Character actor Bert Williams’ sole directorial effort

Character actor Bert Williams’ sole directorial effort, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds, is perhaps the perfect way to inaugurate the cinema side of byNWR, as a truly hidden gem, a bonafide, 100% lost–then–found bit of film history. After initial release – itself, a very limited run in the southern and eastern United States and Canada – the film not only vanished from distribution, but physically vanished…period. All traces of it seemed scrubbed from the earth, leaving only yellowing newsprint clippings, depicting crudely mocked-up advertising and a handful of Florida-area papers’ mentions of this “unique production” in their midst. Psychobilly legends The Cramps would record a song bearing its name, fascinated by the title, but having never actually seen it; cult film web sites would occasionally drop mention of it as being “lost” (usually accompanied by an inaccurate plot summary). Williams, himself, seemed to abandon the film after its lukewarm reception, dreaming and scheming other projects up but never finding financing, and focusing on his Hollywood film and television acting career, instead. As to its original 35mm camera negative, it’s assumed that it was either thrown away or mislaid by Williams himself, or perhaps an unpaid lab bill resulted in it being unceremoniously dumpstered. And so has been the fate of many a “regional” independent film production since the dawn of cinema.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s, when curators from the Harvard Film Archive are pawing through the musty projection booth at a closed cinema on the North Shore of the state of Massachusetts, and, amidst various incomplete prints of odd/junk films, trailers, and other effluvia find a peculiar 35mm print titled The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds, which none of the curators had heard of before. And now, here we are.

Film restoration is often a maddening combination of whack-a-mole and Sherlock Holmes, especially if the “original” materials on a title no longer exist. The film preservationist scours the earth for as many extant sources on a film as s/he can in an effort to “collate” the material and create the best possible version from all these disparate sources, only to sometimes complete a restoration but have better materials surface only after the restoration has been completed. In the case of Cuckoo Birds, there was little doubt that we were working from the only copy of the film we’d be likely to find, so we jumped in full-bore. What we discovered was a puzzle all its own, every bit as bizarre and beguiling as the narrative of the film, itself.

For one thing, while the 35mm print definitely had been around the block and showed some use, it was not severely damaged. It had its share of scratches, but, thankfully, not a lot of missing frames from sections being damaged and removed. The original black and white printing work on the film by lab was not bad by low-budget first-time-filmmaker standards, and it had the advantage of also being fairly competently photographed. But … as anyone who views the film can tell you, there is something a bit awkward about its first act. We might refer to this curious section as the “prologue.” Except that it isn’t exactly a prologue, because it also seems to cut back and forth in time as if it is a flashback, and furthermore, it’s rather clumsily intercut with the opening credits, back and forth, back and forth.

And once we got the original 35mm print onto a winding bench, we made the interesting discovery that this entire sequence in the print seemed to have been physically reassembled on the print we were working on, almost shot by shot. To say that this is unusual would be an understatement. In other words, in a “normal” film (which The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds surely is not), editing decisions are “built in” way before the print is made. The original negative is cut that way, the prints are made from that negative, and so on. But here, the print has been recut, shot for shot, during this first 10 minutes or so.

This sets up a rather profound dilemma

This sets up a rather profound dilemma for The Restorationists. If the filmmakers are still living, they can certainly be consulted for guidance in situations just like this. Did you make these changes on every print because you changed your mind about the editing after the fact? Or did some enterprising projectionist just arbitrarily decide they liked it better like this?? Alas, there is no longer a Bert Williams to guide our hand here, nor anyone else directly connected to the film.

But there is, amazingly, a draft of its shooting script, as located by Williams’ enterprising grandson, Kyle Stryker, in the family storage space. I pored over this (massive, Norma Desmond-worthy) epic for clues on how Bert originally structured the opening of the picture… and found it absolutely no help at all. Indeed, on the written page, the prologue as shown in the film doesn’t even happen.

And so, the decision was made to leave it exactly as we found it. And experiments at reordering the footage simply didn’t work at all, so I am led to believe that this was, indeed, Williams’ own revisionist editing attempt, and that he probably carried it out on the few release prints that were made, one by one.

There was one other astonishing revelation that occurred on the inspection bench as we prepared the film to be digitally scanned, and it came during the mind-boggling sequence towards the final act of the film, during Johnson’s discovery that the kindly old innkeeper is actually a dastardly taxidermist. Astute viewers will see a brief flash of white screen with what can only be described as a smear of kludge across it for a few frames during their fight, and when I first saw this, I assumed I was seeing what is commonly referred to as “slug” – basically a piece of junk film which is placed into the negative, only temporarily, to remind the editor to splice some kind of optical effect or additional shot there in its place at a later time… but that in this case, the editor forgot to do so and the slug got left in by mistake. But upon close inspection, it turned out to be something quite different: three frames of what looks like someone’s hand-drawn “explosion” effect, kind of like a terribly rendered Batman KA-POW!!, carefully spliced in at the point where the fist lands a blow. But… whoever conceived this low-budget effect didn’t bother to draw the “explosion” within the frame lines, or even the correct direction across the frame, so it “reads” completely wrong by a projector. It reads like, well, nothing. These three frames, to me, represent everything I love most about The Next of the Cuckoo Birds and its production.

As to the soundtrack, once again, our work was entirely limited by the source material. If there’s one major deficiency with the production, it’s how the sound was recorded on set. Evidence suggests that the laboratory work done on the film soundtrack was perfectly fine – the theme song, and all of the musical tracks, appear in excellent fidelity throughout – but the dialogue track is uneven, and sometimes the on-set noise from what sounds like air conditioners and fans almost totally overwhelms the actors. Many hours were spent between the brilliant sound capture work of Audio Mechanics in Los Angeles and our restoration team to attempt to reproduce the best possible version of the audio.

The Restorationists team includes Ross Lipman, former Senior Preservationist at UCLA Film & Television Archive, whose work on the key films of John Cassavetes, Kenneth Anger and Charles Burnett, as well as Wanda, Point Of Order and his own Buster Keaton/Samuel Beckett Kino-essay Notfilm is legendary. Ross crafted a beautiful, rich black and white tapestry in the color bay for The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds with the colorists from the Illuminate production team which puts the original 35mm print to shame. The nighttime sequences in the swamp, for instance, gleam with details which had been lost entirely on the prints before. Along the way, most scratches and dirt were carefully digitally removed and the entire image was stabilized, but the intent has always been to maintain the look of the film’s original grain structure and not try to create a faux-jewel box of a digital creation which wouldn’t do justice to the artifact, and the twisted history, of a title such as The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds.

Peter Conheim is a film curator and preservationist based in El Cerrito, California. He is also the co-founder of the performing group Wet Gate, which uses only “found footage” and 16mm film projectors to create a live cinema collage, sampling the sound from the film tracks in real time, as well as Mono Pause, a long-running “Situationist rock” group (and its Southeast Asian music spin-off, Neung Phak) and a member of “culture jamming” legends Negativland. His Cinema Preservation Alliance non-profit organization is dedicated to the long-term survival of endangered motion pictures of all stripes.