Clayton Eshleman: From an Interview by Irakli Qolbaia, the first & last questions - [What follows are two sections from a longer interview conducted by the Georgian poet and translator Irakli Qolbaia, in which Eshleman takes on two key ...
Saturday, April 24, 2010
"Go South": the movie - 1st pre-production meeting
Last Wednesday the actor and writer Ray Brewer called the first pre-production meeting for "Go South for Animal Index," the next Poetry Scores silent movie.
Ray brought the artist Nancy Exarhu to help with visualization; a lighting pro (and photographer) named Bill Sawalich; and a hobbyist animator named Greg Rozeboom.
I invited the poet and actor Stefene Russell, who wrote "Go South" and acts in our movies. She was joined by her husband, the writer and pneumatic salesman Thom Fletcher, who had an important oddball role in our first movie and will again in the next.
The artist and writer Kevin Belford showed up, though I burned him out editing video and producing miniatures for our first movie, and he isn't promising anybody anything yet on this one.
K. Curtis Lyle, poet and elder, made the scene to connect with board member and big thinker John Eiler. Curtis played The Pharaoh in our first movie, "Blind Cat Black," and will act for us again; John runs the zombie makeup garage for our flicks, and also wants to act in the next one.
Meanwhile, busy moving a ship out of his garage (a long story ...) was the video production professional Aaron AuBuchon, another burnout from the "Blind Cat Black" juggernaut - but back with us on "Go South," conceptually, technically, and as a lead actor.
We opened the meeting, in The Foxhole at Atomic Cowboy, by talking about the Poetry Scores moviemaking process, which follows a particular form.
First we take a book-length poem and set it to music, producing a poetry score. That is always done before we start making a movie to the score. I tend to co-produce the scores with a long-term musical accomplice, as I did with "Go South". Matt Fuller (in Los Angeles) and I co-wrote songs to about two-thirds of the poem and recorded them with our band, Three Fried Men. We then scavenged music from other sources, with permission, to complete the score.
Then we write, shoot, and edit a movie to the pre-existing score, with no other sound added. So they are silent movies - though, of course, the classic silent films were not really silent, they were highly musical, just not talkies.
(Our movies are, in a limited sense, partially talkies, since our scores do incorporate spoken word segments, as one of many techniques used to turn the poem into sound. As yet, however, we have never synched up an actor in a movie to make it look as if he or she is saying a spoken word line from the score.)
Since both the poetry scores to both "Blind Cat Black" and "Go South for Animal Index" ended up with about 28 separate pieces of music, our movies also can be imagined as a sequence of 28 or so interconnected music videos. Belford knocked out some stellar conceptual miniatures on the first movie, and Greg the hobbyist animator is getting cued up to do something similar for "Go South". (Judging by Greg's animated wonder "The King of the Witches," he is the right man for the job.)
But we are determined to make narratives movies, with a manageably sized cast of characters, who interact in a plot with story arcs for at least the major characters. So we resist the urge of the movie fragmenting totally into a medley of miniatures.
Zombies also have become a part of what we do, as I explained. Zombies fit thematically into "Blind Cat Black," a poem about the scary urban underworld, and they gave us a visual solution to the Surrealist aesthetic of Ece Ayhan's poem and Murat Nemet-Nejat's English translation of it. Since we emulate an ensemble approach to casting, a la The Coen Brothers - keep using the same people, in different roles, in every film - we plan to keep zombies in the mix of our movies, somehow, when appropriate.
The objection was raised that zombies already are not hip anymore. If true, that could impact our zombie supply, but zombies never appealed to me for being the "in" thing. In a narrative movie they are a sort of Surrealist seasoning to sprinkle in, to taste; and certainly, when we made our last movie, there was a huge local zombie subculture to scoop into, sort of like quarrying for brick around here. If zombies are an abundant local resource, then it seems our duty as St. Louis moviemakers to use what God gives us.
So, to sum up our method: we make conceptual narrative silent movies with zombies (as appropriate), edited to preexisting musical scores we already made based on long poems.
It was great to have the poet herself at the meeting to explain the poem. Stefene talked about growing up a Downwinder from the Navada test site and seeing so very many friends succumb to wasting cancers starting at early ages. "Go South for Animal Index" tells the story of The Bomb, the crazy and cruel international collaboration that often went into making it, its role in countless pollutions and destructions. Yet there also is a defiant tribal chorus in the poem, and a voice of the survivalist Earth.
Stefene explained that the technique of the poem is collagist; it's a kind of source text mashup.
As she wrote in an essay we commissioned, "The poem is made up of stanzas stitched together with quotes from The Nag Hamadi, a bit of astrology, some Bhagavad Gita by way of Oppenheimer, John Donne, and the words of people who have shivered under the shadow of the atom. That includes Africans who died mining uranium in the Congo, the White Mesa Ute tribe in Blanding, Utah, who still live three miles away from an open-air uranium tailings pond, the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Ukrainians and Belorussians exposed to radiation by Chernobyl, and the residents of the little Mormon towns downwind from the Nevada Test Site."
This endorses the collage technique we used in our score, and authorizes something similar for the movie - and indeed, we plan to borrow from archival and other visual sources. This also suggests a storyline, which I will get to.
Stefene pointed out that her Downwinder friends would not appreciate our staging of gruesome zombies in this story, since victims of aggressive cancers do actually experience zombification as things fall out and off their bodies. She suggested we stylize the zombies, like in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. (This is exactly the film Aaron played me when we were plotting "Blind Cat Black"; so, yeah). With Nanxy Exarhu, a Greek Surrealist, on the moviemaking team, I think we can stylize us some zombie uranium miners.
I then outlined my basic skeleton for the movie.
I see three storylines:
* scientists and soldiers at Lost Almost (as the Army styled Los Alamos), going about the domestic life of a secret military camp as they invent and build a new deadlier Death;
*a nomadic tribe by a river, halted in their travels as they conduct a healing ceremony for a sick child, struggling through an ancient ritual to save a young Life;
* and a mother and daughter on the road, who leave the Lost Almost camp early in the movie after the husband/father dies in an experiment and is buried on base; and then, much later, they stumble upon the tribal healing ceremony, which has been successful. As they drive away from the child who has survived, exchanging the last of many smiles in the car mirror, the plume of the successful Bomb test spreads in the sky behind them.
We began to discuss how we would shoot the movie - blue screen, on location?; black and white, color?; one director, or a team? - but realized everyone had to hear the score first and do some reading while I came up with a first draft for the shooting script.
So we handed everyone a copy of the poetry score on CD, and I followed up with some links to essential reading for everyone who works on the movie:
* the poem itself, "Go South for Animal Index" by Stefene Russell.
* "Naming the Monsters," the essay Stefene wrote about the poem and its sources.
* and again, here is the Go South for Animal Index poetry score.
Now, it is time to think of how to tell this complicated story in a conceptual narrative silent movie with 28 segments!
The image is "Constellation" by Nancy Exarhu.