House of Seven Belles
By Peter Conheim
Reading time 4 Minutes
Andy Milligan’s never-before-seen House of Seven Belles, unlike any project The Restorationists have previously tackled for byNWR.com, came with a quandary: how do you restore a film which was not only never completed, it was not really remembered by its own maker? Did it ever exist in the first place?
Film history is replete with legends of projects left unfinished for one reason or the other – Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind laying in such a state for 33 years; Erich Von Stroheim’s mammoth Greed being hacked to a fraction of its original length by an uncomprehending studio, never to be seen again; etc. Lurid melodramatist Andy Milligan abandoned several film projects, two of which get their world premieres on byNWR (the other is Compass Rose), and he had moved on so quickly after they were discarded that their original elements seemed to almost immediately get lost in the shuffle.
And so it is that The Restorationists found ourselves with the sole surviving material on House of Seven Belles, which had been bequeathed to writer and Milligan biographer, Jimmy McDonough, years previously: a 35mm workprint and magnetic track, both incomplete. The workprint is literally just that: footage printed off the original (now lost) negative, which Milligan would hand-splice into sequence, along with his rudimentary soundtrack, which contained just dialogue and a handful of simple sound effects.
It has been said that the film was supposed to climax with the main mansion of the story going up in flames, but this sequence was never shot. The surviving 64-page shooting script, however, ends with the final cliff-side sequence as seen in the workprint, and the narrative does still play as a… cliffhanger. And Andy Milligan can’t help us figure this out– he’s dead.
The print, itself, posed quite a dilemma. Printed on very unstable color stock of the late 1970s, it has suffered from severe fading over time. The color team at Illuminate Studios and Post-Production spent hours using digital tools to tease out what primary colors remained, making for a much more pleasing image than the raw scan of the very pale and pink footage looked on its own. How the film may have eventually come together at the end of a proper production is, again, a mystery which will never be solved, as there’s the shooting script, production stills, but little else.
The fact that the film element is a spliced workprint, and not a finished film, also played into The Restorationists’ thinking here. Rather than disguise the hand-cutting, insertion of blank leader film (for spacing and filler) and other signs of the production, all those parts of Milligan’s process have been retained. It would have been folly to attempt to reedit or “clean up” House of Seven Belles as if it were a finished film. But what we have done is to tidy it up a little, particularly on the ragged soundtrack. In this way, it is hoped that the viewer will get a sense of what might have been, exactly as Andy Milligan might have presented it as he was working on it on his Moviola.
Peter Conheim is the lead Restorationist and Archivist at byNWR.com, and the founder of Cinema Preservation Alliance, a non-profit dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of endangered films of all stripes, in partnership with archives, private collectors and laboratories. As a performer from the San Francisco Bay Area, he is the co-founder of Wet Gate: The All-Projectionist Ensemble and Mono Pause, and a long-time member of culture jammers Negativland. He also performs with Malcolm Mooney (from CAN) and the Mutants. His music remastering and restoration projects have included works by DEVO, MX-80 Sound, Tuxedomoon, Noh Mercy, Factrix, Yoshi Wada, John Bender, the Screamers and many others.