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.

Move to Petaluma

The Miwok called it “P?ta L?uma.” The Spanish reduced it to “Petaluma.” I tried to get “Lumaville” to stick when “P-Town” seemed to be gaining ground, only to have the annual bumper crop of teens rechristen it “Deadaluma,” just like always. Now, if anecdotal reports prove true, a sizable influx of thirty- to forty-somethings from San Francisco and the East Bay are moving to Petaluma who simply call it “home.”

“I hear the story almost every day,” says Natasha Juliana, owner of?WORK, a co-working space?in the city’s downtown. “It’s gotten comical. Especially young families with young kids and parents in their 30s and 40s. They’re coming from San Francisco, the East Bay, and even farther away, like New York and Chicago,” she says. “And then we also see a lot of people who grew up here, went away for a long time, had children and have moved back.”

What Juliana hasn’t seen are people younger than 30 moving to Petaluma. “There are very few twenty-somethings,” she observes. This stands to reason, since it’s traditionally the twenty-somethings, like my younger self, that flee the suburbs and head straight for the cities.

I split from my native Petaluma 15 years ago on a self-imposed exile to pursue big-city ambitions, only to ultimately wish I hadn’t. When my wife was enticed to leave her natural foods company marketing position in the East Bay to take one in Sonoma County, it meant we could move to Petaluma. I could repatriate to my home town. But, as anyone with any years on them will tell you, where you grow up is a time, not a place. Petaluma is barely recognizable to me. Now it’s so much cooler than when I was an angry young man?or at least I’m finally able to get over myself and enjoy Petaluma on its own terms.

Actually, make that its?new?terms.

Move to Petaluma ? while you can.

While showing us our future home, the woman showing the house namedropped critically lauded singer-songwriter Sean Hayes, who had moved with his young family to Petaluma only months prior. I’d known and appreciated his work in the city and found his presence on the block somehow assuring. Could the ‘burbs be cool?

“Why Petaluma?” asks Hayes, who had lived in San Francisco for 20 years. “Intuition. Mostly my wife’s. We were living in a small one bedroom in the Mission in San Francisco. We knew we were going to have a second baby. Decided north. We’ve been very happy up here?great town.”

The Hayeses aren’t the only ones who have “decided north” in recent months. Dozens upon dozens of mostly creative professionals, many of whom have young children, are moving to Petaluma. Albeit, all evidence of this migration is unsubstantiated; there is no hard data?yet?just observations made by myself and others. For example, a new preschool opened in Petaluma last fall in which every single student is the child of a transplanted family that moved from the East Bay or San Francisco, mostly in the last year. And this kind of situation arises again and again in local conversations.

Who are these people and why are they moving to Petaluma?

The reasons are myriad but cluster around three primary themes: economic pressures in the surrounding cities driving up the cost of housing; a desire for a community-centric creative and sustainable lifestyle with a bucolic backdrop; and the need to accommodate the spate of kids everyone had when they panicked and realized they were staring down the barrel at 40.

Speaking with some newly minted Petalumans is a bit like watching a supercut of theManchurian Candidate: “Petaluma is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful small town I’ve ever known in my life.” I’ve heard the same breathless sentiment coming from my own mouth when asked why I moved here. It’s all true, but hearing it aloud helps me believe it, helps me believe that ditching a hip neighborhood in Oakland for the comparatively staid environs of Sonoma County was the right decision. Sure it was, because (a) I always felt 15 years too old for it anyway, and (b) where the hell else could I go to feel even vaguely relevant?

Try as I might to find a Petaluma naysayer for a reality check, none would go on record. They fear, I surmise, as I do, that we might become the twist in a Shirley Jackson story wherein the townsfolk stone us to death. (And not in the “Sonoma Coma” kind of way.)

Prior to moving back, I clued into certain cultural indicators that the city had changed from one groping for an identity (saddled as it was between Sonoma’s wine trade and Marin’s cultural clinch on what many imagined Northern California to be) to one that’s rapidly redefining the potential for a small town to support creativity, entrepreneurism and sustainability in an affordable and family-friendly package.

Take, for example, WORK, where entrepreneurs and freelancers of various stripes get the job done in the heart of downtown?finally, a place where building one’s own personal empire is embraced and encouraged. Across the street is Acre Coffee, where one can get single-origin, direct-trade, French-pressed drinks, just as one would at the cafe’s San Francisco location. There are three wine bars within staggering distance of each other. The?New York Times?recently fawned over the city’s restaurants. Even the cows and their pervasive stink contribute to the local charm?and you can have them delivered to your door as organic steaks through a community-supported agriculture service. For that matter, food?especially locally cultivated grub?is a big draw.

“It’s nicely located, and centrally located. Have you seen the restaurants?” says Don Frances over mason jars of beer from Petaluma’s own?Lagunitas Brewing Company?at Ray’s Tavern. The neighborhood hub, with weekly live music and a menu rife with specialty sammies boasting local street names (the Western Avenue BLT is self-explanatory), has evolved from family-owned corner store into microbrew mecca and artisanal sandwich shop.

Frances and his family moved from Davis to Petaluma when he was appointed news editor of the?Sonoma Index-Tribune?last February. “I want that nice blend of city and country, and we have got it. I like a city that ends?meaning you get to the actual end of it?and this is one,” he says. “There aren’t that many, especially if you want a city that’s worth a damn as a city but not part of some megalopolis that never really ends.”

But are we all drinking the Pinot-flavored Kool-Aid and calling it Lagunitas? With its hands on the spigot is the city itself, which has made a concerted effort to market Petaluma and its various attractions to businesses seeking to employ “knowledge workers.”

A letter from Mayor David Glass, printed in an advertising supplement circulated last October, declares that “Petaluma has been a center of industry and innovation in the Bay Area for 150 years. Today it’s the corporate home of global brands like Lagunitas, CamelBak, Traditional Medicinals, Enphase and Athleta.”

The approach dovetails nicely with a larger county-wide effort to attract businesses in fields populated by creative professionals, which the Sonoma County Economic Development Board broadly defines as those working in science and engineering, architecture and design, management and finance, education, the arts, and music and entertainment.

Last month the EDB convened a “Creative Arts Focus Group” to assess how it might help this “cluster” become a steady economic driver.

Participants were asked to break into groups and answer questions like “what are the three biggest opportunities for growing/sustaining your business in the next three to seven years?” A consistent theme, writ large on the groups’ self-adhesive flipcharts, was the notion of attracting and retaining talent through Sonoma County’s copious lifestyle offerings. After all, we’re “America’s premier wine, spa and coastal destination,” as our tourism bureau happily reminds. And, as the southernmost tip of the county, Petaluma is the gateway to this Xanadu.

“I do not have any specific statistics that would allow me to confirm your observations about creative professionals moving to Petaluma,” says Ingrid Alverde, the city of Petaluma’s economic development manager, via email. “That said, I, too, have met many creative professionals in my work with the city. I can say that Petaluma’s quality of life is unmatched in the Bay Area because of its affordable living, mixed with its great location and its historic downtown. Petaluma also has a strong sense of community and many venues for art, music and theater.”

The G-Word

Notions of gentrification arise every time a demographic shift occurs in a specific locale. Is that what’s happening here? By the strictest definition, no. It was already like this when we got here.

“It feels more real and it doesn’t feel so suburban. It’s not like suburban sprawl,” says WORK’s Juliana. “[I can go] four minutes outside of town and be in real working farmland. There’s a quality to Petaluma that’s really authentic, partly just because of the history and the agricultural history. It has a diversity of people still living here. It’s not Mill Valley.”

The Mill Valley factor has long loomed over Petaluma. In the ’80s there was a palpable sense of Marin County envy?we were so close yet so far away from the money, hot tubs, Beemers and?cocaine. The ’90s did no favors for Petaluma, resulting in a decade of “alternative” self-deceptions and dotcom dilettantism that made us look like Marin’s self-mutilating younger sibling.

It wasn’t until this century that Petaluma realized the intrinsic lifestyle value of its rural village roots and embraced it wholly. Couple this with Sonoma County’s upgrade from “Redwood Empire” to “Wine Country,” and suddenly we’re trendsetters. But does influence necessarily lead to affluence, specifically of the kind that would make Petaluma fear it was turning into Mill Valley?

“I have a lot of friends who worry about that,” observes Juliana, who is confident Petaluma will maintain its community-driven values. “But you also have to evolve as a town, otherwise you become a desolate ghost town.”

Anyway, Petaluma tried gentrification before. The results were meh. In the early aughts, plug-‘n’-play developments like the so-called?Theater District?were designed to emulate the urban density of cities?retail and restaurants downstairs, loft-like apartments upstairs. It’s urban design by way of a pr?t-?-porter mentality, and may attract a certain kind of Pr?t-?-luman, but by and large the recent arrivals are specifically attracted to the older (by a century) west-side architecture and a decidedly small-town way of life.

More to the point, the families moving to Petaluma are not gentrifiers themselves so much as the fallout from the latest waves of gentrification occurring in the urban neighborhoods they departed. Demand for real estate in San Francisco has driven the market into the stratosphere. A three-bedroom fixer-upper in the Glen Park neighborhood near Noe Valley recently sold for $1.425 million. Homes in Petaluma can be had for one-third as much, though this is likely to change as inventory decreases.

“Homes are selling as soon as they come on the market,” says Martha O’Hayer, a realtor at the Petaluma branch of Coldwell Banker. “Savvy investors are buying their homes now, renting them until they are ready to leave the City and East Bay with the intention of heading here when they are ready for a lifestyle change.”

Homes on Petaluma’s tonier, older west side start at the mid-$300,000s but can reach a cool million in the prestige neighborhoods in the “number and letter” streets. Comparatively, homes east of Highway 101, where track developments limned by strip malls dominate, hover between $300,000 and $500,000.

Seven months ago, therapist Rachael Newman purchased a home with her husband near Petaluma’s downtown. Since the arrival of their son, they were rapidly outgrowing their houseboat in Sausalito. It was time to take the plunge (north?not into the Bay).

“It just felt like the town of Sausalito wasn’t really quite right for ‘forever’ for us,” says Newman. “Petaluma feels like a place where we can really raise our children and grow old.” She adds with a laugh, “We’re a clich? at this point, I guess.”

Juliana puts it this way: “Honestly, this is the first place where I feel really at home. I feel like I fit in.”

I concur completely.?Sweet home Deadaluma, Lord, I’m coming home to you.

Look Homeward Angel

PetalumaAfter two-and-a-half years of self-imposed exile in the East Bay, my family and I are repatriating to Sonoma County – specifically to my hometown of Petaluma. For me, the move marks an interesting chapter in my ongoing autobiographical opus, which I’ll likely lead with an epigram cribbed from Simon and Garfunkel: “Homeward bound, I wish I ?wa-a-a-s …”
But now I a-a-a-m.

Thinking of home I realize I’ve never read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, which might provide the psychic fortitude I might need when “going home.” Due to some karmic snafu – be it destiny or derailment – when trawling the shelves of Copperfield’s Books used department, I found Tom Wolfe instead. Suffice it to say, I drank the electric Kool-Aid and was soon spiraling headfirst into New Journalism. I’ve never recovered. Years later, a subsequent sidewalk meeting with George Plimpton in front of Elaine’s in NYC, only deepened my affinities and here I am still writing first-person columns in newspapers. Admittedly, this is neither New nor Journalism per se, but it pays the rent. Part of it. Continue reading “Look Homeward Angel”

An Unexpected Nod from My Hometown Press

I Heart SonomaThanks to my Google “vanity alert,” I learned that Petaluma360 gifted me some post-holiday cheers in a nice round-up piece on Petaluma authors. Pasted below is a fine quote about having gotten my start in the chapbook trade back in the day (anyone remember Deluge Six or perhaps Ballad of the Saxon’s Daughter and the Book of Job?), which Copperfield’s Books in my hometown of Petaluma, CA, was kind enough grant some shelf space. When you’re a 17-year-old wannabe writer, such gestures mean the world and I remain grateful.

I Heart Sonoma

Daedalus Howell’s “I Heart Sonoma: How to Live & Drink in Wine Country” offers irreverent, but loving verbal snapshots of “Wine Country” depicting the world of vineyards, tasting rooms, and wine aficionados, taken with a dark and comedic zoom lens.

Howell, 40, was born in Santa Rosa and grew up in Petaluma. He credits Petaluma’s Copperfield’s Books Store with providing him his first validation as a writer. In his early teens his writing took the form of homemade pamphlets called “chap” books. They had card-stock covers and were held together with two staples. Copperfield’s allowed Howell and other young authors-in-the-making to display their novice efforts in a professional retail setting. Howell’s “I Heart Sonoma” is available through Copperfield’s Books and in paperback and Internet versions at Amazon.com.

Thanks again to Petaluma360 for the press! Click through to meet my colleagues via Petaluma360.com.


Arts ID on KRCB 91 FM

Welcome to ArtsID, a new radio magazine about North Bay arts made in? collaboration with KRCB, the North Bay Bohemian and the Arts Council of Sonoma County. Each show comes bundled in a shiny new theme ? this episode’s is “Identity.” Pieces include Petaluma sculptor Nick Van Kridjt, performance activists The Rapture Right, musician Danny Sorrentino and his alter-ego, Lucky Buck , a John Moran theater piece, and an audio tale by David Templeton of his teenaged quest to win the girl of his dreams by become Prince Charming…and more. So much more. Hosted by Gretchen Giles and Daedalus Howell. Listen live via iTunes!