Answering the Call

In my last semester at Shoreline Community College, I used up my final elective on a course about acting and directing for the camera.  This initial foray into film was an eye-opener to say the least.  I never knew the possibilities that lay in store when dramatic works were captured by a video camera!  The ability to direct the eye to a specific point, to influence the emotional and psychological response of the audience through the use of editing, music and sound effects.  How it was possible to create a picture with a larger palate than theatre had available…

I knew right away that film was the direction I was meant to go.  It incorporated all of the elements of art that I already had interest in, like theatre, but with more finite control over them.  Film also had the potential to reach a much larger audience than stage performances.  My mind swelled with the possibilities for a future in film and I became a sponge after college, soaking up knowledge about this new field with a passion (which I still do to this day!).  I’ve even read several books on film composition since graduating from ASU in December and have a bevy of books I still intend to explore as I expand my understanding of what makes films great.

But I must admit that it didn’t start out easy!  There was a huge transition from theatre and a mountain of technical information to climb before I started feeling even slightly proficient in this mediu.

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The Whole Ball of Yarn

Although I landed leading roles as an actor, there was something about acting that I couldn’t embrace at that age.  It was the honesty of putting oneself into the mindset of another person who thought differently.  There was something powerfully revealing about that process that left me feeling vulnerable and exposed.  And some of the more mature roles I practiced put me into shoes I would never wear in reality and left me feeling dark inside.  So I turned my attentions towards writing.  

As a child, I spent many hours drawing and writing when I wasn’t doing chores or exploring the vast, protective beauty of nature.  I loved to make up stories and adventures that took me out of the hardship of my lifestyle; stories that captivated my younger brothers and later the players who rolled the dice to determine their fates in dungeons and dragons games I mastered.  I never wanted to be the player, I always wanted to tell the entire story, to determine what each doorway led to or how the overall legend would unfold.  So I applied this to theatre, writing plays that I hoped would find an audience on stages across the world.  Plays with twists and turns like I hadn’t seen before.  Plays that broke down the fourth wall between the audience and the stage or between the characters and their own reality.  But this sense of the fantastic was not meant for the stage…

Now that age has matured me, I am ready to consider acting again, but not at the expense of writing and producing films.

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Thespian Ways

Learning to act means learning how to master your body and voice, tuning your instrument so it is ready to embody any situation or emotion and convey that effectively.  Earl Kelly showed the ways my physical habits were holding me back, along with the methods to correct them.  So I learned to walk again and talk again.  I learned how to enunciate, how to breath and how to relax every muscle in my body.  Mister Kelly taught how to observe others to see how they carried themselves, how to imitate their movements.  He used two actors together, mirroring each other in different exercises to teach us how to work as a unit, how to give and receive energy, intent, emotion and words.

After months of such training, a select few actors were given some advanced training to prepare us for a sponsored trip to New York City, the heart of American theatre.  But this was no vacation, it was a new level of training as we completed dozens of assignments at museums, an authentic Gothic cathedral, plays, musicals, reviews and (on our second trip a year later) a film studio for camera acting lessons.  We crammed a weeks worth of activities into three days, sleeping on the plane instead of wasting our precious few hours in Manhattan.  Needless to say, downtown Seattle seemed to be moving in slow motion when we returned.

Although I’ve only acted on stage twice and have only done bit parts in films, this training has propelled me towards film making, away from earlier career choices, like musician or artist (although I still enjoy these practices as hobbies).  As you read this, I am working on the early phases of a new screenplay which I will produce and show at the most prestigious film festival(s) it is accepted to, but hopefully you will be able to see it in a theater near you.  

……….But I never would have been here if I hadn’t stumbled into the Director’s Studio and met Earl Kelly so long ago, and learned the ways of the Jedi.

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Life after the bus

The origins of my journey into the world of film is an interesting story, no doubt influenced by my experience growing up, but a different tale altogether…

When I was 19, I moved to Seattle, Washington.  Seattle, the emerald city, which holds purple clouds on certain evenings… Jet city; bustling and humming a unique tune, heard throughout the world.  Tucked away in the PNW, the Pacific Northwest, Seattle was the birthplace of grunge music and the sister city of granola with Portland, Oregon.  It was a great place to become an adult in the 90’s!

As I experimented with art and music with friends, trying to create a new phenomenon, I stumbled upon a wise old sage, who taught me the ways of the actor, or Jedi training as I liked to think of it.

A friend and I were wandering through the city when we stumbled across a costume sale at this quaint addition to the Moore Theater on 2nd and Virginia, the Director’s Studio.  The man who was running the sale, Earl Kelly, was the director of a children’s theater group that had just dissolved and was trying to sell off some of the inventory of costumes they had accumulated over the previous couple of decades.

My friend and I perused the shop and Earl came out and taught my pal some fencing moves as we tried on wigs and robes.  As I was paying for the items I had selected, Earl handed me a business card and asked me if I had ever done any acting or was interested in it at all.  I said I was interested and he invited me to an audition.

That audition led to my continued study of acting, theater and the arts at the Directors Studio with Earl Kelly as a personal mentor for five years.  This was the beginning of a journey into the world of theater, which eventually led to film.  I would like to think it was serendipity that landed me at that costume sale that changed my life forever, but it definitely made me consider the possibility of destiny…..

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Part 12: Barefoot in the Snow

Hand-me-downs are a common occurrence in large families and I was used to getting clothes from my older brother.  Shoes though, often didn’t last very long and there were times when I had none or only the pair I wore to town.  Because of this, my feet were naturally tough and I traversed on many a terrain with no shoes at all.  I even got used to walking in the snow, and never lost any toes.  

The Klamath Basin, around 4,100 feet in altitude, had plenty of snow six or seven months out of the year.  Snow that would blow so hard it would streak past our windows sideways, making it appear that we were in space, moving past stars; this would leave a six foot pile of snow on one side of the bus and barely any on the other.  The ground would be covered with a couple of feet of snow and then freeze over thick enough to walk on top of, staying that way for months at a time.

I cannot lie to you and say that this life was easy.  But instead of take you into the darkest moments of my existence, I choose to leave you with the best and brightest memories I had as a child….  

At a time when none of us were living in the bus, as the family was separated and travelling in different directions for different reasons, the sun was magnified through a window of the bus, next to one of our kerosene lamps, catching it on fire.  As the small flame consumed all of the oxygen in the mostly sealed vehicle, the windows suddenly imploded, causing it to erupt in a fireball seen a mile and a half away.  That is the official report from what the fire department was able to deduce.

Horrified by what appeared to be our family’s dwelling exploding, the locals rushed to get the fire department on the scene, unsure of whether or not any of us were inside.  Most of our belongings were consumed by the fire, with only a small handful of photos and other artifacts surviving our many years of living in this re-purposed transportation vehicle.

Some of those photos appear in the first few episodes of this blog.  Others exist, but to protect the privacy of the people who appear in them, I have promised not to share any other than what I already have.  

The harsher details of our lifestyle will remain untold, except for what I have shared personally with people in confidence.  Someday, as I stated in the beginning of this blog, I may choose to make a film version of this existence, showing more details of what our life was like, but a tell-all recounting of this story would be impossible without offending at least some living family members, so will probably remain untold to the public.

I am so grateful to be able to tell as much of this story as I have and appreciate the interest it has generated and the interesting comments people have added.  As I always enjoy a story that has an end, I now finish this tale until such a time as it may be explored in more detail, down the road.  I look forward to bringing you many more interesting stories in my films, which will continue to mine my rich life experiences, albeit cloaked in fictional settings and characters, as happens with most filmmakers.  

Thank you for reading! 

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Part 11: Mustard Sandwiches

Salmon berries, fresh currants, pine nuts hidden in pine cones and licorice root found beneath the bark of a tree; wild raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and other berries I never knew the name of; all of these were a part of my experience outside of the cultivated fruits from the orchards of farmers.  One day, on a long walk, we found fresh mustard flowers growing in a field and put them between two slices of home baked bread for a spicy and filling sandwich.

Raw cow and goat milk, still warm or chilled with a layer of separated cream, without homogenization, in a glass bottle; homemade yogurt, tofu and legume sprouts, these are some of the things that you rarely find in stores, but are ever so good for you.

Experiencing these things were not lost on me, I was in love with every moment.  Thinking back on it all, these were some of the best experiences of my life.  At certain moments though, my thoughts were occupied by the chores of sustenance or a desire for more processed and refined foods or some electrically powered  form of entertainment.  It was so easy to see the comfort and satisfaction of others who ate ‘better’ and worked much less to maintain the basic amenities that most Americans take for granted and to wish for those things myself.

Many years later, having all of those things I always wanted, I can never forget how it feels to be hungry or physically exhausted or to taste nature without human tampering.  No amount of technology can imitate what this earth does, but it will always try.

Just the same, no moment in life can be truly captured, but in films we come close.  Sometimes, we skip past the boring parts so we can taste the most exciting emotions and sensations that life has to offer, but it is in these intimate small instances that some of life’s most amazing realizations occur.  Adding too much of that artificial flavoring cannot long trick the intricate tastes we have the capacity to experience.

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Part 10: Conflicting Complexities

Rivers were also my thing.  Being a Pisces, I have an affinity towards water.  Oceans, lakes, rivers, streams….  I love the mist that rises over the meadows, the rain that falls like mist or in drops large enough to wet whatever they splash upon.  I love the fog, the snow, the hail and the sleet.  I once found stalagmites under a bridge crossing a canal which looked just like mushrooms!  I’ve felt the breath of life itself at the base of numerous waterfalls, the very beginning of some weather pattern which could touch another part of the planet.

I saw the mystery and promise of the trees atop the nearby mountain ranges.  Smelled the earthy saltiness of the oceans, whether covered in sand or pebble, stones or driftwood.

Later, I tasted the oysters and could imagine which beach they rested upon.  Sipped wine and could taste the various minerals, foliage and irrigation which made up their terroir.

This love of life, this appreciation for the beautiful imperfections that exist in every plant, animal and human, this is the basis of solid character study.  No one holds the key to the perfect human life.  Not even the most celebrated among us, no matter how lofty their title.  Everyone must stumble, suffer and struggle in order to evolve personally and collectively.

This struggle is what movies are about!  Whatever the objective, the conflicting complexities of what we bring to life and what life brings to us is at the core of every film you have ever loved.

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Part 9: Karmic Cacti

Vine Maples weren’t the only trees I became friends with as a child…  I climbed so many trees, spending hours in the branches, high up above the world, almost like a bird.  I knew which branches to step on and how far out from the trunk.  I was almost to the level of doing ninja-like departures from a tree, with the agility of a feral feline, scaring my father half to death at one point.

Moving through the wild is so much easier without a machete!  Spotting the best paths – ones where water or animals have traveled, or the underbrush was thin – became second nature.  But sometimes you have to tumble through the thickets too.

I always did my best to keep the living unharmed, avoiding insects and animals when possible and only cutting into live vegetation if it regarded yard work, gardening, or removing insidious plants.  I learned very young that mother nature can be unforgiving and you have to respect the sudden power and unpredictability of her.

One lesson came when I was seven, and chose to throw rocks at living cacti, knocking off their needles in my frustrations.  When I was spent, I turned to run up the gravel driveway and slipped on the rocks, tumbling into the ditch and rolled, face-first, through the cactus patch.  It took a very long time to get the needles out and hurt more than anything I could remember at that age.

This was my introduction to karma, or the golden rule, a fundamental, underlying part of every major religion.  I quickly learned that nature returns respect with wonderful rewards, whether it be in the form of food, medicine, vital resources, or simply a beautiful vista.

When I was a bit older, I started to re-enact some of the fantastic adventures I pretended to be on during my years in the wild in Role-Playing games like dungeons n dragons, where I would be the dungeon master and create the entire story for the players to advance their characters in.  This led to elaborate sets for the painted pewter figurines, from a working guillotine which lopped off the head of a giant to a sand trap which swallowed the figurine completely when the trap was released.

Soon, I realized that I was wasting a ton of time writing elaborate modules for this game when I could be writing screenplays for movies.

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Part 8: Entertaining Innovations

Vine Maples are an amazing tree… Flexible, durable and strong, there are many applications for this tree, a couple of which I discovered accidentally.  There was this creek that ran through where I lived on Cougar Mountain, and it had one bend that was overrun with Vine Maples.  With my slight frame, I was able to swing on them like Tarzan, some feet up in the air, from one side of the creek to the other.  Further up the way was a fresh spring, where we hauled our water down from.  I also made bows from the Vine Maples and twine, using tree planting dowels for the arrows.

We met the owners of the Cougar Mountain property through a communal tree planting organization in Eugene, Oregon called the Hodags.  This group consisted of a number of people who had their homes in buses and vans and trucks, who gathered at one location to accept contracts to plant thousands of trees across several states.  At some locations, people set up tents, yurts and tipis to live in, and there was usually a communal kitchen bus or tent.

Some of those people lived up on Cougar Mountain with my family.  The house the owners lived in sat on stilts and had a communal kitchen and bath house and garden.  Some of our neighbors, back in the woods, in their buses, along unnamed dirt roads, were artisans and crafts people, creating wares to be sold at farmers markets and the like.

The styrofoam containers which carried these yet to be planted tree saplings we strapped to logs to form rafts which we could float on.  I almost drowned on a pond doing that, but sort of taught myself to swim (with the help of some advice about how to doggie paddle and do the backstroke from a girl younger than myself whom I met while tree planting in Montana).  My brothers and I always made due with whatever was presented to us for our entertainment.

This practice of innovation, of using whatever is at hand and problem solving, has been a positive thing on film shoots.  On every film I’ve been involved with, new equipment or techniques or practices are innovated – sometimes on the spot, sometimes with a blueprint – to suit the particular needs of the production.

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Part 7: Connections

Although I had a sense of spirituality, since I did attend church a few times as a kid, a large part of what resonated in me as a higher power emanated from the vast expanse of nature I found myself surrounded in.  With parents who admonished killing and violence and held to the idea that all living things have feelings, I began to have a very personal and profound connection to the plants and trees, the wild game animals I occasionally spotted and the birds I attempted to imitate in whistles.  The insects and arachnids and all of their cousins and the lichens they wandered over caught my attention and wonder.  I even had the sense that the rocks and rivers were made of the same energy that I was.  Even to this day I gather immense peace from nature, as if the forests and oceans and mountains and plains are part of a great cathedral which is sacred and uplifting.  If I am ever overwhelmed by the frantic pace of modern living, I can look outside at that which lives in the wild and feel peace in my heart and spirit.

So isolated from people, I began to have a powerful interest in humanity.  What do different people believe?  What are the factors that bring societies together or tear them apart?  How did ancient civilizations consider the world around them?  How do modern ones?  This curiosity led me to explore all different political affiliations and religions, along with anthropology, sociology, psychology and theater.

It was theater that really started to bridge that gap between ‘normal’ people and my weird little family.  I started to understand the universal emotions that run through us all and how they are colored by personal experiences.  This has led to a sense of connectivity and admiration in me for the struggles others have in life.  All things are relative and someone who grew up in the middle of suburbia and attended twelve years of public (or private) school and went to church every Sunday may feel just as (or more) disconnected from other people than some long haired little boy who grew up in the woods.

So my films contain real people, with human struggles, that are catapulted into fantastic scenarios which are both grounded in – and at the same time – out of this world.

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