Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

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Paul James Vasquez 1954-2010

March 27, 2010

I met Paul James Vasquez when I was 16 years old.

I came to Dayton, Ohio’s Colonel White High School for the Performing Arts in the Winter of 1990, as a mid-year transfer from Atlanta. Colonel White had a unique artist-in-residence magnet program, which employed professionals in performing and visual arts, teaching their respective disciplines to children of promise from all over the greater Dayton area.

I came to Colonel White to study music, but the guidance counselor suggested I meet with the theater teacher, because she had ‘a feeling’ we’d get along.

I took the guidance counselor’s advice and walked over to the theater department to meet the teacher. When I entered the class room, I was broadsided by a chaotic crush of young thespians bustling around a 6’2″ tall man with long hair, a long beard, and a beret, dressed entirely in black, named Paul James Vasquez. In my 16 year old mind, I fully expected a thick French accent to come out of his mouth when he spoke. Sometimes a beret is just a beret. He was from New Jersey.

After class, my parents and I met Paul, along with his then wife Monica, and their infant daughter Victoria. After chatting for a half hour, Paul invited me into the theater magnet with no audition. When I asked if he was sure I could handle such a thing with no acting experience, he shrugged, pointed to my music background and said, ‘If you know one art, you know them all.’

A young Paul James Vasquez as “Gang Leader” bullies a vision-impaired Rutger Hauer in this 1980s b-movie classic, Blind Fury

On my first day of school, Paul invited me and group of other students, back to his house after school to help him with a radio play he and his friend were producing based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Mask of the Red Death. They needed background voices for the crowd scenes.

I followed everyone back to Paul’s modest rental house down the street from school, making some new friends along the way. When we arrived at Paul’s place, I saw there was a Gibson 335 guitar leaning by his kitchen table. I asked if he minded if I play it for a few minutes.

According to Paul’s account of this event, years later, “… this fucking teenage brat comes into my kitchen, picks up my guitar, and proceeds to play circles around me…”. While I don’t remember playing circles around anyone, I do remember that Paul told me I should be playing Jazz, which I committed to learning shortly thereafter.

Paul was a guy that had a story or experience for every situation. As teenagers, we were always making declarative statements about this or that, and it seemed Paul was always there with a well-reasoned argument to the contrary. In retrospect, I think it wasn’t to make us think we were wrong, but rather to make sure we were always thinking. In class, he would engage anyone on any subject. For many of us, Paul’s class was the first safe place in our lives to have that level of open dialogue.

Paul believed in the value of elitism in the arts; that the work should always come first. He believed in the critical mind, and encouraged us to challenge conventions and ideas in our education and in our lives.

Paul left Colonel White in my junior year, moving his family to Texas. I stayed in touch with him over the years, updating him on my adventures in music, and would send him manuscripts of short stories and screenplays I wrote for fun. He was always encouraging me to read books and plays and explore as much literature as possible to inform my writing, rather than telling me what I need to work on or develop.

In 1993, Paul told me about The University of North Texas, which had an internationally recognized Jazz Studies program. He spoke of the amazing musicians he had met from that school and suggested I check it out. Within a few months, I won a performance scholarship to UNT, and was visiting Paul in Texas while making arrangements to attend.

I spent eight years in and out of Texas, attending college, playing music, and eventually teaching. Throughout that time, and as long as I knew him, Paul precipitated a great deal of trouble in his personal life. Even during Paul’s most difficult times, he always took an interest in my music, my written work, and my life.

In the late nineties, I started recording scored spoken word narratives based on my short stories. I remember meeting Paul in Dallas to play him the first of these experiments, and how excited he was to hear it. His critical suggestions helped shape what would become hour-long live scored monologues I wrote and performed with my band.

I moved to New York in 2001, to continue my music career. It was during this time I expanded my writing to full length novels. Music performance as a career began to fade for me. I wanted to do more, but didn’t know exactly what or how.

Later that year, I sent Paul a manuscript for a novel called The Local. Paul told me it was a pretty good book, but would make a better film.

In 2003, Paul moved to New York. I had started work on a screenplay called The Interventionist, and asked Paul to give me critical feedback and any ideas he might have. He loved the script, and was very happy to be involved in a creative project at that time in his life.

The Interventionist was optioned, and we began working with a group of producers to get the film made. I would direct and Paul would act in one of the principal roles.

During the ever-long development process, I produced a small feature called Vicissitude, starring myself and Paul. Vicissitude was a simple story, with elements from Interventionist and The Local. It was Paul’s first onscreen performance since the unfortunate Neurotic Cabaret. We had a great time making Vicissitude, and everyone was surprised (including us), that we were able to make something good with so little money or filmmaking experience. It was extremely empowering to know that our combined creative talents and skills, could see us through something so big with relative ease.

Paul James Vasquez plays “Teddy Bear” in this trailer for 2005’s Vicissitude


Even with Vicissitude in the can, The Interventionist was dying on the vine. Things were taking too long, and we were losing talent and resources. Not wanting to let momentum dwindle, Paul and I decided to make our 2006 feature JailCity. In creating JailCity, Paul and I collaborated on the characters, story and script. Paul ran the casting, as well as work-shopping the performances with the actors ahead of production. Paul also played Hector Ramos, Sr – one of the leads in JailCity.

At the end of 2006, JailCity won Best Picture at the New York/Avignon Film Festival.

Paul James Vasquez plays “Hector Ramos, Sr”, an old hood trying to save his grieving son (Nick Bixby) from mixing it up with the wrong people JailCity (2006)


In 2007, we produced The Local, based on my novel of the same name. Paul was originally going to play the part of Big Black, a murderous small-time druglord, but we decided at the last minute to give him the part of Joe, a well-meaning, but impatient ex-cop helping his friend recover his runaway daughter. We agreed that Paul could bring something special to the role of Joe, and it would be nice for him to play a part less thuggish for a change.

The Local was released in North America in October of 2009, and is currently available on DVD and online all over the world.

Paul James Vasquez, David F Nighbert, and Dan Eberle have it out under the bridge in The Local (2008)


Prayer to a Vengeful God (2010)

Paul James Vasquez in Prayer to a Vengeful God

Paul was always up for experimenting and pushing boundaries. In 2009, we went into production on Prayer to a Vengeful God, a feature-length contemporary drama, presented entirely without dialogue. Paul played The Transient, a formidable homeless man with a mysterious past. In my opinion, Paul’s performance in Prayer to a Vengeful God is a masterclass in screen acting. I know that he felt it was the best work he’d ever done on screen.

Throughout production of Vengeful, Paul was not feeling well. He suffered from severe shortness of breath, physical lag and discomfort. Paul’s role had extreme physical demands, including a sequence of seven fights which would be filmed over two brief shoot days.

We were all concerned for Paul’s health during the shoot. He repeatedly played it off as being old and out of shape, but ‘fine’. He soldiered through, and gave a fully committed and masterful performance throughout filming.

Soon after Paul’s scenes were wrapped, he called me to make sure I wouldn’t need him for any additional shooting. He and his partner Mariann knew something was wrong and were going to get him looked at. Soon after this conversation, Paul checked himself into the hospital. The doctors discovered he was in the advanced stages of kidney cancer. A condition from which he would not recover.

In the coming months, we completed the first major phases of post-production on Prayer to a Vengeful God. Paul was extremely proud of the film, and desperately wanted to share the achievement with his friends and family. On March 18th, I delivered the final cut of Vengeful to Paul’s hospital room in the ICU. He forced his loved ones to watch it with him many times over.

Paul died on Friday, March 26th. He was 56 years old. Our final film together, Prayer to a Vengeful God, will be released in the Fall of 2010.

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Optimism vs “Everything is Shit”

January 11, 2010

This Christmas, someone gave me a DVD called The Secret. I had never heard of it before then, but later learned it was a huge self-help juggernaut book/movie combo that made a popular holiday gift a few years back, particularly from mothers.

The Secret
The Secret posits a formula for material success in life, based on the scientific Law of Attraction.

I would describe the movie as part conspiracy film, and part get-rich-quick infomercial, slathered in motivational self-help rhetoric. It’s jam-packed full of re-enactments, often by fake historic figures, conspiring to keep The Secret, well, secret, so that only the powerful few can prosper, while the rest of humanity languishes in their miserable, unwealthy, yacht-less existences.

According to The Secret, if you visualize the material things you want, you will refocus your brain from the negative scourges of life (debt, your period, your face, your neighbor’s face), to the positive elements you wish you had (mansion, private plane, big TV, etc).

[above] What I thought this was a spoof of The Secret, turns out to be the trailer. Enjoy.

The Secret recommends supplementing your merchandise-centric thinking with something called a Vision Board, a kind of bulletin board of goodies that you spend a designated period of time per day staring at. By literally focusing your eyeballs on the yacht on your Vision Board, over time, you ingrain the presence of that object in your mind (I want the yacht, I want the yacht…) and by doing so, you turn yourself into a cosmic yacht magnet. Thanks to The Law of Attraction you are on an unstoppable collision course with the boat of your dreams!

Vision Board

Vision Board

I had fun watching this The Secret and while it didn’t turn me into a Secret practitioner, it did get me thinking about positive thinking, the impact its had on my work, and how easy it is to forget or dismiss its importance. Thinking positive hasn’t gotten me any yachts so far, but it’s definitely put me on a collision course with getting some movies made, which is pretty much the most important thing in my life.

Culture of Optimism
It used to be that the costs of making a film were prohibitive to all but studios, independents with wealthy friends, or the extremely ingenious among us. Now days, things are different. Because of the digital revolution, particularly the advent of 24p video, and increasing proliferation of low-cost HD acquisition, pretty much anyone with a few thousand bucks can make an indie movie if they want to.

With all the advancements in movie making technology, the one thing that hasn’t changed is that it still takes skill to make a movie anyone wants to watch. The quality of any movie is dictated entirely by the creativity and skills (or lack thereof) the filmmakers bring to the show. The fewer resources available, the more skill and creativity it takes to accomplish the mission.

Independent filmmaking is lousy with pushback: financial, institutional, municipal, personal, you name it. We can also assume most people making indies don’t, strictly speaking, “know how” to make a movie. So if an independent filmmaker doesn’t exactly know how to make a movie, and doesn’t have much money to hire people to help them, how the hell does the movie get done, let alone be watchable?

Creating any work of art starts with a strong affirmation that it will happen which is, by definition, positive thinking. In a big group project like film, the initial affirmation (re: this is going to happen) has to be powerful and unwavering. This will keep morale high and will bring forward the qualified and experienced personnel needed to get the thing done well.

The logic on this is obvious: Why would a seasoned cinematographer want to work with a less experienced producer or director that is totally down on themselves? Answer: They wouldn’t – and neither would you. It’s no secret that depressives are a drag, which is why they are not carried around on the shoulders of cheering crowds.

Skilled production people have better things to do than provide therapy sessions for the emotionally needy, especially in low/no-pay situations. It is up to you, the leader, to be strong and believe. Your strength and idealism has the power to bring forth everyone and everything you need to make your film happen. Simply establishing a forward-moving, can-do environment in a creative context can make even the most overqualified film practitioner excited to be a part of your project.

Production, Inc.
Many people roll their eyes when they hear terms like ‘corporate culture’. When I talk about corporate culture, I’m not talking about guys in blue buttondowns sitting around conference rooms drinking expensive coffee and saying phrases like “low hanging fruit”. What I’m talking about is any organized group of people that work together, and the behaviors and beliefs therein.

A film production is essentially a corporation. It has layers of bureaucracy that divide up the work in a tactical way to maintain a proper chain of productivity. The culture of that corporation is defined entirely by the standards set by leadership, in terms of the code of conduct, the rate of productivity, and an adherence to a defined, uniform standard of quality.

Setting a cultural standard is leadership. Lead by example, set a standard of affirmative fixation, and things start happening.

Going Negative: Don’t.
Anecdotally speaking, those who fixate on the difficulties of a task, don’t usually complete said task. Even if they do manage to power through, the results of their efforts are usually not excellent. Why? Because starting from a negative place corrupts the purity of the effort.

As a producer, starting from a negative will get you nowhere. Unless there’s a lot of money involved, a negative attitude will stop cold anyone from getting involved. Going negative during a work in progress plants seeds of doubt in the fortitude of your project, its leadership, and will weaken the resolve of even your most loyal followers.

Conversely, maintaining a positive attitude and focusing in on the things that are good, that do work, and the things you do have going for you, opens up avenues of opportunity you didn’t know existed. Why? Because the people around you are not repelled by your shitty attitude. In fact, they might just be inspired. The more inspired people you have around, the more people that can contribute, and open doors for you. I’m not just talking about more people to carry heavy stuff around, I’m talking about people who know other people, have stuff, have money, have time, and have a desire to participate in something inspiring.

On an independent film set, three inspired people can work miracles together. On the other hand, 25 people that don’t care and don’t want to be there will just eat all the food and leave. Not that helpful.

Sitting on a stump whining turns difficulties into impossibilities. Standing up and saying I’m doing this, brings an entire universe of possibilities into focus that you couldn’t see before because your thinking was corrupted with too many nos.

Reality
Things do not always go well, and sometimes no amount of positive thinking can help it. I don’t dispute reality. People go broke, people get sick, buildings collapse, riots break out, Acts of God take thousands of lives at once. All of these things impact our lives and our creative endeavors. It’s no excuse not to make art until you’re dead. To do that, you’ll need to believe in yourself and what you’re doing. If what you’re doing involves other people, you need to believe for them, and then they will believe too. Then, what is simply a belief, becomes a reality.

It helps to remember that our ancestors had it a hell of a lot worse than we do, and still managed to make some pretty damn good art – often under truly oppressive circumstances. How did they do it? They had faith in their vision, faith in their skill, and faith in their ability to acquire the skill necessary to accomplish the work.

Conclusion
Whether you’re making a movie, or a dog house, nothing ever goes as planned. You can look at this fact as a looming nightmare scenario, or as an opportunity to create solutions. I say acknowledge your obstacles and attack them with glee. Be enthusiastic and affirmative about what you’re doing at all times; demand it to happen – with or without a vision board.

Focusing on all the things you don’t have/can’t do/don’t know how to do is no way to get anything done – in film or otherwise. Nobody wants to hear excuses, and nobody likes a naysayer (except maybe another naysayer). What’s worse, is that negative energy will spread through your film company like crabs. Ask anyone that’s ever worked anywhere – once people get into a negative headspace, nobody wants to do anything but complain, leave, or both.

Resolve to acquire the skills, material, and personnel you need to get the work done to the best standard possible. Keep a positive attitude at every turn, no matter what obstructions come before you. Your poise and optimism will inspire the people around you to do the same, and your team will be an unstoppable force.

And buy my book, Muscles in Minutes.


Important Post Script: Fire negative people immediately. They will only screw up your production.

The independent film struggle is rife universal pushback: financial, institutional, municipal, personal, you name it. We can also assume most people making indies don’t, strictly speaking, “know how” to make a movie. So if an independent filmmaker doesn’t exactly know how to make a movie, and doesn’t have much money to hire people to help them, how the hell does anything get done?