Talk about a world premiere

Today I sent out the link to the HD download of My Shanghai to our Kickstarter backers. I think this is our real world premiere. In the U.S., our backers come from Oregon, Washington, Alaska, California, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Texas, North Carolina, Georgia,  Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. And those are just the ones I know about!

Then there’s Guam, which is both part of and beyond the U.S. The rest of our worldwide support comes from Canada, Australia, England, Germany and China.

Vimeo screenshotI mentioned in my update to them (Project Update #26) that one year ago today, we had raised $736 toward our $20,000 goal. A lot changed in a month, and a lot has changed in a year.

The world has a new documentary.




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.



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

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