Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


The Kind of Stuff that Happens When You Leave New York (Part One)
Or
I Drove All the Way to Maine and Back and All I Got Was This Lousy Radiator


I had an idea.


This happens, from time to time. More often than not, I don't do anything about it -- I've got places to go, things to do, New Yorkers to read, blogs and screenplays not to write, laundry to fold, even jobs, occasionally, like, for money. Plus, like all imaginative but lazy and self-critical people (you know who you are), after a few days of thinking about my new ideas, I tend to decide that they really suck, or at least aren't worth the effort, and I'd much rather be watching all of the DVD extras from whatever Netflick I happen to have out that week -- say, the casting sessions from "Junebug," or all of "Breakfast on Pluto" for the second time, with commentary. DVD extras: great procrastination tools.

But this time, I actually decided that the idea did not suck. But it was a documentary idea, and I needed help. In general, when it comes to production, I prefer collaborating, having somebody else around to bounce ideas off of, make decisions with -- yes, I know this might be hard to believe for those of you who read what I tend to write about other members of the human race, but I actually like working with other people. When they don't get on my nerves. Plus, I knew I could direct and do sound on this project if need be, but I probably couldn't shoot at the same time -- not to mention that I'm not as familiar with those fancy DV/HD camera thingies as I ought to be. Also, I didn't actually have one.

Then I remembered that I knew someone who did. She was a friend of a friend named Lauren who I'd met at a birthday party. We'd ridden the train home together afterwards, which meant that 1) we could stand to talk to each other for a good 45 minutes, and 2) she lived in Brooklyn, which is always a plus in my book, 'cause Brooklyn rules.

So I called her up and I said, "I have this documentary idea and I'm looking for someone to partner on it…"
"Huh, that sounds really interesting," she said.
"But we have to start shooting in Maine in about a week and a half."
And oddly enough, instead of saying, "I don't know you and you're insane," she said, "You know, I think there might be a hole in my schedule."

And that was how it started.

Now, here's the DISCLAIMER:
You may have figured out by now that for various reasons both personal and professional, I can't tell you what exactly the film's about. I hope you'll understand and forgive me for this. If you can't and you find it incredibly annoying to read on without getting those details, like hearing a joke without a punchline -- and I can sympathize with that -- you'll just have to avoid this blog for the next couple of installments. Hopefully some day when this is all over, you'll get the full low-down, but for now, all I can say is that anonymity blows.

Anyway. We had to get to Maine. We thought about flying, but considering it was so close to the date and we didn't think we'd have much luck with our Plan A of trying to convince Jet Blue to be our sponsors (although we haven't entirely given up on this idea yet, so if you happen to be listening, Jet Blue, call us), we decided on Plan B of hopping -- to the extent that one can "hop" with two pieces of luggage and seven cases of equipment -- into my '96 Toyota Camry, hittin' the BQE and making our way from there up to Vacationland. Breaking up the trip with one night in New Haven, where we stayed at my friend Ann's house and drank her beer, we arrived in Portland the next day in time for lunch at Becky's Diner.

Becky's is a real local's place. It's on the industrial outskirts of town, surrounded by construction contractors and fishing boat repair, and the waitresses talk to you like they know you, but don't necessarily like you. Becky's is also the kind of place where there's no real parking, so everybody blocks everybody else in, and then they go around bellowing your car description throughout the restaurant to track you down when somebody you blocked in needs to leave. But I was lucky in that this gave me the opportunity to relieve my paranoia, because we were violating Rule #1 of the New York Filmmaker Handbook: never leave the equipment in the car.

But there is always a point in any trip outside of the of the city -- it could be the view from the plane, where you see verdant greenery instead of a vista of skyscrapers and urban sprawl; it could be when the doors of your plane open on the tarmac and you step out and the smell and heavy humidity of a thicker, completely different kind of air hits you; it could be when you hear your first voice speaking a foreign language -- and realize it's every voice except yours. Whatever it is, it's the beginning of realizing that you are not in New York any more, you are Some Place Else, and all the rules are different.

On this particular trip, it was probably that voice yelling, in a full-on Maine accent, "Who's got the Toyota Camreh out theh?"

Or it might have been when we pulled into our eventual destination in Augusta and found ourselves face-to-artillery gun with a tank. At which point I was really glad that the second thing I had done at Becky's was remove the "Republicans for Voldemort" bumpersticker from my car. For those of you who have never seen one up close and personal, a tank is much, much bigger and more disturbing than you probably imagine. Suffice to say, being in front of one gives you entirely new respect for that guy in Tiananmen Square, who, you will suddenly and deeply understand, really really wanted to pee in his pants and run away. And this was a small tank, the Cooper Mini of tanks. And it still scared the shit out of us. So, of course, we filmed it. And then we ran away.

One of the great things about making a documentary is that you get to go to places you wouldn't normally go to. Like Caribou, Maine. When given directions there by our friends in Augusta, we were told a few things:

"If you don't turn left at Houlton and go through Presque Isle [pronounced "Preskile," which was a minor source of confusion], you'll be in Canada."
And also, several times,
"That is way the hell out there."
And
"Be sure to watch out for moose."

We did, indeed, see many signs for moose crossing, but no moose. Or caribou. Still, you never know quite what you're going to find when you drive 3 hours out of the big city, particularly when the big city is Bangor. But what we mainly found were some incredibly good people. This is the second great thing about making a documentary: meeting the people you wouldn't normally meet. I have never in my life before been tempted to use the term "salt of the earth," but there is really no other way to describe the Mainers -- and they were so Maine -- who were willing to let two total strangers come into their homes and sit down and talk with us for two or three hours on camera, despite having running, screaming children in the house or places to go and things to do, actually important ones that have nothing to do with DVD extras -- and then offer us a ride on their boat afterwards. Which we would have loved, had we not been concerned about getting back to Bangor in time to make it to the one restaurant that we knew would be open past nine: The Ground Round.

Eating is one of the unexpectedly tough things about going outside of your major metropolitan areas. Particularly when one of you is vegan -- although having traveled to many places where to be a strict vegan is to starve, Lauren has adopted something of a don't ask don't tell policy. I myself try, in general, to avoid anything extremely fried, unhealthy or just generally nasty, all of which can be difficult to explain to folks who work in places where the words on the menu, "with real bacon bits," are a source of pride. We'd end up having a lot of conversations with servers like:

"So the grilled chicken salad, does that have cheese on it?" (I know this might sound like a strange question but in most of America, or at least the parts dominated by strip malls and chain restaurants, which is most of America, everything comes with cheese on it).
"Yes."
"Could you make it without the cheese?"
"Sure. What kind of dressing would you like? We have blue cheese, French, Thousand Island --"
"Do you have some kind of vinaigrette?"
"We have a raspberry vinaigrette, and a low-fat Italian."
"Um, okay, I'll take the Italian." (Oh yeah, another issue I have is I don't like mixing fruity with savory -- chicken with raspberry glaze, salmon with mango salsa, I hate that shit).
"And what would you like, Ma'am?"
"I know this is going to sound strange, but could I have the chicken burrito, but without the chicken, or the cheese, or the sour cream."
"So just the beans and the rice."
"Exactly."
But believe it or not, the Ground Round in Bangor, Maine was the kind of place where they would then ask, "Would you like us to substitute broccoli instead of the chicken?"
"Wow, really? Could you do that?"
"I'll ask the chef but he won't mind. He's got nothing better to do."

The food was still bland and overcooked, but if all you've had for eight hours has been a bottle of water and a Luna bar, and you wash it down with two glasses of cheap red wine, you don't mind so much.

But then you still have to go spend the night in your Super 8 Motel. This is one of the not-so-nice things about making a documentary, at least one on our present budget of $just-spend-as-little-as-possible.00. Although, I have to say, the Super 8 Motels in Maine were probably among the best budget hotels I've ever been in. They were all clean, when they said non-smoking they actually meant non-smoking as opposed to just non-smoking today, had free wi-fi (if of the one or two bar variety) and free breakfast (of the donuts and instant oatmeal variety). When the Super 8 was full on Saturday night and we had to move across the parking lot to the Travelodge, we were decidedly underwhelmed. Although the wi-fi was better. In fact, we might have been using their wi-fi all along. Still, that night we did make it back to Bangor in time to find an excellent Thai restaurant -- one thing you start to do when traveling with a vegan: you keep your eyes open for a good Thai restaurant -- so we made it back to the Travelodge full.

And with terrific footage. Aside from the nice people and the bad food, there is one other special thing in small-town America that you can't really find the equal of anywhere else: a small-town parade. We found one in Lincoln, Maine, and it was packed with the kind of extreme Americana that most people only dream about: bandstands of veterans singing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," bored teenaged baton twirlers, tiny girls in halter tops and high heels beside tiny boys with mullets, Shriners driving around in go-carts, and American flags as far as the eye could see. Parades are a filmmaker's paradise. Even if it has nothing to do with your film, you find a way to cut that stuff in. (Luckily, it does have something to do with ours. That much I can tell you).

All in all, we were very happy and everything went off without a hitch. Until we hit traffic in Connecticut on the drive home. And I suddenly noticed that the car appeared to be smoking slightly. And that the temperature gage had, at some point while we were swapping life stories as one does on an nine-hour car ride, gone all the way up to the red area with the little "H." As you might guess, I don't know all that much about cars, but I knew that this was my cue to get off at the next exit.

Another thing about small-town America, which, for those of you who haven't been there lately, parts of Connecticut definitely still are: nearly everything is closed on Sundays.

"Mm, there's no mechanic open today," said the older lady working at the nearest gas station. "Have to be tomorrow."
"My husband knows a lot about cars," said the younger one. She looked about 16. "I could call him."
"Wow, could you?" I asked. "Is he around?"
She whipped out her cell phone. "He's supposed to be home watching my kids." She dialed. "Hey, Jason, where's Daddy? Well, could you go get him? Just go get him, will ya? I'm not kidding, will ya just -- Will ya just go get him for me please? Where's your sister?" This went on for a bit, during which I tried to interest myself in the candy selection, then she finally hung up. "He's gonna call me back."

Meanwhile, Lauren was filling the car engine with pretty much every fluid we could think to buy at the mini-mart. Nothing seemed to help. Every time we started the car, the thing pinned right back up at "H." We just stood there, staring under the hood like the two not-particularly-girly-but-definitely-automobile- ignorant chicks we are, until a red pick-up truck pulled in next to us. A guy with longish grey hair, a kind of stringy build and a slightly dubious smile got out.

"Got car trouble?" he said.
We gave him the details.
"Hmm," he said. "Mind if I take a look?" He inspected the engine. "You probably got a leak in your radiator. What you could get is some radiator sealant, pour it in there, that'll help you out."

The three of us went inside to look for this wonder product. "Doesn't look like they have it," said Bill -- by now we were all on a first name basis. "But there's another gas station across the way that might, I could drive one of you over there to look for it."

Lauren and I looked at each other, then back at Bill: good Samaritan or serial killer?

"She can vouch for me," he said, pointing his chin at the older gas station lady and grinning. "Right, Irma?"
"Well, I dunno," said Irma. But she was kidding. We thought.

Lauren volunteered to go with Bill. I snapped into producer mode and started making phone calls -- local hotels, AAA. I found out that as an Automobile Club Premier Member, they would tow me 100 miles for free. I pulled out our trusty atlas and using the always accurate measure of my finger against the mileage scale -- the first knuckle was ten miles, the next one 20 -- determined that we were definitely farther from home than that.

Lauren, meanwhile, was getting Bill's entire life story. How he'd been in the service during the Gulf War; how his wife had a drinking problem and he "was ready to stick the 'For Sale' sign on the lawn," but was worried about what it would do to his 15-year-old son; how he kept his truck in perfect condition, as he would later show the two of us while we waited for the radiator sealant to work its magic. We were impressed. We believed in Bill.

After we started the engine again and the bubbles stopped coming out of the constellation of tiny holes he'd pointed out to us in the radiator, the temperature gage held in its normal spot. We thanked Bill profusely.

"You'll have to get a new radiator," he said, "but that oughta at least get you home."

It got us about another 30 miles. Then we noticed that the temperature needle had started to creep up again. We pulled into a rest area and opened the hood, and were immediately engulfed in a cloud of steam.

"Oh my God," said Lauren.
"Shit," I said. "Guess I better call Triple A."
"Oh my God," said Lauren. She just couldn't stop staring at the radiator, which was spraying water like the Trevi Fountain. "I've just never seen anything like that before."

We had plenty of time to capture the moment in cell phone photos (like the one above) before our tow truck arrived around midnight, driven by a young man named Mike. He was in his early 20s, with a mustache that was supposed to make him look older and failing miserably. We watched him hook the poor Camry and hoist it up on its hind wheels.

"Where we going?"
"Brooklyn."
"Guess you two'll be riding in the cab with me."

Something that we were soon to find out in greater depth in our travels is that there are a lot of lonely people who work the night shift. Mike was one of them. It started (as it usually does) with, "Where you girls from?" We asked him the same, and then, being documentarians, started in on the follow-up questions, which soon took us into uncharted territory.

"We met in a chat room. It was totally weird, she was like, 'Your name's Mike and you're from Vernon? I used to be your babysitter!' She's in a bad marriage, says he's really mean to her. She's coming up to stay with me next week. I'm a little nervous because I live with my brother and his girlfriend and her kid, and they're total pigs. I'm the only one who ever cleans up around there…"

At some point, possibly when Lauren was nodding off (sadly I can only sleep when horizontal), I found out about his father's recent death, and how he wanted to join the police academy.

"Aren't you worried about the dangerous part of being a cop?"
"Everything's dangerous. This job's dangerous. I knew a tow truck guy who got killed last week, hitching up a car. Car came by and swiped him and he was just gone."

The man definitely had a dark side. Although then we spent the next half an hour talking about his favorite hobby: country line dancing.


Around 2 a.m., we arrived in front of my apartment. Mike released my car, I signed something, and he started to walk away.

"Hey, wait," I said, "That's it? Don't I owe you anything?"
"Nope," he said. "It was 98 miles."

Somehow, 17 hours after our day began, Lauren and I managed to laugh, jump up and down and cheer, simultaneously. Mike looked happy for the first time all night. We tipped him, he told us to have a good one and rolled off back toward the BQE, hoping to get to bed before dawn.

And that was the end of the beginning.

7 Comments:

Anonymous oneofhismoms said...

As usual...ever-so entertaining and well-written. I especially liked the part about the tank.

10:17 PM

 
Anonymous Bill said...

Great to hear you're working on a documentary and I look forward to hearing what it's about and even more forward to seeing it!

I'm from a small town in the Midwest and when my wife and I go home to visit I always say -- and she's getting very tired of hearing -- "Welcome to REAL America!"

"Salt of the earth" really can apply to such people, but as your tow truck driving friend can attest, it can also be a very depressed (and depressing) environment with little sense that other possibilities exist for the course of your life.

My particular gene pool is very much like your temporary radiator patcher's ... in fact, if you want a funny and scary glimpse at my bloodline, here is a 5 minute little "doc" I did of a trip I took with my Dad and 3 uncles back in 1995:

http://www.catfishstudios.com/video/paceboys.mp4

Looking forward to the next installment!

11:23 AM

 
Blogger Da Nator said...

What and adventure! Now that's the spice of life. Can't wait to read more.

BTW, I know what you mean about small town USA. I went with my mother to a small town Harvest Festival in Jersey a couple weeks ago and just had to take photos of all the Norman Rockwell-y scenes. (Not that I'll ever have time to Photoshop them as I like and put them online.)

Do you get the same feeling I do at those sort of things? "This is so cute and quaint and fun... and I'm simultaneously charmed and a little freaked out by it."

It could be just because I'm a big ol' queer. I keep feeling like people see I'm different, and are thinking "watch that weirdo around the kids"...

11:47 AM

 
Blogger Jen said...

When my college boyfriend and I camped up north of Bangor, his Toyota broke down and everyone there said they wouldn't fix a "Jap car." Finally, one woman at a diner-type place said her husband might fix it because he was "a real [N-word] Rigger."

There's two sides to those salt of the earth people.

Nevertheless, I am really looking forward to learning more about your documentary!

7:18 PM

 
Anonymous Kris said...

As someone from Maine I am pleased (and surprised) by your pleasant experience in what I have always found to be a pretty xenophobic place. My own family considers me mentally unstable for living out of state and IN A CITY. That said, looking forward to the further adventures. And Presque Isle is way up there.

8:49 PM

 
Blogger BTL said...

Hmm, this is an interesting discussion...

Look, you all know that I am the ultimate dyed-a-deep-shade-of-blue-state liberal. And having once driven cross-country as part of a group in which I was the token caucasian, I know that I'm getting a reception as a straight white chick that other people might not. But it's amazing what you find out when you give your assumptions a rest.

12:23 AM

 
Blogger Andy Mooers said...

Glad you made to Maine and back. Like the catholics say, You Can Always Come Home (To Maine) Again.

11:22 AM

 

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