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.

Sha Na Na at Woodstock: History Inside of (Fake) History

When you think of a rock star writhing his way through a solo at Woodstock, you think of Jimi Hendrix, or possibly Alvin Lee or Santana. Or, in my case, I think of Rob Leonard, who sang “Teen Angel” for Sha Na Na.

I always loved how the guys of Sha Na Na seemed like they were bursting out of their sequins at Woodstock. I’d heard John Entwistle say on the radio long ago that The Who were miserable there, because they weren’t politically radical at all – Townsend in fact is quite conservative – but also, not least, because they got dosed by acid in the coffee. I mean, you might want to mention to somebody about to go onstage, “By the way, there’s LSD in that.”

I was already familiar with Sha Na Na from 1980s TV,when I heard them sing “At the Hop” in the Woodstock movie. They seemed like a seasoned troupe of doo-wop devotees from deep in the 718 area code finally letting its greasy hair down. It was lovely how they subtly responded to the occasion, yet dutifully hit all their cheesy marks, and the hippies politely paid their respects.

It turns out, that’s not how it went at all. Far from working class musical purists, Sha Na Na had only recently been formed at the time by members of a Columbia University a capella group. The very same Rob Leonard, now a linguistics professor at Hofstra, wrote in a Columbia alumni magazine a few years ago that the explicit purpose of the band was to appeal to a pre-Vietnam War teenage Eden to calm down the bloated rhetoric of intolerance versus revolution that was causing physical fights at Columbia.

Leonard’s older brother George, a founding member of Sha Na Na who was reading Susan Sontag at the time, called the band’s first performance “The Glory That Was Grease” as a reference to an Edgar Allen Poe line, “The Glory That Was Greece.” Grease, as in the male hair product, only became the emblem of that generation after the fact, after hippies had turned male hair into a hunk of cultural vocabulary. No one used the word “greaser” till the 1970s when they were writing imagined stories about life in the ’50s. Touchingly, Rob Leonard’s article is a sort of mea culpa. Scholars are pointing out that Sha Na Na started a wave of 1950s nostalgia that served the political reaction for a whole generation, and Leonard doesn’t dispute that.

The story goes, Jimi Hendrix himself asked Sha Na Na to perform at Woodstock second to last, before his finale, and you can see him in the “Teen Angel” clip, apparently enjoying the set from the side of the stage. You can’t help but suspect that he was using them as a setup, to show how far rock and roll had come in just a decade; these songs were newer at the time than the White Stripes or Norah Jones are now. Or I like to think that maybe he just liked the songs. In my experience, visionary artists are usually respectful of traditions, even the ones that they’ve uprooted. Anyway, to paraphrase Emma Goldman: If I can’t shake my ass to Sha Na Na, I don’t want to be a part of your acid subculture.