Monthly Archives: November 2003

I Yam What I Yam

My first proper Thanksgiving. This is a new holiday for me, days off that we don’t have in the UK. Thanksgiving is like a second Christmas, with all of the preparation hassle but none of the gifting or decorations. Laura’s friends Anthony and Marsha came round to join us.

Marsha? Like Marsha Brady? Yes. Only in America would someone be called Marsha. This Marsha turns out to be a professor of organic chemistry. There’s not much you can say to that, so I didn’t. Just showed them the new Keith Dance and got on with it. I could tell they were impressed by the way they rolled their eyes in unison. They *got* it.

Anthony and Marsha brought their Japanese friend Nori with them. I wanted to call him Nero or Neo, which actually wouldn’t have mattered too much since it became apparent in the first few minutes that Nori didn’t speak more than ten words of English.

It’s hard to involve someone in a conversation when you have no common language so I poured him a glass of Diet Pepsi–symbol of Western decadence–and smiled a lot. Nori smiled too. It was like one of those scenes in Little House On The Prairie where Old Man Ingalls brings home a stranger so they can pass stuff around at dinner. Except we’re not on the prairie. Details.

Yams. I must just mention the yams. Sweet potatoes. One fine upstanding American tradition is to cover these with mini marshmallows and bake them in a casserole dish. We varied this by crumbling in a whole pack of ginger snaps (or, as we Brits like to say, ginger biscuits) and then heating the mix up on the stove first. The result of this was like eating pure sugar. Two teaspoons each were enough.

I think I’ve gained an extra pound just from that one meal.

Later we went round to another friend’s house where I met Steven, a documentary maker from Ohio. We watched each other’s films. He’s working on a six hour series of programmes about families with children who have cancer. Heavy stuff. Well made, though. And I got a contact for the university’s in-house media unit to follow up for work.

This was all good. Shortly after I found myself in Lisa’s perfect kitchen. I’ve not been in that many perfect kitchens but this was definitely one. I had a Labbatt’s in one hand and no bottle opener in the other. Where in God’s Holy Name would someone keep the bottle opener in a perfect kitchen? I hunted high and low, through drawers, under tables.

I was beginning to feel guilty since we hadn’t actually brought a bottle, although I’ll never feel so guilty I can’t drink someone’s Labbatt’s. Where would you put a bottle opener for people with a cold bottle of beer if you were catering for Norm out of Cheers? Because surely that’s who the ideal kitchen designer would have in mind when thinking about bottle openers. At last it dawned–I found it magnetized to the side of the fridge.

Before we left–and before I ate everything I could find made out of chocolate (yes, yes I did)–I, with my Labbatt’s bottle firmly in hand, met the Canadians. The Canadians (whose names I forget because my brain is now indeed full) turned out to have watched Fawlty Towers and got Monty Python jokes. It turned out that their sense of humour (with a ‘u’) was more similar to mine than my American friends. Strange that. I drank their beer and gave thanks.

The Home Game

John Ardussi dropped by earlier today and invited me to see a new play The Home Game at the Performance Network this evening. Two of the actors with this local theatre group John wants to use for the first short. The Home Game turned out to be extremely good. Well written, well acted. Very funny yet very poignant.

Thinking about this afterwards, I was reflecting on the relative importance of having a great script. It gave the actors powerful material to work with. Yet without good actors, that material wouldn’t have come to anything. The script is the seed–and extremely important–but it needs nurturing to come to fruition. One without the other doesn’t leaves an empty harvest. Which reminds me of Andy Trussler saying that everything is important.

Saying everything is important feels a bit too restrictive. There has to be room for maneouvre, some freedom to make mistakes. Some elements are crucial–script and acting, sound and picture focus and exposure in a film–while others can be looser, like shot framing and to some extent even image quality.

John was lamenting that most theatre writers in the US seem to write a two act structure which consists of comedy for the first half and tragedy for the second. Watching Home Game I could see it had a structure like that, but to me, ignorant audience member, it struck me that it had light and shade. Comedy doesn’t work without pathos while something overly serious tends to alienate audiences.

Human beings do tend to laugh in the face of adversity. You have to show both. I disagree with John that this structure is predictable. But I only disagree to the extent I’ve been stuck on the same thought train before.

Fear of structure. I remember being stuck for ages, unable to write meaningfully, because I could see the structure in everyone else’s writing. So mainly, I either wrote very surreal pieces or simply overwrote.

I thought Vince Landon in particular used to write to a predictable formula on the St Albans Observer. Set the scene, powerfully, graphically, then introduce characters and questions, explore them and finally answer some of the questions and close with another descriptive scene. Something like that. Kind of. I rejected that formula. It seemed to easy. And yet… Yet Vince’s writing never bored me. That should have told me something. Embrace structure. Then once it’s ingrained, forget about it. Move on and write.

Structure is necessary but it’s the quality of the writing, the dialogue and the plot, which count. As far as this light/dark playwriting idea goes–and I didn’t think The Home Game came down squarely in an easily disected two acts like that–I’m not adverse to it. I like being lifted up then brought down to the depths, before being given either a final lift back to how I felt at the start or a push over the precipice. Feelings and raw emotion. Yes, using structure is a form of manipulation. But then, that’s drama.

As long as it isn’t obvious, as long as no one can see up the magician’s sleeves, the purpose is to entertain, to communicate, to take the audience on an emotional journey, perhaps with a mental and spiritual component thrown in. You can’t really do that without relying on some kind of structure. Experimental forms where everyone or everything just floats about conveys only a fraction of a well-written play or film.

Structure is the support for the words.

Best Foot Forward

Football. American Football. American College Football. Michigan play Ohio. The Wolverines versus the Buckeyes. A wolverine is a savage little mammal. A buckeye is a kind of nut. What kind of team has a nut for a mascot? They lose. We cheer. We visit the florists to plan flowers for the wedding and we go out dancing in the evening. Cajun dancing. Zydeco.

Laura seems to want me to get all the moves right in one gestalt learning zap. Like I’m Neo. I want to have fun, stay in time and not stand on her feet. It’s tricky. I haven’t danced for ages and ages and I’ve never learned this dance position thing Laura feels is necessary for me to lead properly. Surely the fact that I don’t have a peanut for a head should be enough to endear me to any partner? Apparently not.

They give us milk and cookies halfway through the evening–no bar in the Pittsfield Grange (which, incidentally, resembles a commmunity centre/village hall in the UK). I want to learn swing, which seems to be the dance of choice around these parts. I only really know salsa. They all dance to rock and roll here. Which is nice. Unless you can’t do it. Well, it’s-a one for the money, two for the show…

Who Am I?

House cleaning, shopping, guests. Who is this guy anyway? say the invites Laura has sent out. She’s planned an evening to introduce me to her friends. My new filmmaking buddies, John and Gordon, show up which is great. Laura’s friend Lisa knows another filmmaker from Ohio and invites us round on Thanksgiving to meet him. We have enough beer and wine left at the end of the evening to float a battleship. And enough extra food to feed the crew.

Bouncy Bouncy

Laura has a breakfast meeting with a networking group this morning. Early start so she’s out the door and it’s my job to get the boys up, ready for school.

At 8am I call, “Okay, guys, time to get up and get some clothes on.” Jack leaps from the top bunk screaming, “Cowabunga!” Sam pulls the covers back over his head until Jack opens a drawer. He reaches in for a pair of pants (trousers). Sam sleepily realises he’s about to miss out on something so he reaches out for exactly the same pants. “I want those!” he says. Too late. Sam spends the next 15 minutes screaming, crying and refusing to get up while Jack has breakfast and I make packed lunches.

At 8.15, Jack–sated by an extra fifteen minutes computer time and a round of Nutella bread–relents and swaps trousers. Sam gets up and sulks in the living room, playing Nintendo. “Do you want breakfast?” I ask. “Yeah,” he says sullenly. “Well, come and get it.” Mom reappears at 8.30 to take them to school. It’s a close thing as Sam is still moving slowly and doesn’t have socks on, let alone shoes or a coat by the time Laura pulls up. Somehow it happens and they all pile out the door, complete with lunches.

I take up where I left off on my Photoshop training from yesterday. I want to finish this whole 600 page book (and CD) as soon as possible so that I can move on to After Effects, which relies on some of the same things. I’m learning fast, sucking up information. Good job, really, as these skills are all on my resume and I need to start cutting some sharp showreels. Still no sign of my social security number, though, which means I can’t work yet. Or open a US bank account.

The exchange rate is bouncing rate at around $1.70 to the pound. With the amount I raised selling a flat in over-priced St Albans, every one cent change in that rate is worth more than a thousand dollars. But without a bank account, I can’t take advantage of it. Pesky social security number frassin’ rassin’ sassin’ bureaucritters. I content myself with learning to use the paths and masking tools properly. Gonna animate me some vidi-yo soon, yup.

Progressive Moves

Training seminar today up in Farmington Hills. Farmington Hills appears to be where all the film and TV facility companies are located. It’s where Stratton Camera is located. Stratton Camera is the only film camera rental house in Michigan and they’ve just taken delivery of two 24-frame progressive scan Panasonic digital video cameras.

My invite to this event came from Robin Browne, a cinematographer friend of Geoff Glover’s who shot Last Train with me several years ago. I contacted Robin through the BSC and it was a pleasure to meet him. He tells me to register with the Michigan Film Office to get in their 2004 directory, which I do. He also tells me most of the work here comes through the union. The union wants a $4,000 “introduction fee” before you become a member. Erk alors. We shall see.

Everyone at Stratton was really friendly and I left a few business cards. Lon and Diane Stratton provided lunch, which was nice, and insisted I take some food home. Either these people are wonderfully hospitable or I’m looking a bit thin. The seminar lasted three hours and all of that time was spent going through the various camera set up menus. Hmm. Who has three hours to set up their camera? No one, of course. The idea was to give everyone an idea of what’s possible.

Talking of what’s possible, of course Panasonic haven’t provided any firewire ports on their camera and, of course, Panasonic’s DVCPRO format is incompatible with Sony’s DV formats. However it is compatible with Final Cut Pro and the camera is very sexy, especially with 35mm film camera lenses on the front.

Later I will worry about work and not having a job and how on earth am I going to make this all happen. Later. I don’t have time right now. Right now I’m an independent film maker between gigs. So there.


This afternoon I had a second meeting with John Ardussi who wants to be a film producer/writer. Actually, I say “wants to be”. In the American sense that seems to mean already sees himself as this person and is taking the steps along the path. Anyway, producer/writer is great because I want to be director/DP so if this works out it will be perfect. Okay, I am a director/DP; it’s how I see myself. Perception is everything.

John has a script called American Short Film which is a parody on a longer feature. John gave me a DVD of the feature to watch. It won a prize at Sundance. Frankly, I think we can kick it’s butt in the comedic arena. I’ve come up with a general treatment for it which involves parodying several other films and genres. Working on that treatment put me in such a great mood, I can’t begin to express how satisfying it is to come up with a whole string of improbable creative ideas. So I won’t.

I blame Quentin Tarantino for this whole parody culture. We went to see Kill Bill a couple of weeks ago. It was excessively violent. It was undeniably art. It was the work of a master in the same way that sculpting in poop is art. You can’t deny it’s pushing the envelope but you don’t want to look for too long.

The blue backlit fight scene is balletic. I can’t decide if I loved it or hated it. It was infinitely better than the flawed Matrix Revolutions (which we saw on Thursday) or the ill-conceived T3 (why, God, why). Kill Bill provided far more stimulation on all sorts of levels than anything else I’ve seen for ages. It was, as I say, art. I want to make art on this level while telling stories. I want to explore themes and enjoy the process. So I will.

Today’s meeting was over at John’s apartment in Scio township. I want to pronounce this “Ski-Oh” but Laura tells me it’s “Sigh-Oh” like sci-fi. Still that makes more sense than pronouncing water as “wodr”. I order beer later when we go out for “genuine Louisiana barbecue” over at the Smokehouse Blues in Ypsilanti. 24oz beer and enough food to feed six. We eat enough for four and take the rest home. Note for future: kids eat free Monday to Thursday.

Get Your Kicks On Route 66

“It’s to the floor!” I say. “What’s to the floor?” asks Laura. We’re sat in the car at the bottom of the drive and we’re not moving. I’m in the driving seat. I’m not bringing the clutch up any higher because I just know I’ll stall it. Cars are racing up the road towards me and honking the horn as they swerve round. “My foot. It’s to the metal!” I look down. I’m pressing the brake into the carpet. Ah.

This isn’t so good really, especially as I’ve been telling people that, hey, driving in the US? It’s a piece of piss. How did I get down the drive? Well, it’s a slope, okay? So I rolled. Anyway, after a few maneouvres, I’m out on the open road, driving on the “wrong side”.

Laura’s car feels a little small after my old diesel estate. My legs are around the steering wheel. The clutch “bites” in a completely different place and I thrash the engine before lurching into gear at each light for the first half hour. Laura puts soothing music on the radio and turns the volume up a couple of notches as a I discover that, yes, you can turn right when the lights are red here. Maybe not in third gear though, eh.

Okay, so it will take me a few hours to get used to driving a different car to my old one. Maybe a couple of days to feel comfortable, to regain my spatial sense of what’s where on the road. Traffic lights swing over the middle of intersections, road names are in a new place–which makes more sense than UK placing when you get used to it–and everyone else on the road is a potential nutter. It’s like being at home. Hey, it is home!


Next week is the challenge of driving out to Farmington Hills on Wednesday morning for a seminar being given by Panasonic at the only film camera facility house in Michigan. I’ve got an invite through a friend of Geoff Glover’s in the BSC and am thinking it will be a good networking opportunity, to meet and talk to fellow filmmakers in the state. Maybe even find work.

So far I’ve met two cool guys, Gordon and John, who both write scripts and I think we can get some zero-budget projects off the ground. John has the use of a camera in December, so it looks like we’ll be filming something then. I’ve also signed up as a volunteer for local cable TV. Now that brings back some memories. Their preview evening is December 8th.

Yes, my foot’s on the brake but it’s full speed ahead. Or something like that.

My Kind Of Town

Billy The Shelf could only come from Chicago. Solid by name and by nature, his gangster pedigree was marred by just one thing. No, it wasn’t any association with Joey Martini over on the west coast. Nor was it the cardboard suit he was wearing. It was more to do with his choice of friends. They’d been planning this hold up for some time–and the fact it was only a moving stairway in Ikea wasn’t going to stop them.

Everything went by the numbers. One, two, three, we took those staircases out. Number three nearly got away with the goods, freezing at the last moment, but Freddy The Fixer took care of it. A key for everything, that was Freddy. Yellow pants, gray shirt, dour expression. His name hung on a tag around his neck in case he forgot it and he sighed cheerlessly every time but Freddy got the job done.

It turned out to be an easy run, this Ikea job. Billy The Shelf waited out in the car, sprawled over the seatrest, soon after we’d cleared the store. Maggiano’s was our destination. Dinner the objective. And Billy wasn’t coming in with us. He was there to guard the stuff while we took on a whole different challenger. Shaky The Barman.

Shaky had clearly been briefed: when you make a martini, it shouldn’t be no dainty ‘girlie’ drink with an umbrella. He made it a hundred percent pure fire, shook it down to ice and poured it into a vessel so big it made nearby beers blush. Shaky never let his satisfaction show as he slid the results of his work across the bar and we hefted them out to the dining area at Maggiano’s (Italian for ‘big portions’). Joey Martini would have been proud.

Outside in the carpark, things remained quiet. The flags would be flying at half mast for Veterans’ Day tomorrow and Billy feared he was going to be fitted up after this job. He’d been laying low for some time, down in the old Ikea warehouse on the outskirts of the city. He’d had a hard life but his aspirations were still high. Almost to the ceiling. His friends knew they could lean on him. We were always coming to him with incredible stories but Billy The Shelf was there for them, taking it all on board.

Yessir, when problems started stacking up, Billy The Shelf was the one everyone turned to first. Eventually we went out to get him. A light drizzle fell as we crossed over to the waiting car where Billy pressed himself down into the seat, trying to hide, fearful of taking that last long ride in the trunk. But Billy needn’t have worried.

Billy needn’t have worried even with an unplanned diversion for gas the next day, Veterans’ Day, a time to recall the dead. Only a blinking fuel light would have forced us into Gary, Indiana–a town where dangerously bored looking jobless people drudged across the street in a gray slow motion.

Gary, Indiana. Population: the walking dead since the steel mills closed and took the town with it. Lifeless buildings, deserted streets. No, not deserted. Abandoned. At least in the neighbourhood we found ourselves driving through.

Gary, Indiana. Best avoided. Best forgotten. Not a place to run out of fuel. Not a place to run out of anything, except the place itself. The midwest’s dirty little secret. A man outside the library wore his entire wardrobe and paced in small circles. Contractors were pulling a bridge down as we left. To keep the population in or visitors out, we couldn’t be certain. We were just glad to say goodbye.

Now we’re back in Michigan. It’s only a day later yet Billy The Shelf has changed so much, a little wider since that first time we met him back there in the Illinois homeware store. Thus it is that he’s our Billy, solid and true, covering all the angles. He’s built to last, he knows his place and, if he doesn’t get caught in any double-entry bookkeeping scams, he’s a keeper.

Pauline Coggles

Pauline Boulevard would make a great name for a film noir femme fatale. I think that every time we drive past the sign. Pauline Blvd. It’s really the name of a street in Ann Arbor, but so what? Lois Lane is a street on the way to Detroit. These things remind me of similar ideas I had whenever I drove up the A1 to Yorkshire past Burton Coggles. How can that be a place name? It’s a detective story waiting to happen. Burton Coggles and Pauline Boulevard. They’re made for each other.