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Not me, her

In 1987, I found myself trying to write about a high school girlfriend that had been molested by her father when she was a child. I was 19 years old, struggling to find my way through a screenwriting assignment about delivering character. The idea was to describe messy young love between two Sid and Nancy want-to-be's. But that failed, as I could not stomach oversimplifying her complicated past, events that shaped her life as a 16 year old with a mohawk, a smart mouth, a lingering stare. I understood that I had to start at the very beginning.

No one wanted to hear the story. When it was my turn to read in class, it even came to be that some of the other students asked to stand in the hallway before they heard another description of what happened in that lonely little house in the middle of nowhere. I was trying, and failing, and trying again to get things right, to explain how this happened, how it could happen to this girl, how this man found his way to acts of selfishness and d…

the man on the ladder



I used to imagine a silent Japanese man, sitting at the top of a ladder. He stared down at a giant, empty  white canvas. It seemed he was there for days, never hung or sleepy. He was waiting. And then, all at once, he dips a giant paintbrush in a mammoth inkjar. The painting leaps free, finished in a handful of minutes. This idea of patience, and an effortless moment when everything is realized - it became a myth I had created, maybe to mock myself. It seemed impossible. I am far more used to the struggle, the whittling away, the nose and the grindstone, the hard wall, the chipping away, the thirteenth attempt at the first sentence. That is what I know. That is where I live.

A year ago, I launched into a project called Blackbetty, supported by a small army of friends and strangers. Pen went to paper as a new president was elected, as so many familiar aspects of life began to recede, replaced by daily question marks and no answers. I cast the best actors I could find, wrote to their strengths, ran around in the snow and forests with cameras and a sound man. The work was complicated and ambitious, but it always felt right. The project grew larger than a feature film, and it takes months to edit, and paint out the bad reflections of a microphone in a window, and mix the audio, and color correct, but the work is joyous, that familiar finessing, that polishing the stones until they shine in the dark. 

I left a few gaps, a few fragments I would shoot last. Last chances to glue things together, a few hail Mary passes to throw when the time was right. Last week, I gave E a script, barely longer than a page. She would speak some Norwegian in it, a language she has been learning completely on her own for the past months. She liked that idea, and the story worked for her. A teenager alone in an apartment, while the world is going to hell outside the front door. In the story, she reaches out and tries to connect, self-edits, becoming her own worst enemy. She naps on the floor. She plays ukulele, without knowing how to tune it. There is a wild snowstorm outside, sudden and fierce. She thinks for some time, she cries for a moment then wipes her eyes. She decides to put some curlers in her hair, just the sort of random things a kid will do when no one is home. 

The shoot was done in two hours, and I edited it the next day. Some stories from this project take me weeks to get right. This one required no wrestling match to solve. Before my second morning coffee was finished, I had a first edit. 



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