Barbara Turner

Barbara Turner died in April. I've been in deep denial, dreading/avoiding writing anything at all about it, as if the act of writing will be a horrible homework assignment which will end with me facing the cold fact that she is not here any longer. Alternately kind and caustic, hilarious and serious she was a formative presence in my life.

I had just been accepted to AFI in Screenwriting and needed a summer job before the semester began (and student loan $ rolled in). I went up to AFI and looked on the job board (this is in 1997, internet just a baby) and saw an announcement for screenwriter Barbara Turner needing a research assistant. I knew just who she was from seeing Georgia (and from reading her corresponding interview in Scenario magazine.) My heart pounded when I called the number. A real screenwriter. I was given an address and told to come by to meet Barbara the next day.

"The pay is shit". These are among the first words Barbara said to me as I sat at her kitchen table. Though early afternoon she was drinking prosecco. By good fortune she had two scripts back-to-back that had to be written & researched in short order, one based on a historical account of 2 possessed girls in early 19th century Illinois, and the other an adaptation of a novel set on Majorca in the 1500's. Each would require a high volume of research.  She had already hired another AFI Screenwriting student named Guy Davis and would I like to join them? I muttered "sounds good" and tried to play cool but inside my heart was doing flips. I could see a framed award from the NY Film Critics Circle on a nearby shelf. This is inner circle shit. I've made it! I didn't mention that I hated doing research or talking to people lest that sway her decision to hire me.

Guy and I started in earnest the next day. First up was the Illinois project. Barbara as writer had the same degree of commitment as a hardcore method actor. Which is to say, it wasn't enough to know the names of artifacts and customs and principles of 19th century Illinois, she had to fully comprehend them at the molecular level. Each day found her sitting at her desk or in a chair in her office reading for 7, 8, 9 hours while myself and Guy were sent out into the corners of Los Angeles tracking down books, maps, folios, daguerreotypes, poems, farmer's almanacs. I spent a week chasing a period song down, finally finding sheet music at the UCLA Music Library. We got it to a pianist and had him record himself playing/singing on cassette tape so she could hear it. (The net result in the screenplay was a line of description: They enter the house and  hear "Period Song" being played on a piano in the next room). After 6 weeks or so of dedicated research Barbara begin writing.

screenplay drafts on legal pads

The process in short: She sat in her chair next to her sharpened pencils and wrote the script out in longhand on legal pads, starting at page 1 and going page by page to the end. Guy and I (and her research coordinator Chris) were all a room or two away in case we were needed.
"Brian?" I'd be summoned suddenly after an hour of silence.
"Which book had the picture of the dray-wright reattaching the wheel?"
"I'll look"
"Thank you. And I need all the notes on that parade.  And the spiritualists"
Moments later I'd return with a stack of things. She'd check what she needed and return to writing.

At the end of each day she'd phone her friend and former assistant Pam in NYC and read what she'd written over the phone, Pam would type along and then fax the pages back to Barbara (again, pre-internet really). The next day would repeat until the script was finished. And by finished I don't mean a draft was finished, I mean the script was complete after one pass owing to the depth of Barbara's commitment and research and her deep talent. The screenplay was invariably also awesome and lyrical and pitch-perfect. (note: get your hands on her work.)

a million yrs ago in nyc
Barbara was always a real-world counter-point to the screenwriting dogma I was absorbing at AFI. You should not do X in a screenplay or Award-winning scripts do this by page X. Her screenplays transcended these. They talked about how the camera was moving, about if it was a medium or tight shot; they had expository paragraphs just for the reader; they talked about the rhythm of the cutting. All standarized verboten in a million screenplay seminars and a million hastily-assembled how-to screenwriting books. Years later Barbara learned that her one of her screenplays was used in a film school class as an example of WHAT TO NEVER DO IN A SCREENPLAY and she, true to her nature, took this as great honor, as proof positive that her work was landing correctly in the world.

One of the most vital things to Barbara was how a screenplay sounded. When I would nervously pass her my specs a frequent note after she read it was: I think you need to hear it. (Another common note: You should direct this.) How the words flowed on the page and in the reader's eye and ear was the aim, how the writer's voice presented itself and landed, in lilt and command.

My tenure working directly for Barbara ended in the fall with the start of film school but since Barbara still needed help (and Margaret - my girlfriend at the time, now wife - needed a job,) Barbara hired Margaret as research assistant.  They worked together for several years and across time Barbara became a dear friend and ally.

To put it cleanly: I learned more about being a writer watching Barbara work than from any book, any class, any interaction in Hollywood. She was a true artist (an overused phrase to be sure, but one that contains how commitment to art/form can yield returns, sometimes at a cost). A true sui generis writer in a town bloated with self-announced unique snowflakes, one whose slender but respectable body of produced work betrays the volume and scope of her true abilities and genius. Many of the best things she wrote are as yet unproduced.

Barbara's desk
There is so much else that can be said but it will just veer into uncollected ramble. The ache of loss and love I feel for Barbara, along with my unwillingness to accept that she is dead are intertwined. Mostly I miss talking with her, getting her opinion on my screenplays, seeing movies with her, deconstructing the latest celebrated indie film, drinking prosecco with her at her kitchen table in the early afternoon, watching shadows slowly extend across the backyard.  I miss the feeling of sitting down to read her latest screenplay and marveling at the movie to be made from the words on the page, the feel of those words - her words - and the lilt and command of her voice.

Barbara is amazing. I say it in the present tense because I feel her in the present tense. Here and not here at once.  I imagine her now, sitting next to me in a dark theater watching current cinema and whispering "I can't believe what I'm seeing" at terrible acting or dialogue. More than anything I have memories of her in tiny moments like this.

from the thank you page of  Margaret's book People Like You


Inquiry & Observation in 4 Parts

1) A couple weeks ago I had to go to the dentist to get my chipped front tooth finally addressed. I'd been putting it off and putting it off despite the cosmetic considerations, in part due to my laziness and in part due to my deep primal dentistry fears. There was a lag of a few weeks between making the appointment and the appointment itself so for reasons unremembered by me I scheduled it at 7 AM. God why? Probably thinking that I could pop in early and then head off to work. Exhausted and one-quarter awake I pulled into the parking lot, thinking of how I'd be the first or among the first appointments of the day and - as I am prone to do reflexively (maybe b/c I'm weird or maybe b/c I'm a writer and filmmaker or maybe due to some mixture) - started thinking about the people who worked there and the building turning on for the day and other operational considerations. What time did they have to arrive, 6:45 AM? What personal situations and emotions trailed them in at the crack of dawn before the dental apparatus began humming and demanded their focus? Did any of them regard their job negatively or at the same pitch and register as I regarded my day job? And so on. It was at this moment I noticed a young black woman at the back corner lot, yawning as she beeped her car key. Barely beating the receptionist in I thought.  Why so GD early? Across the lot another poor soul walked from his car to the front door. Inside, I overheard him at check-in: Wisdom tooth surgery. Fuck. Mine can't be that unpleasant, can it?

Moments later I was in the hallway being led to the back by the dental technician. She made small talk as she led me to her station, put me in the chair. I responded in a rudimentary way to her as I was seized by pools of panic, thinking about all the ways this could go wrong, all the problems with tooth and gum they'd find, all the steps and iterations required to fix a chipped tooth, what are they all? what if this is complex as fuck? what if this takes 3 visits? And so on. It was at this moment the young black woman I saw in the parking lot entered. "Ah" said the tech, "Here's the dentist"

A burn began to rise in my belly.

"What do we have on tap this morning" the dentist said
"Chipped front tooth" the tech responded
"Oh, those are fun" the dentist said. Then she looked at me and said "Why are you here so early?"
"Good question" I responded.

40 minutes later I was in the car headed home with a new tooth and a feeling I couldn't shake. Like I was outside myself, watching an innocent movie character suddenly realize his implication in something dire and malignant.

I pulled into the driveway at home.

2) This weekend at Washington Park playground with M and the kids. We'd just been on walk at Hoyt Arboretum and the playground was promised fun after they agreed to the non-fun of the walk. Set free, N began running around like an insane 4.5 year old and F headed straight to the swings, her natural preference. On the swing next to us was a small black boy being pushed by his white mother. My mind went instantly to the vagaries and details of adoption. I recalled the years of trouble M and I had conceiving, the moments we thought/knew it wouldn't happen and begin exploring the actual facts of adoption, the bureaucracy, the classes, the money, the plane flights. Was that this woman's journey? Was it joyous and free of entanglement, this path to her adoptive son? Or did it eat at her, did it consume her, was she still harboring resentment at the process not happening naturally? And so on. It was at this moment her black husband walked up to her, touched her shoulder and whispered something to her the easy, mundane way of a long-together couple.

A familiar burning feeling rose again in my belly, that sleeping man in the movie again, given sudden window to deep, multi-generational corrosion and his unwitting but malignant participation.

The young boy and F were both cute as hell, swinging side by side but out of rhythm. One forward, one back. Then reversed. Then reversed again.  I kept focus on their faces, their unconstrained joy, wondering how soon until they drifted into parallel movement.

3) Alton Sterling

4) Philando Castile


Margaret Malone is the best!

This past Friday Margaret and I stayed home from work to do our taxes. I think most would agree this is naturally a sort of depressing undertaking but for two artists who haven't quite yet monetized their enterprises it can come bundled with deep review of life-decisions, adding in turn to the register of depression. The table was spread with receipts - a burrito I bought in Idaho when I attended the Boise Film Fest; some gas Margaret bought en route to Seattle for LitFix etc - true artifacts of living the dream. Right smack in the middle of that the phone rings and it's the Pen New England Foundation calling to inform Margaret that she was selected as a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway this year.

Shortly thereafter we found ourselves out of the house drinking champagne for lunch.

Margaret hasn't had the traditional sort of writing career trajectory. She doesn't hold an MFA from a prestigious program, much less at all. She's not a veteran of the A-list writing colonies and fellowships. (Now, granted being veteran of those corridors doesn't guarantee anything but it seems/feels like lot of awards at this level share some commmonality of authorial career heritage.) Margaret has worked on PEOPLE LIKE YOU in various forms/iterations across a decade plus while also managing day jobs, pregnancies, variety of spousal issues, child-rearing et cetera. So to have her book recognized at this level is a gut-punch (if there's a way you can see a gut-punch as really really awesome) especially because Atelier26 her publisher is about as indie as they come (current staff: 2). This means one can safely deduce the award is solely on the merits of the work, which is incredible. Yes, all awards probably should just be on the merits but other factors leach in (consciously or not) and the deck can feel stacked so it can breed cynicism (note: in people like me). Margaret getting this recognition feels like a deserved tax credit in the universal balance sheet after years of programmed systemic penalty. Also, it is possible. It can be done. It is all worth it.

Okay, I am a biased party obviously but you should know this about Margaret if you don't already: She is a force in both the artistic and actual sides of this whole ride. In addition to being a ridiculously talented writer I have never met anyone in this world with deeper reserves of kindness, charity, humanism. She's authentic, hilarious, self-deprecating, inspiring, singular just like her book PEOPLE LIKE YOU which you should consider giving a read. (Trailer below!)

put another way: Margaret!!! Yahoo!!!!!

More at Margaret Malone's website here


Here/Not Here

I chipped my tooth again. Last night. I was in the hallway bending down to look at mud on the floor as my son Nicholas was crouched below. He sprung up, froglike, unaware of my head nearby. He knocked me so hard on the side of cheek that my front tooth came out.  Or rather, part of my front tooth. Part is real, part isn't.

21 years ago (Feb 26, 1995 to be precise) the same tooth was chipped by my then friend Margaret. We had all just been at Westhaven Beach near Trindad CA. (Margaret and I didn't become a couple until later in the summer of the following year, 1996) We had been shooting a scene for my super-8 film (with the unfortunate title "One Wacky Mornin'"). George was in the film so he was there, me, Marsha, Margaret, Matt. Marsha drove us all back in her Volvo to the house on Beverly Drive in the Sunnybrae neighborhood of Arcata, (where I was finally officially finally transferred to HSU, after 2 semesters at CR, taking film classes like Cinematography I with John Heckel, for which I was making the Super 8 film). Margaret slid out of the back seat, headed up toward the house. I leaned out the open door to say something smart-ass like hurry up or lets go (she was running in to get something. wallet? Red? ) unaware that she was in the act of pushing the car door shut behind her. The window was half-down and met me right across the teeth.

Last night after verifying my jaw/cheekbone wasn't damaged - N hit it very hard - I went downstairs and found my journal from then Winter/Spring 1995. I was an avid journal-writer in those days. My journal writing taking the place of making anything. I was taking film classes yes and had fierce burning urge to make movies but with deficit of facility and things-to-say. The journal was interim life-raft that I mistook for something meaningful. It has different meaning now as document/snapshot so in one sense it's always contained meaning but the meaning has transformed across the years. I read several consecutive passages: I was 23. Finally feeling somewhere I belonged (or at least could grow to belong) and yet contending w/ some extreme alienation, alone-ness, probable depression. As I read I was struck by how much time has passed and how I am yet in the vice grip of that trio. One passage in particular had me in a piano practice room - I wouldn't take Intro to Piano with Deborah Clasquin until the fall but I would always sneak into the rooms to mess around - staring into a mirror and wondering who the fuck was staring back. Later in the journal contains a embarrassing passage about my imminent world-domination as a filmmaker. Based on zero evidence just gut feeling but i really know that feeling was me vs the world, me delaying, me deferring, me saying just you motherfuckers wait.

I kept reading, hoping to find a great narrative document of what happened when I chipped my tooth but nothing of note. Just a a single sentence at the bottom of the page in a rambling passage of early 20s spew (sample: The heart is split like a harness, a canvas for the finger, the hand, the soul before the solitary painter who mirrors, who reflects.) There it was, a single sentence, no context: I chipped my tooth again.

I have no idea what the 1995 'again' refers to (I chipped my tooth in 3rd grade. Am I referring to that?) but the 2016 'again' refers to 1995.

2 days ago I was at a memorial service. Seeing photos flip by, projected onto the screen - infant one second, parent the next, in the throes of debilitation in the next - crushed me. Vital, then not. Here, not here. There's a Kubrick quote that best gets at what fucks me up about it all: The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent. The scope, breadth, joys/fears of entire existence reduced to a tiny room, an open bar, a speech, then nothing. Just the programmed hum of the HVAC, clicking on/off whether you are present or not.

In Fall of 1995 I was taking Intro to Piano with Deborah Clasquin. [By coincidence Margaret was in the class too. But she wasn't there that often since it was early in the AM and since she and Red were actively splitting. Margaret dropped the class eventually.] Deborah was a great instructor, patient, deliberate, kind. At the very back of the journal I found a ticket stub from a public performance she gave. Feb 4, 1995. It was the kind of artifact one shares on social media these days so I did a quick search for her with aim to send it her way.

Only to discover she died almost 7 years ago, March 10, 2009. I had no connection to her beyond the class, had no contact with her in 20 years but it still hit me sideways, not unlike my son springing up, uncertain my head was just over him. Vital then not. Here, not here.

I am prone to look for meaning in things where maybe there is none. Maybe that makes me no different than anyone. Maybe the answer is always nothing, coincidence, indifference. Maybe the older you get the more numbers, lives/deaths, coincidences you contend with and sift through.
But all that said:
what does it mean that the woman who became my wife broke my tooth in the exact same place 21 years before our son would? What does it mean that the same forces I felt aligning against me in my 20s are still present? What does it mean that my journal is filled with arrogant puffery about the filmmaker I hoped I would become? What does it mean that the night I saw Deborah Clasquin's performance was 22 days away from when my tooth would get chipped, was 21 years and 5 weeks from when it would get chipped again, was 10 years and 1 day away from my 1st brain surgery, was 2 months after Nicholas K - our son's namesake -  died in his van outside Trinidad CA driving back from Portland, was 14 years and 5 weeks from her existing any longer? 

I am writing this at my day job and the HVAC just clicked on here.


SoCal Film Fest - notes/recap

Feb 11, 2016 - Thursday, Portland
woke up at 5. took shower and got dressed and walked outside just as my ride (ie my dad) was pulling up. There and back in one day so I just had a backpack with my ipad, a magazine, a hard drive containing the movie. Easy breezy through security and to the gate. My eyes fell on mom w/ stroller, 2 kids and all acoutrements and I both knew exactly how she felt and was so glad I wasn't her. Flight landed in Long Beach at 9 ish. Film playing at festival at 12:30 pm. Charged my phone for a bit. bought a sandwich for later and then took cab to Huntington Beach. Cab drive had no idea where I was sending him and I had to enter the address on his phone app. 

view from library desk

50 bucks later at the Huntington Beach Public Library. Saw fest signage which was encouraging to me that I was in correct spot. Had 2 or so hours to kill so I headed into the depths of the library to work on latest screenplay. (note: here "work" means alternately writing, checking social media, texting w/ family, battling the rising burn of nerves that joins me every screening and so forth.) 

went over to the fountain and ate my sandwich, then headed downstairs to the theater, sort of uncertain about what to expect. As I walked down into the lobby a surreal moment arose when I could hear the tech check in the auditorium, the score (by Jessee Jones) of THE BLACK SEA pouring out of the speakers. In addition to being dark and brooding it happened to line up exactly with my mood, matching my own internal soundtrack. 

I found festival director Guy Davis and talked shop for a bit, noting the excellent weather, the vagaries of running a festival, and our career paths in the past two decades since we both worked for Barbara Turner and attended AFI as Screenwriting Fellows.  As we talked people began streaming in waves for the screening (note: here "waves" means there were 3 people I knew in the audience and oh, less than 10, I did not. Despite the fact that I have many friends in LA and that some cast/crew are in LA I was reminded that OC is not LA so to speak. Also, a weekday early afternoon screen time at a fest can be kiss of death provided your valued metric is number of eyeballs). Most exciting arrival to me was Fred and Rita Sipes b/c they could at last see their son Matt's work in the film. 

The film began. I hadn't seen it with an audience since Boise Film Fest in September. Since then the film has left (or slowly dissipated away from) my daily conciousness. This allowed me to watch the film from a more objective vantage, noting sucessful moments and less successful ones with equal alacrity. At the same time aspects of the film's narrative ribbon through my own personal history (speaking more so of  my life than the writing/production of the film though that's in there too) so said objectivity quickly was overwhelmed by rising surreal sensations, best described like watching a long-contemplated hall of mirrors in a dream that's been put in a blender and then looked at through the back end of a telescope while really drunk and/or high. You know the feeling. There is a scene toward the end of the film (SPOILER) in an MRI machine and I pondered that in two days I would be tucked inside one myself.

The movie ended and Guy Davis did Q & A. The questions from the crowd were about as robust as the attendees, which is to say sort of minimally engaged. (This kind of thing used to bother me but I always recall seeing Lionel Shriver at Annie Blooms many years ago and no one was there except M and myself and she  was alert and gracious anyway. This repeated a couple yrs later when me and M went to see our friend Cheryl read to at a downtown independent bookstore, now a vitamin warehouse i think - to promote her book.) Afterward I did have someone come up to me and ask if my friends were as terrible as the people in the movie. This was funny but made me a little melancholy as there is much more to the film than the surface read, including the sometimes terrible behavior of the people in it. But whatever. This either reflects on the subjective nature of watching movies or my failing as a director or most probable, some parts of each.

I stayed for the next screening Cesium and a Tokyo Girl, which was kind of awesome in an inscrutable way and caught a ride back to the Long Beach airport w/ my friend Clay, who I met at the Stowe Story Lab retreat in May and who has since relocated to Los Angeles. We talked briefly about the peculiarites of Southern California - one of us drawing on living there over a decade ago and the other of recent weeks - and the pursuit of screeenwriting as an enterprise. I went into the airport. Had burrito and beer. Flew home. Met my ride (ie my mom & dad) and went home.

with Rita & Fred Sipes/heading home

Saturday AM I was tucked inside an MRI contemplating watching the film's MRI scene. and so on.