On Location in Petaluma

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.

We’re On the Spectrum Between Ed Wood and Orson Welles

Ed Wood

Great piece by Andrew Bloom at Consequence of Sound that expresses  a notion I’ve been mulling since I first saw Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. Bloom drills down into the scene between Johnny Depp’s titular character and Vincent D’Onofrio as Orson Welles as the filmmakers discuss keeping to one’s artistic vision:

Burton and his collaborators sketch an unexpected parallel between the two unlikely “visionaries” here. The scene suggests that there’s a beauty in artistic purity, whether it comes from one of cinema’s most venerated artists or from its most deluded-if-earnest creators of crap. The film posits that all art contains a piece of the author’s soul, from cinema’s highest highs to its lowest lows, and that fact connects everyone with the foolhardy impulse to try to make good on the impulse to create.

Source: Ed Wood and Who Art Really Belongs To | Consequence of Sound

This kinship in creation, the idea that “everyone with the foolhardy impulse to try to make good on the impulse to create” are connected in a community of creativity is a marvelous notion. Especially for those of us making art who like to believe we’re on the spectrum somewhere between Welles and Wood, as with our art film project Pill Head. In the end, we’re part of a community, perhaps even a tradition and the esprit de corps this engenders is the fuel one needs when launching over such Quixotic humps like, you know, reality.

Though it’s technically easier than ever to make a movie, it’s still an act of outrageous will that gets them done. Moreover, per Bloom, when making work that contains “a piece of the author’s soul,”  you need to A) have a soul and B) believe you’re carrying a torch lit by a common flame. The connectivity of which Bloom writes is that flame — whether it’s (spoiler alert) Rosebud heaped into the fireplace  or the crackpot fire burning in Wood’s eyes — that connection, in spirit, is what ultimately helps our work connect with its audience and them to each other.

Burning Down the Art House, Part 3: Nostalgia, The Good Disease

art house

This is Part Three of three part series on my exploration of the elusive Art Film. (Check out Part One and Part Two, or listen to the podcast on Soundcloud.)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve typed “Fade In:” followed by INT. CAFE – NIGHT and hoped that some alchemical magic would arise from the mix of caffeine and community college film classes, and hubris –  and presto! – I’m Tarantino. Or Scorsese. Or Coppola. Or someone else with an Italian name. Like Fellini.  Oh, Fellini. We’ll get to you, Fellini.

Right now, however, I’m surrounded by screenwriters at the Intelligensia coffee house in the Sunset Junction in Los Angeles’ Silver Lake neighborhood. I came here breath. And vacation with Karen Hell. But also to breath –  to take a deep breath and hopefully catch some the stardust amongst the particulate matter in the LA air.

But, after a coughing fit, I remember that the screenplay I’ve written is intentionally uncommercial. It’s not a Hollywood picture. It’s an art flick, so stardust, like so much sugar, would just be too damn sweet. Or – or more likely – bitter.

I have a think on this, on stardust, and the notion that Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and Fellini’s 8 ½ are essentially the same film comes to mind again.

A director ruminates on life, women, and cinema. And in chunky-framed glasses. And in black in white. And, and, and… We’ll go into the similarities more deeply in another episode of my adult night school of the mind.

What’s germane here is that both films are loaded with nostalgia. In fact, many of Fellini’s films — but seldom more vividly and ripe for parody than in 8 ½. It’s no wonder that Saturday Night Live satirist Tom Schiller chose it as his point of departure for a Fellini-sque sketch starring Gilda Radner.

Like all parody, it concentrates the ticks of its inspiration. He called it La Dolce Gilda but don’t let the title fool you into thinking it riffs on Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It may start that way with all the paparazzo bullshit but all the heart, warmth and snickering at sentimentality while being entirely sentimental is pure 8 ½. Dan Aykroyd even makes a convincing stand-in for Marcello Mastroianni.

With lines like “Leave me my dreams. Dreams are like paper, they tear so easily” and a slow pan to a pantomime waiter who has a balloon by the string, which he let’s sail into the seaside breeze, I can’t help but feel nostalgia.

The term comes from Swiss physician Johannes Hofer’s 17th century medical dissertation for which he coined the term to describe a disease that afflicts sufferers with a melancholic longing for a time and place.

I’m not sure if I’m responding to the cues in Tom Schiller’s film or if I’m simply nostalgic for that time in my life when I first saw it as part of an SNL retrospective. Whatever the case, it kindled in me a desire to make grainy, black and white tone poems with accordion music soundtracks. And like the other parody films in this three part series, La Dolce Gilda served to turn me on to its inspiration. To wit, I’ve been a Fellini-fan since.

I eventually did make a nostalgia-driven project — about 7 years ago. It’s not Fellini-esque – it was  a music video for one of my brother’s bands. What’s weird is that I began this project as an 8-year-old in 1980 using a Super 8 camera and a cast of neighborhood kids. I returned to the footage 30 years later and finished the film as The Sandfighter — Falcon’s best track. So, now, I’m 44 and starting another project, Pill Head. Given my previous timeline, maybe check back in when I’m 74 and we’ll see how it’s doing.

Burning Down the Art House, Part Two: Death Becomes Him

art house

This is Part Two of three part series on my exploration of the elusive Art Film. (Check out Part One and Part Three, or listen to the podcast on Soundcloud.)

Puberty. I remember it as a kind of simultaneous metaphysical death and rebirth. I was 12 with a burgeoning awareness of counter culture that dovetailed nicely with my nascent arty pretensions. That year, the Amadeus soundtrack crowded out Van Halen’s 1984 in my cassette carrier and I had the word “Person” printed in black across the chest of a yellow T-shirt because we were all generic products in the consumerist 80s. Or something like that. In real life, everyone thought my conceptual fashion art was just a  misspelling of Pierson but that didn’t matter — I was making a statement. And that statement was “I’m an emerging creative force with whom you must reckon.” And someday, that might come true.

That summer, when I wasn’t plotting the purchase of my first trenchcoat, I was doing marathon binges of HBO. I have no idea what I watched back then other than a lot of short films because the cable channel used them as interstitials between features that ran long or short against the hour.

This is how I first saw De Düva, which led me to Ingmar Bergman, which led me to writing my first novel, The Late Projectionist, which is the first permutation of the story world that, nearly 20 years later, I’ve set the art film I’m calling Pill Head.


Madeline Kahn – DE DUVA (The Dove) | Directed… by BasiliaHumphreys

De Düva, or The Dove, isn’t a Bergman film, however. It’s an 11-minute parody-slash-homage to the director that a couple of wags made in 1968. They wanted to take the piss out of the Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries and The Seventh Seal. In the eyes of this impressionable 12-year-old, they succeeded. Because, as Weird Al will tell you, you haven’t done parody unless some tween knowingly snickers.

It went like this (courtesy of Wikipedia):

Victor, a seventy-six-year-old physics professor traveling by chauffeured car to give a university lecture, decides to visit his boyhood home. In the outhouse, he finds a figurine of a dove which reminds him of a summer picnic from his youth. Later in the flashback, Victor and his beloved sister Inga run through the woods until they come across Death, who has come to claim Inga. Victor wagers that Death will not win a badminton competition with Inga – parodying The Seventh Seal, in which the competition is a game of chess. Death agrees, with the condition that if he wins he will take both Inga and Victor. After Inga wins the competition, thanks in whole or in part to the accidental contribution of the Dove, she and Victor happily run to the lake to go skinny-dipping.

Brilliant. In fact, it was nominated for an Oscar. And It personified – then parodied – Death in a manner that made sense to this budding existentialist. It took Death and rendered him idiotic,

down to his Fruit-of-the-Loom-worthy cowl. Death, I learned, could be bested, at least for a while, if not by badminton, then by banter.

I saw The Seventh Seal years later in college and had profound deja vu. Then I was stirred to my core. And I realize now that the parody primed me to understand the potency of Bergman’s unique genius. I was receptive rather than recalcitrant which was the default MO of my 20s.

De Düva was to Bergman what Monty Python’s French Subtitled Film was to my appreciation of Godard as discussed in Part One of this series.

A decade and half later, I made my own Date with Death short wherein I too used rhetorical finesse to escape the inevitable. My debt to De Düva and Bergman is  more than evident in the film, which is linked in the show notes and I hope to pay it back by paying it forward with a work that inspires its own parody. Such is the cycle of life, death and de düva.

A Girl, a Gun and an iPhone: All You Need to Make a Movie

Girl and a gun.

Summer movie season is upon us. Well, it’s technically been here since May because, like climate change, Hollywood can adjust the seasons seemingly at will. At your local cinemas, iron-clad playboys flex computer-enhanced muscles whilst spaceships go where no man has gone before – again. It’s a dizzying display of predictable imagineering, so pixel-perfect that it’s hard to remember that cinema used to be a simpler affair.

To provide context for how relatively new movie making is, relative to the other arts, and how far it’s come, consider that there are turtles in the Galapagos older than the entire history of cinema. It’s difficult to imagine that movies were once little more than a point-and-shoot deal. According to two innovators in the medium, the basic requirements once were as follows:

A) “All I need to make a comedy is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl.” – Charlie Chaplin

B) “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” – Jean-Luc Goddard

For convenience’s sake, we might equate “comedy” and “movie,” and likewise reduce the essence of the policeman (authority, force, death) to the gun. So, with some rhetorical contortions, Chaplin and Goddard, we might say, agree on the essentials of cinematic storytelling. What about the park, you ask? The one featured in Chaplin’s 1915 one-reeler, “In the Park,” is somewhere in San Francisco and has likely continued this tradition of tramps, cops and pretty girls the past 100 years, though the cameras are now used for surveillance and the pretty girls are professionals. And sometimes dudes.

In the above model, it seems the only constant in cinema is the girl. With her, three elementary aspects of storytelling reveal themselves: There is an object of desire, some sort of threat and someone in the middle of both. The person in the middle is our hero. Or, as screenwriters are apt to say whilst penning Act II, “the person in the hero is our middle.” Actually, no screenwriter has ever said that, but they should because it’s both true and just clever-sounding enough to buy one time to sneak out of the room.

But, you say, this might be all one needs for a story, but a movie requires moving pictures to tell that story. This entails at least a modicum of technology like, say, a camera, though as the following filmmaker quotes suggest, that camera needn’t be Chaplin’s hand-cranked Bell & Howell 2709 or Goddard’s Eclair Cameflex:

C) “The great hope is that … Some little fat girl in Ohio is going to make a beautiful movie with her father’s camcorder …” – Francis Ford Coppola

D) “Film will only become art when the materials are as inexpensive as pencil and paper.” – Jean Cocteau

Cameras have yet to become as cheap as pencil and paper (unless we’re talking about “The Graf von Faber-Castell Perfect Pencil,” available for a tidy $12,800) but with the right service plan subsidizing your purchase, you can pocket an iPhone for about a hundred bucks.

And I’ll bet you that hundo that the fat girl in Ohio would probably prefer her dad’s iPhone 5 that shoots 1080p HD video than ye olde camcorder.

Now, all you need is a pretty girl/guy, a gun/policeman, perhaps a park, a handful of other cliches (like a skin-tight super-suit) and a mega-computer to retrofit your crappy iPhone footage with CGI. There are theoretically three months left in summer (that is, unless the God of Weather gets angry and throws another tempest-tantrum), so you might be able to get your flick in under the wire and enjoy a summer release. Somewhere, an ancient tortoise is shaking its head.