Rian Johnson on the distinct charm of the New Beverly Cinema

With cinemas around the world closed and under threat, now is the time to remember the magic of the big screen experience. Here, Rian Johnson, the director of Knives Out and Star Wars: The Last Jedi, recalls rats and Rita Hayworth in the dingy sanctuary of Los Angeles’s revered revival cinema the New Beverly.

The New Beverly cinema, Los AngelesIllustration by Lucinda Rogers

The New Beverly is on Beverly Boulevard, just west of La Brea Avenue. It used to be a porn theatre back in the day, before it became a revival cinema. When I was in college, at the University of Southern California, it was this church of cinema that we would all make pilgrimages to. They would do double features for five bucks. They would release their calendar every year and every single college student had the New Beverly calendar up on their fridge. [The comedian and actor] Patton Oswalt even wrote a book, Silver Screen Fiend, about going there constantly.

They would show everything from classic movies to genre junk to exploitation stuff to weird shit – just a mixture of everything. Like The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T [1953] – I saw that there. But they would show Ingmar Bergman films too; I remember seeing Persona [1966], and that having a huge effect on me.

My wife [the critic Karina Longworth] and I, we still go there quite a bit. They had a month recently where they programmed nothing but films by female filmmakers. We saw a bunch of amazing films, including It’s My Turn [1980] – Michael Douglas and Jill Clayburgh – directed by Claudia Weill.

The theatre itself was a dingy dump. Even the screen was stained. And there was obviously one speaker back behind it that was crackly. The projector was dim and the seats smelled and there would be vagrants sleeping in the theatre.

I remember seeing The Lady from Shanghai [1947] once, and along the bottom of the screen came the perfect silhouette of a rat walking along. When a close-up of Rita Hayworth’s face came on screen, it got on its hind legs and started pawing at her chin. The whole theatre just lost it!

Rian Johnson with Chris Evans and Ana de Armas on set of Knives Out (2019)

Back then, it was run by Sherman Torgan, an incredibly sweet man. Then his son Michael ran it. When my film The Brothers Bloom [2008] played there, I got to programme a week of conman movies – a festival of fakery. We showed House of Games [1987], The Spanish Prisoner [1997], Dirty Rotten Scoundrels [1988] – it was a blast.

Quentin Tarantino ended up taking over the theatre, promising to only show 35mm prints. And LA has rallied around the theatre. I know a lot of filmmakers that strike prints of their movies just so they can show them at the New Beverly. We have exactly one print of Knives Out in the hope that the New Beverly will screen it!

It has a very 1960s feel to it. Quentin has updated the façade to be like it would have been in the 60s, with these pastel colours. It’s got a tiny little lobby with a snack bar and the single-screen theatre. The screen is clean, the sound is much better and the seats don’t smell any more. I can be grumpy and say, “That’s not the way it was,” but it’s much better now.

As for the projection booth, it’s like a warren. The shelves are just filled with the mini-reels of vintage trailers they show. And the projection itself is interesting. The projection booth is too high to project on to the screen – they built it on the second level, as there wasn’t enough room for that and the lobby. So it has a periscope mechanism. It’s projecting on to a mirror, down and out of another mirror, towards the screen.

Thankfully, they also enforce a very strict ‘No cell’ policy. The last time we were there, some dude was taking pictures of the screen. I never do this, but I touched his arm and said, “Put your phone away.” It’s like being shamed in church. 

Rian Johnson was talking to James Mottram.