Cracking the K-nut

Attention screenwriters: we added a fantastic new backer reward for the Kickstarter campaign! Now, at the $1000 donation level, Joan and I will do a full evaluation of one of your screenplays. Both of us are experienced readers for competitions, and both of us have had more than a few of our own scripts torn apart by some of the best analysts out there. More details are on our project site.


It’s something I felt could add value to this funny business of asking people for money. If we offer a real service as a benefit for your supporting My Shanghai, then the perk is suddenly more than a token. I can’t tell you how much time I spent agonizing over what to offer with each donation category. T-shirts? You have to deal with sizes. Mugs? Pretty heavy to ship, though I want one. Posters? We have to print posters at some point, but you need mailing tubes…

Hats are essential. One size fits all, easy to mail, and I just happen to like hats. I’m waiting for the final design, a beautiful Chinese seal that my friend Dan Lucas is designing and carving with traditional Chinese characters. It’s gonna look sharp, red on a black hat. You’ll see the seal on the poster too… as soon as we get posters…

So, Kickstarter. It can be a hard nut to crack. Many thanks to everyone who has donated so far. A lot of people still don’t know about Kickstarter, or they want to think about donating and it slips their mind. Studio System News has a good article comparing Kickstarter to a few other crowdfunding sites. I explain that it’s like pledging to PBS, only there’s no bank of phones behind me and there’s no money in front of me if we don’t reach our goal of $20,000 by June 1. Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing deal.

Now, as I’m writing, a mouse has run between the piano and a big chair three or four times. Each time I get up and move the humane mousetrap where he can get a sniff of the peanut butter inside. I love peanut butter so I don’t know why he didn’t run in there immediately. Should I leave it undisturbed and wait, or change out the peanut butter for something else more enticing? Some other nut, perhaps? Would he like a t-shirt?

Maybe I should just get out the camera and put him in the movie. Ah! There he goes, back under the piano…


© 2013 First Straw Films

When is an island not an island?

I’m no expert on Chinese-Japanese relations, not by a long shot. But my research for My Shanghai has prompted me to try and understand the issues underlying the serious disputes over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. China claims them as the Diaoyu, Japan claims them as the Senkaku. The potential mineral assets and fishing hauls don’t seem to account for the more than 300 times Japan has scrambled fighter jets against Chinese aircraft in the past year, nor the car-smashing protests that have sprung up all over China.

Islands in the storm: Senkaku or Diaoyu
(photo credit

An article by Ian Buruma in the May 11 Review section of the Wall Street Journal lays out the historical, political and cultural dynamics of it all especially well, I think. What strikes me is how symbolic these rocks are, and how fragile. One of them, known as Red Back North Island by the Chinese and North Islet by the Japanese, is said to be only 50 yards wide, the size of an Olympic swimming pool. So it’s not about the rocks.

Before World War II, Shanghai itself was like an island in China, carved out as a treaty port at the end of the Opium Wars in the mid-1800s — still Chinese territory (unlike Hong Kong), but ruled by foreigners, mainly British, Americans and French. This is the environment Virginia grew up in, an international city inside China.

Bill MCutcheon also grew up in Shanghai. He’s the guy who won her heart in Lunghwa camp and married her as soon as he could after the war. Bill worked for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, and his first posting after the war was Hong Kong. The second was Tokyo.

Virginia will be the first to tell you that even as the “incidents” between the Chinese and Japanese tore up the outskirts of Shanghai in the ’30s, even as the Japanese marched in to occupy the city after Pearl Harbor, even as she and her mother and many loved ones were forced into camps for the duration of the war, she carries no resentment.

“Fortunately there’d been a few years between being in Shanghai and having been in Hong Kong next, and then back to Japan,” she told me. “And the years had sort of healed a lot of people.”

Virginia made up her mind to embrace the arts in Japan. Her home today is filled with Asian art, both Chinese and Japanese, and she still practices ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arranging. Can a focus on the arts bring two cultures back together in today’s world? Buruma writes, “For much of its history, Japan looked up to China as the center of civilization.” And, “Before the Japanese invaded their country in the 1930s, many Chinese viewed Japan as a model of modernity.”

As I sit quietly at my desk on a Friday afternoon, I’ve just googled to find a picture I could use here. And up comes a headline on “China ships have entered disputed-islands waters off the Senkaku Islands: Japan.” Another incident?

My Shanghai is not about the Senkakus or the Daioyus. For us, the history helps to give a little more context to one woman’s life, her personal story, and her claim on the waters around her. And it’s not too much to hope that some healing can be found in the waters of the East China Sea.


© 2013 First Straw Films

Adventures in radio

Today I’ll be on the radio promoting My Shanghai and our Kickstarter campaign!

Join us at 4:30pm PDT on with host Dean Piper on his show, “Adventures of Pipeman.” My Shanghai gets its first 15 minutes of fame on internet radio. Thanks for listening!


Street cred

It’s official! My Shanghai is now listed on IMDb, the Internet Movie Database. They’re very persnickety and it takes a while to get them to accept your film without a good deal of verification, especially for new filmmakers, so it makes my day.

Back My Shanghai on Kickstarter as an Associate Producer or Executive Producer and be included in the IMDb credits. You’ll not only increase our chance of success but add to your own as well.

Joan and I earned our first credits on IMDb as Associate Producers on a short film, A Rendezvous, made by our friend Michelle Muldoon. When I created First Straw Films, I was able to list it, too. But I needed to submit a lot of qualifying information to them to add My Shanghai as a new title.

“My Shanghai” listing on IMDbPro

A key item was to complete the trailer and put it online. Last month I set up my own YouTube channel called Door104, uploaded the trailer, and there it is for all to see. It’s the same trailer here on the Kickstarter site, minus my little intro.

The second key item was to have an outside source talking about My Shanghai — someone else besides me, Joan, or my grassroots publicity organizer. The someone else for us was Del Weston, director of the AOF International Film Festival. Del featured My Shanghai in the AOF newsletter as “Kickstarter Project of the Week.” That gave us not only awesome publicity but essential street cred. Thanks, Del!

Take a look at My Shanghai‘s page on IMDb. If you’re a paid subscriber, here’s the IMDbPro page. Above is a screen shot of how it looks in the traditional layout. (They’re changing over to a new “improved” page design. Don’t get me started.)

We’re still missing some info, such as the production company, First Straw Films (oops) and our cinematographer, Ron Macbeth (coming soon). We also have in mind the names of some folks we’d like to join My Shanghai’s post-production team. I’m happy to add Associate and Executive Producers, too, who will get their own IMDb pages.

I invite you to spend a lilttle time on IMDb. Check out the links between people and their movies, movies and their people. One of those links may be yours.


© 2013 First Straw Films

Shanghai dollar days

Five dollars in Hongkong & Shanghai bank currency, issued January 1934. From Virginia's scrapbook. Photo by P.H. Wells
Five dollars in Hongkong & Shanghai Bank currency, issued January 1934.
From Virginia’s scrapbook. Photo by P.H. Wells

Too bad we can’t take Shanghai dollars. At least not like the fiver you see here, which came out of Virginia’s scrapbook. Before that, I’m sure, out of her mattress. Shanghai in the 1930s was safe enough for the Brits in the International Settlement, but you still had to keep a reserve of cash under the covers.

So it’s so nice to roll over and wake up to new Kickstarter pledges!


I get these little push notifications on my phone: “New Backer Alert!” Very nice. A week into our Kickstarter drive and we’re nearing 20% of our funding goal of $20,000. Not bad for our grassroots campaign, but we need to kick it up a notch to hit the mark by June 1.

Too bad we can’t take checks, either. Of course, we’re happy to accept legitimate donations of any kind for the film, but only credit cards count towards our goal. If you want to make a donation but are unable to use a computer, or if you’re having any sort of trouble completing the donation process, please email me at phwells @

Of course, I’d much rather you talk to all your friends, relatives, associates and social media connections about pledging contributions for My Shanghai on Kickstarter. Just ask them to click the big green button to “Back This Project” and follow the prompts.

We have 22 days to go. We love this project. You love this project. The funds are out there, not stuffed in mattresses, but in the hands of people who can help it come alive.


© 2013 First Straw Films

The drive is live, thank you

The countdown has begun! Our Kickstarter campaign launched today —


The drive is live on this very exciting link!

— which, if all goes well, will raise $20,000 for the My Shanghai budget. We’ll use the money for sound editing and mixing, color correction, and an original score by Jonathan Geer. Whatever is left over will help us pay for film festival submissions, travel, printing postcards and posters, coffee…

$20K in 30 days.

It’s tempting to break down your Kickstarter goal into an average daily pledge that you need to attract in order to collect your funding at the end. But like the statistical 2.4 children per American household, it’s not very helpful. 30 days is too short to have a “typical” donation experience. Anyway, I prefer to think about our needs in other, less mathematical terms:

20,000  ÷ 30 = 1,000 thanks per moment

Our backers will be rewarded for their generosity. This, too, is hard to calculate. They’ll get stuff, but mostly they’ll get thanks. Our DVDs and streaming downloads come with large quantities of appreciation. We anticipate a lesser number of official hats and VIP passes will go out, but these, too, come with an abundance of gratitude. At this moment, we’ve received $375 in pledges.

 375 = gratitude x abundance


Amazing, isn’t it?

You know what Virginia’s story is about. Please spend a little time on the Kickstarter page and consider pledging your support. Forget the math and do the moment. Oh, and tell your friends.

Thank you.


© 2013 First Straw Films

Trailer accompli

At last, the demo is done. The promo is ready. Trailer accompli.

I’ve posted it on Facebook too, so if you haven’t come and liked our page, this would be a good time! It’s also a good time to mention the Kickstarter launch sometime in the next week. This will provide My Shanghai the level of polish that only a crew of top professionals can give it. More on that when the drive goes live.

Our goal is to finish the whole documentary by December of this year, before Virginia’s 94th birthday. We’re looking at a running time of just under an hour. Now I’ve gotta run —



©2013 P.H. Wells / First Straw Films

The B-17 in my neighborhood

There are people, veterans, who can still tell us what happened to them in the Second World War. I met a few Tuesday night at the Wings of Freedom Museum in Milwaukie, Oregon. It’s a small building across the parking lot from the only B-17 bomber in my neighborhood.

The “Lacey Lady” B-17G at the Bomber complex in Milwaukie, Oregon
©2013 P.H. Wells / First Straw Films

How the Bomber came to Milwaukie is a great story in itself. Read this fabulous piece done three years ago by KATU News in Portland. The great plane has suffered a long decline, not for lack of love but lack of money. These old birds are expensive to maintain.

Tuesday’s event was a dinner to honor ex-prisoners war in WWII, particularly from Oregon. Three had come. We listened to stories of hunger and deprivation at the hands of the Germans. We listened to an actual recording of the last American transmission, in Morse code with the nearly simultaneous spoken transcription, as the Japanese attacked the Island of Corregidor in the Philippines in May, 1942. You’d have to imagine fifty of us, sitting at tables in a WWII museum, surrounded by the stuff of war — a .50-calibre machine gun, Norden bombsight, maps, flags, uniforms, medals and insignias, and the nose of a B-17G waiting for restoration — in silence.

We listened to Kristi Burke’s memories of her dad. He’d been shot down over Japan after piloting a number of successful missions. He never talked about it. He always wore long sleeves and long pants to cover his burns, to cover his past. Finally, as a grown daughter, Kristi asked the question: what happened to you in the war? They wrote the book together. Proof Through the Night recounts Ernie Pickett’s ordeal as a POW of the Japanese.

Virginia was also a POW of the Japanese, though she was never brutalized. She was a civilian and to my knowledge has never flown a B-29. Yet I’ve asked the same question: what happened to you in the war?

My declared mission is to share her story. My secret mission is to inspire other people to do the same — ask the question, record the answer, and put it on YouTube if that’s what it takes. There are people who can still tell us what happened in the war, but somebody has to tell the kids.


© 2013 P.H. Wells / First Straw Films

My stepfather, the spy

Virginia’s stepfather was more than a colorful character in her life. Bill Gande owned a liquor import business in Shanghai. He was a successful businessman and gave big parties at his home in the countryside.

When the Japanese invaded the city in December 1941, Virginia was working for Gande as his secretary and bookkeeper. “I knew he was a very big shot,” Virginia said, “and if he was arrested, that would be the last we’d see of him…”.

She hurried to the office that morning. Several cars were parked in front with the Japanese flag flying, soldiers at attention — “Frightening,” she said — and went past them into the building. Gande was in his office where the Japanese were going through his papers. “If eyes could pass a signal,” she said, “you know, ‘Get out of here.’ But I thought, no, I’m not ready to go. I want to be of some help.”

It seems Bill Gande was also a spy.

Bill Gande - Asiana
Excerpt from “Asiana,” July 1942

Virginia tore up some papers on her desk and left safely, but the Japanese arrested Gande and took him to Bridge House, the infamous prison where he and many other political prisoners endured years of torture. He was vilified in the July, 1942 issue of Asiana magazine, written as Japanese propaganda, denouncing him and several others as “criminals.”

Fortunately, his story didn’t end there; he survived and eventually married Virginia’s mother. But Virginia’s account left me with one tiny little dilemma: how do I document a first-person account of “my stepfather, the spy”?

Google returned two hits. One was for My Twenty-Five Years In Shanghai by J. B. Powell, who knew Gande as a fellow prisoner at Bridge House. He provides some chilling details of conditions in the prison and of Gande himself.

The other turned up a file on Gande in the papers of Norwood F. Allman at the Hoover Archives. I won’t know until Monday what’s in the file. No, the sum total of the world’s knowledge is not yet googleable. Yes, it’s a road trip to Palo Alto. Joan and me, writers/producers, any excuse for adventure…

But whatever is in that file, I don’t expect it to alter the film in any significant way. He might’ve been a big shot in British espionage, but Virginia is the big shot in our story. She’s the “my” in My Shanghai.


 © 2013 P.H. Wells / First Straw Films

Postcard from the night

Today I’m the Art Department. This falls into the category of “invisible hyphens” behind an independent filmmaker’s main roles. You can’t list everything you do or your title would look something like Producer-Director-Editor-Art Department-Caterer-Conjurer.

Conjured or not, marketing materials are good to have even before a film is finished. Epecially the postcards. Postcards are the indie filmmaker’s small poster and giant business card, all in one.

The Art Department hat fits me better than some. Graphic design suits me and I love to fool around with fonts. Now that I’ve scanned most of Virginia’s photographs from the 1930s and ’40s, it was only a matter of time before one of these photos floated to to the top, along with typography.

For some reason, this floating tends to happen in the middle of the night. I sketch by the light of my iPhone. The drawings are usually terrible, and you could never pick out the suspect in a lineup, but no one sees them but me.

Here’s what I came up with this morning. It’s a photo of Virginia on her rooftop overlooking Shanghai, c. 1938. The graceful font is Zapfino and the other is Baghdad.

Tomorrow I’m the Music Supervisor.



The power of ten

Virginia is a British woman who grew up in Shanghai.
She survived imprisonment by the Japanese during WWII and has lived a full life.
Kishōtenketsu is a narrative tradition from Asian cultures.
Virginia’s story may best be told using kishōtenketsu.

I’d never heard of kishōtenketsu until I read a column by Still Eating Oranges. Oranges notwithstanding, Kishōtenketsu isn’t a food, a place, a polite greeting or a martial art. Kishōtenketsu is a storytelling art. I haven’t lived with it long enough to fully understand it — heck, it took a week just to learn how to say it — but I’m intrigued.

People in western cultures are used to a basic three-act story structure:
1 Beginning = introduction of characters and their world
2 Middle = development of conflict among characters leads to crisis
3 End = conclusion

Kishōtenketsu does it in four:
1 Ki = introduction of characters and their world
2 Shō = development of characters and their situation
3 Ten = the twist: a new and unforeseen element appears
4 Ketsu = connection and consequence

At first glance it doesn’t look so different. Three acts, four acts? Story begins… stuff happens… more stuff happens… story ends. Screenwriters learn to treat Act 2 as having a midpoint, effectively creating 2A and 2B (one reason second acts can be so dreadfully long). That’s like four acts, right?

Not really. In the eastern tradition, the second act takes us deeper, and then comes ten — the twist, the curve ball, the third act from nowhere. It’s the new element which has not been plotted with cookie crumbs along the way. You can’t go back and find the clues to this kind of twist. And it doesn’t have to be earthshaking, just unexpected. The story ends with connection even if it leaves some things unresolved.

What I like is kishōtenketsu’s potential to engage the audience not only inside the story but outside it. Still Eating Oranges gave its essay on the subject an unfortunate title, I think: “The significance of plot without conflict.” A writer friend of mine was up in arms about the idea of a story with no conflict (I’m talking about you, Brian). What we all strive to do as storytellers is to engage people emotionally. Even documentaries. Especially documentaries. It’s one thing to engage in the life of a fictional character, but a real one? That’s golden.

My Shanghai is a life story, and the storyboard is not a blank slate. It’s full of real things. Exciting things. You want conflict? Unexpected things.

Last month I retreated to the coast for four days. Writers need this, and I felt I was taking too long to create the script from what was beginning to feel like 20,000 hours of footage. I came home with an 86-page first draft, a rough blueprint* for the film. I also came home with a punch list — dates to pin down, places and faces to identify, strands of the story that were not meeting up. A couple of days ago I was able to tie them off, for the most part, during a short visit with Virginia.

I am truly fortunate in this regard. Pity the documentarian who cannot continue to delve into her subject’s story and discover a third act twist. And pity the documentarian who does not experience the telling of a life story as an ongoing adventure in itself, a story still unfolding.

It’s too early to say whether My Shanghai will take its final form using kishōtenketsu. Her life in four acts? Four may not be enough.


*I can say “blueprint” here because I am literally building the film from the pieces already recorded. See my rant, “There’s no award for Best Blueprint” at

© 2013 P.H. Wells / First Straw Films

All rights reserved

A cold day in Shanghai

“It was December 7th for you, December 8th for us,” Virginia McCutcheon says of the day war broke out in the Pacific in 1941. The following is an excerpt from interviews with filmmaker P.H. Wells in June, 2012. 

VM: The Japanese cruisers and navy were all around Shanghai, and they started to shoot the guns up. We all ran onto the rooftops of every house to watch them because we thought, my God, what’s happening?

Virginia McCutcheon recalls the taking of Shanghai. Photo by PH Wells © 2012 First Straw Films
Virginia McCutcheon recalls the taking of Shanghai.
Photo by PH Wells © 2012 First Straw Films

It suddenly came over all the radios that America, that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. You know, all the navy, the British and American navy ships, were all in the harbor. They sank one of the British ships right on the Bund there. And we watched the whole thing.

PHW: So what was life like from then on?

VM: We were all pretty confident that, oh, this was just going to be one of these [incidents], you know, they’re not going to do anything to us way out here in China. And then we saw all this stuff going on, and they were battling the Chinese who were trying to stop them from coming into the city. And suddenly, before we knew it, there were the Japanese guards pouring over the bridges, saying, “Get away!” It was all such a shock. We didn’t know what was happening. So they all took over command on all the bridges, and took control of Shanghai.

PHW: Did you feel you were personally in danger?

VM: The shells were going over my house, you know, and some shrapnel came flying into one of the rooms I was sitting in, right into the wall, a big piece of hot shrapnel came through the window. And they were just firing into Shanghai, gradually trying to break in. And we were trying to stop them, of course, but that was a losing battle. So then, then everything happened. The Japanese troops were roaring up and down the Bund and all the streets and getting drunk, and shouting and laughing and holding bottles of beer in their hand. “We’ve won,” you know. “We’ve taken Shanghai.”


© 2012 First Straw Films

Of guests and geysers

I finished transcribing “My Shanghai” about two weeks ago. The 20 or so hours of interviews and on-the-go filming came out to 226 pages of dialogue and description. I printed it out and took it on my road trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Virginia’s stories were pressed in my mind, but the nuances of how a person tells a story are never so clear until you transcribe them word for word. My plan was to use the long drive on I-84 to highlight the best of it in blue, green and yellow. (Please note: my husband was driving.)

Well, the pages rode 2,200 miles round-trip in my backpack and never left their plastic portfolio. It’s not that I can’t read in the car. Heck, I can read on the teacups at Disneyland. But somehow, even the palette of brown hills and fields across eastern Oregon and Idaho captured my imagination. I think I just needed to be present. And once in Wyoming, the blue mountains, green pines, yellow aspens, bronze meadows, orange lichens and turquoise geysers left their indelible marks on me.

I’ve spent the last couple of days cropping my pictures (to 16:9, of course). It’s breathtaking country, and if my pictures do it justice, it’s because of my connection to these places. Not just what nature has put here, but what humans have put here, too.

Yeah, I love a good building. To me, a good building enhances the landscape, even in a place as exquisite as a national park. And while a good building tells its own story, a good tour guide brings it home.

Ruth Quinn has led tours of the Old Faithful Inn since 1992. As a storyteller, Ms. Quinn highlights the facts, but I suspect each telling is slightly different, even after twenty seasons. “I like to give this talk in terms of connections,” she says. To the land, to culture, to bold ideas.

Construction began in June, 1903. Fifty carpenters built the hotel in one year — 140 bedrooms on three floors — and doors opened to guests in June, 1904. Ms. Quinn leads us into one of those original rooms. It’s not a set piece for tours; last night’s guests left early and she has until 4:30 to show it before the next guests arrive. Two more wings were added, in 1914 and 1927, bringing the total number of rooms to 330.

Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park
Photo by P.H. Wells © 2012 First Straw Films

All the materials for the “old house” (the original hotel) came from a five-mile radius of the site, she says. The entire structure is lodgepole pine, which grows to 75 feet in Yellowstone. Architect Robert Reamer designed the lobby and main hall to be 76-1/2 feet high to give guests the feeling of being inside a forest. He built a treehouse in the rafters. He left the bark on the posts and beams, a mark of authenticity not fully appreciated by the housekeeping staff.

In those days, while guests ate together in the dining room, the staff would push back the furniture in the lobby and roll up the rugs for a dance floor. Now, you’re lucky to get a reservation in the dining room, and never mind the prices; but as piano and cello music fill the main hall, you’ll sit in an oak library chair with a red leather seat, your feet on that hundred-year-old pine railing long bare of its bark, sharing life and red wine with a new old friend on the next bench. He’s been coming here since Eisenhower was president.

You think about the transcripts in your backpack, and how a documentary filmmaker is really just a tour guide to a marvelous life story. A hotel, a film, a year in the making. You hope the guests will come.

The music drifts away. You pour another glass of wine, and listen for the roar of Old Faithful.


© 2012 First Straw Films

The magic zap tool

I don’t know how to say this without sounding like a geek, a noob, or both. I don’t care. I’m happy. I’ve just captured a noise print.

CAUTION:  This article is rated T for Techie. May contain explicit references to recording devices, digital nonlinear editing, waveforms and gaffer’s tape.

My smile is about sound editing, but this seems as good a time as any to describe the core production tools my little film studio is using to make My Shanghai:

Ginny’s interview shows in Audition’s Waveform Editor.
Photo © 2012 First Straw Films


•  Panasonic AG-HMC150 camcorder

•  Libec TH-950DV tripod

•  Ikan Recoil shoulder support


•  Sennheiser ME-66 shotgun mic

•  Sennheiser EW100G3 wireless mic system

•  Sony MDR-7506 pro headphones


•  25″ iMac with 2.8 GHz Intel Core i7 processor with 12GB internal memory and AMD Radeon HD 6770M 512 MB graphics card

•  22″ vintage Dell auxiliary monitor

•  13″ MacBook


Adobe Production Premium CS5.5 for Mac (I know what you’re thinking — Adobe’s Mercury Playback Engine isn’t optimized for a non-CUDA graphics card. But since I’m not loading My Shanghai with special effects motion sickness sequences, I’m hoping it won’t matter.)


38″x70″ Ethan Allen pine trestle table, the repurposed dining room furniture. The numbers 648 and 49 are engraved where my eldest child quietly did his homework.


•  Sharpies and stickies

•  An Editor’s Guide to Adobe Premiere Pro by Richard Harrington, Robbie Carman and Jeff I. Greenberg

•  Magic 8 Ball® (“Will I finish this column today and post it on the website?” It is decidedly so… if you get to the point.)

Point is, I’ve learned to zap the wind.

Adobe has this wonderful program called Audition. It comes in the Production Premium suite along with Premiere Pro and several other high-octane programs. In Audition, the bad noises go bye-bye. You go into the Waveform Editor, make a noise print and noise magically disappears. Premiere Pro has its own noise reduction toolbox. Audition has Home Depot.

Back in June, Joan and Ron and I had hoped to interview Virginia in a beautiful spot overlooking the estuary. This was a property owned by one of her neighbors, and we would use it if the weather cooperated. It didn’t. But even though it was too chilly for Virginia, her daughter Ginny was game.

I believe I’ve mentioned the problem we had with the rope banging against the flagpole (Unscripted, June 28). Today I know the pole is no match for the post. Post-production, that is. “Fix it in post” means, “Get rid of the wind noise, the pole noise, the kids down the street noise —”

The kids down the street. I’d forgotten about them. While Ginny was on camera, I was not aware of the children chortling in the background because I was focused on her. I must’ve tuned them out, this being a skill I developed while raising three boys. I heard them later, going through the clips.

Well, I’m not worried. You can’t expect to control everything on location with a documentary film, especially kids. I can see where a roll of gaffer’s tape might’ve come in handy, but never mind. I’ll zap them in post.


© 2012 First Straw Films

Fencing lessons

Jack Lumsdaine hated running, but that wasn’t his biggest problem.

“I can ride and shoot and swim,” he’d told his sister. “Those are my good sports. But I don’t know how to fence.”

The war was over. England was laying plans for the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. For the first time since the Modern Pentathlon became an Olympic sport in 1912, teams would compete for medals in addition to individual contests over six days. Athletes from fifteen countries would shoot, fence, swim, ride and run.

“My brother was still in the RAF,” Virginia says. “They looked at all the officers and the men in the RAF that might be athletic, and people would say, ‘You’d better ask Jack Lumsdaine. He seems to know everything about sports.’ “

Everything, Virginia says, except —

“Fencing? Who fences?”

Jack Lumsdaine in 1952
(Archival photo courtesy of Andy Archibald/MPAGB)

Jack was a pilot. Born John Leon Sydney Lumsdaine, he’d left his home in Shanghai in 1941 to fight for his country, England, a place he’d never been. He was seventeen. By war’s end, Lt. Lumsdaine was a decorated squadron leader in the Royal Air Force. Six-foot-three, looks to swoon for, a Distinguished Flying Cross. All he lacked was an epée.

“So they said, ‘You have twelve lessons to learn how to fence,’ ” Virginia recalls. “And he passed, and joined the team representing England in twelve lessons. That was the kind of athlete he was, you know. He could pick up anything like that.”

Virginia isn’t boasting about her little brother. Andy Archibald, archivist for the Modern Pentathlon Association Great Britain and author of Modern Pentathlon, A Centenary History: 1912-2012, writes that Jack was “… a versatile performer and the best British pentathlete from 1949 to 1954. As an airman, he also competed in, and won, an extraordinary multi-tasking event arranged by the French each year, the Pentathlon Aeronautique International Militaire.”

Multi-tasking? Mr. Archibald gives us Evening Standard journalist Hylton Cleaver’s account of the French event:

“A team of two (one pilot, one crew) was to fly from Paris to Vichy on a specified route, shoot, move dropped weights from one end of a pool to the other, fence, score basketball hoops via obstacles, conduct a 12km evasion exercise wearing a 25 lb backpack, crawl under wire, negotiate a tunnel 50cm in diametre, cross a policed frontier, carry a comrade 100m, scale a wall, and reach a destination by map reading. This Lumsdaine and his partner, Sq. Ldr Podevin, did with great success.”

Mr. Archibald concedes that Cleaver may have broadened his report for the sake of story: “… elsewhere [Cleaver] described the event as ‘involving escaping from prison,’ but it seems entirely consistent with the times and the pentathletes of that extraordinary generation.”

That extraordinary generation.

I would’ve liked to meet Jack Lumsdaine. He’d married and had three children and never lost his love of flying. In 1966, he died on a frozen lake in Québec, ejecting too late from an F-111 he was testing for the Royal Canadian Air Force.*

And the ’52 Olympics? Great Britain finished 10th, and Jack finished 15th as an individual. His best finish was 7th in riding. He finished 16th in swimming, 23rd in shooting, 36th in his worst event —

“Running,” Virginia says, “which he hated.”

He ranked 14th in fencing.

Maybe if he’d had more lessons….


Catch the Modern Pentathlon events at the 2012 London Olympic Games this weekend. Men compete on Saturday, Aug. 11. Athletes compete in all five sports on a single day — fencing, swimming, riding, and combined running/shooting. Women, in their fourth Olympics as pentathletes, compete on Sunday, Aug. 12.

© 2012 First Straw Films • All rights reserved

* CORRECTION – May 30, 2013. The plane Jack was testing was a Canadair CL-41 Tutor jet trainer aircraft, according to news clippings from 1966.

Seeing the world in 20/20

Scotch whiskey, cheddar cheese, one’s vocabulary: these things are known to improve with age. But eyesight? Put that in the column with strawberries and Algebra II.

So imagine how surprised I was yesterday when my eye doctor told me he was reducing my prescription. Really? I’ve been tilting my head back to see out of the bottom part of my glasses, but I thought it was because my vision was getting worse, not better.

I was too stunned to ask why. I’d like to think I’ve been nicer to my eyeballs the last few years — more veggies, less UV exposure — but what about the long hours staring at computer screens? TV? Things in print?

Virginia doesn’t wear glasses. Yes, I know, but those are sunglasses. Non-prescription sunglasses. It didn’t occur to me to ask about her eyesight during our interviews. Too stunned? Well, no; just busy, and secretly glad I didn’t have to deal with lens reflections in the video. Besides, my mother-in-law didn’t wear glasses and she couldn’t see diddly.

Virginia McCutcheon
Photo by P.H. Wells © 2012 First Straw Films

I had to call Virginia about this. She was just sitting down to watch the Olympics Opening Ceremonies with her daughter Barbra. I promised to be quick.

“It’s so funny you would ask me that,” she said. “I just had my annual eye exam.”

Truly a coincidence.

“The doctor said he cannot believe a ninety-two-year-old has no problems at all with her eyesight,” she said. “I do wear glasses to read a book, but otherwise my eyes are perfect.”


“My mother was the same.”

Whatever genes govern the eyes, my family got the off-duty ones. I’ve worn glasses since fourth grade. Glasses, contacts, progressives… I even tried those monovision contacts which fit one eye for close up and the other for distance, just to wear on stage for the opera. I gave them a so-so review. Whenever some tall baritone blocked my right eye, I couldn’t see the conductor. Glasses were not an option. Going without was not an option.

I doubt my vision is on a permanent upswing. That would be Benjamin Button-ish (speaking of so-so reviews). If I’m without glasses when I turn ninety, it’ll be because I’ve put them down and can’t see well enough to find them.

I hope to visit Virginia again soon. We’ll pour a Scotch and nibble on cheese, and I’ll see what more she can pass along to me. If not eyesight, then insight.


© 2012 First Straw Films

Seeing the world in 16:9

I’ve been going through all my digital photos and cropping them to 16:9. What started as a routine task is now a mission.

I have about 400 still photos from the shooting of My Shanghai, taken with my Canon T3i and Joan & Ron’s Nikon. Most are for our general amusement, but some could be used in the press kit and the best ones may go into the film itself. All of them are formatted in the classic 3:2 aspect ratio — the shape of the rectangle, three units wide by two units tall — which has been the standard for still photography since the dawn of 35mm time. Suddenly it looks so boxy.

We — I mean the global we — watch the world today in 16:9. This is the format used for TVs, computer monitors, YouTube and DVDs (get ’em while they last). If you’re interested in the geometry of it all, check out a couple of good articles on Wikipedia on 16:9 and aspect ratios.

I’m more interested in what it does for your pictures. Up to now, all my cropping has been chopping. Chop this, chop that, all in the name of art. Who cares what the final size ends up? I’m not likely to print them.

But when you click the box to constrain the crop tool to 16:9, something happens. I won’t say it turns a terrible shot into a great one, but something happens to good shots to make them better.

Here’s an original 3:2 photo of Virginia crossing her daughter Ginny’s garden.

Photo by Joan Macbeth © 2012 First Straw Films

Joan, my multitasking co-writer/associate producer, framed it nicely. It’s focused, full of color and appeal. To my eye, though, Virginia is somewhat lost in the spectacle.

Now look at it in 16:9.

Photo by Joan Macbeth © 2012 First Straw Films

The bright sky is gone, the curve of the flower bed is shortened, and Virginia commands more of our attention. She moves across the garden as a more dynamic figure. I would even enhance this by zooming in a little, if only to get rid of the neighbor’s blue tarps in the upper right.

Try this with your own photos. The easy ones will benefit from losing extraneous sky and ground. Don’t worry about cutting off heads or shoulders; many of us would benefit from a haircut and a little body work. The trickiest will be your vertical shots, but do it anyway; you’ll find the most interesting details.

You may also find out what you’re missing. My mission the last couple of days has been to comb the archives for pictures of my cat, Tang. He succumbed to kidney failure over the weekend and I’m suddenly without him. I’m glad to have a few good pictures, saved now in 16:9.

I still see Tang going out the kitchen door. He still moves across my garden.


May 24, 2003 – July 14, 2012

© 2012 First Straw Films • All Rights Reserved

To the vault

Yesterday I took my hard drive to the vault.

I hadn’t visited my safe deposit box in years. Couldn’t remember exactly what was inside… passport, birth certificate, car title? No, they’re still in my old gray file cabinet, awaiting transport before the house burns down.

But now I had this precious digital media. Four-plus days of filming My Shanghai translates to 92.4GB of data, preserved in highly compressed AVCHD format. It had to be backed up, copied, locked away. I just hope I won’t need to use it ten years from now, when 2012 will be the technological equivalent of the Pleistocene.

But back to the vault. I opened the long, skinny box and found some odd paper certificates called U.S. Savings Bonds (Mesozoic?), our wills (c. 1997) and a cocktail ring (c. “Laugh-In”). I stowed the hard drive and the signed originals of Virginia’s life story rights and video releases. Then I rang the bell to be let out of the vault. I don’t know what other banks are like, but in my little branch of U.S. Bank there’s only one place to examine the contents of your safe deposit box, and that’s inside the vault. You’re locked in. Behind bars. It’s a weird feeling, especially when you ring the bell and no one comes. You stand there, looking through stainless steel bars at people on the other side… and for a moment you are a prisoner, if only of neglect…

The past is like that. The past awaits transport, but it only waits so long. We can compress and preserve it in the name of history. We can try to lock it up, deluding ourselves with some notion of being free of it.

Sometimes, though, the past combines with new experience to create new meaning. Here, memory plus time equals story. And if you’re lucky, you get it on film, and take it to the bank before the house burns down.



To date I have about 20 hours of interviews, dialogue and action to transcribe for My Shanghai. The transcriptions are the written record of the video clips and other audio. I could hire someone to do it, but there’s no better way for it to soak in than to do it yourself. Then you can reverse engineer the script.

Screenwriters will swear you need a script before you can shoot a movie. There are exceptions.

Several years ago I went to hear Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting, Milk) and Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, I’m Not There) shoot the breeze in a small outdoor amphitheater at Reed College. Gus also made Gerry. Gerry is about two guys (Matt Damon and Casey Affleck) who go hiking and don’t take food or water with them. Part of it was shot in a frigid little cabin in Argentina. Matt and Casey and Gus didn’t take any firewood with them. Guess what they burned in the fireplace to stay warm?

I understand the screenplay wasn’t the holy manna of this film. It may have been a hot piece of writing, but only in BTUs, not critical reviews.

(To be fair, I don’t think Gus Van Sant is anti-script. He had something else in mind for Gerry, and he had Matt and Casey.)

Feature films generally need scripts. Documentaries need them, too. One clear difference is that a documentary is not “scripted.” When I interview people, I don’t know exactly what they’re going to say. I might think I know what they’re going to say, but after I ask a question, I have no idea how the words will come out. I can ask the same question six times and get six variations — the same story, newly told.

Sure, you have to approach the documentary with a plan, an outline, a clear sense of where you’re going. You also have to be light on your toes, because things can change in a heartbeat. When we showed up for our film shoot the first day, the man across the street was moving. He generously offered us his back yard on the bay for interviews if we wanted it. If we wanted it!

Maybe I’ll start with that interview. It would be easy to transcribe because the wind started to blow and ropes hit against a metal flagpole across the patio and we didn’t stay long. The first draft of My Shanghai will include: “Heavy ropes clang against a flagpole o.s. [offscreen].”

If I’d had a script to begin with, I probably would’ve jammed it between the rope and the pole to stop the noise.


92 and counting

Virginia McCutcheon’s story spans three continents and most of a century. Join us for a sip of champagne and follow the making of My Shanghai, a documentary of love, art and survival.

I wish I’d met Virginia sooner. We have a family tie, but her stories hadn’t traveled my way. Now I feel very fortunate to have made that connection and to be given the rare chance to document her life.

The idea for the film took root about a year ago, after Memorial Day, 2011. Virginia was featured on the front page of The Tribune newspaper in San Luis Obispo County, California. Under the headline “POW of the Japanese,” Virginia described her internment at Lunghwa Camp near Shanghai, China, during World War II. What I learned about Virginia beyond her wartime experience would shape the film for me.

I recruited friends Joan and Ron Macbeth to be my associate producer and cinematographer. On a stormy day in June, we packed my Subaru with gear and headed to California. We had the luxury of shooting over four days. Virginia was a pro, elegant and open. Her family provided not only their full support but willingness to be part of the film. I had even secured a film permit with fees waived to shoot at the local farmers’ market.

Sounds like a basket of fresh strawberries, doesn’t it?

I’ll let you know how things are going. Not every day — you’re welcome — but I’m thinking a couple of times a week. Maybe three. Progress and pitfalls, insights and oversights, techie tips, maybe a recipe or two… for mixed drinks…

Welcome to My Shanghai.