That Summer Feeling

Who went on summer vacation this year? This blog did, that’s who.  I did.

Not that it was a vacation exactly. I was packing up my house in Brooklyn and moving into an old farmhouse in Ulster County, New York. All the while holding down a job managing a restaurant in the city while I look around up here.

The hardest part was packing up the house, not the physical work – though that adds up too: It’s emotionally taxing to sort through old belongings, especially when one of your parents has died in the years you lived in that old place. And, when your closets are full of artifacts from unfinished projects and notions. The antique lamp you were going to get rewired one day. The fixtures that would have made a mind-blowing sculpture.


“When the smell of the lawn makes you flop down on it…”

Not that we’ve moved to a goat farm hours from the nearest cell phone tower: We still need paying jobs, after all, and our friends who have really gone for it in that sense report feeling a longing for human contact after being so used to it. We consider this more of an intermediate step, but it is a hundred and thirty year old house on a former dairy farm.

Near a creek bed, with sate forests nearby, it’s wetter than the city. Dishes sit on the dish rack and don’t dry. This morning near the equinox I took a stroll around the garden in my bare feet and felt the cold in my arches.

I can tell you already that natural beauty has the capacity to inspire insipid writing. Perfect sunrises come to represent new beginnings. Birds taking flight represent steps toward freedom.

On the other hand, you think more clearly with fewer things in front of you. I’m already writing with more detachment and humor about that most elusive and chaotic well of subject matter, my own memory. No wonder it was so emotional. I was packing up a young man’s house and unpacking a middle-aged person’s house.

Throughout the process my wife and I started listening to I, Jonathan the Jonathan Richman album that we believe we’ve listened to more times in 2018 than anyone else. The songs that made us tune in were the catchy, toe-tapping numbers like “I Was Dancing in a Lesbian Bar.” The song that grabbed me hardest and longest, though, was “That Summer Feeling.”

“Do you long for her, or for the way you were?”

More soon, friends.

Location Location Location

You don’t write a story based on a location, or do you?

I’ll never forget the day I was having bagels with two friends, one a producer and one a director, and talking about story ideas. The producer had access to a college campus in the Caribbean – we could have free reign over it, since a family friend of his was the president or provost or something. He kept bringing story ideas around to the campus. “Y’know, if we set that at the college…”

Nor will I forget the sunken look on his face when I finally told him to lay off the Caribbean campus ideas. If  we wanted to make a film on a college on an island, we’d be better off shooting in Puerto Rico or the D.R. where flights from New York are relatively cheap. The location is the easy part, I told him, let’s write the best story we can.

I stand behind that, and yet locations have a way of inspiring. Of bringing joy, or creeping out. Last week I was up near the Vermont border and took a walk up Presbytery Lane, where the Presbyterian Church has a camp it is trying to sell. It’s full of weird vistas like this:

If these lawns could talk.....

If these lawns could talk…..

I thought about a young couple going to ask one of their fathers for money for their wedding and finding him on retreat with a bunch of Christian Brothers, telling them “No,” they can’t have an advance on their inheritance, and a tailspin of a plot that ends in a standoff with a hunting rifle. Also maybe a shaved-headed cult leader who welcomes visitors to stay in the one building but, whatever they do, don’t go talk to the people up the hill!

Both of these notions suit my long-term obsession, stories set in tourist destinations in the off-season. But notions don’t inspire. Visions do. Smells do. Cicadas do. Shadows do. Cheap but beautifully dated architectural flourishes do. Creepy old Protestant ghosts do.

It’s still a good idea to write the story first, but half of writing is dreaming.

My Counting Sheep: Queen Anne’s Lace

During a rare bout of insomnia this morning (Is it insomnia, if it’s rare?), I tried a version of counting sheep that only made things worse, but let me start yesterday afternoon.

Getting excited about the prospect of leaving New York City for someplace further up the Hudson Valley, I’ve been reading a first-person account of an early Dutch settler’s description of the land and the people who lived here. Adriaen van der Donck published A Description of New Netherland in 1653 to keep the Dutch public interested in the colony around New Amsterdam. Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Center of the World claims van der Donck as a sort of American proto-patriot, a democratic agitator whose vision for New Amsterdam found expression in the Revolution that only came years after the Dutch had given the colony up.

A disciple of Hugo Grotius who was fluent in Mohawk and other native languages, he was, among other things, the first North American civil rights lawyer, a guy the Indians knew they could at least ask to represent them if a Dutch or English settler broke the terms of an agreement.

From "A Description of New Netherland," translated by Charles Gehring.

From “A Description of New Netherland,” translated by Charles Gehring.

A few years ago, when my head was completely in the city, I might have skimmed the chapters on nature and agriculture, but now I can’t get enough detail about how to grow squash. Knowing that van der Donck was making a case for our region, you can’t help but marvel at the compliments he comes up with. In his description of “the South River,” i.e. the Delaware, he says, “Well-traveled observers rank this river with the most attractive anywhere and compare it to the superb Amazon River, not so much for its size as for the other outstanding qualities…” We can cut him a break for having never seen even a photo of the Amazon, but if that’s how far he’d go to make a case, then how funny that he’d devote paragraphs to how easy it is to grow pumpkins and melons here.

With his lists of vegetables on my mind, I went to sleep but woke up just four hours later. My oversampling of distilled agave with lime earlier in the night might have had something to do with it, but I was wide awake! Ever since I read a few years ago that we once divided the night between “first sleep” and “second sleep,” and waking up for a while in the middle of the night was considered perfectly healthy, and since I rarely have to set an alarm for anything early morning, I’ve tried not over-reacting to sleeplessness and instead gotten up and read for a while. This morning, however, I knew my wife would be getting up early and wanted to let her sleep, so I vowed to do all I could to join her.

My usual method for this, my “counting sheep,” was to name the U.S. presidents backwards in time. I can do this, give or take a few pre-Civil War slave masters, all the way to Washington. I get riled up thinking about Rutherford B. Hayes, so my method changed to listing first ladies. These I get cloudy on after Lou Hoover (who was, incidentally, fluent in Chinese), which doesn’t always give me enough time to get bored and fall asleep.

Lately I’ve taken to counting off the numbers, and substituting something else for the prime numbers only, then remembering and repeating them. For example, if I chose colors one night, it’d go: “One, yellow, green, four, blue, six, orange, eight, nine, ten, purple, twelve,” etc. Here’s what didn’t work this morning, and I’ll tell you why:

Thinking of van der Donck, I decided to list some crop I could grow, if I had a plot of land a hundred miles north of here, in place of every prime number, but not only that! That plant had to begin with the letter in the alphabet that corresponds with the number, the way the Hebrew alphabet is also its numbers. So I was listing, “…Gourds, eight, nine, ten, Kale, twelve, Marjoram, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, Quince, eighteen, Sage, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, Watermelon…”


It was too exciting! I had too many moving parts to keep an eye on. I was thinking about prime numbers, and why they tend to come in clusters. That secret’s in the multiples of three: Three land three times between one and nine, responsible for two of them (3 and 9) being composite, and not prime, numbers. Then they go into a sort of hiding for a decade, doubling up with other multiples on 12, 15, and 18. It’s these areas, every third decade – the teens, the forties, and seventies – that tend to have lots of prime number.

The Three is like the Bishop in chess: It can go many places, but some it can’t. Already I was thinking, “He gets lazy.” I’d given this number a personality, but I wanted to see just how lazy, and the answer was “Pretty damn lazy.” The forties would have a prime number infestation if not for Seven times seven! (The Seven is like the Knight in chess, who swoops in from an unexpected direction.) I had so much to look forward to, I exhausted the alphabet, crops corresponding to prime numbers and all, and had to start again at 27 as letter A, with new vegetables for any letter that already had one, so it was “…twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eight, Cabbage, thirty, English peas, thirty two,” etc., all the way to 43, which was Q, and I’d already used Quince. Now I was wracking my brain to think of another crop that starts with Q. All I could figure was Queen Anne’s Lace, which grows like a weed in cow pastures. I had to change the rules, to make the numbers come and go quicker. It was simply too exciting. I am still, in fact, awake, four hours later.

Whatever your counting sheep is, you are walking a thin line between coming up with something that is monotonous and rhythmic enough to lull you, and just scintillating enough to keep your attention. Good morning!

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.”


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.


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.”


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.

Budgets and Crowdfunding: Why So Much? Why So Little?

I’m running a Kickstarter campaign this month, for a short film I wrote and am co-producing. It’s been a comedy of errors at times – the fund-raising, not the film. Although it looks like it’s going to succeed, it’s given me a reason to talk about low-budget filmmaking with lots of old friends in just a few weeks, and I’ve found myself on the defensive about the size of our budget, from both sides! From those who think it’s too low and those who think it’s too high.

I’ve said before that the best answer a writer can give when asked to work on a friend’s film is, “Pay me as much as you pay your soundguy.” That was a defense of the value of writing against downward budgetary pressure. As a writer-producer, though, I also know what it means to say, “Alright, I have a plan. We can actually do this.” That sometimes means being penny-pincher-in-chief, and the first pennies you pinch in a labor of love are usually your own.

Clerks (1994): Repeating these entrepreneurial "loaves and fishes" stories reinforces the idea that there's something wrong with a script if it can't be shot for next to nothing.

Clerks (1994): Repeating these entrepreneurial “loaves and fishes” stories reinforces the idea that there’s something wrong with a script if it can’t be shot for next to nothing.

Coming up with realistic plans for low-budget films is a process years in the making, and it starts with what you don’t do. Don’t launch any underdeveloped or half-conceived projects, and don’t leverage what assets you do have until you know the time is right. And I don’t just mean taking out a second mortgage on your house – but don’t do that either.

The other currencies in indie films, besides cash, are credits and favors. We’re all willing to help friends, and sometimes friends of friends or even well-meaning strangers, make their projects come to life. In return, though, we expect something, even if it’s just a “thank you” in tiny print in the credits, or an invisible token for a favor that might be redeemed if the stars line up.

If you have a friend who’s a lighting designer who likes you well enough to spend a Saturday doing lights for your most difficult interior scene, just for a tank of gas and a few slices of pizza, then he or she is an asset. Don’t use it unless you’re reasonably sure the film will a. get finished; and b. be something you’re all proud of. The relationship is more important than the favor, and a friendship is more important than your film.

You may find yourself making lunch for a music video shoot next spring just to repay that favor, but that’s my idea of fun! If a potential supporter is ever not enthusiastic about your content, then no hard feelings, this project might not be for them. Which brings me back to the first currency, money. Kickstarter takes a 5% cut of whatever you raise, which is worth every penny to both parties. It provides a ready-made platform for you raising money, but also gives your friends and acquaintances a guarantee: They’re happy to help, as I say, as long as they know it’s actually going to get made reasonably well. By pledging not to take their money unless you meet your goal, you’re letting Kickstarter guarantee your supporters that you’ll be budgeted right.

Around the time we were preparing to launch, Kickstarter’s founders announced that they were reincorporating as a “public benefit corporation.” It’s exactly the kind of move that makes the crabby old Marxist in my head I’ve been feeding since Rutgers bristle. Is that some kind of accounting trick? Well, whatever it is or isn’t, it says at least a little something about the company and what it’s doing with its profits. We’d been tempted by Indiegogo, which lets you keep whatever you raise, even if you don’t meet your goal, but we went with Kickstarter on a lark because they seemed like good-hearted fellas.

Knowing we were about to go live, I did what many fundraisers do, and started asking friends for donations for premiums: If you contribute this much you’ll get a free massage from my friend the massage therapist, that kind of thing. After a day of lining up support, I read the fine print and saw that Kickstarter forbids that! No third party products, only things that you the producer can come up with.

That seemed like a drag at first, a penalty for everyone just because some jerk once figured out how to unload junk magazine subscriptions by using a bogus art project. Now that we’re almost finished, though, it’s one of my favorite things about Kickstarter. It keeps it folksy! It minimizes the popularity contest aspect by cutting down the “who has successful friends with cool shit to give away” quotient. It forces you to be creative. I’m a food lover with a growing interest in home canning, and it is an upstate New York project, so we’re offering homemade “249 Productions” apple sauce. It keeps the price of a personal favor high. And it forces you to engage with your peers – not the crowd, your peers – who are funding you.

Those who wondered why the budget is so high were suffering from what I used to call the Blair Witch bug – back when people still remembered and talked about The Blair Witch Project. I still think it’s the scariest movie ever, but not when I’m walking in the woods: when I’m writing a screenplay! It convinced a generation of people that a film can be made for next to no money, and so if a filmmaker is short of cash then that’s just a flaw in his or her concept.

That’s what I mean by the euphemistic phrase “downward budgetary pressure,” the notion that free is the right fee for every service on your film, and cheap is the right price for every budgetary choice. Partly it’s because we all love repeating these entrepreneurial “loaves and fishes” stories. Not that there’s anything wrong with trying to make something out of nothing, but let’s agree as a profession, and as an artistic family, that some films just can’t be made that cheaply, but are still worth making.

When we launched this short, I had another script on my computer that had three locations: a bar, a living room, and a bedroom. (You can guess where my mind was.) It could all be shot in Brooklyn with donated locations. Well, that’s not the one that took off. The one that’s set in a remote summer house in autumn did. It has a director and cast excited about it, quite possibly because it’s better. It fulfills two of cinema’s oldest missions, it creates a unique “world of a story” and it takes the viewer on a trip – not to Cancun in high season, upstate in November; I’m not an absolute dilettante, after all. That’s why we launched, even though it’s more expensive, and I urge every writer-producer who feels creatively trapped by the limitations of the low budget imperative to invite that other voice to the table, the one that says “Wouldn’t it be beautiful if…”

As for the people who say your budget is too low, who wonder how you can make anything of quality unless you have the crew and resources of a union TV shoot, I’ve found myself wishing I could introduce them to the low-ballers. It’s true, that low budget shoots are prone to sloppy production values, and you can sometimes see the corners being cut in the final product. Very often the people raising this objection are in the industry, people whose bread and butter is making those production values, and sometimes you have to tune these people out. It’s like offering a cup of campfire coffee to an award-winning barista: He’s probably going to be a jerk about it.

If most independent cinema is going the way of non-profit art – that is, living on the largesse of benefactors, and I don’t see how it can be otherwise – then to ask, “Why so low?” is tantamount to asking “Why try?” “Why make art?” Should the husband and wife who own South, a bar in my neighborhood, stop doing their production of Shakespeare in the street every summer, because, y’know, the Public Theater already does that so much better?

Kickstarter also forbids offering remuneration for the money collected, and this makes the budgets you make when working with it the most authentic indie film budgets you’ll ever write. No gimmicks, no inflated numbers like: “We’re making a $40,000 film, with $26,000 of that covered by ‘in kind’ contributions, but if you have five hundred bucks we’ll put you in the producer’s pool.” There are very few ways to recoup an investment in a short film, and more than one potential supporter, after hearing my spiel, told me how much he appreciated my skipping all the language of percentage ownership and points toward our next feature based on the same material. All I said was, “We’re a bunch of artists. Here’s what we’re doing. Can you help us out?”

There are two ways to look at an independent film budget. You can write the best story you can and then try to find the cheapest way to make that story, and raise it, or you can look at how much you think you can raise and then write the script that can be done for that much. Each perspective needs a seat on the committee in your head while you’re staring at the blank page – and certainly while you’re at your desk raising money.