The Tractor Bar, Los Lunas, NM

I ran some errands this morning, moving large numbers of ones and zeroes about the globe, then I headed out into the desert to look for locations. It was good to be on the road again. I stopped at a truck stop along I-40 for Gatorade and found a key prop for Pirates sitting on a shelf of unlikely tourist crap. I thought to get sunscreen as well.

Wild Horse Mesa Bar Not long after that I was on a little two-laner, windows down, radio blasting, and I felt it. The road. Only this time I was out there to look at the road and really see it, rather than just be swept away by the beauty of it all. My destination was the Wild Horse Mesa Bar, whose giant, fading OPEN sign, red letters four feet high, was lying. The little open sign in the window, one that at least was capable of telling the truth, was also lying. The bar was closed. Only the dog on the front sidewalk was honest. The building is trapezoidal and there is not enough room inside for anything except actors and crew. We’ll have to bring shade for everyone else if we try to shoot here.

On the other hand, I can’t imagine them hesitating to allow us in to shoot. If everyone on the crew bought one beer, I suspect it would be their best week in years.

On I went, taking fewer pictures of straight road as I realized that straight road was not going to be a problem to find. When there was a stretch with interesting terrain about, I stopped for a look-see. Eventually I reached Los Lunas, and the next bar on my list to check out. It was the opposite end of the spectrum, from the Wild Horse, being a modern brewpub.

Ahhh, a microbrew IPA in the true overhopped American style. There’s nothing better. I came in snapping pictures, telling them I’m scouting locations for a movie. They are familiar with the festival here, as they are a sponsor. Hopefully that will make them more amenable to being a location as well. They’ve been very accommodating so far, giving me al little mini-tour. I got the feeling that the woman I was talking to was in charge right now, but I don’t know if her decision-making mojo goes beyond that.

After this I’m heading out into uncharted water, to see what I can find on the East side of the Monzano Mountains, but it will have to be good to justify travel times. I better have some good food here to make sure I last the journey.


Woke up at the late-late hour of 6:00 this morning. Jet-lag bonus is already wearing off. I spent the early morning taking frame grabs of the casting video to send to fuego, and reviewing the performances again. Seeing the footage, my opinion on a couple of the early performance shifted for the better. Ruthie 2’s stock rose dramatically.

That info sent, I emerged from my haven in time to bid the breadwinner of the household a fond adieu as he set off for work. That left Yoyo and me to fend for breakfast and later to go out to a variety of stores to spend a large amount of money. Listerine, check. Flashlight keychain, double-check. (They were on sale for three bucks. The packaging made a big deal about how the LED would last for 100,000 hours, even though the battery would only last 25. Reassuring to know that when the bulb reaches the landfill it still has most of its useful life ahead of it.) The batteries are not replaceable, so I bought two. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wished for a flashlight keychain when coming home to my Prague apartment in the dark.

But that has nothing to do with Pirates. I spent much of the day with Yoyo riding shotgun, including the time I spent with Rudy. He had picked up the nuclear warhead prop from a friend, but it was not what either of us expected, I think. It has taken me some time since seeing it to put my finger on where it falls short, but now that I look back Rudy was already responding to the problem before I even saw the prop. It doesn’t look dangerous. There may be some historical accuracy in this piece of metal, but I want people to be afraid of this thing, to know that in the wrong hands something like this can kill millions. Part of the magic of the script is that somehow you don’t think this thing is in the wrong hands at the end.

There was a moment during casting yesterday, when I realized there was depth to the script. For me, writing is about making a good story, and if you can go back later and discover nuances and complexities, all the better. Those subtleties were shaping the story as you wrote it, but only later can you go back and really understand them. After the second Ruthie had auditioned, I spoke briefly with the guy reading the other lines in the dialog. In the script it says, “Ruthie looks unimpressed.” He was rolling over that moment to get to her next line. “Pause there,” I said. “It’s the first time Ruthie affects Moab. That look is important. Let it work.”

Now, at some level I knew that this was a skirmish between the two for respect., but I had not articulated the significance of that moment so clearly before. At first, his capitulation seems like an expression of his weakness, but later you understand that his earlier speech was not bluster at all, and his backing down was out of respect for her strength. At the time, the line just felt right. Write the story first, worry about the significance later.

No action from Smithers. No word of Seldom Seen Smith. The time to write an inflammatory e-mail from a panicking writer/director draws nigh…

First day of casting

I woke up at 4:30, fresh as a daisy and ready to go. It was time to put jetlag to constructive use, so I spent the wee hours of the morning freeloading off the neighbor’s wireless network, catching up with emails, figuring out where things stood, updating my list of questions, props, equipment, and so forth. fuego had found a bit of internet in the czech village where he’s trapped with the rest of the crew of The rise and fall of the Frog Empire, and had sent a few questions. I answered them as well as I could, which wasn’t very.

One question was about the car. We have two candidates for chopping now, and both would work pretty well. One is a station wagon, and the owner has no concerns for the future of the body of the vehicle. It’s a little banged up, but it’s the first choice. I’m looking forward to painting Crusader across the tailgate.

I compiled a list of supplies I wanted to stock up on and did my best to find locations in Albuquerque to buy them. I had breakfast with my hosts and then set out for the first day of casting.

When I got to the place, there was already plenty of activity. I got lucky and found a parking spot just as someone pulled out – parking was a source of much consternation all day, as potential Ruthies and Moabs thought they were there in plenty of time, only to cruise the parking lot as the specified time came and went. It was all right, though.

Honestly, I wish I had that casting call to do over again. I’d never done one before, so my first inclination was to leave things to the experts. In fairness, a couple of times they asked me “do you want to see more?” and made it clear I just had to speak up. Still, I was reluctant. At first I didn’t realize that the candidates had not been given the full script, so in retrospect I’m surprised at how few people had questions about what the heck pirates are doing in a roadside diner.

There was a guy there giving the candidates some backstory and coaching. My first interventions were with him, straightening him out on some of the nuances of the story he was missing. A few times as he coached someone I could see them getting the wrong idea and I intervened then as well, but there were times I should have said something and didn’t. sometimes it was out of some misguided sense of fairness – the previous readers hadn’t got that advice, would it tilt the playing field unfairly if I warned the next ones of consistent mistakes the others had made?

in the studio Other times, my failure to speak was a product of an again misguided unwillingness to interfere with the casting people as they did their jobs. It’s stupid to thing that way – I could have helped them do their job better. Part of it was also fatigue. I felt good early, but the room was hotter than June Cleaver at a Fourth of July picnic. As morning passed into afternoon, the people reading the lines to the candidates started getting silly. I’m looking at the recording of the auditions now, and there are a couple of them I wish I had asked for a more serious read.

In my defense, there were more applicants than we were prepared to handle, and by the end I felt time pressure to get on to the next actor.

A note to aspiring actors – don’t be the first to audition, and don’t be the last. If you’re first, the crew hasn’t found all the pitfalls to warn you about, and if you’re last, they’re simply tired, and they’re thinking of all the other things they need to get done. About a third of the way through the auditions is the place to shoot for. Also – and this is important – read the script out loud, all the parts, before you step in front of the camera. There was a tricky part in our script, an unfortunate page break, that tripped up many a Ruthie. But some of them whooshed right through that section without blinking. On a tight schedule, showing up to the audition prepared is a big indicator of how ready you are going to be when shooting starts.

Due to an unfortunate faxing mishap, some of the actors were not given the luxury of preparation time. One of these guys stood out. He started by asking questions, and then gave a solid read. I was impressed, but physically he wasn’t really what I was looking for as a pirate captain. Still, he’ll do in a pinch.

At some point in the course of things Redbeard happened by. I liked him right away (he said he liked the script, and that’s all it takes to make me like you). He wants to be the Director of Photography. Rudolph and Red have a good working relationship. Red knows a guy with an insert vehicle. All around, it’s a perfect match. Rudy wants Red to be DOP.

Enter Smithers. Smithers wants things to go through channels, but from where I’m sitting the channel needs an enema and he’s the blockage. I want to sit down with my DOP and go over the storyboards in the next few days. I want to know how he sees getting this thing done and I want his perspective on the challenges. Three weeks before shooting it’s a challenge, two weeks before shooting it’s an obstacle, and one week before shooting it’s a rewrite. I’ve been on the scene for about a day now, and I’m getting a feel for the problems. Smithers may be a problem.

And where is Seldom Seen Smith, mentor, industry heavyweight?

The morning wore on into early afternoon, and our time in the studio was up. Rudolph (Rudy) and I agreed with the Art Director (Bonnie, of course), to head out to the Frontier for lunch. We talked mostly about Pirates, but some other things as well. Not heavy business, just a get-to-know-you kind of meal. Then is was back on the move, first to Bonnie’s to check out props and go over the storyboards. Bonnie is on board, and has a great can-do attitude. Chop the top off a car? She’s never done it, but there’s always a first time. She started asking me about what sort of look I wanted the film to have – she’s been studying various movies for ideas. I waffled, but now I have better answers. I’ll talk with her again on Thursday.

After than it was on to Rudy’s to go over some more details, then elsewhere to get a copy of the video from the morning’s auditions.

Jet lag was starting to take effect. DVD of most of the day’s performances in hand, I set out to a mailbox place to get it on the way to fuego – when I realized that he would not be home for several days. It was time to send a select few ones and zeros over the Internet. After a couple of errands I headed home (it took a little longer than it should have – someone had rotated Albuquerque 90 degrees).

One thing I noticed today, that I will be more diligent about in the future as I learn who is on my crew and who isn’t. There were a couple of snafus, and a couple of times when people did not respect requests for quiet. When we knew we were running out of time and there were still people to audition, I did not feel the sense of urgency I want to have on set. Most of the people who were there will not be on my crew, but I think I should have put my foot down a bit harder. At that moment, they were working for me, and even though I was the least experienced person there at filmmaking, these were my auditions and all the people there were my crew right then, and I’ve been a boss long enough to know when to assert myself. They failed a test, and so did I.

London Calling

I awoke muddled. Miss-the-tram-stop-and-have-to-walk-in-the-rain muddled. It’s all Big D’s fault for getting married yesterday. The day was hot and muggy and we had no problem with the idea of leaving the festivities early. Then there was a very light rain, the breeze picked up, and I was in a really good place, sitting out in the bar’s garden, drinking beer someone else had paid for, watching the sunset. We stayed longer than we should have. Also, I should never ride the trams before I’ve had tea.

I woke this morning at 5:30, tried to go back to sleep but there was too much to do. I had crashed at fuego’s after making plane reservations, and I was up in time to see them off to work. I sat down to check emails. I had a few responses to my announcement of travel plans, and a couple others from Rudolph (we’ll call him Rudolph until I forget and give him another name). Rudolph is on the ball. He’s not terribly experienced but he has the one key quality that every producer must have: he does not wait to see if things work out. He has a list of concerns, and when he has a problem he makes sure he’s not the only one with the problem.

Currently he is most worried about filling in some key holes in the production team. These are all volunteers, so in some cases they want to work on the project that will best help their own careers. That’s either the best script or the project with the industry mentor whose ass they most want to kiss. Our mentor, Seldom Seen Smith, could be a big boost for a New Mexico filmmaker’s career, but he hasn’t made an appearance yet. So fair enough, the Director of Photography candidates are waffling, but Rudolph doesn’t like uncertainty. He wants these guys to commit. I want to make sure that when they commit, they really commit.

This morning Rudolph also sent some heads-up messages about a couple of potential Ruthies. One candidate, apparently, is really, really tall. We’d probably have to hire Kareem Abdul-Jabaar as the pirate captain, but I’m not sure if he can say “Arrr!” with sufficient gusto.

Rudolph, despite his concerns, seemed to be looking forward to taking a break today and cutting the top off a car. And here’s one of the cool things about making a movie. People say yes to the most outrageous things. rudolph has a buddy with an old station wagon that runs well. All he wants out of it is he motor, so the body is our plaything. Because we’re making a movie. The art director says she can cut the top off no problem. It’s just how things work.

In the last shot we wanted fighter jets to fly past. Knowing that that was an outrageous request for a production of this scale, we wrote in a pair of black Suburbans instead, the kind the intelligence agencies are stereotyped to use. Rudolph said the suburbans were going to be a problem. There is really no money in the budget to rent cars, there’s just people and equipment. At some point we mentioned that what we really wanted was jets, anyway. It’s not a done deal by any means, but apparently jets are more doable than cars, since if the government agrees, they pay for it. The governor of New Mexico is not a lightweight and he’s a big supporter of this festival. So we’ll see.

Jets. That would just plain kick ass.

The flight from Prague to Gatwick was an odd one. I flew on a budget airline called “Smart Wings”, which may be Czech-owned. The crew was czech, and I took the in-flight magazine as a czech tutorial since it had the same articles in both Czech and English. While the crew may have been czech, the passengers were English. They were drunk english men, to be precise, most of them on the large side, all on the loud side. Some groups had matching shirts, so I assumed there was some sort of sporting event in Prague that had just wrapped up, but one group’s shirts were to commemorate a bachelor party.

I looked around the waiting area and there was exactly one female waiting to board, sitting as far away from the worst of the drunkards as she could. In the end there were two female passengers on the sold-out plane. We almost didn’t take off; the copilot came back to talk to some of the rowdier passengers. Riot on Airplane I imagined the headlines. I’ve had enough tear gas in my life already, thank you. (It doesn’t take much tear gas to be enough.) Finally things calmed down and we were on our way, but the copilot put in an appearance in the cabin a couple more times. “Don’t make me pull this thing over!” It wasn’t a long flight, it just seemed that way.

So here I am in a bar in England, paying far more for my beer than I am used to paying, but I must say I’ve been missing the ales. I keep speaking czech to the bartender. It’s the only czech I really know, and I guess this place still feels foreign enough that the czech impulses reign. Approaching the bar: Don’t be stupid. Speak English. “Another four X’s?” “Ano, děkuju.” D’oh!

Now, I’m very tired. It’s early here, and it’s early afternoon in New Mexico. I should stay up late tonight, to start adjusting. Yeah, right.

Tomorrow I hit the ground in Albuquerque. I need to find some Internet tonight to coordinate just who is meeting me and where I’m sleeping tomorrow night. Everybody is jumping to help. Rudolph sent a picture and said I could stay with him, which is probably the best idea, as long as he is a better conversationalist than I am.

First, some background

All right, you’ve heard (figuratively speaking) me going on about this whole Pirates thing. But what the heck is that all about?

Well, the Duke City Shootout is an unusual sort of film festival – making the film is actually a part of the festival itself. Out of hundreds of script entries, the best is picked in each of seven different categories. And here’s the cool part of the festival – the prize for writing a winning script is a movie cast, crew and equipment for one smack-down week of intensive film-making. All the shooting must be completed in three days, then there there are a few more days for editing, then the resulting films are judged and awards are given.

It’s not every day you get enthusiastic help to make your vision real, and in this case it gets even better. Some of the help and many of the judges are people even I have heard of. These are people that it’s worth having see your stuff even if you don’t win. So it’s exciting. As a career event, it’s probably more significant for fuego than for me, as he will get a directing credit on this masterpiece. Still, my resume will now include something called the “Federico Fellini Award”.

Best of all, we’re making a movie. Twelve minutes of cinematic magic from our heads made real with the efforts of a large number of dedicated and hard-working people. In the tradition of this blog I won’t be calling them by their real names unless they ask me to (you know, it’s always good to have a Media Empire as part of your PR machine), but I will be chronicling here the efforts of a crew of people with more dedication than brains as we try to create something we can all use as a calling card.

It looks like no one has ever tried anything quite this ambitious at the shootout. We come in with a couple of advantages – our director really knows how to direct (many of the other winners are more like me, I think), and fuego has connections in the biz, skilled people eager to help us out. Three days of shooting means that everything has to be ironclad ready-to-go when the shotgun sounds. Yes, a shotgun will sound. Our success will already be decided to a large degree before that. The right people, knowing what they need to do and when, and all the tools they need ready to go. Then, no doubt, there will be the times when something isn’t going right and we need to blast through it and just keep shooting.

So now I am sitting in a London hotel, on an overnight layover on my way to Albuquerque, to do anything I can to have us ready at the starting gun. Too bad I don’t know what I’m doing. fuego has given me some location scouting pointers, and I think I can provide a valuable opinion during casting, but other than that I’m probably the guy who drives to the White Sands gift shop. I hope they have snow globes.

Well, here I go…

Welcome to the new blog category, Pirates!

For the next month I will be dedicating myself to two things: Making a short film, Pirates of the White Sand, and documenting the whole adventure on this blog. Updates will probably come in bursts as I pass in and out of Internet shadow. But fear not, me hearties! I shall be jotting down my impressions as I go.

It is 5:30 am Prague time as I write this, and I will be starting my travels soon. On the way over the ocean I will be finishing getting the storyboards into final format and working out a more specific music plan. We have some talented people on board for the music, but I haven’t heard any of it yet. We’ve lined up our B-cam operator, 2nd Nick, and our editor, 1st Nick. (It’s good to know Nicks in the business).

Much to do today before I take off, but there should be plenty more to add while I’m cooling my heels in the English countryside (Gatwick airport, specifically.) I will have a lot of time there.

Dang. I’m already tired.