Captain Fantastic

One of the few must-see films in theaters this summer was Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic. A drama about an off-the-grid, beyond-hippie dad whose abilities as a parent are challenged by his wife’s absence to battle an illness, the story eventually becomes As I Lay Dying in reverse- and I’ll leave it at that.

Ross wrote a very original script, and Viggo Mortenson is getting praise for his performance as the dad, and rightfully so, but the kids are moving too. Still, any time an indy film like Captain Fantastic strikes a nerve – and it ballooned in July from four screens to over five hundred, before deflating again this month – I wonder why. Why this film? Why now?

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Thrift Store Olympians Unite! Viggo Mortensen and (half) his brood in “Captain Fantastic.”

Well, the psychological journey in Captain Fantastic is remarkably similar to the Bernie Sanders moment in American politics. For millions of idealists it was the month the bill came due, the season of acceptance and resignation.

In any case, the arc of the hero’s journey here is remarkably inward-looking. It’s the dad’s struggle to keep fighting or to relent in the face of his father-in-law’s overwhelming case for why the kids should leave their revolutionary upbringing behind. It’s a beautiful, elegant script, to have so much action, but the heart of the drama spinning around the axis of a person’s decision whether to keep on fighting.

If anything, I’d say Ross the writer plays too many cards to prove his point. The scene in which eldest son Bo mangles his first romantic tryst with a girl at a campground by breaking down and proposing marriage to her drives the point home far enough – that these kids are truly not prepared for life within cell phone range – we don’t need the wrenching dialogue scene that says so. Likewise the family’s acoustic version of “Sweet Child of Mine”: tear-jerking to some, cheeseball to others.

It took me some time to adjust to the scale of the plot as I watched this film. The very first scene, in which Bo kills a deer in a gruesome fashion during a family hunt, and his father anoints him a man for doing so, creates the expectation that we’re going to see something more epic and violent, some independent film iteration of Gangs of New York even. In retrospect I suppose he was merely establishing that this family was beyond Mendocino, this was not a lifestyle revolution, but a revolution-revolution.

My friend Joe Krings edited Captain Fantastic. I know he’d be upset if I said how superb the editing is. Editing, like funeral attire, should never call attention to itself, and that’s more than a passing compliment. I’ve always thought editors are like morticians or maybe taxidermists: Once it’s shot, it’s dead, and it’s up to the editor to make it look alive. Ideally you don’t notice the editing, and that must have been difficult achieving just that with all the multiple-person conversations, and hand-held cameras, taking place.

It’s heart-breaking watching revolutions die out, and watching the smug get smugger. Kudos to Frank Langella (as always) for bringing some humanity to the villainous father-in-law. It’s no laughing matter, not this summer.

Where Poetry Lives

“Where do poems live?” is a harder question than “Why is the sky blue?” “It depends”  may be the most accurate answer, but a live reading never did a poem any harm, and many are only alive when read aloud.

I know where screenplays live. They live on the screen – where the film is. The script itself is a demo version of what the film might be, and screenwriters have to be able to value a script as a script. Novelists published and unpublished have the pleasure of calling a work complete. Of course they’d love to see a stack of hard covers at a bookstore, but a PDF on an iPad is the same kind of experience as a student reading a used copy of Hard Times the night before her European History 102 exam, or at least the distinction is tiny compared with the ways we experience poetry.

The novel, I guess, created a planet full of people with rich psychological lives, the place where most literary thought lives being the interaction of page and eyeballs. My father would have turned 83 yesterday, and he rarely read books but could spend hours reading newspapers cover to cover with the same solitary exploration. I wonder at his thoughts on the civil war in Liberia, just like I wonder what my wife thinks of the row of George R.R. Martin novels on my bookshelf at home. He rarely talked about issues, but if asked could give you an informed opinion, inflected by his own experience growing up with “the war.”

There’s a famous story about Augustine of Hippo meeting Archbishop Ambrose of Milan. Neither one of them were saints yet – Augustine wasn’t even a Christian yet – and he was awed by the fact that Ambrose could read without moving his lips! To Augustine, who was no dummy, it was revolutionary that literature could live in the eyeball-page axis. To him and presumably most people, the written word was just shorthand for where literature really lived, spoken aloud.

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The Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis is better known as the John Ashberry Bridge for the poem along its span.

It made Ambrose and his weird new faith alluring, to have a psyche and a conscience so private. This was the year 400, and already we were on that slippery slope to virtual reality helmets.

Poetry lives a double life, on the page and in the spoken word. Poems live on monuments, and some get domesticated for service at weddings and eulogies, but mostly they live being read aloud in small groups. Some friends of mine get together every once in a while just to have some drinks and read poems…at home, where we can control the audio. It’s slightly gauche in this setting to read your own work, at least before you’ve introduced some other published, contemporary poetry or dropped a few classics on the group.

Hearing poems made me write poems, and from this I got drafted to read with a group called the Verbal Supply Company, which hosts quarterly readings, usually at a bar called Halyards, not far from my house in Brooklyn. This Monday we’re moving to the Upper West Side for an evening. The group is celebrating its fourth year, so we’re all just doing extra short sets, and this time around many of the writers will be doing excerpts from memoirs and longer-form fiction. I’ll be doing some poems.

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A previous Verbal Supply Company reading being called to order (photo by Brad Hamilton).

 

“Where do poems live?” is above all a practical question, to the person reading his or her poems. An article from 2014, by a poet named Rich Smith in Seattle, exhorting poets to stop using “the poet voice” keeps getting recycled online. It’s a reason people avoid readings: the dullness of readers, most of whom aren’t in fact performers, emphasizing the cadence and clarity of their work at the expense of any “Shazam!”

I try to be sensitive to that and give it some spoken-English life, but I can also relate to poets trying to honor their poems as literature, to insist on it having some life on the page the way a chapter of a novel does. We can’t help adding a dose of Saint Ambrose.

In its four years, the Verbal Supply Company has insisted that its readers come to a “rehearsal,” and guess what? The readers are more focussed, and the excerpts or poetry more thoughtfully read, a step closer to a theater showcase than an open mic night. When deciding, “Where does this piece live” at least a writer makes a conscious choice.

Past readings are archived online on the VSC website. So you can open a beer and listen at home. Tip your bartender. The third from the top, “Not Yet Fully Monetized” from last summer, is a good one to start with. (If you’re partial to morehastohappen, you can skip to my few poems at the very end, at 1 hour and 8 minutes.)

A Trip To the Moon

What if I proposed a short film like this?

“An astronomer-wizard presides over a committee of astronomers, who meet in a formal session like a medieval guild, but with chorus girl pages delivering phallic trophy-telescopes that the astronomers merely carry like scepters…until they hold them high and they magically turn into stools to sit on.

“The wizard proposes that they take a trip to the moon via a rocket – not a rocket strictly speaking, but a giant projectile bullet of sorts. The committee objects to this so strongly an altercation breaks out, resulting in the wizard brow-beating them into listening, and commanding them all to take off their jackets, put on protective undergarments, then put the jackets back on. He takes them on a tour of his rocket workshop (They had been a committee of six scientific poobahs, but suddenly they are five, and decidedly more clown-like.) He then shows them his launching capability, and soon they all climb aboard the steel-riveted capsule, and a sailor launches them using a gunpowder fuse, again with female attendants to wish them bon voyage, now in swimsuits.

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George Melies’ “A Trip To the Moon.”

“They fly to the moon, hitting old man moon in the eye – the moon like all celestial bodies having a human face –  before disembarking and having the marvelous experience of watching earth rise over the horizon the way the moon or sun rises in ours. Soon a tongue of flame distracts them, and they go to sleep with stars and planets looking over them. They wake up after the planets conjure snow to fall on them – it being colder on the moon when the earth sets than it is here.

“They climb underground, to a lush tropical land full of mushrooms of many shapes – one clearly a morel. An acrobatic, trouble-making demon starts harassing the astronomers till the leader smites the being with a stick, causing him to explode into flames, but then reappear completely alive. This goes on a few times till dozens of underground birdmen capture them, and put them on a showtrial of sorts, till they all six of them escape and race back to the capsule, which they’re able to launch themselves by pulling it off a cliff.

“They land back on earth – in the sea, among picturesque sea creatures, before getting tugged ashore, and the public erupts in a pageantry-filled celebration, chorus girls in swimsuits and all, and they dance around a statue that reads, ‘Labor omnia vincit’: Work conquers everything.”

That’s George Melies’ “A Trip To the Moon” (“Le Voyage dans La Lune”), from 1902. It’s also on Youtube, the same 2011 restoration featuring the soundtrack by Air and a panel of text explaining how the colorized version was re-discovered in Spain in the 1990s and digitally restored from the original hand-painted print. A color film from 1902!

 

Its not surprising, I guess, that there are attractive women showing plenty of thigh cheering the astronomers on  every step of the way, like the showgirls carrying signs saying what round it is in a boxing match.

It’s curious, though, that they took a trip to the moon at all. This would have been 40 years after Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” the book it’s said to be based on, but 60 years before President Kennedy. Some say that the Russian rocket scientists Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the first to seriously propose a rocket trip to the moon, and that was in (guess when?) 1903, a year after Melies’ film. Was it artists who led the way to one of the great scientific achievements of last century?

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“Were going to the moon, girls!”

Elon Musk got a lot of people excited this year by demonstrating a rocket landing on dry land. I guess it’s no coincidence that the  first moon landing crew landed in the ocean – that’s where our imaginations had gone. Tsiolkovsky spent lots of his career trying to develop a collapsible metal dirigible – while Melies was doing theater – and that’s the best they came up with.

It’s also curious that Netflix knew it should suggest this film to me. I often wonder what the algorithms that choose music or media for us are thinking. I was ready to give it lots of credit till I saw what it saw as a good next move. “More Like This…”

The king fu film Big Boss, Cosmos, or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Imagination is hard work, but work conquers everything.

 

Tales of Tales

My head spun when I saw the film Tale of Tales last week and only realized afterward that it was directed by the very same Matteo Garrone who made Gomorrah in 2008.

Gomorrah (which is one of a dwindling number of features you can watch and re-watch on Netflix streaming) felt like a cinematic beating. A sprawling, Neapolitan-language gangster film set in the Naples housing projects, with “Martin Scorsese presents” splashed across it, it felt like you were tapping the same main root that Mean Streets had come from – but even more shocking in its violence, and even more unwieldy in how diffuse its several narratives are.

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Salma Hayek with John C. Reilly (on left).

I liked Gomorrah (written by Garrone, Maurizio Braucci, Ugo Chiti, Gianni Di Gregorio, Massimo Gaudioso, and Roberto Saviano based on Saviano’s book) just as much when I re-watched it this week as I did in the theater. Its hyper-realism feels like an urgent wake-up call, and the de-centeredness of the story something like a magazine profile of organized crime as seen by its low-level operatives, some with tragic falls, some with more subtle compromises.

Tale of Tales is based on another Neapolitan book, by the 17th Century folklorist and author Giambattista Basile. (It’s funny to think that, while the Pilgrims in Massachusetts were splitting hairs about salvation, ever fearful of witchcraft, another Christian across the ocean was writing about witchcraft and magic, committing Rapunzel and Cinderella, among others, to paper for the very first time.) Filmed in English, the script is again by Garrone, Braucci, Di Gregorio, and Gaudioso.

Tale of Tales, though I enjoyed it, is a lot harder to love, I suppose because the fairy tale setting makes my expectations go through the roof. You don’t have to tell me what the world of fairy tales is like; it’s full of witches and princesses and ogres, I know that. So you don’t get a pass if you make merely situational drama.

When I watch a fairy tale I want a Freudian slap across the face, not an exercise in trying to weave some thematic coherence out of loose-ended stories. I couldn’t help but compare it to the Jacques Demy film Donkey Skin (1970), one of his under-watched films after Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and also (true confessions) The Princess Bride. They’re all three a bit second-rate with special effects compared to their contemporaries and clearly labors of love. Donkey Skin is a tight narrative with a clear protagonist and through-line, whereas Tale of Tales talks around the through-line and makes you surmise it.

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One of the memorable images from Tale of Tales is the (newly) young princess in a moss-covered wilderness, red on green, a palette Garrone used in Gomorrah: blood gushing from gangster’s heads onto an Astroturf patio. Like Gomorrah, Tale of Tales is gruesome and a bit moralistic. Even when you see the payoffs coming, you’re still in suspense. Garrone is the center of a circle of writers on top of their game, making stories that are clearly theirs. Even if it’s not my game, I have to say “Bravo.”

The Shortiest Short

The Academy Awards were six weeks ago, and already it’s like six years ago. Truth is, I tuned them out this year more than I have in decades, with the exception of one category, for “Best Live Action Short.”

“Six Women,” the short I wrote, was in editing then, and coming in at a frustrating (to me) 20 minutes long. It has since been “picture locked” at exactly that length, after my pleas to speed sequences here, and to trim my own bits of dialogue there, which had long been yielding diminishing returns, started giving the story less feeling. We had a few discussions about the ideal length for a short film, which I was insisting was nine to 12 minutes – inconveniently, since I’d written an 18 page script, and we all knew that a page roughly equals a minute.

I’d settled on that short length from what I knew of film festival programming. The shorter a short is, the more places it can fit into a program: You can always stick an extra six minute film, if it’s at all decent, into a two-hour showcase of shorts. And the best way to see a short is before a feature: A day after seeing a program of, say, ten 10-minute films, they’re mostly a blur in your memory, but if you can see one substantial short before an 80 to 100-minute feature, then it’s probably made an impression, but programmers understandably prefer 10-minute films for coveted slots like these.

The key word, substantial. Short films tend to have narratives like jokes, a short to medium-length preparation for one single punch line. At six minutes that’s literally all you have time for. If you want a character with more than one quality, and to take him or her plausibly to an unexpected place, then you’d better double that time. Much longer than that, and you’re in uncharted territory. The determinant must be the substance.

As with any venture, a maker of a short film must ask, “What are we doing this for?” Is it a widget for a short film program? A piece of art? Or a showpiece to persuade someone to make a full-length feature? I’ve made a case in the past for why some films can’t be made cheaply, but are still worth making, and some stories can’t be told in eight minutes but are still worth telling.

Watching the Oscar-nominated shorts back in February as we were refining ours, I got that strange burst of confidence you get when you see the top-of-the-line material and realize, “This isn’t all that great.” I also found it very reassuring that three of the five Oscar nominees were longer than ours, including the American favorite “Day One,” written and directed by Henry Hughes. That persuaded me to let go and let God, or maybe let go and let Ted (Teddy Schenck, who was directing, and saw the light about the length of “Six Women” weeks before I did).

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From “Shok,” by Jamie Donoughue.

The two other nominees were the Palestinian-European production “Ave Maria” (written by Basil Khalil and Daniel Yáñez Khalil) at 15 minutes and “Stutterer,” a 12-minute short written and directed by the Irishman Benjamin Cleary. My favorite, hands down, was “Shok,” a Kosovar-British production written by Jamie Donoughue, about two boys who were friends during the Balkan war in the ’90s. It was the all around best-realized story, and you simply didn’t want it to end. My friend and fellow cinephile and I left the IFC theater after watching them all and agreed on this, but immediately started speculating that the American film, which had just as grand aspirations but showed no restraint whatsoever in the scope or subtlety of its themes, was probably going to win.

Which brings me to a brief digression, the reason I like to tune out the Oscars. Like American politics, they too quickly become a discussion of why something will win, rather than why something is worthy. You can speculate for months (and we do) about why The Academy or The Electorate or the primary voters of New Hampshire will feel one way or another, but what do you think?

The Academy disagreed with us, it turned out. I liked “Stutterer,” which prevailed. Far from a one-gag joke, in just 12 minutes it shows three very touching scenes: A type-setter, who’s most loquacious in his own head, is having an online romantic relationship via witty instant messages, hiding his stutter. We can tell by one delightful scene with his father, in which he stammers in painfully long real time through a deeply poetic thought, that knowing him would be very rewarding to anyone who has the patience to listen. Then comes the scene in which he overhears a man at a bus stop verbally abusing a woman, but isn’t able to intervene because he can’t get the words – this is where the average short would place the finale. But Cleary brings us to a new place, a meeting with the on-line love interest. The payoff, slightly cheeseball, lands satisfyingly because Cleary has already accomplished what a good story should: Taken you to the place you thought you’d end up, and then gone one step further.

Still, you can’t compare it to “Shok”! That’s just so much better. Ah well. It won’t be the first time The Academy gave preference to an English-language film over a foreign one. Neither was it the first nor last time, I’m assuming, that some members of a film jury took the time to actually watch a 12-minute movie and skimmed the 20+ minute movies any time they lost patience.

That’s the reality I’ll be living with the rest of this year as Teddy and I figure out where to premiere “Six Women,” and where to screen it after that.

A Jazzercise Play

I saw a night of theater I’ll never forget last night. The Last Class: A Jazzercise Play, written by Megan Hill, by a new theater collective called Dodo is up through next weekend, March 5th.

It’s a comedy that unfolds over the course of a jazzercise class, the last, sparsely-attended one at a small town community rec center, and the instructor, played by Hill herself, is not happy about it. I went because the actor Amy Staats, who’s always funny, plays her co-instructor, and the two of them did indeed make a great comic duo.

Very American, this content, this belief in the power of positive thinking, even in the face of pathetic disinterest – or worse, when you feel debilitating anger welling up inside of you, as Hill’s instructor does when she thinks of the new rec director Chelsea poaching her jazzercise students and then 86’ing the class to make room for her own Zumba class.

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This kind of humor, New York theater people poking fun at Middle America, can come off as mean-spirited, but I never got that sense from the group, I suppose because they were so on topic about the struggle: What is the limit? What wound is so personal that positivity can not fix it? And it helped that as a conceit it has the built-in forward motion of the class, a beginning, middle and end.

It also helped enormously that Hill inserted a touching monologue near the end, in which her instructor detailed why she became a jazzercise instructor, everything it means to her to be good at something, which elevates the whole play to a more universal, honest and sadder level.

Film geek confession: The minute it began, I was reminded of Winter Light – another tight timeline of a story, about a crisis of faith a small-town priest goes through while facing the fact that no one wants to come to his masses.

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Father, Son, and Jazzercise.

The Theaterlab on 36th Street is a great, intimate space for the play – though part of me would love to see it again in a grander place, with more of a class following along. There are special deals to see it if you’re willing to participate as a jazzercise student, but word is there’s a waiting list for that.

At one point last night another patron in the back row (there are only three rows) pushed his chair too far back and tumbled backward off the stadium seating. Until it became clear he was unharmed (and it seemed like it could have been ugly for a few seconds there), Hill stopped the play. Staats shook her head and blamed it on Chelsea, who’s letting the rec center go to hell. Magic.

Finding the Least Imperfect Title

I made the choice a few weeks ago to rename the short film I wrote and produced in the fall. I say, “I made the choice” like my decision was final and unilateral, but really I finally came up with a title my partners could live with.

The story, if you weren’t tuned in in the fall, was about a journalist who goes upstate for an exclusive interview with a Broadway diva who just walked off a hit production of Hamlet. Before he gets one single comment on the record, she sees through him – that he doesn’t know anything about theater – and sends him packing, only for him to discover that her assistant has taken his car to go find some jumper cables. Now he’s stranded .

My original title was “Jumper Cables,” calling attention to the key prop in the story, but my partners strongly preferred “Cell Phone Range.” That, I found, was not well-received, particularly by people over 40, who thought it sounded like a cheap comedy, but we needed to call it something while fund-raising, so we went with it as a working title. Throughout shooting and editing, I came up with some bad alternatives.

One producer and publisher I know who’d read the script, suggested “Caesar’s Wife,” but that would muddy the water. Is it about Hamlet or Julius Caesar or what? I know from my 2003 feature New World Symphony how an off-topic title can handicap a film. That was a pretty straightforward melodrama set in a theater; NWS was misleading. That experience also taught me to listen to feedback.

Watching the the various cuts, it’s more apparent in the film than it was on the page that the essence of the story boils down to one scene. Andy insists he knows something about theater. Holly flips this by challenging him: “Name six women in all of Shakespeare’s plays.” She delivers a test for him to prove himself and links it to his bigger problem, implying that he doesn’t know anything about women.

Hence our new title, “Six Women.”

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The Jansson-Visscher map.

Most of my writing time this winter, truth be told, I’m spending writing a business plan for a bar and restaurant in upstate New York. My fascination with the place is more than passing, more than just this short script.

For relaxation, I’m re-reading The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan, and the Founding Colony that Shaped America by Russell Shorto. No explanation needed, I’m supposing, but one amazing detail from the book is the genesis of  Johannes Jansson’s map of New Netherland, which Adrian van der Donck had him publish when he was back in Holland trying to get a charter for a pubic government in New Amsterdam to replace the West India Company’s autocracy. Van der Donck is the hero of the book; he was fluent in Mohawk and other native languages and, among other things, the first civil rights lawyer in North America.

So many Dutch place names in this region I grew up in, from Schuylkill to Bushwick to Spuyten Duyvil (the Devil’s Spout!), all because a Dutchman was the first to have the motive and the means to record what his friends were calling them, and commit it to paper. Now every spot had a Dutch working title, daring someone else to come up with something better.

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Old Route 22 in Amenia, NY.

Further upstate and east a bit, beyond the reach of the Dutch, I was checking out the Millerton, NY area one day. It’s near the Massachusetts and Connecticut borders, real Yankee country, and I don’t mean the baseball team. One reason I like traveling alone is so I can stop at every historical marker I please.

How sweet that the State Department of Education put up a plaque in 1935, explaining the name of the town, and hastened to add that we have it on good authority, since the Englishman who came up with it also came up with “Vermont.” If I see Dr. Thomas Young in the afterlife I’m going to tell him, “I love your work.”

 

Rosemary’s Baby

There’s a rare opportunity to buy a co-op apartment in The Dakota right now. I know this because an ad keeps finding me online this week telling me so; I don’t know who thinks I might want to buy a $1.8 Million one-bedroom on the eighth floor of a historic building – that’s not including the “maintenance fees,” which are higher than my rent in Brooklyn – but they should check their algorithm.

I do like history, I’ll give them that. The Dakota to me isn’t about the tragedy of John Lennon, it’s about the tragedy of Rosemary Woodhouse. I can relate to how congenitally nice and accommodating she is to neighbors. I’m the sort of person who’d rather put a pillow over his head than tell the neighbors to quiet down.

The day my wife and I first saw the place we’ve called home for five years out here in South Brooklyn – not quite Sunset Park, but not exactly South Slope either: I just call it “by the cemetery” – was on a hot 4th of July. We woke up and watched Rosemary’s Baby on a whim. Afterwards, while no one else was searching the ads for apartments on a holiday, my wife logged on and noticed the name of a broker she’d met once before, and called him, and he said “I’m actually at the place right now, come on over.”

Rosemary wasn’t as lucky. I don’t know who’s going to drop One Point Eight on a gorgeous little “starter” apartment in the Dakota this year, but if a kind old, uh, Jewish-seeming neighbor knocks on their door asking questions about their family plans, they might want to grow some boundaries.

 

Losing Light in the Catskills

“Phoenicia gets dark!” an actor was telling me on the phone a week and a half ago. “The sun goes down over that mountain, and it gets dark!”

“She’s a real Copernicus,” I thought to myself. Of course it gets dark! And of course we had an eye on sunrise and sunset times, and knew what we were facing. I chalked the seriousness in her voice up to nerves. In the weeks before a film shoot, actors start thinking about how to make sense of the details of a script, and their pleas for clarification become more urgent. They are, after all, the ones who risk looking like fools. Very often bad writing or indecisive direction comes across like bad acting to a viewer.

We were planning a three-day shoot a half hour west of Woodstock, New York, around a string of towns along Route 28 and the Esopus Creek, including Phoenicia. When I wrote the first draft of the script back in March, I imagined a June shoot, with 14 hours of daylight, and crew delighted to be outdoors. I also imagined Washington County, the rolling hills and dairy country near the Vermont border.

The story required a sense of isolation and being up a big hill, out of cell phone range. For practical reasons we needed a place with cheap lodging nearby, and within a reasonable drive from New York City. The nearest place we found was around Phoenicia, which is just two and a half hours.

Chris Bolan, foreground, in the short film with the working title "Cell Phone Range."

Chris Bolan, foreground, in the short film with the working title “Cell Phone Range.”

It was gratifying to see my partners working so hard to get details of my script right, even incidental ones such as stone fences in the middle of the woods. The valleys that run into the Hudson are long-trodden places, full of the ruins of obsolete economies: old canal locks and railroad beds, pastures full of trees, ruined barn foundations and resorts, and water-powered mills in improbable places. It’s the first de-industrialized region in North America, and for that reason it feels haunted. Even when you’re alone there, you feel like you’ve gone to a place where generations before you have gone to be alone.

I’m proud to say my partners Teddy Schenck (director) and Matthew Wiesner (producer) and especially the photographer Marco Franzoni seemed to get that atmosphere right. It was a lucky accident that we shot our short there so late in the fall. Summer is the obvious choice, from a production standpoint, on account of those long days, and fall foliage season – though that was our general aim during pre-production – has a garish quality of its own.

Winter comes there about three weeks ahead of the city, and the trees had already lost most of their leaves, leaving a brown palate with rusty reds and golds on the bushes, while the moss and ferns were still a brilliant green. If the story is about a journalist who goes to find a Hollywood star who’s quit the hustle to hide and recharge herself, then we found the right background.

The problem, as I realized on my solo scouting day just three days before the shoot, was that the actor was right. It does get dark in Phoenicia! The Catskill Mountains around the Esopus make an unusually steep valley. The shadows start growing around 1pm, and just six weeks before the solstice the sun “sets” around 3:30, and the crew would start muttering “We’re losing light.”

Strictly speaking there’s a difference between a true sunset and a Phoenicia sunset. The sun didn’t fall past the horizon, it fell past the mountain, and this difference made our film possible. It left us another 90 minutes of twilight. Though we didn’t have the leisurely 14 hours of daylight I imagined when I wrote the first draft, we still had close to nine, and for most of our shoot, we were lucky to have cloud cover, which diffused the light and softened what would have been obvious differences in time.

After two days we realized we had to act like we were losing light while the sun was still rising. The crew responded with big hearts, and most stuck around for a few extra hours of shooting on Sunday morning.

Would some of the scenes, especially the performances, have benefitted from relaxing the schedule and getting more takes? Most definitely. Would I ever make another film in Phoenicia in November again? Only if the story takes place in an empty hotel at night. But this one is shot, thanks to dozens of supporters and the hard work of several artists, and sometime in 2016 it’s going to take viewers to a special place and time of year I love.

Stella, or The Alternator

When coincidences start happening all around you, you’re doing something right. At least that’s the aphorism as I understand it – Carl Jung by way of the astrology freak I had a crush on in my 20s. And I have noticed, when you get deep into something, inexplicable signs give you pats on the shoulder.

Friday was six days before shooting begins on my short film: working title is still “Cell Phone Range.” It’s about a young, ambitious, not particularly soulful guy who drives from the city to a remote, upstate summer house in autumn to interview an actress who just walked off her Broadway show. He gets lost on his way there, and Stella, an octogenarian, asks him if he needs directions. He says, “No.” Then, “Actually, yes.”

Like many men, he hesitates for some reason to admit that he’s lost, or needs help. Or even that there are questions he doesn’t have the answers for.

Six days before shooting, my partners Teddy Scheck and Matt Wiesner had spent the last few days turning big question marks into check marks. Permits? Done. Hair and makeup person? Done. Lodging for the cast? Done.

One little detail we still haven’t pinned down is casting Stella, though we’re looking into options for casting her locally. That way we won’t have to house her, nor have her endure a long ride – something I wouldn’t like to ask a woman Stella’s age to do. It’s the perfect kind of job for me. At a family reunion, I prefer the company of the elders; four-year-olds, I find, are all more or less the same. I’m useless haggling with the checkout guy at the light rental place, but turn me loose in a room full of seniors, and I’ll know everyone’s name in an hour.

So off I went on Friday morning to cast Stella, and do other miscellaneous stuff around our location in Phoenicia, NY. The first sign of trouble was going through the Battery Tunnel. I was using our old car – the ’95 Corolla that sits collecting Rose-of-Sharon droplets except for some neighborhood errands, and the occasional outing away from the city. It doesn’t have EZ-Pass, so I had to go through the toll booth at the battery tunnel: The automatic window didn’t roll down, so I had to open the door.

On my way to find Stella my car died...

On my way to find Stella my car died…

It seemed odd, but a car that old is full of surprises, and I had a noon appointment upstate, so I pressed on. Sitting in worse-than-usual traffic on the West Side Highway, my windshield started bothering me; rose-of-Sharon blossoms look just like bird shit when caked upon a car. I sprayed the washing fluid, and the wipers work at one speed, extra slow. It was an electrical system problem – the only one I’d ever had with this car was the alternator, which recharges the battery while the engine’s running.

I pulled off the highway at 50th Street and drove east till I found a place to legally pull over. By that time the radio had died. Then the car would not restart. I started cancelling my afternoon appointments. The tow truck driver wanted to know my exact location: Was I closer to 10th Avenue or 9th Avenue. “I don’t know,” I said, “near the middle,” and looked at the closest building for an address.

It was a gorgeous old Art Deco building that I’d never heard of but since learned it was originally a telephone company building. Its name, no surprise, is Stella Tower.

There are setbacks in any venture, but most of us have an alternator that automatically recharges that battery that keeps us going. And when that alternator struggles, you do what it takes to get a new one. 3 more days!

...right in front of Stella Tower.

…right in front of Stella Tower.