Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Coming soon...

In a couple days I'll be posting the first project I've directed in over ten years. Its a PSA (public service announcement) style short film called "How To Vote" - a get out the vote project that is my first contribution to Group 101 Films.

(danger: the following paragraph has info already spelled out a couple posts prior)
Group 101, as I've mentioned before, offers little to its members except for a little structure and encouragement. Its like AA for lazy filmmakers. At every meeting we'll screen the films we've made, and then be given a theme for the project we need to make for the following months meeting. The theme for our first film was "FIRST TIME". I knew that I wanted to start slow, so I decided right away that I wanted to do something documentary style, so I didn't need to rent lights or worry about securing locations or anything more than a couple crew members. I also wanted an excuse to do something about the election. A "How To" guide for "first time" voters felt like a suitable match.

The procrastinator that I am, I decided to try and recruit someone else to write the project for me. So, I wrote to my favorite blogger, and, to my surprise, he replied quickly with a fast yes. I grew worried when a week later he hadn't sent me anything to work with, and was about to start writing my own, when I logged onto his site and, lo and behold, there it was: my script in blog post form.

It was better than I imagined, funnier, more poignant, and definitely fresher and truer than I could have asked for.

I knew immediately how to adapt it, and immediately began calling a diverse range of my actor friends, and posted an ad on CraigsList seeking additional "types". I wanted old people, young people, middle aged people, black people, white people, asian people, native american people, male people, female people, pretty people, and interesting looking people. I can't avoid it - all my people are HOT. But, I quickly found that I had TOO MANY people. Everyone who heard the idea of a "get out the vote" project dug it... and then when people read the script, they LOVED it. My plan called for having everyone read different lines from the script that would eventually all be edited together - not the mos

On a short schedule, I hired a d.p. without even looking at her reel. And the price was right - she'd do this for free! I booked my cast without auditions. And less than four days later, I was shooting my first take in Burbank, CA. For two days, Carlis and I rolled around L.A., visiting a Vietnam Vet (three tours) in North Hollywood, a nursing mother in Hollywood, an ex-girlfriend of mine at the La Brea Tar Pits, and a pair of dominatrixes in Highland Park. We shot at a carwash, a TV Guide Emmy after party, and even here at Chateau El Cerrito. My biggest success was getting a 90 year old man who lives at the building here to be part - although Claire actually is the one who did the leg work on this.

I also got lucky and hired an editor without seeing his reel, based on a referral from Jeff Bacon. Also free. I passed off all of my tapes - over two hours of footage - and let him play with it for the next few days.

In the meantime, I began regretting every shot I didn't get, I began kicking myself for things I should have done differently. I think this is natural for any filmmaker, as waiting to see what the editor will come up will drive you insane. Some filmmakers try and partake in the editing process as much as possible. To begin with, my favorite part of production is the collaboration of different crafts, so I wanted the editor time to work with it on his own. Secondly, he lives in downtown L.A., and he'd probably kill me if I was breathing over his shoulder as he made his first pass of the film. Finally, he did most of the editing while on a short vacation to the mid-West, using his laptop and the top of the line Avid editing program.

He called me from Iowa late in the afternoon on Tuesday to say he was emailing me a rough version, and within five minutes I was able to watch...

And, a rough cut it was, indeed. But my worrying was over. It already looks awesome. The actors are great. It has an overall flow and momentum. And it treats the material with justice.

Alas, it is over 3 minutes long, and I need to trim it by over a full minute. This will be painful. I've already decided on 30 seconds to cut, but I know the rest will take a lot of nail biting. It needs the typical polishing, fine tuning cuts between shots to the milli-second, blending dialogue from one cut to the next, adding credits, and, oh yeah - adding music.

As mentioned in a previous post, I also booked an awesome musician to score it. For free. Music can almost always make any video project better - Kari's stuff will make it scream.

So, be sure to return to this blog in the next couple days to see the completed project.

suggested online viewing: a video from November 2 .org with a similar concept... its been linked everywhere, but for good reason: for those who missed it you MUST watch "This Land Is Your Land" from the guys at Jib Jab... a great Daily Show produced video about George Bush (stolen from Melting Dolls)...

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Of Dahlias and Pork Samwiches

I decided to spend yesterday taking my new camera on a whirlwind tour of Hollywood... specifically, I wanted to get some shots of the Black Dahlia's old hangouts, to give me some focus anyway.

I've been interested in the Black Dahlia case for years. Back on January 15, 1947, the naked body of a beautiful young women was found in a vacant lot, severed at the waist. The body was further mutilated by having her breasts cut off and her face cut on both sides of the mouth, giving her a Joker-like post mortem grin. The body was quickly identified as Elizabeth Short, a wanna be actress from Massachusetts who had earned the Black Dahlia nickname from her penchant for wearing black clothes and the name of a film released shortly before her demise, The Blue Dahlia. Short paid the bills, it is believed, as an escort. Unfortunately, she was born with in incomplete vaginal cavity, meaning that intercourse was all but impossible. Some speculate that this was part of what sent one john into a murderous rage as she turned down his advances for all out sex, and he took it personal.

One of the last homes the Black Dahlia had was at 1842 N. Cherokee, within walking distance from my apartment on El Cerrito Pl. While I've always known vaguely where it was, I never remembered the exact address when I was right around there, and knew I'd have to make a trip expressly to see the place. The pictures speak for themselves... its a shoddy, run down building. A tenant asked me why I was taking pictures, and when I told him of my interest in the Dahlia, he said that some film crews had been scouting there lately. I also asked exactly which apartment she lived in, and he pointed up, to the top floor, far left window. "Apartment 501" he said. As you can see from the close up of the main entrance, the door was ajar, so I could sneak inside. Nothing much to speak of, or pictures to show. Just crap maintainence on what could be a cool, well kept vintage building. On the bright side, I'll keep my eyes on if apartment 501 ever becomes vacant... rent can't be that much.

Halloween costume ideas on display at a strippers - er - dancers clothing shop.The rest of my trip down Hollywood Blvd. brought me to some of my usual favorite stops - the Hollywood Book and Poster Company, Panpipes (a store for witches), and Hollywood Magic. For some reason, the always cool Hollywood Toy & Costume Shop was closed this Saturday. I did my usual window shopping at all of the lingerie and "dancer" outfit shops, just to give my kinky mind some fodder. I finally settled on Huston's Pit BBQ, a shack of a restaurant, for lunch. Only $5 for an awesomely sloppy pork sandwich. Why I've never eaten here before escapes me - this place beats out Quiznos by a long shot. See photo below to settle it.
Hustons Pit BBQ, 1620 N. Cahuenga, 323-464-3972Mmmmmm... pork sandwich...

It was about then that my friend Josh Jaggers called me to catch up, and we decided to go see Shaun of the Dead that night. In short: best movie of 2004. I must be forgetting another movie, because Shaun is a horror-comedy, a zombie movie that is at once funnier than anything I've seen in a while, and the first movie I've seen in years that has made me jump. A top notch film from the writing, directing, acting, and all the etcs. The studios must be run be zombies, because this is so far only a small, major city release... when and if it opens WIDE it could, and should be, the biggest hit of the fall.

To top the day off, I discovered that my five loyal readers received a great deal of company due to Tony's linkage. Thanks, Tony. The only bad thing to happen to me all day was finding that Claire's Volvo wouldn't start... something that we're leaving to be investigated until Tuesday, when her mechanic comes back from vacation... just when we're out of toilet paper and milk. And the folks in Florida think they have it tough.

more on the Black Dahlia: The Black Dahlia Solution offers an interesting analysis of letters purportedly written by the killer... another solution is offered by the author of Black Dahlia Avenger - his own father... and the Prairie Ghosts website has a great primer on the case.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Filmmaking, Voting, Jobs, etc.

Oh, crap. Tony Pierce just gave me an honorary link in a recent post, so I'd best update...

Last weekend was spent shooting my first project for Group 101 Films. Our theme was "First Time", and I elected to do a "how to" guide for voters, and was able to even get someone else to write it for me. I took a monologue, broke it up into paragraphs and lines, and cast more than a dozen people to read assorted lines. Its an often used technique, and I know I'm not breaking any ground, but its the first project I've directed since high school... which hasn't stopped me from putting my heart into it, I'm just not letting myself freak over having something perfect. The writing is awesome, and I had some great people reading to the camera. Now its in the hands of my editor. I'm also recruiting my friend Kari to do the score, and a good score can usually make anything look good.

I have a whole pallette of other other ideas for my next film, and I may move ahead with one idea regardless of the theme we're given at our meeting. This is largely because there's a good chance I'll be hired to tour manage a marketing event that starts in mid-October and ends the first week of November. I hate the idea of missing Halloween, and the election, and rushing a production, but my bank account is getting low, and the job actually sounds pretty cool. I know I said that about my last hell job, but for this one I'm the only guy on the road, we're going from college campus to campus, and its a promotion for a men's magazine featuring assorted A and B list comedians in concert.

The other bummer with the job is that I won't be able to work as pollworker for the Nov. 2 election as planned. I'd called a few weeks ago, and received my confirmation materials in the mail yesterday, and it looks like they need a lot of help. Sitting at the polls means no TV, no internet, and no political conversation, but it also would mean a chance to really contribute to the democratic process. On a lesser note, it also pays. Somewhere around $75 and $100. If anyone reading this wants to join in, call: 800-815-2666, ext. 7. Poll Workers show people how to use the new, chad-less "dots" voting
system, or check people in, or make sure people are getting into the right lines, and handing out those "I Voted" stickers.

In spite of the 89degree weather, I need to get out of here. My apartment has a nice, cool, cross breeze, but our house cleaner has just arrived. My dad just sent me an awesome digital camera that he upgraded from, so I'm going to tool around Hollywood Blvd. and take some shots.

suggested browsing: cinematograhy reel of Carlis W. Johnson, who did a kick ass job shooting my film... Anti just bought a six foot long bong... after Group 101, I may have to join Instafilms and make a movie in less than 48 hours.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The long awaited final post about my Dad and Judy's visit

Apologies for the long delay in posts... I've been working on my first project for Group 101. More on that later. Until then, here's the final entry in the story of my dad and stepmom Judy's visit in Hollywood:

My dad's last day in Los Angeles was Saturday, Sept. 11th. It was only fitting, although not planned, that I took him to the L.A. Firefighters Museum to see their monument made in tribute to their fallen brothers and sisters. Actually, the monument is only in parts, as they need about $500,000 to finish it. The most important pieces are on display - five lifesized bronze statues depicting firefighters in action, including an EMT trained fireman rescuing another sprawled on the ground.

My dad almost immediately struck a repoir with one of the museum's volunteers, a grey haired, mustached retired firemen with credentials on par with my dad, in that both were firemen for about as long, and both retired at the rank of Captain. They exchanged "war stories" as we received a tour of the museum's relics: the stuff my dad used when he was a working fireman. Old bulky air tanks and masks, complex climbing ladders, and those large round trampoline looking things that you see in old movies for people to jump out of burning buildings onto. Both my dad and the guide remember training with it, but can't recall anyone having actually ever used one... exept during training.

When we were almost finished our tour guide invited us to have lunch in the firehouse kitchen... with other retired firemen. I knew my dad wanted to say yes, and so did I - I remember him telling more stories about life at the firehouse, hanging out with th guys, than of actual fires. But we already had plans to take Claire and Judy to Pinks for hot dogs. When we explained this to the firemen, he completely understood. (the Firefighter's Museum is only open Saturdays 10 to 4, and as long as you call ahead so they can make sure they have enough groceries, you too can have lunch with and made by real life heroes with a mere suggested additional donation of $5, probably the greatest secret in L.A. dining ever).

So, after a short stop at the museum gift shop, we picked up Claire and Judy, and headed for Pinks.

This would be my dad and Judy's only "celebrity sighting" on their visit, not counting their trip to see the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where they were sorta cheated with a guest line up including Howie Long and Terry Bradshaw. They were also cheated at Pinks, since they didn't know who Patricia Arquette was, or is. Anyway, Judy got a "Martha Stewart Dog", and my dad a chili cheese dog. I forget what Claire got, but whatever it was sure was delicious, as all dogs at Pinks are.

That pretty much wrapped up my dad and Judy's trip. Claire had another performance that night, so I had dinner with my dad and Judy, and afterwards, Judy hit the sack while I abandoned my dad at the Renaissance bar to pick up Claire. When I returned, my dad was happy to recount that a hooker tried picking him up. We had some drinks before our goodnights, leaving me with a few hours to sleep before giving them a ride and send off at LAX.

suggested reading: A New York Call Girls blog, Tony Pierce wrote a very nice piece about his mom for her birthday, and Katzinjammer's been thrown in the slammer again.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Oh God, Book II

A return trip to church today. This time so my dad could attend an actual service. I joined him, because, sometimes that's would good, lost souls like me do. Actually, I was even curious to see a service at such a magnificent structure... and if it meant something to my dad in the meantime, so much the better. But no worries - my soul remains corrupt, but not so bad that holy water stings my skin or I turn away from crucifixes or my image doesn't reflect in the mirror... although more and more less of my hair is reflecting back at me. In time... in time...

We also brought the husband of one of my stepmom's colleagues, Ed, who wasn't as impressed by the cathedral as my dad and I, comparing it to a concrete parking lot. Ironically, the priest closed the service by reminding everyone to get their parking tickets validated on the way out.

Afterwards we zipped over to the L.A. Coroner's Gift Shop, aka Skeletons In the Closet, which i'd been looking for an excuse to visit for a couple years now. My dad scooped up a few t-shirts and a hat pin, and even offered to buy me a t-shirt or hat. I declined - after years with the Network, and more recently ESPN, I have enought t-shirts to clothe a dozen touring companies of Oh Calcutta! (sorry, couldn't think of a better comparison) And the caps weren't the "flex-fit" style - gotta be flex fit. But they have lots of other neat stuff with their chalk outline logo on it, like bath towels, medical scrubs, shoulder bags, door mats, even body bag style garment bags. You can buy all of it online at their website, but something about going to the L.A. County Coroner in person is kind of cool - at least in the instance. They even give you a parking pass that says you're a guest of the coroner.

In the evening, Judy, my dad and I went to see Claire during her first performance of "Western Big Sky". My oldest friend in L.A., Lanelle, also came by to watch. Supposedly a reviewer from Backstage West was also in attendance, and if so, I can't wait for the write up. The play itself is very funny and well acted, but Claire is a standout as a drunken bar maid conspiring to have her husband killed because she has drunken illusions that he's trying to kill her too. She gets to kiss two different guys... oh well.

suggested reading: Lorenzo Benzo with We All Have Stories seems to be having some miraculous steps in the past few weeks... our bedridden, mysterious crippling disease strought hero has now been able to ingest solid foods, which, as she points out, includes Sourpatch Kids... a woman after my own heart. She says she is confident she'll be able to walk again. I just hope this doesn't mean she'll get so busy being active that she doesn't have time for writing... I'm kidding, I kid... yeah, maybe more church would do me good...

Thursday, September 09, 2004

The Sultana Disaster

Everybody will be able to see what my dad did in Hollywood today in just a few months on the History Channel.
The folks with Modern Marvels ended up scheduling the interview with me for today so that they could also interview my dad.
Because his great, great grandfather - my great, great, great grandfaher - was killed in a horribe steamboat disaster back in 1865, and we both read some books about what happened, we'll both be appearing on cable t.v. to talk about it.

Here's the tale:

Ex-POW William H McIntosh as he appeared while on the SultanaWay back in April 1865, my ancestor, Corp. John Hawken of the 58th Ohio Infantry, and half the guys in his unit, were given what they were told would be their last assignment before being sent home. The Civil War was finally over, and the 58th was stationed in Vicksburg, Mississippi to keep the peace, settle any potential riots by the defeated Southerners, and other general "provost" detail. Their final job sounded like cake: they'd escort a ship load of Union soldiers recently released from Southern prison camps. They'd board the boat in Vicksburg, and guard them until the men finally arrived in Ohio to decommissioned and sent home.
Hawken and his boys had seen some awful things in their time, but nothing prepared them for the site of their wards. These ex-prisoners of war were mostly walking skeletons, malnourished, and weak as hell. Men who'd been captured and sent to prison camps weighing 180 pounds would often emerge weighing less than 100 - visually the same as what would happen little over half a century later at places like Dachau and other concentration camps. More men were killed by disease than battle during the Civil War, and many of these were at prison camps such as Andersonville and Cahaba.
The ship that these men boarded was a beautiful, sidewheeled steamboat called the Sultana, a luxury liner with a common sense max occupancy of around 350 passengers. The owners of the boat were being paid for each soldier they took on board by the Federal Goverment, so all the steamboats competed for the business. As was all too common, the boat captains offered "commissions" to Union offers to persuade them to choose their boat for the business.
As a result, packing over 2000 soldiers on board the Sultana was a win-win situation for the Union officers, and those running the Sultana.
The soldiers, however uncomfortable, could barely complain. They were going home after years of battle, and for some, long internments at the prison camps.
This wasn't the worst of it.
The Sultana had a broken boiler with what was supposed to be a temporary patch. The captain had to decide whether to stay docked for a few days to make the boat safe, or make a gamble on a huge payout.
This hottie perished on the Sultana.History has somehow forgotten his bad luck.
As the Sultana was passing Memphis, Tennessee at around 2am on the morning of April 27, the boiler finally gave out with a fury. The explosion nearly ripped the boat in half, sending fire and hot coal all over the boat. The blast blew metal, cinder, and men into the air, finally landing in the Mississippi.
Our great grandfather John Hawken, being an officer, was most likely huddled to the warmest spot on the boat - on a deck near the location of the boiler. I imagine he was killed immediately.
The ship was engulfed in flame. The soldiers who'd survived the explosion had to choose between burning to death or risking drowning in the chilly, rushing river. Most didn't know how to swim. Almost all were too weak even if they could.
I the end, over 1600 men perished. More casualties than from all steamboat disasters prior COMBINED. A greater death toll than from any other shipwreck in American history... even more than from the most famous ship disaster of all, the Titanic.
And still this is a story that most people, even Civil War buffs, do not know. It is missing even from the recent bestseller "April 1865" by Jay Winik, because, in his words, it didn't fit into the narrative flow.

I found out about the Sultana about six or seven years ago from my Uncle Skip, our family geneologist. I thought maybe it would make a good movie... and after some research discovered that it would make an AMAZING movie.
I also made a website to spread the story some more, which is in dire need of an update:

In anycase, a few years ago a reunion of Sultana descendants was held in Vicksburg, and I called my dad to see if he'd like to go with me. He suggested a road trip. In what was indeed perhaps my favorite Offline Adventure, we drove from Toledo, OH to Cincinnati, where the Sultana was built, on to Alabama and the Cahaba prison, and finally to Vicksburg, for the reunion, where the group dedicated a marker by the waterfront where the soldiers first boarded the boat. My dad and I continued on to Memphis, where the Sultana exploded (and to check out Graceland), and even over to the opposite side of the river to see the soybean field under which the Sultana now supposedly finally rests (the Mississippi once flowed through there... it is now three miles away).

As mentioned in an earlier post, I was contacted a month or so ago by Sean Heckman, an associate producer at Actuality Productions on "Modern Marvels", wanting me to do an interview for a segment on the Sultana. When he called to finally schedule, I suggested he do it this week so he could also interview my dad. He liked the idea, and today a producer and camera guy came by. Somehow my girl Claire was dragged in to do makeup... but, in short, it went well. I'll wait for pictures before I write more on the subject... although after this epic post I've probably written enough.

suggested reading: Death on the Dark River is one of the best accounts of the Sultana tragedy ever written, and certainly the best available on the web. It also includes some links to personal accounts by ancestors of webmaster N. Dale Talkington.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Finding God

Started the day off right by going to church. Actually, I started the day off right by sleeping in til 10am, which isn't my ideal sleep in time, but better than if I had a job.
Woke up, dropped Claire off at the pool - the Renaissance - and picked up my dad, and off we went to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown L.A.
Pretty awe inspiring, even for an agnostic like me. As much as I casually enjoy architecture, I'm usually unimpressed by modern structures like the Disney Hall and other recent triumphs that look fragile and as though they could fold under a strong wind, earthquake, or even more likely in Los Angeles, rezoning. The cathedral was quite different, and feels almost what walking into the pyramids must have felt like when they were new... not that they were open to the public at the time.
If anything, its as perfect as a church as I would hope one to be. Religious imagery is subtle and classy - timeless yet modern. The emphasis on the tapestries that run along the interior of the cathedral seems to be the local Spanish influence on Catholism, instead of the stations of the cross.
Downstairs from the main hall is the mausoleum, mostly unused of course - the cathedral was completed only two years ago. My dad mentioned that it still smelled lke fresh concrete. As vast as the place is, we found Gregory Peck's vault without even looking.
Parking is $3 for every twenty minutes. However, the Catholics, those clever devils, will validate if you actually attend a mass.
And I need to point out that I noticed many Kerry/Edwards pins on a group of old ladies receiving a docent tour... not a single Bush pin in sight.

suggested download: wbloggar, the blog composition program I use to write my posts. After abandoning it for a couple days to try Blogger's web based interface, I thought I'd lost a post after I clicked the "post and publish" button and was given an error message. Clicking the back button brought me to a blank composition page. Alas, when I fired up wBloggar tonite I founf that it somehow had magically found that lost post, and allowed me to republish it without second thought. Best of all, the program is free. Once they allow Amazon donations along with Paypal I'll give a humble tip.

The rumours of my demise are greatly exaggerated.

Welcome to the new template. Instead of posting, I've been working on this. My extended absence, combined with the content of my last post may have given the false impression that I was giving this up completely. My apologies for any tears wept.

To update...

My first Group 101 meeting went well. About 65 people showed up, and I was grouped with about 12 other folks from the Hollywood area. It seems I'm the only one without a camera or editing equipment. Instead of intimidating me, this inspired me - they have even LESS of an excuse to make films than I do. In other words, perhaps I'm less of a slacker than I thought.

Every group chose a name, based on a film character. I suggested "Tyler Durden", but was told it sounded too intimidating. We settled on "Bueller?", with the question mark.

The assignment for the first month is "First Time", and it needs to be under three minutes. It took me a few days, but I finally settled on doing an instructional/informational video for first time voters. It will be poignant and funny. However, I have no idea what the script will be. I asked one of my favorite bloggers for help, and said blogger has agreed to give it a shot, but I won't name names until things come to light. I plan on shooting whatever I do sometime next week.

In exchange for a promised camera loan, I made a movie poster and a DVD cover for my friend Tami who just submitted her short film "My Best Roommate" for Sundance consideration.

Until then, I have my hands full this week as my dad and stepmom are visiting. Claire and I picked them up from LAX today and started their week off with margaritas at my most unfavorite place, El Coyote. Afterwards we took them and our swimtrunks to their hotel, the very shee-shee Renaissance, where we enjoyed the rooftop pool. Its just a few blocks from our apartment, so Claire plans on spending the week there - at the pool, while Judy, my stepmom, works at the EMT instructors meeting thingee she's here for, while I get to be a tourist with my Dad around L.A.

Tomorrow we'll begin by a drive to Simi Valley and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and tomb. If I have time, I want to grab a John Kerry t-shirt to wear there. For shits and giggles.

(suggested blog reading: Nickerblog has a great post on getting revenge... or not.)