Monday, January 16, 2006

Ah, perspective!

So that's me, scouting Temescal Gateway Park.

We were preparing for the first episode of The Discount Kid.  The photo was taken by Allesandra Said, my brilliantly talented production designer.

                        *     *     *

This afternoon, I spent several hours reading at the coffee bar in Santa Monica's Cafe 50. 

The Guerilla Film Maker's Movie Blueprint by Chris Jones (2003).

A waitress stopped to talk.

"I made a movie and used that book," she said.  "It told me everything I needed to know."

                        *     *     *

Last week, I ran into a friend of mine at Starbucks.  She's made a few movies. 

I told her about my failed shoot.  To my surprise, she began laughing.

"Steven, do you have any idea how funny your story is?"

                        *     *     *

Okay, how did it go?

I had spent weeks preparing for this film shoot.  I had a script, storyboard, and a cast and crew of approximately 17. 

We met at Temescal Gateway Park at 6:30 AM.  The shoot was to start at 7:30 AM.

I was a little worried.  I hadn't bothered to ask permission to shoot in the park.  What if? 

But why worry about the Nightmare Scenario.  Usually your nightmares are just that, right?  Bad dreams that happen at night.

                        *     *     *

So just before 7:30 AM, I'm standing beside a stream with my director of photography.  We're starting to set up the first shot.  Suddenly, I hear The Voice of Authority. 

I look up.  Coming down the steps are two Park Rangers.  And they don't look happy.

No location permit.  No insurance. 

No shoot.

"Pack up your stuff and get out of here.  I could fine every person here $100," the Ranger told me as she copied down every detail found on my CA Driver's License.  "I'm just going to give you a warning this time."

Later, I found out later how lucky I had been.  The Ranger could have confiscated all of our camera and sound equipment as well.

Replacing a Sony HD digital camera?  I don't want to think about it.

What kind of filmmaker commits a mistake this obvious?

                        *     *     *

Turns out one of my crew members had arrived on time, but couldn't find the place where we were shooting (I read her text message to me afterwards). 

She approached a Park Ranger and asked her where the film shoot was taking place.

You think that's why we were shut down so quickly?


But the reality is this:  I know now there's no way my crew could have remained unnoticed.  Too many people.  And Temescal Gateway Park is very strict about permits, more so than any other place in Los Angeles.  Or so I've been told.

                        *     *     *

I learn quickly. 

I won't make that mistake again.

It's called research.  Following the law.  And doing a lot more planning.

                        *     *     *

Through it all, I never questioned whether I should give up directing film.  If anything, I have become more determined.

I've survived an initiation.  My research tells me that.  And it was a very small bump in the road.

If you compare it to the nightmares and crises that a director experiences in making a feature film.

Which I'll eventually make.

As my leading actress, Dawn Cody, put it, "You've got to roll with the punches."

Ah, perspective.

                        *     *     *

After the shoot, some of us went out for breakfast at Mort's in the Pacific Palisades.  It gave us a sense of closure.

Dawn then took the rest of the morning to drive me up to the home of her aunt and uncle, who have offered the cast and crew a private location where we can shoot The Discount Kid at a future date.  No permit problems.

And then I went home.  Collapsed on the couch.  Watched movies.  Talked to friends on the phone.  Analyzed what had happened.

And this week I purchased several books on the logistics of producing independent movies.

                        *     *     *

I remembered my long-term goal:  to build a production team that can handle the demands of the fully funded, short film I plan to direct this summer.

The Temescal shoot was critical to that process.  It revealed a lot about everyone involved.

I wanted the team to gain experience working together under pressure.  I wanted to see where the weak points were in the team's personnel.

So the shoot wasn't a complete loss.  I know a lot more about my team than I did before.

Those who believed in me made a point of calling me within a few days, expressing their understanding and support.

They let me know that when I was ready to try again, they would be there.

                        *     *     *

I've just finished watching the whole of the first season of Deadwood, HBO's critically acclaimed Western series.

I tried watching it when it first launched, but couldn't really connect.  Then Paula, one of my most faithfully articulate blog readers, wrote me two long emails. She explained that the show is the rebirth of the Western.

So I went back to it.  Thank god.  Or, I guess I should say, Thank Paula.

My perspective is different.  Spending two months watching every significant Western in the canon will do that to a person.

The most incredible moment in the first season occurs when the new sheriff puts on the silver star as Al watches -- nice story arc.

Deadwood is a Western unlike its predecessors.  And I'm annoyed that only the first season is available on DVD.

                        *     *     *

I mentioned the series to a colleague of mine, a director.  "I don't like Westerns," she said, "but I love Deadwood."

"Why?" I asked her.

"Well, for one thing, it's almost Shakespearean in its use of language."

"But what makes it different than other Westerns?" I asked.  She considered.

"Because it's about relationships," she said, finally.  "And the characters are complex.  Look at Al, for example.  Even though he murders a lot of people, he can't stand to see someone hurting in a particular way."

                        *     *     *

Yeah.  That made sense.  The traditional Western presents an alienated hero who rides into town, fights a particular evil, and then leaves.  Shane, for example, or Pale Rider.

Deadwood, on the other hand, builds relationships with shades of The Godfather and The Sopranos.  It lets you inside a world in which the town is filthy, and the people are dirty, and everyone's ethics are in some way compromised.  No code of honor.

Where else do you get the juxtapositions found in this show?  The language is obscene.  And the exploration of faith is complex.

For example, you'll have a scene in which the f-word almost becomes a grammatical article.  That's rammed smack up against a long passage from the King James Version of the Bible:  "If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?" (and I'm quoting only a short excerpt).

That moment in which Doc questions God's right to allow suffering -- talk about a powerful dramatic monologue. 

And it's a Western.

                        *     *     *

Can I make an analogy between the past world of Deadwood and that of America today?

We have a president who claims to have taken us into Iraq in order to expand democracy and freedom. 

Perhaps some of Deadwood's settlers and prospectors were trying to bring American democracy to the Indians.  But whether you're raping land for gold or for oil -- it's all rather dangerous and messy.

Pity poor America, advocate of Freedom and Justice.  As she expands, she keeps trying to wipe the oily residue of Empire from her hands.  But her hands just keep getting dirtier.

What will happen when she embraces the messiness of it all?  'Cause it's only going to get worse. 

Has anyone noticed that our European allies have given up on Iran?  That they're recommending action by the UN's Security Council?  That a war against Iran is not unthinkable to this administration? 

I mean, can you imagine Iran with her hands wrapped around a nuclear bomb?  About to tuck it under the arm of a terrorist for a long end run into DC?  Or ready to throw a Hail Mary pass into the our corner of the world?

Could there be a better reason to invade Iran and free the Iranians from their oil?  Sorry.  I mean the oppressive Muslim regime. 

And this time, the nuclear watchdog of the UN will agree that Iran is building the Bomb.

                        *     *     *

One of my close friends told me of a new documentary that's being released:  Why We Fight.  It screened last weekend at Sony here in Los Angeles, and it shows in DC this coming week.

It argues that America is now dependent on its War Machine, what Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex in his farewell speech to America in 1961, 44 years ago.

                        *     *     *

"We annually spend on military security more than the net income of all United States corporations.

"This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.

"We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.  The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

"We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

"Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

                                     - from the speech by Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961

                        *     *     *

This morning, I attended the 11 AM service at Pasadena Mennonite Church.  The drive up was only 35 minutes long.  It's taken me longer to drive to a movie in Hollywood on Friday night.

What an incredible time.  The people were warm and welcoming.  The service included excerpts of Martin Luther King's speeches.  The coffee afterwards wasn't bad.

I even met someone who knew Gerald Biesecker-Mast, a close friend of mine during my Malone College days.  The world is small.

                        *     *     *

The most striking image comes to me moments before I reach the church.

I'm driving, trying to find the location, scanning addresses.  Not watching the road.  After all, the streets of Pasadena are almost empty. 

Not quite though.

I look up -- RED LIGHT!  Hit the brakes.  Screech!  Relief.

An oncoming sedan carries three young men across my path, swerving through the intersection.  Its two passengers grin at me, amused at my close call.  And the driver gives me the Bird.

Welcome to Pasadena.


paulajlambert said...

"Well, for one thing, it's almost Shakespearean in its use of language."

Steve: I know one is not supposed to say such things, but I'm saying it anyway: I TOLD you so!!!

About the shoot: sorry, man. Bummer. Ooh, but hey! You can make that into a scene in its own movie. You could call it The Discount Director. There's this guy, see, and he moves out west. He's gonna be a director, see, and he's gonna make this western called The Discount Kid. He wants it to be good, you know, so good that it's gonna, like revive the whole genre, you know? So this guy, see, he's a pacifist and all because of his religious background--he's like, Mennonite or something--and he's really into this whole shoot-em-up western, like, milieu. He even takes pictures of himself in a magic mirror high-noon shoot out. (Really, it's so cool...). So this guy, see, this midwestern Mennonite director guy, he set up the shoot in this, like, National Park or something, and here comes these rangers, you know? And they don't look happy. Seems like he forgot he was supposed to have a permit or something, so these rangers, you know, they tell him to pack up his stuff and get out here, you know, there's like this confrontation....

TA DAA: the meta-western.

You're a good guy, you are, Steve. Me I'm back here in Ohio having trouble with the York Peppermint Patties. See MY embarrassing blog story:


paulajlambert said...

Season Two is slated for release in February.

And P.P.S.
That "moment" with Doc is one of the most magnifecent scenes ever televised.
(And do you remember I told you that Doc Cochran, aka Brad Dourif, was Billy Bibbitt in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest? Check this out:

Un. Believable. !

Can you TELL me why the Soprano's beat out Deadwood for every major award during its first season? Really, can you tell me? Soprano's is a very good show and all--really--but it can't hold a candle to Deadwood.

No f***in' way!


paulajlambert said...

Do you know how much I love this sentence:
"Thank god.  Or, I guess I should say, Thank Paula."
Do you have any IDEA how many people I've sent to this blog just to see it? And do you have any idea how many times I've come back myself just to read it--and to see if you have a new entry--which you don't--again--but I know you're busy and all--but I'm saying--we miss you.


ckays1967 said...




I am glad Paula sent me here to see the God thing.

Nice to meet ya.

Er, howdy.