At the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham

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.

Dining not alone

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.

 

Isle of Skye

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.

Travel notes from Edinburgh

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:

Travel notes (on my way to Edinburgh)

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.

Wisconsin bird magic

Up to Appleton, WI today with the producer and a non-film friend to see about another house.

The movie takes place almost entirely in a single home, so getting the right house is important. It’s so much easier finding one location instead of 30 or 40 (like insanely easier), but it’s still a bit difficult to find a house that we can use for two weeks with our limited budget.

 

 

We’ve been mostly talking to people on AirBnB and they’ve been much more amenable to letting us use their houses, because they’re already letting people stay in them. Finding a homeowner willing to vacate his or her house for two weeks is almost impossible on our budget. An apartment would’ve been much easier.

That has set us further afield than Chicago, where rental rates are lower. On the one hand, this is more difficult because it means it takes an entire day to scout a single location and there are logistical challenges with production. Will the cast and crew be willing to go away for two weeks? And if we go outside the city, we need a second house to lodge the cast and crew.1

We’re treating it a bit like going away to summer camp. Yes, you’re working all day, but in the evenings you are sharing meals and drinks in the warm summer air, outside of the city and away from your day-to-day life. For some that will be too inconvenient, but for the people that join us, we’re hoping to create an unforgettable experience and forge friendships for life.

A conversation with friends on a summer evening is better than going home to Netflix.

And I really want the making of this film to be a special experience. It’s a low-budget affair and in a perfect world, it serves as a calling card for myself and the others involved, furthering our careers. Maybe on the next one, it’s a little easier to raise money…

But beyond that — beyond making a good film (which is nearly impossible) — I want it to be a fun, joyful experience. Something that people look back on and remember fondly. The best possible outcome is a good film and great memories, with the people we bring together forming bonds for life.

 

 

Appleton is a small city in northern Wisconsin, about 190 miles north of Chicago and 100 miles north of Milwaukee. About 70,000 people live there. The main street is thriving with shops, cafes, and a performing arts center. Away from the main drag are streets with colorful houses and big front porches. People don’t lock their doors there and the air is crisp and fresh.

 

 

 

We visited an occult bookstore with an in-house psychic and the book selection was wonderfully eccentric. Where else can you find a book on bird magic?

OK well I just found it on Amazon, but you get the point. And hey, it’s actually well-reviewed there, with 4.2 out of 5 stars, although one person did have this to say:

Sigh. As usual, a magical book with no balanced perspective on masculine/feminine energies. I really do not like metaphysical books that claim to be about balance and harmony while ignoring half of the energetic balance of nature. I was excited to get this book from both a naturalist and Pagan perspective but if a book gets such a crucial thing wrong, it makes the whole book suspect that to me

This was my favorite title:

 

I opened to a random page and found a chapter called something like “how to know if the spirit you’re talking to is really your loved one,” which yeah, of course, once you start to consider this seriously, there are some practicalities that have to be worked out, like ID verification.

Soon enough, all spirits will be given unique public keys on the blockchain and we’ll all look back and laugh at our archaic analog methods of spirit-ID-verification like giving your loved one a secret passcode that only they know before they die.

Fun fact I learned from Futility Closet last week: Houdini, who spent much of his career disproving psychic mediums, actually gave his wife a secret code, just in case he came back as a spirit (he didn’t). I don’t remember the episode, but it’s a great podcast.

 

 

After touring the town and calling our mothers for Mother’s Day, we went to a restaurant overlooking the Fox River, then drove back down to Chicago (after a stop for ice cream from Culver’s).

 


  1. We’re aiming for a combined total of about 11-14 people, depending on the day, which is a very small production. 

Breakfast, Windshield Wipers, Kinko’s

Yesterdays travels were long and we returned home at night. No rest though, we had to meet up with a friend to talk about our plan for casting the film (after a jaunt to Costco for a windshield wiper blade and sundries).

Had a few drinks while we talked about casting which had me just exhausted, so I woke up in a bit of a haze this morning and had to run out to meet some old friends for breakfast at my friend’s new apartment. He’s going to Barcelona next week for 10 weeks and the thought of that, I envy it.

The film has a weight and sometimes I wish I could toss off that weight and go to Barcelona and forget about it. But of course, I wouldn’t forget about it and how would I live with myself after such a cowardly decision?

These are good friends and we can only get together about once every two months, because of our busy schedules. I always feel energized after talking to them and I think about how much better life would be if we all lived within a few blocks of our best friends and could get together without planning.

After breakfast I emailed for about 4 hours, following up on yet more leads for a possible location (we’re looking for a single family home in Chicago or within a 3-hour drive) and putting together a table read for Wednesday to see how it plays on its feet.

I went to Fedex Office (formerly Fedex Kinko’s, formerly Kinko’s)1 to print out eight copies of the script.

The print job was messed up so I had to wait for 15 minutes while new copies were printed.

The very nice man who helped me filled the time with his thoughts on Avengers Infinity War, about which he had many detailed opinions and I tried to smile and nod along because I haven’t seen it.

 

 

 

Then I picked up snacks and drinks for the reading, put air in my car tires for another road trip tomorrow (this time to Appleton, WI), replaced the frayed wiper blade, and emailed invites to actors for the table read.

I love road trips.


  1. What a bad name for a store, Kinko’s. 

Paxton, IL

Drove down to Paxton, IL today to see about a house to make a movie in.

There’s a real joy to this part of making a movie, getting out and meeting people that welcome you into their home and are excited about helping you and then taking for hours about how the house isn’t perfect but it will work and now we can relax because of the 3 possible disasters that might derail this thing, one at least has a workable situation and if it all works out then we get to spend 2 weeks in a quaint town with good summer air with good people and the chance at at a transcendent shared experience.

And then we found this burger joint across the train tracks with a menu that I thought was a joke but it was real and the burgers were $1.20 and fries were 80 cents.

And sometimes I hate how flat IL is but then I think of that DFW line that goes:

Very old land. Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers.

Which is a very good line, to my ears at least, and I don’t know where I’m going with this except that there’s a real joy in doing things that are overwhelmingly difficult and it brings out emotions and fears and pleasures that I never knew I had, like when you do a new exercise and you get sore in muscles that you never noticed before.

Good night and look up Just Hamburgers if you’re ever in Paxton.





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