The final countdown

Pirates is being made as part of a larger festival, and you can’t have a festival without ceremony. The thing is, when you’re hours from going to camera, the last thing you need is a party with a bunch of people you don’t know who aren’t working on your project.

Thursday night was the hoity-toity hodown for the producers and writer/directors. The mayor was there (I hope he didn’t drive home), along with other people who had done a lot of work to make this festival happen. Christopher Coppola (no sense changing his name) pulled up on his big ol’ bike, and it was nice meeting him and hearing him say he liked my work. He had even sent us an actor, Dog Bone, who has added his own personality to the crew. Other than that, there wasn’t anyone there I was interested in meeting.

OK, that’s a lie. It would be more honest to say that before I got there there was no one I was interested in meeting. I rode there with Rudolph driving, two reluctant partygoers. The event was billed as semi-formal, so while I was at the thrift store that afternoon I had picked up a shirt that buttons up that went well with my last clean pair of shorts. Semi-formal and ready to party, baby! We got there and I grabbed a plate of shrimp and wandered around the beautiful yard, listening to the live music, and generally being ignored by all the other guests. I’m not a mingler, let alone a networker, and these things are all about networking.

So Coppola shows up, and I see him talking to a very pretty woman. “Damn Biker outlaw movie moguls get all the chicks,” I thought to myself. Turns out her name is… um… Nadia. Yeah, that’s the ticket, Nadia. She works for Chris and it turns out it was her job to talk to me. Awesome! This world needs more women who are paid to talk to me at parties. Lots more. Though if there was only one, Nadia would be a good choice. Of course, she had to talk to all the other writers as well, but she enjoyed talking to me the most. Sure, she made all the others think she was having fun, but I could tell.

I did find a couple of other people to talk to, and the beer was free and good, so I was doing all right. I estimate we had been there twenty minutes when Rudolph first suggested we go home. fuego had not even arrived yet, but luckily he had called and said he expected to go home with us. If he hadn’t, we would have been gone before he arrived. I’m ok with being a lurker at parties, but Rudy was getting antsy to leave about the time we pulled up in his truck.

So, while we waited for fuego I lurked a bit more and had another beer. Mmmm. One of the sponsors of the event is a brew pub. I chatted about film stuff with some of the other producers (I have met more producers on the other films than I have writers in the course of working on preproduction stuff. Apparently the other winners are much more hands-off, which baffles me.), discussing how things were going and whether they were ready.

During this time I spotted someone in the crowd who caught my eye immediately. She looked like Rose’s taller sister. (Rose is a bartender in San Diego. She rocks. I still remember her fondly when I hear a glass break. For the uninitiated, search this blog for more about Rose.) She had the dimples, she had the smile. Now there was someone I wanted to meet.

fuego arrived and I used his introduction as an excuse to talk to Nadia again. “Now can we go?” asked Rudy. fuego: “I just got here.” Rudy: “OK… How about now?” Our departure was delayed a little more while we talked to the Mayor (who remembered Rudolph’s name after only a brief encounter previously – a good skill for sure) and chatted with a few others as well. As we were leaving we met Morgan, a pretty blonde film student, and I managed to resist Rudy’s inexorable pull long enough to chat with her for a while.

An aside: some people think that because I co-wrote a screenplay that won a contest and is being made into a twelve-minute video that I can help them with their film careers. It’s the whole networking thing. make every contact you can, because you never know which one of those saps at the party is going to hit big. Some people are more subtle about it than others, but everyone is thinking about it.

Nadia, refreshingly, just seems to be having fun working on movies. Sure, she’s making contacts, but either she’s so good at it she didn’t activate my mercenary gag response or she’s still naive enough to think that enjoying your work and doing a good job are enough to get ahead. Being attractive doesn’t hurt in the biz, either, even if your ambition is to work behind the camera.

Rudy prevailed, and away we went. I did not meet the woman who looked like Rose. Apparently, no one had paid her to talk to me, and she didn’t see me as a rung on her career ladder. A pity. I was even considering the unheard-of, heart-stopping, death-defying act of approaching her, but I let Rudy drag me away with a sigh of relief. Goodbye, woman who looks like Rose. Or so I thought. (<— blatant teaser for next episode).

Friday was hectic, what with going to pick up the machine gun and a host of other errands. In the intervals I tried to make progress on the magic potato and the associated electronics that comprise the Mysterious Device. As I assembled the parts the design was in continuous flux, and continued to suck down my time in huge gulps. Finally I had a successful test shot with all the parts put together, but I wanted more tests. It wasn’t going to happen, though – there were no more of the right sort of ricket igniters in town, and I couldn’t burn up too many testing. fuego’s advice was something like, “test them while the camera’s rolling.” So, not completely sure the design was reliable enough, I set to work configuring the last of the igniters for four shots while rolling the next day.

The device was not finished when it was time to go to another party. This one was specifically for the writer/directors, and fuego and I were strongly encouraged to attend. Tired and grubby from the day’s work I met fuego at his hotel where we were to board a limo to take up to the party. Sweet! I had a beer while fuego freshened up (at least one of us wouldn’t be grubby and stinky). We met Nadia in the lobby of the hotel, where she was coordinating the limos.

Let me say right here that I am going to be mentioning pretty women quite a bit for the rest of this episode. Nadia was looking great in a slinky little black dress. I was so stressed about all the things I needed to do that I was practically vibrating, but seeing her took some of the annoyance out of having to be social with less than 12 hours to go before the shoot. We were in the last limo, so she joined us. Bonus.

The car was waiting and we hopped in. There were two women in there already, a pretty blonde and a stunning brunette. I was first in, and as more people climbed aboard I was forced to push closer and closer to the brunette. Look at her eyes, not her chest. “I won’t bite,” she said. “That’s too bad,” I replied, with a reasonably confident tone of voice. Look at her eyes, not her chest. Her dress was pink and low-cut. fuego was next to me, then Nadia climbed aboard, then in, followed by a couple more honored guests. Nadia started to make introductions, but the two women stumped her. Apparently they were friends of one of the party organizers and were hitching a ride to make contacts with the limo-worthy. Unfortunately for them they got to meet me. “I’m half-Taiwanese,” the brunette said. “What do you think I can do to break into the asian market.?” “Beats me,” I said, aware of her chest, aware of her smooth leg against mine, aware of her striking face and the brown eyes I was successful at meeting simply because there was nowhere else for me to look.

I’m sure they found better prospects once they were inside the party.

Cast and crew were invited to this party, so I did get a chance to hang with some of the people I would be working with. Dog Bone had some good stories – his colorful past hasn’t finished yet, but I’ll leave him to tell his own story. If he ever writes a memoir, I’ll be first in line to buy it. Soon after we got there, while fuego were at the bar savoring a fine malt beverage, a woman asked me if I was Mike. “No, but I can be if you need me to,” I said, and luckily she understood that the stupid line was a joke. The guy on the other side of her started hitting on her with lines of the same caliber, the difference being that he meant them. I would have talked to her more, but fuego and I had a lot to discuss. We turned our end of the bar into a mini production office and committed the sin of working at a party.

I did do some networking that night, looking for someone who could provide music for our film.

Later I ran into one of the women who had auditioned for Ruthie, one of the top contenders. We had a very nice talk. She was very up-front with her networking, making no bones about it. When I told her that I really had no aspirations in the film biz (not entirely true – I would love to do more with the pirates – but I have other interests that are stronger) she just said, “Maybe that’s why you’ll succeed.” A nice thought. I didn’t mention this, but I was regretting not choosing her for Ruthie. I had been in a rehearsal with our Ruthie just before coming over, and she just wasn’t coming through. Ruthie runner-up (we’ll call her Myrtle) did some ad-libbing that, had she done them in the audition, would probably have won her the role. Ah, Myrtle. Maybe if we get that TV series your networking will have worked after all. It would not surprise me at all if Myrtle found success in the business. She had the toughness to stick at it, and the resourcefulness to find a niche. On top of everything else, she just loves doing it.

Finally, home again. Back to the laboratory (pronounced the mad scientist way) for a few more frantic hours of work on the timer and the potato pyrotechnics, then, bleary and exhausted, to bed – too tired even to dream about pink and black little dresses.


The prop

I should be working right now; there’s plenty to do. I have a prop to build, which includes a special effect. Yesterday required three trips to Radio Shack as the design evolved (on top of several visits on previous days), along with trips to a hobby store for rocket igniters, to the thrift store for a spare digital clock, and to K-Mart for an automotive cup holder. Today I will be going back to Radio Shack for spade connectors and a crimping tool, and to the grocery store for larger potatoes.

The design of the best rocket igniters has changed since the first batch I bought, complicating the wiring inside the potato. Now I want extra igniters to make sure the system will fire reliably when the potato probes are applied. Gotta make sure the rest of the pyrotechnics are activated.

Tearing apart the clock-radio went well; I felt like I was defusing a bomb as I cut wires I didn’t think were important, watching the display with each cut as I severed the radio from the clock. I only electrocuted myself once, so that’s all good.

Today is as much about mechanical engineering as electrical, as I attach all the parts into one complicated whole.

Gotta sign off now; I need to design the label for the 8-track cartridge.


What would pirates have on the 8-track?

We started before we knew we had won the contest, brainstorming what sort of music to use and who could provide it for us. We sent out feelers to musicians we knew and people we knew who knew people we wanted. The initial response was strong, with people from New Orleans to San Diego expressing enthusiasm. But while we heard “count me in” often enough, time passed and we didn’t hear anything else.

Specifically, we didn’t hear any music. As the deadline loomed, my emails to musicians asking for status went unanswered. One of the guys out in New Orleans, Mr. Neato, was working on some stuff and making progress, but so far I haven’t heard it any of it. I was starting to worry. fuego was calm, though. We had a lot of lines in the water; one was sure to get a bite.

While we waited, we also sent pie-in-the-sky messages to major bands (and actors) we thought would be ideal. Neither Flogging Molly nor any of the others ever got back to us. No surprise, but hey, a guy can dream.

Enter Genie, owner of the Wild Horse Mesa Bar. “My nephew’s in a band,” she said, “and he was wondering if you needed any music for your movie.” It took her three more days to relay the word “yes” back to the guy, and in the meantime we missed a chance to hear him play. Finally she gave Rudy the musician’s number on the back of a business card and Rudy passed it to me. “Cloud,” the card said, followed by a number.

It turns out Cloud is his middle name, which led to some confusion in phone messages, as he called himself Eddie. Once we got that straightened out, we agreed to meet up so we could hear the stuff he and his buddies were working on. Sunday afternoon we met Cloud and his squeeze and followed him to his friend Martin’s house. They rummaged around for a bit and found some tracks martin had been working on, and they were pretty good. One was definitely usable. fuego and I explained a bit more of what we were looking for, and Cloud thought of a piece they had just been working on, with a punk beat, strong rhythm guitar – and slide guitar on top. They couldn’t dig up a recording of it, so they set up and did the drums and rhythm guitar live and they were rocking, and I was imagining just how the the opening titles would go with that music. They also do country music, and fuego and I discussed how to move from the raucous highway music to the interior of the bar before the pirates arrive, and if these cats can put those things together we have music that is not just good enough, it’s downright tasty.

Not all the music issues are solved, but we’ve got music coming in from other sources now as well, and anything they don’t cover I’m confident my man Cloud and his friends can fill in.

Rock on, Scurvy Dogs!


Around the State

Time is moving just too dang quickly for me to put up an episode a day, so I’m trying a different approach and doing things by theme. Today’s episode is about driving around. You do a lot of that in New Mexico, and when you’re trying to get everything together for a movie you do even more.

Friday fuego and I went up to Santa Fe to meet with the Air National Guard. It was a good trip, and productive. We met with Major Bob, who was enthusiastic about the whole thing but didn’t have a whole lot of authority. He took is to meet Colonel Montoya, who has only a sketchy idea of what it was we wanted to do. We explained it, discussed location and altitude and other logistical issues. The good Colonel paused, thought, and said, “Yeah, I don’t see why not.”
out latest prop - a blackhawk helicopter
Ladies and gentlemen, out latest prop: A blackhawk helicopter. It will be at our disposal at oh nine hundred hours Tuesday morning for a flyby or ten.

So that was a good day. Yesterday we were on the road again, scouting locations for the b-cam to go to shoot some road, and taking stills to supplement the ones I had already taken for the opening title sequence. The morning was hot and bright when we reached Trinity site, the place where the first atomic bomb was detonated. The place is not open very often, and even if we couldn’t get anything interesting for the flick I was interested in seeing it.

In fact, there isn’t much to see except a bunch of other people standing around thinking that there isn’t much to see. The glass-lined crater has been filled in except for one part where a shed was build to expose one section of Trinitite – the name for the glass created there when the sand of the desert was melted by the blast. We moseyed over to the shed, where there was a door in the roof to provide a view of the crater. Instead we found the door shut, with a sign that said in effect, “This used to be a way to see the crater floor, but now it’s covered with sand in there, so neeners.”

Trinity Cleavage There is an obelisk at ground zero, and we spent several minutes waiting for a moment when we could get a shot without some other tourist standing next to the black volcanic obelisk. Everyone wanted their picture next to the thing, although no one read the inscription, or really seemed to consider what it stood for. It was just that there was nothing else to take a picture of out there. After a few minutes fuego did manage to get one without other people in it, but most of the time the place was like this picture.

White sands leading edge Trinitized and armed with photographs we hit the road again, heading down to White Sands to get some more beauty shots and to get pure clean gypsum sand between our toes. As we headed south we saw thunderstorms forming over Alamagordo and heading in the general direction of White Sands. Not ideal for our photos, but certainly cooler. After pausing in the gift shop so fuego could get a White Sands cap so he could be cool like me, we headed out to the dunes.

white sands We kicked off our shoes and tromped out while raindrops blew in on the gusting wind. There was a good chance we were going to get very wet. As the wind flowed over the contours of the dunes it created a halo of sand, softening the edges of the snow-white dunes against the threatening sky. Lightning would flash in the distance and the rumble of the thunder would roll across the desert for an improbably long time. We tromped around, took pictures (only a few of which didn’t suck) and generally had a good time.

funky rocket After White Sands we continued our research at Missile Park, part of the White Sands Missile Range. The folks were right friendly there. The museum was closed, but there is a little outdoor area with a variety of the rockets, missiles, etc that had been tested there. We took some pictures in case a pirate needed to come up with an anti-tank missile. The one pictured here was my favorite – it looks like it belongs in an episode of Speed Racer.

Finally we headed back north, back to the duke city, hot, clammy, coated with sunscreen and sand, and tired as can be. We stopped by Rudy’s house for Yet Another Location Crisis, and that left us all even more drained. I was in the perfect mood to go home and just read a book for a while, or work on edits to a short story. Instead we went over to Charles the First’s place to discuss the opening sequence. I’m taking it a bit easier today, trying to shed some of the stress I picked up last night.


We have a location

We have decided. Bonnie has agreed that she can make the Wild Horse Mesa Bar look like it’s not a pit. Each time we get in there the place looks a little better. Genie explained that she had not realized how run-down it had gotten (she owns another, larger bar with actual patrons and everything). So when she finally came out and looked at WHMB she was displeased. Now there’s new paint, stuff on the walls, and she brought in some other people to give the place a good cleaning.

While Bonnie took measurements for a fake wall with a door to the fake kitchen, Genie asked me what we were up to. I hedged a little bit, trying to introduce her to the idea that would be making some temporary modifications more gently. She was worried about our shooting cutting into her business hours, but when I pointed out that there would be thirty people thirsty from a long day’s work for several days in a row, she came around.

When we got back it was time for the big party so everyone on the movie could meet each other. Only… not all of the cast even knew yet that we wanted them on the project. Traditionally the casting people tell the actors, but while the Duke City caster called some of the cast, she didn’t call all of them. She expected our Assistant Director to do that work. I have dubbed our AD “Seldom Seen Smith Jr.” He’s working on a TV series called Wildfire and doesn’t have time to spend on our project. We need a new AD, and we need him last week.

Music is another issue that has been constantly on my mind. While there have been no events large enough to make the blog, music is a critical element that we haven’t nailed down yet. We had a few people express interest, but most of them have fallen through. Now

* * *

And that’s as far as I got the other day. Time is nuts, man. Sunday’s (or perhaps Monday’s) episode will be devoted to the question of music. All you have to know now is that the party was good, the crew was really starting to gel, but they all thought I was joking when I referred to the feature film to capitalize on the success of the TV series. They’ll find out.


fuego day

A most productive day indeed. We started out by meeting Rudy and Bonnie a J&J Café. fuego looked around the place and said, “This is a lot better than I thought from the pictures.” We discussed how we were going to make the shots work, how we were going to build the counter, and so forth. We had a viable location and the director had blessed it. *Whew!* We could get going on the serious set preparation.

Still, the other site under consideration, Wild Horse Mesa Bar, was just plain better on the outside. Sitting alone along a stretch of 2-lane, there’s just nothing else like it. We discussed ways to perhaps cheat the WHMB Exterior onto J&J, but the places are simply too different. It was still morning, and WHMB doesn’t open until two. fuego and I ran around town, getting his phone set up and other essentials and peering through the window of a defunct diner whose furniture we may be using. The stuff was nice, if a little too shiny and new. It didn’t really match J&J’s that well, though.

In the early afternoon we met back up with the others and we headed out into the desert to choose which stretch of highway worked for which shot. It’s beautiful out there; our little flick is going to be gorgeous. After a few photo stops we were at White Horse Mesa Bar. It was open and busy – not with patrons but with painters. Genie, the owner, is sprucing the place up (and adding more Christmas lights).

fuego looked around a bit, found a great shot through the front door, across the parking lot, past a faded sign for the bar, and on to the red mesas beyond. I been aware of the shot, but I had not communicated the potential to fuego effectively. Sometimes you just have to be there. Pending a conversation with the Art Director, we selected White Horse Mesa Bar as our location. If Bonnie said OK, we could get going on the serious set preparation.

That evening it was back to Los Alamos for fuego and me, to recover the Hotelsmobile and see the folks. And heck, as long as we were up on the hill for the evening, we took the opportunity to stay out with Jojo (my beer slave) and Spencer until the wee hours of the morning. We enjoyed the distinctive ambience of Canyon Bar and Grill. We even got to see a bar fight! Woohoo!


Deja vu all over again

Once again I found myself sitting bolt upright behind the wheel of a ’61 Lincoln, watching the tension on the tow strap as we made our slow way up back roads to the repair shop. There were a couple of differences this time: The horn would sound when I tried to start the car, the windows were up and staying that way, and the tow strap was attached to a different part of Rudy’s truck. The last became significant as we turned onto Central and I watched Rudy’s bumper bend. Bummer.

The car had been released by the shop, not with a clean bill of health but with the assertion that it would run OK. Bzzzt. Incorrect response. It almost made it back to Rudy’s house before conking out. Back we went. The car ran fine off the gas in a plastic gas can, and the mechanic offered to rig that up under the hood so we could shoot with the car. I vetoed that on safety grounds. Things will be getting hot in that engine compartment. I cringed and authorized further mechanic’s time to go over the fuel system from the tank forward. If it was bad gas rotting in an old tank, things could get expensive, and there was no guarantee that we would have a useable Crusader when it was done. Yikes.

While this was going on, I was aware that fuego was in the air, heading this way. I was looking forward to someone who knew how to make a movie arriving on the scene. As a bonus, fuego is the owner of the backup Crusader, and it is he who could best call the shots when it came to cutting up the Hotelsmobile.

Late that night I made my way to the airport and met the arrival of our director. Rudy was there as well, to say a brief hello. fuego, tired from travel, aborted our green chile finding mission. We retired to our country estate were we sipped suds and discussed movie issues for a while until fuego could stay awake no longer. I lay awake for a while, anticipating my slow fade into irrelevance on this production. I will still have things to do, but already most of the tricky stuff has been assigned to people more qualified to do it. I feel better already.


Decision day

You should know that as I write the log of this fateful Monday that in fact it is now Wednesday. From this vast gulf of 48 hours, Monday seems vague and indistinct. I know I did stuff, but only a few things stand out.

I remember sitting at the wheel of a ’61 Lincoln, a massive vehicle with power everything. Power ragtop. Power windows and door locks. Power trunk latches. Most important for this adventure, power steering and power brakes. The Crusader-to-be had no power. I was being towed behind Rudy’s pickup, eyes glued to the towing strap, cursing and sweating as we went around corners, always hoping that I would be able to stop when the time came. We reached the shop without incident. The father of the main guy there pointed to a nice Ford Fairlane station wagon. “That was in a movie, too,” he said. It turns out it was used in the last movie directed by our mystery mentor, Seldom Seen Smith. This car, so far, is the closest we have come to meeting the industry heavyweight who is supposed to be looking out for us as we blast along.

Not that we really need him, but I still feel gypped.

Late in the day it was time to choose the cast. I felt confident about the best for all the roles except Ruthie. In a move that was nothing more than a bid to diffuse responsibility I phoned fuego for his opinion, but ince he hadn’t seen the callbacks there wasn’t much he could do. So, finally, I decided. The woman playing Ruthie will henceforth be known as… Ruthie. And so forth. I called in to the casting folks with my decisions, and felt a weight lift from my shoulders. It was a make-or-break moment for the production, one that made me squirm, but in the end I decided and I feel good about it. Ruthie, Miguel, Izzy, and the rest of the crew are on board and ready for adventure.


Places to go, people to see

It was a series of short meetings, with legwork in between. I’ve been in the car enough now that one arm is darker than the other. I headed up north, to a small town a few miles west of I-40, where I knew there was a cafe/bar but I knew nothing else about it. On the way I stopped off at Raphael’s, another potential location, but it had been closed every time I passed by. Apparently the hours posted on the door have nothing to do with the hours that they are actually open. It was still pretty early but I thought I’d drop by and see if there was some kind of license or better business bureau ID number on the door that I could use to track down the owners.

Unlike my previous visits, there was a car in the parking lot. The door wasn’t locked. I stepped in to the smell of ammonia. “We’re closed, buddy,” called out a man from across the room. There were three of them in there giving the place a good scrubbing down. I looked around a bit – the place was much more of a bar than a roadside café, but the folks there had no problem with us filming. The daughter asked to be in the movie as an extra. I had no problem with that. I checked sight lines and all that, decided it wasn’t perfect but would do in a pinch, and got contact info and called Rudy from the parking lot. “Oh, we talked to them,” he said. “The Director of Photography likes J&J’s better. It’s more like what Ruthie would have.” Here is the problem when you have a mix of very experienced industry pros and rookies. The inexperienced producer took the DP’s word as more or less gospel, without assking the people who invented Ruthie what we thought. While I’m inclined to agree in this case, a decision like that is no time to be bypassing the director or his surrogate. And at the very least, tell me about it.

Right, so, on to Peña Blanca I went. Before I even got there I knew that it was just too far from Albuquerque to be useable, unless it was absolutely perfect. It wasn’t, not even close, so I turned around and headed back into town. Next I headed out West a few miles, to the very end of Central Ave. The terrain was good, still more buildings than I would have liked, but workable. I passed a sign for Angel View Cafe. A cafe? Out here? Sounds promising! Only, I couldn’t find the cafe. Signs last a long time out here, often outlasting the buildings they mark. I’ll make one more attempt to find the place using high-tech tools like the phone book, but I suspect once again that time has overtaken the sort of place I’m looking for.

In to town, a couple more errands, a meeting with Archie about props. He had welded up an anchor from scratch the day before, and was starting fabrication on the nuclear warhead. We discussed snow globe styles and limitations, and other props. Apparently the machine gun is not a given. He can make a fake one from photographs, but we would need a belt of ammo hanging out to really sell it.

Then to callbacks. Going in I was reasonably sure who I wanted, but I wanted to see if the people who looked best for the role could iron out some of the flaws in their earlier performances. When I got there I discovered I would be looking at two more people than I thought I would. One Moab had said he was unavailable because he was going to be at a pirate party, but the role was just too juicy for him to pass up. The dude lives and breathes pirate. The other was a potential Ruthie that had not been available for the previous auditions but was well-known as an excellent actress so they tossed her into the mix.

So, things were a little more complicated than I expected. There were a couple of actors who could have made my choice easier by nailing their parts, but they didn’t. I could coach them so they would get one key phrase right, but then they would lose track of the rest. In one case it was nerves, I’m sure, but we just don’t have the time for our lead actors to get over the jitters and start performing. In the end, there was only one Moab, Izzy was a slam dunk, Kentucky Jack fell out of the mix, Miguel was decided long since, but for Ruthie there was no clear standout. The new candidate did a good job and had excellent chemistry with Moab, but just came off a little, well, lightweight. The other top Ruthie contender isn’t as experienced of an actress, which is a risk, but she projected a stronger personality, though not as much range. I had not been prepared to direct the actors myself, and in retrospect I don’t think I put the Ruthies through enough.

Now, I must decide.


Baby steps

OK, that’s an exaggeration – all right, lie – but there are several people on the crew whose specific job it is to be organized. Then there’s me. My job is… whatever the organized people need me to do. Today the producer needed me to sit in on a meeting, and relay everything that happened to him and other interested parties.

I won’t go into detail, but I could. That’s the amazing part. After the meeting disintegrated I spent the day chasing details, a tiny fraction of the minutiae that must be mastered to make the movie succeed. Stuff too trivial even for this blog.

And I did some napping. I was still tired from helping Charles the First lose his job.


Location, Location, Location

Much of Pirates of the White Sand takes place in a diner/bar on a lonesome stretch of highway. I don’t mind a few other buildings around, perhaps a gas station maybe even a fleabag motel. Urban is right out. Little outposts like that used to dot the highway along the famous Route 66, back in the day when half the fun was getting there. Now Interstate freeways have been cut across the land, draining the life and the commerce from the smaller roads, replacing Ruthie’s diner with a drive-through window where quality is measured in seconds.

Still, I figured there must be something around here that came reasonably close to that description. Maybe on the outskirts of town, where buildings get sparse but there are still people nearby. Maybe along some 2-lane blacktop that allows savvy motorists to cut a corner and save a few miles.


There are some restaurants out there, big contrived things built to appeal to yuppie bikers and Sunday drivers. There are few of those, but they outnumber the crappy dives. We’re not looking for either of those, so now we are going to construct one. Yep, that’s right, unless a location miracle happens in the next couple of days, we will begin the task of converting a somewhat suitable cafe into a diner. Ahhh, the miracle of film. Need a counter? Put one in. We’ll have to be able to remove it during the café’s regular business hours. No problem, apparently. Alas, no matter how much we dinerize the place, it’s still lacking, especially the exterior shots.

So I was back from the Black Hole, and searching for the miracle location, when I got the call from our part-time editor, Charles the First. (Charles II is a camera operator.) First Chuck was calling with (for me) good news. He had suddenly and unexpectedly become unemployed, and wanted to celebrate. I considered, and realized that there were several important issues I needed to discuss, in particular if they could somehow edit out the big, busy freeway that went right past one potential location. (“No problem”, 1st Chuck said, but I’d have to see it to believe it.) I invited Bonnie along, but she wisely demurred. We went our separate ways and after I armed myself with a twelve-pack of ESB I was on my way.

1st Chuck was in fine fettle, and had a good head start on me in the drinking department. It was a lead he would never relinquish. Ken was there as well, and 1st Chuck’s mother substitute/landlord. 1st Chuck fired up the barbecue and one rack of ribs later we were all feeling just fine. We stayed up too late and I slept on their couch, where I was visited in the night by giant dogs.


Into the Black Hole

Since I had last seen the black hole, it had grown, bursting out of the confines of the former Piggly Wiggly and sprawling across the parking lot. The neighboring ex-church, once a separate singularity, now has been absorbed by the sprawl. Outside the ex-church is a sign proclaiming it to be the World Peace Institute, or something like that.

The Black Hole is located in Los Alamos, New Mexico, birthplace of the atomic bomb and still big in the devastating explosion business. And that’s how many of the folks see it up there – as a business. That pisses off Ed. He has been working long and hard protesting the activities at the Los Alamos Lab and the cavalier attitude that many of the employees take there. He has also been profiting off the Lab at the same time. Ed is a junk dealer, but oh, the junk.

Ed has a point – the scientific community (it’s more about the biotech than big physics now, but the principle still applies) has not taken a leadership role in helping society come to terms with new technologies that can transform it or sweep it away. “That’s for the government,” they say, but that’s a copout. The government is a bunch of idiots elected by the rest of us idiots. Just as Universities have awakened to the ugly truth that businessmen need training in ethics, people designing weapons of mass destruction need to understand the meaning of the device beyond the megatons, and they need to help the rest of us understand. A much more coherent expression of this idea is in the novel A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller. The book also has the best explanation of the Catholic position on the sanctity of life I have ever read.

But I digress.

Ed would like our movie. When he and his crew like a movie, sometimes props are loaned for free. My goal was to pitch the movie, get him on board, and get his support. Bonnie was with me, and I’m told the presence of a pretty woman is always helpful.

Alas, this day Ed was not wearing his hearing aid. It’s bad enough trying to talk to him ordinarily, I understand, but in this case it was impossible. He couldn’t hear Bonnie at all, so it fell to me to shout into his ear. There was no way to communicate even slightly complicated ideas. We listened to Ed’s lecture and watched a video he has that was “smuggled” out of the lab, showing a portion of a lecture about the nuclear weapons business at Los Alamos. Ed shows the video because of the cavalier way the lecturer discusses making nations cease to exist. After the video we “discussed” the current situation around the world. I put the quotes around the word discussed because he couldn’t hear my comments.

After that we went poking around the place, gathering up an assortment of electronics, a geiger counter, and some bits that might be good for making a nuclear warhead mockup. We had gone there because we heard that Ed had his own mockups, but they sucked. Ah, the stuff, the stuff. Strange things, sinister things, mysterious things, and lots and lots of pure worthless junk. Most of it was older stuff, so if you ever need the retro look for a film, you can’t go wrong there. Near some really expensive vacuum pumps in the back there was the semi-dessicated poop of a small animal on the floor.

Then it came down to time to pay for the stuff, and this is where the gravity well of the Black Hole distorted mathematics beyond all reason. We needed the stuff for three weeks, but the rental cost was as much as (if not more than) the purchase price. At this point I think Ed thought we were doing a feature film with a big budget. Haggling ensued, and putting things back, and numbers spontaneously appeared out of nowhere, connected to nothing, and then disappeared again with a faint popping sound.

I am now the proud owner of a geiger counter.


It’s a blur…

I missed a couple of days of updates here, and I’m about to head out the door again, but let’s see what I can do in the next few minutes.

We got another good team member a couple of days ago. Archie builds staircases out of wood and metal for a living, but what he really loves to do is make things for movies. He (and a couple of his buddies) are now all over fabricating some of the props that we had been worried about. Snow globe? “Chip would love to make that.” Spanish gold? “The key is the texture.” And so on.

It seems I’ve been remiss in discussing the Crusader, our pirates’ deadly craft, and a key piece of hardware for the shoot. We have three candidates: fuego’s Olds Regency 98 (the Hotelsmobile), a Big ol’ Lincoln ragtop with suicide doors, and a beat-up old Pontiac station wagon. The catch with two of those boats is the roof. We can’t be havin’ one of those on the Crusader! It’s not a big problem – we have the tools and we have the will.

The Lincoln would be the easiest to use, but the least useful. It doesn’t belong to us and we would have to return it in the same condition we got it (or better). It would rule out many of the (to put it nicely) customizations we want. Still, it adds a touch of class to the picture. The station wagon is, well, ugly. Ugly, ugly, ugly. The baby-shit brown beast has a bashed-in front, it’s sitting low to the ground, and overall it just doesn’t look good. On the plus side, all the owner wants back is the engine. How do you spell carte blanche? Finally, there is the Hotelsmobile. We could chop the top off that one too, but fuego wants a useable car when this whole adventure is done, which means replacing the hard top with a ragtop. I don’t think he yet understands how expensive that conversion will be. If we use the unskilled but enthusiastic help of the crew to chop it, we are likely to make further modifications more difficult.

Until two days ago, I was leaning toward the Hotelsmobile, then Archie joined the team. Whereas before we were in the “find stuff” mold, he is very much in the “make stuff” mold. He has an image of how he wants the car to look – masts, rope, bowsprit, cannon, and so on. He won’t have time to do all that stuff, but letting him loose on the station wagon has plenty of appeal. He called last night, anxious to get started, and wondering if we wanted turrets in the doors with little cannons pointing out. With his skilled and enthusiastic help, I believe ugly wont be a problem anymore. My biggest worry now is that although the owner of the car says it runs, it’s been sitting for a long time. We’ll have to test that before we commit.

Archie also knows someone with an armory of movie weapons – both real and exact replicas. “How big a machine gun do you need?” Sweet.

Yesterday I spent some time on special effects, working out how to make an electric spark when Kentucky Jack is fiddling with some wiring. That went very well, and today I’ll be getting some supplies to turn that up to eleven. Because, you know, more is better.

Tune in next time for: Into the Black Hole!


Farley’s, Roswell, NM

I considered filing this one under Bars, since although I spent the day on Pirate-related tasks, I didn’t accomplish much. I spent the morning writing, something I had been pining to do, and then I hit the road. I scouted some more roads, this time to the east of Albuquerque, looking for a better location for the shoot. The terrain just isn’t deserty enough; the only bar next to two-lane that I found was in distinctly alpine territory. I asked some bikers if they had any suggestions, but they couldn’t come up with anything close enough to the city. They were yuppie bikers, as so many bikers are these days, so really all they were familiar with were nice places that get crowded.

So it was I shifted into the second phase of my travels: PropQuest, a thin excuse for a road trip. There are a couple of key props that will make a big difference in the overall feel of the movie. They’re not the kinds of things that will be sitting on truck stop shelves, so I set out to find them. One of the props, I figured, if it existed at all would be in Roswell, NM, and this would be the ideal weekend to come down to visit, as this is the weekend of their UFO festival.

It was late in the afternoon when I got here, and the temperature was over 100 F. There wasn’t much going on at all in the blocked-off section of main street. A few vendors had booths up, but only the snow-cone guy was doing any business. I’ll try again tonight – there’s a parade at 9, after things cool off a bit. There were several UFO crap shops, but none had what I was looking for. Surely I’m not the first person to need a rubber alien suitable for putting in a jar of fake formaldehyde. I’ll try to find it online tonight.

Now I’m at Farley’s, a big place with reasonable prices. It’s a bit boomy in here, but all I really care about is the air conditioning. I’ve had so much iced tea I’m starting to vibrate with an audible hum. After I finish my green chile won tons I’m heading back to the hotel and an internet connection. Tomorrow: White Sands, to plunder the gift shop.


Open casting

Danger! This is a long one, covering a day and a half of movie-making.

Last night when I got back from the Tractor Bar it was time to go to open casting. While the previous time we had an allocated block just for us, this time people were reading for all the movies. I was the only writer there. All the other movies were represented by the producers or not represented at all – the decision will be made based on recorded performances. Not our movie, baby. I was there, Bonnie was there, and Luther was there. Rudolph was there much of the time as well. It’s not even my presence pushing the crew to be there, although that must help. In the words of Luther, “I gotta be there so I can tell you you’re full of crap later.” I love that attitude.

Bonnie had arranged for the people she thought most worth seeing to come in the evening, so I showed up at 7 p.m, without covering as much road nearby as I had hoped. The studio was sweltering, and I worked on storyboards and script revisions while an endless stream of actors reading for other movies auditioned. (Note to self: next script make sure there’s a part for a babe.)

An hour passed, and another. No Pirates. No Ruthies. Although there were more representatives of Pirates in the studio than for any of the other films, they were holding the pirates to do as a batch – right at the end of the evening. It was while I was waiting that I composed a daily summary message to fuego that featured some choice language. Luckily I couldn’t send it until later.

I’m having a hard time coming up with a pseudonym for the guy who’s running the show. His actual nickname is too perfect. Still, in the interest of interest, we’ll call him Grizz. Grizz was there last night, and he’s a good guy — easy-going but on top of things. He works with Smithers, but ultimately outranks him. Grizz helped Randy cut through the bullshit and get some key crew members.

Ahhh, Smithers. More on him later.

Finally, finally, we got a couple of reads for Pirates. Good reads. Not outstanding, but solid. A couple of new takes on Ruthie. The line, “Hello, boys,” can be said a lot of ways, and each way it says a lot. I’ve heard renditions I’d never considered before, and delivered right it works. It is not always delivered well. Then again, some of the guys auditioning for Moab drifted far from the script, to the point of undermining the significance of the conversation – significance I was unaware of when fuego and I were writing the lines, but . What are you doing to my words? I wanted to cry out more than once, in true martyr-writer fashion. But I bit my lip and quietly moved on to the next candidate.

Bonnie managed to dodge much of it by going on a pizza run. It was a long pizza run, more like a pizza stroll, a pizza promenade through the park, but when she finally got back, she hadn’t missed anything.

Another of the members of the Pirate crew has shown great dedication – Luther has spent way more time at the casting sessions than was necessary, He filmed all the relevant auditions and gave me a tape of the performances tonight. I have tried, a couple of times, to hint that the effort is not really necessary, but he is enthusiastic, and I don’t want to underestimate the value of that. The dude is totally on board. I felt a little sorry for his wife, however, who also got to be baked alive for this late-night session. She’s very sweet, though shy – she calls me Mr. Jerry. Some time that night Luther promised to hook me up with some good music for Pirates.

About the music. We have several people who have expressed interest in contributing music for the movie. Some of them are actually doing it. Ages ago, last week or even earlier, I gave them a deadline. I don’t even remember what it was, but it wasn’t yet. Now that I’m here, and I see all the balls in the air, I want to hear the music yesterday.

The casting session ended and we all went home. I went to sleep. I woke up. I went for a breakfast meeting with the producer. That was today, this morning. It seems like a long time ago.

The producer had good news. We had the Director of Photography we had been trying to get. Grizz had put the squeeze on Smithers and this morning the email came in from Smithers affirming what we already knew – Doc Sarvis is our DoP. Right after that came another email. Smithers, it seems, had been sick, and he promised to be back up to speed and ready to go. At the time I thought that was a good thing.

After breakfast I did some more catching up with communications, bought some new pants, and headed off for the last of the casting. Again, there were long periods of waiting, in which I created a new shot list, modified the script a bit more, implementing changes I had already discussed with fuego, and finally watching the first scene of Sponge Bob SquarePants, the movie. It’s a live action sequence with pirates. With almost no time left I heard a really good Moab read. Really good. The scouting report is that if I like what he did, well and good, because it’s going to be hell to change his delivery. Not impossible, but tough. The good news is that his instincts are pretty close to what I wanted.

There is another actor, who was instrumental in the casting process for all the movies, who also read for the role. He was good, and here’s the thing: He’s a part-time pirate. Mostly a 1500’s pirate, before the flintlock, which apparently was the technological advance that ushered in the golden age of piracy (and here I thought is was our incomprehensible tax code). he has friends that fit our descriptions of the scurvy crew, right down to the horrible teeth, and they have their own outfits already. A gold mine to fill the Crusader. The only trouble is, that for half our shooting schedule they are going to be at the Big Pirate Ho-Down (BPH-D). if we want to use them (and I’m thinking we’d be silly not to), we will have to arrange shooting so that scenes with the full crew are shot on the last two days, and on Monday they’re likely to be hung over, if not still drunk. Some of them may even have jobs to get back to. It’s crazy, but people still do that.

After I heard this potential Moab I was out in the hall cooling off and discussing props with Bonnie. Smithers was in the hallway chatting up a strikingly attractive actress here to read for another film (see note to self above). He seemed to be doing all right but he exercised the good judgement to give her the space she needed to practice for her role. Now that I think back, it was my next visit to the cool air of the hall for another chat with Bonnie when Smithers approached me.

“Oh, you’re the ones who want a b-camera,” he said as if he had just made the connection. “Grizz and I have ben talking. It’s going to cause you trouble to have two cameras. You just don’t have enough tape. We’re not sure we’re going to allow to cameras and right now I’m inclined to say no.”

Let’s just say right here that I don’t know crap about filmmaking, but fuego has been in more that one situation where resources are strictly limited. To give Smithers some credit, he may know more about what it takes to get a student crew and semi-pro actors into place and hitting their marks. Setups may just take longer and it may require more takes. Longer setups is an argument in favor of a second camera, more takes means eating up more tape. A mistake with two cameras running costs twice as much. So I can see where he’s coming from.

But really, in the end, that’s not his problem. It’s our problem, and we are intent on bringing the right people on board to make the shoot go smoothly. For reasons I don’t fully understand, having an experienced script supervisor can save valuable feet, and so Rudolph went and found us one. I have no way to judge, but I think we’ve managed to tap into some pretty high-level local talent. The script is undeniably a factor, but most of the credit goes to Rudolph. He’s not afraid to ask for things.

Case in point: after breakfast we were driving back to his place. We passed a neighbor’s house. they had a convertible parked out in front – no, wait, two convertibles, including a giant Lincoln ragtop with suicide doors. Sweeeet. Rudy parked and we knocked on the door until he flushed out the owner. It’s not a done deal – far from it – but the guy agreed in principle to let us use his car in the movie. There are logistical difficulties; he wants some he trusts there babysitting it and he’ll be out of town during the shoot, but Dang! Rudy just up and knocks on people’s doors when they have something he needs. That’s what makes him the producer and me the flunky.

So, where was I? Right. Smithers was imposing a rule on us to protect us from ourselves. I used the straw man defense: “Then you and Grizz need to get on the phone with my brother and work it out, because he’s confident that he can do it and get a better movie with two cameras. This is what he does for a living.” Just then someone went in to read for Pirates, so I ducked away and left it at that.

To Smither’s credit, it could have ended on that confrontational note, and were it left to me it would have been. Instead, he went out of his way to strike up a conversation about pirates, talk like a pirate day, and a big project he had worked on that was pirate-related. So there was a subtext that he was also a pro and had been around the block, but mostly it was looking for common ground, and an honest interest in the subject matter. So any time I sound scornful of Smithers, don’t forget that he really is trying to do the right thing, and he’s working to forge a friendly relationship.

That said, I would be able to do a lot better with him if he was a little more straight about the reasons for his decisions. I don’t really think he was trying to protect the crew of Pirates from failure; I think he was trying to keep one crew from completely tipping the festival. It’s an odd thing. I don’t care if we win the festival or not; what I want is the best possible movie as a result. A movie with legs, that will hold up in other venues. He wants a good festival. Sure, he wants to see movies get out and increase the stature of the shootout, but at the same time he doesn’t want it to become a money-spending contest.

And there it is. We’re trying to become the Yankees of the Duke City shootout, and he doesn’t want there to be a Yankees. I can’t blame him. I hate the Yankees.

But in the end I’m only guessing at his motivation, because he has never told me where he’s coming from. I want to ask him, but I have to do it in such a way so as not to hand him an answer. I composed an email tonight. I said that if we could be frank and understand where each was coming from, we would much better be able to work together. I was blunt. I said “I want to make the best movie I possibly can and that means I will augment the festival’s resources in any way that will result in a better outcome.” I used I instead of we because if ire does fall I want it focussed on me. I have a strange combination of power and uselessness. On the one hand, none of the other writers are participating actively in this stage of the production. On the other, I don’t know crap. But I can make a decision and make it stick.

I did not send the message to Smithers. I sent it to fuego and Rudolph, and got very different reactions. Rudolph, who has been dealing with this guy longer than I have, was supportive. fuego phoned from eight time zones away to solicit restraint. fuego’s right – he doesn’t want me pooping in the pool before he’s even on the diving board. In the end, though, this conversation will have to happen. Only after Smithers lays out what the real reasons for his decisions are will we be able to move forward with confidence.