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.

Lost & Found Pages


When I lived in Los Angeles, I would frequently discover stray screenplay pages littering the streets. I saved them all and with my ArtsID co-host Gretchen Giles, am pleased to present a staged reading of these pages, complete with cast and soundtrack provided by the fine folks of KRCB 91 FM, Cotati, CA. Since I had no idea who wrote these pages, they have no idea that their work, or at least part of it, has been performed and immortalized in this recording. If you happen to be the writer of one of these specimens, by all means, drop me a line – I’d love to hear your side of the story. Continue reading “Lost & Found Pages”

Lost & Found Pages


When I lived in Los Angeles, I would frequently discover stray screenplay pages littering the streets. I saved them all and with my ArtsID co-host Gretchen Giles, am pleased to present a staged reading of these pages, complete with cast and soundtrack provided by the fine folks of KRCB 91 FM, Cotati, CA. Since I had no idea who wrote these pages, they have no idea that their work, or at least part of it, has been performed and immortalized in this recording. If you happen to be the writer of one of these specimens, by all means, drop me a line – I’d love to hear your side of the story. Continue reading “Lost & Found Pages”

Wooing Hollywood to Wine Country

Pray tell, is it “campaign” or “champagne” season? I always get those two confused, seeing as corks tend to pop around voting booths, at least when I’m around. You see, I’m a political demigod – I learned long ago that true power, like crap, is taken not given.? Or, at least that?s how I imagine it. Everything I know about politics I learned hanging around the office of a ?West Wing? producer, where the Emmys were so abundant they were handed out as door prizes for dropping by.

Similarly powerful producers overran Sonoma last weekend. They were part of an envoy dubbed ?Guild and Grapes,? a program that brings members of the Producers Guild of America to wine country. Though their collective credits could crash IMDB, the Internet Movie Database (mine could too but only because of the viruses), it fell upon me to act as Sonoma County?s de facto emissary to the motion picture industry. I exhibited such intimacy with ?Schmoozing and Boozing? that one might conclude they were family relations of mine from the old country.

My charge was to lead the producers through various locations where film had been shot in Sonoma County. This included pit stops at Potter School in Bodega where Hitchcock shot the ?The Birds? as well as a few favorite locations in Petaluma (?American Graffiti? and ?Peggy Sue Got Married? but not ?Howard the Duck?). In the Valley, we were kindly hosted by Kunde Family Estate (replete with private barrel tasting), the Sonoma Valley Museum of Art (with a fine greeting by executive director Kate Eilertsen and wines provided by Muscardini Cellars poured by the man whose name is on the award-winning bottle) and cave dinner at Nicholson Ranch, catered by Victoria Campbell of Brick and Bottle. A fine time was had by all. The only starlet who stormed off the set was moi, seeing as I was late for Sonoma International Film Festival alumni Abe Levy and Silver Tree?s on-set soiree during the shoot of their feature ?Lawless.?

This is what I learned about film producers when they are not in their natural habitat ??A) It?s extremely easy to get a green light when the glasses are full of red (the motion picture version of my life will be coming soon to theater near you); B) Other counties, states and countries offer rebates and incentives to film productions because they tend to be large, unwieldy users of resources for which they happily pay. They?re sort of like tourists but fatter, hungrier and require many more beds.

Though I don?t believe those minding the budgets of our local governments, let alone our citizenry, would cotton to the notion of wooing a Hollywood bankroll with taxpayer cash, it does behoove us to attract big spenders to the area. Executed correctly, a virtuous loop could develop wherein productions beget additional productions by virtue of our inherent hospitality and scenic locations, duly depicted on the silver screen. It?s like there paying us to make a commercial for Sonoma, which, by the way, I have yet to see ??done right.

Dig this ??Sonoma County hasn?t had a film commissioner as such since the last century (though the Sonoma County Economic Development Board?s executive director Ben Stone and Colette Thomas do an admirable job with film-related biz, as does their colleague Kevin Lopeman at the county?s Permit and Resource Management Department). This astounds me. In fact, it rallies me to political action: I hereby declare myself Film Commissioner of Sonoma Valley. So there.

As your newly (self)appointed film commissioner, I will endeavor to bring both studio and independent productions to the Valley, get heads and beds and turn restaurant dead days into humming commissaries. Local actors and artisans rejoice ??their film permits will be contingent on your employment.

Now, if you contest my appointment or believe you could do a better job (insert haughty laughter), it?s yours. Now, get me permission to shoot my transmedia epic, ?Winos? on the Plaza and a tax rebate for the privilege of doing so. Or you?ll never do lunch in this town again. Now, where?s the champagne?