In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood.
Writer and filmmaker Turk Pipkin looks back at some of his writing in the wake of 9/11 when he was the weekly diarist on Slate.com.
Turk Pipkin: In the days before everyone’s grandmother had a blog, the Slate Diaries were one of the internet’s greatest outlets for interesting writing from widely disparate voices. I was asked by Slate to be a weekly diarist a month before 9/11, and when I scheduled my week for early October, I couldn’t have anticipated that America and the world would be in such a soul-searching and somber mood. Rereading this story is a great reminder of the life I used to live, of the lives many of us lived in the decade before 9/11 when the economy was fairly good and the worst thing the fine members of America’s Congress could imagine was a blow job.
A decade later, we’ve blown three trillion dollars in two lost wars, bailed out billionaires with government money while hard-working men and women discovered that the hardest thing about work is finding it. For a few weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center, we had the whole world with us, but we blew it all away with hubris, lies and a ten-year battle without end that has destroyed far too many lives and has fractured America into groups that are unable to recognize their common ground because of the massive focus placed on their differences.
Frustrated at America’s response to 9/11, my wife and I ended up founding The Nobelity Project and, like so many people who care about a better way ahead, are trying our best to be a positive force in a world that needs us all. Here’s my Slate diary from October 8, 2010.
It was a beautiful weekend. There was a chill in the air, and the monarch butterflies were winging their way to Mexico. I set all my writing aside, left my computer at home, and drove with my wife and kids to the Texas Hill Country, where I’ve been building a cabin overlooking the Llano River. Every trip I make to the river is a pilgrimage, for I spent much of my childhood at my grandmother’s ranch on the river’s headwaters—wading, swimming, and fishing in the cold spring water that eventually runs over the granite outcroppings at the property we now own. My family lost my grandmother’s ranch when I was in high school, and I spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how to get back a piece of the river.
But as a comedian, then a free-lance writer of books and television, the price of waterfront land was always just out of my reach. Whenever I started to make more money, the prices went up. Then on Valentine’s Day, 2000, while I was writing a magazine story in Belize, my wife sent me an e-mail saying her mammogram had shown something suspicious. I came home to a diagnosis of DCIS—Ductal Carcinoma In Situ. We went from doctor to doctor and the word “mastectomy” kept hitting us like a hammer. Eighteen months later, I still couldn’t say which one of us was more scared.
Running from what we could not escape, one day we dropped the kids at school and headed for the river, driving on back-country roads till we came to a low-water crossing built by German settlers in the 19th century. In the space of one day, we fell in love with the land overlooking that crossing, learned it was for sale, and made an offer to buy it. Eighteen months later—with my wife having beaten her breast cancer and having begun teaching yoga for a living—the river has become a central part of our lives.
We have no television or radio at the cabin; it’s too good here for all that. This weekend, with the wind blowing cool out of the north, we built a campfire in the late afternoon, then grilled steaks and vegetables by the light of an orange and violet sunset. Within an hour, the sky was brilliant with stars, the Milky Way shining bright from horizon to horizon. Just before bedtime, my daughters and I looked up and all saw the same shooting star.
It’s never easy for me to escape my work. People tell me they envy my carefree life as a writer, but they don’t have any idea how hard I have to work to keep from having a job. To cobble together one real income, I write for television, film, magazines, and try to turn out a book every couple of years. That means long, butt-throbbing hours at my desk and very short nights in bed. It’ll be a miracle if I get any writing done this week. A one-hour episode I wrote for a great new Showtime series—Going to California—will be filming in Austin, and I’m hoping to see as much of the action as possible. I’ll also be working on a documentary on Willie Nelson for American Masters on PBS, and I’m moderating panels and hosting events at one of my favorite events of the year, the Austin Film Festival.
At last year’s festival, I chaired a panel with David Chase, the creator and executive producer of HBO’s hit, The Sopranos. Before the panel, we talked a bit about my experiences in Italy interviewing lawyers and hitmen for the ‘Ndrangetta, the fearful Calabrian mafia. When the panel started, David was looking at me kind of funny, and I thought I must have said something wrong. Far from it—a couple of days later, the casting director of The Sopranos called to see if I’d videotape an audition for the show. The role was a total hoot—the born-again, narcoleptic boyfriend of Tony’s sister Janice. They faxed the script, I sent back a tape, and a couple of weeks later I was in Queens falling asleep on Tony Soprano’s shoulder and having him bounce walnuts off my sleeping noggin at the Sopranos’ Thanksgiving dinner.
For a writer whose future depends to a great extent on a larger audience discovering his work, this tiny brush with fame was a dream come true. All the better when the show brought me back for a couple more episodes, giving me some fun scenes with Aida Turturro, a wonderful actress who makes Janice one of The Sopranos‘ most memorable characters. When Aida was nominated for an Emmy for her work this year, I felt sure I’d soon be in front of the TV watching her accept her award.
Then came Sept. 11. The week after the bombings, I could not look away from the television. I had to know everything, had to e-mail everyone I knew. For some reason, I felt a compulsion to be a reassuring voice, to tell my friends and family that somehow everything would be OK. A lot of nice words came back for my efforts, but I also got the worst possible news from too many friends whose family members, business associates, and college buddies had been in the Trade Centers. On one of my trips to film The Sopranos, I’d taken my 10-year-old daughter to the top of the World Trade Center. Now she wanted to know about the people we’d seen there, and what would happen to the children of those people who’d died. My voice began to sound less and less reassuring. And our refuge at the river began to seem more and more important.
It was still cool this morning when we hiked down the granite point to the river’s edge. It was a little late in the year for a swim, but I waded in till my knees were wet, decided it was too cold, and turned back to shore. Then I slipped on the slick rock, and the river gave me my baptism anyway. Once I was wet, I went ahead a paddled around in what turned out to be the best swim of the year. And then I headed back to Austin to watch Aida win her award.
It was a beautiful weekend, but then I turned on the TV. America Strikes Back was a harsh return to reality. The awards, of course, were pushed from our concerns, and the war had started without me. Now I find myself trying to remember my long-ago friends, David and Lynn Angell, who died on American Flight 11; find myself trying to imagine rushing to the rescue of innocent men, women, and children, knowing you might never return, or what it must be like to be under bombs and missiles raining down from the sky. I try to think of all the things we need to think of when our country is at war, but instead my mind keeps returning to the monarchs, their orange and black wings brilliant in the sun as they fly unknowing across the borders of man in their ancient pilgrimage of life.
And the week is just beginning.
Learn more about The Nobelity Project and watch the trailer for Building Hope at: www.nobelity.org
–Deputy Marshal Rooster Cogburn, in the novel, True Grit.
“He is not my friend.”
–Young Mattie Ross, speaking of Rooster Cogburn, in True Grit.
The American myth of the rugged, self-sufficient individual is ever-present in our culture. Think of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, a character based on the nameless “Continental Op” of Dashiell Hammett’s noir thriller, Red Harvest. The characters abandon the very concept of community. They no longer even want a name that could be known by others.
The myth, of course, is just a fictionalized reflection of a belief held by many Americans: the self-contained individual is all. The furtherance of individual liberty, with little regard for the fate of the community at large, is the only legitimate role of government. The belief comes with magical thinking (or cynical slight-of-hand) that unrestrained selfishness will produce more for all than selflessness, altruism, or compassion.
Charles Portis’s True Grit and the 2010 film version by the Coen Brothers turn the myth on its head. In the process, the works tell us something about loneliness, inequality and the pursuit of friendship in contemporary America. We can look at the “true grit” of the book and movie as a reference to the courage to befriend others selflessly despite differences and barriers.
Disabuse any inkling that Building Hope is cinematic broccoli. It’s a majestic and transformative entertainment and this documentary packs more emotional connectedness, stark naked compassion, unyielding gumption, and inspirational heft than a GooGooplex full of Hollywood fiction.
Disabuse any inkling that Building Hope is cinematic broccoli. It’s a majestic and transformative entertainment and this documentary packs more emotional connectedness, stark naked compassion, unyielding gumption, and inspirational heft than a GooGooplex full of Hollywood fiction. And I am not the cheese here. This entirely true story of Turk Pipkin and the Nobelity Project’s tenacious creation of Kenya’s Mahiga Hope High School won the 2011 South by Southwest Film Festival Lone Star States Audience Award. It’s not important exactly how I know that you cannot jam that ballot box— the point is that Building Hope is a bona fide “feel good” movie (which is normally just marketing parlance for a trite and predictably happy ending). Also, insipid rom coms are not actually great date movies. Building Hope is (unlikely as that may sound at first blush). But really now, did the latest Kate Hudson vehicle (to pick a name) put you in touch with the energizing wonder of human existence and possibility? When the lights came up, my spectacles were quite literally spotted from teardrops (mostly from the joy of my heart melting but also from moments of it breaking).
Building Hope is populated with a gallery of inspirational and selfless folks, not the least of which are the students of Mahiga (whose smiles, especially on class picture day, are indelible). Amongst these folks are Greg Elsner, the volunteer on-site “hippie architect from Minnesota,” local educator and point man Joseph Mutongu, executive producer and international non-profit darling Christy Pipkin, and the three young Austin siblings who raised $10,000 for substantial kitchen improvements. A vital construction component is the RainWater Court, which collects and stores drinking water with solar powered purification for the drought prone rural area and also serves as a full basketball court. Mr. Pipkin introduces the sport to the community for the very first time. From demonstrating the concept of dribbling, to the initially carnival midway-esque and comically under-sized homemade rim, and to the students eventual mastery of the game is one of the exemplary narrative arcs of concrete progress that will make you marvel.
All proceeds from the forty-four screenings at the Violet Crown Cinema June 3rd – 9th, 2011, will benefit the Nobelity Project’s Kenya Schools Fund.
The following is a transcript of the impromptu visit I had with director Turk Pipkin right after the June 1st Crown Violet screening.
Steve Birmingham: I was struck by the statistic that it would cost 11 billion dollars a year to educate every child in the world through Grade 8 and, for Americans, 11 billion is less than our military spends in one week.
Turk Pipkin: You’ve zeroed in on something that’s fairly imprecise. That’s a quote that actually comes from Queen Rania [of Jordan] that was actually in One Peace at a Time [Pipkin’s previous film]. I talked to her about it at Clinton Global Initiative a couple of years ago after she had spoken there [See Pipkin’s Sept. 13, 2009 “One Peace at a Time – The Right to an Education”]. Later in the film I talk about the idea of universal secondary education and then we’re talking about much larger numbers. Free, universal secondary education is one of the Millennium Development goals. But when they started in 2000, there wasn’t even universal primary education. What happened in Kenya is in the early ‘90s the World Bank advised Kenya to quit paying for primary school (“Let parents pay for it”) because they weren’t paying back their debt to the International Monetary Community. So they suspended free primary school on the assumption that parents could pay a few bucks a month. And half the country no longer went to school. Which, in my belief, is one of the reasons that country was primed to have post-election violence a few years ago because there’s a big generation of young people that didn’t get educated and they don’t have any opportunity, they’re living in slums, and there’s political unrest. They’re easily swayed to go one-way or the other and, actually, they’re for hire (which is a lot of what happened in that political unrest they had for the contested election). So, in ’03 they reinstated free primary education but now we’re eight years later and what’s really happened is all those kids have come up and (just like there was in the first five or six years with the primary school) there’s not enough places for them to go to secondary school. But it’s not just in Kenya; it’s all across Africa. Worse there than other parts of the developing world but it’s ridiculous to think that the developing world is going to change in substantive ways if kids don’t get a high school education. What do you do with an 8th Grade, y’know?
SB: Exactly. And yet, again, that figure was approximately one week of the U.S. military budget?
TP: Yeah, less than a week. I think the new budget just passes in the 700 billion range but that doesn’t include the money we’re spending in Iraq and Afghanistan which is special appropriations, so we’re more in like the trillion a year— not counting covert money that we don’t hear about. So, what would it cost everywhere? It’s hard to say. But, in this community, which is really what I was going at, we ending up spending… probably not all in but with the new preschool, with all the high school and with everything else, and with rebuilding the primary school, we really built a functional facility for 800 kids from age four to eighteen for about $300,000.
SB: I was really taken with how positive the students are despite their economic station in life and the community also seems so wonderfully jovial. I’m just curious from all your travels…
TP: You know, it’s interesting, people say “Why Kenya?” And one of the reasons for Kenya was just luck. I’ve worked in a lot of countries in the developing world and Wangari [Maathai of the Green Belt Movement] got me there and Joseph [Mutongu of Mahiga] got me there, and so it was really kind of a series of luck. It is easier for me because Kenya is an English speaking country— more Swahili than English every year. This really is a great community, it really is. But truthfully, I think that the perception that we get in America of the rest of the world and of the despair in Africa and how messed up everything in the world generally is— I think most of that is horseshit and that wherever you go, the people are actually just like that. People are exactly like people are here if they were living in dire circumstances. They’re just parents and kids and they all want their kids to have a better opportunity. The kids are not spending their time going, “Oh, why don’t I have a Porsche?” The kids are spending their time with their friends and their family and they’re enjoying life. And school is one of the things they enjoy in life.
SB: Because education is not something they take for granted… there was the sixteen-year-old young lady who said that her favorite class was physics and that she wanted to be a journalist. I wonder how many other American sixteen-year-olds would say that physics was their favorite class?
TP: Yeah, and that girl is an orphan who’s had other family loss since this film was made. And she still perseveres. I dunno. They are a very special bunch of kids. It’s not like there’s no problems, y’know, but they deal with them. Every once in a while the school committee or Jane Wainaina, the new principal who’s great, will call us up or send us an email and say, “Oh we had a problem with something and what do you think we should do?” And we say, “Whatever you think, it’s your school” [laughs]. And they’re, “Oh, we were just checking to see if you had any input?” “Yeah, we do. Whatever you think.” So the autonomy that comes with that and I think it’s the same thing for the kids— the kids realize, “No it’s not about [The Pipkins].” It’s actually about them. They like it when we come over and I’ll be over in a few weeks but it doesn’t really change the school situation. We still have teachers that are probably not quite as qualified as the teachers in Nairobi. We’re still going to have challenges on the KCSE [an exam for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education] when you finish high school. We’ll only have our first senior classes next January, so we’re a year and a half away from trying to send our first kids to college. It’s going to be a challenge with the rural area and getting these kids accepted into college, but they’re trying!
SB: It was quite moving to learn that the students hadn’t visited these incredible nature preserves that are so frequented by tourists but are just a few miles from their homes. What was that like for you to see them witnessing this wildlife and having them being introduced to the idea that they are to be the stewards?
TP: It was great. And we were developing a mentor program for the school. So one of the mentors, Joseph, he’s a guy who was just lucky to get someone to sponsor him and go to high school and they he earned a scholarship to go to England and study to be a naturalist in a special program and he went right back to his community. He’s really quite a brilliant naturalist. But the preserves are there and they have to be there. You talk about the encroachment; Joseph talks about the elephant migratory route between Mount Kenya and the Aberdares, which is gone now. And he’s one of the many people trying to restore that route but it’s not likely to actually ever happen. It’s just become too over-settled. The Aberdare National Forest has the rhino fence. It was just completed last year. Heck, we have a new school project that’s right next to the rhino fence. But, it’s the longest game fence in the world. It’s 400 kilometers of super high voltage electric wire— strong enough to hold elephants in. Although, elephants are so smart that they can work in concert. They can go up to five or six concrete pylons in a row, and in unison put one tusk against the concrete pylon and push the whole fence over and hold it down while others step over to go raid farmers’ fields when their corn is ready. They go to Joseph’s house where his wife hand tills an acre field of corn every year and the elephants come in and raid it right before they’re going to pick it— three years in a row. What are you going to do? So the fences are there for good reason and the preservation of these forests and of these animals is absolutely essential but it costs money to go inside. For tourists, it costs sixty bucks a day. For the locals, it costs like less than a buck but you got to get there and you got to be in a vehicle and they don’t have a buck and they don’t have a vehicle. So, taking them there is really cool and that’s something we’re going to continue to do.
SB: With any construction project, there are always delays and expenditure overages but yet you’re doing it in Africa where things like roads, basic materials, and equipment are a real challenge. You had the rains and the RainWater Court project manager just disappeared. What was the biggest logistical challenge? But it didn’t seem that it was ever radically off-track compared to people who just build here in remote areas.
TP: No, it wasn’t. Well, if you look at Madonna trying to build her girls school in Malawi— where she took the opposite approach. Rather than partnering with the local community, she said, “I’m going to go take charge of an area. I’m going to buy land. I’m going to hire staff. I’m going to do everything.” Y’know, the way an American or foreigner would envision that this would be done. We could’ve built almost twenty Mahiga Hope High Schools for what she spent before she abandoned and fired everybody and never even bought a piece of land. And she’s about six million dollars into it. She still says she’s going to build it and I hope that she will but I think the lesson is if you have the community as a partner and you’re not pretending that you’re the person that knows the best thing in the world about how to operate a school in another culture, you know. They have a great education system in Kenya; they just don’t have enough funding to run it. Actually, the Kenyan government spends a higher percentage of their tax revenue on education than any country in the world. They’re number one— twenty-seven percent of their federal tax revenue. If you look per capita, they’re 125th. They just don’t have enough tax revenue. The biggest challenge… I don’t know. The classroom building turned into a money challenge and we found the money. We had a lot of people and support here. We just continued to raise money here, longer. But the vision of the school grew a lot. We built a full soccer pitch on that sloping field which had eight feet of incline and the first bids to build that soccer pitch were about twenty-five grand. I basically turned the school committee loose on it and [Austin’s] Westlake High’s soccer team raised a thousand dollars and a couple of other people donated about $500 and we built a twenty-five thousand dollar soccer field for about two thousand bucks. So, there were a lot of places where we went way under and were able to do a lot more. Just from a personal point of view, Christy fighting cancer was by far the hardest part of it. And it’s also very hard to build a school and do a project and make a film at the same time. We don’t have a lot of the coverage that we would have because when I’m in meetings I’m not shooting. And there’s no crew. I mean it’s just me and George [laughs] [George Abraham, a student on a journalism scholarship shot footage of the RainWater Court’s stormy raising]. And it turned out Greg couldn’t shoot. I don’t know. Greg was not a good shooter. He’s a better architect than a shooter. It’s absolutely crazy. Look at the credits— they’re tiny. It’s really crazy that this little core of people [made] this movie. I’m not foolish enough to edit the movie; I did have Molly [Conway] and Matt [Naylor]. Mostly, it was just a lot of eighteen-hour days for about two years straight.
SB: Just a small aside. What kind of travel time is it to fly?
TP: It’s about twenty-four hours… in the back of the bus.
SB: And not to be “poor Turk” but does the accumulation of that much back and forth traveling get taxing?
TP: Yeah, I guess it is but you get to the point because of the time and the money involved… I fly back of the bus. The cheapest ticket you possibly can. The B.A. flight from London, there’s four classes. So you really are with the chickens back there. In the second cabin I think they cook the chicken but back there, they’re in boxes. You know, we hit the ground running over there. We get to the hotel at midnight and the next morning we’re at the bookstore when they open at 8 o’clock in the morning, shopping for the library. We’re at the computer store at 9 o’clock. We’re on the road at 10 o’clock and we work straight through until you leave the country. There’s no jet lag allowed in international development. Malaria medicine? Forget it. You don’t take antimalarials. You don’t rest for a day when you get there or when you get back. You just say, “This is it, I’m not taking anything else for an answer.”
SB: Now that this film is being released and getting out there, what is your sincere hope that audiences take away?
TP: Well, I’d really like for people to spread the word because we don’t actually have distribution on the film and we’re just taking it one day at a time. But from the issue point of view, I think that I’ve gotten more out of this film than Joseph Mutongu got out of it and my kids, in the long run, may get more out of having built this school than his kids will get out of going to it. And the love that you take really is equal to the love that you make. Bhagavad Gita and the Beatles had it right all along. I would like people to see the opportunity to become engaged with other people. It doesn’t have to be in Africa. It can be anywhere. It doesn’t even have to be in East Austin. We live in an increasingly isolated world. I think it’s just a symptom of our times in that the more crowded the world is the more you tend to live in an isolated circle. People coming to this movie probably will know more than most people but most Americans don’t know much about the world other than what they see on TV about a war or a natural disaster. What do we see from Africa? The Sudan? What’s the last thing anybody knew about Kenya? That Barack Obama wasn’t born there, you know, and there was election violence and that there was an al-Qaeda bombing of the embassy there— that’s it. And more people learned about the Kenyan Olympic gold medal runner [Sammy Wanjiru] when he killed himself than when he actually won the gold medal. What does that say about our knowledge of the world? So… for people to engage. Whatever it is— across the street or across the world. It’s for your own good. What do you put here on Earth? The idea of universal secondary education, to me it’s as big of an idea as the Girl Effect (the idea of changing the world through empowering girls), and as clean water (which has made amazing things happen all over the world and continues to). It’s the next logical step but right now unfortunately it’s coming at a time where the world doesn’t seem to have a lot of resources to focus on it.
There’s a reception with the filmmakers in the lobby every evening at 8 pm. If you attend the 7pm screening, they’ll be waiting for you when the film ends. If you attend the 9 pm, the reception will help warm you up for the movie. And the Violet Crown is offering happy hour specials every night.
I had never heard of the Australian gem and terror of a film Animal Kingdom until Jacki Weaver was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her sweetly diabolical role as “Smurf,” the mother of a family of bankrobbers. A fan of every Australian film I’ve stumbled across (Flirting and Somersalt leap to mind) I decided to give Animal Kingdom a view.
The film begins with 17 year-old J sitting next to his mother as she ODs on heroin. The paramedics arrive and go to work. Cut to J calling his grandmother “Smurf”, who he obviously barely knows, to tell her his mother is dead. His grandmother tells him she is on her way to fetch him.
The surprisingly lovely grandmother arrives and whisks J to live with her and her four sons, a tight clan of loose cannons. The viewer quickly realizes that this family of crooks is truly complicated and terrible when Smurf gives one of her boys a lingering kiss on the mouth in front of all of the others.
The viewer has the unsettling sense that even J, a quiet, awkward boy gifted at keeping his head down and his mouth shut, will not be able to safely navigate his new place in this madhouse family.
This gorgeous, poetic, and terrifying tale by first time screenwriter/director David Michôd will resonate with anyone who remembers the helplessness of late adolescence, the time when we are so close to adulthood, yet not yet able to chose our household.
Otis Under Sky, a visually enchanting film by Austin director Anlo Sepulveda, makes its World Premiere at the SXSW Film Festival.
As an Austin native who grew up roaming the town’s streets, I am always interested to watch movies filmed here. Otis Under Sky is the first film I’ve ever seen that shows Austin as I see it. A beautiful and sometimes grubby town with magical hidden spaces along the edges of the lake, below bridges, and even in unglamorous co-ops.
The film tells the story of Otis (Anis Mojgani), a socially inept artistic savant who “spends his days in front of a computer researching Eastern religions, creating web-art, and vlogging.”
Otis struggles with his mother’s death and a longing for human connection. When Otis leaves his house, it’s to plaster the streets with renegade art about the pain of obsolete technologies. (Otis is practiced at quickly attaching VCR tapes printed with phrases such as “Nobody wants me” and “Digital killed the video star” to public buildings as he passes by on foot).
The solitary Otis is forced to deal with the awkwardness and beauty of human interaction when he “falls into unrequited love at first sight with Ursula, a kleptomaniac womanizer” and lapsed Catholic who still crosses herself when she passes a street mural of the Virgin of the Guadalupe.
The romance between Otis and Ursula is awkward, profound, and non-physical. The silences between them are brilliantly executed and speak to the ineffable quality of unexpected and sudden friendships. But Otis and Ursula’s relationship is complicated by the return of Ursula’s girlfriend, which drives Otis to try the “severe meditation” that has so fascinated him.
Otis Under Sky, with its simple and endearing plot, eloquently addresses the larger issues of how to find both spiritual and human connections while living in a painful and changing world. Throughout the film, Otis ponders the questions of existence, but it is the film’s extraordinary use of light that speaks most eloquently of the spiritual transcendence Otis seeks.
This stunning debut by Sepulveda is one SXSW attraction I’d happily stand in line to see.
For a schedule of upcoming screenings of Otis Under Sky click HERE.
I’m voting Republican because the faster we run this country into the ground, the faster we can build it back up properly.
On second thought. Nah. That’s not even funny. Sticking a gun in my mouth isn’t going to get anything accomplished. But it is funny to watch this classic 2008 election video and sad how it has gotten worse…
Screenwriter Oren Moverman made his directorial debut with THE MESSENGER (2009), a film about an injured Iraq War veteran who returns home to find he has been assigned to the dreaded casualty notification duty.
THE MESSENGER was distributed by Beastie Boy Adam “M.C.A” Yauch’s company, Oscilloscope Laboratories, which distributes 12-15 quality movies a year. Though a small film not widely seen in theaters, THE MESSENGER was nominated for two Academy awards: Best Supporting Actor—Woody Harrelson and Best Screenplay—Alessandro Camon & Oren Moverman.
Moverman, who moved to the U.S. after four years of military service in his native Israel, began his film career as a screenwriter, co-writing acclaimed films such as JESUS’ SON (adapted from Denis Johnson’s book of short stories by the same title), MARRIED LIFE, and the Bob Dylan biopic, I’M NOT THERE.
Moverman is currently attached as a writer/director to the UNTITLED KURT COBAIN PROJECT, as well as James Ellroy’s cop thriller RAMPART (starring Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, and Ice Cube).
ML: I read an interview you did with Ira Sachs in which you said that you had never met a creative person before you moved to the U.S. What made you decide that you wanted to direct films, and what gave you the encouragement and confidence to get rolling in that direction?
OM: Confidence I’m not sure I have yet. But it wasn’t a very thoughtful process. It was really falling in love with movies, and being scared by movies. Not necessarily by scary movies, but by the whole experience of going to the movie theater and sitting there in the dark, which was terrifying to me; and I was drawn to it and I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know what it even means to be involved in film; I just knew that I was drawn to that world and that somehow–I can say it now as if it was guaranteed, it just worked out that way–that somehow, I would end up doing something in film.
And then I moved to the States and I went to college. I studied film–film studies and production–and I always kept in mind that I wanted to be a director. But I didn’t know what a director is, to tell you the truth, I just had a vague idea. And I read about it, I read a lot about the film process and all of that, so I sort of knew in theory, the way I think film critics know about film, but that doesn’t mean I knew about the day to day of it. And I found my way through it.
ML: You started out as a screenwriter and then you directed your first film THE MESSENGER, which was nominated for two Oscars, one for Best Screenplay for the script you co-wrote with Alessandro Camon. I know that when Alessandro found out about the nomination, he called his dad in Italy to tell him and his dad said that he already knew because the mayor of his little town in Italy had called to give him the news. And I was wondering if you would talk a little bit about what having such a huge and instant and public success was like for you?
OM: It really never felt that way, to tell you the truth. Definitely my thoughts were always on the film, and this may sound disingenuous, but it really was true. My thoughts were always on the film. And I think there is a certain kind of randomness in the whole Awards thing. And obviously the thing that amazed me was the fact that we were such a small film, with not a lot of money for publicity, and that slowly but surely people were hearing about us.
So when I heard about the nomination, my first reaction, the thing that really kept me excited about it wasreally, ‘This is really good for the film. This is really going to get the exposure we couldn’t afford to get if we had paid for it.’ It really kept me amazed and excited. It wasn’t really anything personal for me, because I do feel that it was almost a fluke. It was such a small film, which ultimately not a lot of people saw in the theater– I mean I think a lot of people are seeing it now on DVD–but at the time we didn’t have a lot of people seeing it in the theater and to get a little bit of a nod from people in the Academy who said, ‘We paid attention to this movie when it came our way,’ was very exciting.
And it really translated to more attention for the film, which I think was ultimately what we were going for from the beginning, because it is the sort of film where you feel a little humbled by it, you feel that what it’s about is almost more important than anything personal that you can get out of it.
ML: Sean Penn hosted a screening of THE MESSENGER to help ensure that certain members of the Academy saw the film. And Stanley Tucci was plugging the film from the Red Carpet on Oscar night. Why do you think these actors who weren’t involved in the making of the film at all were so invested in promoting it?
OM: I think we had a few angels who basically took it upon themselves to promote the film. And I think it really came from a genuine place. The world of Hollywood and the world of filmmaking is really a community, or it’s actually a collection of a few communities, and just like in any other profession, these guys–actors, directors and whatnot–are always looking out to what’s out there, what’s interesting what’s new, what’s the thing that not everyone’s seeing but we should pay attention to.
We had some very smart people on our distributions side, Oscilloscope Laboratories, and they sort of knew how to approach these people and send them DVDs. But you know some of it also happens in a much more sort of organic way. I’ll give you an example of something that I don’t think was written up anywhere else.
We showed the film at a lot of festivals because that’s one way to not spend a lot of money but still get some exposure and get people talking about the movie. And we showed the film at the Nantucket Film Festival. And Ben Stiller was in the audience, came to see the movie, I knew him from a long time ago. But I hadn’t seen him in a long time. He came to see the movie and he loved it. He was really, really excited about it and excited about reconnecting after all these years and all that. He was really, I think, impressed with the movie.
And then on the other side of the country there was a screening and Woody [Harrelson] invited his friends from L.A. and I invited some friends and one of the people there was Owen Wilson. And Owen saw the film and was really impressed with it as well. So somebody came up with the idea of Owen and Ben Stiller hosting a screening in Los Angeles for some of their friends. And that’s actually where Sean Penn came to see it.
And so it was kind of like, ‘You tell that person, and then you tell that person and then we’ll hold some screenings and get them to see it.’ And obviously no one ever forced people to talk about the film or asked them to do anything. If they liked the film, they spoke about it. There are other actors who never spoke about it if they didn’t like the film.
ML: Oscilloscope Laboratories is Adam Yauch’s distribution company (Adam “MCA” Yauch of the Beastie Boys). It sounds like they are filling a specific and much needed niche in the distribution realm. Will you talk a little bit about how you got involved with Yauch?
OM: I would say again that it seemed that everything that happened with this movie was a combination of coincidence and random good intentions that led to something like this.
I actually met Adam at a party when we were negotiating with another distributor to distribute the film. We still didn’t really have a good deal in place at the time and Adam, I was introduced to him, and he said he’d seen THE MESSENGER and how much he liked it. And he said something along the lines of ‘One day I wish we could distribute a film like that.’ And I said, ‘Why not now?’ And he basically said, ‘Well I’m sure you guys got a distributor. I mean I saw people after the screening that were huddling, that were talking about it. There was a lot of excitement about it.’ I said, ‘Yes, but there’s no done deal. And actually I would be very excited if you guys got into this and were interested in distributing it because I really think that, as you said, there’s a very special need for a distributor.’ So I gave him the number for the producer and he called the next day and put a bid in and that’s how they got the film.
ML: Had you been familiar with Adam Yauch’s work as a musician?
OM: Obviously I knew the Beastie Boys and I knew their music and all that kind of stuff, but more specifically for this, I knew that Adam got into distribution because I became aware of them [Oscilloscope Laboratories] when they picked up Kelly Reichhardt’s film, WENDY AND LUCY, and it was quite an exception to what was going on in the distribution world back then because I never really read articles saying ‘Hey there’s this guy who’s a musician who has an idea and now he’s thinking about distributing movies.’ You sort of come to that initially with a little bit of suspicion of ‘What is this about?’
So I looked him up and read about him and realized that this is the real deal, that he only has the best intention as an artist, and actually a real clear agenda to promote certain kinds of quality movies and thank God for him.
ML: To go back a little bit to the topics and the themes of THE MESSENGER: I read that you are friends with Tony Swafford. In his memoir, JARHEAD, Swafford writes about how anti-war movies, when shown to young warriors, are seen as pro-war. He writes that, “Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography to the military man.” I wonder if that idea affected your decision to write a film about a soldier who has already come back from the war to the homefront?
OM: I think it’s a very complicated thing in terms of the relationships between images and political agenda. I think that, as a whole, in my opinion, all films about war are anti-war, because, to be pro-war, they have to be propaganda films. I think that those films, especially the big budget films, are done in a way where they bring in a certain kind of excitement, a certain kind of adrenaline that can be really riveting and kind of a turn on, especially for young boys and young men.
We were very aware that we were not going to make a political film in terms of polemics, in terms of left wing/right wing, because that’s a death trap for a movie. But all movies are in a way political and our agenda was to put together a film—if we were so lucky, and we were—that would tell the story of the homefront without saying ‘This particular war was wrong for these reasons,’ or ‘That particular war was wrong for those reasons,’ and just basically show that people have to live with the consequences of the decision to go to war. And based on that, you draw your own conclusions.
I think from the very simplistic point of view that people want to take sometimes, clearly the movie is not saying, ‘War is a good thing.’ It’s basically saying ‘War effects people in a way some people don’t even think about and here’s what it looks like in its fictional rendering. It’s not a documentary; it’s our creation.’ So that’s really where we were coming from with this movie.
It’s basically an idea of ‘What does the homefront look like? What are the soldiers dealing with when they are coming back? And really it’s so much the tip of the iceberg. It’s almost a little embarrassing to say the movie is representative of that. I think it’s representative of a very tiny part of the story. Not only is it the story of thousands of dead in the two wars, but the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the way lives have been torn apart as a result of this war and keep being torn apart. It’s such a devastating thing we are going to be living with for such a long time. We haven’t even started to deal with it on a national level.
ML: Now this is a bit of a more personal question about language. I’ve read that you first wrote in Hebrew and Alessandro (Camon) first wrote in Italian. What was your experience with thinking and writing in Hebrew versus in English and how does that affect your subject matter and your language?
OM: I think it makes me more insecure about language when I have to write in English. And it makes me feel like I never know enough, therefore I have to know more. Which actually is not a bad thing. Mostly I think it serves you as a writer when you feel you have to go an extra mile to get the language right. I think that Alessandro is really an exceptional guy. He has a heavy Italian accent and even if you don’t speak Italian you know he’s quite an intellectual in Italian. And I think his mastery of English for any guy, is amazing, for an American it would be amazing. But also when you consider that he came to the States knowing very few words [of English], it’s really kind of shocking and inspiring.
For me, I’ve always dealt with English on a certain level. Obviously when I came here–which was, by the way, 23 years ago today—I started the process of becoming more and more comfortable with English. I think at first there was definitely the ‘I think in Hebrew before I speak in English’ kind of a process. But I would say that a few years into living here in New York, I started thinking in English and finding it more natural and kind of free flowing to go between thinking in English and speaking English. I find that once in a while a Hebrew word creeps into my head and then I start kind of stuttering trying to figure out what that word is in English.
But although I am quite comfortable with it, there’s always going to be this nagging insecurity that ‘I should check up on that line, because I’m not really sure that’s the best way of saying it.’ And that ultimately might have helped me work better. But also, as an outsider, and somebody who is not a native English speaker, you end up stealing from people all the time. I mean, you listen to the way people talk and it’s always about taking the phrase or line, so that you make it work for the character.
ML: You’ve told me before you’re glad you don’t live in L.A. Does living in New York, or the quality of life you have in New York, affect your writing?
OM: I love living in New York. I mean L.A. has its good sides. But New York is a place where I can walk around, and that’s a big deal for me. There’s an energy here that comes from interacting with people on a massive scale that I find really kind of exciting and inspiring. It’s where I’ve been all this time and there’s always so much going on here and so many people from, not only all over the world, but also from so many different disciplines and professions and occupations, that it is very dynamic. L.A. is ultimately where the film industry is and I think that—while it’s very good for people who work in the industry—has its limitations. Everything there revolves around film. It’s always been a comfortable fit for me here [in New York] and having kids now, and a family here, I can’t think of living anywhere else.
ML: Currently you are attached to RAMPART as a writer and director. And you’ll be working with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster again on that project. Would you talk a little bit about your decision to do that film? And did you have to lobby to be able to work again with those two actors?
OM: RAMPART is based on a James Ellroy script and I was hired to rewrite that script and when I finished it I think we were already done with THE MESSENGER; and one of the producers who worked on THE MESSENGER, Lawrence Inglee, who also was the producer of RAMPART, basically said, ‘Well why don’t you direct this?’ And I thought about it and I thought it would be kind of exciting if we could get the team back together—the core team, which is Ben, Woody, and Lawrence as well—and do this, which appealed to me and I liked the opportunity to go into another movie right away, (well, relatively right away–in movie terms).
In many ways, it’s not that far from THE MESSENGER, in terms of, we’re gonna have a guy in uniform, but it is very far from it in terms of what the story is and what the tone is. And it’s a somewhat bigger film, more challenging in many ways. And I also started a production company with Ben Foster and Ben is coming into this movie as a producer, representing our company. So there’s the feeling that the family is working together. It’s a great kind of crazy trip that came out of the mind of James Ellroy and that’s an interesting thing to explore any day.
ML: You co-wrote the Bob Dylan biopic I’M NOT THERE and it’s been rumored you might direct the Kurt Cobain biopic. And whenever Denis (Johnson, author of JESUS’ SON) talks about you he always mentions you used to send him mixed cassette tapes that you made him. So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your interest in music and musicians and how that affects the work you do in film.
OM: Music is everything. It’s impossible to breath without music. Growing up, I didn’t really have access to movies, we didn’t have much of that. But music was always on. We all had radios. And music became necessary for me. And also there’s obviously a fantasy element for the world of musicians. So it’s in my work; I was very lucky to work with Todd Haynes (director) on I’M NOT THERE and you know, you get to work with, not only one of the great singer/songwriters, but also one of the great poets of our time, Bob Dylan, so that was a special privilege.
You know, I’ve always been interested in biopics in general and unusual biopics and then when I was approached to do the Cobain thing I was very excited about it. You know I’m writing it right now and I am attached to direct it.
ML: You are?
OM: Yeah, yeah, it’s not a rumor. It’s true. But you know also, I can tell you now as I write it, there’s something so complicated about the interplay—-a movie that wants to tell a life story and then is also based in the creativity that is part of that in the world of the tour musicians that is so specific sometimes. To me, it’s absolutely intriguing and it also takes me back to the first question that you asked me; the world of creative people is absolutely mysterious and attractive to me.
That’s a different kind of creativity. Writing music, writing lyrics, performing is the biggest turn on there is. I know plenty of very, very, very famous actors who will tell you absolutely, in no uncertain terms, that their biggest fantasy is to be a rock star. You know, it’s like you think, ‘Oh, you’re a famous movie star.’ But the actor’s like, ‘Nah, I’m close, but look at this guy, he’s a rock star.’
It’s that world of rock n’ roll, it’s keeping us all alive, or it’s kept us alive and going. To me it’s just something that’s always intrigued me. That thing with Denis [Johnson] for example, it’s also a way of communicating with people. It’s like, ‘Hey, I like you. Could you listen to this? How ‘bout this?’ I spent a lot of hours, or wasted a lot of hours—spent or wasted, I’m not sure—just playing music for people and talking about it and trying to figure out who’s in that band and who’s in that band and how they connect and what does this song mean and all that kind of stuff. It’s being a perpetual teenager, I guess.
ML: So you mentioned Denis (Johnson). You co-wrote the film adaptation of his book of short stories, JESUS’ SON. I consider that to be one of the best film adaptations of a book—certainly of a book of short stories—that I’ve ever seen. I was wondering how you got involved in that project and what the experience of adapting that book was like for you?
OM: I got involved through a company called Evenstar. I was lucky enough to know Elizabeth Cuthrell, who started the company and David Urrutia who was working with her—they were both producers on JESUS’ SON—and we were just talking about plans. They had some development money and Elizabeth was a big fan of Denis Johnson’s and they were trying to figure out a way to get the rights to that book. And I think then we sort of looked at each other and said ‘There are three of us. We are three writers, three producers. We can do it together.’
And then we started kind of dividing up the work and it took almost a year of a lot of work of getting the script into shape and then involving the director early on in Alison MacClean, and then involving Denis [Johnson] early on, who I think was a little suspicious of these guys in New York. But then he came on board and got really involved in so many levels in the film. It was just a very long and very fulfilling process.
And ultimately what I would say is we didn’t know a lot coming in about how to make a movie. It was a burst of experience for most of us. And we got some very good professionals to work on the film. And I think that some of the freedom that we had as a truly independent film that was funded completely independently, some of the freedom that was there really instructed the script in the sense that we didn’t feel restricted by a studio telling us, ‘You can do this, but you can’t do that.”
And we read the book, and talked about it; one of the things that I noticed that I thought was exciting was that when you tried to translate the book into film there’s actually a whole language at your disposal that you can use because you have an unreliable narrator. You have a way of getting into tangents in terms of filmmaking, and then coming back to the story, but you’re never really sure what the true story is. And then the main character is always trying to figure out what exactly happened; and he doesn’t really remember; he did a lot of drugs and was drinking. So for us that meant that we could use split screens and freeze frames and go on tangents in terms of narrative, and kind of not be linear, but ultimately drive the story forward and have tiny animated moments. And it was a complete toolbox that existed; and we were just paying careful attention to what the words in this great collection [of short stories] were telling us and then what is the kind of cinematic equivalent of those words and we tried to push that through with the film.
I mean the best example for me is in the story called WORK where Fuckhead (Billy Crudup) and Wayne (Denis Leary)–they go and they do some work, and then they get the copper wires out of the walls of the house, and then they sell it. And in the book it says, ‘We split the money down the middle and bought heroin with it.’ And that to me says, ‘Oh, okay, that’s a split screen. You know, just follow them,’ because they go their separate ways, and they both shoot up. Fuckhead has somebody to save him in Michelle (Samantha Morton) and he survives, and the other guy dies. And you can show that at the same time if you just split the screen and follow both stories. So it was just that kind of paying attention to what the brilliant author was telling us and trying to find a way to do it.
ML: And that cast was just phenomenal. Dennis Hopper with the bullet holes in his face just brought it to life.
OM: That story was just word for word from the book. Really we just had to write directions and all that kind of stuff, but in terms of dialogue I think it was word for word from the book—it works so perfectly.
In one scene in the 1987 film Dirty Dancing, Baby (Jennifer Grey’s character) is about to go meet dashing, dangerous Johnny (played by the dear, departed Patrick Swayze), but she lies to her parents that she’s going to play charades in the West Lobby. Her sister, Lisa (played by Jane Brucker, who was brilliant in this role but whom I don’t think I’ve seen in anything else) — no stranger to illicit liaisons, herself — knows the real deal, and quips snidely, “Ohh, quite the little joiner, aren’t we?”
Seeing that film for the first time when I was eleven, and literally hundreds of times since, made its message, humor and values hugely formative for me. That particular line taught me that being a joiner is a bad thing, something only goody-goodies and dirty liars would do.
Unexpectedly, it has turned out that I am quite a joiner. I love belonging to groups! I love having membership cards in my wallet and attending group meetings. Thus, it seems paradoxical to me that all of the groups to which I belong are of my own choosing, and yet none feels like a completely natural fit. Take music, for instance. For years, my band members and I played shows with several other bands, traveling together in packs like minstrels whose scope spanned three small blocks of Red River Street. Making music with my band mates made me feel as close as I’ve ever felt to the Spirit, and yet many times I wished I weren’t a part of the music scene. Like any small, intimate group, things often got messy within the band and the community.
Another of my chosen communities: writing and writers. For nearly a decade, I have been a member of the Romance Writers of America. As a group, romance writers have cultural peculiarities that make me feel excluded from what has to be an inside joke. Here is one that even has a joke-like setup: Walk into a room full of romance writers and say the word “chocolate.” Mention you love dark chocolate, or make a joke about chocolate, or say you’re having a crap day and ask if anyone has some chocolate to share. Everyone will titter knowingly, as if you were talking about orgasms instead of candy. Every time this happens, I wonder — what in the world is the subtext? Is it that eating chocolate triggers the release of oxytocin, which is also released post-coitally? Is chocolate truly a good substitute for sex? If so, is there a future in chocolate novels? They could complement the numerous choco-porn TV commercials advertising Dove Dark (my personal favorite — tee-hee), Hershey’s Bliss, Godiva and other brands with purple prose that would rival the best romances of the ’80s.
Another example of my unease within this group: When the Austin chapter of the Romance Writers of America elected me to serve as their chapter president in 2004, I felt I had to begin shaving my armpits. At twenty-eight, I was one of the youngest members of the group. I came to meetings wearing clothing ensembles even I considered odd (picture a former-punk, Target-meets-vintage aesthetic). I couldn’t figure out why the group had elected me to serve; the stark differences between myself and them, of which my hairy pits were one obvious example, made me ostracize myself in my own mind.
My fellow members of Austin RWA had elected a hairy president, and yet I felt with deep certainty that I could not possibly serve with unshaved underarms. Where did this irrational idea come from? Looking back, it seems to have materialized spontaneously in my mind — Chapter presidents do not stand up at group meetings with hirsute pits! Before the January meeting at which I took over the job of president, I shaved. Until then, I had been hairy and proud, a product of my permissive family, my own laziness regarding personal upkeep and hygiene, and the tiny northeastern college I had attended, where people espoused such progressive ideas as women’s bodies being beautiful in their natural, hairy state (though that actually seems more regressive to me — a return to the way things once were). Ever since, I have kept my underarms smooth and inoffensive. In my own mind, I have sold out.
Another community in which I have an uneasy membership: athletes, gym rats, people who work out, enter races and get ripped. After a childhood beset by asthma, bad vision that necessitated glasses, and the attendant fear of objects flying at my face (including any kind of ball or puck), I became a kickboxer in my early twenties in San Francisco, and discovered I loved being athletic. When I moved back to Austin, I switched to swimming, biking and running, and started competing in triathlons. But I often felt excluded at races or group workouts. When registering for my first triathlon, I was dismayed to find that my weight qualified me to enter in the “Athena” group — women weighing over 150 pounds, whose racing times aren’t expected to be as fast as those of lighter women because we have more bulk to haul around. At the free core strength training classes I used to attend at Jack and Adam’s bike shop, I would overhear conversations that made me feel as if I must be in a parallel dimension. “I did an eighty-miler this morning,” someone would toss off breezily. “I was so mad at myself — I only averaged twenty-two miles an hour!” (Cycling, not running — I think.) Who are these people? I would wonder. Even at a “mere” 22 mph, an “eighty-miler” would take nearly four hours, and the core classes were on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Didn’t these folks have jobs?
It seems at once pitiable and amusing to me that there is no one group to which I feel comfortable belonging. I am reminded of Groucho Marx’s quote about not joining any club that would have him as a member. On the other hand, I think that must be part of the reason why I appreciate my husband so much, and our marriage — our little community of two, another group of my choosing, and the only one in which I almost always feel completely known and utterly at ease.
Last time I checked, Jack and Adam’s Bikes, on Barton Springs and S. Lamar, still hosted their free core strength training classes on Mondays and Wednesdays at 5:30 pm. If they’re anything like they were two years ago, they are incredible, challenging, kick-ass, 60-minute classes. Show up at least 30 minutes early if you want to get a spot anywhere near the instructor, which helps with hearing instructions. The shop also hosts free weekly training rides. Check their Web site for more details.
I was 18, skinny, out of money and in New Orleans for the first time after some Appalachian adventures and a visit to Nixon’s D.C. I faked a cocky walk into a French Quarter piano bar and stayed until closing time when the brunette singer in a sequined costume gown took pity on me. We went to an all-night place to eat. She picked up the tab and sent me gently on my way, and I still don’t know who pays the angels.
I headed out of town on Tulane Avenue under a high, gray light filtered through very low sky. At the Broad Street red light a man in a rumpled coat and wrinkled trousers stood in the intersection. He swayed on unsteady legs and waved his arms as blood sprayed from his neck. A cop in his car at a gas station on my right saw the same thing I did, looked at me funny, punched his siren and flashed across the intersection. A road sign I hadn’t noticed before slapped me hard with the Dylan verse: “God said, Abraham kill me a son.” The man’s throat was cut near the end of Highway 61.
I’d had a youthful tour of the Museum of America, from John Prine’s Paradise to Washington’s Marble Presidents, from the Encounter With the Compassionate Stranger to the Diorama of Violent Death. I drove on home to Houston, where everyone said I looked gaunt.
I’m spending a lot of time in New Orleans these days. The town, still recovering from the Storm, is bracing for the economic gut punch of the Spill. If I were Pharaoh of New Orleans, I’d let the people go before the Mississippi turns to blood and frogs fill the Superdome.
Already some LeBlancs and Toussaints have escaped to HBO, not the promised land but a virtual home for a spirited, impressionistic filmsong of New Orleans, Treme. Sandra Bullock’s moved to town and adopted a motherless child, and in the French Quarter a guy in a cop costume tosses you a Saints cap and asks for a twenty-dollar food-drive donation. Hat in hand, the role reversed, you give it up for an angel not forgotten.