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.

phw

MyShanghai_postcard

Unscripted

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.

phw

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.