Film shoot: The New Big Shot

“Can you find my thumb?” Nancy MacLaren asked me.
Nancy — one of the actors in a short film called The New Big Shot being shot in Portland, Oregon — was referring to the red, stick-on fingernail she’d dropped in the dark.
She and I were taking part in the 24 Hour Film Race 2013.
The international competition invites filmmakers to create the best four-minute film they can in 24 hours. The winners take home some money and camera equipment but I was there for another reason — to get outside my writer box. I wanted to find out how cinematographers, directors, and actors work.
During the film shoot I functioned as an associate producer because I chipped in the grand sum of $13 as part of the contest entry free. It was the first film shoot I’d taken part in. In addition to me, the crew included:
  • Aaron Nelson (cinematographer, editor)
  • Rosalind Malin (producer/writer/director)
  • Mark Lysgaard (writer/director/actor)
  • Audi Bixel (assistant director)
  • John Gamboa (actor)
  • Colin Keating (actor)
  • Peter Field (actor)
  • Diane Kay (actor)
  • Mitch Rofsky (actor)
  • Nancy MacLaren (actor)
  • CT Pantugo (art department)
  • Margo Logan (associate producer)
  • Alarie Lopez (boom boy)
Earlier that evening, before Nancy lost her thumbnail, she and I and the rest of the crew spent two hours deciding what script to use. The contest rules required that we include three elements: a prop (egg), theme (time travel) and action (crumpling of paper). We considered several scripts. One included a chicken in a cage. Another required two boats. We settled on a story about two thugs-in-training who take part in a reality show.
We then met at the Island Café where the filming was to take place. Sean McMurray, the owner of the restaurant, hung around to watch the shoot.
On the way to the Island Café, I got lost. What can I say? It was a dark and rainy night and I was alone and had never been to the location before. Fortunately, Margo had given me her phone number so I could call for directions. When I arrived on site, the restaurant staff was closing up for the night. They were nice enough to set some coffee out for us and make sandwiches for some of the crew. Then, for a couple of hours, nothing appeared to be happening.
“This is typical,” Roz told me.
Later I learned that Aaron and Audi were using that time to go over the script and determine each shot. Meanwhile, the actors practiced their lines and CT applied makeup. I gathered signatures on contracts, helped Diane remove glue from her hair, moved lights, and located electrical outlets.
At 11 p.m., the shooting began.
“Lights, camera, action!” Mark shouted.
“Bring attitude!” Roz insisted.
The actors impressed me with their ability to instantly be in character, over and over again. At one point Aaron briefly halted the shooting while Sean figured out how to turn off the smoothie machine, which had started creating a lot of noise. More than once I was politely asked to “get out of the shot.”
“Make sure you’re standing under the boom before you say your line,” Aaron told Diane, who played a waitress and good humouredly accepted her new names of Doll Face and Toots.
Eventually, I did find Nancy’s red stick-on nail. It had somehow ended up on top of the bar. The hours passed. It wasn’t until 4 a.m. that the shoot wrapped up. By then I was getting a bit dingy. As a result of my low blood sugar and the fact that my bedtime had come and gone, I called at least one person by the wrong name and, when asked to carry some supplies back to a car, said I would and then left the bags on the floor.
Blearily driving home in the dark, I felt fortunate that it was Aaron who would be editing the film. I could sleep in the next day and reflect on the experience.
Shooting a film, even a short film I had learned, requires a lot more than a script. It also requires stick-on fingernails, baby wipes (for cleaning make-up brushes), hair spray, fake blood, fake guns, long hours, teamwork, and patience.
View The New Big Shot here.

Writing process: 3 books that will inspire you to write

When it comes to books on creative writing, three inspirational examples stand out: Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within.

Although those books are by no means new (The Artist’s Way was first published in 1992, Bird by Bird in 1994 and Writing Down the Bones in 1986), they’re still helping writers today. Just recently, a student of mine mentioned that Bird by Bird helps him deal with the anxiety that can be brought on by writing.

Each of the books is different yet the same. The Artist’s Way is formatted like a work book. Bird by Bird is part memoir, part writing tips. Writing Down the Bones includes writing prompts. All of them focus on the psychological and emotional aspects of writing rather than on craft. All leave the reader knowing it’s possible and normal and worthwhile to write.

The Artist’s Way, first self-published as Healing the Writer Within by Julia Cameron and Mark Bryan, is a work book meant to be completed in twelve weeks. Designed not just for writers but for anyone who wants to unleash their creativity, the book reveals Cameron’s belief that expressing one’s creativity connects us to the divine in each of us. Whether or not you agree with Cameron’s spiritual beliefs, her book presents two writing tools worth trying:

  • Morning pages: Three pages of longhand, free-association writing. The purpose is to focus on the process rather than on the product of writing and to establish a writing habit.
  • The artist date: An appointment you make with yourself to spend time alone doing something nurturing, whether it’s a walk in a park or a trip to a craft store. The artist’s date will make it easier to make creativity a priority in your life.

The rest of the chapters in The Artist’s Way explain how to overcome limiting emotions such as fear and jealousy.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird reveals her trademark honesty and quickness. She’s known for explaining the importance of writing the “shitty first draft” and for encouraging writers to break large projects into small pieces, what she refers to as writing “bird by bird.”

In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg uses a Zen-like approach. She encourages writers to practice their writing and to remember the importance of details. She suggests trying timed writings. The rules of timed writing are to keep your hand moving; don’t cross out; don’t worry about spelling, punctuation or grammar; lose control; don’t think; don’t get logical and go for the jugular.

Poetry: Ruth Stone

In this New York Times article about the death of poet Ruth Stone, she is quoted as having said that poetry is “emotional opinion” and that, to her, poetry “just talked to me, and I wrote it down. So I can’t even take much credit for it.” Here’s one of Stone’s poems posted on


Always on the Train

by Ruth Stone


Writing poems about writing poems

is like rolling bales of hay in Texas.

Nothing but the horizon to stop you.


But consider the railroad’s edge of metal trash;

bird perches, miles of telephone wires.

What is so innocent as grazing cattle?

If you think about it, it turns into words.


Trash is so cheerful; flying up

like grasshoppers in front of the reaper.

The dust devil whirls it aloft; bronze candy wrappers,

squares of clear plastic–windows on a house of air.


Below the weedy edge in last year’s mat,

red and silver beer cans.

In bits blown equally everywhere,

the gaiety of flying paper

and the black high flung patterns of flocking birds.

(The website includes forums on everything from how to write poetry to the difference between voice and style.)

Writing process: Getting ideas

In this article posted on, the author provides tips on how to come up with an idea for a screenplay. The suggestions could help with most any writing project. For instance:

  • Set limits on your project. Know exactly what it is you want to write.
  • Read newspapers to get ideas.
  • Watch documentaries.
  • Take a drive in your car.
  • Go for a walk.
  • Take the day off and visit garage sales.
  • Learn a new sport.
  • Ask yourself what’s troubling you.

What I’m reading: The Financial Lives of the Poets

I just finished reading Jess Walter’s The Financial Lives of the Poets, a funny novel about a father who gets himself into trouble trying to support his family during a tough economic time. Much of the humor comes from the author’s comments on the sorry state of the United States. 

Walters also wrote The Zero (a finalist for the National Book Award), Citizen Vince, Land of the Blind, Over Tumbled Graves and Ruby Ridge. He lives in Spokane, Washington. For more information:

Inspiration: Prioritize

In the August 21, 2011 issue of the Oregonian, singer Wynonna Judd is quoted as saying “…pick two or three things per day that are a priority. You don’t prioritize your schedule; you schedule your priorities — and whatever those are, you make those happen.”

When it comes to your writing, what are your priorities?

What I’m reading: Good Poems: American Places

Good Poems: American Places - Selected and Introduced by Garrison Keillor


How can you not like a book of poetry that includes “Ode to Hardware Stores” by Barbara Hamby; “John Green Takes His Warner, New Hampshire, Neighbor to a Red Sox Game” by Maxine Kumin; and “Bronco Busting, Event #1” by May Swenson?

There’s something so down-to-earth about Good Poems: American Places, a poetry-doesn’t-have-to-be-a-big-deal compilation. No surprise that it’s edited by Garrison Keillor, an American storyteller known for honoring America and its inhabitants.

A tidbit from the collection: 

The Junior High School Band Concert

By David Wagoner 

When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We’d rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed through our crossfire.

I played cornet, seventh chair,
Out of seven, my embouchure
A glorified Bronx cheer
Through that three-keyed keyhole stopper
And neighborhood window-slammer
Where mildew fought for air
At every exhausted corner,
My fingering still unsure
After scaling it for a year
Except on the spit-valve lever.

Each straight-faced mother and father
Retested his moral fiber
Against our traps and slurs
And the inadvertent whickers
Paradiddled by our snares,
And when the brass bulled forth
A blare fit to horn over
Jericho two bars sooner
Than Joshua’s harsh measures,
They still had the nerve to stare.

By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in his mind’s ear
Some band somewhere
In some music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.

Favorite books, movies and ice cream

My favorite books are Shipping News by Annie Proulx, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg,  and Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor. My favorite movies are It’s a Wonderful Life,

Henry Travers as Clarence Odbody (Angel Second Class) and James Stewart as George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life.










Groundhog Day, 

Andie MacDowell and Bill Murray in Groundhog Day

and The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain.


Hugh Grant in The Man Who Went Up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain

My favorite TV shows are “Murder, She Wrote” and “Newhart.”  My favorite ice cream is vanilla with fresh raspberries on top.

So what, you say?

Well, our favorite books, movies and ice cream (well, maybe not ice cream) hint at what direction our writing could take.  As you can tell from my lists, I like funny stories about small towns and the quirky people who live in them. What are your favorite books and movies? What themes, genres and voices do they reveal? Have you ever written about those themes in those genres, using that voice? If not, why don’t you start?