Interview with Joe Berger on “The Apple”

Posted by Charles Stockdale on 8.16.2012

Hundreds, if not thousands, of great films have fallen through cinema's historical cracks. Many of these films seem to have simply been released at the wrong place and time, thereby missing their chance to rise in popularity. This is precisely what happened with 1980’s musical sensation The Apple—a little-known treasure that was hoisted upon the public long before they were ready.

Fortunately, one man has made it his personal mission to right this wrong. Joe Berger, who spends his days working as the Head Theater Manager at Film Forum, has spent nearly a decade moonlighting as "NYC's Apple Super-Fan"—a title bestowed upon him by BAMcinématek. As passionate a cinephile as they come, Berger fights to raise awareness of The Apple, consistently pushing for more screenings in more of America’s theaters.

In honor of Film Society's midnight screening of The Apple this Friday, we sat down with Berger (who of course will be hosting the event) to talk about the movie's resurgence 25 years after its initial release, what makes it better than other cult classics, and the origins of his obsession.

Can you tell me about when you first fell in love with The Apple?

Sure. Well, to back it up, it was the Landmark chain that kind of resurrected the film and resurfaced it. As far as I know, it hadn’t been seen or screened anywhere in the United States since its original release in 1980. In 2003 a guy named Marc Edward Heuck, who was the manager of the Nuart Theatre, which is a Landmark theater in Los Angeles, was doing some programming for the national midnight circuit for the Landmark chain and had chosen this movie to play. So in 2003 it screened at Sunshine over Memorial Day weekend for three nights: Friday, Saturday, Sunday. I’m constantly movie-going and, at the time, my friends and I were always hitting the midnight movies at Sunshine and they ran the trailer, which was brilliant of them because no one knew of this movie. It was truly unknown. It had only been on a really crappy VHS release that didn’t pan or scan, so there were entire scenes where, say, the shot was of a telephone and all the action was happening off screen. So no one knew this movie and they ran the trailer for about three months so we had seen it a bunch of times leading up to the film and we decided: "Okay, we’re doing this. This has to happen."

So Friday of Memorial Day weekend, 2003, first show, about 20 of us went. We had some drinks before, sat down, and I think the moment it started no one in that theater knew what to expect. It was incredible. So we all saw it then and the next day, Saturday, I was working at Film Forum and there were a couple of us who had seen it the night before and we were basically talking about it all day, conjuring up moments and scenes, and we thought, "hmm, we should probably go back again tonight."

So four of us went back a second night and we brought another 25, 30 different people with us. Then the next night we thought, "okay, let’s do it a third night. We have to go three times in one weekend." So there were four of us, myself and three buddies, and by that night one of my friends made shirts that said: "Three Nights of The Apple, Memorial Day Weekend, 2003." So on the third night we all showed up wearing these really geeky Apple shirts and I brought another 30 or 40 people to that night. So pretty much instantly, by the first weekend of the film, I had large legions of followers going. I just became obsessed.

Jake Perlin, who now runs Film Desk and works for Cinema Conservancy, was programming at BAMcinématek at the time so I kept telling him all summer, "man this movie's crazy, you have to see this movie. You have to get it to BAM. Get it to BAM! Get it to BAM!" A few months later, right on the Walter Reade terrace, he said, "okay, I’ll bring it to BAM—I have a date, December 3rd, 2003—but you have to host it." And I said, "done." So he coined the moniker "NYC’s Apple Super-Fan" and on December 3, 2003, BAM screened it three times in one day. I was there all day and I hosted the last two screenings. So this screening at Film Society will be my 10th hosting in New York in 9 years. So that’s the long answer to your first question.

So it was love at first sight?

It was love and first sight and, you know, I always say, well, a couple things. You've got to see The Apple in a theater. It’s great on DVD but I think it’s weird and maybe a little bit too abstract if you’re watching it separated from this theatrical experience, or movie-going experience. This truly collective high and energy that everyone rides throughout the movie.

I try to explain The Apple by saying it’s like sex. The first time you have no idea what you’ve just thrown yourself into and you’re completely agog and maybe even a little embarrassed and awkward. The second time you’re like, "okay, there’s something to this. I'm into this." And then the third time you’re hooked. Just hooked for life. That’s it.

How many times have you seen the film?

I’ve seen it 16 times in New York, including this screening coming up. I also took it to Boston for two nights. So I’ve seen it 18 times in the theater in the last nine years. Every now and then I’ll also throw on the DVD and watch a scene.

Did the DVD come out as a result of the New York screenings?

It came out afterwards. Really what happened is that in April of 2003, when it hit Nuart, it was an instant, huge phenomenon. And then it came to New York. The Landmark really toured it a lot in that first year and it caught on as a result. The Alamo Drafthouse guys started showing it a lot in Austin, the Cinefamily guys in LA have shown it a bunch. They actually found an alternate cut with two deleted scenes. When I found that out I was ready to take a red eye over to LA to see it, but I couldn’t because of work. I would love to get the alternate cut and just view it privately.

The DVD came out in 2005, so it took a couple of years. Again, I think it's built a small following across the country because of the DVD, but nothing as great as some other cult movies. I don’t know if it will ever get as big of a following as some other cult movies, which is unfortunate because I think it’s a lot better than most cult movies that have huge followings.

What makes The Apple stand out from other cult movies?

Well, first of all I think it's a perfect movie. I think it's brilliant. I think it's a masterpiece—and that’s completely unironic. I look at every movie in two ways. I look at every movie and say, well what are the intentions of the movie and are they clear? And, does it achieve what it wants to do? Does it execute its intention clearly and obviously? To me, this movie is one of those few movies where its intentions are incredibly clear and it perfectly executes what it sets out to do. I mean, it’s hilarious.

A friend of mine said on the second viewing, when I turned to him and said, "There’s something to this. This is really smart; this is really self-aware; this knows what it’s doing." He said to me, "Joe, no accident works this well." Those lines! Every line lands. And the crowd responds so well without missing a beat, and the momentum just keeps going and going and going. Every scene outdoes the scene before it. [SPOILERS] The way it ends, with God coming down in the gold Rolls Royce—of course that’s how you end that movie! Of course! And still, the crowd at that final scene is ecstatic. They’re on their feet; they’re cheering! [END SPOILERS] It’s the only movie I’ve ever seen where you could honestly say, “hey do you want to reel this up again and watch it again, right now?” and I think most of the crowd would say "yeah" and they would stick around and they would see it for a second time. I mean, it’s awesome. It’s just totally fun and it’s really smart.

In the fourth production number, "Show Business," there’s that moment, I don’t know if you remember, but Shake, the snake character, walks up to Boogalow and he turns and... first of all, the whole song they break the fourth wall and Boogalow just enters that song singing right at you, which is so bold of the movie. The movie has to know what it’s doing if it’s going to look right at you and basically tell you that it knows what it’s doing. And Shake comes up and Boogalow turns and smacks him and then turns to the crowd and winks at you. That right there is the moment when you know it knows what it’s doing. "We got you. We’ve got you in the palm of our hands. Buckle in; enjoy the ride. We’re telling you we know what we’re doing." So I don’t think it’s a misfire. I don’t think it’s an accident. I don’t think it’s “so bad it’s good. Compared to other cult movies—I mean Xanadu is dreadful. There are a couple of moments that are interesting, but overall it is a dreadful movie. Sextette is a dreadful movie, you know? Can’t Stop the Music is a dreadful movie. Those movies don’t play well; they’re not enjoyable. This movie is... beyond words! I’ve brought so many people to it more than once. People that never go to movies more than once have been to see it five times. It’s so great.

I don’t know if you want to talk trash about this, but why is The Apple better than The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

I wouldn’t say it’s better, but I wouldn’t say it’s worse. I’d say they’re two different movies. Rocky Horror is amazing. But, again, Rocky Horror achieves what it sets out to do and I think it’s very clear and I think it’s very obvious what its intentions are, but it’s also really different. There’s a savvy that Rocky Horror has. I don’t want to say it’s smarter than The Apple; I think The Apple is just more silly and more zany. Richard O’Brien was kind of harking back to the 50s and the 60s and old classic William Castle-style, triple feature films with that character, Frank-N-Furter, and kind of what they were doing with the music. I think that Apple is a more direct reference to movies that happened more immediately, like Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and Rocky Horror Picture Show. I think The Apple is much more a comment of the time it is immediately in, so there is not as much depth to it as Rocky Horror Picture Show. That might be why Rocky Horror stands out a bit more and has a much bigger following. Maybe there’s a bit more depth to Rocky Horror Picture Show than The Apple.

But the Apple is so bombastic and so postmodern. It’s postmodern before that term even existed. Fischerspooner and Matthew Barney have nothing on it. Lady Gaga has nothing on that movie. It’s so insane: the hair, the make up, the costumes. It’s very bold and it’s really fun. They’re having the time of their lives. You can really sense that. It’s like the same 60 extras in every scene, with all different costumes. The shoes never match, which is a big nit-picky point of mine. Take a look at that next time—they never have matching shoes. But they’re all having a great time.

What would you say is the best song in the movie?

I like “Show Business.” Disco 2000 is the name of the group that performs that song. Again, that’s the moment where Boogalow winks at you. That’s the moment where he’s completely spelling out what they’re doing and what they’re all about. It’s a great song, it’s a great number. And there’s some great lyrics in that song. One of my favorite quotes in the whole movie comes from that song. "Mankind screamies for whatever bits of dreamies we might treat them to," which is referring to Boogalow and his dastardly ways. I mean, come on, he’s one of the greatest screen villains of all time! He’s such a badass. He’s so awesome. Brilliantly played by Vladek Sheybal. So, I like "Show Business" a lot. "Coming" is amazing. That’s brilliant, a feast for the eyes. They’re all good.

The trajectory of the movie is so strong and it works. I would relate it more to Showgirls, I think. It took awhile for people to really get Showgirls and to see how brilliant that movie truly is, how brilliant the script is, and how brilliant Paul Verhoeven’s execution of the script is. It’s a masterpiece. Every little thing in that movie is perfect and exactly what it should be—nothing more, nothing less—and I would say the same is true for The Apple, for sure.

What kind of excites and interests me about it is that in 1980 it bombed totally. No one got it. The last time we [showed The Apple at Lincoln Center] in 2010, [director] Menahem Golan and [producer] Yoram Globus were here. And Catherine Mary Stewart, who stars as Bibi—she came. [Golan] told a story that when the film premiered at the World Film Festival in Montreal in 1980, it was so poorly received that he was about to throw himself off his hotel balcony and Yoram had to go up and convince him not to do that. So he didn’t do that, and then we got a decade of amazing, amazing shlock that really stands up today. And our generation, I think, now is finally starting to appreciate that stuff on a whole other level.

So it was terribly received and then we enter the age of VHS, we enter the age of DVD, and even in 2003 we’re beginning an age of online streaming, and all of a sudden this movie appears out of nowhere and it’s only to be seen at midnight in the theater. So all of a sudden, at Sunshine Cinema, we’re all discovering this movie for the first time 23 years after the fact, as we would have then in 1980, or 1975 as audiences discovered Rocky Horror Picture Show. So that was what was really exciting to me—the collective experience, the collective discovery of this movie, and how within the first two years all these people all across the country in all these cities discovered this movie in the perfect medium. You can go there, you can have some beers before you go in, you can smoke some weed before you go in, whatever you do, and the energy is so collective and so celebratory that I’ve never seen anything like that in 15 years of serious film-going. I’ve never seen anything like this, where it’s kind of like this little time warp. It’s like a little gift that was hidden for 25 years and then it was given to me. And now I have to share it with everyone.

For those that partake, what do you think is the best drug to watch The Apple on?

Well, stone-cold sober because the movie is the most potent drug imaginable. So, yes, that is my answer.

True or false: life is nothing but show business?

True. Very true. The Boog makes that quite clear, very early on. Alphie doesn’t agree with him but... That’s the great thing—you’re not really cheering on Alphie. We don’t want to hang out with hippies under the bridge, you know? The BIM is pretty awesome. Those parties are pretty great. It’s a lot more fun to be hanging out with Boogalow, for sure.

Anything else first-timers should know before walking into The Apple?

Just buckle in and enjoy the ride. You’re in safe hands, Boogalow lets you know that. You’re in good hands. He’s going to put on a show for you for sure. He tells you that, he winks at you. Just trust in the Boog. Trust in the BIM.

That’s a good point because back in 2003 when Jake [Perlin] said I had to host it I thought, "well what am I supposed to do?" What am I going to do, go up there and list a bunch of facts? Give a Wikipedia page? I don’t care about the facts. To be honest, I haven’t geeked out on this movie, as I probably should. I don’t know everything about the making of this movie, nor do I really care. So I was like, do I do a show? Do I sing a song? What do I do? And what I learned right away, nine years ago, was there’s nothing I can say to preface the movie. There’s nothing I can do to prepare people for it. There’s nothing I can really explain or set up. There’s nothing that can be introduced. The movie speaks for itself. The moment it hits the screen people are along for the ride, so my hosting shtick hasn’t changed in nine years.

It’s really simple. I get up and I welcome everyone. I always want to find out who’s seen it before and who hasn’t, because it’s interesting just to get a feel for the audience and how they’re responding. Then I do a raffle. I raffle some awesome stuff, so there’ll be some awesome stuff raffled on Friday. I try to do a party—a pre- or a post-party. There will be a post-party on Friday at BAR 9 (807 9th Ave at 54th St). I just want people to have a good time. Go in and have fun. And they always do. I haven’t met anyone yet who doesn’t like that movie after they see it.

The Apple screens Friday as part of our ongoing Midnight Movies series.

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