Sunday, July 17, 2011

Nucleur physics, watermelons, tribal mysticism and uranium miner zombies

Eventful location shoot today for our movie, Go South for Animal Index, in the courtyard at Atomic Cowboy, which they throw open to us as a movie lot on Sunday mornings and afternoons. The crew was V "Elly" Smith on camera one and Murphy Mark Shaw on camera two.

Laurent Torno III, our director of photography, missed his first shoot (U2 tickets). Dawn Majors, who also is shooting the movie, has moved to Nashville to work as staff photographer for the Governor of Tennessee (though she has planned two weekends back in St. Louis, smitten as she is by the movie business).

Carla Doss worked hard today as production assistant. Carla helped out on our first movie, Blind Cat Black, too. Thanks to Carla, Mark was able to see the screen on Elly's camera to frame his shots in today's blinding light and heat.

Huge shooting day today. I have been getting very scared, because half-way through shooting a movie about the atomic bomb, we had no nucleur physics in the movie before today. Today, we introduced nucleur physics. I copied some pregnant passages and weird looking formulae and graphs from the Los Alamos Primer, the transcriptions of the introductory lectures that Los Alamos physicists received.

Eventually, we will shoot the physicists learning this material and arguing over it. Today we shot the Army chaplain (George Malich) coming across this disturbing material while attempting to deliver a watermelon to the physicists, who were not in their ouot-doors study. He gets angry at the thought of the destruction his congregants are preparing. He is interrupted by a soldier (Thomas Crone), who runs the chaplain out. Crone was a little late for the shoot, so we shot George's reaction to the sodlier before we had Crone there for him to react to. On this take, Carla tapped George on the shoulder with the soldier's rifle.

The watermelon was a valuable property today. We used it to motivate the chaplain coming upon the abandoned physics notes -- he was trying to deliver a melon to the brain trust -- and then we used it for comic effect, as the soldier tucks the melon under his arm and makes away with it after he rousts the holy man. Later, we will have the soldier use the watermelon in an attempt to make sweet time with one of our lonely scientist wives (Natalie Partenheimer).

That soldier/scientist wife scene will echo and comment upon another scene we shot today, when the other lonely scientist wife in the movie (Barbara Manzara) devours a plum she procured from the vendor of stuffen animals (a recurring character in our movies played by Thom Fletcher). I directed Barbara to find in that plum all the pleasure she was not getting in her marriage, and she took very good care of that plum. I, however, took no stills.

The funny thing is, the watermelon literally walked in my door only last night. In addition to shooting out movie, Mark Shaw is my neighbor. He dropped off the watermelon as a summer nicety. It was a short, fat melon, its shape and girth so like Fat Man, one of the bombs built at Los Alamos. I knew we had to use it.

After Crone showed up, we gave him sentinel duty. Los Alamos was a secret military base. In a silent movie, nothing says "secret military base" like a soldier with a gun in almost every scene, checking papers and directing traffic. And, in this case, simply watching some spent pieces of used zombie trash head back to the uranium mine.

The zombies today were played by Julie Malone and Aaron Garibaldi. The zombies in this movie are uranium miners and millers. This generic typing is right there in the poem we scored, and which we are now filming, where the poet writes, from the point of view of a Congolese uranium miner, "Why a corpse as me should be afraid?"

The plan is for all of our movies to have zombies. We came to the zombie genre honestly. Lead editor Aaron AuBuchon suggested zombies when I was casting around for a Surreal element to work into the movie Blind Cat Black to match the Surreal technique of Ece Ayhan's poem and Murat Nemet-Nejat's translation. It worked! It's a street hustler poem, and of course street hustlers are zombies.

It was then that I noticed you can get a LOT more different kinds of people to hear you out when you tell them you make silent zombie movies -- even silent conceptual zombie movies -- -- even silent conceptual zombie movies based on long poems you have set to music -- then if you tell people you make silent movies based on poetry. The zombies are here to stay.

Another huge advance today: we shot a healing ceremony. We have to shoot four. All four are attempts to heal a sick child. Although I live with the actors playing the sick child (Leyla Fern King) and her mother (Karley M. King), they have been hard to schedule. So I decided to play one ceremony where the child isn't there, but only emblems or simulacra of her: her likeness as a doll, a strand of her hair, one of her baby teeth. When we finally get Leyla and Karley to work, we will shoot them handing these items to the tribaly mystic, played by Martin Sophia. We owe Martin to the irrepressible Donny Blake, who is earning an Associate Producer credit on this picture.

Atomic Cowboy happens to have a spider totem in its courtyard. Los Alamos was in the desert, infested by spiders and snakes. We're making the most of that spider totem -- and the last embers of the courtyard campfire from the night before, which greets us every Sunday morning when we turn the tavern courtyard into a movie lot. There's always one good reason or another to have smoke in a shot.

In case you are wondering, we know it looks like there is a fence behind the bamboo. We are stuck with that fence, but we are using it: these are tribal people on a reservation.

The doll is from Ghana, where we have family. Martin is from Kenya. The tribal people in our movie are modeled after native peoples who mined uranium for the bomb effort, both in Africa (the Luba and Bantu) and in America (the Navajo and Utes). As we do with most things, we are coming up with our own collage of visual and narrative elements. We make our own fables or folktales. We are not trying to represent anyone's reality.

Ah, and here it is, the newest addition to the Poetry Scores family. Next Saturday we are shooting our big zombie uranium miner scenes, and I put out a call for wheelbarrows we could use (the poem talks of uranium miners who "bear wheelbarrows packed full of lightning"). My childhood friend Jocko Ferguson stepped up and gave us this rugged beauty, which I stencilled with "Debased Cogs," another phrase from the poem describing the miners.

The beauty is, this sucker fits right into my hatchback, and since you can pack it full, it doesn't really take up much space. Then, on location, it makes load on and out a one-trip process. How cool! Never leaving home without it again, at least not if I'm shooting a movie that day.

The hair and tooth for the healing ceremony were suggested by the poem, which has an obscure line about sewing up a stained pond "with a tooth and his longest hair". It occurred to me I still had one of Leyla's teeth from when she was a baby, and I could find her longest hair and trim it. These precious items were in a little juju bag that fell unobserved from my car while I was loading up after the shoot! Could not find them when I got home! Felt like I was bringing down a curse on my own kin by losing my daughter's baby tooth in a make-believe healing ceremony! A make-believe healilng ceremony with a character played by her at its center! So, after a long day of shooting, a long drive home, and a panicked search through all of our props, I got to turn right back around and drive right back to Atomic Cowboy. Where I found the juju bag! With the tooth.

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