Tag: film

All the world’s a set

And all the men and women merely crew.

Some observers would think this film shoot was completely under control. The set is perfect: pageant stage with balloons and sparkly ribbons, awards table with assorted trophies and crowns, an oversized check.

In the ballroom next door, a makeup artist is stationed at her battalion of paints, powders, mascara wands, curling irons, straightening irons, brushes, hairpins. At another table, little girls’ dresses are laid out, very pretty. A script lies on the next table, my part highlighted in bright orange.

I’m sitting at the table, but I’m not working on my lines. My co-star has never seen the script. She’s never seen a script. She’s seven years old.

“I thought this was a play,” she says, which explains why she kept asking where the audience was when the director took us on set a minute ago. I thought she meant the fake audience, the parents and kids who normally would be in the audience, watching the girls dance and pose onstage. The director explained that they’d be shooting her scene from the audience’s point of view so we really didn’t need more than two or three people in the seats.

But now, sitting with her at the table, in the early months of this year of a day when I still think the lines matter, it’s hard to know exactly what she meant. She sounds out the words of my dialog, maybe because they’re glowing with orange.

“That’s a spelling word,” she says, pointing to the word know. I hate to tell her that’s one of my lines, because it’s taken so long just to get to the point of sitting here, which is what I think we need to be doing. Actors review their lines together, right? You run the stuff you’re going to shoot that day, and build some kind of rapport, especially if you’re going to be playing mother and daughter. I’ve already warned her that I’ll be saying some mean things because the mommy in the story is a little crazy. “No way you can make me cry,” she informed me when we met.

“Okay,” I said, “I hope not, but I’m going to try.”

“No, you can’t do it,” she laughed, and I thought we were off to a good start.

She loves looking at all the dresses, and loves getting up and running around the ballroom, and taking a cookie from the buffet table, and trying on lipstick. She stands next to me at the table, drinking soda out of a wineglass she found at the bar. “The… car…”

“No, we don’t have to read that part,” I say.

“Why not?”

“That’s the action.”


“It’s the part the camera guys use to see where we are.” But actually it isn’t. The action says we’re in a car, but the director has changed it because my co-star arrived three hours late so we don’t have time for the car setup, so we’ll be in a dressing room. “We don’t care about that part because we’ll just be wherever they put us. All we care about is saying the words and telling the story.”

“Can I have this dress?” She’s wearing an adorable black and white dress she calls her Lady Gaga. It’s trimmed with faux fur.

“I don’t know, it’s not mine. You’ll have to ask the director.”

She sounds out a slug line. “INT…?”

“We don’t care about that part.”

“Well then, which are mine?”

“Just the skinny part in the middle. But not the orange ones. See, all it is, is the mom is telling you what to do, how to do your dance.”

“I know how to dance. I’m good at dancing. Want to see?” She starts dancing, and I get up. I decide I don’t need to worry about the script.

“Yeah, I know you’re good, you’re amazing, but the girl in the story, she keeps forgetting.”

“I don’t forget.”

“No, you don’t. But the girl. That’s the whole scene. The mom keeps telling her the steps, and she forgets, because when she does the dance on stage she dances really amazingly, but she misses one step.”

“I didn’t miss a step!”

“No, I know, but you’ll just pick one place to miss one. Because then Mommy gets mad.”

“Who’s my Mommy?”

“I am.”

She raises her eyebrows at me, like she did when the director first introduced us, and like she did a minute ago when she asked and I told her. But this time, instead of just raising her eyebrows, she stops. “You’re white.”


“Then how can you be my mommy?”

“I… maybe your dad is black?”

“My mom is, my dad is, I don’t like that word ‘black,’ he’s darker than me.”

“I mean, in the story. Maybe your pretend daddy is dark and your pretend mommy is…light. I don’t like that word ‘white.’”


“Ew, I hate that word even worse,” I say. “How ‘bout Italian?”

“What’s that?”

“From Italy.”

“From what?”

The director interrupts, “Hey, want to meet your dad? Your pretend dad? He just got here.” A handsome, incredibly well-dressed man walks up. He’s wearing a three-piece suit, a cravat, a matching pocket handkerchief, and a pair of Dolce & Gabbana glasses. “Darling,” I say, “where have you been?”

He laughs, “It’s been a long time.” Our co-star laughs at us but lets us hug her for a minute. The director says, “This is your daddy in the story.”

He’s my daddy?” She raises her eyebrows again. So maybe it’s not my color that she’s questioning, it’s just the possibility that anyone other than her dad could be her dad.

“Yep. But he’s not at the pageant. You want to do your dance?”

“Yes!” She runs up onstage and the director follows. “Now remember what we talked about, you do your dance real perfectly, but then there’s just one place where you trip.”

“Nuh-uh, I never trip.”

“Just at the very end.”

“No, I do it perfect. I want the prize.”

“Oh. Well…” I begin to see why this guy is a good director. He adjusts on the fly.”Okay, maybe you’ll do this one perfectly, how ‘bout that?”

“Yes!” I’ve followed them to my spot just in front of the stage, where crazy mommy is watching from, and she whispers to me, “Where’s the director?”

“That’s him. He’s the director.” He comes downstage and squats down. “Yep, I’m the director.”

“It’s his story, that’s why we’re doing these things,” I say.

“You’re the director?”


“Oh. Can I have this dress?”

Honor among truth tellers

Shirley temple in Curly top on an iphone

Memory and truth are weird. The truth of a memory is weighted by the event and by the teller, given our own capacity to record facts and our own sense of what’s important about those facts. But when the story is told, its truth is weighed by a listener who has no way to judge the facts, except by their own set of memories.

Someone else’s story can seem too pat to me, like in the song at a concert last night where three events in the singer’s life all neatly signified the same bit of wisdom that was summed up in the throat-lumping chorus. I scoffed when it was over, but Dave said he liked its unpredictability. “Are you kidding? First the guy, then the boat, then the road of life?”

“Oh, not the words, I’m talking about the musical structure.” And when the same singer sang another song later that evening, I absolutely bought it and got progressively more teary-eyed every time the chorus came around. Same story structure, three concentric circles of significant events, and I have no idea what the musical structure was, but those events seemed somehow truer to me. So they paid off in tears.

This month marks two years since my mom died. I’ve been writing a story about her for This Much Is True, whose November show happens to fall this year on that anniversary, Tuesday the 8th. I want to tell the story as truthfully as I can, but of course I also want it to be compelling and funny and complete. So I write what’s in my head, and put it aside, and then look at it later to see what feels true or not true. Today I dug out some journals from the months before my mom died, looking for a couple of facts I hoped I’d written down at the time. I found some decent notes, and also an entry from several days before she died. I’d asked what her favorite memory was, and this is what she said.

I went to see Curly Top with my mom at the Marlborough Theatre. It was never like that, just the two of us. But this time, no Marie, no Ralph, nobody but me and my mom. And we saw Curly Top, and it was Christmas time. The theatre was in a Jewish neighborhood at that time, Madison and Crawford, now Pulaski, and when we came out, you know how we always have colored lights? Well, they had all blue lights on their trees and in all these apartment windows. All blue, and the snow was falling so gently, and it was just so beautiful. Just me and my mom.

I didn’t think about it much at the time, just wrote it down as quick as I could, to catch the words and save them for later. Coming across them now, hunting for details about the guy at the cemetery who told me I couldn’t bury my mom the way she wanted to be buried, I’m first of all impressed that I had the presence of mind to ask her questions like this. I didn’t do it enough. And second, I wonder if this is why she always bought Shirley Temple paraphernalia, even though she never seemed to be much of a fan. And third, I wonder if the snow really was gently falling. Could it really have been that perfect?

But if it’s your very favorite memory that you tell at the end of your life, and the snow wasn’t actually falling at the time, do you get the snow thrown in for free, like a Clinique gift with purchase? And also, if she hadn’t mentioned the snow, would my imagination have thrown it in anyway? Yes, because where there’s Christmas in old Chicago, with blue lights sparkling in all the storefronts and apartment building windows, and a little girl is walking with a mom who rarely has time for her alone like she does right now, there simply has to be snow. And it’s got to be falling gently.

The undeciders

cocktail napkin
Maybe it makes more sense to a decider.

I shot my wad on the way up to Bay City. We were closing in on lunch time, and I remembered a café near New Buffalo that I’d eaten at a few years ago. I didn’t have to actually make that decision, just suggest it. But when you’re travelling with three other undeciders, even a comment can be construed as a command.

Lunch was fine, though for some reason the waitress didn’t want to give Kismet water. Throughout the weekend, we had a hard time getting four waters. However, the booze was cheap.

After lunch, I left the decision-making to Kismet and Kyle and Dave. At the fest, there were multiple good options for doing something at any time: three film venues, plus a few workshops, plus parties, plus restaurants, plus bars. One of us would say, “Do you want to go to this?” Someone would answer, “Sure, if you do.” Followed up by someone else’s “Whatever you think.” Confirmed by the fourth person’s “I’m good either way.”

I was the one who probably should have had some plan, for how I could meet as many other filmmakers as possible, how I could insert myself into as many conversations as possible, so I could be one of those people quoted on film fest sites, “I made so many great connections and we’re already talking about collaborating on future projects!” But that’s not me. The transition from “Liked your film” to “Wanna read my script?” always seems fake.

Plus, I’m too distracted by new faces or off-topic conversations or pictures of peoples’ dogs or another event happening three blocks away. Like the wonderful family parties that ended just as I realized I still hadn’t talked to the one person I wanted to catch up with, I was too busy having fun. Wandering from place to place, sometimes with the other undeciders or sometimes alone, because in addition to being undeciders we are also unclingers. Watching good films. Eating good food. Meeting an occasional filmmaker and making vague plans to talk later. Because there seemed to be infinite time in this friendly, happy world. Just like the parties at Auntie Aggie’s, where there was always another roomful of interesting people, another tray of food coming out of the kitchen, and rumors of Mr. Microphone in the basement. Oh wait, no, Mr. Microphone wasn’t at the festival.

I did a pretty good job of not putting myself down, though Kismet scolded me once for advising someone to watch Sandman “in a group – it’s not as good alone.” “But it’s not,” I protested.

“Have you watched it alone?” she charged.

“That’s different,” I said.

“That’s your opinion,” she replied. “Keep it to yourself.” Kismet also took apart our distribution plan, late at night in the hotel bar, on the napkin from her Manhattan. In response to my presentation of our strategy, “We’ve done some festivals, so now, hopefully, I guess, some distribution,” she asked for a pen.

“First we identify our long-term goals for the film. Then medium-term goals. Then short-term goals. That’s this column. Then organizational considerations. Then allies.”

“What are organizational considerations?”

“Don’t worry about those yet. Start with goals. What are your long-term goals?”

“Um…” Saved by the waitress. “Another round here?”

“Yes, please!” We decided to finish the discussion on the drive home. That was the one actual decision we made, but we didn’t keep it. Instead, we nursed our hangovers and thought about gifts for the people who were taking care of our dogs.

In classic undecider form, we couldn’t figure out where to exit for the gifts. Maybe a gas station would have something suitably kitschy? But these were favorite people; we didn’t want crappy. Was there something local? Dave took out his phone. “If we detour through downtown Lansing, there are two gift shops.”

“Detour? Do we want to detour?” No one said anything. “Is there something right on the highway?”

Dave searched. “There’s a Gifts from the Heart. It’s about a mile off exit 127.”

I wondered what about a mile might mean. “Do you guys want to stop?” “Sure, if you do.”“Whatever you think.” “I’m good either way.”

We neared the exit. There was some construction; there could be delays. “What do you think?” “Should we just keep going?” “Should we stop?” “Should we…?” “Exit,” Dave suddenly said. And Kyle exited.

We followed the directions, the sure enough, one mile off the highway, was Briarbrook road. But it was inside a gated community. Gifts from the Heart is online-only. “But we commend you for deciding,” we consoled Dave. He was done with decisions.

To get back to the highway, Kyle had to turn around in a Cracker Barrel parking lot. Which turned out to be a great place to get kitschy gifts. Even better, once, we’d bought them and could forget about it, we saw a sign for apple cider. We sampled from 23 flavors of cider, ate cider donuts, posed for pictures on rocking chairs that seemed more authentic than the ones at Cracker Barrel, and played in an outdoor metal dinosaur museum. It was the perfect Michigan roadside stop, discovered only because an undecider decided to stop at a store that didn’t exist.

Diary of a jib

It’s like I’m not even here.

Today They brought me to a house. I won’t say He. To me, He no longer counts as a He. He—that is, They—carried my parts as if I were so much equipment. Throughout my assemblage, They blabbed to the AD. Nothing about how easily I went together, just silly chatter about the weather (“So much rain!”) and the neighborhood (“What do they call this area?”) and the AD’s vertigo (“No kidding?”). I’m sure the universe is the wiser, thanks to those insights.

I held myself apart, daring Him – I mean, Them – to fit my base into the spider dolly, defying the twist of the lug bolt. Not long ago, at times like this, all the chatter would be of me. Of the gift of my perfect balance after all those years with What’s-it’s-name. The gift of my compactness – you’d never guess, when you saw me in pieces, that I could span 20 feet. The gift of me. Now those days are deader than an XL1.

When I was fully formed, They left, trailing his witty repartee like a docked tail. “See ya.” I spent the evening alone. A spotted dog appeared briefly. It stepped over my feet to get to a bed tucked in the corner. Surely I’m the tallest, widest span of metal and steel ever to grace the inside of this shack, but the dog gave not a backward glance.

Two theys came in and sat on the couch. They watched an episode of Friday Night Lights, which doesn’t even use one of me. Yawn. One they left and the other read by a dim light. It’s very strange, the lights they use for living.

I will try to rest, and hope tomorrow will be better. Not to expect, for I’ve learned something about expectations in these last few months. But hope, surely, is free to anyone fool enough – and long enough – to reach for it.