s best customer. I go to everything because I want to go to them and I feel like other people must want that too, because they’re like me. They like films and they like having a good time and they like having a little drink in the bar or whatever and they like chatting with their friends about films and that you know. So I reckon if I think something is a fun, silly idea, 100 other people will as well. Generally it works out!
FID: What are some of your fondest memories of sitting in the Light House with a packed house?
CL: This is probably a strange one to use, but one of the best things we’ve ever done is a karaoke party for most of our Christmas seasons. The first one that we ever did, we had a screening of Elf which is a really good one because it ends on basically a singsong and then afterwards our karaoke party was packed and every single person was dressed up in ridiculous outfits, and by the end of it, everyone was up dancing around all the people who were singing and it was just so gorgeous it was such a lovely atmosphere, but that’s kind of a weird one, ’cause it’s a sort of an activity and it’s along the same lines as something like Stop Making Sense where everyone gets up by song three and nobody sits back down, they’re brilliant experiences.
We played Rocky IV once and everyone was up basically like they were watching a fight in a pub shouting and roaring at the at the screen. That’s all so much fun and you just get that wonderful sense of participation.
They’re quite particular moods, but there is also this spectacular collective mood that isn’t about standing up and shouting. Last year when we reopened in the summer, we put on Mulholland Drive. I’ve seen that film dozen times, but I just sat and watched it and the mood in the air really struck me that everyone was just so enthralled, and everyone was having their own little private experience because that film means different things to every single person who sits down and watches it. You get that quite often, just a collective feeling that everyone is into this and so on board. You also sometimes get the collective feeling that nobody is into this and that’s really awkward! But generally it’s about sitting in a room with people who are just having a little moment, you can feel it in the air. This kind of positive shared energy or something. It’s a really nice thing. It’s so exciting like and there’s tons of different ways that can happen.
I’m using the example of old films because they’re people’s favorites but I’m trying to think of examples of films that I saw with the Light House audience for the first time when it came out. You know, like something The Favorite or even Green Room. Even like a Phantom Thread, you sit there and you watch it with an audience, everyone is almost humming, it’s such a great feeling and there’s tons of those examples. I love the standing up and shouting at the screen or a collective laugh, or when everyone has had one too many cocktails and they’re laughing a little bit too loud, and that fun often girly vibe that you get at something, like a Hollywood Babylon screening of Desperately Seeking Susan, where an entire hen party showed up. That is the kind of extreme end but there is also the ‘it’s Friday night and the new Tarantino is out’ end where everyone is buzzing and that’s such a brilliant feeling as well.
FID: There’s always a certain kind of quiet when you’re leaving a film screening, you can tell based on the energy…
CL: Whether it’s a good quiet or a bad quiet!
FID: Exactly and one of the reasons audiences particularly like to come in and stick around is to meet guests that come in and attend Q&A. Are there any outstanding memories of people that you’ve been able to bring in for Q&As, premieres and the likes?
CL: We’ve had some absolutely amazing ones. The best, most fun was when we had Taika Waititi came in for Thor Ragnarok it was just some sort of miracle that ever happened. It was great because it was a really good Q&A, but we were also doing a season of his films and he wanted to surprise one of the audiences. So we were doing a screening of Hunt for the Wilderpeople and he asked that like we wouldn’t advertise it – and by sheer luck thank God it was full – before the film he just sneaked in the fire exit and introduced it and he literally walked out of a car with a glass of champagne and walked into the cinema and walked into the screening and it was such a good energy, people were delighted. It was such a lovely, lovely feeling and then he went and did the Q&A for Thor and then afterwards just hung around in the bar when there was a drinks reception and spoke to every single person and got a picture taken with everybody, it was just such a fun event.
You have that kind of really high energy event, but then you have something like when Ennio Morricone when he came to the Light House, the amount of love for Morricone was incredible and he did a really long public interview and he doesn’t speak a word of English so it was all through translators, so it was kind of like I don’t even know how useful this interview is, or if I’m learning anything but still everyone was just transfixed by him.
We’ve had Saoirse Ronan come in for events, she came in foradybird most recently and that’s really amazing too because she just comes to the Light House for her own pleasure, so it’s just really lovely to be like “and this is your film!” I love that aspect of having people in, I’m naming really famous people there but last year when we reopened, we did a few screenings of films that we missed out on when we were closed. We asked specifically Irish film makers if they would come in. It just makes everything better when you get to sit there and listen to the filmmaker afterwards, having a debrief about everything they were thinking and I just thought this is something you’d really miss if it were gone.
The rules when we reopened then was that we couldn’t have Q&A’s and they’re not allowed, so I don’t know how long that’s going to last, but it really just adds value and perspective to it. It’s like a director’s commentary. I just think something really special happens when you get a film maker in provided it all doesn’t go horribly wrong and you get some terrible questions which also still happens…
FID: That brings me to my next question! We don’t have to name any names here in particular, but you know all too well that it’s an inevitable part of the live experience. You get certain kinds of questions that are a bit off the wall or just sessions could be difficult. What is it like to experience that kind of thing when you’re on the other side of it and you’re trying to manage these things?
CL: Yeah, it’s a horrible feeling! All that you can do is hope that the person who’s being interviewed or being asked the question has had this experience 100 times ’cause usually they have and they know exactly how to bat them away.
But my experience as someone who’s hosted Q&A, I think I’m way too polite with people who ask the annoying questions, I’ve seen other Q&A hosts who are just better at it than I am! They just know how to be like ah now, come on, gway. The amount of inappropriate, ridiculous questions that some people feel the need to ask when they know it’s going to annoy people is unbelievable and I think it is all down to having a good host who’s able to wrap it up quickly I suppose. I don’t think the vibe is ever that they’re not going to answer that question, it’s usually more that there’s an attempt made, and then you go, yeah cool, OK, we’ll move on. But my God, some people are hard to handle...
FID: Are there particular films that you’ll have had in mind for when you’re able to finally reopen?
CL: I mean it feels so crap that we just we’ve missed out on all the Oscar films this year, so I would really like to try and catch everybody up with them. I mean, the really obvious one is Nomadland because if ever a film is designed for the big screen, it’s that one, and I have a feeling that quite a few people will watch that small screen and miss out on some part of the experience that they’re supposed to have and I hate the idea of that. Another one that really resonated with me was Minari, I loved it so much, such a small little film that’s gorgeous. I’d really like to give that a go.
The thing is though, we don’t know when we’re reopening, but we do know that UK cinemas are reopening. Whatever we’ve missed so far, we’re going to be stacking up other films that we’re missing every single week until we do reopen. I’m hoping we get to show things like Another Round, Supernova, those kinds of films that we really, really like, and I really think there’s a good audience for, even the likes of Wolfwalkers I’m dying to get back onto the big screen and those feel like they have a huge audience who I think even if they did watch it at home, would probably be happy to go see it in cinema again. But I’m quite concerned about the gap between cinemas opening in the UK and cinemas opening in Ireland because the more catching up to do we have, the less screen space we have for new content and all the fun stuff we’d like to be doing and I just hate the idea of our audience missing out on films.
My main objective is to kind of make sure that we cover off as much as we can, but I get more and more worried every day that we don’t have an opening date that there’s going to be a huge backlog of stuff that we want to get out there in the world.
FID: In addition to a clear reopening date, or at least a timeline, the reintroduction of kind of public arts and spaces like that into people’s lives, that needs to be managed. What supports to cinemas need at a national level to to facilitate reopening, what would be most helpful to venues like the Light House?
CL: Honestly, what we need in the short term is, literally, money. If we’re doing the same level of social distancing as we were doing before, there’s no way to operate in profit, it’s just not possible, because we can’t sell enough tickets based on that at all. So grants for staff, grants for reopening, anything like that is really, really useful to us.
I think that’s the main thing in the short term is how do we get through this next period, where we reopen but we’ve got social distancing. That’s key because we obviously want to reopen, but for how long can you really sustain that if there’s no government supports in place? Continuing things like the wage subsidy scheme and all that needs to be looked at for when we are open but socially distanced because we’re down to capacity, about 25 – 28% capacity and that’s not possible to sustain.
The hope is that social distancing will not be with us for too much longer, in that case, then it’s fine and then the supports that we would want is if we could get some marketing support that would be great because it’s about making sure that people don’t forget us and making sure people are really super–aware of what we have from down the line, reintroducing ourselves to people and finding new audiences. I mean, it’s been a year and a half since cinemas were properly open, it’s a long time, you know, and we have a lot of catching up to do. Because it’s competitive out there as well in terms of stuff to do and so many people looking to go off traveling as soon as they can as well. The main thing is sustaining us while we’re socially distanced, essentially helping us to get ourselves back out into the world.
FID: Finally from everything that you’ve screened and from everything that you know your regulars love, if you could get any one film as THE reopening night film, what might that be?
CL: There’s about 20 things I could say come to this at any given moment, I am just going to say Mad Max Fury Road because I feel like that level of energy seems right to me.
FID: That’s about where we’re at. We’re all just kneeling down in the sand screaming.
CL: We are and it just feels like such a Light House film to me and whenever we show it, everyone has a great time. It’s just filmmaking at its best you know. So I’ll say Mad Max Fury Road, but equally I could have said Call Me By Your Name. Honestly, I’d love to do a season of films for like places you would like to go on holidays, because we can’t go to Italy!