The Black Curtain has risen

Last year, I went on an epic, several-day journey with Ben Lovett and his cohorts in filmmaking adventures. I directed the fifth video in his series of collaborations with various directors.

So take a gander at Black Curtain here.

Black Curtain from Harrow Beauty Motion Pictures on Vimeo.

You can find an in-depth look at our process here.

Love and Theft

As artists, we’re constantly on the lookout for new inspiration. Sometimes that inspiration comes from other art, and sometimes it comes from odd places — an aging house cat, or a grocery store display, or a particularly terrible car commercial. But most often, it’s the artists who came before us that we look to take from and emulate.

Bob Dylan famously said, “Good artists borrow, but great artists steal.” At least he was said to say that. Most likely he stole it from someone else.

Artists do steal. The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin stole from countless bluesmen. The classic early 20th Century blues belter Ma Rainey stole from the raunchy vaudevillians that came before. Bruce Springsteen stole so completely from Dylan that he made it his own. Stanley Kubrick stole from filmmaker Max Ophuls, and Stephen King stole so exhaustively from Ray Bradbury and HP Lovecraft that he is himself now being taken from. Paul Thomas Anderson started his career by imitating Scorsese and Altman; nowadays, with his films taking on a more elliptical and mysterious approach, he’s claimed to be taking from any number of black and white films on Turner Classic Movies.

In my own artistic career, I’ve learned it’s best to steal from the best — to go back to the first well. If you steal from a secondary source, you’re basically regurgitating already chewed food. You want primary sources … or at least as primary as you can get. Shakespeare, of course, stole from everybody in his day, but is considered a fairly reliable primary source. And James Joyce is a reliable primary source, even though he was in turn influenced and swayed by any number of writers that came before.

The point is, of course, to not rely on secondary sources of inspiration. Don’t steal from Green Day — steal from The Sex Pistols, or better yet, Muddy Waters. Don’t take from Patty Smith — or even Jim or Van Morrison … visit Rimbaud. Don’t write a Brett Easton Ellis kind of book, write a Saul Bellow kind of book, or maybe, if you’re feeling randy, even a Balzac kind of book.

Try to steal from — to be influenced by — the things that became iconic in their time. It matters. Your own voice will be so much more vital, so much more necessary, than if you look to watered-down and anemic sources of inspiration.

Black Curtain

Despite the incredibly high level of creativity going on in Asheville, North Carolina, this city where I live is actually a pretty small town. There’s an unusually robust population of prominent writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers (cough) and craftsmen who ply their trade in this larger than life, smaller-than-you’d-think mountain burgh.

One of those artists, the musician Ben Lovett, has been known primarily as a film composer, but last year he released his excellent indie rock debut CD, called Highway Collection. Perhaps because he’s so entrenched in the film industry, he once pledged to make a short film accompanying every song on the CD. And now, those short films have been so uniformly excellent that they’ve actually taken on a life of their own. Each one is a collaboration with a new director, in a unique and uncompromising style. (You can enjoy some of this previous work here, here, and here).

I met Ben about a year or so ago in a local recording studio, and was immediately impressed; not only was his music excellent, his 12 minute film Ghost of Old Highways was a brilliant example of compelling and gorgeous indie filmmaking, North Carolina-style. In other words, right up my alley. So I let him know if he needed another collaborator, I was willing.

He took me up on it. Recently, we completed shooting on Black Curtain, his next magnum opus. Over the winter, I pitched him an idea — a series of ideas, really — that can kinda be summed up as Edward Gorey meets Eyes Wide Shut. Set in the Edwardian Age (not the 1920’s as it may seem, but the 1910’s — the age of the Titanic), my concept revolved around spiritualism and seances, and elegant people who become more and more depraved the more you look at them. There’s a sickness there, a dark underbelly that contrasts and makes all the elegance come alive. (You can see even one of the images from my pitch here.)

Ben took those initial concepts and ran with them, creating a twisted narrative that’s both heartwarming and sinister at the same time. As we set about creating this production, it became bigger and bigger; soon we had a cast of close to 100 people, with a crew of 60-something folks, mixed with both Asheville veterans like Producer Kelly Denson, Production Designer Shane Meador and Art Director Christi Whitely, and a full crew from Atlanta, led by Director of Photography J. Christopher Campbell.

For our location, we were lucky enough to secure the Masonic Temple here in Asheville — a 100 year old building that, thanks to the Mason’s somewhat secretive nature, had been closed for many decades to outsiders, and was thus preserved as neatly as a time capsule. Gloriously eccentric, with the original furniture and lighting fixtures still in place, the building was perfect for our needs.

The production itself was surreal. Huge and complex, with teams of makeup and wardrobe personnel, the halls of the entire building were busy with costumed extras and technical crew carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars of high tech film equipment up and down the antique stairs. One bleary early morning I found myself approving various young women who were eager to get naked for our camera.

The result will be a gloriously elaborate and eccentric short film that will fit in nicely with the work Ben has previously done.

Watching all of this unfold, I got that visceral thrill that writer-directors experience when the quiet images that they formed in their heads — often sitting alone in an office or spare bedroom, staring at a blank wall — suddenly come to life around them. You can see the excitement in the performers’ and the crew members’ eyes. There’s no feeling like it. This is why we make movies.

Underhill Rose

Underhill Rose is a North Carolina-based country soul band comprised of three gifted women: Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed, and Salley Williamson. Incredibly talented, fun and uncommonly cool, these chicks can write, sing and play with amazing grace.

I was surprised when they asked me to direct their first professional video (on the recommendation of the incredible rock photographer Sandlin Gaither). At first I was a little hesitant — I knew we had few resources, and musicians this good can often be so wrapped up in themselves and their own schtick that it wouldn’t have been fun. But these women were so nice, so charming, so real that I had to say yes, even though I knew we had hardly any tools and toys to work with beyond basic camera equipment and our own good intentions.

The song is called “Who Brought The Sun,” of course, and so I set about creating a whole shooting palette and motif built around the sun — sun flares, coronas, shadows, sunsets and so on. And of course the day of the shoot turned out to be completely overcast, not a shred of actual sun in the sky, not a shadow to be found down below.

But we went out to a field in Western North Carolina near the campus of Warren Wilson College, and shot a video in about two hours. With Aaron Morrell doing the Director of Photography duties and myself as Director, we captured several performances with two Canon 7D’s as the sun went down behind a ceiling of clouds.

Recently, the video premiered in Asheville, and the girls played a show. Aaron took the photographs below. I drank beer. I really love my job.

I’m pretty okay with cloudy days now.

How I Write

In honor of John August’s recent post ‘My Daily Writing Routine,’ I thought I would supply my own writing regimen.

A long time ago, I realized that getting into a specific routine with writing was probably a bad idea. First of all, I didn’t know if I could support myself solely from my writing, and thus create an everyday pattern (I was correct in that assumption). Second, I knew that any habit would eventually have to be broken. Habits are like addictions — crutches that you use to get stuff done. I didn’t want a crutch, I wanted empowerment. So I trained myself to be able to write any way, anywhere, at any time of day, providing I wasn’t tired or sick or something. That ability has served me well in the years.

So I don’t have a certain time of day that I write. I don’t have a certain place. I don’t even write in my home office. That’s for reading the news, emails, day job film work (like editing video) or even playing music (I record directly into my Mac Pro).

Lately, I like to write seated in a comfy chair in my living room, with my Macbook Pro in my lap. It’s a big room with a high ceiling. I like high ceilings. Somehow they make my imagination soar. Years ago, I read a book by the philosopher Gaston Bachelard called The Poetics of Space, which was an exploration of the phenomenology and perception of certain types of architecture. Bachelard made a point of discussing high ceilings and attics and rafters as a means of exploring flights of fancy, and I understand why. Looking up at exposed rafters while I daydream does seem to help engage the imagination.

On the other hand, when I started writing in earnest after college, I would go to a makeshift office in a basement storage area of my rented house — a small cubicle that had no headroom (or even room) at all. And it was fine. I was very productive there. The lesson for me is that you don’t need a certain space to write — you need your writing tools and your imagination … and that’s it. Sometimes a nice room with a window can actually be detrimental — you may spend too much time looking out, rather than looking in.

I write in Final Draft, V8, on a laptop. I use a Mac Pro with Final Cut Pro to edit movies and videos. I use Express Logic to record music (on which I play my 1998 Gibson J45, my 1989 Fender Telecaster, my 2000 Fender P-Bass, my M-Audio midi controller and my Kellii Ukulele).

I don’t usually go for a page count every day. In the early parts of a draft, there’s usually as much thinking as writing. Too much writing too early can in fact be detrimental. It’s akin to driving without knowing where you’re going, and then having to backtrack for hours — or in fact, days and even months. I do outline, or at least know where I’m headed. While I admire those writers who can literally make it up as they go along, I am not one of them; I can’t conceive of a proper beginning without knowing my ending.

Sometimes my various drafts can take years before I pronounce a script done. While I write all the time, I am a slow writer; I like to let the ingredients ferment, so to speak, and grow into themselves, like good wine, or food left overnight in the fridge. If it’s too fresh, it usually doesn’t feel finished to me. Sometimes this rule is broken: Alison, for instance, was literally made up as we went along. There was no time for fermenting; it was an exercise in which I challenged myself to collaborate and feel my way along. It seemed to work, but that’s not my usual process. I like to let the ideas become themselves so thoroughly that they won’t work any other way.

Sometimes I collaborate. For The Mourning Portrait, I worked with Patrick Greene. For an upcoming project called Old Exit One (a contemporary dark fantasy) I worked with a Chapel Hill, NC writer named Brent Winter, perhaps my oldest friend. In both cases I enjoyed it, and the other scribe brought something excellent to the table which I was completely unable to provide. I learned a lot from each of them, and will undoubtedly collaborate again in the future. But I do admit that I find writing by myself a little easier. For starters, you don’t need permission to change a word. Also, the communication factor — the back and forth — can be it’s own time-drain, as well. Like anything else, sometimes it’s just easier for you to do it yourself. And I find you can sometimes go deeper into your own unique vision — highlight obscure elements that you may not be able to when you’re justifying ideas to another person. You can bring out the work’s inner madness, which I think is necessary to making a good script. A good collaboration can also do that, but the visions you conjure are rarely (for better or for worse) your own.

All in all, I try not to have too much of a regimen, other than writing as much as I can. I might go a week without writing, or write every day for a month. But as long as I’m chugging out roughly one script a year, I’m happy.

On the Death of Clarence Clemons

As I write this, it is the afternoon of my 45th birthday. But I’m not feeling old — it’s also Father’s Day, and I have my wonderful family right here by my side. We’re all happy and healthy and looking forward to many decades of love and joy and memories to come.

But there’s a melancholy feeling in the air. A rock star I’ve never met before — a band-member, a sideman — has died, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that things have changed. The Wheels of Time have turned, and there ain’t no going back. Ever.

We all know Clarence Clemons was the legendary sax player for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. He was charismatic, well beloved, larger than life, blah blah blah. Truth be told, he wasn’t a virtuoso. He didn’t invent a style. He wasn’t really that innovative. He took from here, borrowed from there, expanded on this and that. His work had more than once been called cliched — and that was 25 years ago, before he became the star in the firmament into which he grew later on.

What made Clarence special was also what made his boss, Bruce Springsteen, special: the sense of love and belonging, the sense of community, of hard times shared and adversity overcome by intelligence, by grace of spirit and sheer force of will. He had a sound — big and brassy and ballsy, a celebratory sound. It was often compared to being in church, and it held within it that anticipatory feeling of that thing that you really want to experience, that thing you hope is coming — and then it comes. Like an orgasm, it happens and it enfolds you and it’s everything you wanted it to be.

I found Springsteen as a lost and unhappy 17-year old in suburban Alabama. Bruce never toured the South much, and so aside from basic classic rock radio play, no one around me knew much about him — Styx and Van Halen and Led Zeppelin were more my generations’ rock heroes of choice. Bruce was quoted in Stephen King books, of course, and praised by Rolling Stone Magazine, but he was simultaneously too complicated and too normal to really reach the high school parking lots of my youth.

But I had heard about Nebraska, and in 1983 I went to a local Kmart and bought the cassette of that seminal work. (I still prefer Nebraska played on a simple cassette tape in moving car. At night.) Clemons, of course, was nowhere to be found on that album. Only Bruce, sounding as if he were singing from 50 years ago — like Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Leadbelly plunking guitars on a porch somewhere off in the woods.

The next year, of course, brought Born in the USA. It hit me so hard I remember laughing the first time I heard it — laughing in joy that what I had been looking for, I now had found. Amid the big drums and the synthesizers, there was Clarence — banging cowbells, clicking castanets, blaring that goose-honk of a saxophone. It was weird — but it worked. There were hillbilly songs on BITUSA — Darlington County, Working on the Highway were straight up redneck rockers — so what the hell was a black man and his sax doing on that? But it worked. As the political writer David Corn has noted, Clarence was the X Factor that pushed it all over the top. He was the inexplicable element that gave it a sense of surprise and daring.

I dove into learning about these guys as much as possible. Even as the world fell in love with the band in the mid-eighties, they still seemed oddly personal. The songs really did sound like they spoke to you as an individual. As a lonely and somewhat unhappy teen, I can remember lying in bed listening to a live bootleg on my walkman late into the night, listening to songs that spoke to outsiders and their inherent worth, and their search for community. It was startlingly intimate and soul-filling.

Springsteen’s primary gift, I think, is his ability to transform individual misfits — or tramps — into a vast community that feels like a true brotherhood. A way to make real those suspicions that we don’t belong — but its okay, because if we all don’t belong, then we’ll go somewhere else and create our own unique community of non-belongers. But we needed a legitimizing factor — something that told us we were on the right track, that we had our own sense of beauty and our own way of looking at the world, and that it was valuable.

Clarence was that legitimizing factor. A huge black man from working class Virginia, he’d soaked up gospel and soul and jazz and R&B (and burlesque and polka and … ) his whole life and embodied the true meaning of Cool. And if he liked you, that meant you were also Cool. It rubbed off on you like cologne. Clarence was cool, and so Bruce was cool, and by proxy, so were we. We belonged because Clarence told us we could. It was an antidote to all the suburban screamings of hair metal and white boy techno and tinny dance music that surrounded me in the increasingly plastic environs of mid-eighties Alabama.

Clarence was unswayable — as a musical embodiment of early sixties soul, R&B, girl groups and frat rock, he outlasted and outblasted 60’s psychedelia, 70’s soft rock singer-songwriter pabulum, album rock, punk, disco, new wave, college rock, MTV crap, hair metal, grunge, boy bands, jam bands, emo, nu-metal, and so on. His final performances with Lady Gaga brought him fully into a meta-loop where the man who references the greats is now referencing himself — and pulls it off. His final performance bestowed legitimacy on yet another legion of outcasts as Gaga’s adolescent monster-misfits went ‘paws up’ with affection and respect for the big black man who couldn’t get around so good.

Onstage with Bruce, he was the perfect foil — tall and dark to Bruce’s small and pale, waiting for his moments to bring the glory into those songs of hardship and earthly, unromantic toil. The music dug deep into the tough soil of the earth, and that’s why it soared so high — when Clarence’s sound roared out it felt earned, like a heavy airplane fighting against the gravity of the planet — and succeeding.

Oddly enough, it was gravity that he fought against at the end of his days. A truly big man who hopped around onstage for forty years, his joints were tired, his back hurt, his knees killed him. But that never got in his way. There was no retirement. There was little time off — as Springsteen (that most ageless of aging rockers) got busier and busier, Clemons did too. Sometimes he needed a chair (okay, a throne) onstage to make him more comfortable, but he was there, giving it his all. Often there were tears onstage as that shared community boiled over into something undeniable. This was more than mere rock music — this was a brotherhood ten thousand strong every night, one that stood four decades of tribulation. This was family.

Victor Frankl’s landmark book Man and His Search for Meaning posits that there really is no meaning in the universe other than what we create for ourselves. The meaning of life, in other words, is something we form in our years and our decades of hard work and our dreams and fears and instinctual love for each other. If that’s true (and I believe it is) then few other public figures have created more meaning for themselves and their community — the misfit tramps — than Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

As the band’s resident X Factor, Clarence was perhaps most instrumental in that creation of meaning, second only to Bruce Springsteen himself. Bruce was the Boss, but even he needed that validation, that sense that he was doing the right thing — that he was cool. Clarence’s presence every night made sure we knew we all were cool. In this way a decades-long brotherhood of truth and love and hard work was formed.

And in this way a world was transformed.

Night’s Bright Colors

My good friend Jason Smith and I have collaborated for most of a decade, as he partially scored every single one of my movies. Even today, I couldn’t be more impressed with his talents (he’s the one, for instance, who wrote and performed the ukulele piece on the Alison trailer).

He’s also got his own band, Night’s Bright Colors, and though they’re usually more of an in-studio recording outfit, they play around every so often. Here’s a video I shot of them recently roaring through one of their songs at the Bobo Gallery, here in Asheville, NC. Go check out their music on iTunes.

The Tele


Springsteen’s Tele. Coolest guitar ever? Possibly. Worst photo of me ever? Definitely. Who cares? The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame won’t let you take photos in there, but we did anyway.

Seen up close, the guitar looks like its been in a few wars; it’s literally glued and duct-taped together, but I guess 35 years of night after night tends to do that …