Monday, March 28, 2016


The San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) heads crosstown to the Mission District for its 59th edition, thereby concluding nearly three decades of being headquartered at Japantown's Sundance Kabuki Cinemas. Robert Redford's independent movie chain was sold last autumn to Carmike Cinemas, who in turn sold it to AMC Theatres last month. All of this fortuitously coincided with the December opening of Alamo Drafthouse's New Mission Theatre following a two-year, $10 million restoration and retrofit. The gloriously reborn Mission Street movie palace will serve as the ornate nexus of SFIFF59, running from April 21 to May 5.

A movie theatre of some sort or other has existed since 1911 in the spot where Alamo Drafthouse Cinema stands today. Additional SFIFF59 venues, all relatively nearby and also hailing from the early 20th century include the Roxie Theater (1909), Victoria Theatre (1907) and of course the Castro Theatre (1922). The former Grand Theatre (1940) just down the block from New Mission is now a non-profit called Gray Area ("Supporting Art & Technology for Social Good") and will be utilized for select non-screening events. Festival-goers also have the option of taking in the spanking new Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. All venues but the Castro are located within two blocks of a BART subway station.

Last month I cocooned in the New Mission for 12 continuous hours, watching five back-to-back programs at the SF Jewish Film Festival's Winterfest event. It's truly astounding how they've transformed this former dilapidated futon store, which is what the building became once movies stopped being shown in 1993. It will be interesting to see how festival audiences respond to Alamo Drafthouse's modus operandi of selling seat-side food and cocktails. My own reaction was mixed. Yes, it was occasionally distracting having servers slip in and out making deliveries in the auditorium. On the other hand, I loved being able to suck down a Singapore Sling and nosh on a lamb meatball pizza without having to get off my butt and go get them.

I've faithfully attended SFIFF every year since 1976 and this will be my 10th year covering it as accredited press. Last year's edition was majorly epic—six of my Top Ten Films of 2015 had their Bay Area premieres at the festival. This year is looking pretty impressive as well. Here's an overview of what's been announced thus far.

Opening NightThe festival opens on Thursday, April 21 with Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship. The perpetually preppie director's Damsels in Distress is probably my favorite comedy of the past 10 years and I'm thrilled he's expected to attend the Castro Theatre screening along with star Kate Beckinsale. The film is based on Jane Austen's posthumously published early novel Lady Susan and reunites Beckinsale with Chloë Sevigny, her co-star in Stillman's 1998 The Last Days of Disco. Critics at Sundance declared Austen and Stillman's sensibilities a perfect match, while heaping special praise upon Beckinsale's performance as ruthless, social-climbing Lady Susan. After the program, SFIFF59's opening night party takes place at Mission District event space Public Works, located a not-too-strenuous stroll from the Castro.

Closing Night—In keeping with a tradition of closing the fest with something offbeat, SFIFF59 concludes at the Castro 15 days later with The Bandit. Fresh off its SXSW world premiere, the latest from Bay Area documentarian Jesse Moss celebrates the close friendship between actor Burt Reynolds and his Smokey and the Bandit director, legendary Hollywood stuntman Hal Needham. Smokey, for those too young to remember, was the second highest grossing film of 1977 after Star Wars. If director Moss' name sounds familiar, it's because he won the festival's Best Documentary award two years ago with The Overnighters, a controversial portrait of a North Dakota fracking boomtown. The closing night party will be at the Mezzanine in downtown San Francisco.

Centerpiece Film—The movie chosen for this year's Centerpiece slot is Indignation, based on Phillip Roth's 2008 semi-autobiographical novel about a Jewish student from NJ attending college in 1951 Ohio. It reps the directorial debut of James Schamus, the writer / producer and Focus Features CEO perhaps best known for penning the majority of Ang Lee's films. Schamus last attended SFIFF in 2010, when he was presented with the Kanbar Award for Screenwriting. Indignation stars Logan Lerman (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and garnered stellar reviews at both Sundance and Berlin. Roth himself has called it the most truthful adaptation of his work to date. The Centerpiece presentation will take place at the Victoria Theatre on Saturday, April 30.

Vampyr with Mercury RevThe festival brings back its annual pairing of silent cinema with contemporary music when alt-rock iconoclasts Mercury Rev world-premiere their new score for Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 horror classic, Vampyr. To be honest, I haven't thought about Mercury Rev since their 1991 debut album "Yerself is Steam," but research shows me they've had a long career, winning NME's Best Album of 1998 and releasing a new album just last year. Joining current Rev members Jonathan Donahue and Sean Mackowiak will be Simon Raymonde, the ethereal-sounding multi-instrumentalist who comprised one-third of classic-era Cocteau Twins, as well as Jesse Chandler of Midlake and Michael Jerome Moore from Better Than Ezra. Vampyr was Dreyer's follow-up to his venerated The Passion of Joan of Arc and while not technically a silent film, its story is largely told through visuals and intertitles. This special performance takes place at the Castro Theatre on Monday, May 2.

Mel Novikoff AwardWho could possibly be more deserving than Janus Films and Criterion Collection to receive this award, given to an "individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public's knowledge and appreciation of world cinema." At a Castro Theatre presentation on Saturday, April 30, current Janus / Criterion partners Peter Becker and Jonathan Turell will be on hand for an on-stage conversation, followed by a screening of their most recent restoration, Joel and Ethan Coen's 1984 breakout, Blood Simple. The Coens themselves are expected to attend the program and participate in the on-stage discussion with Variety critic Scott Foundas. Bay Area exhibitor Novikoff was an avid champion of the brothers' debut film. They honored him nearly 30 years later by naming an Inside Llewyn Davis supporting character "Mel Novikoff."

Persistence of Vision AwardSince its inception in 1997, the festival's Persistence of Vision Award has honored the "achievement of a filmmaker or institution whose main body of work is outside the realm of narrative feature filmmaking." This year's honoree is none other than four-time Oscar® winner Aardman Animations, the beloved British studio responsible for Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, Shaun the Sheep and Peter Gabriel's groundbreaking "Sledgehammer" music video. To help celebrate Aardman's 40th anniversary at a Castro Theatre program on Sunday, May 1, co-founder and creative director Peter Lord will participate in an on-stage discussion and preside over a screening of Aardman shorts.

Golden Gate Awards New Directors PrizeNine narrative features will compete for this year's New Directors Prize. I saw both Yaelle Kayam's Mountain and Lorenzo Vigas' From Afar at the Palm Springs International Film Festival back in January. Both are compelling enough to warrant second viewings and both feature provocative endings that could render them the most talked about films at SFFF59. Mountain is the story of a Jewish Orthodox housewife in Jerusalem whose life changes when she discovers the nearby cemetery doubles as a nocturnal hangout for prostitutes and drug addicts. From Afar won the top prize (Golden Lion) at last year's Venice Film Festival and stars esteemed Chilean actor Alfredo Castro (Tony Manero, The Club) as a closeted gay man who enters into a volatile relationship with a young street tough.

Amongst the remaining seven entries, I'm most excited about Clément Cogitore's Neither Heaven Nor Earth, which premiered in Cannes' Critics Week sidebar and has thus far screened at festivals under the title The Wakhan Front. In this elevated genre piece, French star Jérémie Renier plays an Afghanistan army captain whose men are disappearing under possibly supernatural circumstances. I've also heard terrific things about Leyla Bouzid's As I Open My Eyes, which places the struggles of a free-spirited young woman within the context of Tunisia's 2010 Arab Spring revolution. Remaining New Directors Prize contenders include films from Canada (The Demons), Bulgaria (Thirst), India (Thithi), Lebanon (Very Big Shot) and Czech Republic (Home Care, which was also that country's 2015 Oscar® summission).

Golden Gate Awards Documentary Feature CompetitionOf the 11 films competing for SFIFF59's top doc prize, the only one to previously cross my radar is Kirsten Johnson's autobiographical Cameraperson, which collected rave reviews at festivals like Sundance, True / False, New Directors / New Films and SXSW. Johnson is a celebrated non-fiction cinematographer best known for her collaborations with directors Laura Poitras (Citizen Four, The Oath) and Kirby Dick (The Invisible War, This Film is Not Yet Rated).

Golden Gate Documentary Feature CompetitionElsewhere in the competition I have high hopes for Moby Longinotto's The Joneses. The director is the son of 2015 Persistence of Vision Award winner Kim Longinotto and he got his start as assistance editor on mum's 1998 documentary Divorce Iranian Style. The Joneses won the SF Film Society's 2014 Documentary Film Fund Grant and concerns a family of Mississippi trailer park denizens and their 73-year-old transgender matriarch. Another doc I don't want to miss is Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega's The Return. The directors won this competition in 2011 with their powerful film Better This World and their latest shadows the fate of several inmates following the loosening of California's Three Strikes law. Other challengers for the doc prize include looks at a remote Bolivian salt flat (Salero), life in North Korea (Under the Sun) and a portrait of Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, an early 20th century radio mogul, politician and champion of goat testicle impotence cures (NUTS!, directed by Our Nixon's Penny Lane).

Cross-published on film-415.


Ten narrative features competed for the India Catalina statue and over $100,000 in prizes at the recently-held 56th edition of the Cartagena International Film Festival (FICCI56), which took place March 2-7, 2016 in Cartagena, Colombia, South America. Among them was Brazilian filmmaker Anita Rocha Da Silveira's debut feature Mate-me por favor (Kill Me Please, 2015) [IMDb].

Selected for the Horizons section of the 2015 Venice Film Festival, Mate-me por favor concerns a wave of murders in Barra da Tijuca, the West Side Zone of Rio de Janeiro. What starts off as a morbid curiosity for the local youth slowly begins to spoil away at their lives. Among them is Bia (Valentina Herszage), a fifteen year old girl who—after an encounter with death—will do anything to make sure she's alive. Da Silveira explains this morbid premise as follows: "Mate-me por favor was inspired through memories and emotions experienced during my teenage years. The discovery of love and sex greatly resembled my first encounter with death: the fear and fascination of knowing my life didn't really belong to me and the will to live in an extreme state between possibility and the impossible. Intensified, these sentiments became the basis of creating a distinct universe. Uncontrolled and without mentorship, the youth test their limits to the same extent in which they fear, fantasize and fall in love. The chosen arena is Barra da Tijuca, a newly developed and brutal space—much like my characters and a killer who haunts and slowly tarnishes their neighborhood."

With Mate-me por favor, Variety's John Hopewell observes that Da Silveira emerges as "one of the new faces of Latin American cinema." Part of a growing trend of pan-regional co-production, Mate-me proceeds by "skewering the New Brazilian dream" while being a "half serial killer suspenser" as well as "a coming of age dramedy." At The Hollywood Reporter, Jonathan Holland is concerned that the film "packages its horrors too neatly into beautiful images" even as it advances the "pretty cool premise that there's a darker psychological side behind the perfect sheen of a privileged teen life."

There's no question that Mate-me por favor wears its shocks wickedly and smartly. It's a quite sexy, if oppressively mordant, portrait of young Tijucan adolescents on the edge of Rio de Janeiro who would rather literally die at the hands of a serial killer than be bored to death in their privileged lives. For a first feature, it exhibits considerable skill in paying homage to American genre films that conflate teenage sexuality with misdirected suicidal ideation.

Young women (and men) are being found mutilated and brutally raped, which captures the prurient imaginations of local high school girls (and boys) who feel an erotic charge by the proximity of such grisly events. They can't help it. Their hormones are running wild and they want to get laid, even if under such gruesome circumstances. In their misguided minds, Death becomes a sexy, hot suitor that takes them by force.

Da Silveira negotiates her genre tropes cleverly, particularly in showing how youth culture is sexualized by popular media. Nothing is worse than watching everyone else make out when you don't have anyone to make out with. The film's musical sequences emulate MTV videos, and are particularly funny during an evangelical Christian fellowship meeting where the resident "minister" turns worshipping Jesus into something this side of a rape fantasy. No wonder these kids are confused.

Da Silveira's stylistic promise comes off the rails a bit towards film's end as she stretches believability; but the final scene critiques how many young people would rather die than live a life of boredom and, as a consequence, become a host of ghosts vanishing at dawn. It's a somewhat forced and tagged-on ending, yet not without an eerie poignance.

After Venice, Mate-me por favor went on to win prizes at Rio, screened at FICCI56, then had its U.S. premiere at New York's New Directors / New Films, where Michael Snydel's review for The Film Stage appreciated that the film's possibly gratuitous premise "remains grounded thanks to a perspective that always places the girls' lives first. Even when murders happen, they're shrouded within hazy editing that presents the killing like a lost fever dream. In the prime period of sexuality, they're alternately terrified and aroused by the idea of these women being raped and murdered, and each reacts differently, whether it's clinging to the church, receding into their own mind, or becoming more impulsive." Snydel concludes that Mate-me por favor "is remarkably accomplished for a debut feature despite feeling a little bit muddled in terms of rhythms and especially its ending, which tips its hat a little bit too hard to art-horror ponderousness. Still, it's a vibrant debut that demonstrates that Silveira has a strong talent for depicting adolescence and its attendant horrors."

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

TREEFORT 2016—The Evening Class Interview With Tisper (née Samwise Carlson)

Photo: Joey Tribiani.
With the sweetest of smiles and the strongest of embraces, Tisper (née Samwise Carlson) has distinguished himself in Boise's musical scene as an elven incarnation of fantasy folk, incanting melodies that dream and lure listeners into meditative states. Often when I spot him walking out and about it's as if one of the young subjects of a Botticelli painting has stepped down from the canvas to visit the street. Gentle and brave, his talent knows no bounds.

As detailed on Treefort's website: "Tisper is a fantasy-folk project fronted by Samwise Carlson from Boise, ID. It combines intricate guitar-work, dream-like vocals, and ornate lyricism to excite evocative imagery of imaginary worlds. Samwise is known for [his] angelic vocal style, impressive range and gently hypnotic, moving performances akin with the spirits of Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, and Joanna Newso.

"Tisper's debut album, Sleepy Creature, is an honest and lulling, testament to Carlson's childhood obsession with fantasy, and conversely, [his] morose and oftentimes disconnected disposition toward the stark realities [he has] experienced as a millennial in America. Recorded to tape in a half-flooded concrete basement, Sleepy Creature features accompaniment by Jake Saunders on cello and Riley Johnson on keys and vocals and is to be released in the Spring of 2016."

It was a genuine pleasure to sit down with Samwise to discuss Tisper. Tisper will be playing the El Korah Shrine on Saturday, March 26, 2016, at 5:00PM.

* * *

Photo: Maya Jaguar
Michael Guillén: I'm aware that you showed up in Boise's music scene about the same time that I arrived here. Can you tell me a little bit about your background? Why and when you came to Boise? Where did you come from?

Tisper: I moved from Rigby, which is near Idaho Falls. I was planning on going to school. I first came to audition for the music program at BSU, got accepted as a major in music composition, but didn't get accepted into the school itself because I'm super bad at math. I failed the Compass exam.

Guillén: Why did I have the impression you were from southern California?

Tisper: I am from California. I moved to Rigby from San Diego, California, when I was about 10-11.

Guillén: So most of your adolescence and young adulthood has been in Rigby? Was it a tiny town?

Tisper: Tiny town. It maybe has a population of 6,000.

Guillén: Growing up in such a small town, when did you know you wanted to be an artist and musician? Did you have any influences there?

Tisper: I started playing guitar when I was 10 or so and really loved it. I had some friends that also played music and we would just jam out all the time. I had one friend in particular who really pushed me to start singing, because I would not sing in front of anyone. I'd write all these songs by myself in my basement room. He helped me in that way by pushing me to start singing in front of people.

Guillén: Did you have musical influences? It sounds like you found a community of like-minded people playing music, but were you listening to anyone who you wanted to be like?

Tisper: If we really want to go far back, I was really into the Googoo Dolls. Kind of silly, right? They got me into tuning my guitar to alternate tunings. A lot of what I'm doing now was influenced by that. I listened to The Beatles a lot. I really loved The Beatles. When I was 14 or 15, I discovered more indie stuff, like Feist's "1234" and I was like, "What is this?" It was a really cute indie pop jam.

Guillén: So you've always liked a melodic pop sound?

Tisper: Yeah, but I didn't discover it until I was 15. After that, I fell deep into the Internet and found a lot of cool artists that I liked.

Guillén: So you are a self-taught musician?

Tisper: Yeah. I took a few lessons when I was young, as far as my instrument goes.

Guillén: So you came to Boise and started playing at open mics. Did you ever busk on the streets?

Photo: Matthew Wordell.
Tisper: I went straight into open mics. I did do some busking in the Summer of 2014, but by that point I had already had some shows and played out of town and stuff.

Guillén: Did you know anyone when you moved to Boise? Did you already have a built-in community?

Tisper: No, I didn't know anyone.

Guillén: How did you find your people, then? Because now you are definitely a part of a community.

Tisper: I want to credit it to The Crux. That venue was my spot for a while. It was my favorite place to go. I was there every day. Every night I would go to every show. It was a great gathering place where I could hang out and meet people. That's where I met Brett Hawkins, who's my best friend and band mate. I met him there doing open mic night. The Crux was definitely a huge deal. I met most of my friends there.

Guillén: Where does your stage name "Tisper" come from?

Tisper: This is really silly but I have a background of playing a lot of RPGs and, if I had an Elf character, I would always name it Tisper because it sounded Elven. Musically, I was originally going by Woodwind but realized it would be really hard to find Woodwind online anywhere because you would type in "Woodwind music" and get a million hits on woodwind players or woodwind instruments. So I decided to switch to Tisper.

Guillén: Is Tisper configured as a solo act? Because the first time I saw you, you were playing with Judah Claffey, and the next time I saw you at last year's Treefort you had an ensemble of cello, harp, violin and viola (with that lovely guest appearance by Bronwyn Leslie).

Tisper: That was a good time and super fun.

Guillén: Is your conception of Tisper to advance to a fuller sound? Or are you remaining solo?

Tisper: It keeps changing. I'm going to do it solo for a while. I feel it's healthy for me to do that now and it's fun.

Guillén: Have you written new music for this year's Treefort?

Tisper: I have three new songs that I'll be playing.

Guillén: How do you situate Tisper within Boise's music scene? Do you feel that you're part of a scene? Is it a scene that's allowing you to grow as a musical artist?

Tisper: To an extent I feel that. There's a lot of really good music and supportive musicians and non-musicians here. We're not at a competitive stage yet.

Guillén: How would you describe your music?

Tisper: Jake Saunders, the cellist who played with me last year at Treefort, he described Tisper as "fairy pillow talk", which I loved. My music has fantasy vibes. It's really pretty.

Guillén: It is very pretty music and you have a beautiful voice.

Tisper: Thank you.

Guillén: And, as you've just told me, elven. There is a bardic minstrel quality to your songs. Your music tells stories. Where do those stories come from?

Tisper: Most of the time when I write I'll have a vague concept of a story in my mind. I don't really try to write stories.

Guillén: So you get an image first that guides the narrative?

Tisper: Yeah. I utilize imagery a lot. Lately, having turned 22, I'm feeling an existential weight. I don't know why.

Guillén: Looking back, I'd have to say my twenties were the hardest years of my life for being so heavy. Collaboration helps with shouldering that burden. Can you speak to Boise's collaborative ethos? When you arrived from Rigby, did you find that unusual?

Tisper: Yeah, it was all unusual. What I knew about any of this from the scene in Rigby, which is nothing, or even Idaho Falls, which is pretty much nothing, was all I'd ever known. I don't really know anything else besides this scene in Boise.

Guillén: What are your hopes then? Do you have a sense of where you want to go with your music? I know you've played in Southern California. Do you want to tour? To record?

Tisper: I'm finishing up a record right now that will be 11 tracks long and I'm planning a tour for June. Touring, for sure, is my main goal.

Guillén: How do you negotiate that? Do you have a manager? Do you do that all yourself?

Tisper: I will be, I think, working with Duck Club. They're booking me in West Coast gigs. But I've booked about seven dates by myself. This is my first time doing that so I'm learning as I go.

Guillén: What are you learning? Have you played these venues and feel comfortable approaching them again? Have friends recommended venues? How have you figured out this network of venues?

Tisper: Pretty much all of that. If I've played a venue, I'll contact them. I've been going to shows long enough and have met enough musicians from out-of-town and that's helpful because I can approach them and say, "Hey, remember me? Can you help me get a gig here in Albuquerque, New Mexico?"

Guillén: Are some of the gigs you've lined up out of state?

Tisper: Yeah. Idaho Falls will be my first stop. Then I'm doing Camp Daze in Montana. Salt Lake City, Utah. Logan, Utah. Laramie, Wyoming. Fort Collins, Colorado. Hopefully Denver, Colorado. Albuquerque, New Mexico. Phoenix, Arizona. It's a long process. Most people try to book six months to a year in advance, which is such a long time in my opinion. I'm still booking this right now and it's hard to think four or five months away.

Photo: Jessica Pallante.
Guillén: So my final question is a bit of a sticky one, but it's something I'm fascinated in. You and Brett and Judah, your tribe, your clan, you're characterized by a lovely gender fluidity. As a man who grew up as a gay kid in Twin Falls, Idaho, I have nothing but respect for this gender fluid approach towards persona. I couldn't have dreamed of doing something like that in '70s Twin Falls. I'm heartened that the times have changed and that young straight men like you and Brett feel comfortable challenging these gender conceptions by wearing make-up, jewelry, women's clothing. But perhaps I'm presuming too much? Do you feel comfortable? Can you speak at all to what gender fluidity means for you? And what you're trying to express by it? Is it an important element to your creative process?

Tisper: I feel gender fluid. I don't think I've always felt that way, but when I was a teenager I noticed I was not a "manly" guy. I don't feel that I fit in that role. I also don't feel I fit in the role of a woman. These categories and the traits associated with them are weird. I don't really get it so I just do what I feel like doing. If I want to wear a dress, I'll do that.

Guillén: I admire that you've joined a lineage of gender resistance that has been going on for generations. At last year's Treefort, I remember running into you and Brett as you were shopping for old clothes at a vintage outlet and I thought, "How lovely. They're acting like the young artists in 1920s Manhattan who were raiding thrift shops and cross-dressing." Everything old is new again, in a way. But so is judgment and discrimination. Do you get any blowback for your brave gender fluidity?

Tisper: It depends on where I am. In downtown Boise no one ever says anything to me. Boise's a progressive bubble. But I live in Garden City where I've had a few ... experiences. There's a bar called The Ranch Club that's about two minutes walking distance from my place. It's a silly Idaho bar. You can smoke in there. But almost every time I go there someone comes up to me to say, "All right, I just gotta ask ya: are you a boy or a girl?" I'm like, "Why? Why do you care?" Sometimes I get that reaction. But most of the interactions I've had have turned out to be positive.

Guillén: How do you answer when you're asked if you're a boy or a girl?

Tisper: I just say, "I don't know. Both?" Then I gauge their reaction. Usually they'll just say, "All right. That's weird" and walk away. I just try to be charming about it and smile.

Guillén: Has there been any blowback within the music community?

Tisper: I don't think so. I've had nothing but positive feedback. People seem to be into the androgyny, which is cool. I work at the Heatherwood Retirement Community on the Bench and sometimes get comments from the older folks, especially the new ones who come in and don't know me, but I feel they've resigned themselves to not understanding me. "Kids these days."

Guillén: Well, I'm very proud of your bravery, Sam, and encourage you to keep resisting. You're an inspiration to me as an older guy and I look forward to hearing you play at Treefort.

FILMFORT: SMOKE (2016)—The Evening Class Interview With Amadeus Serafini & Joel Nagle

In a particularly lovely entry on his Facebook timeline, award-winning author Alan Heathcock recalls that when he was nine years old, his grandfather told him a story. The story sat inside him, "roiling about for years." When he grew into manhood, he wrote "Smoke", a story to make sense of his grandfather's story, to make sense of things that scared and confounded him. The story, as he puts it, "found its people." Two of the people it found were aspiring filmmakers Stephen Heleker and Cody Gittings, previous students of Heathcock's, who asked permission to adapt "Smoke" into a film, secured seed funding through a successful Kickstarter campaign, and organized a production crew of smart and talented people from all over the country who, along with Heathcock, came together to make a film based on the story he had written to make sense of the story his grandfather had told him when he was nine.

An odd and extraordinary blessing, indeed. And one of the most creative flourishes in the Summer of 2013 within the state of Idaho, winningly detailed by Frankie Barnhill at KBSX (who earlier reported on Smoke's crowdfunding efforts). My thanks to Alan Heathcock for inviting me to Smoke's wrap party where I had the chance to sit down with actors Joel Nagle and Amadeus Serafini to discuss filming within the Gem State.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Amadeus, I understand you come from a modeling background and Smoke is your first film?

Amadeus Serafini: Yes. I started modeling out of high school at 18 years old in L.A. with Ford Models. I'm still with them; but, as I progressed, I wanted to study film so I went to college, took a few film classes for a few years, did some theater, and then I decided to take some professional classes. I'm studying with Eric Morris. He's 80 years old and he's got an actors workshop on Wilshire Boulevard in L.A. He's coached such people as Anthony Hopkins, Jack Nicholson, on and on. I studied with Morris for a year, took what I learned, and the selfsame friend who introduced me to Morris' workshop, is friends with Cody Gittings—small world, they grew up in Nevada together—and he said, "Hey, we have this audition. You should try out."

Guillén: My understanding is you came in quite late to the audition process?

Serafini: I did! The day of. I was working that day and I had to ask my manager to get a couple hours off to drive to the audition. I hadn't had a chance to read the sides or anything, but I read for them anyway, didn't expect anything, and they asked me to send in a taped audition. So I did it and the next thing I knew I booked it and I was on my way to Idaho.

Guillén: Congratulations. Advise me a bit on how this works here: you have a modeling career, you want to shift into acting, so do you use the same agent? The same manager?

Serafini: No, not at all. I don't have an agent, not for acting anyway.

Guillén: You, on the other hand, Joel, are a seasoned actor who recently won a special jury award at the Sundance Film Festival for your performance in the short film Palimpsest (2013), which I had an opportunity to see at the Sun Valley Film Festival. The Sundance jurors stated: "This performer's quiet presence and subtle depth was a standout amongst talented actors and actresses." Congratulations.

Joel Nagle: Thank you. I started acting years and years ago in the '80s as a 20-some-year-old kid. A lot of it was learning about myself. The first 10 years of "acting" was really about instinct. Somewhere in the mid-'90s I thought, "I've got to learn the craft, the mechanics, I've got to get some tools and not just go off instinct." So I did that and have done a lot of short films plus I try to do one or two plays a year. Theater brings you back to those moments. When you're living through them, there's not another take, so that keeps everything stable. I like the process of rehearsing for a few weeks, knowing every night of performance has to be fresh.

Guillén: Theatrical acting is quite distinct from acting in films. For one thing, with a theatrical performance you get to do it and play the whole thing out. Film is really stop-and-go and, in my opinion, much more difficult to hold onto the momentum of a performance.

Nagle: But that's where knowing yourself can help. Filmmaking can drive you nuts. They might be setting up lights for 20-40 minutes between shots and yet you have to be able to continue your performance from where you left off. You have to be able to either stay near that place or just be able to recreate it. But it's hard to stay in the same place. If you try to hold it and stay in that place all the time, you can wear yourself down. It's also hard to have too small a part that doesn't allow you to build. I appreciated the opportunity to do Smoke because it allowed me to create a character from start to finish. Amadeus and I fed off each other. The film naturally progressed, but also the characters progressed as Amadeus and I found out about each other.

Serafini: Another difficulty with film acting is that scenes flip. You're doing a part of a scene that comes before another scene or after another scene and you have to switch back and forth.

Guillén: How did you come to the project, Joel?

Nagle: It wasn't that odd. I had seen a listing on Breakdown Services and—though I won't submit to everything—sometimes you submit to projects where, when you get the script and you have your audition, it ends up not being anything you're really interested in; but, you may do it because you have time. But the description for Smoke seemed really interesting.

Guillén: Had you read Alan Heathcock's short story?

Stephen Heleker, Alan Heathcock, Cody Gittings.  Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell.
Nagle: After I got cast. It all happened very quick. I was preparing to go out of town and I submitted to Stephen and Cody but, at the same time, they had also seen Palimpsest at the Sun Valley Film Festival. They contacted me and sent me two scenes that were two-character scenes; but, I was getting ready to go out of town and couldn't get anybody to help me out on such short notice so I told them, "Guys, I don't have time to round somebody up because I'm really busy; but, can we condense these two scenes into a monologue?" That's what I did, though it was a little difficult. So the night before I left town, I set up a camera at 3:00 in the morning and said, " I'm going to rehearse and then I'll do it in the morning." I did three takes and chose two to send them. They contacted me—this was prior to their going to San Francisco and Los Angeles for auditions—and they said, "We really love it and you're right there; but, we have to continue auditions."

Guillén: So whereas you were found early in the casting process, and Amadeus much later, at what point did the two of you finally meet? Was it here in Idaho on location?

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell.
Serafini: Oh, yes. We had a couple of days to rehearse and then we started shooting.

Guillén: Provide a glimpse into how two actors who have never met before are supposed to have such a deep and intimate family relationship. How do you develop that after only two days of rehearsal?

Serafini: We made full use of those two days.

Nagle: It was even shorter than that. When Amadeus says rehearsal days, there was one day we didn't really rehearse. There was one day when we were supposed to rehearse, we were both there, but there were production things happening and I literally sat there for 2½ to 3 hours semi in-character waiting for it all to begin. We did moments of blocking, like picking up the body and how we were going to work it out and that's all we did with the rehearsal. But like Amadeus said, we made great use of those couple of days. The day after we got in, Stephen took us out on location just to see the area.

Guillén: I bet that got you excited!

Serafini: It was wilderness! I wanted to see Idaho!

Nagle: He was coming from L.A., I was coming from New York, and we spent four hours looking around.

Serafini: While we ran scenes. We spoke a lot and opened up to each other.

Guillén: What has it been like for you two city dwellers to film in Idaho?

Serafini: Permissive, that's the word I would use. Not only is everyone good-natured, but it wasn't restrictive. In L.A., for instance, if you try to shoot in front of a taco shop, they'll try to find a way to charge you! Here, everyone seems willing to have something shot. Granted, there's not as large of an industry here ...yet... but I think Idahoans are much more willing to be a part of the project and be a part of the art.

Guillén: Filmmaking in Idaho strikes me as a particularly hybrid phenomenon fusing regional enthusiasm with industrial know-how, frequently brought in from outside the state.

Nagle: I loved everyone involved. Although no one had a ton of experience, including myself, the passion was unbelievable. Speaking of Idaho and Boise in particular, you know it's going to get done because people have the passion to do it.

Guillén: "Get 'er done" is a favorite local saying.

Serafini: We had quite a few people coming in from L.A. to work on this movie and there wasn't an exploitive feeling to that. We were working with so many people who were local and connected to this state. They know what it's about. They're representing their own. It's not like we were busting in and shooting our movie on their landscape as a backdrop. They were a part of it.

Guillén: Exactly, that's the hybrid quality I'm talking about that greases the gears. Obviously, Amadeus, you enjoyed the experience of making a film in Idaho, but what did you learn by working with a more experienced actor like Joel?

Serafini: It was incredible. He made himself emotionally available. I was worried. To quote from the movie, "I was scared shitless." I was like a rope of sand. But Joel really made me feel comfortable. What this experience taught me is that actors have to make themselves available to each other. You can't be selfish. It's not a selfish endeavor. Because you will go down if you're selfish. It's a tandem process.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell.
Guillén: Do you want to continue acting?

Serafini: I think I absolutely do. This was my first official project and it was incredible. Of course, I'd love to see the end product. I don't know what to make of it, but everyone is raving. I hope it comes out as well as they say. I'm sure it will. I have confidence in our directors and our writer.

Guillén: What I've appreciated about monitoring Smoke is to witness that Stephen and Cody have such a professional vision and can see this film past its making. They see it out there in the world or, as I like to say, they dream in detail. That's admirable in that, usually, young filmmakers can't see that far and are struggling just to get through production.

Serafini: And it came out of Kickstarter, of all things!

Guillén: There have actually been several successful Kickstarter campaigns for film coming out of Idaho.

Serafini: Really?!

Guillén: Oh yeah. This is, again, another element of that hybrid filmmaking I mentioned earlier, where the regional input comes directly from community engagement and support. At this point, for independent filmmaking to succeed, the community has to want it, that's the bottom line, and that's a great plus for regional filmmaking.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell.
Quick question for you, Joel. You're a seasoned pro, you've been acting for a while but you say you're constantly learning. What did you learn from working with a newcomer like Amadeus?

Nagle: Amadeus is way beyond his years. I didn't even think of acting until many years after his age. But if you stay in it in every moment, it doesn't matter how much experience you have. You're building a character but your own character infuses every role. Seeing someone as young as Amadeus come into this project without any experience of having acted before blows me away. At his age, I would have felt the need for permission. I wouldn't have had the balls to say, "I can do this." Obviously, the story moved him as much as it moved me. So what I've learned from Amadeus is not to fear anything. If you feel a connection to the material and you don't put too much pressure on yourself, you can do amazing things. May I ask Amadeus a question?

Guillén: By all means, help me out.

Nagle: You had to have questioned yourself coming into this project; but, in the process, were there times when you wondered what you had gotten yourself into? Because I never sensed that. I sensed here was a guy who wants to do his best but I never sensed that you were there to please anyone; you were there to serve the story. It was like you took off a layer of self-censoring.

Serafini: Maybe I'm just really good at deceiving people? Because I was scared the whole time. But I did get it in the back of my head and I had to keep telling myself, "This is for me. I'm making the project for all of us, clearly, but I'm doing this for me. I'm not trying to please anybody. I'm just trying to be good at what I can do. I want to put out the best work I can." But was I scared the whole time? Yes!! I'm still scared, because I haven't seen any of it.

Guillén: I'm interested in the craft of acting, which I find quite idiosyncratic, so I need to ask both of you: with this script, which is such a character-driven narrative that rests wholly on the shoulders of these two individuals, in terms of craft what was the way that you each found your way into your characters? How do you start your work in developing a character for a role?

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell.
Nagle: For me, I think it started the night that I made that audition tape. It obviously started before when I read the material, but that night when it was 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, I was exhausted and—through my exhaustion—I felt how this guy was in such a bad situation and who does he turn to? He turns to his son. But what an awful thing to bring your son into. So my entry into the character was through this physical exhaustion. A couple of weeks later when I learned I got the role, I was in Thailand and I remember asking myself, "Okay, how do I get back to that guy from a week or two ago at 3:00-4:00 in the morning in New York City sitting in an apartment all alone with a camera?" And it was the physicality of this last chance the father has. I need to feel a role. I would like 24 hours, or at least 12 hours where I can literally be awake with it, go to sleep with it, and then wake up with it and boom. I don't memorize lines. I get the character through osmosis. But when I wake up in the morning I'm doing the lines, and not just lines, I'm feeling it....

Serafini: Intention, you've said to me. "I do intention; I don't do lines."

Nagle: I never go for lines. If I can get across in what I'm saying to myself the physicality of the role—the feel for it?—I know I can do it. I know I've got the in. And that's what it was. It's the feel.

Guillén: Was it the same for you, Amadeus?

Serafini: There isn't any one way to go about it. Empathy has a lot to do with it. You have to be able to feel for the character and understand what they're going through to feel it yourself and to recreate it. Then, of course, being in the location or forcing the physicality upon yourself that the character experiences pushes you. It might sound silly to people who aren't in film, but a lot of arbitrary action gets you there. You may not be sad but try to cry. Once you start crying and start thinking about the character and about their back story, you can invent anything you want about their life to get there. It's a hard question for an actor to answer.

Guillén: Which is why I ask it. [Laughs.]

Serafini: It's an intuitive process.

Guillén: It's intuitive, yes, but it's a craft.

Nagle: And let's not shortchange the work. I've done some films where there's not a whole lot of dialogue. You can get into it, you can get the flow, and it's acting as non-emotion. It's either there or it isn't. If it's not there, you don't push. What's in the tank is in the tank; but, I got to tell you, especially with this project, the words, Alan's words, was how I got the feel. It's not a natural way to speak some of these lines. It's period and it's poetic. Alan's words made it a lot easier for me as an actor to get in to the character. The words are crucial.

Serafini: And one last thing that I might add is that you use a lot of events from your own life that mirror those of the character. That's your tool box: your life! And you use whatever you can from your own life to mirror the character and—once you tap into that—you can recreate those feelings, you delve into the story and use those lines and everything just melds. You and the character get stitched together.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Wordell
Guillén: What has it been like for you to have the author on set? Did you check your characterizations against him? Did you get direct feedback from him?

Serafini: It was a blessing! How often does that happen? I was constantly asking him to clarify certain things because—when you read a story—you still have your own interpretation and I wanted to know what his interpretation was; I had mine. I wanted to be true to his story.

Guillén: As instincts go, were you accurate in your interpretations?  Did Alan confirm them?

Serafini: A lot of the time, yes. He told us. He was impressed with that. But that's what we as actors are supposed to do.

Guillén: Finally, along with children and animals co-directors can be a real sticky wicket. What was it like being directed by two directors?

Nagle: With the amount of challenges—the locations, the fact that a lot of these people had not worked with each other before, some had—I thought it worked out good where Cody handled the technical stuff and oversaw our DP and the camera crew, and Stephen was with us 98%-99% of the time.

Serafini: They had their division of labor but overall they had the same vision.

Nagle: It worked out great. Stephen was there for us every step of the way. Early on in one of the first plays I ever did, at the end of the rehearsal everyone had notes from the director but I didn't get any notes. I thought, "What's wrong? They don't like me?" So I approached the director and all he said was, "No notes is good notes." I told both Stephen and Cody, "Listen, I'm just gonna go, but don't be afraid to come up to me. I want you to come up to me if there's something off; but, please, just let me go. If something isn't technically right, just come in and yell, 'Father, five minutes' or whatever." At one point I think Stephen just wanted to stay away from me. [Laughs.] He didn't even want to look at me. In hunch, I thought that was kind of a good thing because he felt I was "in the zone", whether I was or not. That was good. Stephen and Cody do have different personalities, but they work very well together. They were as efficient as they could be with everything that was going on.

Serafini: Our output was incredible.

Nagle: You know what, Amadeus? You're going to see probably a quarter or a half of what we did, I guarantee it. You're not going to see all of it. You'll see blips; a fraction of what we did. But, you're right, we got a lot done. That was good. There were no battles between them.

Serafini: It was a very respectful atmosphere.

Nagle: You're always going to have bumps and things that happen; but, what kept me coming back—after I'd walked away from things that had gone a little off—was the passion. Everyone was so genuine and supportive. They felt it. When people don't have that passion, when they don't feel that, and there are mishaps or miscommunications, that's when it gets really discouraging as an actor because you go, "Wow. There's not even passion." Passion helps you through miscommunication or rocky times.

Serafini: And what fueled that passion is that Smoke isn't a project aimed at the box office. It's meant to be art, which allowed everyone to work as hard as they could in their craft.

Guillén: An excellent place to stop. I want to thank you both for taking the time to talk with me. Congratulations to both of you. I look forward—just like you—to seeing the final product and we'll probably be attending the premiere together. Until then.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

FILMFORT: SMOKE (2016)—The Evening Class Interview With Alan Heathcock

Photo: Matthew Wordell
Filmfort's program "Idaho Elements"—offered free to the public on Wednesday, March 23, 2016, 6:00PM at the Owyhee—features the Boise debut of Cody Gittings' and Stephen Heleker's Smoke (2016), adapted from the short story by prize-winning author Alan Heathcock. Heathcock and I met to finesse the connective tissue between writing and film and to discuss how Smoke, as a film, found its own length while faithfully telling the story of a son's complicity with his father's shadows.

* * *

Michael Guillén: You've done quite well with your writing in the past four-five years, Alan. When did you know you were going to be a writer? Did you have any sense of that as a younger person? Did you have a role model? Did you have a vision?

Alan Heathcock: No. I don't think I had much of that stuff. In hindsight, I was doing everything a writer does but, for me, it was maybe the opposite. I didn't have any role models. Coming from the place where I grew up....

Guillén: That was Chicago?

Heathcock: Chicago. Hazel Crest, which is in the South Side of Chicago.

Guillén: Was Hazel Crest suburban?

Heathcock: No, it was urban industrial. I never had a conversation or a thought about becoming a writer until late in undergraduate college. I just happened to go to the University of Iowa, not for writing—even though it's the number one place in the country for writing—I just happened to go there.

I'd always loved movies. That was my first love. My parents took me to every movie they went and saw, so some of my earliest memories are of going to movies. I loved stories and we were big storytellers. That's very different than saying, "I'm going to be a writer." I didn't even think, "I'll make movies." In my junior year in college, even though I was studying business, I thought it would be fun to take a film course because I loved movies and thought I could make a little film and it would be fun, which would be different from my business courses that were not fun. I took two of them and I found them very interesting, but frustrating. This was way back when you had little Bolex cameras with a minute and a half worth of film that you'd have to wind. You had to develop and cut everything in a dark room. The sound was separate. I could never get the story that I had in my imagination onto celluloid.

I saw that there was a fiction workshop that you could take. I had a story I had been working over in my imagination so I decided I would take that fiction class, thinking that there I wouldn't have all these limitations of the film classes and that I wouldn't need money to do whatever I wanted to do. So I took that class. It was during that class that I found a generous teacher who told me that I had a talent for writing. She saw something. I'm sure it was very raw at the time. And that was my start. I think I took that fiction workshop every semester until I graduated and then a couple after I was already graduated; I kept taking them.

All the while after I graduated I was working as a management consultant. It seems like a different lifetime completely to me now; but, only for a short amount of time and then I applied to graduate school and got in. Then everyone told me I was crazy for leaving a good job and going to writing. I'm a very stubborn person and decided I was going to make a go of it. It wasn't something that happened quickly. It was a process, even during the first year of my graduate program. I got there and I felt woefully inexperienced. I hadn't read anything. I'm not just being ungenerous to myself. I had probably read three books in my life. At age 24-25, I had read nothing.

I had only written two short stories. In all of those workshops I had been reworking the same two stories over and over and I got one of them good enough to be accepted into a graduate program. Early in that program, I remember the whole class was having this conversation about James Joyce. It went on and on and I just sat there because—not only had I never read James Joyce—I didn't know who James Joyce was. I had no idea who they were talking about. I went home kind of crushed, thinking, "What am I doing? Who do I think I am? I'm stupid and I'm ill-prepared and I shouldn't be here."

Photo: Matthew Wordell
But because of the way I'm wired, I took that as a challenge. I went to my professor and admitted, "I've got to be honest with you. I don't know anything but I know I got to know stuff. What should I read? Tell me what I should read. I don't even know what books I should be reading. I go into a book store and see all these books and think, 'Which of these should I read to get better?' " He gave me his PhD reading list, which started with Beowulf and worked all the way up through the Modernists. All the key books from different time periods. That first year I read something like 204 books. That was all I did: read, read, read.

Even then I don't think it really clicked in. I was too busy just trying to not embarrass myself. But then, probably in my third year in my first MFA program before I went on to even more at the school, I had written the first story that was in the vein of the way I write now. People have had this experience. You read a book that feels like it was written for you. It changes your world view and you feel you're not alone. It's a profound experience. Once you get that book, you're a lifelong reader and you're always chasing that experience again. I had that experience with writing a story. It wasn't even a particularly good story. It was a weird story about a guy who opened a movie theater out of his barn and was trying to build community in his rural world by having movies in his barn. All sorts of salacious things were happening. But that story felt like me. It felt like I had done something. I think that's when I started falling in love with what stories can do and being a writer. The love affair has deepened and thickened like a good marriage over the course of many years.

Guillén: You mention you came from a storytelling family? What do you mean by that? I'm aware Smoke came from a story your grandfather told you. Was storytelling a family activity? Or was it just a manner of speaking among your family? I have a sense that the talent that first teacher saw in your work—which is what I love in your work and what I believe is now acclaimed in your work—is the guiding force of voice. You had a voice and you found it. It may have taken you a while to figure out how to put it on the page; but, you had a voice to tell stories.

Heathcock: Yeah. Sure. What I had in that first class was a voice but it was just me writing down how I would tell a story if I was sitting around on my aunt and uncle's back porch in Southern Indiana. I never thought of my family as: "We're storytellers!" As if we did it consciously or knew we were storytellers. If my relatives were here sitting around telling stories and I'd say, "We're storytellers!", they would tell me to shut up and say that was ridiculous. It sounds like you're sitting in a rocking chair outside a cracker barrel and you say, "I've got another good one for ya!" It wasn't like that. But it was what we would do. We would sit around and tell each other stories and not just in a formal way. Everyone in my family were great storytellers and everyone came from places that were rich with stories, with legends and ghost stories. My cousins would always try to tell me scary stories to scare me when I visited them in Southern Indiana. We were just surrounded by a richness of story. All of that contributed to my being able to say that I come from a family of storytellers and it's true, though they would probably not use that word.

Guillén: I understand. I come from a background of Mexican American storytelling complete with family anecdotes and cultural legends and cautionary tales passed down generation after generation. I didn't recognize that until later because, of course, I was hunting for another voice that was different from all that, what I thought was my voice. It took me a long time to realize, however, that it was a false voice and that it was really in the language of my family that I could shape my own voice, rooted in theirs. My voice was informed by the sound of their language, the way they spoke in a mixed language of Spanish and English, inflected in that particular part of the United States. That's what I loved about the language of your writing when I started reading the short stories in Volt.

Heathcock: Thank you.

Photo: Matthew Wordell
Guillén: Your language reminded me of the work of William Goyen. His novel, The House of Breath, published in 1950, was the book that did it for me, that was—as you say—written for me and filled me with a tremendous feeling of certainty. As I grew older and researched him quite thoroughly, he gave me the handle on how some writers hear the language of their upbringing and how their practice becomes the craft of putting that down on the page, of capturing that voice. You've captured that voice.

Heathcock: Thank you so much.

Guillén: What interests me, though, is that you say you come from an urban industrial background and yet there's a strong rural backbone to your voice. Where did that voice come from?

Heathcock: It was my family. We were the only part of my family that lived in Chicago. Everybody else lived out in the country. My mom and dad both grew up in very small towns. My mom has a very thick accent. I first started trying to write about where I grew up and I haven't really tried to write about where I grew up since. I remember taking a story into a workshop about—and I don't think I've ever talked about this to anyone before—but, it was a story about these gangbangers who go on a camp-out. Chicago was weird in the sense that like all urban cities you drive a little bit into the industrial areas of South Chicago and then you're in the cornfields immediately. I wrote about these gangbangers, and they were my friends who went on this camping trip. I thought it was interesting putting them in this new landscape, which might have amazed people but people do leave the city to go camping. I remember that story got pounded in workshop. The overwhelming sentiment was that I need to write about what I knew and that I should not be writing about young African American people (and one white guy). In hindsight, I just wasn't a very good writer because I didn't capture the truth very well to make people believe the story. That's part of the writer's job.

So I said, "Well, all right, I'll write about something that I barely know about, which is where my Mom grew up." I wrote a story set there of something that kind of happened and people loved it! They said, "This is so much better, Alan." That's where it started. What I did find in that experience wasn't that the story was inauthentic—it moved into a place that felt completely authentic to me—and I have lived a fair amount of my life in rural communities. I understand my parents and my cousins and relatives. Eventually, I found out what I was interested in wasn't place anyway, not really, it was using a place as a means to tell parables about the American experience. That's how I eventually came to create this place Krafton, which I never locate on the map, and I mix in all kinds of different flora and fauna that people in the South and East and West can claim. [He chuckles.] I'm more interested in that.

Guillén: Your stories springboard from a naturalistic base into the near mythic or, as you say, allegoric. They go someplace else.

Heathcock: That's right.

Guillén: Another thematic element of your writing that leans towards the mythic, particularly in Smoke but in some of the other stories in the Volt collection as well, is an almost archetypal negotiation with fatherhood. Particularly in Smoke, there is an attractive tension between a ruggedness, a violence, and sweet tenderness. The roughness, in fact, is informed by the vulnerability. Can you speak to that?

Photo: Matthew Wordell
Heathcock: Yeah! Absolutely. That's the world as I know it. When my father was a younger man, he was very tough. As he got older, he became okay with his sweetness. He didn't see it as a vulnerability that could be taken advantage of. He saw it as something that should be shared. From what I saw in both the urban environments and the rural communities in which my family lived, what I saw from men was that on one hand there was a certain role they were supposed to play and a lot of it I found to be an act, a toughness that they put on.

Guillén: Would you characterize it as a '50s thing?

Heathcock: It had a '50s thing, yeah, but I think it still exists. It may even be making a comeback in a big and bad way and I don't think that's a good thing. It's a holdover from pioneer times regarding the responsibility of the male being a reflection of strength; but, at such a cost. As that veneer breaks—and I'm interested in breaking that veneer; in all my stories I break it—all of my people, my father, my uncles, were incredibly sweet, compassionate human beings, deeply good human beings.

I saw it growing up too in my friends in urban communities where you had gang violence. The tension to keep your strong face up constantly is exhausting. Once I left Chicago, I didn't want to go back, though I still have a lot of good friends there who—when I see them—have to keep up this face, they can't budge, they can't move, it's an unbendable force that kills people. At the same time it's the same sort of thing. I could tell you many stories about my good, close friends, the hardest of hard men I knew, who would break down crying or—when something bad happened to you—they would hold you to make sure you were okay. That's just the truth of the world as I know it. It's something I find deeply interesting, yet deeply frustrating that this uber-masculine culture is embraced as the truth of what a man is, which I don't think is true. At the same time, if I were to list the moments in my life where I felt most loved—and that may be in reaction to them being coupled with these very tough men showing me compassion—but, it's very much so these moments when people have broken down and shown that they are deeply sweet, loving human beings and that they have that inside them. It's important to me.

Photo: Matthew Wordell
From a dramatic sense, too, if you break the hard person and let some of these stories see the sweetness, it's powerful. It's a revelation of truth. I think most people walk around the world in some version of some persona they wear in order to be accepted in whatever particular community where they want to be accepted. They have to. I just had a great but tough conversation with a very close friend of mine who lives in a rural community about all of the stupid shit he has to do to fit in. But I'm interested in the revelation of truth. Can we get people in this position to finally see the truth of what's happening inside them? The truth that's happening inside them. Not that they didn't have it before and that they tried very hard not to show it. It's very different to say they didn't have it inside them.

It's been instructive to me. I've always been a relatively empathic person. I also recently had a long conversation with my Mom. Even though I'm a writer, I'm very self-conscious. I haven't talked about myself as a younger person much and my Mom's been telling me about me as a younger person. She reminded me, "Y'know, Alan, we were worried about you for a long time because you would hardly ever talk. We took you to every movie because you would sit there and watch, you were actually paying attention to all the movies. You were the youngest and your older brother and sister would always talk for you wherever we went. Now what we realize is you were just taking everything in. You were watching everybody and everything."

She's realizing this because I tell her about all these moments: "I remember this time when Dad got the phone call, which I'm guessing on the other end was tragedies on both sides of the family by receiving terrible news of cousins being killed in different accidents." I remember sitting in the corner of the kitchen and seeing my father—he didn't know I was there—seeing this big tough guy, this force (he was a professional baseball player), just melt. On one hand I saw the truth of that moment and I was worried; but, at the same time as I got older, I see that moment as deeply comforting. As I struggled through whatever hardships had happened to me in my adult life, I'd think back to that moment, I would remember my father melting, crying, and remember that's it okay, it's a part of the human experience that validates the things I'm feeling.

Guillén: If it weren't for grief, Robert Bly taught me, God save us. It is grief that allows the hulk to melt.

I had wanted to talk about the connective tissue between writing and filmmaking, so I'm intrigued to discover that movies were your first love. It almost sounds as if your writing came from a matrix of movie watching through which you learned a certain way of narrative structure, or emotional truth that comes through narrative structure. Would that be accurate?

Heathcock: Absolutely.

Photo: Matthew Wordell
Guillén: And so this opportunity to have two students approach you to adapt your short story Smoke into a film must have felt like returning to an original dream. Can you talk a bit about what it was like to have Stephen Heleker and Cody Gittings approach you with the idea to adapt Smoke? Was it the first time someone adapted one of your short stories for film?

Heathcock: No, there was one other that had been made into a short film, Fort Apache. It made the rounds on the festival circuit. But I really had nothing to do with that one. I just sold them the rights. Smoke was the first one where people I knew were involved who I felt were very bright and talented and who I knew understood the story. Selfishly, I knew also that I could—in the same way as my first year of MFA—get up to snuff on filmmaking. For a long time, I've wanted to get involved in film. Again, it is my first love. I saw this as an opportunity to get on an actual, live set and to be childhood Al sitting there as quietly as I can taking everything in. I saw it as a real opportunity—not just to have the story made into a film, which is obviously a neat thing that a different part of the world is becoming familiarized with your story, although in a different format—but, just this point of education; that I could get more informed on something that I want to be a part of.

Guillén: Did you have much to do with translating the short story into a film script?

Heathcock: They took first shot at writing a screenplay for Smoke and then I jumped in. We had lots of conversations.

Guillén: I was quite pleased how faithful the film was to the short story.

Heathcock: [Laughs] Yeah, that's me!

Guillén: I arrived in Boise just as you guys were ramping up to shoot Smoke, and I bought Volt and read the story, and thought, "Wow, this is going to be hard to adapt into a movie!"

Heathcock: Right.

Guillén: Then when I talked to the two actors, Amadeus Serafini and Joel Nagle, I got the sense of what they were gaining from the experience and that the truth of the story was definitely being enacted. So I was happy when I finally saw the film because it was true to the story I had read.

Heathcock: After Fort Apache came out, they did a fine job but they changed the story quite a bit in ways that I would not have approved. I didn't think the changes made the story better, more cohesive or powerful, and it missed the message. So when this one came around, I wanted to make sure that we put in the guts of what was happening that they would actually be making a film of the story I wrote. That was all handled through my agent. Even though I knew Stephen and Cody, I had my agents handle this.

Guillén: Part of your persona, I would say, is that you're a hat man. Fedoras, baseball caps, I always see you with a hat on. With Smoke you put on a creative hat, that of Executive Producer, and I'm always curious to know what that actually means? Did Executive Producer mean you were an authorial overseer of the project? Was it financial?

Heathcock: A little of both. I put forth a little bit of money, mainly to become a creative partner with Cody and Stephen and because I wanted the film to be of quality. It was nothing against those two at all; I just wanted to educate myself and to be in the room for these conversations. It allowed me to be in the room for every aspect of the filmmaking. I did that because I wanted to know how it was done. It ended up that, occasionally, I would pipe up and say something and maybe be able—not only as an Executive Producer but as the guy who wrote the story—to lend some insight to the characters or particular moments. Mainly on the shoot I would try to stay out of people's way, sit off to the side, and not create confusion. I let Cody and Stephen, both who are incredibly talented young men, do their work.

Photo: Matthew Wordell
I got to ride in and out every day with the actors Amadeus and Joel and I found that, for me, perhaps my highest and best use was talking to them, constantly. I could say that I probably talked to them more than anybody else on the production, just because we had long drives in and long drives out, and like times off. Other than the fact that I really liked both of them a lot and I still keep in touch with them.

Guillén: I remain sincerely thankful that you arranged for me to talk with the two of them.

Heathcock: I am glad too. They're both super nice guys and I still keep in contact with both of them. They're both still doing well. Amadeus is going to be a huge star. He's doing well with the TV series Scream and he has aspirations to get going on feature films. I think he's going to do great. So I rode in with them every day to and from wherever we were on location. We talked about a lot of things, but we were constantly talking about the story, the characters and who they were, what I was thinking when I was writing. It was not intentional, but that became one of the main things about being Executive Producer. I feel fortunate. There's a lot of things I liked about the shoot. There's a kind of adrenalin that people get addicted to and I can understand.

Guillén: Was Smoke written here in Idaho?

Heathcock: Smoke was written here in Idaho, yes.

Guillén: Did you have Idaho's landscape in mind?

Heathcock: No. Bits of it. Again, I'm creating this new town Krafton and trying in a very coy way not to locate it so I have a lot of Midwest hickory trees and things like that written into the story. My first idea of the cave and the mountains would partly be in the southern Illinois and southern Ohio region where you have limestone formations. People think of the Midwest as flat but there's lots of hill country. When we showed the film in Sun Valley, we were doing a Q&A afterwards and people were talking about how the film really showcases Idaho. It has some beautiful shots of Idaho from Kuna Cave up to near Cascade where we were up in the mountains. Stephen was talking about how he was translating the story so that it would work in the Idaho landscape. After that, I piped up and said that I hadn't read the story in a long time and I've seen the film, but it has completely flipped in my imagination. This is a testament to what Cody and Stephen have done, that I now see the places in my story as Idaho. That's pretty cool.

Guillén: You write about land in a mythic way. You admit to purposely fabricating this created place Krafton in its created spatial environment. Referencing back to William Goyen, he would write about East Texan employees working at a Woolworths Department Store dreaming of Spain.

Heathcock: That's cool.

Guillén: In the imagined Spain of their mind, it bore a certain meaning. It didn't matter if it was actually Spain. And that's what I'm trying to say about how you write about land. Even if imagined and unspecific, land has meaning, even as embedded in the narrative. It's like what Black Elk said: Harney Peak is in South Dakota, but Harney Peak is everywhere. That imagined land is in the center of every reader. The central meaning of the land remains the same no matter where the land is. I thought that was well-done in the filmic version of Smoke.

Photo: Matthew Wordell
Heathcock: I agree. When I'm writing I can drop whatever landscape I need. Landscape, for me, is always a metaphor for reflection of my character's psyche. I consciously, but subtly, use landscape to help tell the story. Cody and Stephen worked really hard scouring Idaho for locations. They went out to Eastern Idaho to look at different caves. They drove all around the state looking for the exact right locations that would be interesting and that would be able to communicate the story. They did a great job. Some of it's trickery in making you believe Stacked Rock up on Bogus is the top of the mountain where they go into the cave. That little bit of magic moviemaking was amazing.

Guillén: Something else I loved in the story itself, and then how Cody and Stephen captured it in the film, is how alongside land of course is the sky covering the land. The sky in Smoke is a mirror. It is, in fact, an occluded mirror, which hints that Smoke is actually a Biblical parable. But I mean that in the sense of The Bible being purposeful spiritual literature. The smoked mirror, lost childhood, and seeing the world darkly: it's all there as a parable with a moral. It was lovely to watch Amadeus embody that transformation of putting away childish things. Am I reaching or is that accurate?

Heathcock: It is, absolutely. I tell my agent that you can tell people that I write Biblical parables but it's a different Bible than the actual Bible.

Guillén: Glad to hear it. Especially Smoke, but a lot of Volt strikes me as American spiritual literature. A lot of the best books I've read in my life, a lot of the best films I've seen, I wouldn't even call them Christian, but I would call them Biblical in the sense of spiritual literature. They're trying to teach.

Heathcock: I'm interested in morality, especially in an American culture where there's been a long history of deep religiosity and deep violence. The contradictions of those two are maybe the most American of temperments. That's a criticism, of course. I think it's an apt criticism. I'm deeply interested in the moral complications of how those two things intersect. Americans, by and large—and I'm speaking in generality; I understand that America's an enormous place and covers a lot of ground—but, I'm deeply interested in morality while being deeply conflicted about what that means and absolutely not in agreement.

Guillén: And prone to projecting that morality on other people.

Heathcock: That's right! America has a great competitive morality and it's always been that way. If I'm writing about things that scare and confound me the most, that's easily number one in my lifetime of things that I see and that I'm still seeing. It's incredibly disappointing to live in a culture that is so deeply invested in morality. A great number of the conversations we have in art and outside of the realm of art have to do with morality, while at the same time not being able to have any agreement whatsoever on even the most basic tenets of morality. That finds its way into everything that I do.

Guillén: Okay, so you were Executive Producer on Smoke to try to teach yourself about this craft, this related but separate craft of filmmaking, and now have a couple more of your stories that are being groomed for film? Did you learn anything from your on-set experience with Smoke that you will apply to these future projects?

Heathcock: Oh, yeah. I learned a huge amount. A lot of it is basic stuff: the language of film and understanding how they're made, and how people talk about them, literally the words, the terms you use, to talk about film. It was highly instructive to look at a short story of mine made into a 43-minute film. It got me thinking for the first time about a script, how it's designed, and how it looks on the page. It's all basic stuff that I had to learn. I'm still learning.

I'm fortunate where I'm at. I have one of the best agents in the business. She's doing great work. We have a feature screenplay that I wrote for The Staying Freight, the first story in the collection that's been put into development by Sycamore Pictures. That's looking good. I'd bet money on it that it's going to be put into production. There's just one hurdle and it's a manageable hurdle. We've been talking about it for the past couple of years, but I've been working on it hard in the last six months. Then I have another feature screenplay for The Daughter, another story in Volt. We'll wait for The Staying Freight to get into production, and then try to place that other one.

Guillén: And also working on a novel?

Heathcock: Also working on a novel, trying to finish this thing. I'm seven years into a novel. I'm probably a good year out from that being done.

Guillén: First novel?

Heathcock: It will be the first novel that I've finished. [He grins. I laugh.] Volt is actually a lot of failed novels that fell apart. I scraped the good parts out and made stories of them.