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.

PHW

 

 

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 http://www.guardian.co.uk)

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 ndtv.com: “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.

phw

© 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!

kickstarter-logo-k-color

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 @ me.com.

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.

phw

© 2013 First Straw Films

The drive is live, thank you

The countdown has begun! Our Kickstarter campaign launched today —

kickstarter-logo-k-color

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

1

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.

phw

© 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 —

Enjoy!

phw

©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.

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

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.”

phw

© 2012 First Straw Films

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.