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.

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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.