Falling In (and Sometimes Out of) Love, the Filmmaker Way

Posted By on July 24, 2014

Not that long ago I went to an event near my home, Midsummer Night Swing. It’s put on every summer by Lincoln Center. They erect a dance floor in one of the plazas, invite some amazing musicians to perform danceable music of many genres (swing, merengue, salsa, disco and more), and let the paying public on the dance floor while a whole other dance scene takes place beyond the dance floor. There is a lot of joy concentrated around Lincoln Center when Midsummer Night Swing is happening.

Dancers at Midsummer Night Swing.

Dancers at Midsummer Night Swing.

I started attending Midsummer Night Swing when I first moved into this neighborhood. It inspired a screenplay, Wigs by Coco (1999), that was set in the then burgeoning swing revival scene, and later it inspired Tango Octogenario (2003). I went several nights this year, but anticipated tango night most of all. I had hoped I would see an old friend, Alex Turney, one of the stars of Tango Octo.

And I did. Alex is in his 90s now, not as spry as when we filmed him and his wife, Jean, who died several years ago. But he was still on the dance floor. I yelled his name and he and the person he was with, an attractive woman of about 40, turned. (Alex is beloved and has many people who check in on him and take him where he needs to go, whether that’s a doctor’s appointment or a milonga.) They found me on the perimeter of the dance floor — I was not one of the paying public. He didn’t recognize me at first, but when I repeated my name and added “the filmmaker” it came back to him. He began to gush about me to his companion in superlatives that make me uncomfortable. But what touched me most was when he began quoting lines from the press materials I used to send out. (Alex requested every little Tango Octo thing that I created, postcards, poster, stills, press kit.) Alex said, “’the portrayal of seniors as active, vibrant, and independent is a much-needed antidote to the stereotypical representations of America’s graying population.’ Who writes such a beautiful thing? Can you believe it?” Alex is quite the sweet talker.

David Licata, producer Tom Razzano, choreographer Nancy Turano. Seated, Alex and Jean Turney

David Licata, producer Tom Razzano, choreographer Nancy Turano. Seated, Alex and Jean Turney

I once heard Alex say, “Tango is a three-minute love affair.” One might say the same thing about making a film. You work very intensely with people, you share meals, war stories, secrets, and then suddenly it ends, and you’re on another set with another crew where it happens again. It lasts longer than three minutes, but it’s still pretty brief. I’m not sure if people who are born with that tendency gravitate to the profession or if they become that way because of the profession. This happens with documentary filmmakers as well, often with their subjects. Filmmakers woo them to be in their film, lavish attention on them, making them feel special. We share our secrets with them and get the subjects to share their secrets in front of a camera.

And then we leave. And what’s worse, the trust we established with our subjects is violated, because we reveal all those secrets to the world, edited in a way they can’t control with moving pictures over their words they did not intend to be there. It’s part of the deal, and if you can’t stomach it, documentary filmmaking is not for you. Sometimes I have a difficult time stomaching it.

Anywho, note that I did write “some.” I know many filmmakers who develop lasting relationships with their subjects and crew. I happen to think I’m one of those filmmakers. Alex Turney and I, we are bound for as long as life will allow. He knew that and expressed it once he saw the finished film at New Directors/New Films. We don’t see each other frequently, and mostly that’s my fault, but judging by the way Alex held my hands that night, frequency isn’t an issue.

It’s the same with the subjects of A Life’s Work. I like to think that we will be linked for a good many years and, in my fantasy world, the subjects are also entwined, though they’ve never met each other. (Yet!)

This tight bond the work creates, it’s one of my favorite things about filmmaking and compensates for the less savory aspects. I don’t know that I’d do it if that weren’t part of the deal.

Coda: I started writing this July 17. On July 18th, I was surprised to learn William Swearson was stopping in NYC for a couple of days. I met Will on the second SETI shoot in 2007, while he was spending his summer in the SETI REU program (Research Experience for Undergraduates). I offered him my couch and he took me up on it. Will is one of the students I stayed in touch with and he contributed one of the most moving posts on this blog. We had a swell evening full of good food and stimulating conversation.

Coda coda: On July 19th I received an email from someone putting on a tango event in NYC on July 20th. They wanted to screen Tango Octogenario. Alex Turney was to be present and I was invited to attend. I did. It was a small affair. Alex and I sat in the front row, and afterwards answered a couple of questions. When it was over I said goodbye, hugged Alex, and as is his way, he kissed me on the cheek. I love that.

Here’s Alex and Jean and I after I called “that’s a wrap” (there is no sound) and a clip of me thanking Paolo Soleri for sitting down to speak with me.  You can read more about this clip in this post.

See also: The Most Wonderful Thing in the World

Me on The Unknown Zone Interviewed by Yvonne Delet

Posted By on July 16, 2014

Last year, the brilliant and wickedly funny Yvonne Delet invited me to be a guest on her podcast, The Unknown Zone. I thought at the time that it was audio only. But noooooo! Yvonne also had a camera running. Kind of wish I had known that, I would have been better behaved.

After the show, hugs and smiles, but no $1,000,000 chocolate bar.

After the show, hugs and smiles, but no $1,000,000 chocolate bar. l. to r. Yvonne Delet, David Licata, Gerard Mignone.

The result? You get to see the radio interview! This might horrify you, as I seem to spend a lot of time propping up my head with hand, fidgeting with my ear, and incessantly rubbing a small patch of my neck. My toupee, however, looks fabulous.

Note that the intro to the show is pretty out there and not really indicative of this episode of The Unknown Zone, so if you find the intro is not your cup of tea, stick with it. (I can assure you that at no point in the video will you see me wearing a merkin.) Also note that Yvonne curses like a sailor, so this is NSFW, and if salty language offends you, you might want to skip it.

Yvonne, co-host, Gerard Mignone, and I will talk about chemtrails, fame, money, being a working artist, and of course A Life’s Work. And that’s just in Part 1.

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Part 2.

What we’d do if we retired,  advice to filmmaker wannabes, creative work and happiness, the subjects of A Life’s Work, and dating.

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Enjoy! And let me know what you think.

A Quote About Why You’re Here

Posted By on July 10, 2014

Here’s a quote from writer Louise Erdrich.

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.

Thanks to poet Susan Elbe for bringing the quote to my attention and thanks to photographer Peter LaMastro for letting me use his photograph. You can see more of his work on his website.

Space and Pace

Posted By on July 3, 2014

I’ve been thinking a lot about space. Not as in “outer space” but as in breadth. I’ve also been thinking a lot about breath, about the unconscious breath that occurs between sentences, and about catching one’s breath after a dramatic moment. And of course thinking about the cinematic equivalent of these things.

Part of this is jazz guitarist Bill Frisell’s fault because I’ve been kind of obsessed with his music lately, and Frisell is a master of space.

So many of us get caught up in the pyrotechnics musicians employ. We swoon when we hear/see them play dazzlingly fast passages, playing more notes in five seconds than we can count. Frisell is the opposite. He controls the space between the notes like few other musicians. Not playing notes may seem like an easy thing to do, but trust me, it is VERY difficult to do well musically. Here he is playing the Beach Boys Surfer Girl.  You’ll notice his speech is very deliberate as well. Oh, and you may also notice that his tone is mighty tasty. For my money, he has the sweetest tone around.

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The director watching the brilliantly and deliberately paced masterpiece, "Early Summer" by Yasujiro Ozu.

The director watching the brilliantly and deliberately paced masterpiece, “Early Summer” by Yasujiro Ozu.

This thinking of space, of breadth, and of breath comes at a time when I’m looking at the previous cut and seeing that I have perhaps allowed too much space in it. I always wanted the film to be deliberately paced, to have a meditative quality, to allow the audience to reflect on the moving image before them as they would a painting, to consider what the subject just said as if the subject had just finished reading the last line of a poem. But I don’t want to put people to sleep. I realize we all have different ideas of what “well-paced” is, but at the moment, I’m dealing with my own notions of well-paced, moderately-paced, slow-paced, and too slow-paced. I’m finding that I’m tightening. My concern is I’ll swing too far to the other side of the pendulum. I could perhaps blame my day job for this; it’s there that I put together tight (that’s the goal, anyway), three- to five-minute videos. But perhaps once I get through this cut, I will swing back and feel the need to add more space. Hopefully, eventually, I will find the right amount of space, breadth, and breath, for me, at least.

Any thoughts on finding equilibrium when it comes to pacing? Care to share the titles of films or plays you’ve seen that were perfectly, deliberately paced?

And just because, here’s Frisell playing a bunch of Beatles (Lennon penned) tunes. It’s gorgeous. About 10 1/2 minutes in he talks about seeing the Beatles on TV at age 12 and relearning these songs now, despite the tunes being in his blood. And then he launches into Strawberry Fields. Stick around for the trippy part, where he employs a host of effect pedals.

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Selling It!

Posted By on June 25, 2014

10_percent_Happier_Dan_HarrisI recently finished reading a book, 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-help That Actually Works : A True Story, written by television news anchor Dan Harris. It’s the tale of Harris’ spiritual journey, from a boy whose parents told him in one breath that Santa Claus and God did not exist to covering the religion beat for ABC News to the Buddhist, meditation devotee he is now. It’s informative and entertaining, and compelling because it’s coming from someone you would never expect to embrace  self-help or spirituality, no less write a book about those things.

Enough with the synopsis and endorsement. I came across this paragraph which has very little to do with his journey. Let me set it up. Harris is repeatedly asked by skeptical friends, colleagues, and family what meditation does for him. He can’t seem to find the right words until one day he blurts out, “It makes me 10% happier.”

My new slogan also jibed nicely with a major behind-the-scenes ethos in TV news: reporters, it was believed, should try never to oversell their stories. You don’t want to go around telling the people who run the various shows that you’ve got the most amazing material in the world, and then leave them underwhelmed. They’ll never put you on the air again. Always best to provide room for upside surprise. (Of course, you’d never know this by watching our product. On the air, we believe in the opposite of underselling; we slap “exclusive” labels on everything.”)

I’ve experienced this first hand when I’ve tried to “sell” A Life’s Work to producer- and money-types vs. a non-industry person. So, here’s my question: Why is this so? Why must an audience be oversold a story and the insiders undersold the same story? With all of this information constantly streaming our way, aren’t we all jaded insiders now?


Guess How Old I Am Today?

Posted By on June 20, 2014

I’m this many years.


I was born in 2009. On this date there was one post, written by this Licata guy, and no comments.

Now, five years later, there are 490 posts (not including this one), posts written by 15 guest bloggers, and 1,165 comments.

Thank you stopping by, for reading, for commenting, for sharing, for indulging.

Birds of A Life’s Work

Posted By on June 18, 2014

Like most people, birds fascinate me. I’m not a birder, not even close, but I enjoy listening to and looking at them. I also enjoy filming them, when they’ll cooperate, which isn’t often. Working with cats and kids are a cakewalk compared to birds.

Here are some shots the cinematographers of A Life’s Work captured. The first two minutes were shot by Wolfgang Held in Copemish and Manistee, Michigan, Chicago, Illinois, and Cordes Junction (Arcosanti), Arizona. I shot the next thirty seconds at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.* Andy Bowley shot the remainder of the clip at the Allen Telescope Array in Hat Creek, California. There is sound throughout, but it’s very quiet. The first shots were taken from inside looking out, so you won’t hear any chirping or squawking or feather-rustling or nothing.

It was fun putting this clip together and I find it very soothing to watch. I tried to tell a little story with the SETI footage.

What do you make of it? Do you have a favorite shot?

And if any of you birders out there would care to identify some of these beauties, please leave a comment here or on Facebook or send me a direct message. Thanks.

* My lame shots have no business being sandwiched between such fine work, but I like the sound of grackles, so I decided to use that footage.

In addition to monetary help, there are many ways you can support A Life’s Work. Why not consider being a part of  the film’s growing community.

Soleri Bells

Posted By on June 11, 2014

In case you don’t know, Arcosanti generates much of its income through the sale of wind bells designed by Paolo Soleri.

Soleri wind bells in the gift shop at Arcosanti.

Soleri wind bells in the gift shop at Arcosanti.

How did Soleri begin designing and selling bells?


And I’m now trying to incorporate a short and not so complicated version of that story into the film, with visuals we shot of the bronze bells being made in the foundry. It’s gorgeous footage. Hopefully I’ll have a little clip to show soon.

If you want to see some ceramic Soleri wind bells being made, just click here and prepare for your blood pressure to lower.

If you’re interested in buying a Soleri bell, visit Cosanti Originals. They make great presents, I’ve given several to friends.


Conversations with Friends, Part 2

Posted By on June 4, 2014

Not too long ago I was speaking with my friend S. about something other than film and art. He said, “In my experience, whenever you try to force something, it doesn’t work.”

Advice like this no one wants to hear, myself included. I believe I can will things to happen. It’s magical thinking. It’s how I deal with the uncertainty of my life at various times.

But it’s also true of film and art. Consider….

I have written before about one of my favorite lines in A Life’s Work, when Robert Darden talks about a setback the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project encountered. It’s in the following clip, the line is, “Okay. I need more faith.”

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Not long ago I had been thinking about Jill Tarter’s response to my question about whether faith plays a part in her life. She said, “Faith in terms of an organized religion, no, it’s not part of my life.” I had also been thinking how I could juxtapose these two responses. I was twisting and turning the footage, trying to ram square pegs into round holes, and it wasn’t working. The problem is context — they are responding to different questions, Darden’s response is to a very specific incident and Tarter’s response is to a poorly formulated question from the interviewer (me). Sometimes you can make such disparate things work, sometimes you can’t. And when you can’t, you can’t, no matter how much you force it. So, I’ve moved on. Darden’s response has a very definite place in the film, Tarter’s, we’ll see, but I think not.

Life lesson learned? Probably not. I’m sure I’ll keep trying to force things. But maybe yielding this time will result in keeping a confusing scene out of the film, and that’s no small thing.

Related: Editing a Setback Sequence – Process

Documentary Dilemmas: The Neverending Stories

The Ultimate Selfie: NASA’s Golden Record 2.0 by Jessica Roth

Posted By on May 28, 2014

This post originally appeared on Curio Cabin, Jessica Roth’s wonderful blog. (Do yourself a favor and subscribe to it.) Thanks, Jessica, for generously allowing me to cross-post it here. 

The Universe Is Listening

In the late 70′s, NASA launched the first golden records into deep space. Each record was intended as a cosmic message in a bottle, set adrift in hopes that somewhere, sometime, a sentient alien lifeform would pluck it from the starry sands, play it back, and hear our distant voices echoing through the light years.

Left, a golden record (© Nasa/National Geographic Society/Corbis). Right, the other side of the golden record shows directions to play it. Identical records carrying the story of Earth were sent into deep space on Voyager 1 and 2. (NASA)

Left, a golden record (© Nasa/National Geographic Society/Corbis). Right, the other side of the golden record shows directions to play it. Identical records carrying the story of Earth were sent into deep space on Voyager 1 and 2. (NASA)

The man behind the first attempt to transmit an account of life on Earth, Jon Lomberg, is also the primary advocate for the Golden Record 2.0. What makes this endeavor different from the first is the collaborative spirit driving the compilation of the record. This time, Lomberg and NASA want to know: what does life on Earth mean to you?

Yes, you.

What Do You Have to Say?

Beginning in August, you will have the opportunity to contribute content to the Golden Record 2.0. Naturally, not everything will make the cut, but this iteration of the Golden Record project promises to share a much more intricate and representative narrative than the first. Once complete, it will be uploaded to the New Horizons probe and sent hurtling through the far reaches of our galaxy and beyond.
So, what do you have to say about life on Earth? Leave your response in the comments below and sign up to participate in the Golden Record 2.0 project by visiting the One Earth: New Horizons Message website.

Visit NASA online to learn more about the original Golden Record.

More Golden Record stuff on this blog here and here.

Jessica has contributed a couple of posts for A Life’s Work. Make sure to check these out.

Arcosanti and the Writing Process

An Arcosanti Slideshow