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.

phw

 © 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.

phw

MyShanghai_postcard

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.

phw

Tang
May 24, 2003 – July 14, 2012

© 2012 First Straw Films • All Rights Reserved

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.