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Letterpress block collection bought for $2,000 turns out to be worth $10 million

DJ Ginsberg and Marilyn Wagner, two friends from Omaha, are living every antique collector’s dream.

Many years ago, they bought an old letterpress block collection for US$2,000 (AUS$2,400) at a garage sale, only to find out that it was actually valued between US$10-12 million (AUS$12-14 million).

Now they’re planning to sell the collection, but the question remains: is there anyone willing to buy boxes and boxes of metal boxes?

In his documentary, called The Collection, filmmaker Adam Roffman takes a look into the lives of the lucky pair, as well as their valuable antiques. Shot over four days, the short features an ethereal style that lets viewers focus on the 40,000 printer blocks and 20,000 printer plates formerly used to make newspaper ads for films like Casablanca, Dirty Harry, and Star Wars, among others.

The Collection by Adam Roffman

We recently caught up with Roffman to learn more about the making of film. Take a look:

Tell us a little about yourself – what path led you to becoming a filmmaker, and to doing what you’re doing today?

“From very early childhood, my father took my brother and I to the movie theater at least once a week. He took me to see The Godfather Part II when I was only three years old.

“When I was four years old (and my brother was six) he signed us up for a child filmmaking course. We made am extremely rudimentary stop-motion spaceship movie that had a running time of about five seconds, but I was hooked.

“I continued to obsessively watch movies at home and in the theater and never really considered working in another profession. I went to school for film at Emerson College in Boston and I managed video stores in Boston and Seattle while going to school and doing internships.

“My first real-world job experience in the industry was as a prop/set decoration intern for one season on the award-winning educational television program Bill Nye The Science Guy.

“From there, I went on to work in set decoration on feature films and have worked on around fifty to sixty of them over the past twenty years, including American Hustle, The Town, Gone Baby Gone, Ghostbusters, The Equalizer, Ted, Detroit, 27 Dresses, and The Heat.

“Outside of set decoration work, I also co-founded the largest film festival in New England, the Independent Film Festival Boston, and served as its program director from 2003-2013.

“I have also produced five independent features and directed three short documentaries, the most recent of which is The Collection, which premiered at the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.”

The Collection by Adam Roffman

What made you decide to make this film?

“I was working on a different short documentary that I eventually abandoned, but while filming it I interviewed a man who owned an antique store in Waterbury, Connecticut. This store looked reminiscent of a hoarder’s house, just random large piles of objects with no sense of order to them whatsoever.

“Once I was done interviewing the man, I went over to a pile and pushed the top of it over just to see what treasures would be revealed and the first thing I saw was an original printing block for the 1934 movie Imitation of Life with Claudette Colbert.

“It was in pristine condition and it was very striking. I knew it was some sort of promotion for a movie, but didn’t really understand what the object was or how it was used, so I bought it and started researching.

“Once I found it that this was what ads were created from in newspapers through the mid-80s, I became somewhat obsessed with finding and collecting original movie letterpress blocks and plates and started searching for them in antique stores, flea markets, and on the internet.

“For my birthday in 2016, my wife bought me two movie blocks from someone she found online, and with those blocks he included a photocopy of a 1999 article from the Omaha World-Herald newspaper about these two friends, DJ Ginsberg and Marilyn Wagner, who had stumbled upon a collection of over 60,000 of these movie blocks and plates.

“I immediately thought ‘I want to see this collection’ and then I came to the realization that many other people would love to see it as well, and decided to make a film about it.”

The Collection by Adam Roffman

Knowing the history of the collection, as well as the success story of DJ and Marilyn, how did you approach the making of this film?

“When I decided to try to make this film, I first set out to contact DJ and Marilyn to see if they still had the collection and if they would be willing to participate. I had trouble finding contact information for them online, so I instead called the Omaha World-Herald newspaper to see if they could help me track them down.

“As it turns out, the woman who wrote the article in 1999 is the same person who answered the phone at the paper when I called in 2016. She remembered writing the article and she helped me track DJ and Marilyn down.

“I first spoke with DJ over the phone and he was initially surprised to receive my call because it had been some years since someone had known about their owning this collection, but once I told DJ and Marilyn about my filmmaking background and what I wanted to do they were very welcoming to do the project.

“My cinematographer/editor Nathaniel Hansen and I flew out to Omaha, Nebraska from Boston, Massachusetts in November 2016 and we spent four days there shooting the film. We brought some of our equipment with us from Boston and rented some of it in Omaha.

“Our first half day there was spent doing nothing but digging through boxes and finding movie blocks that we would like to film. The very first time I reached into a box to pull out a movie block, what I pulled out was the original advertisement for the movie Blade Runner.

“I knew then that we were going to have fun making this film and Nathaniel and I were like kids in a candy store as we kept excitedly finding new movie blocks that we would show each other.

“We wanted to focus the attention in the film on the beauty of these blocks and of the printing process, so we turned off most of the lights in the room while filming and just used a couple spotlights to draw all attention to the blocks and none to the background.

“I wish we had been able to stay and film for several more days, because we didn’t have nearly enough time to look through all the blocks in their collection and I know there are hundreds that I would have loved to have filmed.”

The Collection by Adam Roffman

Out of the entire collection of letterpress blocks, which one was your favourite?

“There were two blocks in the collection that I was particularly drawn to. One was an ad for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. I really liked this ad because I have seen many ads for the movie before, but I had never seen this one and it pitched the film in a way that I found very odd, focusing on a character and a theme that the movie really wasn’t about.

“The other block I was drawn to was for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. This one was the standard ad for this film, but it is my favorite film so I was particularly excited to hold and look at the block that originally produced those advertisements.”

What’s next for you?

“Recently, I have worked as an ‘on set dresser’ doing set decoration for two films, White Boy Rick starring Matthew McConaughey, Bruce Dern, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, which will be released in August 2018 and The New Mutants, a spin-off from X-Men, which will be released in 2019.

“Outside of that, I have begun work writing my first screenplay which I plan to direct at some point in 2019 or 2020.

“Depending what happens with the sale of the movie block collection, I may also return to that subject matter to film some more on that topic and spend some more time lovingly looking over those movie blocks.”

The Collection by Adam Roffman

You can find out more about The Collection by checking out the official website here. You can also see Roffman’s other works here.

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