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Q & A | Film critic David Thomson

By Mark Mitchell

David Thomson’s The New Biographical Dictionary of Film is considered a must-have reference by almost all serious movie buffs. But Thomson is more than just a film critic, more even than a film historian. His works include a biography of novelist Laurence Sterne, an account of the Scott Antarctic expedition and a brooding meditation on the state of Nevada, along with a few novels and some autobiographical works. In his ambitious Have You Seen…? Thomson presents his take on 1,000 films, pointing out the wonderful ones like a favorite uncle showing you something shiny.

Born in London in 1941, but a San Francisco resident for the last three decades, he still speaks with a soft English accent. Farrar, Straus and Giroux has just published Thomson’s 23rd book, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies — a good time to catch up on his ruminations about life, film and the future.

Woody Allen filming in Pacific Heights

WOODY ALLEN started shooting his new film in the neighborhood yesterday along the Gold Coast homes on outer Broadway. The crew was filming next door to the Gettys at the Willenborg residence at 2898 Broadway, a location also used in other films.

The as-yet-unnamed film is said to be a romantic comedy about a woman downsizing in San Francisco after her posh New York lifestyle comes crashing down. Allen will be filming in San Francisco and Marin County until the end of the month. The cast is rumored to include Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin.

Read more: “Film shoot begins in SF

Hemingway at the Swedenborgian

Film crew at the Swedenborgian Church, with Nicole Kidman in the doorway.

Legendary filmmaker Philip Kaufman — director of The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness of Being and many others — has lived in Pacific Heights for years. His latest film premieres on May 28 at 9 p.m. when HBO broadcasts Hemingway & Gellhorn, starring Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen.

Hemingway & Gellhorn is a love story exploring the tempestuous relationship between writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, which was the inspiration for Hemingway’s classic novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls. Though the story takes place in nine different countries, the film was shot over 40 days entirely on location in San Francisco and the Bay Area, which stood in for Spain, Finland, Cuba, New York, Shanghai, Key West and Idaho.

Key scenes were filmed at the Swedenborgian Church at Washington and Lyon Streets, only a few blocks from Kaufman’s home.

“One scene takes place in a church in Finland that had been converted for wartime use,” says Kaufman. “We were looking for something — maybe not Finnish, but with that approximate feeling. And of course I’d been to weddings there.”

Incorporating archival black and white footage of Finnish soldiers, Kaufman recreates the scene with snow and icicles on the historic church. “Then the color comes back into it,” he says, “and we find Nicole writing letters to Hemingway — actually taken from the real letters.”

Another scene was shot in the wooden stairway of the church’s parish house, standing in for the small British hotel where Gellhorn and Hemingway had their final rendezvous. “It’s where they break up their relationship,” says Kaufman. “It’s their final scene together.”

During the filming, Kaufman walked home to Vallejo Street for lunch, then back to work at the church.

“We can make films here and use local people, yet create a film that could be made anywhere in the world,” Kaufman says. “It’s great. It’s just great working here.”

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Read more: Cannes celebrates Philip Kaufman

Film Society loses its leader

Graham Leggat (1960-2011)

Graham Leggat — the irrepressible Scottish impresario who led the San Francisco Film Society on to greater glory during the past six years — died tonight at his home after an 18-month battle with cancer.

Under Leggat, the Film Society made its annual San Francisco International Film Festival — the nation’s oldest — more important than ever and established its headquarters at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in Japantown. The Film Society’s offices are nearby in the Presidio.

In 2010 Leggat rallied community support to transform the endangered Clay Theater on Fillmore Street into its year-round home. When that effort lagged, he struck a deal with the New People complex on Post Street to stage a year-round film festival in its state-of-the-art cinema. The Film Society’s programming at New People cinema begins September 1.

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Film Society strikes a deal in Japantown

The stylish cinema at New People in Japantown will be the home of the Film Society.

After more than a year of exploring the possibilities, the San Francisco Film Society is coming to the neighborhood — but to Japantown, not the Clay Theater.

The Film Society announced this morning that it will establish a year-round home and take over the programming of the stylish and high-tech Viz Cinema at the New People complex at 1746 Post Street in Japantown. The cinema opened in 2009 as part of a new J-Pop Center devoted to contemporary Japanese pop culture.

Snow at the Swedenborgian

The film crew at the snowy Swedenborgian Church, with Nicole Kidman in the doorway.

Hollywood is in the neighborhood and they’re going to church — the Swedenborgian Church at Washington and Lyon. It snowed on the little church this week — or appeared to — when Nicole Kidman was filming scenes for Hemingway & Gelhorn, a new HBO film directed by Philip Kaufman, who lives just over the hill. It’s a drama centered on the romance between Ernest Hemingway and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s inspiration for For Whom the Bell Tolls. The film also stars Clive Owens and is expected on HBO in 2012.

A preview:

The night is brighter

In what locals are taking as a hopeful sign — quite literally — the historic neon marquee at the Clay Theater is lighted once again. It has been dark and broken for months, a tangible nightly reminder of the theater’s uncertain future. Now that the lights are back on — and Catherine Deneuve is back on the screen — hope springs eternal.

Political consultant turns filmmaker

Duane Baughman screens his new film at the Clay.

By Don Langley

The film “Bhutto,” which earned high praise at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, is now playing at several dozen theaters throughout the country. But local producer-director Duane Baughman says it was most important to him to bring his documentary home to the Clay Theater on Fillmore.

He invited his Washington Street neighbors and others he had met in his informal office — the Peet’s coffee shop at Sacramento and Fillmore Streets — to a showing there early in the new year. Baughman also bought out a San Diego theater at the end of January so his parents and their friends could see it in the city where he grew up.

Final cut at the Clay?

SF Weekly offers a cover story this week on the uncertain future of Fillmore Street’s Clay Theater. “People don’t want the Clay Theater to die,” the Weekly says. “But judging from ticket sales, they don’t want to see films there either.”

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Talks continue on fate of Clay Theater

There’s been no breakthrough yet, but negotiations are continuing between the owner of the Clay Theater and the San Francisco Film Society, which hopes to make the theater its home.

In addition, the owner’s architect has met with the CEO of Landmark Theatres, the current operator, about renovations that might make the theater attractive to Landmark as a long-term operator.

“We are actively engaged,” said architect Charles Kahn. He said it appears that both Landmark and the Film Society prefer a single-screen theater over his proposal to create three smaller theaters, and that owner Balgobind Jaiswal is agreeable. More contentious is Jaiswal’s desire to build four townhouses above the theater and excavate underneath for parking.

“The theater is secondary to their desire to build condos,” said Graham Leggett, executive director of the Film Society. “We worry it’s not going to be workable for us.” Getting permits and building the condos could take years, Leggett said, and require the theater to go dark during construction.

Kahn said the condos are essential to fund the renovation of the theater. He said the owner is “absolutely committed” to finding a way to save the theater.

Film Society leaders have met with Kahn three times, most recently with an architect of their own they retained to help shape the future of the 100-year-old theater. “It seems problematic at the moment, but at least there’s a dialogue,” Leggett said. “It’s a work in progress.”

EARLIER: How the Clay dodged a bullet