I went to Sidewalk last week in Birmingham, Alabama and I meant to post something about it but I’ve been working from 7 7 7 to 11 every night (kinda makes life a drag…). Yeah I’m on a freelance producing gig that just has insane hours but I’m rebuilding my savings after not working for four months and making a feature film. Freedom awaits in November…
Sidewalk Film Festival. They really know how to take care of filmmakers. I woke up at 4am last Friday to catch the early flight from Chicago to Birmingham so I could get there in time for the filmmaker luncheon/retreat.
They took us to a now-defunct iron and steel processing plant that was built in the late 1800s and was operational until the 1980s. Birmingham is almost uniquely situated for steel production as all the raw materials are within 30 miles of each other, and it was the 2nd biggest producer of steel (after Pittsburgh) in the U.S. for a long time (my facts are a little hazy).
The old buildings look like sets from a post-apocalyptic world, as nature slowly reverts to the its pre-industrial state. The event was hosted by representatives of Film Birmingham. They were very eager for us to film something there and made it known that there wouldn’t be a lot of red tape.
Our guide (one of the many resident artists who have been given workshop space on the premises) told us that the plant was shut down overnight and the workers weren’t told — their personal belongings from their last day are still in their lockers and there’s still salad dressing and… something else… in the refrigerator.
The plant isn’t completely shut down — there’s a dolomite quarry right there.
Massive trucks bring the dolomite up from a 400-foot-deep quarry where the rocks get smashed in giant rock smashers so they can be used for gravel and other industrial things that need small rocks (it’s an ingredient in steel too).
Driving down into the quarry, which I sadly didn’t get a good picture of, reminded me of Taste of Cherry (I mentioned this to another filmmaker and he was like “me too!” and we became friends immediately).
The quarry processes 7,000 tons of dolomite per day. There’s something awe-inspiring about being around massive machinery and trucks. Living in a modern city, I feel shielded from any kind of industrial of manufacturing whatsoever. By the way, those trucks the guys drive — super high-tech. The loaders cost about $2,000,000 a piece and they have climate-controlled cabs, multiple cameras, high-tech seats that don’t bounce around, and a lot of other stuff I’m forgetting.
Back in town I walked around a bit and got food. I spent most of my time in the downtown area of Birmingham, which felt pretty empty and sleepy. Someone told me later that the neighborhoods to the south and east are more bustling with life and culture. I don’t know, it was weird walking around on a Friday morning/afternoon and barely seeing anyone on the street — the buildings weren’t abandoned or run-down though. It felt like everyone was on vacation.
Don’t forget your Jesus Cake. I actually ate here twice (they set up a stand on the sidewalk outside one of the theaters) and it was delicious. Very good Cuban pork, mofongo, and plantains. I asked what Jesus Cake is and the girl told me that it’s something like tres leches cake, and not a Cuban thing nor a Birmingham thing. So just a thing they made up.
What about the film festival, Robert?
This is a great festival. I mean, they really take care of their filmmakers and by take care of I mean they throw big grand parties with free food and booze in remarkable venues.
The opening night screening and party was at the Alabama theater. The opening night film was White Tide: The Legend of Culebra, an over-the-top doc about a Florida man (hah) who goes after $2,000,000 in cocaine that’s buried on Culebra, and island in Puerto Rico. It was a perfect fit for a raucous crowd of 2,000 on opening night. It’s a good story and very funny.
Then there was a big party on the stage of the theater. And everywhere else in this massive 3-story theater. There was just a party and food and drinks everywhere. It was a ton of fun. I made new friends and ran into some old friends that I didn’t expect to see there.
I talked to some locals and asked about the film scene there and what people thought of the festival. My understanding is that Sidewalk is the biggest thing that happens there every year. I talked to one woman who had been planning months before to come and had picked out all the films she wanted to see in advance. I also talked to other people who said that 80% of people in Alabama only care about college football and look at you funny if you mention some sort of non-college-football form of entertainment.
I talked to another local woman who works for the city, helping to promote it (I can’t remember exactly what she does). She told me about how the city is resurgent, about how 20 years ago it was dangerous to be downtown and how it’s developing and people are moving back and there are cafes and shops and how great the food scene is.
It’s the same trend playing out in so many cities across the U.S. There are so many small to medium sized towns now that are pleasant places to live.
The festival took over Linn Park in the middle of downtown Birmingham for a massive party.
I had a really good conversation at the party with someone about living in a small and pleasant city vs. a big and ambitious city. The question for her and for me and for probably a lot of young people with options is: is it better to live somewhere comfortable and pleasant and enjoy the good life, or should I ask for something bigger in life, something more ambitious? Am I being complacent?
I loved living in Baltimore. It was fun, I liked the texture of life, I was a big fish in a small pond (the improv pond). Good food, a great baseball stadium, very affordable, good art/music scene, and an actually weird place that doesn’t really give a fuck about trying to be anywhere else. Obviously Baltimore has massive problems too, with crime, education, etc., but those weren’t the reasons I left. I left because it felt too small, too hard to be ambitious there.
Chicago is a big city. I think it straddles the pleasant/ambitious divide. It can be either. It’s certainly more ambitious than cities like Baltimore or Portland, but less so than L.A., San Francisco, or New York. I’m not sure where Austin fits into this (it feels like it’s in the process of rapidly changing from pleasant to ambitious, which is causing a lot of angst for the people that want it to keep its old identity).
I think what I’ve been feeling in the last few years, when I feel the urge to move, is that Chicago is just a really big pleasant city and not really an ambitious city. When the woman from Birmingham tells me about the great food scene there, I politely listen, but I know that it’s nothing compared to Chicago. Maybe Chicago is an ambitious place for aspiring chefs (I don’t know, I’m really not a foodie).
But when it comes to film, entertainment, entrepreneurship and startups, etc. — I think it’s not an ambitious place. Not that there aren’t ambitious people here! Not that nobody is doing those things! It’s just not the big ambitious place where people move to seek those things out.
Oh yeah, my short film, WHAM, premiered on Sunday.
WHAM, a short film that I wrote and directed last summer is premiering this weekend at the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, AL. It’s a great festival and I’m really excited to be a part of it, in fact so excited that I’m waking up at 4am on Friday to fly in early so I can enjoy a full day of meeting people and seeing great films. If you’re near Birmingham this weekend, check it out.
The film will also screen in Washington, DC at the very excellent DC Shorts festival on September 8 and 10. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to make it back home for the screenings because of work, but it’s my first screening near my hometown in Maryland and it feels good to get to show m friends and family back home what I’ve been working on for the last few years.
And finally, it’s coming to Chicago for the first time on September 22 at 4pm at the Middle Coast Film Festival. I love this festival. The Deadline premiered there last year, so it will always have a special place in my heart (they programmed Off Book too). I’m a little sad that they moved it from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago because I liked the excuse to take a road trip. It’s screening at the Davis Theater. Come see it and have a drink at Carbon Arc if you’re in town.
I released this earlier this year and completely forgot to post it here. The Deadline, my first short film, is now available to the public:
The secret of theft, which is also called “creativity,” is you have to steal a bit from a lot of different places. You can’t go to the same 7/11 every time because they’ll catch you. So you go to the photo shop, and you go to the gas station, and you go to that little hot dog stand that nobody goes to and by the end you’ve stolen enough stuff from enough places that people think its yours.
Via Austin Kleon.
Something different about Scotland, something that I really like: if you go to a restaurant and there are no open tables, they sometimes seat you with another group that has an open seat at their table. This happened to me for the second time this morning when I went for breakfast at The Larder for the big Scottish breakfast. I sat with an English family in town for their daughter’s graduation from the University of Edinburgh. After some initial awkwardness, we talked about Il Duce, Brexit, American politics, tennis, and soccer/football (England is in the semi-finals).
I’m never quite sure what kind of cultural norms I’m supposed to follow in these situations, especially since they tend to be somewhat fluid in the U.S. Can I ask about work? Talk about work? We talked about politics right away, which gave me pause at first, because it can be so divisive in the U.S. I wonder if they sort of sensed based on my appearance that we were on the same wavelength? I always want to talk about these things because they interest me, especially when it’s with someone who has an outsider’s perspective, but I guess there’s also plenty of fun in the meta-conversation of how we’re dancing around this interaction between strangers.
Anyway, I just think it’s nice when semi-private spaces like restaurants create situations for meeting strangers, although I can see why some people wouldn’t like that. I imagine if annoying people kept sitting with me, that I would not like it.
They didn’t seem that interested in visiting the castle, which I thought, OK I’m not alone.
Back to being seated with strangers: I wonder if there’s just a politeness and trust to the culture here that makes this sort of thing more accepted? I went to fill up my rental car yesterday and I couldn’t find anywhere to pay for my gas at the pump. The sign said to pump first and then pay inside (!). I ran into the same thing in the highlands, but I assumed it was a rural custom. But this was in the heart of Edinburgh, a major city. I can’t imagine something like this in Chicago or New York or even the low-crime suburb in Maryland where I grew up.
Don’t people ever just drive away? I need to talk to someone about this before I leave.
I know the vacation is working because I feel the tug to get back home, to get back to routine, to work, to write every morning.
Here’s to the Scottish enlightenment:
I’m off to read on the Meadows.
My second time up in the Isle of Skye, a northwestern isle, part of the inner Hebrides. It’s incredibly peaceful out here, the air is cool, and I’ve been lucky to get mostly sunny days.
My non-touristy vacation continues as I refuse to engage in culturally significant tourism and instead relax into the views and meet an occasional local to ask about life around here.
I drove to the end of the road in Egol and stopped at a boat launch with a snackbar next to it. The boat was away from the launch, off with tourists who want to look at seals. I got a coffee at the snackbar and talked to the girl working there. The dock is also used by the local fisherman, including her father.
I asked her what it was like to grow up here and she told me that there is only one high school on Skye and that when school was in session, she slept in a dormitory near the school during the week because it’s about a 90-minute drive each way.
All but a few main roads are single lane, with little passing outlets on the side of the road every 100 yards or so. There’s a lot of stopping, pulling over, and backing up. Everyone waves as they pass. All this means that it takes a long time to travel by road but as a traveler with nowhere particular to go, I didn’t mind because the scenery is so spectacular all around. Magnificent blue water and striking green mountains.
I asked her if she’s ever hiked the mountains across the harbor and she said no and we laughed because it’s the same everywhere, isn’t it? You don’t do the touristy stuff in your own backyard. She said that many people leave the island to go to college or to travel or to work, but that most of them come back eventually. I wonder if a place like this just stays in your soul and pulls you back. She’s saving up to travel to Italy and then go to college in Edinburgh.
One of the big takeaways from making this first feature film was that everything about budget and production can be questioned. I think that everyone knows this. That you can just say fuck it and do it low-budget, but then when you try to do it and get people on board, a lot of people get scared that they won’t have enough resources.
I found that a lot of the cinematographers we talked to, all of them excellent, were approaching the low-budget film from the starting place of a high- or medium-budget indie film. For instance, they were thinking that you just do a scaled-down version of stuff and we wanted someone to come at it from a completely different approach. We kind of had to figure this out along the way and realized that we were framing and positioning the value proposition of working on this film in the wrong way.
We wanted someone to look at it as an opportunity to experiment and use the camera in interesting ways, to create a different kind of beauty. Not the kind of beauty of just beautiful images, but the beauty of using the camera poetically or creatively in new ways.
For me it was about this: that making something dull would be tragic, but making something ugly would be acceptable. And the choice between making it purely beautiful in an aesthetic sense would mean more time, more crew, and of course more money. In other words, it was a choice between making the film now or waiting months or even a year to make it, while we raised more money.
I was in part inspired by The Celebration, which I watched for the first time in the months before production. Visually you could say that it’s ugly. It’s shot on video and it’s very grainy, especially at night when the ISO is ramped up. They used only practical lighting, no outside lighting equipment. And it shows. But, it’s also one of the most intense, grab-you-by-the-throat films I’ve seen in the past few years. The camera is wild and maniacal and the story is incredibly emotional and gut wrenching (and hilarious at times). I would much rather watch something emotionally powerful than sterile and pretty.
In the end, we did end up with some gorgeous shots. But more importantly for me, we got some emotionally charged pictures. One of the final images of the film, which I can’t talk about yet, is one of the best shots I’ve ever captured. If it works the way I intended, then it will be the kind of image that resonates and stays with the audience long after they’ve watched the film.
I haven’t started editing yet, so I don’t really have a good sense of how well the film will come together, but I’m confident that it will not be boring.
My second time here, last time was in 2014.
I’m glad I did the touristy stuff like visit the castle last time I was here because I’m completely worn out from filming and I get one week here to relax before I head home, move to a new apartment, and start a 3-month freelance producing gig in Chicago.
After 6 weeks of pure obligation, I’m spending my time here without anything remotely resembling a responsibility, except for basic hygiene and meeting up with my family for dinner (they’re on a 1-week guided tour of Scotland).
First priority is getting good coffee. I found a place yesterday with this sign:
The city is full of tourists, many of which visit the cafe where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter. The coffee was pretty good. In Scotland, an americano is called a “long black,” which is a much better name. They serve it with less water than in the states.
Yesterday, after coffee, I went to see Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts at Filmhouse, which is the local arthouse theater here.
Then I walked down to the University of Edinburgh and read on the grass for a while.
An ambling vacation, just decompressing from the intense stress of movie-making. I can’t really muster any interest in seeing castles or churches or monuments. And I think it would be a bit odd to live here with so many tourists. It feels like there are more tourists than locals, but maybe I’m just in the wrong places.
Oh and I saw the Queen:
We wrapped a week ago. My first feature film as a writer/director/anything. The working title is Dinner Party Movie and that will definitely be changing.
It’s the most difficult thing I’ve done, the most I’ve ever given myself over to a singular pursuit — six weeks of intense commitment, devoted almost entirely to the single endeavor of making the film. And of course there was much work before that.
We shot 71 pages in 10 days, doing 8-10 hour days. And yes, there were some actual 8-hour days in there, which is hard to believe. Most people assume that an indie production will be 12-hour days, which I don’t really believe is sustainable for more than two or three days. The work will start to suffer and attitudes will sour, and then the culture will start to break down. At least that was my fear — we never really pushed it except for a single 12-hour day in the 2nd week.
People have asked me if it was “fun” and I always laugh and say no, no it was not fun, at least that’s not the first word that I’d use. Yes, there were moments of fun and joy and laughter and all that, every day. Making it with friends meant it was an infinitely more rewarding and relaxing experience. But, it was intensely overwhelming, stressful, and mentally and physically exhausting. Joyful yes, fun no.
The biggest difference between directing a short and a feature: I felt my role was much less about directing each scene with precision, but rather about steering the whole project in the right direction, tone management, making sure that each piece would fit into the larger whole — about seeing and feeling how the whole film would cut together, constantly cutting and re-cutting it in my head.
I learned that we can question just about everything related to production and budget. The going rates for things are always negotiable. You don’t need x number of crew. Most crew positions can be done without. Everyone knows this and yet hardly anyone really believes it or is willing to follow the premise to its conclusions and make something this way.
People told me that I was very calm and relaxed on set. Outwardly, I suppose I was. I’m not frantic and I didn’t yell or snipe at people. Inwardly, my God, a different story. I was waking up in the middle of the night panicked, waking up with crushing doubts about myself and the material, and often feeling like a complete failure.
Then there were the highest of highs, times when I felt like the work was very good and that the final product would be very good, and then I’d wade back into another eddy of anxiety and depression and back and forth for two weeks.
There were many moments of fun, joy, happiness, and excitement. But I could always feel the bear behind me. And now, to be free from the bear, is a sweet sweet feeling.
My first time in an airport lounge.
I’ve never been good at working the mileage programs but I finally got a credit card with good mileage points and travel benefits and I can get into all the airport lounges now.
I’m in the lounge at Dublin International and it’s not mind-blowing, but it is quiet and there’s free coffee and CONTINENTAL breakfast and free wifi and free booze, although it’s 10:30am and I’m just going under the jet lag spell, so no thank you to the Jameson.
I watched The Post on the plane and I liked it, although I didn’t really get to enjoy the Altmanesque soundscape due to terrible airplane ear budds.