Your Musical Community Is Where You Find It

Music as a communal event is difficult for someone like me, who doesn't play any instrument and doesn't (or shouldn't) sing. I've attended concerts where the sense of community was created by the shared music we all knew, or by the intense efforts of the performer to make sure that connection happened. But for the most part, I've always Read more

Help Plot My 2015 Reading Tour

Would you like to hear me read Long Black Curl to you this summer? Maybe ask me some questions in person? If so, here's what you need to do.  Go to your local bookstore, ask if they'd be interested, and if they are, send me the contact info, including the name of the person in charge of author events. Don't Read more

Why I Haven't Blogged Lately

I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta. Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You'd think it would be done by now, wouldn't you?  Alas, 'tis not the case. Read more

Win an advance reader copy of Long Black Curl

The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn't come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn't matter). I'll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Read more

Win a copy of Mythica!

Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.  You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here. Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Read more

The Only Good Musical is About Actual Musicians

Posted on by Alex in Eddie and the Cruisers, filmmaking, movies, music | 9 Comments

Although music forms a huge part of many of my novels, I don’t, as a rule, like traditional musicals. People bursting into song, unless it’s played for laughs (as in Cannibal: the Musical, an early film by South Park’s creators), overwhelms my suspension of disbelief. Even something as monumentally clever as Little Shop of Horrors stops dead (and never recovers) for the cliche ballad, “Suddenly Seymour.”

What I do like are movies about musicians, especially rock and roll musicians. They provide a realistic context for all that singing and dancing. And the best ones feature music that tells its own story, that fits seamlessly into the tale being told during the non-singing bits.

Here are a few great ones that you might not have heard about. (I’m not going to get into biopics like Walk the Line, Ray or Great Balls of Fire, or movies where stars play themselves, like A Hard Day’s Night and Purple Rain. Those are separate topics.)

Eddie and the Cruisers, from 1984.

Eddie and the Cruisers, from 1984.

My favorite is probably Eddie and the Cruisers. You can read my thoughts on the novel here. The movie, while shying from the book’s more interesting concepts, presents many scenes (and a lot of dialogue) verbatim, and it does a good job capturing the book’s atmosphere. The music, by East Coast native John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band, is also top-notch, embodying the Jersey Shore sound (back when that term had nothing to do with some of the worst people ever to make millions on TV) and yeah, echoing early Springsteen, but if you’re doing a movie about a legendary New Jersey rock star, that’s hard to avoid. Still, not everyone loves it, so I’d recommend making your own decision.

A close second is Phantom of the Paradise, Brian de Palma’s classic glam-rock parody. Paul Williams, who also plays the film’s villain, composed all the songs, and they’re wonderful in the way they reference both the plot and each other (“Faust,” a deadpan parody of serious singer-songwriters, is itself parodied within the film by “Upholstery”). And each musical number is, for the most part, set up so that there’s always “source” music (i.e., an onscreen explanation for where the music is coming from), something you seldom get in traditional musicals.

Grace of my Heart is loosely based on the life of Carole King, from her Brill Building years as a songwriter through her breakthrough as a performer. In an inspired bit of forethought, the music is written by pairs of songwriters: one Sixties veteran working with a newcomer (i.e., Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello). And since the protagonist is also a songwriter, the film gives you a great idea of how these things were (and are) done. The movie itself constantly inverts expectations: for example, Denise (Illeana Douglas at her best) is introduced to Cheryl (Patsy Kensit), another songwriter whom everyone (including the audience) expects to be a rival; instead, they become best friends.

The Idolmaker is Taylor Hackford’s classic story of a guy who’s got everything except the looks to be a star, so he fashions first his cousin, then a busboy, into prefab teen idols. The music was originally supposed to be done by Phil Spector, but (surprise) he proved unreliable, so Jeff Barry stepped in at the last minute. And if this is how Barry responds to pressure, then he should be given unrealistic deadlines more often. Of the five onscreen numbers, three of them are absolutely fantastic in both musical terms, and as scenes in the story.

It’s interesting that all these movies are, from a contemporary perspective, period pieces, some on purpose (like The Idolmaker) and some, though current at their release, through the passage of time (like Phantom of the Paradise). It seems as if movies about or starring today’s musicians, like most modern pop music itself, has lost its passion.

What musicals about musicians would you add?

Interview: filmmaker Lisa Stock

Posted on by Alex in creativity, faeries, filmmaking, interview, Lisa Stock, movies, pop culture, SyFy, Titania film, writers, writing, writing advice | 3 Comments

When it was announced a few years ago that Joss Whedon would be doing the new Wonder Woman movie, I was of the unpopular opinion that he was dead wrong for it. My main reason was that, in all the shows he’s produced and scripts he’s written, he has yet to show he can write about anything other than boys and girls. Wonder Woman, as her name implies, is a woman: an adult. Whedon’s female characters, from Buffy to River to anyone you care to name, are girls. In my opinion.

Whedon’s take on Wonder Woman didn’t pan out. But ever since, when I’ve watched movies (especially genre ones), I’ve tried to notice if their female characters are actually adults, or stuck in wish-fulfillment girlhood (often those doing the “wishing” are male, but that’s another topic).

Recently my friend artist/filmmaker Lisa Stock (she did the epic trailer to my vampire novel Blood Groove) commented this topic. About her upcoming project Titania, she wrote, “The heroine in Hollywood movies often becomes a warrior, while still maintaining her purity and innocence. It’s unrealistic of course, but a hard balance when movies want their females characters to go all ‘Buffy’ during the big battle at the end of the story. I’m avoiding this in Titania for a number of reasons – first and foremost my heroine is a Woman and not a Girl.”

Filmmaker Lisa Stock

Filmmaker Lisa Stock

Me: So what, in your view, is the difference between a woman and a girl, character-wise? And why is this important?

Lisa: A woman doesn’t need to prove anything.  She’s not figuring things out for the first time, she’s probably tackling them for the 20th time, so not as much surprises her, and she comes to the game with more knowledge of who she is. That doesn’t mean she has nothing to learn, but perhaps she draws more from past lessons and applies them with more focus and confidence.

In genre film and TV, there are few female characters who truly seem like adult women. In fact, only two come quickly to mind: Ripley from Aliens and Alison from Eureka. Who would you hold up as an example of a truly adult (in terms other than chronologically) female genre character?

On TV – I just started watching Continuum on SyFy.  I like Kira.  She’s a woman, seasoned in her career, and not impressed by the young punks. She’s smart, thinks things through and has patience. In film – I think that Vianne (Juliet Binoche) in Chocolat is my favorite character.  She remains true to herself despite being shunned by the townsfolk, and blamed for catering to all their sins. Ultimately, she wins people over by her honesty – a good trait to have.  Though that is more magic realism than high fantasy – my work tends to be more magic realism.  Michelle Pfieffer has created some memorable fantasy characters, Isabeau from Ladyhawke comes to mind – a true lesson in patience and endurance.  And she’s still my favorite Catwoman.  ;)  I love anything Angelica Houston touches, including Vivianne in The Mists of Avalon - which is a very women-centric story. Morgaine (Julianna Marguiles) is also a true woman to me, not so bothered by the small things, but tackling her larger journey.  Particularly, in the end, when she holds on to and recognizes her own beliefs in the “new religion.”  It’s their ability to adapt and at the same time stay true to themselves – rather than force change or boast of victory – that defines these characters as women for me.

How will Titania’s adulthood manifest in your film?

She’s already an adult.  Like some of the characters I’ve mentioned above, she has a journey to complete.  It’s not necessarily going to change who she is, but she’ll call upon all her resources from past experiences and mistakes to overcome her wounds – both physically and emotionally.  She’s more in control of her emotions, she’s more introspective, she also has a good laugh at her own expense occasionally.  Much like Vianne, she’s a fish out of water, and never sees a situation in which she needs to compromise her own beliefs or be swayed by someone else’s.  Not that all girl characters do this – but I find more often than not, that girl’s are up against someone else.  In Titania, she’s pretty much up against herself.  Perhaps that’s the ultimate obstacle we all face, ourselves.  If you figured that out before you were 40, you’re way ahead of me!  LOL! 

What advice do you have for creators, in all forms, about being aware of the difference between a woman and a girl?

Who is your character, not what age demographic is she?  How would you speak to her if you were to meet on the street and start talking? Don’t generalize about either a woman or a girl. The best characters are the ones who are unpredictable and (even in fantasy) facing challenges we can relate to or want to see them succeed in.  That has to come internally even if action is involved. Make them honest and they’ll live forever.

Thanks to Lisa for taking the time to answer my questions. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and check out her website at InByTheEye.

Guest blog: Dale Short on his film Recovering Racist

Posted on by Alex in biography, filmmaking, fundraiser, guest blog, interview, movies, politics, video trailer | 1 Comment

I was honored to be the first contributor to this documentary Kickstarter project, and rather than attempt to convince you myself, I asked acclaimed author Dale Short, one of the people behind the film, to explain where the idea came from and how important it is.  And please check out the video trailer at the end of his article and consider making a contribution.


Dale Short

Dale Short

We like to think of ourselves as rational people, in control of our destiny by judiciously making the decisions our daily lives consist of—each choice as clearly conspicuous as the pair of branching roads in the famous Robert Frost poem.

We can maintain this illusion pretty well until we start thinking back on how many of those significant branchings-off have struck us completely out of the blue, the results of pure chance that we never saw coming.

My own most recent example is a workshop I was asked to teach for an organization of professional writers/bloggers in the Birmingham, Ala. area. The topic was “Interviewing for Story,” and the group’s program chairman had a great idea: Why not invite a guinea pig…uh, guest…the members could interview afterward, to test our newfound skills?

Our guest was the pastor of a local church: a distinguished-looking white-haired gentleman in a business suit. His tone was friendly and approachable, and I settled in to hear whatever was par for the course, from someone of his profession and background.

That’s not what we got.

Rev. Lawton Higgs told us, in a matter-of-fact style, about a day in 1984 when a routine event changed his life: as new pastor of a large metropolitan church, he was always mindful of recruiting new members. One special focus of church growth was seeking out members of the community whose lives were “in transition”…a new neighborhood, a new job.

So when he saw a moving van at an apartment building near his church, he headed over to greet the newcomers. But mid-crosswalk he saw that the new family was black. His church was white. He stood there, emotionally torn.

Higgs “came face-to-face,” he recalls, “with my history, and my experience, and my struggles with all this ‘racial inclusiveness’ stuff, and my encounter with Martin King in seminary, and I was paralyzed there in the road.”

He says he realized that if he didn’t invite the new residents to church, “then God had no use for me and my ministry in Birmingham. I discovered that my beliefs were incompatible with God’s call to love one another.”

That was the day that the pastor became, as he puts it, “a recovering racist.” He’s since worked to found a multi-racial, multi-cultural church in a city still haunted by its civil rights past. He ministers to the homeless, and works daily as an advocate for the poor.

When our group of professional communicators had heard Higgs’ story, the auditorium was silent for a while. The old phrases “You could have heard a pin drop” and “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house” are sometimes overused nowadays, but in that instant they were unavoidable.

Before the day was out, another member of the writers’ group and I started formulating a plan to bring his story to a wider audience by writing and producing a documentary video about his experiences. With that in mind, we’ve just unveiled a fundraising campaign on Kickstarter to bring the project to fruition.

Though Higgs’ life-change as a “recovering racist” is decades old, we’ve found that the story is very much a contemporary one as well. In “walking the walk” of his beliefs, he’s at times a lightning rod for opponents in the community whose views on race and politics are more in keeping with the region’s Jim Crow era.

At a juncture in America’s history when a bitter election campaign has brought to the forefront the deep veins of religious intolerance and racism in our culture, we’re confident that the story of “A Recovering Racist” will be instructive, inspirational, and challenging to everyone who cares about social justice and a spirit of reconciliation.

I invite you to watch our three-minute trailer, share it freely with friends, and consider becoming a supporter of our documentary video.

And if anybody asks how you came to find out about the project, tell them that pure chance sent you.

Film Review: Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County

Posted on by Alex in filmmaking, folk music, Hum and the Shiver, isolation, music, reviews, storytelling, Tufa | 5 Comments

Way back in the early years of this century (being able to say that makes me smile), the spark of the idea that would become the Tufa struck me at the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Also at that festival, I first heard Sheila Kay Adams at one of the midnight sessions, in a huge tent on a warm summer night. So her stories and music, and my fictional Tufa, have always been spiritually, if not literally, entwined.

Sheila Kay Adams

Sheila Kay is a traditional ballad singer, a woman who has dedicated her life to making sure that these old songs survive into the next generation. Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County is a documentary that takes us into her life, and shows how she’s passing on her traditions to the YouTube and iTunes generation. I first mentioned it here, when I interviewed director Kim Dryden during the film’s post-production.

The poster for “Over Home,” designed by Saro, who appears in the film.

You can watch the trailer:


and additional clips can be found here.

Sheila Kay learned these songs the old way, “knee to knee” on front porches from relatives who still gathered to share songs and stories when other more urban families were beginning to turn away from each other, to television, radio and other forms of passive mass communication. “They did not call them ballads,” she says in the film. “They called them love songs. And the gorier they were, the more I liked them. And if they mentioned cutting off heads and kicking them against the wall, I was all over it.” These were songs that came originally from Ireland, Scotland and other Celtic countries, brought with the first settlers and maintained intact among the isolated hills and hollows of Appalachia.

This is old stuff, literally and figuratively, if you’re a fan of my novel The Hum and the Shiver. But unlike my fictional Cloud County, the Madison County of this film is a real place, and the people you see in the film are genuine. Most compelling of the newcomers is sixteen-year-old Sarah Tucker, who bridges the traditional and the modern in a way that gives you real hope for the future of this music (and music in general). The scenery is expansive and beautiful, as are the Smoky Mountains themselves, but the most fascinating landscape of all is Sheila Kay Adams’s face as she talks about how music helped her persevere through personal tragedy.

Over Home is currently making the rounds of film festivals, and hopefully will soon be available on DVD and streaming. If it comes to a festival near you, definitely check it out (and if you have any pull in festival scheduling, I heartily recommend scheduling it).

Witchcraft Through the Ages (of TV and Movies, that is)

Posted on by Alex in Alice Hoffman, Catholic Church, filmmaking, Firefly Witch, movies, Pagan, pop culture, Seventies, short stories, tv, witchcraft | 1 Comment

Elizabeth Montgomery in an early episode of “Bewitched.”

Witchcraft has an iffy history in film and television. When I first started doing my Firefly Witch stories, one thing I reacted against was the standard image of the pop-culture witch. Leaving aside the blatant “wicked witch” portrayals, it’s still hard to find anything remotely accurate, let alone sympathetic. It’s not impossible, though.

One of the earliest films about witchcraft, which unfortunately took the devil-worship position, is the unique Swedish/Danish film Haxan. Retitled Witchcraft Through the Agesin English, this one-of-a-kind 1922 silent film depicts witchcraft the way history describes it, then explains how witches were tortured by the Inquisition. It’s impossible not to be horrified by the treatment of the unfortunate women, and to feel sympathy for them. It’s not really a narrative film, yet it’s not a documentary, either. An indication of its strangeness is that the best-known version in English was narrated by William S. Burroughs.

In 1942, Veronica Lake played the witch Jennifer in the romantic comedy I Married a Witch. In the 1958 movie Bell, Book and Candle, Kim Novack plays Gillian, desperately in love with James Stewart. On TV in the 60s, Samantha Stevens (Elizabeth Montgomery) dominated Bewitched(okay, Agnes Moorehead dominated it, but still…). All these characters, though, labored under the kind of strictures common at the time: Gillian and Jennifer lost their magical powers when they fell in love, and Samantha had promised not to use hers to help her husband’s career.* At the time, witches had to be de-powered to allow the “natural order” to assert itself.

Kim Novak in “Bell, Book and Candle”

These comedies also embraced the common trope that one is “born” a witch; that somehow, the special powers are inherited rather than learned or earned. It’s even possible to read it as saying witches are not actually human, but a different species. But the idea of “innate powers” is a thread that runs through most witchcraft movies, with a couple of notable exception.

In the 70s, one of the most accurate depictions of genuine witchcraft appeared in the seldom-seen George Romero film, “Jack’s Wife (1972). Also released under the more exploitative titles Season of the Witch and Hungry Wives, it’s about a woman who’s drawn into witchcraft as a remedy for the ennui of her suburban life. It’s a blatantly feminist film, and treats the main character’s involvement with magic as empowering. It’s also very much of its time, which means it gets a little arty-for-art’s sake at times.

Jan White in “Jack’s Wife,” enmeshed in the symbolism.

The other notable exception, the character of Willow on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, brought the idea that witchcraft was a learned skill into the popular imagination. Unfortunately, it’s also depicted as something addictive, and an entire story arc was devoted to its detrimental effects on Willow.

The rise of feminism and the idea that women were, I don’t know, actual people capable of doing something other than supporting men changed depictions of witchcraft. The Witches of Eastwick (1987), a pretty dire film from a critical standpoint, did at least show that women supporting each other could defeat even the Devil Himself. The Craft(1997) starts with the idea that outcasts working together can be strong, but then degenerates into standard horror.

My favorite positive depiction of witchcraft is 1998′s Practical Magic. Based (extremely loosely) on Alice Hoffman’s novel, it shows two sets of sisters, younger (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman) and older (Dianne Weist and Stockard Channing), using their powers to protect their family.  I confess that I have a total crush on Sandra Bullock’s character (not, I hasten to add, on Ms. Bullock herself).

Sandra Bullock in “Practical Magic.”

Together, these movies and TV shows present a very distorted view of witchcraft filtered through society’s concerns. That’s fine as far as it goes–witchcraft can be used as a metaphor, just as anything else can be–but to me, it never captured the true (okay, wait for it…) magic of Wicca/Paganism/the Craft. It was never shown as joyous, rarely as empowering, and certainly never as the religion it truly is. When I began writing my Firefly Witch stories, I wanted to put as much of that back as I could and still tell interesting, dramatic horror/fantasy stories.

If you’d like to check them out and decide for yourself how well I did it, go here. And if I’ve missed an important example, please tell me in the comments.

*I reference this show in my short story “The Darren Stevens Club,” in the first Firefly Witch collection.

George Lucas and Elvis: Echoes from 1977

Posted on by Alex in corruption, creativity, criticism, Elvis Presley, fantasy literature, filmmaking, home, movies, music, originality, pop culture, science fiction | 1 Comment

Thirty-five years ago, two things that fundamental changed my life happened in the same summer.

In May, Star Wars was released.

In August, Elvis Presley died.

The arrival of Star Wars turned the thing that everyone in my small town mocked, that had gotten me teased and beaten up, into the hippest thing in the world. Spaceships, aliens and robots were suddenly cool. Everyone went to see the movie, and multiple times, too. I learned a great deal of the dialogue by heart, something my kids have made me promise not to demonstrate when their friends are over. I collected everything I could find about the movie, desperate to understand what made it so awesome. Even then, I knew I wanted to be a creator, not just a consumer. My friends all wanted to be Han Solo or Luke Skywalker, but I wanted to be the next George Lucas.

On the other hand, Elvis was something that was practically in the water. We lived an hour north of Memphis, and so I’d heard Elvis all my life. The album I recall listening to the most (and we’re talking vinyl album here) was 1970′s Elvis in Person at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada. It included live and rather self-mocking versions of his greatest hits, along with covers of the Bee Gees hit, “Words.” Yes, Elvis covered the Bee Gees. He was a fact of life for me, and when he was gone, it created a vacuum that, to this day, occasionally strikes me anew with its poignancy. It’s not that I don’t understand what happened–believe me, I’ve read enough books about him to grasp the tragedy that his life became–it’s that his fall was so immense, and so thorough, and happened so young (he was only 42 when he died) that its full scale takes a long time to be fully appreciated.

As I sit here listening to Elvis (specifically, to the awesome collection Greatest Jukebox Hits, the CD I’d recommend to anyone looking for a one-disc sampler of what made the King so great), I suddenly wondered what George Lucas thought of Elvis’s death back then. Did he glimpse his own future in it? Because except for the drug abuse and dying young, he’s pretty much done the same thing.


Like Elvis, George is financially successful, even now. Elvis packed arenas until the day he died.

Like Elvis, George’s later work is derivative and shallow compared with his earlier breakthrough creations.

Like Elvis, George’s original fans consider themselves betrayed by what he’s become*.

Like Elvis, George refuses to listen to critics. Elvis had manager Tom Parker always preaching the easiest, least challenging path. George was his own Colonel Tom.

Like Elvis, George is willingly insulated from the outside world by his wealth and position of power.

And, the most obvious,

Like Elvis, George has become physically fat and morally complacent.

Both men are legends. Both men changed the world.  But if he’s not careful, George will become as big a punchline, as big a joke, as Elvis (consider the recent Gotye parody).

And both men, ultimately, brought their sad status on themselves.

*This didn’t really happen during his life, true. But once he died, and we began to really assess what he’d given us in those last years, the backlash was, and is, enormous. That’s why fat, Vegas-era Elvis is such an easy punchline. 

Review: Road to Hell

Posted on by Alex in Albert Pyun, Bulletface, Cynthia Curnan, Eddie and the Cruisers, filmmaking, Jim Steinman, Michael Pare, reviews, Road to Hell, Streets of Fire | 3 Comments

There are a lot of film parodies, but not so many films that function as commentaries. Offhand, the best known example might be The Freshman, in which Marlon Brando both spoofs his Godfather persona and simultaneously creates a new, ironic character.

Road to Hell, the new film by Albert Pyun, is a commentary film, in a sense. Michael Pare plays Cody, a riff on Tom Cody, the character he played in Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire. There’s also a pair of characters named Ellen, the original of which was played by Diane Lane in the Hill film. And although the film stands on its own, its fannish shout-outs to the earlier film give it a special sort of resonance to fans.

Not that the films are that similar. Streets of Fire was a big-budget flop, a kind of music-video adventure set in a timeless city that was half 1950s, half 1980s. It celebrated innocence: guns were fired but no blood was spilled, punches and kisses were exchanged but no real damage was done by either. Jim Steinman contributed a couple of his trademark overwrought songs. I loved it, and still do, but I can also see why others wouldn’t: it requires a special mind-set to step into that world and accept its stylizations.

Pare (l) and Kramer.

Road to Hell is like the hallucinations of someone with a fever who’d just watched Streets of Fire and perhaps read too many “true crime” novels. Working against a green screen, Pyun creates a surreal desert landscape in which this version of Cody collides with a spree killer (Clare Kramer, with great demented eyes) and her girlfriend (Courtney Peldon). The heart of the movie takes place in and around a broken-down jeep, where violence is ever-present among the three, although you can’t quite be sure how it will manifest. Cody is waiting for one Ellen, but it’s ultimately the other Ellen he finds.

The actors–it’s essentially a four-hander–are uniformly good. Kramer (a Buffy alum) is totally uninhibited, and Peldon is surprisingly subtle as her sort-of accomplice/girlfriend.

But the real surprises are the veteran Pare and the newcomer Roxy Gunn. Pare, whose career as a leading man never quite took off after his debut in Eddie and the Cruisers, shows every mile on his face as this alternate-universe Cody whose skills as a soldier and killer have become his whole life. I’ve always been a fan of Pare’s, one of those actors who does his best even when the whole film is against him, and here he’s subtle and affecting (as well as shockingly brutal). He shifts with ease from being iconic to pathetic and back.

Pare (l) and Gunn.

Gunn, making her debut, is a real find. In a time when all young actresses tend to blur together into one generic face, she really stands out. An actual musician (that’s her singing, her band The Roxy Gunn Project performing, and she wrote some of the songs), she has a natural ease onscreen that makes every moment seem real. In a movie where the main landscape is faces, she has one that conveys everything her character is thinking and feeling.

So I enjoyed Road to Hell for what it is: a riff on a movie both I and the filmmakers clearly loved, filtered through Pyun’s own unique aesthetic (which you can experience in a purer form in his recent Bulletface). I’m glad Pare got a chance to really chew into a part, and Roxy Gunn’s debut is magical. Will the general public like it? I don’t know. But then, it’s not every movie that includes both disembowelings and rock concerts, severed heads and love ballads. If you enjoy this sort of mash-up, done irony-free and with its own agenda, you’ll probably dig it. I sure did.

You can read my earlier interviews with Road to Hell director Albert Pyun here, and screenwriter/producer Cynthia Curnan here.  Yes, I’ve been looking forward to this movie for a while.

Interview: Filmmaker Sterlin Harjo

Posted on by Alex in filmmaking, interview, writing | Leave a comment

Sterlin Harjo at Sundance in 2007

Sterlin Harjo is an Oklahoma filmmaker with two extraordinary feature films under his belt. His first, Four Sheets to the Wind, is about a young man struggling to connect to the world after the loss of his father; Barking Water tells of two elderly lovers on a last road trip. Both are set against the background of Oklahoma Native Americans (Harjo belongs to the Seminole and Creek Nations), but they’re not special-interest films at all; they’re universal stories about feelings that we all have, against a unique and vivid cultural background.

Here’s the trailer for Four Sheets to the Wind:



One of the things that impressed me about the films was the tightness of the stories; it’s one thing to do a tight script, it’s another to do a tight one that feels loose, the way reality feels loose. Both Harjo’s films seem to have a leisurely pace, presenting the unhurried minutiae of the characters’ lives, but by the end it all matters and it all has weight. It’s also significant that, whether due to budget or aesthetics,  the movies are filled with the look, sounds and locations of real life.

Here’s an example of the kind of realistic detail you won’t find in mainstream commercial cinema.  In Four Sheets to the Wind, a character is awakened by a noise; now, strictly speaking, it could be any noise, from a barking dog to a coffee maker. But Harjo uses a truck’s squealing fan belt. Most mainstream filmmakers would have no idea what this sound even is, let alone what causes it, or what its presence says about the socioeconomic position of the family. It’s a tiny real-life detail that conveys an awful lot in a simple noise.

See the trailer for Barking Water:



Sterlin was kind enough to answer some questions for me about his approach to writing.

AB: Your two feature films have the common story element of people struggling to communicate. In Four Sheets to the Wind, Cufe is desperate for someone to really listen to him, and in Barking Water, Frankie and Irene are trying to repair a lifetime of miscommunication. Why is that theme of such interest to you?

SH: Not sure. There are a couple of themes that I deal with: communication/language and death. They always seem to find there way into my work.

I know you share a cultural background with your films’ subjects; how much of the actual stories also come from real life?

A lot of the characters are based on personalities that Im familiar with. Cufe in Four Sheets is based off my cousin, with a little bit of me in the mix. All the films have scenes or stories that have been adapted from real life. That’s really the only way I can write. That’s why my stories are culturally specific and set in Oklahoma.

One element that gives your films such impact is that, for the most part, everything is underplayed. There’s not a lot of histrionics, which is one reason the climax of Barking Water is so powerful. Do you know it’s going to have that tone from the moment you envision a story, or does it arise out of the material?

I always take the low key route. I just like subtlety. I am always striving to be truthful. I love how older Indians in my family tell stories. It can be about anything… about nothing, but the way they tell it makes it compelling. I love the films of John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch. Very different filmmakers, but neither care much for false reactions or theatrics. Both seem very real, in very different ways.

You mentioned Cassavetes: his films feel like they’re improvised, yet they’re not: pretty much everything is scripted. How do you use improvisation in your films?

I do improv, like Cassevetes, in rehearsal. But most everything is written.

One of my favorite comments about writing comes from screenwriter/director David Koepp, who was urged to eliminate the heavy Chicago accents in his film, Stir of Echoes: paraphrased, he says that the more specific you are with your characters’ reality, the more the audience will see the universal in them. As a reader/viewer, I’ve found that to be true, and I try to embrace it in my own writing. What do you think about that idea, and how does the concept apply to your work?

I agree. I think the more specific you get the more universal your story/film is. I always try to write from the characters perspective. Not the audience perspective. Because if you create a world where people can go into they will get into the film more.

Currently Harjo’s work is regularly featured at This Land, an Oklahoma-based arts project that includes a TV series of short documentaries (I’m partial to Indian Elvis).  I appreciate him stopping by to answer some questions, and look forward to his future work.

Interview: Kim Dryden, co-director of Appalachian film “Over Home”

Posted on by Alex in filmmaking, interview, movies, music | 1 Comment

My introduction to Appalachian culture, which figures so strongly in The Hum and the Shiver, really took place in the late 1990s. Prior to that, I’d looked on the Smoky Mountain region of Tennessee with some of the same distant awe as anyone else. Tennessee is a long, narrow state, and I grew up on the whole other end from the mountains. But in 1998, I first attended the National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. And it was there that I first encountered the work of Sheila Kay Adams, storyteller and ballad singer.

Storyteller and ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams.

Sheila Kay has spent her life performing, and preserving, the ballads she learned sitting knee-to-knee with family and friends in and around Sodom, NC. In many ways she’s the last of her kind. And now filmmakers Kim Dryden and Joe Cornelius have begun work on a film, Over Home: Love Songs from Madison County, chronicling both Sheila Kay’s life and the history of ballad singing in general.

Follow this link for a preview of what they have in mind.

Kim Dryden was kind enough to answer some questions about the project.

Me: In this era of instant communication, what for you is the continued value in the ballads and Sheila Kay’s way of teaching them?

Kim: The ballads are important for several reasons. I think they are stories that are universally relatable, and therefore appeal to a very broad audience. What’s more, while they were originally brought here by Scots-Irish immigrants, I feel they’ve truly become an important part of the American musical heritage, much like jazz. Because of that, they ought to be protected fiercely, not just by those like Sheila who grew up with them as part of their birthright, but by the general public, including universities, museums, etc., as well. That’s part of what we’re trying to do, is get down on record, in visual format, what this tradition is all about. Finally, I think the ballads are most important for the way they bring people together. A big part of what our film explores is the idea of balance between the culture that once nurtured the tradition of ballad singing versus the music itself, and asking what is more highly valued in places like Sodom Laurel. It’s so interesting to me that although the old time way of living is dying out, ballads are still hanging on, even thriving in some ways. I think this is in part because of people like our characters – Sheila, Saro, and Damien – who not only sing these old songs, but work to give them context, a new community in which they matter.

The way Sheila teaches these ballads, knee-to-knee, is very important to that idea of community building. Being face to face with someone, spending time with them in their homes and in their lives, gives such a deeper meaning. I think this method is more important now than ever in this day of instant communication. It takes a really dedicated person to seek out someone like Sheila and put in the sustained effort over weeks, if not months or years, to learn from her in a meaningful way.

I first encountered Sheila Kay as a storyteller. How do you explore that role in the film?

Kim Dryden setting up to interview Sheila Kay Adams.

I also found Sheila first as a storyteller, through the NC Storyteller’s Guild’s website. Ballad singing is so much a part of storytelling. We’ll explore this idea in our film by using the ballads, with emphasis on the lyrics, as a narrative device to transition and set mood/tone. Sheila is, more than anything, I think, a storyteller, both on stage and off. That’s how she communicates with others, and so naturally it’ll come across on film as well.

Which ballad speaks most directly to you? (My personal favorites are “Shady Grove” and “Omie Wise.”)

My personal favorite is “Pretty Saro.” I absolutely love the lyrics, and was so incredibly moved by seeing Cas Wallin sing it on Youtube. It makes me wish I was alive then to see that. I also really like “Over Home,” although that’s a new one.  The lyrics really speak to me, hence the name of our film.

Thanks to Kim for taking the time to talk to me.  You can follow the progress of Over Home at the project’s Facebook page.

Film review: “Dawn of the Dragonslayer”

Posted on by Alex in fantasy literature, filmmaking, movies, reviews, Uncategorized | 16 Comments

First, a digression: the SyFy Channel, much like MTV before it, has done considerable damage to the very thing it first embraced. Now the phrase, “A SyFy Original Movie” elicits the same sort of laughter as Mystery Science Theatre 3000, and for the same reason: you hear it and you know you’re in for a bad movie. And SyFy is content with that: after all, if audiences are laughing, that means they’re watching.  So we now have an entire subgenre, the SyFy movie, with casts either culled from past cult shows or featuring newcomers with the talent of an infomercial audience plant; the same generic Eastern European scenery represents everything from Tennessee to Sherwood Forest; and the scripts…well, they’re as bad as my first drafts (which is pretty bad). And don’t even mention the special effects.  And this is where most of our low-budget, independent fantasy films now come from.

All this makes Dawn of the Dragonslayer, an indie fantasy film directed by Anne B. Black (and not, let me be clear, connected in any way with SyFy), that much more extraordinary and interesting.  It couldn’t have cost much more than most SyFy movies, yet the things that don’t depend on money–talent, the desire to do good work, and belief in the project at hand–nudge it into the realm of real cinema.  It’s low budget, but not low rent.

The story begins when Will Shepherd, a…shepherd, leaves home after a dragon kills his father. He seeks to serve as bondsman to Lord Sterling, with the aim of being elevated to knighthood.  Sterling’s holdings have been devastated by the plague, and only he, his daughter and a few worthless servants remain. Will and Kate Sterling fall in love, a union threatened by class distinctions, a vile rival knight and the reappearance of the dragon.

Kate (Nicola Posener) and Will (Richard McWilliams)

To be fair, there’s a certain dourness to the film that prevents it from being as much fun as it might.  But it gets so many other things right, especially compared to what’s normally found in indie fantasy films, that it’s easy to overlook this.  The film was shot on the west coast of Ireland, and thus has an unexpected scenic beauty.  The acting, especially from leads Richard McWilliams and Nicola Posener, is solid and at times inspired. Further, while both are attractive, they also look suited to the story’s time and place (no pouty false lips on her, no gym-rat abs on him). The lack of scale–a cast of less than a dozen and virtually a single setting–is used to the story’s advantage, not as something to be ignored with a cynical wink and nudge.  And Panu Aaltio’s music is lush and romantic.

I did a lot of research on dragons for my own dragon novel, Burn Me Deadly, so I appreciate them when they’re well-done and get probably too annoyed for my own good when they’re bad.  This dragon, for the most part, is pretty good.  Most importantly it seems an organic part of the film’s world, visible through the mist in the distance or just behind the clouds, blending in or flitting out of sight.  At the climax we get our first good look at it, and while it’s a little over-designed, it never loses that sense of belonging to this time and place.  There’s a brilliant shot of it lying dead* on the rocks, waves crashing around it.

The dragon itself.

My only real criticism is the dearth of humor.  Will is a serious young hero, and the film takes its cue from him; a lighter touch might’ve made the film move faster. And I must say I prefer the original title, Paladin, to its rather generic replacement.

Still, from the first epic shot of Ireland’s coast to the final romantic image, it’s clear that real love and attention was put into Dawn of the Dragonslayer.  There’s a film here bigger than its budget, and I hope it finds an audience.

Watch for an interview with director Anne B. Black and producer Kynan Griffin, appearing here soon.

*Come on, that’s not a spoiler; the film has Dragonslayer in the title and you expect a dragon not to be slain?