Ellington in Brooklyn

Ask and ye shall receive.

Last month I was listening to the LP Ellington Indigos – No, let’s go back to American Hustle  – NO! Let’s start in December, when I was working as producer on A Man Full of Days. I met Steve Holtje, who’s composing the score for it. Steve is also manager and publicist at the legendary avant-garde jazz label ESP-Disk. Just for fun he deejays on the last Monday each month at Flatbush Farm in Brooklyn; for a guy who can talk at length about Ornette Coleman and Erik Satie, he knows when it’s time to just spin some Prince or Kinks and let it rock.

Weeks later I saw American Hustle, and let’s just say Christian Bale’s character hit a little close to home for me. Not the combover, but the way he effused about Duke Ellington – “Who starts a song like that?!” – is something I might say on any given night. A few months after that, while listening to Ellington Indigos, I lifted the needle to repeat “Autumn Leaves” a few times, loving Ray Nance’s violin over and over again.

An enthusiasm for Ellington soloists doesn’t have the aphrodisiac effect it has in the movies, let me tell you. It’s more of a solitary experience, and I had one of those “There are two and a half million people in Brooklyn, I can’t be the only one reading Ray Nance’s Wikipedia page” moments. “Who else is?”


The only person I could think of who might be was Steve Holtje. I emailed him suggesting a night of Ellingtonia, with sets that feature his various soloists, starting with Nance. He wrote back a week later: “Monday April 28 is one day before Duke’s birthday. Your wish will be granted.” So you know where I’ll be Monday night 6 to 8 pm, 78 St.Mark’s Place.

Remember, it’s Duke’s birthday, not Nance’s. Ray “Floorshow” Nance was born in Chicago on December 10, 1913. That means the snowy day I drove upstate to work on A Man Full of Days, and met Holtje…was Nance’s 100th birthday.

POSTCRIPT:  LOTS going on in screenwriting. Updates coming soon.

Enrico Cullen

Lately I’ve started a part-time partnership with a filmmaking colleague who’s a very different screenwriter than I am. Writer-director Enrico Cullen is definitely a director (and D.P. and producer) first and writer second – which is not to say he doesn’t care about narrative. It’s just that, when I conceptualize a project, I live by the notion that if I get the script just right, while tailoring it here and there to production imperatives, then one day we can go out and find or create the production that gets the story done: The story happens on the page, and the production succeeds or fails based on its faithfulness to the holy text – or perhaps its ingenuity at realizing that text.

Cullen places the center of gravity in his productions way further into the director’s hands, so that the writer is just another team member like the costumer or photographer. I’ve written here in the past about how being a screenwriter sometimes means accepting that back seat status like any other “department head”: Just like a director of photography or a makeup artist has to be told sometimes, “You don’t have an hour to set up this shot, you have 15 minutes” – and as producer on Cullen’s shoots I am sometimes the one who delivers that news – a writer who writes real films has to hear essentially the same thing: We don’t need perfection right now, we need good enough.

In the past month, I’ve helped Cullen shoot a short film called “Queen” – a fantasy/horror story about art, opera, cannibalism, etc. – and complete shooting of A Man Full of Days, a feature loosely based on the life of a famous 19th Century vagabond called the Leatherman.

Enrico Cullen (L) shooting a scene from "A Man Full of Days" with the Leatherman (Brandon Nagle) in Shookville, NY.

Enrico Cullen (L) shooting the Leatherman (Brandon Nagle) in Shookville, NY.

An unabashed high brow, Cullen talks about artistic theory when discussing performance with his cast. He was thrilled when a Jungian analyst he met at a dinner party found his feature story inspiring, and drops references to Japanese theater and Bela Tarr when standing in the snow trying to figure out revisions to the day’s shot list. He also has a knack for taking over costuming and props during pre-production and devoting such care to details that the scenes are already magic before they’re even shot.

My most urgent concerns most of the time are genre and the economy with which a story unfolds, but these seem not to occur to Cullen. He’s more likely to reject genre conventions and insist on utter originality when trying to figure out that puzzle every storyteller is constantly solving: What happens next? A Man Full of Days was three quarters in the can when Cullen had to go back to the beat sheet – I advised him to invest $1.09 in a pack of index cards at the time – to figure out what should happen.

This is precisely what most screenwriters live to say is the wrong way to make a film, but the proof is in the finished artifact. While the multiplexes were welcoming a giant digital charade about a hobbit this weekend, Cullen had a private cast and crew screening of “Queen” and it bodes well for some truly unique cinema coming out of Gowmanus, Brooklyn in the coming year.