Alison in Film Courage

Film Courage is a website and a podcast featuring the ins and outs of indie film, and was called “one of the top ten podcasts’ by MovieMaker Magazine. They recently asked me to write an article about Alison, and so I did.

Called ‘On a Tightrope and In a Hurry,” the article is essentially about the making of Alison, and shares an in-depth view of how we approached making an intelligent, low-budget feature. Aside from the DVD Director’s Commentary, it’s the most comprehensive version of how our celebrated little movie came to be.

Check it out here.

Alison on Prescreen

Prescreen is a cool new online streaming service for smaller movies that have multiple critical accolades, but may have fallen between the distribution cracks. And for the next two months, you can catch Alison up there. Go check it out.

For Alison, of course, we didn’t pursue traditional distribution. Recognizing that the industry was changing — and also that Alison didn’t fit into any traditional genres or categories — I decided as an experiment to go it alone and pursue self-distribution. (The film Good Dick, made by my friend Marianna Palka, and the book Think Outside the Box Office helped). There were more movies than ever being made, and less shelf space for all of those movies, and frankly, fewer people were visiting mom and pop video stores anyway. I recognized Alison was a movie for the digital age — streaming, Netflix, iTunes, Roku, that sort of thing.

So far, it’s been great. What was designed from the beginning as a very modest movie costing a pittance compared to most films has been critically acclaimed, been bought and sold on iTunes alongside the big boys, and is finding a home in niche ‘net outlets like Prescreen. We’re happy. Have we made our money back? Not yet. Have we made an Alison-sized dent in the industry and gotten noticed and opened doors for other opportunities? You betcha.

I haven’t streamed it on the iPad yet, but I bet it looks beautiful there.

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.

The Mourning Portrait Teaser

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, a few friends and I got together and shot a teaser for a feature film we were hoping to make. Here it is.

My friends Patrick Greene, Stephen Corbin, Kenneth Wilson and I went out into the woods of North Carolina and played around with a 35mm camera. Savanna James and Terry Nienhuis acted for us. We had fun. We shot in the same location in which Robert Redford shot his film The Clearing; the cabin was the same that Aidan Quinn stayed in for his role in Songcatcher.

We knew it was a good idea. The project got picked up by Belladonna Productions and is presently in development. We’ll see where it goes.


Full disclosure: I know some of these guys, and share a production company with them (Belladonna Productions). That said, this is a really amazing movie you should check out right away.

Stakeland is a newish feature film by the always interesting Jim Mickle. Though the apocalyptic zombie/vampire/succubus/giant blob/whatever genre may be playing itself out by now, you should hold on for one m0re really good ride. Stakeland is an uncommonly exciting, intelligent and fresh take on what happens after everything falls to shit in the good ole US of A.

With a sly commentary on the state of the homeland (and even the world), Mickle and his collaborator (actor and storyteller par excellence Nick Damici) create a frightening and interesting take on what its like to live in a world where there are no second mistakes, where there’s no sentiment allowed, nothing but pure survival and red-blooded American values.

Never predictable, never taking the easy way out, it easily earns its poignantly original emotional payoff. Produced by indie horror film svengali Larry Fessenden through his company Glass Eye Pics, Stakeland is nothing other than a new horror classic. Keep your eyes on these guys. They’re gonna go far.

Diabolique Magazine

So it looks like The Mourning Portrait is featured in the July/August issue of Diabolique Magazine, along with a brief interview by yours truly.

Diabolique is a mag from England specializing in the brainy side of horror — international horror films, gothic fiction, interviews with past greats. Their visual vibe hearkens back to Creepy Magazine and the Hammer Films — that retro, elegant, old school approach to horror which was so much more satisfying than the bloody, gory, ‘spill until it hurts’ vibe we have today.

The article, written by the talented Keri O’Shea, is very well-done and treads lightly upon the subject of post-mortem memorial photography, something that is easily sensationalized. But she did an awesome job.

The magazine is primarily a print rag, but there is a PDF download version. You should do yourself a favor and check it out …


The best film I’ve seen so far this year is a micro-budget, FX-laden, heavily-improvised mumblecore monster movie set in Mexico.

Yes, you read it right. Writer-Director-Everything-elser Gareth Edwards hit a major home run with his first movie, last year’s Monsters, which I still can’t get out of my head. Using an intriguing concept, bravura filmmaking techniques, appealing leads, amazing home computer FX chops, and a natural born filmmaker’s eye for drama and suspense, Edwards has created a most unlikely minor masterpiece. He shot it, directed it, edited it, did the incredible special effects on his home computer, all the while using non-actors as 90 percent of the onscreen talent. Just unbelievable.

Is it perfect? No. Lapses of logic, ham-handed political commentary, even some unintentional similarities to another noble attempt at mindful sci-fi, District 9, hobble it just a bit. But we tend to cut it some slack due to its micro-budget (I’ve heard somewhere in the low six figures), its amazing risk-taking and virtuoso filmmaking by Edwards. It’s really really good.

Edwards’ accomplishment looms large. This is a filmmaker of voluminous talent. Even his lead, the interestingly named Scoot McNairy, is going to be a big star. Count on it.

The Benefits of Solitude

Writers, it seems, have a love/hate relationship with solitude. We seem to crave that noise which can only be found on the inside of our own heads. It is indeed a beautiful noise. I can’t for the life of me understand why more people don’t agree.

We’re all very social creatures, of course — one week in solitary confinement at Brushy Mountain Correctional Facilty, just over the mountain from where I sit, will prove that very quick.

But as an artist, being alone is truly a requirement. And not just literally having no one around: Even in the living room I can often write when people are moving through the house and the TV is on, and the dishwasher is cycling through and the kid is bouncing a ball against his bedroom wall. But what’s necessary is the sense that you are unneeded for a time — that’s true gold. That’s where the magic happens.

Some people, when they have a night off, are working the phones hoping to get a beer summit together, or a movie, or a communal jog. Me on a night off, I’m usually headed for my office to tinker with a script, or a song, or read a book, or just peruse articles on that never-ending pop culture magazine rack we call The Internet.

I’m genuinely puzzled here. I love to hike, love movies, love eating out, love communal work sessions, love socializing (as long as it excludes small talk, that buzzing mosquito in the ear of every true conversationalist’s existence). But an evening or afternoon spent in one’s own head — what could be better? Unfettered thoughts, strings of logic left uninterrupted, daydreams, fantasy worlds created and destroyed in minutes. That’s what we’re running away from?

Is it selfish to think that one’s head is one of the more interesting places to be at any given time? Are we that desperate for noise and distraction that we can’t settle down for a solitary film, or an hour with a book, or even (God forbid) staring at the ceiling for a time?

In his day, the poet Wordsworth worried that the coming years were bringing a number of gross distractions, that more and more stimulation was needed to keep our attentions. And that was in the early 19th Century. He’d abhor what has happened now.

I don’t think I’m making some huge pronouncement here. I’m just observing, and also asking a question: What is so tough about hanging around with yourself and listening the music inside one’s own head?

“Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a god.”

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.