A cinephile from a young age, April Wright only began pursuing filmmaking 15 years ago, after building a financially successful career in another field. Since her first script got made in 2005, Wright has made a narrative feature and various short films. She has also created fascinating documentary series titled Going Attractions, which examines various aspects of the movie-going experience. After releasing Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie in 2013, she followed up on this topic with her latest documentary Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace. Wanting to learn more about her career as well as The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace, I was able to interview Wright for Sequart.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some movies you loved? Are there any you still enjoy re-watching?
April Wright: Growing up my family went to drive-ins and indoor movie theatres – we had a neighborhood movie palace called the Dunes down the street from where we lived, and later when my brother and sister both worked there I probably saw Raiders of the Lost Ark there at least 40 times. I also specifically remember seeing Rocky there as a child, and it’s still my favorite movie of all time. I also love genre films like Carrie, The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, all of which I didn’t see in theatres until I was older.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in filmmaking? Was there a moment in which this goal crystalized for you?
Wright: I think I always knew I would work in the movie business eventually, but I was practical and first got a degree in computers and an MBA. My family didn’t have money so I knew I needed something that would make money and allow me to take care of myself, but after having a successful business career, I switched into filmmaking about 15 years ago. My first script got made in 2005, and that’s the same time I started researching my first documentary which was about drive-in theatres.
Yanes: In addition to documentaries, you also direct non-documentary films. How do you think making documentaries has helped you become a better fiction story teller?
Wright: True, my first film I directed was a narrative feature. I love both docs and narratives and I’m starting to dabble in television now too. I lot of filmmakers work in all these areas such as Ava Duvernay, many big filmmakers also do docs, like Martin Scorsese. I think it just depends what best suits the idea or the material, and it’s all storytelling. Even in my fiction stories, I like them to be rooted in true stories or based on true stories, so that’s where it’s connected for me.
Yanes: Your most recent project is Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace. What inspired you to pursue this project?
Wright: My first doc was Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-in Movie, and that film did pretty well playing theatrically at many drive-ins as well as indoor theatres, in the US, Canada, and Australia, it’s now available on DVD and streaming. The Movie Palace doc is the second in the series. They examine the same history of cinema, but from a different angle. Both Drive-ins and Movie Palaces were impacted by some of the same cultural changes including things like suburban growth after World War II, and the invention of television, and both are important hubs for the communities where they are located.
Yanes: While doing research for The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace, did you learn about a theater that you fell in love with?
Wright: There are many I love but probably my three favorites are Radio City Music Hall, which I didn’t know was primarily a movie theatre, I also didn’t know it was narrowly saved from demolition in the 1970s. I also love the United Artists flagship theatre in Los Angeles, now known as The Theatre at Ace Hotel, because I’m so inspired by Mary Pickford’s influence on this theatre and her own career. I’m also obsessed with The Uptown in Chicago because it’s spectacular and badly in need of restoration. I would love to see that one come back to life.
Yanes: On this note, was there anything about the history of theaters you learned that took you by surprise?
Wright: Before making the film, I thought Cinerama was one of many formats like VistaVision, Todd AO, Cinemascope, but actually Cinerama came first. Many movie palaces converted to Cinerama screens where they had three projectors and huge immersive screens and surround sound. Cinerama was such a huge hit at a time when the movie business had dropped off heavily due to television, that it actually drove the creation of all these widescreen formats that we still see in all movie theatres, and now it’s even the format of our televisions at home.
Yanes: For communities that want to keep their unique theaters alive, what examples do you think they should turn to?
Wright: There’s a group called the Art House Convergence that helps theatre owners and operators with this very question. Many of the theatres that are members of this group are operated as non-profits with movies and/or a variety of programming. I think the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Los Angeles has done a great job in recent years since it came back to life after being a church for many years. They keep it filled with different types of unique events that draw audiences and include screenings, concerts, and many special events.
Yanes: The bio for this documentary’s Twitter profile is “Other countries built palaces for royalty; in the United States we built them to watch movies.” What do you think this says about American culture?
Wright: I love this statement, because it shows how important movies have always been to the culture of the United States. The movies were big everywhere, and there were movie palaces everywhere but there were thousands of them in the US, most built on the verge of the great depression. We built palaces just to see movies. That shows how special they were and are to this country.
Yanes: When people finish watching Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace, what do you hope they take away from this experience?
Wright: I hope to raise awareness of these places that are often hidden in plain sight. Even in Los Angeles where we have many movie palaces left, people aren’t aware of them. You do have to pay attention and seek out their events and programing, but that’s what I want people to do – to notice these places, to find them, to go to them, experience them, and to help fight the fight when they are threatened or need restoration because they are so culturally important to our history and our future.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Wright: I’ve already shot a documentary on stuntwomen, so it’s another film that covers the whole history of cinema like my other two docs, but from another unique perspective looking at stunts which date back to the beginning of cinema. I didn’t know that in the teens women were writing, directing, producing and doing stunts in the silent film era, jumping from motorcycles on to trains and major stunts like that. In the teens! And I have all the top stuntwomen in the business going back to Pam Grier’s and Doris Day’s stunt doubles, the woman who doubled Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman and the women who were Charlie’s Angels, all the way up to the women doing stunts in Marvel movies as Black Widow and Captain Marvel, and doing Michelle Rodriguez’s driving in all the Fast and Furious movies. And we shoot them doing drift car racing too, which was really fun to shoot so much action for a documentary! It should be coming out sometime next year.