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.

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!

A day on the road

The day was already warming up in Roswell when I woke up. It had never really cooled overnight. I took advantage of what might be my last Internet access for a while by checking up on emails and generally goofing around and then it was time to hit the road.

“Be Happy! You’re In Roswell!” proclaimed a billboard along highway seventy. I was happy, not for where I was but where I would be soon. The road. “Where’ve you been, old friend?” she asked as I rolled out of town. “It’s good to have you back.” The sun low at my back I headed out for Alamagordo and White Sands. There is no route between the two towns that is not scenic. I took the simple way, up the Hondo valley, through picturesque if decaying towns, cottonwoods lining Rio Hondo.

Ruidoso, nestled in the mountains, where gusty winds may exist, remains healthy based on income from Quarter Horse racing. I passed through for the first time in memory, waved hello, and on I went, into the Mescalero Apache Reservation. Past a little road called “A Little Road”, and down onto the desert floor. From there, south to White Sands to plunder the gift shop. There were no snow globes, but I found some other stuff to use instead. Then it was back north, to get a look at the inside of Wild Horse Mesa Bar. I was to join Rudolph and the bar owner there.

On the way back north, I stopped here and there along the way a series of pictures of landmarks that the pirates would pass on their trip, in case we needed something for a title sequence. I was late to the meeting, but it turns out the person the producer met with wasn’t the owner anyway. I did take some shots of the interior of the bar.

Once that was out of the way it was time to head north to Laguna Vista, nestled high in the mountains up toward Colorado.

It was a great drive, the air cooling as I climbed, and a small thunderstorm providing shade and color as the sun set – a good chance to return to the tradition of shooting pictures out the window while driving.

stackologist at work

It wouldn’t be a visit to Five O’clock Somewhere without a little rock stacking.

I give you Rock Stack 5.
Night fell, someone whacked a space ship into a comet, and all is well.

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.

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.

Should be writing now, but…

Sat down for what might be an unusual opportunity to get some writing done. fuego will be getting off work in a bit, and then we’ll have an emergency summit to come up with some sort of plan for how we’re going to get from here to the first day of shooting. Gotta cut down the shot list a bit, work up a shooting schedule, find a cafe with a good layout and parking lot that doesn’t mind having business disrupted for a few days. We need to figure out when I need to get over to New Mexico to drive around testing green chile cheeseburgers, scrounging props, and taking pictures of long, straight stretches of road.

And props (anyone have a goldn figurine with ruby eyes lying around? I’ll be careful, I promise). And costumes (good thing there are bikers handy). And a thousand other things I don’t even know I need to worry about.

And the car. Holy Moley, we need to chop the top off that baby pronto. And get it running. And get “Crusader” painted on the back. And…

Meanwhile, the movie fuego is currently working on, Return to Frog Mountain (or something like that), is in full swing. I think they start shooting on Sunday, and end the day before the shootout begins. So the guy who actually knows how to do this stuff is already doing long, long hours. The good news is that if my IMDB search was accurate, the guy who is assigned to us as mentor looks like he’s been around the block, having directed a couple of pretty major films, but not afraid to do things for art’s sake. It should be really interesting to work with a guy like that. The people running the festival assume, I think, that the winners are writers, not experienced film people, so they are prepared to do a lot of the preproduction work. That’s a good thing, but I still want to participate – I don’t want to lose parts of the script simply because there’s no one available to do the leg work to set it up.

I don’t know much, but I do know it’s going to be a blast. A serious non-stop sleep-optional romp where all that really matters is getting maximum energy from the cast, getting it on – uh, whatever the medium is – and just having a good time doing it.

It sounds like we have a couple of bands writing original music for us – that should be a hoot, and Tom Waits is one of the judges that will pick the best of the short films. It’s too bad he can’t be a pirate.

I’m thinking that when the dust settles I’d like to have a couple of parties, one in New Mexico and one in San Diego, to show off whatever it is we end up with. You’re invited!

JerNoWriMo canceled due to Pirate activity

Don’t quite know what to say here except HOLY CRAP!

Pirates of the White Sand won the Fellini Award at the Duke City Shootout. Shooting starts July 22. There’s a lot to do before the shooting starts. Casting is supposed to be done next week, and I want to be there for at least part of that, to make sure our pirates have that completely over-the-top energy we need.

We’re making a movie! Our movie! That we wrote! Dang, that’s cool.