On Location in Petaluma

When making films at my scale, which is to say “human scale,” shooting on location is the only affordable way to do it. And by “location” I mean as close to home as possible. My new #indiefilm mantra is: “My hometown is my backlot.” And, as it happens, my hometown, Petaluma, CA, is also everyone else’s backlot too.

As I crowed in our fundraising package, we intended to “…insert our movie into the auspicious timeline of Petaluma’s cinematic history… Consider how this partial list of locally-shot films have contributed to the culture at-large: The BirdsAmerican GraffitiPeggy Sue Got MarriedPhenomenonBasic InstinctScreamLolita (the remake), Inventing the AbbotsPleasantville, FlubberMumford…” You can add Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why now as well. 

Given the laundry list above, shooting Pill Head on location in Petaluma was essentially an act of reclamation, an attempt by a handful of locals to take back the town and the memories the movies threaten to supplant. But then, memories of Petaluma, at least for those of us townies who came of age in the late 80s and 90s, often are movie memories. Nine of the 10 films listed above were shot on the same streets we traversed in our teens and 20s, when production seemed ubiquitous and we were trapped in its stardust like the people of Pompeii.

Add to that the fact that Lucasfilm’s secret rebel base was once in rural Marin County (our backyard) and that Stranger Things mom Winona Ryder did hard time in our public school system, and — well, one can see how more than a few of us would be infected with cinemania. Being so close (like, downtown), yet so far away from the biz was galling. The sentiment bled over into my first novel, The Late Projectionist, in which a wannabe filmmaker laments:

“This is nothing short of hostile occupation…What gets me most is their tinkering with the tincture — shootin’ up the town in their motley. Technicolor twits. Lumaville is a black and white town, damn it.”

On Location
I love how they spelled my name almost as much as the wifi password being “Baywatch.

I too believe Petaluma/Lumaville is a black and white town. Hence, Pill Head is black and white. And for a fleeting, daft, moment, I thought it could also be shot on a back lot. I have no idea why I thought this was remotely feasible. Perhaps I was still in the honeymoon period of rewriting the script and overly dreamy about its prospects I suppose. Or maybe it was just a bout of Hollywooditis, a recurring viral infection I contracted when I lived there at the beginning of the century. Whatever it was it, led me to score a drive-on at Paramount just to A) prove I still could, and B) scout, ahem, locations. 

On Location
Ceci n’est pas American Alley.

Producer Karen Hess and I entered the Gower Street gate and were directed to the New York City set. There, we were met by a wonderful location manager who led us on private tour of the back lot’s back alleys from the driver’s seat of a golf cart. Near the “writer’s building” featured in Sunset Boulevard, we spotted an alley that was the twin-separated-at-birth of American Alley back home. But clean and with no graffiti or street art. Or people. It was like seeing a photo of a tattoo junky pre-needle.

Alice indoors.
Come play with us forever. Courtesy of Garlington and Bertotti.

The resemblance was uncanny, down to the loading bay doors that local artists Bertotti/Garlington laminated with a pair of post-Wonderland Alices a la The Shining. We got a rate and did the math — we could shoot a day on the lot (and th-th-th-that’s all, folks) or produce our entire movie in Petaluma. (Naturally, once we saw The Disaster Artist, the comic conundrum of shooting an alley set that looks like our hometown alley was put in high relief, per this glorious moment).

After about a millisecond of soul searching, I doubled down on the notion of shooting in my hometown. The reasons to do so were aplenty and obvious (we live there; ditto our lead actors; Karen is smarter than me, etc.). But even if I had the dough, I’d’ve shot on location in Petaluma anyway. After all, this is where the memories are, and if I’m going to make movie memories, I’d better make them here and insert our movie into the “auspicious timeline of my personal cinematic history.” Besides, it’s a black and white town, damn it — and everything else is just a  technicolor trance when you remember there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home.

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