Rotten Wingnuts in an Age of Miracles

The current Geller-Palin-Gingrich-Beck-Fox-Tea Party syndicate, funded by the third richest family in the U.S., takes wingnuttery to a whole new level. They believe ordinary Muslim Americans (5 million of them) do not exist, because 19 terrorists from Al-Qaeda (maybe 10,000 of them) attacked us in the name of a fundamentalist form of Islam.

Conservatives have brains that work differently from the rest of us. They do not tolerate ambiguity, conflicts, or paradox well, and they prefer structure, clarity, and stability. This brain research might offer what one blogger called a  “Unified Field Theory of Wingnuttery.” Does the theory explain the last month of rabid anti-Muslim fervor stirred up by the Geller-Palin-Gingrich-Beck-Fox syndicate?

Defaced Sign at Islamic Cultural Center in Tennessee.

It might, though this batch of nuts is so profoundly rotten, they reek. Ordinary wingnuts cannot hold two ideas about one subject together if the ideas point in opposite directions, so they confuse fiction with reality. For example, the Tea Party-Beck rally in Washington D.C. gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on the anniversary of the great Civil Rights march while obeying instructions warning them to stay off the Metro lines to the Black areas of town, like Howard University.

Because they cannot hold opposing ideas together, Wingnuts believe: “we are good, ergo nothing we do can be bad.” These traits run on steroids when religion is involved—ergo, nothing rightwing white Christians do is bad. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed some of these traits among leftwing religious activists as well—these are my people. Religious left folks can be sure of our own rightness, making us unable to see our heterosexist, racist, or culturally offensive behavior. Christians have a trope about being sinners that softens the certainty somewhat. However, the true Wingnuts, left or right, prefer to spend 99.99% of their time denouncing the sins of others.

The current Geller-Palin-Gingrich-Beck-Fox-Tea Party syndicate, funded by the third richest family in the U.S., takes wingnuttery to a whole new level. They believe ordinary Muslim Americans (5 million of them) do not exist, because 19 terrorists from Al-Qaeda (maybe 10,000 of them) attacked us in the name of a fundamentalist form of Islam. Come to think of it, those terrorists also probably didn’t believe Muslim Americans exist; they certainly did not care whether or not they lived or died.

These extreme wingnuts have managed to make W look better, which is a flat out miracle; he did, after all, enlist the help of liberal Muslim leaders like Imam Faisal Rauf after 9/11 to spread the word that Islam is a religion of peace, whereas this new Wingnut gang has tried to turn Rauf into a terrorist. Another miracle: I’m feeling oddly grateful for Orin Hatch of Utah, who is no friend to feminists. But he’s the first Republican leader to support the building of the Islamic Cultural Center at Park51. Go figure.

I think the syndicate will fail to halt the Islamic Cultural Center in New York because over half of New Yorkers support its being built and the various arguments against it have started to bother even Orin Hatch. But the rotten wingnut propagation of negative views of Islam have increased vociferous anti-Muslim uprisings all over the country. Recently, the construction site for a new mosque in Murfreesboro, TN, was torched and is under federal investigation—an act of terrorism 886 miles from Ground Zero.

Such hate campaigns usually spawn apoplectic confusions, so that anyone who vaguely resembles a Muslim, like a Sikh or Hindu, may also be targeted for violence. This lumping of South and West Asians into the 1.5 billion people in the world who are Muslims, many of whom look nothing like the stereotypes, has been happening over and over since 9/11. Diane Marsh O’Connor, who lost her daughter and unborn grandchild in the 9/11 attack, knows the implications of such bigotry. She bemoaned the defensive replies to the charge that President Obama is a Muslim, as if the charge were a negative accusation. O’Connor does not want another group of American children to grow up believing something is wrong with them; the pain behind her concern was evident when O’Connor described the impact of racism on the African American children in her classroom.

I live in Oakland, CA, which has a thriving Islamic Cultural Center downtown and many Muslim communities around the city. They co-exist with Jewish congregations and Christian churches, as well as Buddhist, pagan, Hindu, Sikh, Unitarian Universalist, Mormon, and other religious communities. A year after 9/11, the Islamic Cultural Center opened its doors to a major peace march. I had just moved to Oakland that summer, and it was my first, but not my last, experience of Muslim hospitality in the city. I’ve been back to the Islamic Cultural Center a number of times. I’m grateful they are there and grateful to be able to pray with my neighbors. I’ll be joining them, along with folks from my UCC church in Berkeley, on September 10th to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, the finish of Ramadan. We belong to a network called the Axis of Friendship, and we’ve been asked to bring a message and pray with our friends at the Eid festivities.

I don’t think all the wingnuts can be changed; then again, miracles do happen. But a miracle comes from a lot of good people working really, really hard against the odds, while other things line up to put the wind at their backs, and everyone is surprised by the outcome. Orin Hatch might have been persuaded by one of his Muslim American constituents—the University of Utah has had a center for Middle Eastern studies for 50 years. Or, perhaps, as a Mormon, Hatch is sensitive about religious persecution and the moral implications of Islamophobia.

Given that only 9% of Americans claim to be familiar with Islam, the first step in disempowering the rotten wingnuts is to get to know our Muslim neighbors, to support their rights, and to hold teach-ins about Islam in our local communities. We have to reach across the stinking wingnut pit of hate and violence, shared with the terrorists they demonize, and take the hands of our Muslim neighbors. That’s the only way to believe in miracles—by making them happen.

The Rise (or Fall) of the Clarksville’s Last Holdout Corner Lot

The past and a vision of the future. Photo by Mary Lowry.

When I was four years old and first moved to Clarksville, a couple of teachers would’ve most likely been able to afford a mortgage on a small house in the neighborhood. These days a little 1300 square foot bungalow goes on the market for half a million dollars. Heck, I wouldn’t be able to stay in Clarksville if I wasn’t willing to live in 300 square feet of rented heaven.

My awareness that I would not be able to pay even property taxes on a tiny house in the area of town I fell in love with as a kid caused me to develop a deep affection for Clarksville’s last undeveloped corner lot. I’ve been admiring it for years, as it sat unchanged and boldly defying gentrification.

I noticed when the only structure on the lot–a little wooden shack– was joined by a practically capacious RV. The addition seemed to fit and the lot continued to remind me of the bedraggled houses, children and dogs that occupied the Clarksville of my childhood.

So it was with dismay that, while out for a walk the other day, I spotted the sign warning of the imminent transformation of Clarksville’s last holdout corner lot.

The lot’s future? The shed, the RV, the trees, all will be razed or removed to make way for the Four Luxury Townhouses of Woodlawn Plaza.

But who am I, a lowly little renter, to deny such progress?

Why Clarksville?

In order to understand the macrocosm of the history and culture of Texas, it’s important to understand the state on a microcosmic level as well.

That’s why examining the past and present of my favorite Texas neighborhood, Central Austin’s Clarksville. I’ve lived in Clarksville, on-and-off, for the past 29 years.

Clarksville sits a short 25-minute walk from the Texas state capitol.

A freedman’s colony after the Civil War; a shabby, eclectic middle class neighborhood during the years of my childhood; Clarksville is now gentrified, mostly white, and full of quirky, thriving local businesses.

There Will NOT Be a Test

…there was, at one time, a set basket of knowledge that schools would provide and if you went to all of those classes, you were educated. In the past twenty years or so, the amount of information has ramped up so much and the rate at which it multiplies has grown exponentially, now there is no way anyone could settle on a group of facts to provide that would hold you in good stead in the future. So what we do is teach you how to learn. We cannot know what you will need to learn, but we can teach you how to think, how to solve problems, how to research to find answers, and how to communicate what you need and what you know with others. Algebra is a way to think, a way to solve problems by recognizing equations. Problems that may not even have numbers in them. They may have words, in which case we call it logic. So if A equals B, and if I add C to A, I have to add C or something very like it to B to achieve the same result.

relevance personified
Relevance Personified

“I love your class, it’s all I want to do at school. I can’t stand going to math class after this, I’ll never use algebra.”

My reply:  Back in my day as a public school student, the 1960s and 70s, educators felt there was a specific curriculum you could be taught to be considered educated. A canon, if you will, of math, science, English, and social studies. English, for example, had its American Lit, British Lit, essay-writing, and basic researching skills like use of the card catalogue, the Dewey decimal system, periodicals and books, footnoting their use within your writing, etc.

(I have always LOVED the Dewey decimal system. It’s comforting to think that you can put all of knowledge into groups and number them for easy reference. And the card catalogue! What an incredible piece of craftsmanship, the smooth maple cabinet with the perfect little drawers that slid in and out with the satisfying yet small muffled thok! when they slid flush into the cabinet.)
Back to why all of this is important, or relevant: when those kids told me they saw no need in learning algebra, and I explained to them there was, at one time, a set basket of knowledge that schools would provide and if you went to all of those classes, you were educated. In the past twenty years or so, the amount of information has ramped up so much and the rate at which it multiplies has grown exponentially, now there is no way anyone could settle on a group of facts to provide that would hold you in good stead in the future. So what we do is teach you how to learn. We cannot know what you will need to learn, but we can teach you how to think, how to solve problems, how to research to find answers, and how to communicate what you need and what you know with others. Algebra is a way to think, a way to solve problems by recognizing equations. Problems that may not even have numbers in them. They may have words, in which case we call it logic. So if A equals B, and if I add C to A, I have to add C or something very like it to B to achieve the same result.

(In the case of elementary math we were taught ‘New Math’. It was binary, meaning how to express all numbers as series of 0s and 1s. Of course, I have never used this since, and it is no longer taught to the general population, but do you know how computers work? If you break it all the way down, everything is composed of groups of 0s and 1s to a computer. So somebody got it, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and here we are.)

When I explained it this way, the students grabbed it immediately, and were satisfied to go off to algebra class as a useful activity. If only math teachers were able to explain the relevance of their subject the same way. Because that’s what you have to do with education: make it relevant and make it explicit that it’s relevant, all the time. Just think about yourself. What would it take for you to want to sit your butt in a chair and listen to someone else for an hour or more? Well, it would have to be to get something you could use in your life, something relevant.

I applied once for a job teaching adult education. I now am quite happy doing that in the real estate industry, but this was in an area in which I had no real expertise, medical. It was a communications class, though, so it wasn’t too great a stretch. The interviewers asked me, “What makes you think you can teach adults if you have only taught high school?” It doesn’t matter what you are teaching, or whom, whether it is a class of kindergartners or adults. You have to make it relevant, and you have to make that relevance explicit. You have to tell them, “This is relevant to you because…you will use this in this situation…,” or you lose them. If they can’t see how they can use it, they glaze over and you become like Charlie Brown’s teacher: “Mwaaaah, mwah mwah mwah mwah,” like a muffled trombone.

We need to teach math teachers, and all teachers, that making it real, making it relevant, is what matters to students, and if they can’t do that with their subject material, maybe they shouldn’t be teaching it. Look for another way to get it across, something that makes sense to the person in the seat, not just learning abstract knowledge for its own sake.

Once I thought up a speech in which the speaker identified with an object, and told us why. It is like ‘discovering your metaphor.’ I guess I was wrapped up in an English or Poetry class and wanted to make them think symbolically. They didn’t all get it, and limiting the metaphor to an object you could carry in to school didn’t really open up the world of imagery to them as I had hoped.
To get the idea across, I did the assignment myself. What I came up with as a metaphor for myself was a set of battery cables. I am a connector. I connect people to ideas, to resources, to other people, to themselves. And there is a spark, an energy involved. I bought a new, clean battery cable and after the speech it became a decoration for my classroom, displayed along the top of the whiteboard to generate the question of why it was there. It gave me a chance to let them know how I thought about my job–not as a parent-child relationship, or master-servant, nor anything else that put me higher than them, but on the same level. A tool for them to use to learn, to understand.

Everybody is back to school a week now, so this is a good reminder to students, teachers, and parents. Seek relevance and call it out as often as possible.

Magical Night Burnout


Photo by John Markalunas.

When I worked as a forest firefighter on the Pike Hotshot Crew, we lit backfires to stop the main fire in its tracks. We often did these “burnouts” during night shifts because the cooler temperatures and higher relative humidity lowered the risk that the fire we lit would jump our fireline and burn out of control.

To learn more about my pal John Markalunas, the firefighter/photographer who took this picture of two Pikers lighting a midnight burnout, click HERE.

Possible Arson and the Right’s Houston Voter Suppression Effort

A mysterious fire last Friday destroys all of the voting machines in Harris County (Houston), Texas. Arson investigators have not yet issued an opinion. Meanwhile, a well-funded right-wing group emerges in Houston and begins raising unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud. A video on their website pictures only people of color when it talks of voter fraud. White people are shown talking patriotically about the need for a million vigilantes to suppress illegal votes.

In the video, an unidentified spokesman for “TrueTheVote” says, “If we lose Houston, we lose Texas. And guess what? If we lose Texas we lose the country.” The former Mayor of Houston, Democrat Bill White, is running against secessionist Republican Gov. Rick Perry this year. White’s counting on a big turnout in his home town. The fire and the voter suppression campaign guarantee a greatly diminished turnout.

Continue reading “Possible Arson and the Right’s Houston Voter Suppression Effort”

Truth about Teaching

Poster for play Dead White Males
Great play at the Hideout!

Since I am about to publish a book on the subject of teaching today, I couldn’t wait to see and review this play!

“You must teach values!”
“How? Where is the curriculum you want me to use?”
“Values are taught by your actions!”

Dead White Males: A Year in the Trenches of Teaching addresses many of the problems with education, in a very creative set and with superb actors. The production is tight, energy-driven, cast perfectly. The description online makes one think it will be a comedy of errors, with teachers certified to teach each others’ subjects instead of what they are teaching. It definitely has funny parts–I laughed out loud–but it also has a dark side. I don’t think I’m being a spoiler to tell you a true story about teaching in public schools today can’t end very well.

Teachers straining to remain in love with teaching, buckling under pressure to teach history and science lessons chosen by right-wing fundamentalists, hyper-evaluated by administrators and school board members—all ready to throw the first stone since they are safe. As a former teacher, I can testify: there was nothing made up about this play.

First tidbit from mentor teacher to shiny new teacher: When all else fails, lower your expectations. Second tidbit: Cover your ass. Oh, yeah.

Please see this play, but please send a link about it to all of the teachers you know. They will enjoy it, in a “Right on!” kind of way. And a special date would be September 10, the final production, when the playwright William Missouri Downs will be visiting and host a ‘talk-back’ after the production.

Special acting shoutout for Molly Fonseca and Dennis Kelleher Bailey, and director Derek Kolluri for great pacing and staging/design.

Production: Sustainable Theatre Project @ The Hideout Theatre, 617 Congress, Austin.

Haiku Friday: I Square Donald Judd


(L-R) Mary Lowry, Ray Souder at The Chinati Foundation in Marfa. Photo by Ray Souder.

glorious boxes

shine in the shadow and sunlight

breeze bends the brown grass

Now it’s your turn, beloved DogCanyon readers. Write us a Friday Haiku about art and life. You remember the rules:

Three lines.

First line five syllables.

Second line seven syllables.

Third line five syllables.

Adventures of a Young Man: That Time in Cuba

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain

Our delegation was supposed to be about culture and history but nobody ever went to Cuba without a political intent.  The organization was a Latino group from America and they had already made many public statements about normalization of relations with Cuba but they knew the chances were not good for that to happen during the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  I did not want to think about the politics but when you walk around old Havana and visit the farms and talk to the people and see how they suffer then you know that everything in Cuba is related to politics.


“We have a problem here on our island.”  Our driver, who was more of a “minder,” began speaking as we rolled away from the hotel.  “This artificial sweetener is hurting our people.”

“What artificial sweetener?” I asked.

“They are beginning to use it in some of the Coca-Colas now,” Armando said.  “This is very painful.”

“I guess I don’t understand.”

“We grow and sell sugar here and it is bought by countries all around the world.  Now there is less demand.  These doctors are saying sugar is bad.  Do they know what this Nutra Sweet might do to people?”  Armando turned around to look at me when he finished his question and one of his eyebrows was arched and he had drawn his lips together so tightly that they exaggerated the wrinkles around his mouth.  He was surely in his mid fifties but his hair was suspiciously lacking any trace of gray.

“Yeah, probably ought to find that out, I suppose.”  I was thinking, however, that my own beloved country was a bit foolish to be worried about a small island nation that might have its economy brought to grief by an artificial sweetener.

Forever Summer City

Armando drove my cameraman Vicente and I along the low stone seawall that traced the curve of Havana Bay and toward the green fields to the east.  We were supposed to be getting a briefing from a Cuban government agency and then we all were to be taken to see a master cigar roller.  This job was one of the most honored in the island’s culture and required years of practice and accomplishment in turning a tight leaf around the tobacco.  I was wondering how I might construct any of this into some kind of meaningful news report but my main interest was in making certain I did not miss any single sight or taste or sound.  I had not ever been to such an exotic place and was determined to visit the Floridita bar where Hemingway drank and the Finca Vigia, his farm in the hills where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea.

Vicente and I had been forced to share a room in the old Riviera Hotel and it towered above the Caribbean Sea and all of old Havana.  The rooms smelled of mold and decades of humidity and the paper was curling away from the walls where it had once been seamed.  Furniture in the lobby was discolored by time and the Formica on the tables and counters in the café was without color and worn thin. The Riviera, though, had once been glamorous and glorious and was filled with beautiful people with mysterious backgrounds during the years that the American mob ruled Cuba and ran gambling, drugs, and alcohol. I still had trouble envisioning women in low-cut beaded gowns gliding over these scarred floors carrying champagne flutes in their hands and gaudy jewels around their necks as men with greased hair chased after them in tuxedos. Those people shared their money with the brutal US-backed dictator Fulgencio Bautista, who also made the campesinos cut tobacco and sugar cane for pennies a day so he might get even richer.

“When do you think we might meet the premier?” I asked Armando.  Brightly painted buildings were passing behind us and giving way to open country that was outlined by low hills.

“This we cannot know,” he said.  “The premier moves about.  No one knows where he sleeps.  It is a different place every night.  Your American CIA tried to kill him, as you know.  We must be very careful.”

“But we are going to meet him, are we not?  It’s part of why we are here.  I think the delegation wants to personally express interest in trade; at least that’s what I was told.”

“Let’s hope this happens.”

Vicente was quiet and sat in the back with his bulky TV camera bouncing on the seat.  He had not spoken much since the first night because he had a Latino surname and everyone had expected him to know Spanish but he grew up in Texas during a time when Mexican-American parents were embarrassed to have their children speaking anything other than English.  Our first night in the hotel restaurant a waiter had approached our table and asked if two of our four chairs were taken.  The question had been spoken in Spanish and Vicente responded with an embarrassing answer.

“Si, dos cervezas, por favor.”

Vicente was wide and strong with thick arms and legs and when he pointed a TV camera at people and told them what he wanted them to do they obeyed his instructions.  His constant facial expression was confusion even though he seemed to be trying to make everything in his immediate vicinity fit to a vision he had of what he wanted to happen.  All of the Mohitos that were brought to us in government and business lobbies did not loosen him up and make him more talkative even though most of our hosts spoke fluent English.

“Where are we going? Is there a problem?”  Armando had suddenly turned into a dirt lane on the edge of a tobacco field, stopped abruptly as if he were in a hurry, dropped the car into reverse, and backed onto the highway to return in the direction of the city.

“I’m afraid I’m not allowed to say, senor.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I wish I could tell you.”

“Hey man, we got a right to know what’s goin’ on.” Vicente had leaned into the space between the two front seats and was trying to be intimidating but there was no response from Armando.

“I told you we had to be careful.” Armando offered nothing further as he sped back toward the city.

“Should we just hop out when he stops at a light or somethin’?”  Vicente had lifted his camera from the seat and was holding it in his lap and he was ready to jump.

“I’m not sure what to do,” I said.  “We can’t exactly grab a taxi very easily out here.”

“Yeah, but this is a communist country, man.  And they mostly don’t like Americans and especially our media.  Who knows what they might be planning on doing to us?”

“You’re right.  I’m pretty sure they are going to take US reporters to a field and cut us down while they are traveling with a high-profile Hispanic delegation.  Stop being ridiculous.”

Down to thee Banana Republic

A long fence line appeared on our left and we drove along its length until a gate appeared and we saw that we were at the remote end of an airport runway.  Our delegation was gathered around a white, turbo-prop aircraft and a few of them were already climbing stairs to board.  I stepped out before the car had stopped rolling and went directly to the government official who served as our host.

“What’s going on?”

“We are going to Isla de Juventud.”

“Why the change in our itinerary?”

“I cannot say.”

“Of course not.  Nobody can say anything in this country.”

The island was mostly a volcano risen from the Caribbean that was covered with palms and long grasses.  Two dirt lanes crossed near what appeared to be the middle of the island and there were a few stucco-walled buildings standing in clearings.  I had the notion that Hawaii must have looked this way before the condo-builders arrived from California.  Fidel Castro’s government had decided to use the island off the southern coast of Cuba as a preparatory school for his country’s best and brightest and teenagers lived in cement block dormitories and took classes in rooms with three walls. The taunting sun beat out on the pathways that led to the mysterious jungle only a few feet from where they were opening their books.  Our gathering must have looked absurd to them as we shuffled along on a tour and sipped Mohitos and dark coffee and asked mundane questions.  There seemed to be no connection between this place and the contemporary world and I wondered if it were possible these young people had ever seen pictures of Los Angeles or Paris or even had enough information to formulate a dream that might lead them beyond Cuba. Castro had spent a few years here imprisoned at the Presidio Modelo before he began planning his revolution while in exile in Mexico.

“This place is fascinating,” I said to Vicente that night in our hotel room.  “But I’m getting tired of the games and I’m just going to bail out of the itinerary and go to the Floridita tomorrow if they won’t answer questions about when we get to go there.”

“I doubt we’re going to get there,” he said.  “Doesn’t seem like they want to emphasize an American writer or anything else American, for that matter.”

“Maybe not, but he was a hero to the Cuban people.  He drew a lot of positive attention to the island during the political change.”

“I don’t know nothin’ about that but I’m always up for another Mohito,” Vicente laughed.

In the morning, Armando gave us the news that we had a visit to a large health clinic on our schedule and then we were to stop at the famous Floridita bar where Hemingway was a habitué during his years in Cuba.  When we walked in a few hours later I saw several photos of the writer that were tilting awkwardly along the walls.  There were also framed articles that had been published by American magazines and newspapers that profiled the American ex-patriot.  I liked the photo of him with his defiant eyes and tight grin as he stared into the camera with his arm around Martha Gellhorn, the glamorous UPI correspondent he had seduced while married to his second wife.  All of the journalists in our delegation sat at the mahogany bar and drank to excess for several hours and ignored the pleas of Armando and our host that we return to the cars for a ride back to the hotel.  Each one of us thought we might be fine writers, too, and become best-selling authors if only we were able to get away from daily reporting.  When you are young and in Cuba and there is rum in your belly you do not think about mortgages and car payments and living on a cul-de-sac.

We finally met Castro a few days after we had stopped expressing interest.  My Spanish was not adequate to understand the conversation but he was as animated in the small conference as he appeared in the TV clips that were excerpted from his legendarily long speeches.  The premier refused to speak English on his home soil so there were only a few people in our group that were able to later talk about what he had said and how he felt about the current American president.  The deprivations of his people would disappear if the US were to simply buy cigars and rum and sugar from the island but he knew no such commerce was likely under a conservative administration.

Castro’s energy seemed to perceptibly change the air in the great anteroom outside of his office and I had no difficulty understanding how he inspired a small band of revolutionaries to cross the Gulf from Mexico.  I easily saw him at the helm of the “Granma” as it topped wave crests and he leaned his head in the direction of Che so that they might contemplate the form of their struggle and scenarios for success.  They went to the mountains, of course, and moved closer to Havana with each battle and they owned the hearts of the campesinos almost from the day they landed and stories of their presence spread across the land.  Che did not want to govern, though, and left for Bolivia for a new struggle but he was undone by his asthma.  He built great fires in the jungles each night to breathe warm, dry air and clear his respiratory system but the blazes enabled the CIA to track the revolutionary and kill him before he achieved another overthrow of a government friendly to America.

There were only three days left on the island for our trip and we had completed all of the interviews that needed to be taped.  My goal was to spend the remaining time as a tourist and walk neighborhoods with a translator or sit on the seawall and drink cold beer and contemplate how I might spend my years traveling to other locales like Cuba.

“We gonna shoot anything else, tomorrow?” Vicente asked as he plugged in batteries for charging in the hotel room.

“Nope.  Tomorrow we are going to Papa Hemingway’s farm.”

“Yeah, right; you know these guys aren’t going to leave us alone.  They damn sure have other plans for us.”

“I don’t care.  We’ll meet them at the car when we walk out and just tell them we are hiring a driver to take us up there.”

“Sure, pal.  Whatever you say.”

In the morning, Armando was sitting in the hotel lobby and sipping a tiny cup of coffee with a broad smile.

“Do you wish to see the Finca today?” he asked.

“Yes, of course, we do; we’ve wanted to see it every day since we’ve been here.”

“Very well, then; let’s go.”

“I thought you had two more government agency visits or something for us today and that we were supposed to see the sports training facilities.”

“No, no, that is not important.  Perhaps tomorrow.  We’ll go to the farm today, as you wish.”


The Nobel Laureate’s residence was in a serious state of decline and vines were reaching out from the jungle to cover walks and fencing and they snaked up over the edges of the patio.  Our tour was not constrained, though, and I saw his bookshelves and the table where Hemingway wrote in longhand at the peak of his literary powers, sober and focused until midday and then drunk and complicated as the afternoon passed.  A picture of his boat, the Pilar, hung near his desk and there was also the inevitable photo of him standing next to a great swordfish he had landed with a gaffe somewhere near the Gulfstream.  A kind of magic had happened inside those four walls but the uninitiated would have seen only a crumbling farm nestled between low hills.  I still see that house some times in my dreams and it appears to be filled with words that are rusting and rotting from going unused.

The next few days I slipped away from Vicente and Armando and walked the old neighborhoods of Havana.  The streets were busy with people and 1950s era US automobiles; there had been no American imports since Castro had won control of the government.  I did not want to leave because there were endless things to know and life was outdoors and simple.  Everyone danced and drank in the streets and there was no place to walk without hearing music.  The air was wet and warm and tasted of the ocean and hills and cigars and cooking meat.

After the delegation’s farewell dinner the night before our departure, Vicente and I walked back to the Riviera and argued about socialism and capitalism.  Politics is never a good subject but it is even worse when you are debating with a professional colleague and opinions are inflamed by alcohol.  We were still bickering an hour later in the room as we packed our TV gear but Vicente had a greater concern than politics.

“We’re idiots, you realize,” he said.

“Yeah, but why?”

“How many weeks have we been here?”

“Several.  You know.  Why?”

“Because it’s one in the morning and our charter leaves at five and we have no rum or cigars……..”

“And who the hell goes to Cuba and comes back without rum and cigars?”

“We aren’t going to get any either.  It’s Sunday night or Monday morning or whatever the hell it is and there sure isn’t anything open at this hour.”

“Guess not.”

“Holy shit.  Travel to Cuba and forget to buy rum and cigars to take home.  Who in the hell is that stupid?”

“Us, I reckon.”

We finished loading the camera and batteries into Anvil crates and packed the tripod into its tube.  I went to the window and stared out at the lights down the shoreline from a vantage point seventeen floors above the surface of the sea.  I convinced myself I was to return and know Cuba and that my first impressions were to become a love of the culture and the people.  Sitting in the chair by the window I fell asleep for a few hours without undressing and I jumped when the wakeup call came from the front desk.  Vicente opened the door to begin stacking luggage and crates in the hallway and he nearly tripped over two baskets sitting outside our room.

“I don’t believe it,” he said.  “Look at this.”

“What?  I walked out from the bathroom.  “That is hilarious.  No way.”

There were four bottles of rum, two white and two dark, and two boxes of Montecristo cigars.  A small, white card was taped to each of the dark rum bottles.  I picked one up and read the words: “Republica de Cuba.  Fidel Castro Ruz Presidente Del Consejo De Estado y Del Gobierno.”

Fidel Castro's Calling Card

I still have Castro’s calling card.  I carry it in my wallet.  There are times when I take it out and look at it and wonder what might have been for Cuba.   Everyone doubts my story, though, and no one thinks the card bearing Castro’s name is real.  I do not care about that indifference but I wish that I had made another trip to Cuba.  I have not been back yet but I am going.

I know that I am going.

The Right To Education

It’s been just under a year since I wrote a story for DogCanyon on The Right to Clean Water bemoaning the massive number of kids in the world whose lives are permanently derailed by lack of access to clean water. A year later, the situation is at least moderately better, thanks to a number of efficiently run nonprofits who’ve been chipping away at the problem one community at a time. This weekend I ran into my friend Scott Harrison, founder of Charity Water ( who’ve now funded 2,900 water projects in 17 countries, providing clean water to 1.25 million people.

Charity Water just launched their Born in September Campaign. If you’re a September birthday (others welcome too), they’d like you to forego the stupid birthday presents in favor of your friends giving you a well for your birthday. Their mission for September is to provide clean water to ALL of the Bayaka people and many others in the devastated forest regions of the Central African Republic. The goal is to raise $1.7 million dollars to provide clean water for 90,000 people in a single month (that’s a cost of $20 per person served) and one of those great ideas that, once you’ve got it in your head, it’s impossible to rid yourself of it short of doing the right thing.

And that’s not even the subject of my blog this week so let’s turn to education. My interest in the basic rights of every child are the focus of my feature doc, One Peace at a Time (now out on DVD and easy to find online). The film is produced by our education and action nonprofit The Nobelity Project (at The ultimate goal of the film is to convince people to “pick and issue” and take action on a problem that speaks to them.

Having previously done a good deal of water work, The Nobelity Project shifted our action focus last year to the right to education. We’d already helped to bring water, electricity and more to the rural Mahiga Primary School in Kenya. But at a celebration of that work, it really sank in that clean water and an 8th grade education wasn’t going to be enough for these great kids. The majority of children in Kenya and most of Africa don’t attend high school, and I concluded we couldn’t do anything about the larger situation except perhaps to ensure that the kids of Mahiga did have an opportunity to graduate from high school. If that went well, perhaps our project would be a model for other rural education programs in Kenya.

Once we’d committed to building a secondary school, we realized that every year we delayed, another class of 8th graders would drop out of school forever. So we determined to build Mahiga Hope High School, and decided to do it in a year. We didn’t have a plan or the funding, but knew the community would be part of the planning, and felt that we could reach out to the fans of our films and find enough support to fund this school.

That was one year ago and I couldn’t be happier about the scheduled October 1 ribbon-cuttings for the new classroom and libraries building, a new kitchen and dining hall, the RainWater Court – winner of Nike’s GameChangers Award – and even a new pre-school for a dramatic expansion of the number of 4- and 5-year-olds prepping for big-time first grade. (And while we’ve been building, this great community has already started 9th and 10th grade classes in temporary classrooms.)

The multiplying factor of the GameChangers Award was a big first step. The RainWater Court is a full basketball/multi-sport court with a giant roof that collects and stores 30,000 liters of purified drinking water for the school. There’s also a stage that makes it a performance space and an outdoor classroom. The funding that came with the award included an Architecture for Humanity Design Fellow for one year. Greg Elsner has been living in the community, refining and designing, building and generally becoming a valued member of the local community. He’s the only guy I know that’s build an entire campus in a year, though he has had the support of community labor and up to 100 skilled, paid labor on some of our busiest days. (Check out my short film A Day in the Life of Mahiga at:

Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, the Dixie Chicks and lots of other great Texas artists stepped up our fundraising outreach, and enabled us to consider truly fundamental ideas about education. If you had the money to build a great school, wouldn’t it have a community lending library with thousands of books, a computer/tech library with internet access and a sister school (in Texas), science labs for chemistry (with lab sinks and Bunsen burners), physics and biology labs (with an organic garden and an orchard), a kitchen with wash sinks and high-efficiency stoves  (instead of open fires destined to blind and poison the schools cooks). Add in that pre-school for 60 kids, and how much have you spent?

Well, the numbers aren’t final, but we’re looking at a total a little north of $250,000. Not for a classroom or a building – for a school. A school with a mentor system and some job training, with HIV counseling and organized athletics and music programs. That’s education at a level that could be replicated in thousands of communities and not come close to the cost of another wasted war.  There’s no reason why the things we take for granted in the developed world – whether it’s water, food, education, health care or other basic rights – should be considered a luxury for kids in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. You want a peaceful world? Start with a just world – where children don’t die in huge numbers before their fifth birthday, where water-borne illnesses don’t take many more, where illiteracy is rampant.

If you’re motivated to forego your birthday and fund a well with Charity Water, then that’s an issue you should act upon. Your life will be better for it. And so will the lives of the beneficiaries. You’ll be forever connected to those people who have received your gift. On the other hand, if the idea of helping provide opportunity and true hope to high school kids in a great community rings your bell, then the Nobelity Project could still use your help at Mahiga. We’ve funded 90% of this project. Some small part of what’s left may have your name on it.

Here are some links worth exploring:

The Nobelity Project:

Our Video Channel:

The Nobelity Blog:

The RainWater Court:

Interview with Oscar Nominated Screenwriter/Director Oren Moverman

Ben Foster, Oren Moverman, Woody Harrelson (left to right)


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 was really, ‘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.

82nd Annual Academy Awards. Suzanne Warren, Alessandro Camon, Adam "MCA" Yauch, Yael Moverman, Oren Moverman


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.


(L-R) Screenwriter Alessandro Camon, musician/producer Adam "MCA" Yauch, writer-director Oren Moverman and producer Lawrence Inglee. Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty.


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.

Oren Moverman (

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.

Oren Moverman, 2009 Sundance

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.