A Labor of Love
When, at age sixty, I started playing around with iMovie, what beset me and pressed me and pushed me and still keeps me going is love.
My late husband, Art Pepper, was one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. Yes, I said it. Many critics would agree - and so would listeners - who elected him to the Down Beat magazine Jazz Hall of Fame. With him, I wrote his autobiography, "Straight Life," published in 1979 and still in print. Not long after Art died, I began to hear from filmmakers, producers, studios, who wanted to make a movie of that book. I spent ten years getting acquainted with the culture and practices of "Hollywood," and came to the conclusion that I loved Art too much to sell him out to the people I'd been talking to. I decided to forget the whole thing.
Then I began to wonder whether the movie I wanted might best be made by me.
Adding up the stories
Todd Haynes, when asked why he thought Bob Dylan had been willing to let him make the movie, "I'm Not There," using Dylan's songs, answered, "He read the outline and probably saw that it wasn't reductive and that it had humor..."
That's all I'd been looking for: a movie that didn't reduce Art's huge and endlessly fascinating personality to a shiny spangle of high concept.
I didn't want a movie that would be lugubrious, like "Bird." Or simplistic like "Ray," or "Walk the Line." I enjoyed those movies, but they just wouldn't do for me, for Art. To do his story that way would feel like a betrayal.
Hollywood people had told me that to them Art was a wild hipster like Jack Kerouac. Or they talked about the tragedy of his life. Or how "gritty" his story was.
But Art was a romantic.
There was nothing "gritty" about him: he never left the house unshaven; his fingernails were invariably cleaner than mine.
He was a fantasist.
He'd been diagnosed early as a paranoid schizophrenic.
He was an addict.
He was a stand up guy.
He lived his life in nightmares and love songs - and slapstick comedies: he was very self-aware and could laugh at his fate even as he whined about it.
As a musician, Art was a storyteller. Every song he played was a chapter of the narrative he spun in every performance he gave until he died.
He knew how everybody felt. They felt like he did. When Art played his delight, it was our delight. His grief and frustration, ours.
His stories all made sense, because what they added up to, every time, was beauty.
His life and his music were one, and they were a gift he gave us, making sense of our lives as he made sense of his own.
What weird stuff
Well, Hollywood people wouldn't sign a contract promising to use Art's music in his movie. What if a particular song was too expensive? Or poorly recorded?
What if the Widow (me) decided to withhold some music in return for some unreasonable demand on them? Like maybe a different star! A different director! A changed script! They couldn't afford to give any power away.
They asked me to trust them. I asked them why they wouldn't trust me. The truth is, neither of us could be trusted.
Who knows what weird stuff they might have pulled? And then who knows what my subsequent rage and horror might have driven me to do?
Have you read any stories about movies made from books? "Picture?" "The Devil's Candy?" "Monster?" They all end the same way. Fiasco, shame, heartbreak.
Sheila Graham said about her book, "Beloved Infidel," describing her affair with F. Scott Fitzgerald, "If you want to sell your soul to the devil, sell your book to the movies."
Scenes from Art Pepper
Lauries highly stylized production evokes imagery reflective of the beat period that was central to the early heyday of modern jazz.
The power of enthusiasm
I wasn't completely unprepared for filmmaking. I'd certainly seen a lot of movies. I did learn about movies, though, from one of the most perceptive critics ever. Pauline Kael and her husband ran two theaters in Berkeley when I was going to college there. In their quarterly flier, she wrote a critical analysis of every film they showed, from "Bicycle Thieves" to "Potemkin."
Her little essays and the movies she chose gave us Cal students after-school classes in film appreciation. Kael talked about things like camera angles, lighting, music, color, editing, sub-texts and subtleties I never would have noticed.
I later became a photographer and photo journalist. Then I married Art and started writing.
After Art died, I worked for The Eagle Eye Film Co. publishing a little magazine for film and video editors, "Editing." I got to interview great editors. Dede Allen cut "The Hustler," "Bonnie and Clyde," and one of my all time favorites, "Dog Day Afternoon." My hero Walter Murch edited "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now," and he did the sound on "The Conversation," another favorite and a classic.
Later, when my boyfriend, who's a carpenter, went to the Island of Kauai to build homes as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, I trailed along with my little video camera, to document that project for them.
Then when I decided to make my own movie of "Straight Life," I took a ten week filmmaking class at UCLA. Then, my formal education finished, I put out a casting call.
I had only the vaguest outline of a format and no final script at all. I wrote as I went along, shooting with the same one-chip Panasonic I'd used in Hawaii. I bought Final Cut Pro. I bought a bigger, faster Mac, and then another, another camera, and a lot of drives. Yes, I'm in debt.
I also borrowed cameras. And cameramen. Actors and lighting people helped me. Two gorgeous locations, a restored 1950's recording studio, and a retirement hotel that looks like an old hotel, were both offered, gratis.
People will help you if they like the project. Well, Art Pepper intrigues people. And then, also, Emerson said it, the I Ching says it: the power of enthusiasm over people is incalculable.
That's how I was able to borrow a 53 Cadillac for a scene - from a stranger driving down the street. I blocked his path with my car, ran up to him in the rain and asked him, "Do you like jazz?" He did.
While all this was going on, I saw the movie that confirmed me in what I was doing and pushed me further: "Amelie." I loved how witty it was, how rich and perfect each frame of that movie was. I saw Amelie 13 times in theaters - as many times as I saw "A Hard Day's Night" when it came out.
I began, then, to think in terms of every frame. I began to think in terms of Joseph Cornell boxes. He arranged odd, old objects and illustrations into "scenes" that were surreal and nostalgic. I wanted to mimic their mystery.
I was, of course, using Art's music.
By the time I'd decided to use his voice (captured on a tape recorder during the endless interviews I did back in the 70's for the book), I'd also decided I wanted to try to see through his eyes, his heart, as well. He truly saw pain and power and magic, terror and loveliness brimming out of everyone and every object.
A script has emerged as I've worked, and I now know every scene in this movie and how the movie will end.
Enough to say what you have to say
Walter Murch said that too much confidence can get in the way of creativity. He talked about the salutary state of "I don't knowness."
He said, when you're asking, "'Can I do this or not?' little things that feel a kinship with you will appear. And out of those things something will grow that is really organically a part of what you're doing, rather than something that you're imposing on it from outside."
I realize that most people don't have the luxury of spending six months on a ten-minute sequence, as I've done recently. I always give myself permission to play around and try all kinds of time-consuming, silly things, going off on tangents.
Problems are caused and compounded by my lack of experience, lack of skill. And laziness: "Oh, it'll be all right..." But it never is all right. Minor glitches just seem to get bigger and more obvious every time you see them. So you have to go back.
A pro would be done by now. But I wouldn't know how to describe to that pro what I wanted. I only recognize it when I see it.
I've spent a lot of money on software hoping it would make me a better filmmaker. Some of that software is invaluable. Some of it is beside the point, and some is just too hard.
But Art used to say apropos of music that you only need enough technique to say what you have to say. So far, it's working out.
When I conceived it, I hoped that the amateurishness of the work would not detract. I hoped it would be charming, bearing witness, as it does, to the love and determination with which I'm making this movie.
I'll never qualify as more than a beginner in digital media, but the reason I'm talking about my journey here, is because I was asked to - and felt honored to be asked. And I want to express my gratitude to all my teachers, because I figure some of them might be reading this. They're the people writing the tutorials and asking and answering questions every day on the forums.
The COW is a wonderful community, and I'm so proud to be stumbling around in it.
Find more great Creative COW Magazine articles by signing up for the complimentary Creative COW Magazine.