How does a writer who is used to hacking away on a coffee-stained keyboard in some dark corner while mumbling incomprehensibly to no one in particular suddenly find himself part of a team premiering a music video in a historic theatre with a group of collaborators from around the country?
Well, like most things it starts with a conversation during lunch or in some hallway in a crumbling university building. “Let’s make a music video.” I’m not sure if I said it first or if it was Santiago, but one of us uttered that fateful phrase. It seemed like an innocent, wistful thing to say at the time. It reminded me of an earlier conversation with Truen Pence over fried chicken tendons at Corvallis’s best greasy spoon Chinese place where one of us broached the question that has come to dominate our existence for more than three years: “Hey, we should make a documentary about wine.” This music video project started much the same way.
What had we envisioned at first? A weekend of shooting. A couple long nights of fiddling with After Effects?
Well, more than a year later, we found ourselves in a historic theatre with some of our best friends and a crew of creative collaborators at a concert we helped to fund and put on, debuting a music video on a huge screen. As a writer, that’s a rare thing. You don’t typically get the pleasure of fielding your work in public unless it’s a reading, and then people usually only show up if you’ve reached a certain stature. Jim Harrison famously compared the literary reading circuit to being in the dentist’s chair.
My role in this project was rather modest. I wrote a draft of a short story that was background for the initial concept of the video. Santiago directed the piece and layered on animation, taking it to a whole new imaginative space. I produced the video, meaning scheduling locations, finding talent, finding money. Artless but necessary. You need a certain kind of oblivious and cheerful relentlessness to push through that kind of role when there’s no money involved and actually it’s costing you out of your pocket. I also had the great pleasure of editing the footage after principal photography.
Filmmaking…and music videos are certainly filmmaking…is wonderful because you can assemble a team of people with superior vision and talent and then you all build something together. This includes musician Glenn Alexander, cinematographer Justin Smith and wonderful actors Matthew Joel Flood and Dominique Valdovinos. Jaime Williams of the Whiteside Theatre Foundation, who passionately believes that a town like Corvallis will be a better place of we preserve a gorgeous vaudeville era theatre for the community’s use, lifted the whole project to another level by having the vision for a concert surrounding the video. Instead of casting the video into the ether, we screened it in front of 150 people during the show. Not nearly enough guests to fill the grand old theater, but an audience just the same, sharing a dark space where magical things have been happening for nearly a century.
The amazing collaborative experience of making a film is a sort of magic that is hard for a writer to grasp. Any artist toils for hours within the confinement of his own mind. But filmmaking is proof that we are ultimately social creatures, and our best work happens when we reach out to other talent and bring something to life to be shared with others. The flickering light of a projector is the campfire of the Pleistocene Era around which the first stories and myths of our species were told. We’re still the same creatures. We may have forgotten how to spear a mastodon and have since figured out powered flight and nanotechnology, but if you’ve ever seen a cave painting in France or petroglyphs on a Missouri River bluff, you know we haven’t really changed that much and we may have actually forgotten more than we’ve learned. Stories are what makes us human, and despite the After Effects, particle generators, Adobe Premiere, digital audio and high definition DSLR cameras, it’s all a form of cave painting and tales spun in the torchlight.
And now that this particular project is over I’ll crawl back to my dark, writerly corner to regroup, though I’ll eventually emerge again, blinking at the sunlight, to follow the next offhand comment way too far. With any luck, that next project will turn out a lot like this one.