“I must have more shots of the military!”

I’ve been editing a section of A Life’s Work that relies on some archival footage, so I’ve been searching and watching and thinking and searching and watching and cutting. A new post about archival footage coming soon, but here’s one I wrote back in 2009. Think of it as Archival Part I.

[The title of this post if from Tim Burton’s Ed Wood.]

Edward D. Wood, Junior
Edward D. Wood, Junior

I share with Ed Wood a fondness for stock footage. There, I hope, the similarities end. In fact, I don’t even like to call it stock footage. I prefer to call it “archival.”

I think it goes back to when I was in high school and my history teacher included some AV as part of a lesson on the Great Depression: “Brother Can You Spare a Dime.” Here was a voice singing about poverty and desperation, traveling over time and space, and punching me in the gut in 1978.

And that’s how I like to use archival. It’s evident in the SETI clip and the redwoods clip. That footage of redwoods being felled (from The Redwood Saga) looked a lot differently to people in 1940 when those images were first seen than it does to people now. Then it was a sign of progress: those trees were being used to build an America that was economically growing. Watching it now it seems like a mass execution. With the Soleri clip I posted I didn’t do that, not exactly. There I wanted to show Frank Lloyd Wright’s L A R G E presence; interviews you see or read with Soleri invariably begin with an introduction that includes his apprenticeship with Wright, and in Dome House you see Wright everywhere, except, as Soleri points out, in the table.  (In another Soleri section I use archival extensively to show the passing of time.)

I also have a feeling that when I’m using archival and home movies I’m working with found objects and incorporating them into a bigger canvas. I’m repurposing, in a sense, and I like that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about archival these days because I’m about to edit some new footage–the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project sections of the sample. These sections will add about eight minutes to the sample, which will bring it in at 35 minutes. It is now beginning to look more like a film than a sample.

But how to use it to advance Robert Darden and the BGMRP’s stories, and of course A Life’s Work as a whole? What footage do I choose? Where do I place it? How much? If I use gospel performance footage, what performer(s), which song(s), from when during the golden age? Big questions. Some of them have obvious answers, others don’t.

But finding answers to those questions is an exciting part of the process, and I’m grateful that I’ll have a chunk of time to examine those questions.

More on that chunk of time in the next post.

The Dark Days

If you’ve read a few of these posts, you’ve probably noticed that they are upbeat and positive. “I was thrilled…,”  “I am forever grateful…,” “The shoot went well…” It seems A Life’s Work and my life are skipping hand in hand down a carefree path where only good things happen. In bringing this to your attention you might wonder, “Is David on happy pills or is he lying?” Neither.

One reason for all the positivity is, though this is a blog about the process of making a documentary, it also exists to promote the film, so it’s not really in my interest to be a negative Nancy. Another reason is that I am optimistic by nature. But make no mistake, the dark days are there, I just haven’t written about them. And even though the dark days haven’t crept up on me in a while, I’ve been feeling like I should share this experience, so here you go.

This photo was not taken on a dark day. It just looks like it was.

The darkness can descend for any number of reasons: A shoot didn’t go as planned, a grant or story rejection, a nightmare, a flare up in my creaky lower back, perceived indifference, looking at a pile of laundry that needs to be done. Whatever the reason, great or small, real or imagined, the darkness can grab hold and drag me into a downward spiral.

So how do I manage it?

I do a few different things. I list things I have to be grateful for, and this list is embarrassingly long. If it’s one of the dark days where I’m less than thrilled with A Life’s Work I step away from it and don’t work on it. I don’t try to force it. On those dark days it’s easy to make bad decisions, and though it’s easy enough to go back to a version that was saved before the dark day, dark-day decisions sometimes just make me feel worse. I try to go outside, walk or bike along my beloved Hudson River. I visit with friends who, even though we may not talk about the darkness, have a way alleviating the gloom. I avoid alcohol on the dark days (I’m renowned for my moderation anyway) because for me, after the giddiness of initial consumption the alcohol will exacerbate the darkness to a frightening degree. Often I clean my apartment like a fiend. The sense of accomplishment is significant and the physical activity must get some of those good endorphins flowing. I play guitar A LOT on the dark days. It seems like it’s the one creative thing I can do. When I am playing music that is all I am doing; I am not remembering or regretting, projecting or expecting. I am present. I play all manner of songs, from If Drinking Don’t Kill Me (Her Memory Will) to Girl from Ipanema to Back in Your Life to Back in Black to a Villa Lobos Prelude.

If the darkness is particularly stubborn and lingers into the evening, I’ll watch a film, something I know is inspiring or soothing or engrossing. This can mean a film by Yasujiro Ozu, a Japanese samurai film like one of the Lone Wolf and Cub series, or a documentary by the Maysles. Depends, I suppose. Then I read myself to sleep.

What I’m doing is shifting my focus from dark to light.

More often than not the darkness is gone in the morning. If not, I keep battling it the same way. Eventually the darkness leaves; I know now after many years, and thanks to the help of friends and others, that the light I possess is brighter and more powerful than the darkest darkness.

I believe we become stronger when we share our stories; “we” being the teller and the listener/reader, and that is why I’m sharing this with you.

For a harrowing and enlightening book about one man’s battle with depression, check out Darkness Visible by William Styron. I’ve found comfort in this book more than once.

[Cross-posted on http://extracriticum.com]

The Right Image

I’ve been revamping the A Life’s Work web site recently and that has me thinking about still images that represent the moving image that is my film. If I had to choose one image for a poster,* what would it be?

The right image?
This image was pulled from the sample.

Thankfully, I don’t have to do that yet. But I had to choose eight images for the homepage, images that not only represented the film, but also had some relationship to the navbar.

Take a look at what I came up with and let me know what you think.


* This link will take you to a slide show that contains 19 Polish film posters (not Polish films, necessarily). They are graphic, as opposed to photographic, and I think more eye catching than posters you’d see in the U.S. I find it interesting that the posters don’t rely on the star’s image, but strive to capture the film’s essence to “sell” it.

Little Red Dots

I have these stickers, they’re little red dots. They look like this:

Actual size!

When I capture a tape (that is, put the miniDV tape in a deck and transfer that digital information to one of my external hard drives so that it is accessible for editing), I cut a quarter of the dot and place it on the corner of the sleeve like this:

This tape contains a portion of the interview with Robert Darden, including a bit where he talks about Prince's gospel song, "The Cross."

This lets me know at a glance that I have captured the tape in its entirety. I have done this to 86  one-hour tapes.

All the red dots I have left are in that first image, seven and three-quarters. If I quarter them, that’s enough for 31 more hours of tape.

Will that be enough to finish this film? Will I need to get more red dots?

"What the Hey Were You Doing in Chicago?" Part 1

I went to interview the next subject of the documentary, Robert Darden, founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. Robert is a writer and professor of journalism at Baylor University, a deacon at his church, and a passionate gospel music enthusiast. I highly recommend his book, People Get Ready, for anyone interested in the history of gospel music.


What’s the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project about? This from the Baylor University web site: “The purpose of this project is to identify, acquire, preserve, record and catalogue the most at-risk music from the black gospel music tradition. This will primarily include 78s, 45s, LPs, and the various tape formats issued in the United States and abroad between the 1940s and the 1980s.”

This is gospel music’s golden age and there were many many recordings made by gospel artists famous and not. Many of these recordings were on small obscure labels that have long since disappeared, many are in the hands of record companies who may or may not be aware that they possess them and have little interest in re-releasing them, and others were pressed in small runs for sale to the congregation only. It’s difficult to quantify, but it is estimated that 75% of these recordings are unavailable–lost or in the vaults of conglomerates or collectors. But as more people hear about the BGMRP, more recordings show up at Darden’s doorstep, from individuals who have boxes of vinyl in their attics and from collectors who are willing to share.

To date, the BGMRP has digitized more than 6,000 sides. (A side can be a single song {a 45} or several songs {an LP}.)

That’s all well and good, but what is Robert Darden doing in A Life’s Work?

Here are the last three  paragraphs of  “How Sweet the Sound” by Michael Hoinski (The Texas Observer, November 16, 2007):

“I suspect there is a lot more to be found than we think,” says Robert Laughton, who along with Cedric Hayes has spent the last four decades compiling The Gospel Discography: 1943-1970, a 658-page compendium of gospel recordings from the era targeted by the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. “There are also new labels being discovered that we know nothing about.”

Darden seconds that emotion. Nothing in the first two boxes of stuff he got from a collector in Chicago was in the Laughton and Hayes book.

“I will die before we finish this project,” Darden says.

I’m very excited to include Robert in the documentary. His passion for his life’s work is present in his articulate speech, gestures, and actions. The possibility of including gospel music in the film thrills me beyond belief.

Thanks to Robert Darden, Mary Landon Darden, Deacon Reuben Burton, Rev. Dr. Stanley Keeble, Peter and Paula Schuler of University Quarters, the wonderful people at Captain’s Hard Time Restaurant, the employees and shoppers at Hyde Park Records. You all made this a most memorable trip.

Another Adventure

Wolfgang Held and I are on our way to Chicago. We return late Monday evening. I’m nervous and excited and I don’t expect I’ll get much sleep this weekend.

I received an e-mail last night from Wolfgang. The last sentence: “Looking forward to this adventure.”

When I was shooting David Milarch in the redwoods I became friends with the journalist Jim Robbins. (He wrote The New York Times article about that event.) Jim gave me a book he wrote and he inscribed it. I had forgotten about that inscription until almost a year later, when I was nervous and anxious about the upcoming SETI shoot at Hat Creek and Mount Lassen. For some reason, I picked up Jim’s book and read the inscription: “For David, Enjoy your adventure, Jim.” It calmed me.

And that is what I will try to remember this weekend. This film is an adventure! It has taken me to the frozen Michigan tundra and the baking Arizona desert, to the lush redwood forest in Northern California, and now to bustling Chicago, Illinois. It has introduced me to  architects, astronomers, scholars, tree farmers, and this weekend, a musicologist.

Thank you Wolfgang and Jim for the always welcome reminder. Adventure. I like that.

The Readiness Is All

Friday, August 7th, I’m heading to Chicago to do the next interview. You’ll forgive me if I don’t reveal the subject by name yet. I will in time, perhaps after I’ve had time to digest the interviews. There is a chance, after all, that he won’t work in the film, but I’m confident he will. For now it’s enough to say that he is a passionate collector and archivist of a certain genre of music and he’s written books and articles about that music. His work, like the work of the other subjects in the film, will probably not be completed in his lifetime. I’ve heard him say as much.

So, am I prepared to interview him and follow him around? Well, I have prepared, but I never feel prepared enough. This probably isn’t a bad thing. I think it’s good to feel a little on edge inside, a little uncertainty. Keeps one sharp.

What have I done to prepare? I’ve read his books and articles. Twice. I’ve read books by other authors on his specialty. I’ve listened to a lot of music. I’ve watched a few documentaries on his field of expertise. I try not to do too much of that last one because I want to keep the influence of others’ work (especially documentary films) to a minimum.

And the logistics of course, always the logistics: booking the flight and hotel and rental car. Exchanging e-mails and phone calls with the subject to coordinate schedules. And the big one, securing the cinematographer.

The slate from Tango Octogenario.
The slate from Tango Octogenario.

I’m very pleased to be working with Wolfgang Held again. It’s been more than two years since we’ve worked together. Too long. Wolfgang and I have become good friends since he shot Tango Octogenario and we’ve developed a solid collaborative relationship. I feel like he pushes me to be my best. He senses when I have a concern or an idea and he calls me on it. “What are you thinking?” “What are you seeing?” These are questions he often asks me when we’re shooting and I love that. And he tells me when I have a stinker of an idea. (More about that in a future post.)

There’s still work to be done. I need to organize the questions so they have a certain flow to them. I have an idea for an interview space and I need to secure it. And a few scheduling details still need to be ironed out. And if I’m lucky we’ll be able to shoot …. No. I must not get ahead of myself.

Hopefully I’ll write ecstatically about it all when I return home.

Wish me luck!

I Write in the Best Notebooks

If you’ve read the About the Filmmaker page you’ll notice that I am a filmmaker and a writer.  This means I have attributes of both. (I’m forgoing the deep psychological stuff for now because that’s not where this post is heading.) For instance, I dress like a filmmaker. Sneakers? Vans. Shirts? Vintage. Glasses? Nerdy and vaguely hipster-ish.

Like any writer, I have my  fetishes. I have a mug I use exclusively for my coffee when I’m writing. I keep a small rug under my feet when I write and this rug travels with me when I do artist residencies. When I edit a paper manuscript I only use Paper Mate Sharpwriter #2 mechanical pencils. And for A Life’s Work, I have a series of notebooks, a different one for each subject.

Here’s one I’m currently using for the next subject:

Front and back of a notebook made by Jenn Chen
Front and back of a notebook made by Jenn Chen

This notebook was made by my friend Jenn Chen, a talented writer who loves her crafts.  The front and back cover was  taken from a page from a Japanese calendar (Jenn and I share a love for things Japanese and Prince). A Life’s Work is very much about the long haul and starting small and growing big – how fitting that on the back cover there is, in the middle of the dates of the month, two acorns.

The binding on this one differs from the other two she made, and it’s a shame it doesn’t show up well on the jpeg.

I love the silky texture of the notebook’s cover and the rough edges of the unevenly cut paper. (Jenn’s notebooks have never given me a paper cut .) The notebooks are a constant companion as I prepare for a shoot and they are always close at hand when I conduct an interview. Looking at them reminds me of my friends’ support; without that I wouldn’t have managed to keep working on this film.

Thanks, Jenn.

"Don’t you want to make a REAL film?"

On the set of Tango Octogenario, DP Wolfgang Held, 1st AC Eric O'Connor, producer Tom Razzano and 2nd AC Laura Hudock.

People have actually said that to me after I tell them I’m making a documentary. I’m usually rendered speechless and sometimes I can’t even manage to raise an eyebrow. Of course I know what they mean. They mean a narrative feature film with actors in it and lots of lights and cables crossing the sidewalk and grungy looking PAs with walkie-talkies and a table full of danishes and  sliced fruit.

It’s a good question, since I’ve spent most of my life writing fiction–screenplays, short stories, the novel in my closet–and my short films were narratives. So why a documentary? (Not why this documentary? That’s a different question, one I wrote about in an earlier post.)

I decided to make a documentary because I wanted to make another film. I wanted to capture moving images and have those images tell a story. Most filmmakers can attest to just how difficult it is to get a narrative film made. So much time and energy is spent chasing producers, name actors, and money. Lots of money. When you’re trying to get a narrative film made, even a very small independent film with a micobudget, these elements have to fall in place long before a frame is shot. You might as well be waiting for all the cherries in all the slots in all the casinos in Atlantic City to line up at once. It’s enough to snuff out whatever creative fire you have burning inside of you.

My reasoning went like this: I could work on a documentary a bit at a time, which is something you can’t usually do with a feature (there are exceptions, like Roland Tec’s excellent We Pedal Uphill); I could make a documentary with a small crew and I wouldn’t need a steamer trunk full of Hamiltons to get it started. The big questions were could I live with making the film in stages and was I prepared to undertake the marathon that is making a documentary of this kind? Could I keep my enthusiasm up for years and years?

The answers so far: still alive after three good subjects interviewed, 70+ hours in the can, more on the way in August ’09; plenty of kick in me and as passionate as ever about this adventure.

But I haven’t answered that first question, have I? Do I want to make a real film? A narrative feature film, yes. But right now, I have this film I’m still excited about and that still requires most of my attention. When A Life’s Work is finished, and if I can rig it so all those cherries in all the slots in all the casinos in Atlantic City line up at once, then I’ll make that feature.

Photo:  Peter LaMastro

[cross-posted at Extra Criticum]

Where to begin?

In the middle.

That’s where I am in this documentary. Three out of four subjects interviewed: architect and Arcosanti’s guiding force Paolo Soleri; astrophysicist and Director of SETI Research at the SETI Institute, Jill Tarter; father and son tree farmers and co-founders of the Champion Tree Project, David and Jared Milarch. 70+ hours of footage shot. A 27-minute sample edited. I’m very pleased with that sample and I’m sending it to people who may want to be involved with the film in some way.

The fourth interview is on the horizon. And then I’ll be returning to the other three for follow ups. And then returning to the fourth for a follow up, no doubt.

And then post-production.

All the while fundraising and networking.

That’s where I am with A Life’s Work.

Where are you with your life’s work?