Sunday, June 26, 2011

Shooting a sex scene in the courtyard at Atomic Cowboy on Pridefest day

Today we pulled off a shoot for our movie Go South for Animal Index in the courtyard at Atomic Cowboy, which has just enough leafy fenceline to suggest a fence around a military base in a remote location. The scene I wanted to shoot was a soldier paying for and having sex with a whore who works the fenceline around the base.

John Parker is our soldier.

D'Mari Martinez played the whore.

We had trouble casting the whore role at the last minute, after a couple of actors backed out. In case we were shooting without the whore character, I lined up some other characters who could interact with our soldier along the fenceline. Martin Sophia is a recent recruit to play one of the tribal men who lives near the base.

Our crew for the shoot was Laurent Torno III, director of photography, and V "Elly" Smith.

John and Martin were the first actors on location, so we shot them walking along the fenceline and walking past one another.

The shooting script calls for lots of walking and passing shots to establish a complex, interconnected world of military base, bush, tribal encampment and uranium (zombie) mine. This approximates the actual world of Los Alamos, a secret military base built on a former Hopi mesa surrounded by tribal peoples and not far from uranium minds worked by Navajo.

I'm amused we are able to create some of this tricky illusion in the courtyard of a bar that has things like giant paintings of beers on the wall that can never enter any of our shots without ruining everything. Martin is from Kenya, by the way, and his costume is traditional; the drum was made by my brother in law, a traditional craftsman from Ghana.

The motivation of the soldier character is pretty clear -- he is out to get laid. The tribal man, on the other hand, is on his way to a healing ceremony. He is moving toward the spirit like the soldier is moving toward the flesh. The main action of the tribe in the movie is to conduct a series of healing ceremonies for a sick child.

The hat is a St. Louis original -- Robert Van Dillen made it for our Art Invitational to The Sydney Highrise Variations. The hat is actually a work of art titled "At apogee". I like it for this costume because it incorporates feathers. Our tribal people in the movie are a collage of native peoples who mined uranium for the atomic bomb project. This includes native Africans (though not Kenyans) and native Americans, all of whom worked feathers into their sacred headdresses.

Our shoot was complicated in an amusing way by the need to get a parade float out of the same courtyard where we were shooting. The Pridefest parade was today, and Atomic Cowboy had a gang of friends come by to take out the Grovefest float. Atomic Cowboy co-owner Jim Kellogg is in the rear in the red shirt. Jim has been a great ally of Poetry Scores.

Our shoot was minimally affected by them making their merry way onto the street and toward the parade. The other Atomic Cowboy co-owner Chip Schloss brings up the rear here.

I also called George Malich to come out and play his priest character. I wanted the priest to walk past the soldier, tribal guy and whore. This was in a way filler; in case I didn't cast the whore part at the zero hour, I would have found more things for the priest to do. Between actually having the whore character after all and a losing a bit of time to parade float logistics, I wasted George's time today. We never shot him. It's a shame, and I feel bad about it.

The very good news, however, is we did shoot the entire range of motion for a difficult scene, the soldier/prostitute trick scene. The actions opens with the whore preening.

We all felt D'Mari did a good job of establishing her character as a desirable sex object advertising her services.

Laurent's experience shooting fashion was a great assist in explaining to D'Mari how to act with her shoes. The bad news there is that we destroyed these nice shoes having her grind them in the gravel.

We were very limited in shot setup by a stage that the guys at Atomic Cowboy understandably did not want to move for the occasion. John walked into the frame from the other side of the stage, though we could not see the stage in any shot. Notice in the corner an idol where we would have shot the priest and tribal guy if we didn't have a whore actor for the day.

I didn't shoot a still of their simulated sex act, but here is Laurent showing them a take.

You can double-click on these images to enlarge them. John is having an interesting reaction to his scene here.

The Pridefest parade floaters returned while we were shooting the sex scene. Fortunately, Elly had some great long shots of the soldier and whore rutting by then. Here Laurent shoots tight with the parade truck behind him as D'Mari prepares to leave the soldier lying on the ground after he has satisfied himself.

The scene ends with the soldier lying on the ground having a smoke alone. John smoked himself sick. I liked the way the soldier looked dead lying there.

His helmet and gun made an interesting tableaux against a Buddhist sculpture in the Atomic Cowboy courtyard. Oppenheimer, who ran the physics side of the military bomb shop, was a student of Oriental religions, so this works as a deep inside joke for anyone who notices this rock is more than just a rock.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Pouring wax into the ears of stuffed donkeys with Salvador Dali

When I was carrying on about a scene from our movie Blind Cat Black opening for Luis Bunuel at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, a card-carrying St. Louis Surrealist quietly objected.

My friend Andrew Torch pointed out that on one of the two films The Pulitzer was screening with the local silent shorts, Un Chien Andalou, Bunuel shares filmmaking credit with Salvador Dali.

I told Andy I had planned to come back, actually, and go into all of that. So I have come back to go into all of that.

In My Last Sigh, probably the best filmmaker's memoir I've read, Bunuel tells us about his collaboration with Dali on what has become the definitive Surrealist film.

When I arrived to spend a few days at Dali's house in Figueras, I told him about a dream I'd had in which a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half, like a razor blade slicing through an eye. Dali immediately told me that he'd seen a hand crawling with ants in a dream he'd had the previous night.

"And what if we started right there and made a film?" he wondered aloud.

Bunuel and Dali each dreamt one of the two central images of the film, and it was Dali who suggested they turn the images into a film. Bunuel has a clear and rational account of their method in writing this wonderfully irrational film.
Our only rule was very simple: No idea or image that might lend itself to rational explanation of any kind would be accepted. We had to open all doors to the irrational and keep only those images that surprised us, without trying to explain why.
They ended up with a film scenario  Bunuel knew no one in the industry would finance, so he put the touch on his dear mother. God knows good mothers are owed an immense debt for keeping their weird sons in business until the industry catches up with them.

Bunuel's account of shooting the film (over two weeks in 1928) speaks to the way I like to make movies: "The filming took two weeks; there were only five or six of us involved, most of the time no one quite knew what he was doing."

The number of people involved on set ranged from five to six because Dali was only intermittently involved in the shoot: "Dali arrived on the set a few days before the end," Bunuel writes, "and spent most of his time pouring wax into the ears of stuffed donkeys."

Typing up these quotes from an unglued paperback of My Last Sigh I read half to death on a trip to Africa, I am struck by something. Bunuel's never-to-be-forgotten image of the razor blade slicing the eye was his association from a different image that he actually had seen in his dream: "a long, tapering cloud sliced the moon in half."

Last night, The Pulitzer screened the Bunuel films (and one of three reels of local shorts) in its open-air courtyard, projected against a building. I liked that atmosphere very, very much. Especially last night, when the St. Louis sky overhead was rippled with clouds.

In the scene where the razor blade slices the eye, as usual, I looked away from the film. This time, I looked up into the clouds.


The film event, a coolaboration with Cinema St. Louis, was organized in connection to The Pulitzer's current show, Dreamscapes, which is a heart-breaker and brain-tickler and a half.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Poetry Scores opens for Luis Bunuel at The Pulitzer

Poetry Scores is opening for Luis Bunuel!

This Friday, June 24, a scene from our first movie Blind Cat Black (2007) will screen at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts before a Bunuel double feature: Un Chien Andalou (1928) and The Phantom of Liberty (1974).

Aaron AuBuchon, lead editor on Blind Cat Black, is in a bewildered state of ecstasy. A movie project he took on based on a pharoah he had tattooed on one of his biceps is now the opening act for two of his favorite films ever made.

Aaron edited the segment from our movie, "This monstrous traveler in hashish," that will screen Friday at the Pulitzer. It was selected by Cinema St. Louis as one of the locally made "short, silent films which include dream-related content" that will screen between 8 and 9 p.m. Friday, "projected in loops on surfaces outside at the Pulitzer".

It was a contest, actually. At 9 p.m. the winner (Brendan Leahy, for “The Tower”) will be awarded $500, then it's on to the masterworks of Bunuel.

I entered this scene from our movie as a short with "dream-related content" because it could work a stand-alone short (at 2:02) and Aaron did edit it as a dream. The contest form I filled out called for a "Description". I filled in: "Dream -- or zombie orgy?"

As a Poetry Scores movie, Blind Cat Black was written, shot and edited to a poetry score we already had produced to the Turkish poem of that name (presented in the elegant English translation by Murat Nemet-Nejat). We produce our scores as a sequence of stand-alone songs, and the music to "This monstrous traveler in hashish" was licensed from Latif Bolat.

Aaron took several hours of footage shot by the ever-alusive Chizmo on Super Bowl Sunday, 2006, at CBGB on South Grand and edited it into this piece all on his lonesome. My shooting script was simple, in its own way, and made no mention of a dream.

The script called for our protagonist, The Absent Minded Tightrope Walker (the hip-hop grinder Toyy Davis), to wake up on a pile of corpses. Her lover (the R&B star Bradd Young) finds her on the pile of corpses. They make love. As their lovemaking becomes more intense, the corpses gradually come alive in a zombie orgy.

I don't know why Aaron edited the scene to look like it could have been a dream. Maybe his pharoah tattoo knows. But I like what he did with my concept, and his decision made it possible for this scene to become one of 22 local movies that will open for two of his favorite-ever films on Friday night.


Dream Sequences: Film Night at the Pulitzer with Cinema St. Louis goes down (and around and around, at least the local short loop) 8 p.m. Friday, June 24 at Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, 3716 Washington Blvd. Like dreams, it's free.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Atomic Cowboy as whore's fence, Army commissary, Los Alamos office

I recently read Conquest of the Useless, the journals that Werner Herzog kept while making the film Fitzcarraldo. It's a great read about one of my favorite films. It made me want to watch Fitzcarraldo again. Watching the film again made me wonder why Herzog put his cast and crew through such hell to make this movie. He insisted they shoot in the Amazon. As a result, people crashed and burned in plane flights across the jungle, contracted malaria, and were impaled on the arrows of angry tribesmen. And in the end, most of the film could have been shot along any leafy river, if not in Herzog's backyard in L.A.

We started shooting our movie Go South for Animal Index in Cuba. That's Cuba, Missouri. Okay, it's not a distant malarial country with hostile pre-industrial natives. But it is a long drive for a volunteer cast and crew. The location there, a farm owned by friends of ours, is pretty rugged. It's a long drive up a rough road that requires four-wheel-drive, and there is a lot of real estate to cover on the farm between locations and home base, making it possible to lose an hour in simply relaying messages back and forth.

I love shooting there, but the director is always more invested in making a movie, better prepared to endure hardship and expense, than the cast and crew, even in a collective endeavor like Poetry Scores. I've felt compelled to find more convenient locations for as many shoots as I can. Reading Herzog's book about making Fitzacarraldo made me realize that less rugged and remote in location need not translate into less rugged and wild on screen.

So I was at Atomic Cowboy recently to produce a public event for a friend. Walking around the courtyard of this oh so conveniently situated venue, I realized I was looking at a leafy fenceline.

(When I shot these reference images my wife went along to add human scale, as requested by Laurent Torno III, our direct of photography.)

There are major storylines in our movie involving leafy fencelines. I have spent a lot of time in the wilds of Cuba looking for leafy fencelines. Here is one, I realized, that would probably work for the scene where the soldier wanders off the military base bomb factory, Lost Almost, and finds temporary comfort in the arms of a whore who lingers around the base. (My wife was not cast as the whore.)

There are tribal people living on the fringe of the base in our movie, just as there were at the historical Los Alamos. (My wife, in fact, plays a tribal person.) It's a little over the top, but Atomic Cowboy even has a tribal idol the soldier could wander past on his way to some action.

When I turned around from the fence at Atomic Cowboy, thiking about movie locations, I was looking at the outdoors bar at Atomic Cowboy. Given its mode of construction (Quonset hut), this could so easily be a military base comissary.

Our movie needs a military base commissary! Another soldier orders a hamburger there, which he then trades for moonshine with the tramp who lives in the woods.

The commissary has funky tile we'd need to mask, or accept in its spectacular weirdness -- all wrong for a military base, but maybe all right for a military base in a silent zombie movie based on a highly conceptual poem (by Stefene Russell).

 This bike would have to come down, though it's arguably period.

Just today, when I was shooting these reference images, I noticed in the corner of the Quonset hut at Atomic Cowboy an old-fashioned wood-burning stove.

Our movie needs an old-fashioned wood-burning stove! At the actual Los Alamos, the base's executive secretary (aka the Atomic Lady) used the wood-burning stove in her office to burn secret documents, which was a daily occurrence at a place that, at the time, officially did not exist.

We are making a silent movie based on a long poem that should import no (or very little) language other than the poem into the movie. That means no intertitles to set the scene or move the narrative along. In a purely visual medium, burning by hand documents shown to be secret is a great way to suggest the secrecy of the environment, so I plan to rely a lot on this.

The stove will be behind the secretary's desk, which will be a focal point in the movie. During the intake scenes, the secretary is flanked the general who runs the military side of the base and the physicist who runs the nucleur bomb shot. The sightline away from the desk, shooting the recruits coming in, is not at all great. We'd want to line up soldiers back there, or some plywood painted grey, to mask the shot.

This is a crucial location in our movie, and I found a great candidate for it in St. Clair, Missouri, on property owned by Donny Blake and family. St. Clair is closer than Cuba, but not nearly as close as Atomic Cowboy on the near South Side.

I'll be tempted to try to make this interior work for the Los Alamos office. The exit of the intake office needs to lead to the exterior in St. Clair, which leads to a perfect walk down to the shed we are using as a bomb shop. The exit at Atomic Cowboy:

The exterior in St. Clair:

Lots more pictures of the St. Clair location for Lost Almost are over here. It is a fabulous location, though matching its exterior to the interior at Atomic Cowboy would require some work and luck. It helps that the Atomic Cowboy interior does not exit from this angle to a Quonset hut exterior!

Another problem. All three of these locations in the same tavern's courtyard -- whore's fence, commisary, and intake office -- would need to appear in the movie as three separate universes that are not this directly physically connected.

We can shoot tight on the fence and make this work for that scene. Though we'd need to shoot tight in between these two telephone poles, which can't appear. (None of the other junk would be in the courtyard for the shoot.)

Looking out from the commissary you see a similar leafy fence to what is in the soldier and whore shot.

I can live with that. It would be the same flora anyway, on the base and outside it. Also, we can stack up soldiers behin Pfc. Sack when he places his hamburger order.

Oh, and Buddha would have to go from the commissary, though he could pop back up in Opje's (Oppenheimer's) home, if we can borrow it for the day.

Some of this is supposed to happen, I would say, as fate looked down from the drink specials board as we left today.

I know, Atomic Cowboy, Manhattan Project -- it's not such a shocking coincidence. That's why we held our early meetings for the movie at Atomic Cowboy. Which is why it makes so damn much sense to shoot some of it here!