Letter From Mid Winter

So much has happened. So much to talk about. It’s deepest February. Snowdrops are popping out of the ground. The Olympics are back. Though I never really watch them, all this talk about Mikaela Shiffrin got me listening to Lalo Schifrin, the Argentine-American arranger and film score composer, a master at putting bugs in one’s ear, including the Mission Impossible theme.

The first cut in that clip – and this is news to me – is called “Danube Incident,” and it’s what Portishead sampled for its 1994 song “Sour Times.” Schifrin is still alive at 85, and “Sour Times” is now in fact older than Mikaela Shiffrin.

Another mass shooting this week. Not much else I can say about that.

Neil LaBute lost his job! Two things about that strike me. One, so far the reporting says nothing about why, and that says something odd about the times we’re in, when they don’t even have to say why he’s out: we can safely assume it’s sexual harassment. Ask yourself, did you ever think for a moment Neil LaBute wasn’t a harasser?

I’ve been working as the general manager of a new restaurant in Brooklyn, the most ambitious “day job” I’ve had in years. Every day is like film production, and it’s relegated my writing life to a few hours of poetry in the mornings.

Last Tuesday I took a rare break to go see a Bergman film, Sawdust and Tinsel. His best, you could argue. Only seen it on the big screen once. Got distracted. Went to a wine tasting. Got talking shop. Missed the film. Had a cannoli. Met my wife and went to the Beacon Theater to hear First Aid Kit.

Instead of dour old navel-gazing Sweden – Bergman, who preferred the emptiness of Faro Island over the bustle of … Malmo – I got a young, global, Americana-loving Sweden:

You know I love to psychoanalyze bands. “Why does Mick worship the ground Keith walks on?”  That sort of thing. And so often it’s about the fraternal bond between them, that we get to warm our hands by. Seeing how they interact is one of the rich things about live performance, and it shapes how we appreciate the music.

It took two songs to figure out First Aid Kit: Johanna Söderberg, who has a voice as pretty as Iris DeMent, also has a little sister Klara who’s got a gusher of songs coming out of her. At the ripe old age of 25, she’s got something good figured out.

Oh, and my film had a screening this week! “Six Women,” which I wrote and produced and Teddy Schenck directed, finally had a New York screening at the Anthology Film Archives. Marvelous to see it in a theater!

After ten or so film festival rejections, it’s easy to second-guess choices you made in finishing a film, and in our case, as writer-producer, I admit I was revisiting some choices about what we paid attention to on shooting days. Had we given the director and camera “department” too many liberties to make what they felt were pretty images?

Seeing it on a computer screen, you could forgive me for suspecting as much. Seeing it a hundred feet wide, all that attention to creating beautiful images feels like it was worth it! It deepened the meaning and in some scenes conveyed the meaning of the action like it just does not on a 12-inch screen.

Much, much more coming.

Snow Drops.jpeg

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).


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.

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.