WATERVILLE — There’s a good chance that without Ken Eisen, one of the founders of Railroad Square Cinema and programming director of the Maine International Film Festival, neither the theater or festival would be here.

Yet, Eisen would never take the credit.

While he’s adamant that starting the cinema in 1978, maintaining it and adding a film festival 20 years later is a community endeavor, those involved in the festival say that Eisen is the quiet puppeteer behind the scenes, pulling the necessary strings, choosing high-quality films and forging the connections that make the 10-day, 100-film festival possible.

“Ken is a brilliant programmer, he truly is,” said Joan Phillips-Sandy, the festival director of MIFF for its first five years. “It’s an amazing talent he has.”

Documentary filmmakers Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman are showing their latest documentary, “This Time Next Year,” which follows a community that rebuilds in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy in 2012, at MIFF on Friday. It’s their third documentary to play at MIFF, and the couple — who frequent a variety of film festivals each year — relish their trip to central Maine each July.

“I think there’s a special care given to filmmakers here that’s not always the case,” Zaman said. “I think the programming is one of the things that sets this festival apart, specifically from smaller festivals.”

Both Zaman and Reichert, who married in 2011, have worked in all aspects of the film industry, from distribution to working with film festivals and critiquing film. Reichert’s working relationship with Eisen dates back to Reichert’s days in distribution, when he would call Eisen to ask to show films at Railroad Square.

“We got to the point where we realized we were both real movie nerds,” Reichert said Friday afternoon, minutes before “This Time Next Year” played inside Railroad Square. “We’ve been to a lot of festivals that aren’t as established and don’t do as good a job building an audience and a community of film. You’ll go to a movie in the afternoon and no one will be there.

“I wish there were more Kens,” Reichert added. “He cares about movies a lot. And you don’t get that all the time.”

Since first moving to Waterville in 1969 to attend Colby College, Eisen, 62, has marveled at the growth of the artistic culture of the small central Maine city, while deflecting credit for helping it thrive.

“The growth of this culture is a collective achievement, as a lot of film is,” Eisen said. “It’s a community that supported this festival and cinema. There are a lot of towns with populations literally 10 times of Waterville that don’t have theaters like Railroad Square and cities 100 times the size of Waterville that don’t have a film festival.”

‘I WANT TO MAKE A FILM LIKE THAT’

Eisen lived the first 10 years of his life on Staten Island, before the Verrazano Narrows Bridge connected the island to the heart of New York City.

“It was a funny little outpost of the city,” Eisen recalled, sitting from his office on Main Street in Waterville, with his Maltese-Chihuahua mix Puppers by his side and golden retriever Barbara Stanwyck — named after the actress — guarding the door.

Leaning back in his chair behind his desk with a MIFF 2013 shirt on and curly gray locks pulled into a ponytail, Eisen’s demeanor is that of someone who enjoys the calm of central Maine to that of the hustle and bustle of art capitals such as New York City. After moving from the shadow of Gotham at 10 to the shadow of Washington D.C., the draw of rural New England took hold.

“I knew I wanted to get as far from Washington as I could, and for some reason at the age of 16 when I made that decision, I couldn’t think of anything off the East Coast,” Eisen said. “I knew I wanted to go to a small liberal arts school in New England, and that left Middlebury (College, in Vermont) and Colby.”

Coming in to Colby in 1969, Eisen had an interest in film through his parents, who took him to a variety of foreign films, but he didn’t grow up longing to be the next Stanley Kubrick, Clark Gable or even Roger Ebert. Yet, the influence of foreign and independent film in those early years would later influence the international film festival Eisen helps produce.

“Growing up, I thought reading subtitles was a normal thing to do in movies,” Eisen said. “I guess I had a somewhat different rearing in that way. Having said that, it’s not like I saw millions of films.”

The interest in film stayed with Eisen as he attended Colby, though there was little film to study.

“There were literally no film classes,” Eisen said. “There was a good film series that (former Colby professor) Abbott Meader ran, but the emphasis was on experimental films and that wasn’t where my interest was. Eventually I had a good deal, with running the campus art film program called Film Direction. I was basically self-taught in film.”

Still, the moment that moved film from a hobby to lifelong career for Eisen came in a little theater in Provincetown, Mass., in 1973. Two years after it was released, Eisen watched “The Conformist,” a critically acclaimed Italian-based political drama. The fact that more than 40 years later, Eisen still recalls where he saw the film and the emotions he felt afterward shows its significance.

“That film just blew me away. To me, it was a revelation,” Eisen recalled. “I said ‘I want to make a film like that.’ That was my first thought. My second thought was ‘I’ll never make a film as good as that — I can’t.’ My third thought was ‘Well if I can’t make a film as good as that I don’t want to make a film,’ so my fourth thought was ‘Well then what I want to do with my life is show that film and films anywhere near that good.’ It’s not exactly a deep thought process, but here I am.”

After graduating from Colby in 1973 with a bachelor’s degree in English, Eisen said he bounced around jobs, working at a local record store for a couple stints and casually talking to others about opening up a little one-screen repertoire theater.

“We started working as a group in 1976 and it took a little two years to become a reality,” Eisen said about Railroad Square Cinema. “We opened in October 1978. Two and a half years is not a very long time when you look back, but it felt like an excruciatingly long period.”

RAILROAD SQUARE CINEMA

In the late 1970s, Alan Sanborn was interested in opening a movie theater in Waterville. Having grown up spending time in Boston during the Golden Era of art houses and independent film theaters, Sanborn wanted to bring some of the feel of the nearby Orson Welles Cinema, an iconic and eclectic theater in Cambridge, to central Maine.

“There were a lot of good movies being made and cinema was really vibrant,” Sanborn said from outside of Railroad Square Cinema, which he manages. “We were seeing these incredible films and hearing about these incredible films and they’re not playing anywhere. We wanted to be able to see those films.”

Around the same time Sanborn was thinking about starting an art house in Waterville, there turned out to be several other similarly minded cinema buffs hoping to see more films.

“We all kind of came together through various sources and we decided to start a theater,” Sanborn recalled. “The whole impetus behind this wasn’t that we wanted to start a business, we weren’t looking for jobs. We just wanted to see movies.”

The first film Railroad Square showed was “Casablanca,” the romantic drama set during World War II. The five people credited with starting the theater, including Eisen and Sanborn, were Gail Chase, Lea Girardin and Stu Silverstein.

In hindsight, the late ’70s was probably one of the most difficult times to open an independent art house. With the arrival of “Jaws” in 1975 and the “Star Wars” franchise starting in 1977, among others, Hollywood studios began basing projects on their bottom line potential, rather than its artistic integrity, according to Eisen.

“We founded the theater in October of 1978, which in retrospect, is a pretty awful line of demarcation of the collapse of the height of creativity in American cinema,” Eisen said, adding that the rise of the video cassette recorder diminished the film experience. “It made movies accessible to people in their homes for the first time.”

Besides the two industry changes happening during the cinema’s opening, Waterville’s location and its lack of a large population pool wasn’t the best place to start a niche business, but that didn’t sway Eisen or the rest of the committed.

“If you were making a business decision to put a successful art house in, you would not choose to do it in Waterville, Maine,” Eisen said. “There’s not a sufficient population base to do that. But we didn’t make the decision on that basis, we did it because this is our home.”

The group of five continued to operate Railroad Square, as it evolved over time: the theater switched from 16mm film to the better-quality 35mm film 1980; a cafe serving soup, salads and other simple fare opened in 1981.

“It became a sort of community center,” Sanborn said. “We were part of a kind of movement.”

That central Maine film movement continued into the 1990s, when Eisen, with the help of others, started Shadow Distribution in 1994, a film distribution company focused on distributing independent films.

“We were seeing movies at film festivals and hearing about movies that we couldn’t show because there was no distributor,” Sanborn said. “You might go to a film festival and see a terrific film, but that’s the only place you’re going to see it. We filled a niche.”

At the start of Railroad Square Cinema, picking the programming — like all other things — was a communal effort, according to Sanborn, before it fell mostly on to Eisen’s shoulders.

“In the early days, the five of us would meet and discuss films that we wanted to show and that became unworkable after a while,” Sanborn said. “It became Ken’s job. Ken was always in contact with what was premiering and had a real clear vision at what movies we should be showing. He has a strong opinion about film and what’s good and not good.”

While Eisen watches over 1,000 movies each year for programming purposes, he’s a purist when it comes to enjoying a film leisurely.

“This is how I preview films,” Eisen said, pointing to his Macbook laptop on his desk. “Even with a DVD, you’re not really seeing a movie. You’re possessing it but you’re not experiencing it like in a theater. The whole process got diminished.

“Now with streaming — I think that’s even worse, everything they keep inventing makes it worse” Eisen continued. “I want to see a movie with an audience and in the dark. I don’t want to be on my cellphone. I don’t want the phone to ring or to be able to go to the bathroom unless you absolutely have to. Film is a communal art. It’s an expression of a collective culture and needs to be seen collectively.”

‘WE WERE LOOKING TO SEE MORE MOVIES’

After the original Railroad Square Cinema burned down in 1994, the art house was rebuilt, adding additional screens — three in all. Combined with the Waterville Opera House’s capability to show films, there were now four independent screens to show film. The additional screens, combined with the success of Shadow Distribution, led to the idea for starting a film festival.

“We needed more than one screen to do that, and it gave us the form to have a viable, high-quality international film festival,” Eisen said.

In 1998, the inaugural Maine International Film Festival launched.

“We were looking to see more movies,” Sanborn said. “That’s what it amounted too. It was something we were interested in.”

The original festival, while also 10 days long, showed 43 films and was much more modest than the current incarnation that has 100 films, live music and various workshops.

“It was an ambitious way to start out,” Eisen said. “We drew mostly from regulars from Railroad Square and didn’t have many people coming from elsewhere. It was markedly more meager.”

“Although there were certainly several people without whom we would not have made it through those early years, Ken’s programming ability was the life blood of MIFF,” Phillips-Sandy said. “I remember a conversation during our first festival with one of our guests, a producer from New York City who was here with his film. He said that he had been to film festivals all over the world, and MIFF did not have the feel of a first year event, rather it had a level of programming more typical of a festival in its fifth year.”

Phillips-Sandy, who was hired as the festival director for its first five years, had attended films at Railroad Square since its inception and was working closely with community theater when Sanborn approached her to become festival director.

“I truly had very little sense what a film festival was about,” Phillip-Sandy said. “I knew Ken casually from going to the cinema for those years. As people get to know Ken and his taste, you find that there are two sets of movies: ones he personally really likes and then there are those that are quite different from his taste, but he still brings in those films. He doesn’t just show movies he personally likes.”

Eisen agreed, saying it would be nearly impossible to personally enjoy the hundreds of films he watches each year for programming purposes.

“I don’t love every movie we show, but I don’t show anything I hate either,” Eisen said. “You don’t have to love every movie to show it, you just need to see its worth.

“You can’t say ‘I love 300 movies,'” Eisen continued, “or else that’s not love anymore. Unless you’re the most promiscuous person in the world.”

After the fifth-annual MIFF in 2002, Phillips-Sandy resigned as festival director to focus more on family and former volunteer coordinator Shannon Haines stepped in as executive director, a position she currently holds. Haines has worked closely with Eisen for the past 12 years, conversing about what programming choices he has in mind and any special projects — like this year’s Eurocrime section with Italian actor Leonard Mann in attendance.

“I don’t envy his job, it’s challenging putting together a list of films that appeal to both the general person and to film enthusiasts,” Haines said. “I totally trust his judgment.”

And like many of the protagonists that star in the films he chooses, Eisen struggled through his share of heartbreak after the death of his wife, Beth, in 2010. In addition to being Eisen’s life partner, Beth was also instrumental with programming at the festival and Railroad Square and was vice president of Shadow Distribution.

“It was Ken and his late wife Beth who had the idea to start an international film festival, and Ken gives most of the credit to Beth,” Phillips-Sandy said. “Without them, MIFF would not have come in to existence.”

“I was deeply mourning at that time,” Eisen recalled. “It’s a huge loss that you can’t imagine getting passed when you’re in the middle of it.”

Before Beth died, the Eisens befriended Karen Young, a television and film actress. The friendship began in 2006 when Shadow Distribution distributed one of Young’s films and she attended the festival that year.

After Beth’s passing, Young and Eisen’s friendship grew into something more.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to get to a place where I didn’t need to grieve full time and fortunate enough to have the grace of having this amazing woman,” Eisen said of Young. “We fell in love. It’s a little storybookish.”

The two got married in 2012, splitting their time in Waterville and the upper West side of New York City.

“I think everybody was sure I’d go off to New York with the famous actress,” Eisen said. “And in fact I do spend time there with her. It’s great having the best of both worlds. I used to need to be here on the ground at all times, selling tickets, sweeping theaters and booking films.

“I miss seeing all the people that I used to sell tickets to day-in and day-out,” Eisen added. “But on the other hand I did put in 20-something years doing that and that’s enough.”

‘BEYOND OUR WILDEST DREAMS’

More than 35 years since opening Railroad Square Cinema and nearly 20 years of hosting an international film festival, the people instrumental in the beginning stages still marvel at what it has grown in to.

“If you could go back to 1978 and say we’d be having this discussion in 2014, I wouldn’t believe you,” Sanborn said. “We never really gave it a whole lot of thought. We were just thinking about the next movie. It never occurred to us that we’d be working on it 35 years later.”

This year’s festival, with its mix of highly anticipated new films, newly discovered classics and abundance of foreign and independent films, as well as the variety of workshops, musical and artistic performances, and special guests attending, is what Eisen, who teaches film at Colby College and the University of Maine Augusta, considers to be the ideal Maine International Film Festival.

“This year was a really good mixture,” he said. “Having a major movie star like Glenn Close was fantastic. And although I think Sara Driver and Leonard Mann aren’t household names like Glenn is, their body of work is unique, fascinating and important. We like that balance between things people are familiar with and things they’re not. The point is to get people to celebrate film and maybe go see a film they’ve never heard of from a place they’ve never heard of. Experience the world in the way only film can make you.”

Now, with more than 30 years working on these projects, Eisen’s place in the festival is clear. The thought of ever replacing Eisen keeps Haines, its executive director, up at night.

“I have nightmares about it,” she said. “He’s not going to do this forever, and what kind of succession plan can you develop for Ken, who has been here for 30 years?”

If Eisen has it his way, however, that day won’t come anytime soon.

“I don’t understand what ‘retire’ means,” Eisen said. “It’s fun. I love doing it so why stop doing something you love?”

Still, when looking back at the decades of work and success that have come out of the theater and festival, Eisen can’t help but marvel.

“This was beyond our wildest dreams,” he said. “I feel very much a part of the community and very much attached to central Maine. I’m proud of what we have here and I think it’s pretty remarkable. It’s not just an accomplishment on my part, but everybody’s.”

Jesse Scardina — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @jessescardina