Aug 162012

A filmmaker I know and don’t exactly love is throwing his annual party, traditionally an excuse to demonstrate the far reaching scope of his wealth and connections. I’ve opted out in the past with dental excuses, fictional deaths in the family, and feigned forgetfulness, but for some reason I trap myself into going this time, and being anal and anxious I’m one of the first to show up.

The venue is some elaborate grotto complete with connecting cave-like chambers, their curving walls made of moist stone, fountains, and winding paths made slippery from condensation. I’m overdressed, or underdressed. I can’t make up my mind. I’m wearing an ill-fitting trench coat, and I could take it off, but I would be one of those people, carrying around an unwieldy bundle the whole night, a physical manifestation of my inner discomfort. I tell myself I’m not staying the whole night. I’m telling myself that I’m allowed to leave once enough people arrive to see report that I was there. Under the coat is something I wouldn’t be caught dead in. The pants are too tight, too trendy maybe. The shirt is awful. The socks don’t match.

The host hasn’t arrived and I don’t really know anyone and have no one to talk to and wouldn’t dream of trying to make conversation, knowing no matter what I might say, I’d only reinforce my agony. I wander the rooms, most of which are empty save for one or two people, standing there with a drink, trying to look as if the walls alone are entertaining. What interesting architecture.

Eventually the rooms start getting closed off. Someone, a minion of the filmmaker – probably a party planner, knowing his income and desire to impress – goes around locking the doors, placing signs on them which read THIS ROOM CLOSED. PLEASE JOIN THE OTHERS ELSEWHERE. We’re being corralled into one of the largest caves, where we can be counted on to create a convincing, if not convivial, din. I stand there for a while trying to smile. A lot of the guests know each other, or know the same people, and, forced to talk, are connecting in predictable fashion. I have nothing to do but drink, but I have no idea which cave hides the bartender, so I measure out my cocktail to make it last, bringing the glass to my mouth frequently without actually sipping.

At some point I can’t bear it, and leave, telling myself I can always come back without my absence being noted any more than my presence. I walk a few blocks to the place I’m staying, the house of an actress I’ve worked with and love. It’s a mansion, baroque in style, with clay tile roofing, large, elaborate iron grates over the windows and around the yard, and dark wood detailing inside. The actress isn’t home but her husband is, and I’m very fond of him too, so it’s embarrassing and distressing when I start breaking all the china, which for some reason is on a conveyor belt along the floor, on its way back to the kitchen after early evening tea time. My trench coat sweeps two teacups and a saucer off track, hurtling them a few feet away. They shatter just as my host enters. He’s one of the best hosts I’ve ever met and assures me they aren’t anything close to heirlooms, which convinces me they’re irreplaceable. I decide that if I’m going to make an ass of myself no matter where I am, it’s best to do it among strangers, and I might as well head back to the grotto.

 Posted by on August 16, 2012
Aug 142012

From TV shows to tintypes, stoic ladies, Chuck Connors, and a rouged plains gentleman: images for a Western film.

These are the concrete steps leading up to the courthouse and down to the Main Street area of Hickman, Kentucky. They seem to go on forever. I like the idea of a long ascension to justice and a steep, perilous stumble back down into what got you there in the first place.

Children in these old photos always seem wiser to me than their modern day counterparts. This girl’s face looks so serious, like she’s got not just her mother’s eyes but her mother’s perspective, already. I’m fascinated by the idea of growing up in the same place, the same small town, around the same people. Everywhere you go, people see the kid you were and the people your parents became. For most people that would serve as deterrent, a corral to keep you in the normative fold, but if you had the misfortune of a criminal or an ill-repute in your background, the ghost of it might haunt you for life.

Chuck Connors started out in major league baseball and the NBA. He played 66 games for the Chicago Cubs as a first baseman and pinch hitter. Later he returned to the minor leagues, playing for the Los Angeles Angels. Once in LA, he signed with MGM and became a well recognized character actor, with roles in movies like Pat and Mike and Move Over Darling, and bits in dozens of TV shows. He was selected out of forty actors to star in The Rifleman, playing a widowed rancher. His face seems quintessentially western to me, whatever that is.

Downtown Hickman, Kentucky after, I think, the 1912 flood. Nobody knew what to do with the Mississippi. The federal government didn’t want the responsibility, and small towns like Hickman didn’t have the resources to contain it, though they tried. Today there are enormous concrete levees. Back then there were levees too, but not as sturdy. Within an hour of the levee break in 1912, the water was up to people’s roofs. Often, another flood would hit a town while the citizens were scrambling to rebuild. The inhospitality of the land often went critical – from the dustbowl, at one extreme, to fires and flooding at the other. Prospectors of one kind or another built it up in the public imagination. Then people labored under the reality.

Spaghetti Westerns explored the black humor of cowboy stoicism, but not in a way I really relate to. The only Western, so-called, that came close for me was a novel, The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt. Those Italian films were maybe a little too slapstick or hammy in some way for my taste. I like all the character actors in dustbowl Paper Moon, a film that isn’t a Western but feels like one. I’m interested in playing around with that deadpan stoicism of Western iconography and its weird, angular postures and cryptic language. It all seems pretty ripe for a specific kind of comedy I feel like I’ll know when I see.

Rouged on the frontier. Gender roles are so strict in the Western it makes you want to play around with them.

A kid playing around with his idea of a cowboy. His son probably watched The Rifleman, and carried on the impersonation.

More rouge, on an even more masculine face.

Showdown on Main Street is a major part of the Western. One cowboy on each end of the street. Town folks lined along the walks to watch. The gunmen’s mouths set in grim tight lines.

The big house as epicenter of town commerce. Oil people, maybe, or the town banker.


 Posted by on August 14, 2012
Aug 122012

From set full of comrades to army of one: better gear up for both, with a rigorous nap schedule…

I was at an event a few weeks ago in Massachusetts full of filmmakers and visual artists and I guess industry types, and we were all encouraged by the facilitators to reach out to each other and be open about what we need. Filmmakers need a lot – money, producers, distribution support, talent – and you’re crazy to ask for something stupid and inconsequential, like rest. But during a presentation I forgot to turn it on and said I needed, essentially, a nap or something.

Filming ONLY CHILD in April was exhausting, and I’m still recuperating, and it’s not really over. The shoot gives you the raw materials, and you have a lot to do ahead of you. Like the edit. Design a web site. Sound work. Score. Filming is the easy part, for me, and it’s back breaking. But I’m pretty tired, and after the congregational experience of the shoot, where I was surrounded by and responsible for people everyday, all of us focused on the same immediate objectives and challenges, I’ve had trouble switching gears comfortably.

You have a kind of family, then they’re gone. You’re tapped into them, then you aren’t. You don’t feel the exhaustion much during the shoot, or you feel it in a different way, the way a hamster feels the wire rods of the wheel as it spins, maybe, because you’re thinking on your toes. You can’t afford not to think on your toes. You can think about the fact that your toes feel funny but it’s not an option to think about getting off them for a while. After it’s over and everyone moves on to different things, you try to figure out what to do with yourself. You worked twelve hour days, thinking nothing of it. Now the day is just interminably long. and all you think about is your dogs barking.

I’ve been resting as much as I can. I’ve been taking naps. I’m not much of a nap taker but it’s all I know to do. There’s so much time in the day, and so much of it is busy in a very diffuse way. Napping shuts it all down. I look forward to the dreams during these naps because they’re rare surprises. Today I dreamed we were filming somewhere and a corrupt cop warned us a bomb was going off on set at zero whatever hour. We were all totally unified trying to solve the problem, sharing the panic. We all knew exactly what to do with our time and how much of it was said to be left.

I woke up and there was laundry to do and a film to edit and a house to clean and a website to figure out and taxes to pay, and it was all my problem.

Photo of the crew and some of the cast from ONLY CHILD, shot by Jamie Harmon.

 Posted by on August 12, 2012
Aug 072012

Last Saturday, some friends and I went over to Hickman, Kentucky, a few miles past the Tennessee state line, to scout a location for a film we’re thinking about making there. The house we looked at once belonged to a woman who passed away over ten years ago, and it was pretty much the way she left it, although her daughters had kept it up since then. There are two floors. The downstairs has four or five connected rooms. There are day beds in just about every room; but no real bedroom proper. There are framed photos and little sayings all over the place: God help me to know when to keep my big mouth shut. A decorated Christmas tree stands in one corner, behind a couch. Upstairs is I guess what you’d call unfinished. It’s in advanced stages of unfinished-ness. Like the downstairs, it has several connecting rooms. Bare bulbs hang from the ceilings, along with flaking plaster. There’s a lot of texture up there – wood planks, peeling wallpaper, paneled walls. It’s perfect for black and white film. Together the first and second floors feel like two sides of a split personality.

I got an idea about some kind of western, and I’d started writing the story, without really knowing where I might film it, then the woman who kept up this house, who was my friend Savannah’s great aunt and one of the original owner’s daughters, died, and Savannah went to the funeral, and after talking to her family learned the house is just going to be sitting there, preserved, for the time being. She texted me photos of the place and asked if it might fit the story. I didn’t really think so, but what I’d originally had in mind – something remote, like a Great Plains shack surrounded by a vast landscape of dust – wasn’t much of an option for the budget and resources I have, so we made a plan to drive over and take some test shots.

I’ve always liked the idea of walking into a space and filming with whatever you find there. I like the idea of a story taking shape around a space. And when we got to Hickman and inside this house the story I’d been writing seemed less interesting than the story that seemed to be living there already. Every place has a story and I feel like it’s better to open your ears to it than to try to renovate it to fit a preconceived idea. Otherwise you start stripping away its weird, inimitable sense of authenticity. I’ve experienced both. For ONLY CHILD, the feature film we shot in April, it was a mixture: we filmed at spaces which were used pretty much as we found them, and in a house where there were so many rules and restrictions we couldn’t explore its expressive potential very deeply. Buildings have owners and the owners have varying comfort levels with a film crew’s invasion. The house in Hickman seemed like a good palate cleanser, a place to get back to square one.

The house steered my story in different directions. In my original script, the house was less important, less featured, than the space outside it. In Hickman I started thinking about the psychology of an interior space a lot more. My story was always about people who didn’t want to deal with the outside world; but their house was so spartan it felt like an afterthought. The landscape was brutal and something they had to deal with day to day but I realized, being in this house in Hickman, that eventually every house becomes a fortress of memories and mementos, a place to give context to the outside world. I started thinking about what shelter actually means, maybe, and how a place starts to take shape under the weight of time.

I was thinking about the story as roughly some kind of contemporary western, and to me that meant the hostile outdoors, but I realized in Hickman that the western has a lot to do with indoors too. Like the first and second floors of the Hickman house the outdoors and indoors are two sides of a split personality.

I think we’ll probably start filming in November. Photos by Erik Morrison and Benjamin Rednour.

 Posted by on August 7, 2012
Aug 012012

“If you want to make gourmet food, you don’t go to General Mills to distribute it because eventually what’s going to happen is that they’re going to have to take whatever made it special out of it to do it on that scale.”

– John Sayles

(pictured: still from RETURN OF THE SECAUCUS 7)