In the last few months I have made a lot of progress on a number of elements for the film’s set and props. Everything remains in flux and still unfinished, but resolutions on some projects are getting close. Am I moving as fast as I’d like? No, not really, but progress is still being made. I simply haven’t had the time to devote to the web updates. That’s what I thought, but then I realized how much these updates aid me in this adventure. They help me see more clearly where I am in the process and frame that process as what it is and what it isn’t. I started out with a clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish, while knowing it would be a challenge. I wanted that challenge, and the chaos that comes with such challenges. This summer I’ve been furiously working as much as I can on these challenges. I have been and continue to be lost in world building, digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole.

Here is a brief example of this process. Within the story a pneumatic tube delivery system is used to shuttle paperwork to and from the main character. Designing and building this should be easy enough but as with most film design, believability needs to be addressed.

As I build this I have to consider what makes this device believable? What defines the essence of such a communication delivery device? What can be hinted at and what needs to work? Where do I need to focus my attention? Materials are a major element in the design process. What is the actual historical history of such devices? What would it have been made out of? Can I recreate something that appears believable? What construction techniques would be most effective? What tools do I have access to or know how to implement? If I don’t know how to do something, do I take the time to learn how or is there a better alternative for my time? What details are needed to finish it. Painting and weathering? How old is this system? Within the created world that it inhabits does it function properly or does it cause problems for the user? What is the organization that the character works for? What does its logo design look like? What era inspires the design of the logo and all the other elements within the film? Where do we see the design? Is it on the shuttle? What’s the condition of it? What goes into the pneumatic tube’s delivery shuttle and what does that shuttle look like? Does the operator interact with the shuttle and the contents inside? Yes, ok what does that look like? What type of forms or information are delivered? Something that is simply read or something that must be filled out? Historical references to such documents then must be researched. Are forms filled out in triplicate? Yes, then what is that process? Carbon paper? OK, can you still find carbon paper? How does this get incorporated? Now I’m making a form with multiple pages including carbon paper and all paper ephemera needs to look believable. Now it becomes clear that the operator has to roll the paper forms to be placed into and taken out of the tube. Does the operator do this by hand or maybe there’s a machine that is used to simplify the process. OK, what does that machine look like? Is it mechanical or somehow electrified? Is there something like this or something that needs to be designed and made?

There’s a part of me that keeps saying, dig dig dig, but now that I’m in the middle of it and looking around, I realize I am Mike Mulligan, and I and my steam shovel Mary Anne are in a real interesting predicament. If you don’t know the much loved children's’ story I encourage you to go out and get the book. Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, written and illustrated by Virginia Lee Burton, first published in 1939. It’s a book with much to teach and in all honesty, probably was one of the instrumental moments that helped push me towards the arts and storytelling as a young child. In the story Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne are replaced by new modern machines. They eventually find work digging the cellar for a town hall far away from the city. They complete their task in record time with only one problem. They have worked so fast that they forgot to leave a way out of the pit that they dug. I’ll let you read the book to find out how they solved their delima. All of this has gotten me thinking about failure and success.

Looking at this objectively, as much as one can when evaluating one’s own actions, it seems that both ends of the spectrum are fairly harsh, at least in a “traditional” way. I’ll be honest and say a lot of the above process of designing and building the pneumatic tube system has been plagued with failures, as has much of this entire film making process. I don’t want to even begin to count the number of times that I’ve started building something for the film only to scrap it and start again. That is to say I now know so much more about how to do something because I’ve failed at it many times over. There are plenty of others who have come to this type of conclusion, but I think that even if we understand this or have been taught this, we truly don’t understand it until we’ve experienced it.

Lately, I’ve been trying to share this with my students more. I recently had a student who struggled with a major project. They too were learning a lot of new techniques and tools to make their project work, some of what they were learning was unfamiliar to me too. Their struggle was all too real as it seemed to always result in more failures than successes, especially during group critiques and this caused a lot of frustration for everyone involved. In the end the project worked, not as well as intended but well enough. However, I believe what was gained from the process was so much more valuable to the student than having tried something easy or a repeat of what they already knew. I hope that I conveyed this belief to them. Of course as an outsider it's always easier to see this phenomenon. When you are experiencing it yourself you are often too close to the problem to see it as something other than a failure, but sometimes understanding that failure and success are not absolutes but concepts that we’ve artificially constructed is the key, and that not knowing something is much more powerful than knowing something, because ultimately it provides a path to greater understanding.

Stay tuned, maybe my next post will be about how I learned when to disregard everything I just said because simply purchasing the thing you want will be cheaper than all the time and money spent learning how to build a facsimile of it.

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I recently had the pleasure of talking with Tom Loughlin about my ongoing film project and the recent New York State Council for the Arts Individual Artist grant I received in support for the production of the film. We talk about these and other things. It was a lot of fun and a great chance to talk about what I've been up to. Unfortunately in the process I missed my opportunity to properly credit Arts Services Initiative of Buffalo and Executive Director Jen Swan-Kilpatrick for her help and support in securing the grant. Thank you ASI and Jen!

Tom also talks with Jon Massier gallery director of Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center about his recently curated show for the Marion Art Gallery at Fredonia University. My interview starts at timestamp 21:21.

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Updated: Mar 11

Writing down new ideas while working on the set and props.


I’ve been doing a fair amount of writing and rewriting on the project. Hammering out the script, such as it is, a patchwork of stories told from the perspective of someone trapped, confused, scared but hopeful. A one-way conversation between two people kept from making a true connection yet fighting to do so. It’s been a long time since I’ve written a script, and it still feels a bit clunky for the most part but things are smoothing out. I’m starting to find a flow that works and I'm really starting to remember how much I enjoy the process. I’m looking forward to having more time soon when, if all goes well, my sabbatical is approved and I devote more concentrated time to the project. Until then I will continue my juggling lessons.

Much of what I learned about writing was in graduate school. My screenwriting professor and friend Dru Vratil was instrumental in how I approached writing. Yes, there were the technical aspects, tools and formats that are expected or required, and maybe a bit of how to address those things that need to be addressed through subtlety and cleverness, how to use a screenplay to exact hidden revenge, or offer peace, I also learned how to shape words into phrases, to go beyond the meaning of words and use the words' spoken sounds to elicit meaning and emotion beyond the text. I always loved this idea, even if I don’t allow myself the time to make it come to fruition. I want to get back to this.

I’m trying to be more disciplined and consistent in my creative endeavors using what I learned from Dru and putting it into action, but there was another idea that Dru instilled in me that I carry and put into practice to this day. When I took my first class with her, it was a mixed class of MFAs and undergrads. I think it was my first semester as a grad student. I was older than most in my class, married and had a career or at least a long-term job prior to going back to get my MFA.

I struggled with the interactions in the class, the level of commitment by others and my own expectations of what I wanted to get out of the class. Of course, I was probably a bit too high on my own seriousness and dedication. One day I met with Dru and discussed the idea of withdrawing from the class. I felt that I wasn’t getting enough out of the projects and discussions. In short, I was frustrated. That’s when Dru provided not just a solution to the immediate problem but a legacy. It’s a legacy that I’ve never told her about until now. She wanted me to stay in the class, was understanding of my frustrations and offered some solutions. These solutions turned out to be exactly what I needed and together we found a way to make the class work for me. We created a solution to a problem. I finished the class a stronger writer for sure but also a better teacher in the making.

To this day all of my syllabi have a simple statement near the end. It says, “Come talk to me if you are having problems or issues related to the class. I cannot address your concerns if I do not know them.” I read this to all of my new students, and I tell them the story of how Dru provided this wonderful experience for me. Most students who struggle don’t take the time to do this, but some have, and a few times we’ve been able to make changes or find solutions to make continuing in the class work for them.

I count Dru Vratil as a dear friend but we haven’t talked in some time. I’d like to say that life just kept getting in the way but reality is that excuses have gotten in the way and that’s never good. So, this is for Dru, my friend and mentor. Thank you for giving me so much, inspiring me to be a better teacher and mentor to student. You should have been told this a long time ago.

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