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

Tango Octogenario

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

Expertise? Expression!

When I was casting Tango Octogenario, I had to make a very big decision. The script called for 80-year-old tango dancers. The  decision I had to make was do I cast actual octogenarians or do I go for younger dancers and try to age them with make up.

Elderly dancer’s would be more authentic. Younger dancers might be more nimble, might be crisper dancers.

When I met Alex and Jean Turney, my dilemma disappeared, because they were the age of the characters and they were excellent dancers. But Alex had occasional doubts. I remember when I told him that I would be shooting a close up of their hands as they clasped just before they danced.

Jean and Alex Turney in Tango Octogenario
Jean and Alex Turney in Tango Octogenario

Alex was concerned. He was very conscious of the look of his arthritic fingers. “You want to show these hands?” he objected.

“They’re beautiful hands,” I told him. “Those are hands that have lived a full life.”

I think that won him over.

At some point Alex asked why I didn’t go with younger dancers, or professional dancers. I told him I wasn’t really interested in expert dancers, that I wanted expressive dancers. And that’s what I saw in them. They oozed expression.

It’s the same with the music I listen to. Give me a lo-fi, raggedly recorded soulful song over a highly produced, technically flawless soulless song any day. Of course, in an ideal world, you get both expertise and expression, but if I have to choose one, I’ll always choose the latter.

And so it is with A Life’s Work.  As I edit, I continue to look first and foremost for the expressive moment, the expressive composition, the expressive cut, the expressive sequence. If those are expertly delivered.

This is related to that post on perfection, but my desire to achieve perfection doesn’t preclude expressiveness. I’m just looking for both, because  that’s what perfect is.

Questions, thoughts, or  comments about this post, or anything under the sun? Leave ’em in the comments box!

Tango Octogenario Lives

Tango Octogenario

In a post last month (Nothing Lasts Forever) I reported that a film I made a million years, Tango Octogenario, was suddenly no longer online. I saw it as proof that even in the digital realm, despite all our efforts, nothing last forever. Some people found this a bit depressing. Myself included.

About a week after realizing that it had been taken down from the Reel New York’s website (Channel Thirteen, NYC’s PBS station), I received an email from the ReelDance Moving Image Collection (MIC), an archive curated and  housed in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Repository at the University of New South Wales, Australia. It seems they went ahead and archived Tango Octogenario, so you can once again watch it onlineFrom their website:

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


This unique curated archive of works by more than 200 renowned and emerging artists tracks the development of dance on screen as an art form over the past thirteen years in Australia and internationally. Artists include Cobie Orger, Kate Murphy, Shona McCullagh, Paul Zivkovich, Paul McNeill, La Ribot, Les Ballets C de la B, Thierry de Mey, Julie-Anne Long, Sean O’Brien, Jan Verbeek, Jonathan Burrows, Ballet Russes, Heidrun Lohr, Nalina Wait, Sue Healey, Meg Stuart and Lucy Guerin.

The archive will provide resources for teaching, research and artistic development in dance, an art form that is notoriously difficult to pin down as an object of study. And amongst practices where dance and the moving image co-exist, the collection documents developments in single-screen work across a crucial historical period. UNSW is a benchmark institution of cultural research and learning, and, with a strong representation of academics and curricula in both dance and film studies, the University provides the ideal future home for the collection.


Forever is a long time, and I don’t expect anything I do to last that long. But I’m very glad that the film has found  life again online.

Thank you, Dr. Erin Brannigan, everyone at ReelDance Moving Image Collection, and UNSW.


Nothing Lasts Forever

Yes, it’s true. Nothing lasts forever. There will always be nothing. Even stars die. And eventually, all the stars in the universe will turn into black holes and no new stars will be forming and the universe will succumb to “heat death.” And the universe will be nothing. Forever. But that’s quite a number of years from now, so let’s not dwell on it.

What brought this on, you ask?

Tango OctogenarioTango Octogenario existed on the Reel 13/Reel New York website. It was a nice showcase for the film and included a print and video interview with yours truly. It was up there for seven or eight years, a nice run, but Channel 13, New York City’s PBS station, recently redesigned their website and now it’s gone. Some believe that once something is on the internet it’s there forever, just waiting for someone to type a keyword so that it can pop up on a screen. Your entire history, your good deeds, your transgressions, all of it, accessible in an instant.  I’m here to tell you  this is not always so.

Nothing lasts forever, and though it saddened me that Tango is no longer online, and I didn’t enjoy updating the links on the blog and the website, maybe that’s how it should be.





From Concept to First Day of Shooting

Here’s an encore post, written four (FOUR!) years ago, with the first bit of video we shot for A Life’s Work. I hope you like it.

I was having lunch with my friend and colleague, cinematographer Wolfgang Held (who shot Tango Octogenario), and I told him I was thinking about making a documentary. Wolfgang’s background is in documentary film, so naturally he wanted to hear more. I  pitched him two ideas. The first was a film about cover bands–not the casual kind, but the hardcore cover bands, the groups that think they actually are U2 or Led Zeppelin. He liked this idea.

Then I told him about A Life’s Work and his ears perked up a bit more. He recognized that this would be  a very personal film and that excited him. He has that European cinematic sensibility. He asked me if I had subjects in mind. I told him I did. When I told him about Paolo Soleri and Arcosanti, he told me I needed to make this film and he’d be interested in shooting it. Wolfgang’s belief in the idea meant a great deal to me. Shortly after our conversation, I decided to proceed.

I sent an e-mail to a nameless Arcosanti e-mail address and received the following reply:


Please give me a call any time this week to discuss your proposed film — or better yet e-mail me a brief description of what you’re hoping to do, so I can be educated before we speak.

Looking forward to speaking with you.


I e-mailed and he replied that he’d discuss the idea with Soleri and get back to me. Stefan  called a week later. “Hi, David. I’m putting Paolo on the line.”

I didn’t have time to be terrified. I told Soleri the premise and he liked the idea. “Perhaps you’ll come visit the Grand Canyon and maybe stop by here too without your camera?”

I told Soleri I’d like that very much. I met with him in Arcosanti in August, and we arranged an October shoot. Simple, right?

Here’s the first bit of video we shot. To read more about that, click here.

A thousand and one thanks to Stefan Grace for making the Arcosanti shoot smooth smooth smooth.

By the way, before you decide to run with the cover band idea, you should be aware of two things. 1. Getting the music rights will make you pull out all your hair, and 2. A documentary on the subject has already been made, Tribute. It received good reviews  and lots of airplay on one of the premium cable stations. I’ve never seen it, but would like to.

Is That All There Is?

These things are on the top most shelf in my linen closet.

The top shelf of my linen closet.
The top shelf of my linen closet.

They are prints and elements of films I made, 8 1/2 x 11 and Tango Octogenario

Sometimes I see them up there and I’m very proud. I’m reminded of the fun I had making them, of all the people I met because of them, of traveling to the film festivals where they were shown — New York, Berlin, London, Los Angeles, Taos, Denver, Baltimore, and many many more places.

Sometimes seeing them makes me a little sad. I think, Is that all there is? All that labor and sweat for what? So they can wind up on the unreachable shelf in the closet?

Sometimes seeing them reminds me of how much work I have to do (and money to raise) before I will have elements and prints of A Life’s Work.

And sometimes I think even when A Life’s Work does join them, there will be days when I think,  Is that all there is?

Of course, there will be days when I will be proud and reminded of the people the film introduced me to and places I went because of it. (Actually, there are already days when I’m proud of it and etc.)

Here’s Peggy Lee talking/singing Is That All There Is? (It’s abridged, but the double exposure can’t be beat.)


Letting Go: The Last Picture Show and Me

Here’s my favorite scene from one of my favorite films, The Last Picture Show.

At 56 seconds in, one long take begins. In the DVD extras director Peter Bogdanovich talks about  how the weather blessed him for this shot. As Ben Johnson delivers his monologue and the camera dollies in, the light changes.  In the extras Bogdanovich tells us the sun came through a sky that had been overcast the whole rest of the day at the most opportune time. Then the camera dollies out and the light changes again, the sky is overcast, again at an appropriate point in the monologue. He was amazed at his luck.

At 3:08 there’s a cut to a lake for 4 seconds or so — Ben’s pov and Bottoms voice over — and then we’re back on Ben delivering the rest of his monologue.

Bogdanovich also tells us, with more than a little disappointment, about that cut. He intended the monologue to be one long take, but Timothy Bottoms didn’t deliver his line in that first, light-changing take. (Bogdanovich was not pleased with Bottoms that day, and he says the actor claimed he didn’t forget his line, that he was just thinking.) They shot it again, but of course the sun didn’t cooperate that time and the take wasn’t nearly as good.

It is obvious that even 30-odd years later, when the extras were shot, the director wishes Bottoms had delivered his line as rehearsed and that he had that one long take.

As a viewer  I watch the scene above and I don’t care one bit about that cut. The beauty of the monologue, Ben Johnson’s face, his delivery, Timothy Bottom’s attention, the composition, the length of the take, the dolly in, the change in light, the dolly out, it makes for such a powerful  and almost overwhelming scene that I don’t notice that cut at all. This scene  takes my breath away, and  the knowledge that it might have been better (at least to the director) doesn’t detract from the finished product. When I watch it, I see a perfect scene.

As a filmmaker, a few things about this story resonate with me.

Paul Albe welcomes Trip Cullman into his office in 8 1/2 x 11.
Paul Albe welcomes Trip Cullman into his office in 8 1/2 x 11.

One lesson I learned when I was making 8 1/2 x 11 came from the sound designer. I was having a melt down about some sound issue. He told me to relax, it would all be taken care of by the competent post production people involved. And in so many words he said  that there are things directors obsess about that sound people don’t sweat at all. And what my meltdown was about was one of those things. And he was right, everything worked out fine. Lesson still learning: letting it go in the heat of the moment.

Another. When I watch Tango Octogenario now… actually, I can’t watch it now (though I still enjoy hearing the music), all I see are mistakes and what ifs. The biggest what if is the location. I was probably $1,000 dollars shy of renting out a truly spectacular location, one that I thought was perfect for the film, and so every time I’ve seen the finished  film, I think how much better it could have been had I used the other location. $1000. C’mon! I could have come up with that! Lesson still learning: letting it go after the fact.


darden_imperfect01I’m hoping to bring these two lessons into A Life’s Work, but it’s difficult. The film is far from finished and already I’m obsessing over stuff no one will notice and full of regrets.

Kooky, right?

[cross-posted on Extra Criticum]


Where Are the Champions?

While at Ucross I read some of my short short fiction and nonfiction with Molly Reid, an awesomely talented writer. It turns out that Molly and I had stories published by The Literary Review: Molly’s Narrow Salvation in the “Lives of the Saints” issue (Fall/Winter 2011), my There Is Joy before the Angels of God in the “Machismo” issue (Winter 2010).

We discussed our Literary Review experiences and my ears perked up when she told me that the editor of the journal contacted her requesting work. It seems said editor had read another of Molly’s stories and it impressed her so much that she not only remembered her name but also sought out more of her work.

This kind of championing is a rare thing in the realm Molly and I inhabit. It happened to me once, with Tango Octogenario.

Photo by Peter LaMastro.
Photo by Peter LaMastro.

I had submitted Tango to Reel New York, WNET’s short film showcase in early 2004, but the film was rejected. Then, in the summer of 2007, I received an email from D., who recently took over as the programmer for Reel New York, asking if they could air the film that summer.

When I asked D. how she had become aware of Tango, she told me she worked for Reel New York in 2004 and saw it when I submitted it. It stayed with her those three years, and when it was her turn to program, it was on her list.

Knowing that someone in a position to further the film responded so positively to my work, that it made such a lasting impression, sustained me for a good long while. The reward here is assurance. Assurance that I’m doing good work, that my work has value.

Yes, I can be that insecure, because yes, it can a very cruel world out there.

Just to be clear, I have support, from the likes of my friends and you, dear blog reader, and the many Facebook likers, but championing is something else. I’m not sure how often this kind of championing occurs. Maybe once in a career? Once a project? As I plug along on A Life’s Work these days I’m hoping it finds a champion sooner rather than later, but I also know this isn’t usually how it works. It seems that most people in a position to advocate art reserve their championing for finished work. I understand this, but it’s frustrating when you’re struggling to finish work and could use a champion during those trying days.

But I also know that people come to your aid when you need it most. Summer 2007 was a great time for Tango to screen on PBS. Would 2004 have been better? Impossible to say.

Do you have a similar tale? I’d love to hear it. I believe we all become stronger and more inspired when we share these kinds of stories. So please, send a comment or email my way.

Why Artist Residencies

Here’s a post from the early days of the blog, December 2009. It was written at VCCA, where I am right now, though I am typing this in C2, a composer studio, and not in the corn crib. I think it’s as timely as ever and worth reposting. And this one has especially good comments.

Last week I had the honor of being asked by Sheila Gulley Pleasants, Director of Artists’ Services at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, to screen my film Tango Octogenario to the VCCA Board of Directors and say a few words about the value and importance of artist residencies. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it went something like this.

A name tag I didn't mind wearing at all.
Here’s one name tag I didn’t mind wearing.

Time and space are the most obvious gifts a residency provides, but just as important is the interaction between artists of different disciplines. I storyboarded Tango Octogenario at Centrum Arts and Creative Education. Could I have done that in my apartment? Probably. But while I was at Centrum I met a choreographer and told her I was making a dance film. She invited me to her rehearsal and asked me to videotape it. As I did, the ideas were buzzing in my head like bees in a hive. Many of those ideas then made their way into the storyboards. Could that have happened in my apartment? Not very likely.

Here at VCCA, I met a poet, Alex Chertok. I told him about A Life’s Work and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project and he told me that his father owns a collection of rare jazz films. Did he have any gospel? I asked. Alex put me in touch with his father and sure enough, he does. Will I be calling on him for footage? It’s very likely.

And then there’s the deep stuff. Listening to the readings, looking at the sculptures and paintings, casually conversing in the bucolic setting or around the dinner table about art, travel, food, histories, who knows what’s seeping into our subconscious and how it will manifest itself in our work down the line? And the friendships that develop may be fleeting or lifelong, but they are always significant.

I hope that I give back half as much as I get from my fellow artists at residencies. I hope, too, that I can someday give back to these havens that have given me so much. For now, my screening and talk will have to do.

Thanks again for the opportunity, Sheila.

Sweet Briar College – Guest Artist, The Guy Making A Life’s Work

I did my stint as guest artist at Sweet Briar College and I’m happy to report that it went very well. After consulting with the teacher, Paige Critcher, we decided it might be more beneficial if I showed my earlier, shorter work. Showing the 36-minute sample didn’t seem like the best use of a one-hour class where I was supposed to talk about where ideas come from, how to make your first film, etc. So it went a little something like this ….

Sweet Briar College Students
Sweet Briar College Students Watch 8 1/2 x 11.


8 ½ x 11: First Film, Film School

I showed 8 ½ x 11 and gave my spiel: the inspiration for the screenplay, how I found cast and crew, and how making that film was very much my film school. I was a little anxious, because I have shown this film, which is about going on job interviews, to college students and it’s fallen flat—they couldn’t relate to the experience. But these Sweet Briar College students got the joke and laughed at all the appropriate places.

Tango Octogenario: Second Film, Unlike the First

I then introduced Tango Octogenario, telling them that I wanted to challenge myself and make something very different from the first film. Here again, they totally got it, and I heard someone say at the end, “So sweet.” I liked that.

After Tango screened, we spoke about the challenges that film presented and how different it was from 8 ½ x 11. Then …

A Life’s Work: My Life’s Work (so far)

The hour was going by quickly, so we showed the trailer for A Life’s Work. After that, one of the students asked me an excellent question, one I had never been asked before. “When you’re preparing to interview someone, how do you know that you’ve accumulated all the questions you should ask?”

Kind of a stumper, isn’t it? I said you really don’t know, not until it’s too late. But I usually interview people at least twice, over a span of some time, so I have time to go over the transcript and if I see that I missed a question or an opportunity for a follow up, then I’ll ask that next time.

It was a great experience, and I would do it again in a heartbeat. In fact, next time I’m at VCCA (if I’m so lucky), I will try to do it again.

Special thanks to Sheila Gulley Pleasants of VCCA for connecting me with Paige Critcher at Sweet Briar College. Extra special thanks to her awesome students.