Voice-Over Day

There was one remaining task for Moonlight Sonata that had to be done before I left Prague. We had to get actor, director, producer, and sound guy in the same place for an hour or three to get the voice-overs recorded. It turned out the only time all parties could be present was Wednesday morning at 9 a.m. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem but the night before was my (not yet documented) going-away party. Perhaps it was a good thing that there was something important to do the next day.

I resolved to bring donuts for everyone. There is a store near the metro station in my neighborhood with a sign saying DONUTKY, which I assumed was a czechification of the English word. Closer inspection of the sign, after four years of walking past it, showed that the sign said DOUTNIKY. Apparently that means “cigars”. Happily there was a shop filled with yummy baked things two doors away, and it had very donut-like items.

Apparently, what you might call a jelly donut (similar here but smaller and rounder) is in this country called by the name “horse poop” (in Czech, of course). My guess is that it has something to do with the shape. Dobrou chut’! (rhymes with ‘Bon Apetit!‘)

But I digress. I got to Brad Huff’s new studio on time, with donuts. We recorded the audio. Coaching someone in reading my words was educational; I became aware of cadences of long and short vowels and a flow I give my words that I had not been consciously aware of before. Sure, I like to make my writing sound good to the ear, but I hadn’t given any thought to just how I do that. Maybe that’s one reason I can spend so long on a single sentence. (Not here, of course, this is Muddled Ramblings.)

We recorded the sound, and after a great deal of confusion and uncertainty got copies to all parties who needed them. The data distribution chore ended up eating several hours of precious packing time, but it was by far the more important task.

Now the ones and zeroes are in the hands of the editor, and a rough cut should be in the works. I’m really, really excited about seeing it.

Shooting Old Ray

One thing about making a little movie on a very low budget: when you don’t pay the extras you never know what to expect. You really can’t twist elbows too hard, and since most of the people who show up are friends, you also don’t want the experience to be too bad. But there’s just no getting around the fact that being an extra in a movie is mostly about sitting around waiting.

In this case we managed to come up with some small compensation for the extras; we were shooting in a little blues club so we opened a tab for coffee and other beverages, including a keg of beer. We told the extras to be there at 3 in the afternoon, and we had no idea how many to expect. We were hoping for at least twenty, but we’d spread the word far and wide, so it was possible that the siren call of ‘free beer’ would bring in a lot more. Then again, it was also possible that no one would show up at all. No way to tell.

My day started much earlier. I woke up with the sun (pretty early these days) and couldn’t get back to sleep. I decided to use my Saturday morning to get a couple of errands done. There is no getting anything done in Strašnice on a Saturday morning, so I hopped tram 7 and headed for the shopping Mecca known as AndÄ›l. In that neighborhood there is a big electronics store, and I bought a nice little external hard drive that holds a whole bunch of ones and zeroes. This was going to make passing data to editors easier, and also reduce the weight I was going to have to lug back to the US when I moved.

New technology in hand, I considered what to do next. Breakfast sounded good. I decided to mosey down to the area we would be shooting that day and wander around, learning the streets a little better. Eventually I’d find a place to have breakfast and get another dose of caffeine in my bloodstream.

Yep, one week before I was to leave the city I’d lived in for four and a half years, I finally learned my way around the center. Part of the center, at any rate.

It took me a while to find a place for breakfast that appealed to me. Finally I stopped in at Subway for a meatball sandwich. Perfect. Sometimes that stuff really hits the spot. I cracked open my book, enjoyed the sandwich and a coke, and life was pretty good. When I was done it was still early for my scheduled meeting with fuego and the shooting crew, so I found a sunny place and kept reading. After a short time I got a message from fuego: “We should meet early and grab a bite to eat.”

We met at Chillilili’s (rhymes with chile Lily’s), just a few doors down from Blues Sklep, and fuego had a snack while I had tea. For the record, the people at Chilli Lili’s (spelling varies by signage) are really cool. fuego and I talked about this and that and the crew for the exterior shooting gathered. We wanted to get a few more beauty shots of the two walking through Prague, and we finally had found the right doorway to be the entrance to U Nikde.

Honest, officer, we're just making a little video of our vacation...

Honest, officer, we're just making a little video of our vacation...

There is a rule about shooting films on the streets of Prague. If you put your camera on the ground (by using a tripod, for instance), you must get a license first. I watched as the crew set up the camera on a tripod. “Um… how much is the fine?” I asked. “I’ll tell you later,” fuego said, but I could tell he was nervous. Finally, for the shot right at Charles Bridge, among throngs of tourists, they decided to go handheld and stay off the sticks. fuego was visibly relieved. The fine, it turns out, is 500,000 Kč, which even when divided by 20 remains an uncomfortably large number. Tomas and the rest figured they could pretend to be innocent film students if trouble arrived, while any non-czechs disappeared in the crowds. They neglected to mention this plan to me, though.

Exterior shots finally complete (the door worked out nicely), we went back to the bar, where preparations were already well under way. Extras were starting to arrive, and mill about, not needed yet and underfoot in that small place. The crew was assembling a large jib arm with remote head for the first shots, and soon the band arrived and began to set up while the art director (Soup Boy had no idea that would be him when he arrived) tried to dress up the stage area a bit. Zlato was our mule to bring munchies and other supplies from a nearby department store. Everyone was pitching in.

Still, we weren’t shooting yet. People were fiddling with the jib, and I assumed that was the cause of the delay. Perhaps the jib setup was behind schedule, but that wasn’t the real problem. It turns out the lighting guys had locked their keys in the van. They couldn’t get to their stuff. Ever-resourceful Steve tried to help, but eventually it became clear that a locksmith was going to be necessary. Meanwhile, no shooting. The band was getting bored, the extras were getting drunk, and I was getting more and more stressed out.

It took an hour and a half to get the lighting truck open. Yikes.

So then we shot, finally using the extras at about 7 pm, the time we had originally told them they would be able to leave. That was when the owner of the bar started to get pissed off. He was supposed to open at seven. While that wouldn’t have bothered us (more extras!) he didn’t think it was a good idea. I’d feel worse for him, but the extras and crew were buying far more than he would have sold to the first arrivals of the day. Still, his anger added to my stress.

In the end, we got most of what we needed. More extras would have been good, more time at the end to shoot some confusion and pandemonium and whatnot. The story may have to be tweaked a bit as a result; we’ll find out once we get a rough edit.

Rene Trossman and his band were helpful and professional the whole time, playing the same song over and over while we shot from different angles and featured different musicians. I’m pretty sure we got what we needed to make a good scene. We’ll find out soon enough.

After the main shoot the band took a break and we cleared out all the gear so the bar could open for business. Just a little later than scheduled Rene and the boys took the stage for their actual concert. We set up in the back and shot the first set for them, Soup Boy catching other angles handheld. Hopefully it’s footage they can use for their own promotion. I was worried that after all that shooting they wouldn’t have any energy left for the actual show, but I was wrong. They had an excellent gig, and we stayed to listen, eat pizza, and unwind. The owner eventually bought the last stragglers a round of something really nasty that he apparently thought was special. Makes for one of those half-hearted thank-yous.

Finally home, bed, and a gradual sigh as the stress went away. We have a film in the can, as they say.

On the move!

I have plenty of stories to tell about my last days in Prague, but no time to tell them right now. As the Bars of the World tour draws to a close things are busy busy busy. Nostalgic retrospectives, details of our day shooting in Blues Sklep, and other tales will have to wait for another day or three.

Note that as I fill in the episodes the dates will be reflective of when I should have posted them, not when I actually did. I’m doing it for posterity. Or something like that.

A Slow Day

I’ve been waking up early lately. I’m not proud of this fact, but there you go. Six, six-thirty, sometimes earlier. I blame the sun. Wednesday night was my second late night in a row, and I resolved to sleep in on Thursday. I had no pressing engagements until noon, so it seemed like a good time for some extended shut-eye, if my body would allow it.

I was in that vague place between sleeping and waking the next morning when my phone rang briefly and stopped. Aargh. Still, I thought I’d better check who it was. I got up and fetched my phone, and noticed the time. 12:20. I was late for my noon meeting. I put on a different sweater than the day before to make it less obvious I was wearing the same clothes and staggered out into the day. I was unprepared for the rain that soon began to fall.

Soon enough I was in the friendly confines of Alex Bistro, a little place that’s the home of the best burgers in Prague (although this time it seemed a little salty for some reason). A thick 100% beef burger (not a given here, not at all) with fries for 95 crowns. You can do a lot worse in this town. Angelo and I had a pleasant lunch, as always (Angelo is good company), but I wasn’t exactly sparkling. In fact, it seemed a large part of my head was still off in the land of Nod.

Lunch done, it was time to go to the bank and get some of the local currency. I don’t have ATM access anymore, so I have to go to one of the big banks in the center that has a money-changing desk. Only thing is, I’d forgotten my passport. No passport, no money. It was that sort of day. I went home.

Later I hopped a tram again to meet with fuego and Rene Trossman, who will be playing Old Ray Black on Saturday. It’s our last day of shooting and in some ways the most complicated, what with a band and live concert as well as the carefully staged shots during the afternoon. Rene had a lot more energy than I did, and the dude likes to chit-chat. It was an interesting conversation, touching on the experience of the American in Prague, the evolution of the blues scene here, and what it’s like to have a life that’s not that firmly attached to a location.

I left that meeting with a good feeling about the shoot on Saturday, and rode the tram home (Tram 11—tram of the dead.). My plan: grab my computer and a bite to eat, and visit Little Café Near Home to use the internet for a while and defer paying my tab until after a visit to the bank. Once home, however, and sated on leftover pizza from Pizzeria Roma (it was one of those nights) all those stairs and doors and the short walk were just too great an obstacle. I went to bed instead.

Now it is morning. I woke up early, managed to doze off again, and got to LCNH at about 8 a.m. Unfortunately, their Internet is down again. I have no money, so it’s difficult for me to go elsewhere. The good news is that my brain seems to be functioning again.

AiA: White Shadow – Episode 11

Our story so far: Allison Crenshaw is an American transfer student in a Japanese prep school. In this Japan, however, transfer students always have some sort of mystical power. The rest of the class is intent to figure out whether she’s a demon, an escaped lab experiment, or perhaps a killer robot. Transfer students always attract trouble. No school ever survives a transfer student, and generally the destruction reaches much farther. Allison’s classmates are happy to report that the next backup city is almost ready, and it’s a nice one.

White Shadow is a computer virus that is able to affect people’s minds, putting them into a sort of waking coma. White Shadow also seems to be a person, a super-hacker who wants to recruit Allison for a purpose only vaguely hinted at but probably world domination. Why Allison? It seems that she’s pretty good with computers herself. Apparently she got in a bit of trouble in the US because of her skills. Was White Shadow behind that as well?

At the end of last episode, tragedy struck at a dance club. White Shadow took over the video monitors and claimed dozens of victims.

When Seiji reached the classroom students were gathered in small knots, talking in subdued tones. The Emergency Committee was in its traditional corner, not speaking at all. Ruchia was crying softly while Tasuki tried to comfort her. There were other tears in other groups.

Allison sat at her desk, alone, her face white, her jaw set in grim determination. She was scowling dangerously. The rest of the class cast wary glances her direction, but none dared go near her.

Seiji approached the group of boys who formed the Emergency Committee. “What’s going on?” he asked, his voice barely above a whisper, but it still seemed to echo around the room.

“Didn’t you hear?” Hissed Naota. “It’s on all the news shows this morning!”

“I don’t watch TV,” Seiji said. “It rots your brain.”

The moment the words left his mouth he realized he’d said something horribly wrong. The entire class looked at him with such venom that he wanted to slink away. “That’s not funny, you know!” Tasuke said. “Ruchia’s older cousin was there!”

Where?” demanded Seiji. “I can stop saying stupid things when someone bothers to tell me what happened.”

“That new dance club,” Naota said.

“Happy Dance Dance Dance,” Yomiko said, referring to her notes. “Opened July 22nd last year. Average age of patron 17.6—”

“Yeah, that place,” Naota said. “White Shadow got into the video system. It was all computer controlled. The whole club… everyone…” He couldn’t continue. Ruchia’s tears began to flow more quickly.

Seiji looked over at Allison. Half the class probably thought she’d written the virus. The other half thought that as a transfer student she should have been able to stop the tragedy. Perhaps she thought so herself. That would explain the smouldering rage on her face. She was angry with herself. Couldn’t anyone else see that? Someone should talk to her.

He looked at her fierce expression and swallowed. Someone else.

The teacher arrived and the students broke up their groups and made their way to their assigned desks. Seiji sat next to Allison and tried to think of something to say.

Just as the class came to order Allison stood. “I’m sorry, Sensei, but I have to go.”

“Is something wrong?” the teacher asked.

“Yes,” Allison said. “Something is wrong.”

The class was silent for a heartbeat, waiting for the transfer student to say more, to explain what was going on, but Allison lifted her bookbag and moved out from behind her desk.

“I have to go also!” Kaneda blurted, standing abruptly and tipping his chair over. It clattered to the floor, leaving behind a silence even more complete than when Allison had spoken. Allison whirled to look at Kaneda, her face a mixture of alarm and gratitude. She wasn’t alone, Kaneda had told her.

While Kaneda groped to right his chair Ruchia stood, her eyes fixed on the teacher’s feet. Her voice was quiet. “Please forgive me, Sensei, but I must go as well.” Behind him Seiji heard a chair scoot and he didn’t have to look to know it was Tasuki. She would support Ruchia all the way to hell.

Seiji swallowed, and from far away he watched himself stand from his chair, his hands gripping his desk with white knuckles. He stared resolutely at the formica surface, his eyes lost in shadow. “Sensei! Forgive me! I must go!” out of the corner of his eye he saw Allison turn in surprise. She started to reach out to him but stopped herself. Seiji didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed that she had stopped.

“So, umm… where are we going?” Tasuki asked.

“Happy Dance Dance Dance,” Allison answered. She stopped walking. The sky was cloudy; thunder grumbled in the distance. Plum blossom petals filled the air. The street was deserted except for a nondescript van. The same van that had been outside her house, Allison thought. Did they think she was stupid? None of the others seemed to notice it at all. “It might be dangerous,” she said.

“They turned off the electricity there,” Kaneda said. “Doesn’t matter how good the virus is then.”

Allison scowled. “Unless it’s already in people’s brains,” she said. She was watching Seiji, his hands in his pockets, his gaze downcast so his eyes were hidden by his hair. Yet he was alert, subtly scanning in every direction. Every direction except the van, he was studiously ignoring it. Seiji glanced up, caught her watching him, and sent her a fleeting smile. A shared moment of recognition.

“What do you mean ‘in people’s brains?’” asked Tasuki.

Allison started walking again. “Computers are often compared to brains,” she said, “but there are some important differences. Computers are made to be be reprogrammed, where brains have programs in them that took tens of thousands of years to come about, and they’re not made to be reprogrammed. But there’s a more important difference. Brains are pattern-finding machines, not calculating machines. Language, vision, memory, those are all pattern-matching problems. Brains are so good at finding patterns that often they find patterns where there are none, and we have superstitions. But that’s the weakness.”

“Patterns?” Tasuki asked.

“Senses trigger memories. Memories trigger other memories. At any moment in our heads there are billions of tiny connections being made, and the pattern of all those connections determines, more or less, what pattern happens next. The part of the pattern that comes from our senses is really pretty small. A lot of the rest might be called ‘imagination’ or ‘intelligence’. The pattern, and the pattern that follows, and the one after that, defines who we are.”

“So…” Ruchia ventured, “White Shadow is not a program like we learned in computer class, a bunch of instructions to make a machine do what we want. It’s more like, I don’t know, hypnosis or something.”

Allison was amazed at this modestly delivered and extremely convenient paraphrase. “Yeah. Like hypnosis that digs a trench in your brain until your thoughts just go around in circles forever.”

“That’s terrible,” Tasuki said.

“Thing is, you wouldn’t even know it was happening.”

“When you take away the weird video, it hurts them,” Ruchia said. “Sometimes they shout ‘Reset!’ What does that mean?”

“I have no idea,” Allison said.

“How do you know so much about this?” asked Seiji.

Allison glanced at Kaneda. It was time to come clean. “I’ve… met White Shadow. I think I have, anyway.”

When they reached Happy Dance Dance Dance (HD3!!!, the neon sign proclaimed, its garish colors muted now for want of electricity), the police detective in charge, a military man, and a European-looking guy in a trenchcoat were in a heated debate over who had jurisdiction. “You can’t just come in here and take over!” the detective said. “This is a police matter, not a military issue.”

“This is a national security issue,” the colonel said. “The very existence of our society is at stake.”

The man in the trenchcoat raised his voice. “You boys can just clear out! Our organization was created to handle exactly this sort of threat.”

The Colonel frowned. “What organization was that again?”

Trenchcoat hesitated. “I’m with Section 42.”

“Section 42 of what?” the detective asked.

“I’m… not at liberty to say.”

The colonel pressed the question. “So there are 41 other sections? What do they do?”

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

For the moment the detective and the colonel seemed to be on the same side, but the resolution of jurisdiction would be a long time coming. Cops, soldiers, and men in dark suits waited for the outcome of the discussion. Allison and her friends lifted the yellow crime scene tape and walked right past all of them.

The interior of the dance club was dark and quiet, the faint smell of perfume lingered in the air. On the floor were outlines marking where the bodies had fallen.

“Should have brought a flashlight,” Allison muttered.

“Perhaps this will help.” A beam of light stabbed out of the darkness, shining in their faces, blinding them. “You brought friends, I see.” The man’s voice carried a tone of disapproval. The light came to rest on Allison’s face, allowing Seiji to get a look at the man. In one hand the man held a flashlight, in the other was a darker object…

“He’s got a gun!” Kaneda shouted.

“Yes, I have a gun,” the man said. “My apologies, Miss Crenshaw, but I’m afraid that we cannot risk allowing you to have any further contact with White Shadow.” Slowly he raised the pistol as he spoke. “You see—” the man’s speech was cut off with a gasp. Seiji turned and staggered with amazement. The transfer student had vanished into thin air.

Your Support Matters!

Thanks to the those of you who have generously donated to help defray the (still rising) costs of making our little epic. I’m told the footage looks great. A lot of people are working for us at a discount, but let’s face it, making this thing isn’t cheap – a whole lot more not cheap than I had originally hoped. Then there’s post-production…

Special thanks to:

  • Philip and Barbara Seeger
  • Anonymous Donor
  • William Forman (aka Bill Bob’s Brother)
  • The Right Honourable Rev. Damen P. Dowse, D.D.
  • Jesse Kenyon
Support the arts! Someone’s got to do it.

You can get your name in the credits, too! For an explanation of what you get with each level of donation, the details are here.

  • less than $50: Hearty slap on the back.
  • $50 – $150: Seriously cool people who want to make sure the little guys can still make movies.
  • $151 – $500: Honest-to-God supporter of the arts.
  • $501 – $1500: My new best friend.
  • $1501 – $5000: Where have you been all my life?
  • $5,000,000: Guess I’m done.

Episode 30:The Eye of the Beholder

Our story so far: Charles Lowell is a detective in vaguely-nostalgic chiaroscuro New York, a town where everyone has an angle, the deal is king, and money is god. Charlie himself is a painfully honest man, pragmatic but unwilling to play the game that defines the city. He dreams of going to San Fran, but in his heart he knows it’s the same everywhere. Charlie and his plucky (if a little weepy) secretary Alice have been hired to help Lola Fanutti (nee Meredith Baxter) recover a treasure of fabulous value. Getting her hands on whatever it is is Lola’s only hope for survival now that her husband, a notorious criminal, has been killed.

There are a lot of people interested in this treasure, and they’re willing to kill to get their hands on it. The only thing keeping Charlie alive is that he’s got a chance of finding the Blood of the Saint, and most parties seem willing to wait until he succeeds before killing him and taking it for themselves. Depending who you ask, The Blood of the Saint is either a wine, a painting, or a mysterious organization willing to kill to preserve its secrets. The painting used to belong to them, and perhaps the treasure it leads to is already in their hands as well.

None of the factions involved has any interest in whether Charlie survives or not.

Then the shooting really gets going. Meredith is killed, along with one of the most powerful people in the underworld. It turns out Alice left a few things off her resume when she applied for work with Charlie, “Daughter of Mobster” and “Assassin” being conspicuously absent. Still, it seemed that she was genuinely touched when Charlie made her a partner in the firm.

Now they have the painting, The Blood of the Saint. It’s not going to take long for people to come calling.

Writing this is recreation for me, something I do when others might watch television. (Lately, I’ve been watching more television and writing this stuff less. That’s not good.) Editorial standards are low, though I must confess that just this once I did a bit of research before writing the episode. That was a few weeks ago; I’ve subsequently forgotten everything I read, except for one detail in the story of a saint.

The package sat on the table between us, unopened. Inside… not treasure, but perhaps a treasure map. If there was anything. No telling, at that, that we’d even be able to read the map if one was in there. Old Man Fanutti had hired experts to analyze the painting, and he, at least, thought they’d found something. Enough other people were convinced that he was right that a lot of people had died, including Fanutti himself.

The box was made of pale wood, battered and humble on the glossy dark-stained mahogany of the table. The only other times I’d been in a hotel room this swanky there’d been a corpse involved. Now we were entrenched in a suite on the top floor, the air cool despite the heat of the day outside. Through the door to the bedroom I could see a bed large enough to raise livestock on. My client may have died last night, but she’d left me with a large roll of spending money and no way to return it.

Alice was all for blowing town, heading west, Portland, maybe. I understood, but while that might buy us some time, it would be time spent looking over our shoulders, always wondering where the bullet was going to come from. There was no escape, no side exit we could slip out of and cease to matter to these people. There were exactly two ways this story could end: with us in control of the treasure or with us joining Fanutti at the bottom of the river, feeding the eels. Whatever was in the box was simultaneously meal ticket and death warrant.

“You gonna open it?” Alice asked me. Her hands were tight in her lap and her back was erect, her mouth tight and tense, bruises still visible on her face. She preferred low-calibre, high-velocity rounds when shooting people.

“Think I’ll have a drink first,” I said. I reached for the single-malt, poured myself a healthy snort in a highball.

Alice frowned. “That stuff’s going to kill you if you keep drinking it like that,” she said.

“I should be so lucky,” I muttered, and took a sip, inhaled the fumes and for a moment forgot all my problems. Money can buy happiness. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t tasted the good booze.

After a moment she laughed, the same bitter hopeless laugh that echoes up and down death row as the gallows is being constructed in the yard. “Pour one for me, would you?” she asked. I did. “When this is over, we should just go somewhere and get tight,” she said. “Tell each other our secrets.”

“Yeah,” I said. She had a lot more secrets than I did, apparently.

She smiled. “You’re thinking that you don’t have any secrets, aren’t you?”

I smiled in return. “Something like that.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Charlie. That’s all you are. One big secret.”

After that there wasn’t much to talk about. We fell into an odd sort of peace, a thousand miles apart but thinking about the same thing, looking anywhere but at each other. The Box waited with the patient apathy that only the inanimate can have. They say that primitive cultures believe that there is a spirit in everything, that the whole world is a big zoo of rock spirits and tree spirits and watermelon spirits and on and on. People are just the most active spirits of the bunch. I’m not sure how that makes them primitive, but I think they’d stop believing it if they met some of the people I know. Not a spirit in the bunch.

I set my glass down next to the box and rested my hand on the rough wood. “Guess we’ve put this off as long as we can,” I said. I turned the box over, awkward with my arm in a sling. It was nailed shut and the seams were sealed with wax. I hefted the screwdriver we’d picked up on the way over and attacked a seam. The box slid away from me, scratching the tabletop.

“Let me help,” Alice said, and took hold of the box, bracing it better than I could with my bum wing. I attacked the seam again and soon the top pulled free with a groan. Inside something flat was suspended on wood blocks, wrapped in red silk. Alice lifted the parcel out and removed the silk. Finally, there it was, the Blood of the Saint, in a small but ornately-carved frame.

I had joked that I would decorate my apartment in San Fran with the painting, but after one glance I decided against it. The picture might have been art, but it wasn’t pretty. It was small, less than a foot either direction, painted with the tiniest brush imaginable. There, reproduced in detail that transcended life, was the image of a young woman weeping in agony, while a man stood before her, knife in one hand, great iron tongs in the other. The tongs still held the woman’s severed tongue. Other men held her, on their faces a mixture of revulsion and fear. The man who held the knife wore a look of smug triumph. All the people in the picture wore those flowing robes the renaissance people liked to paint so much. There was a lot of blood, but none had got on the guy with the knife and tongs.

“I wonder what saint that is,” Alice said.

“Meredith told me Fanutti stole the painting to see it out of the frame,” I said. “There’s supposed to be something important on the edges.”

Alice flipped the painting over and scowled. “Huh.”

“What?”

“Oils aren’t usually framed with a backing,” she said. She fiddled with the metal bits holding the painting in the frame and everything slid neatly onto the table: The backing, the painting, and four sheets of paper, three written with a neat hand, the other filled with diagrams.

“Bingo,” I said. I should have been happy, I suppose. On those pages was likely the answer to all this, an end to the running, an end to the killing, but it was impossible to ignore what had happened to Saint Whoever. I had no aspirations to rise in the church the way she had.

Alice picked up a sheet and scowled. “Catalan, I think,” she said, “but I can read most of it.”

I sat across the table from a woman who had three things: The key to all the wealth and power she could imagine, a gun, and a guy who could ruin everything for her. I hoped she didn’t do the math the same way I did, but I was just fooling myself. She was much smarter than I was.

Alice scanned the pages for a few minutes then set them back on the table. She rubbed her eyes and leaned back in her chair. “Can’t concentrate,” she said.

“You look beat,” I said.

“You don’t look that great yourself,” she said, though her eyes were shut, her head rocked back. She sighed and stood. “I think I’ll take a nap. I have a feeling we’re going to be busy later.” She stopped by my chair and turned her back to me. “Can you unzip me?”

I stood and did my chivalric duty, careful not to make any contact with her skin. I looked straight ahead over her shoulder and found her watching me in a mirror. She smiled, a little sadly, I thought. “Thanks,” she said.

I had to say something. “What would your long-suffering grandmother say if she knew you were in a hotel room with a man?”

“She’d probably be happy I was with a man at all,” Alice said. “If she existed.” Alice walked into the bedroom and closed the door without looking back. The strap of her brassiere was black, I noticed, and hooked in the back. Her skin was pale.

I picked up the pages and took a shot at deciphering them. There were some familiar words, but the letters started swimming in front of my eyes and I decided Alice had the right idea. I stretched out on the sofa and put my hat over my eyes. I adjusted the sofa pillow under my head and was very nearly asleep when the knock came at the door.

I’d known it wouldn’t take long for people to find us, but I’d hoped for a little more time than that. I tried to be encouraged that whoever it was had bothered knocking.

Tune in next time for: Final Offer!

The Scourge of Weblessness Seems to be Spreading

I am without Internet in my home, and am likely to be for my remaining two weeks here. I have come to rely on the connection at Little Café Near Home for most of my connectedness needs. Mornings are definitely a better time to get things done and chat with That Girl and so forth. The only problem: mornings have an ugly habit of coming before noon. Nevertheless, I dragged my butt out of bed this morning and staggered down here through the rain (fat, heavy drops but far apart), plopped down and accepted my tea gratefully, and fired up Ol’ Pokey, my laptop.

The WiFi signal is strong, and my computer connected to the base station without a problem. That’s as far as I got, however; the world is not responding to my entreaties. Perhaps there is no Internet any more. Maybe it broke. Maybe the terrorists got it and no one has realized it’s a global problem yet because people don’t have any way to communicate. Everybody’s just assuming that it’s only their connection that’s down. Man, it would suck if the Internet broke.

Of course, since you’re reading this now, the Internet must not be completely broken. This time.

A Random Memory

Once upon a time, a long time ago, I was sitting on a floating dock on a particularly cold lake in Arkansas, early in the morning, with Dad. We were fishing. Funny the details I remember. I had a white fishing rod with a black Zebco reel, and I was using a lure called Rebel something-or-other, which was made to go fairly deep, with an enticing wiggly action. The trout were rising at that time of the morning, looking for the morning bugs, which made the choice of lure suspect. Thirty-plus years of retrospect and that’s the only real lesson learned here.

A Boy and his Trout

A Boy and his Trout

I was getting better at casting, which isn’t to say good. I’d send the something-or-other out there, and patiently haul it back in, knowing that if I pulled it in too fast it would dive too deep and snag. Still, it was a good morning, me and dad out there. We had some good times, Dad and me, but not so many simple hanging-out times like that. The good ol’ boys were out in their bass boats, and more than once Dad cautioned me that my voice would carry a long way over the water.

I’d fallen into (my memory says was) silence (ha) and just thrown out a good cast when the fish struck — before my lure had time to dive below the dining line. Splish-splash, tension on the line. I spazzed. I lost the fish.

Here’s where memory gets a bit vague. As I remember, Dad cast to the point of the hubbub, hit it bang-on, and reeled in the fish. Only vaguely do I recall that the fish hadn’t even bit his hook, but he’d hit the fish on the head. I could be confusing memories there. I was young. It wasn’t a spectacular fish, eleven inches as I recall, measured on the ruler embossed on the lid of my plastic tackle box.

In any case, Dad brought home the breakfast. We agreed, there on the dock, that I would take credit. And I did. With gusto, to the point that I really believed that I’d done most of the work catching the fish — Dad had merely scooped up the opportunity I’d created.

I don’t expect many people remember that fish, but I do. It’s time to set the record straight. Dad caught that fish, plain and simple. That notwithstanding, it was a great morning sitting with Dad on that quiet lake. I’d remember it even without the fish.

Shooting Day 2

Setting up for and exterior shot

Setting up for an exterior shot

I ran into Cowboy Bob on the Metro, which I thought fortunate because I don’t know my way around the middle of Prague very well. It’s just not a place I’m tempted to go very often. There’s nothing there you can’t find in other neighborhoods for a lot less. Nothing, that is, except ancient architecture, narrow cobbled streets and all-around old-world atmosphere. For this part of the shoot, that’s what we were looking for.

Applying makup in the square

Applying makup in the square

A minimal crew (only about eight of us) gathered at the statue of Jan Hus, and after some caffeine and makeup we were on our way. The goal was to get as many guys-walking-down-little-streets shots as possible before U Sudu was available at 10:00. Our time would be very limited at the bar, so it was important not to waste any of it. It’s not uncommon to see kids running around making little movies around town, but I think we stood out, what with our big ol’ camera, another guy to do focus, and so forth.

It was a fun morning for those of us who didn’t have to carry the camera, and I got quite a few pictues in the good light. (There’s another guy in charge of taking good pictures.) All in all, a pleasant morning. Then it was off to our favorite subterranean bar. (They’re our favorite because they let us shoot there for free.) The gaffers were already unloading gear when we arrived, and Tomaš and fuego put their heads together to plan the first shot, handheld following the action, arranged to show off some of the cool ironwork. Then the shooting progressed lower and lower into the bowels of the bar.

measuring the distance from the lens to Cowboy Bob's nose

Measuring the distance from the lens to Cowboy Bob's nose

Down in the depths, the bar had not been cleaned from the night before. There was broken glass here and there, dishes in the sink, straws strewn, sticky spots on the floor. Lenka did most of the cleanup, with some support from me.

Low-tech visual effects: we didn’t have a smoke machine, but the grip and gaffers had cigars, and would puff up a storm before each shot.

At 1 p.m. fuego said, “We have four more hours. It’s not going to be enough.” I wasn’t surprised to hear it, having seen enough filmmaking in my limited career to know that there are wide shots and coverage shots (shots featuring a particular actor) with lenses of varying lengths, then there are shots to show the details (money hitting a counter, things like that), and so a fairly simple scene can several different camera setups. In general it’s the setup that takes time; lights have to be adjusted, focus figured out for each stage of the shot, and so forth.

Once again I was grateful to have so many experienced people on the crew. They had worked together before, knew what they were doing, and got us set up each time with a minimum of fuss. The time saved meant more setups, more shots, and better coverage. Not to mention that these guys were creating some visually dramatic stuff while they were at it.

Due to the fluid nature of our movement through the location and the limited space, I wasn’t able to watch a monitor as we shot, so I still haven’t gotten the full effect, but fuego assures me it’s good. For much of the day my role was alternately acting coach and furniture mover. I was also in charge of getting some munchies — and apple juice. There is whiskey in our story (Old Ray Black was a bourbon man), but whiskey is expensive and after a few takes the actors would be turning green, so we substituted apple juice. Steve (rhymes with Cowboy Bob) drank a lot of apple juice. By the end he was starting to feel a little queasy even with the benign juice.

Time keeps on Slippin’ into the Future, as Steve Miller pointed out, and the crew was working to get us all the shots we needed, but at the end, we were forced to compromise, and take it on faith that (for instance) the wide shot with Paul sitting down was a good as it looked to fuego, so no coverage shot of that was necessary. I wished later that I’d written down more notes about each shot, because in several of the wide takes there’s a bad chair noise when he sits. The last one was good, though, so I hope that’s the take fuego is relying on.

setting up in the bowels of U Sudu

Setting up in the bowels of U Sudu

You have no idea how many things can go wrong in a take. There’s the obvious problem of the actor missing on the performance, but in fact what you are hoping is that the actor’s performance is good when all the other shit actually works. Were I in the position to hire actors, I would choose consistent actors over great ones.

Although, I just did hire actors, didn’t I? There’s one line delivered brilliantly in rehearsal that never popped as well in performance, but fuego was really pleased with the performance of the line on camera, on more than one take. He just didn’t have the rehearsal to compare it to. And maybe on camera there were subtleties I could not pick up.

There’s a moment of transformation, when Cowboy Bob leans back, knows his job is done, and gets up to leave. fuego proved his chops as a director right there, once the lenses and the lights and the angles were figured out he guided the actor through the timing of this gradual transformation. While rolling he said “now look across at Paul… smile a little… lean back…” Past all the technical details it was all about telling a good story. Budget, crew, schedule, time left to film in the location — all details. Story is the thing. That’s what the business is about, in the end, a story well told. fuego’s a storyteller.

Early in this game fuego said, “here’s how we take over the world,” and my little project became an effort to make something really spectacular. I hope we succeed. fuego’s put a lot of his personal credibility on this script, and on what we can make of it. I’ve improved as a performance coach this time, but I could have done better. The nitty gritty details, I want nothing to do with. I want to watch the monitor, watch the actors, help them be awesome. I want my story to come to life. In film that is an incredible team effort.

Miki and fuego

Miki and fuego

In the novel biz, we laugh at the people who are worried that someone will steal their idea. An idea is nothing; it’s all about execution. No one will steal your writing. Or at least if they do it’s easy to trace. The importance of execution applies in the movie biz as well but the execution is a massive collaboration in which the writing is important but there’s a lot more. The original script is little more than a template. Two crews with the same script will end up with different movies.

The day ended, and fuego canceled the evening exterior shots. I think the stress of getting what we needed down there, and the weight of being director, tired him out. We were loading our stuff out (a bit late), we were in a bar, and it was a chance for me to buy beers for everyone. A moment not to miss. (Though now that I think of it, fuego picked up a big part of the tab.)

So we enjoyed the evening when really we should have been shooting, relaxed, and hung out. I was all right with that, and as Executive Producer, it’s my call. Apparently.

Shooting Day 1

I woke up early this morning, really early. I didn’t plan it that way, it just happened. Today was the first day of shooting “Moonlight Sonata”, and I have to admit that I was pretty excited. It’s been a long and winding road, as Paul McCartney used to say every once in a while.

My first job of the day was clearly defined: making copies. I was waiting outside Copy General when it opened at 8, and I think the people there were a little surprised to have someone there at the crack of opening on the Saturday of a holiday weekend. But there I was and without any grumbling they followed my instructions to the letter — except that the guy was so sure I had asked for three of something at some point he had a hard time accepting other numbers. Nevertheless he was friendly and helpful and I got what I needed. I tromped up to Zvonařka and the crews were already hard at it.

The first shot of the day was the most complicated, a long steadycam shot, and there was a hitch. The steadycam rig was an elaborate piece of equipment but it was home-grown and there were problems getting it to work with the Red. (More on the Red later.) We were delayed getting started, and our time using the main room of the restaurant was limited. Yikes.

There were some positive aspects, however. One of my regrets with “Pirates of the White Sand” was not spending enough time with some of the actors, coaching them and challenging them to bring more to their roles. Steadycam delays today meant idle actors, and these guys were all for running the lines, discussing deliveries and timing, and just being professional. Steve (rhymes with Cowboy Bob) had the most complicated lines today, and there were a couple I was worried about. He was a bit nervous himself, but then he would nail the line dead cold, adding nuances I hadn’t thought of before. Likewise Curt (rhymes with Paul the Piano Player) showed a range of expression within the boundaries of a fairly introverted guy.

The steadycam was finally ready and work commenced. Unfortunately the monitor wasn’t working, so I could not watch the feed. Also, I didn’t realize that the walkie-talkie I’d been given wasn’t a walkie-talkie at all, but a digital receiver for the audio. Later, when I learned that I could hear what was being recorded I was in a happy place.

But our time in the main room was limited, and we weren’t going to get the necessary shots and coverage in time, and the woman in charge of the place made it clear that it wasn’t her idea to let a bunch of film people in. In one case, when we identified the source of a nasty, persistent noise to be a mirror ball motor with no mirror ball on it, we asked if we could turn it off. “Impossible,” the woman said — a common Czech response when one doesn’t wish to be bothered. Happily, one of the gaffers found the magic switch. But I digress.

The woman in charge was getting increasingly uptight, as we were pushing in on the time she needed to prepare the place for paying customers. fuego pressed on, working with Tomaš, our director of photography, to get the shots we needed. I had spent the previous day twisting the arm of my former czech teacher to be the waitress, and I didn’t get to see her performance. Or hear it, because I still thought I had a walkie-talkie. How might I have affected her performance? I’m told she did well.

All around me people were doing stuff. Subtle stuff, like wrapping the compact fluorescent bulbs in the overhead fixtures with… I don’t know, some sort of softening stuff. Dolly tracks laid without a fuss, lenses swapped and data transferred, actors made non-shiny, water brought around to the crew.

Once we got off the steadycam the monitor was working correctly and with my headphones getting the audio I was able to stay out of the way and still get a really good feel for how things were going. I monitored the performances of the actors, listened for trouble, and every once in a while chimed in, either to call out “smoke!” to remind them to light the cigarette smoldering in the ashtray, or to slide over while the crew was doing technical stuff to talk to the actors. “Like the hair a lot,” I said once, and people seemed to think my opinion was important (perhaps because they all agreed – it was a no-brainer).

I should probably have been looking for visual problems as well, but to be honest the stuff hitting my monitor was just plain blowing me away. It was a combination of things: the Red, bringing film qualities to video (not just resolution, but the whole feel), lighting, sound, and actors who may not nail the line every time but when they do… damn. And you only need the one. At one point fuego and Tomaš were watching the footage and were obviously pleased with the stuff coming out of the Red. “And this is raw,” fuego said, “we haven’t done anything to it yet.” Some of the credit for that has to go to gaffer and focus puller, to the dolly grip and all the others. You can’t fix bad focus in post. Yet in the end the Red proved worthy of all the business that went on around it, giving us raw footage that looks (to my eye) really damn good.

I’m excited.

I’m also a little scared. All the skill and technology in the world can’t fix a bad story (though Hollywood is striving to prove me wrong). Does my story hold up? Is the screenplay fuego and I created worthy of all this amazing talent? I sure hope so.

There was one other job I had today as producer. Paying people. This little project isn’t so little anymore, and I’ve ridden along because the value is increasing much more steeply than the cost. For example our boom guy knows how to point a microphone, and while he’s working for a song, it’s not free. Nor should it be. Several people on this production think they are working for free, and I’d really like to surprise them. You can help. (To be honest, I’ll do my best by these folks no matter what you do.)

Which brings us to this button:

I suppose there should be defined donation levels, with commensurate rewards. That’s how high-class beggars work, right? I’m inventing this as I type, so it’s subject to brothers and lawyers smacking me around and making me change things (one might say ‘subject to change without notice’ or something like that). Let’s try this:

  • less than $50: Hearty slap on the back. You can say “I believe in you guys”, and we will be honestly grateful for your vote of confidence.
  • $50 – $150: Seriously cool people who want to make sure the little guys can still make movies. Your name in the credits!
  • $151 – $500: Honest-to-God supporter of the arts. Your name in the credits, recognition in any Web presence this film ever has, and a foot massage. I’m pretty good at foot massages.
  • $501 – $1500: My new best friend. You get a whole card in the credits, your name and/or logo (whatever you want) all alone right there for people to read. Plus, a foot massage. No, let’s make it TWO foot massages.
  • $1501 – $5000: Where have you been all my life? Tell us what you want. We’ll probably say yes.
  • $5,000,000: Guess I’m done. You’ll have to watch the movie to understand that one.
Support the arts (or, failing that, me). Someone’s got to do it.

I hate to end on such a mercenary note, but even while I was writing this episode I came to realize that I’m one of those people who wants to add to the human experience through art. In my case, it’s storytelling. I’ve always thought of myself as a commercial artist, a guy who’s going to make things people will buy, which are no less art for that. Moonlight Sonata will never sell. It’s just cool. There’s a closeup of Curt that makes me chuckle, and a line by Steve that gives me chills. I don’t care what you bastards think. I like it.

Tomorrow: smoke and doubt below the streets of Prague. Don’t miss it!

Almost Ready to Shoot

Weeks have passed since our first tentative shoot dates slid past, but at last the big day approaches. The big day underwent one last unexpected lurch when the DOP was confused about the days, and the Friday shoot was abruptly shifted to Sunday. This caused some scrambling and we lost our makeup person in the shuffle, and we still don’t have a script supervisor and the free jukebox is not available, but other than that things worked out well, especially with the camera.

Wednesday night we met with Rene Trossman, who will play Old Ray Black, a blues musician. Rene has only one line, but some heavy musical responsibilities. He’d been reluctant to commit to the production, but when we met him before his gig things were congenial and he caught some of the excitement of the project. His keyboard player, Jan (rhymes with John), seemed especially excited. It was with a great feeling of relief that I woke up yesterday morning and wrote the first ten words of this episode. That was all I had time for.

Thursday was a productive day as well, starting with a meeting at Slavia Café (reputed to have been a hangout for Havel and his buddies before the revolution). The presence of a baby increased the time the meeting took by a factor of five, but we figured out most of the things we needed to figure out. The exception was our focus puller: it turns out George Lucas made us lose the guy who was going to do it for us (for cheap), and we’re still searching for a replacement. The first day we may be able to get by without one (which is good considering the rates these guys are asking); the biggest shots are using steadycam, freeing up our DOP to work focus. (We have a different guy as steadycam operator). Maybe an all-steadycam production?

The other glitch we face is that we will have limited time in the Sunday location. The key to getting in and out in time is preparation, and fortunately fuego makes a living doing that. After we’re booted from U Sudu we will get some shots of our two guys passing through the cobbled streets of the city center, dodging tourists and eventually finding themselves in a deserted lane.

After the meeting I parted ways with the rest and found a comfortable place to sit and mark up the most recent version of the script. Happily, there was nothing I felt the need to tweak that will have much effect on the shooting of the scenes. I need to read over my markups this morning and see how they sound after a few hours.

After that fuego and I met with Steve and we scouted the passages and alleys of the city choosing the locations for the aforementioned exterior shots. We found enough places to make the travel sequence work, and happily enough of them were close together so we can get the shots efficiently.

Once all that was done it was time for my first outdoor beer of the year. The weather has been ourdoor-beeriffic for days now, but there was always something in the way, either health (I’ve had a cough for days now) or just too much to do. The three of us repaired to a park in Žižkov with a large garden.

It was packed. Just next door was a slightly more upscale spot with a much smaller garden but without the long lines of people waiting for beers. A much better choice; who wants an outdoor beer to be a hassle? It goes contrary to the who ethos of it.

Only one bar and then home for some food, a bit of writing, then an early bedtime. And now here it is, bright and early on Friday, one day before the shoot. fuego here, and Lenka will stop by in an hour

z-dawg’s 13th Monthiversary

Z-Dawg gets his paws on the cake

Z-Dawg gets his paws on the cake

Bar 301 on the tour turns out to be one in the riverside village of Mlčechvosty, in a building fuego and Marianna happen to own. The occasion was Lumír’s (rhymes with z-dawg’s) first birthday, but the party was a bit late for logistical reasons. The photos over at the gallery are a combination of looking around fuego’s place and photos that can be trotted out when the kid brings home a date and requires public humiliation.

Happy 13th, dude!

The Mysterious Blue-Lit Building

The Mysterious Blue-Lit Building

The Mysterious Blue-Lit Building

Just across the street from my house is a somewhat run-down structure that is the home of a few businesses. None of those businesses have bothered to put any signage on the side of the building facing the road, however, so just what goes on in there has an air of mystery. This is compounded by the blue glow that comes out of the windows in the evenings. Perhaps it is a sign of economic decline, but back in the day more of the windows glowed blue.

Whatever is inside, they make no attempt to hide it. I look in the windows closest to my house and I see a mostly empty room, coated with tile, a fire extinguisher on the wall, and on the wall near the ceiling a fixture with UV tubes bathing the whole room with that haunting glow.

When I first moved in to my place here it was winter, and I expected to soon see plant life inside, getting a jump on the growing season. Nope. During the course of my extremely casual observation, nothing has changed inside. Not that my observation has been terribly diligent; there is a strong feeling in these parts that one should mind their own business, and on this quiet street there is no better way to summon a pedestrian than to pull out a camera with the intent to take a picture of something that is not my business.

Note that this picture is taken from the driveway to my house; the gate in the foreground is the one I pass through to every day (every day I leave my flat, anyway). If those strange lights are doing something like, say, incubating Godzilla eggs, I’m in trouble.

All For Me Grog

As I type this, I am drinking grog. The couple at the next table were buying rum for the other two people here, and I initially misunderstood the offer. I thought he asked “are you having rum?” as part of a medical recommendation. I am not sounding too healthy right now. I laughed and said that no, my tea had no rum in it, and he took that to mean that I was not interested in his offer because I was not feeling well. His solution: good ol’ grog. I don’t expect it was served hot on the old sailing ships, nor with a slice of lemon, and for that matter not with the stuff the Czechs call “rum” either.

Even so, this isn’t bad for the pipes.

Update: Now he’s bought me the Czech cure for all respiratory ailments, Slivovice (rhymes with “Heave-ho, Mitsy!”). I’m hoping to last here long enough to chat with That Girl, but it’s getting dangerous (rhymes with “Pozor!”).