Local novelist Michael Kimball pieces together a new kind of film narrative in 60 Writers/60 Places
"I almost lost my mind in the process of putting this together," Michael Kimball confesses with a laugh about 60 Writers/60 Places, his latest film project, which he created in collaboration with New York writer/artist Luca Dipierro. Kimball laughs, but the Baltimore-based novelist behind 2008's word-of-mouth hit Dear Everybody is being sincere. Over brunch at a Remington noshery, Kimball talks about the rather ridiculous production of this movie, which moved from idea and first shooting in March 2009 to debuting this weekend at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson. (Kimball and Dipierro's previous collaboration, I Will Smash You, was shot over two and a half days in Baltimore.) Sure, on the one hand, 60 Writers is little more than a series of vignettes featuring authors reading an excerpt of their works in some setting, shot with a static single-camera set up, so it doesn't have the involved coordination of a large crew and cast. On the other hand, though, 60 Writers is a single-viewing experience composed of 60 completely different elements: It's like trying to make a single image out of 60 puzzle pieces from 60 different puzzles.
What emerges in 60 Writers is a wonderful example of literary thinking becoming a visual language. "I had heard the term 'storyboarding,' but I didn't actually know what it was," Kimball says. "And I invented it for myself to do."
Strange things sometimes happen when novelists direct movies. Recall--or, perhaps, don't--Norman Mailer's 1987 Provincetown noir Tough Guys Don't Dance starring Ryan O'Neal (Mailer fared better with 1970's Maidstone, but a great deal of that credit should go to its inspired co-star, Rip Torn). Or: Stephen King's 1986 Maximum Overdrive. Or: Thomas McGuane's 1975 92 in the Shade. Or: Paul Auster's 1998 Lulu on the Bridge. They're not always a mess--James Salter's 1969 Three and those perennial exceptions to the rule, the French (see: Marguerite Duras, Philippe Claudel, Jean Cocteau)--but something sometimes goes amiss when novelistic storytelling is transferred to the screen.
With Smash and 60 Writers, Kimball and Dipierro approach a film project not to create a traditional cinematic narrative. On the surface, both projects feel like they're mere basic novelistic elements: character (the person doing the demolishing in Smash, the author in 60 Writers), setting (the where of the smashing, the where of the reading), and story (the why of the smashing, the writing excerpt). How they come together to make a cohesive single whole--rather than a series of stand-alone elements--is what makes each movie so disarmingly engaging.
60 Writers started "with a general idea of filming writers reading their work in other spaces," Kimball says. A tall man of almost instant affability, Kimball chooses his words like somebody spending $20 bills: each sounds like it needs a convincing purpose before it leaves his mouth. He and Dipierro, who met in Baltimore (Dipierro actually read the Italian translation of Kimball's 2000 novel The Way the Family Got Away), first shot Deb Olin Unferth, who passed through New York on a reading tour. They next shot Atlanta author Blake Butler on a subway car, and they soon worked out a set of constraints for the writers/readers.
"We had a list of instructions and rules," Kimball says. "One of those was time, so we developed a 60-second time limit for the piece, which we kept lowering and lowering as the project went on. The instructions of staring at the camera was another part of it: stare for few seconds, then read, then stare. We asked people to read a piece that was representative of their work in some way, also that it be as self-contained as possible. And then, we let people pick their place. Some people couldn't, but we also had a list of suggestions. So it was a variety of circumstances."
The shoots themselves were fairly straightforward: get to location, set up shot, do a few takes. How they were all going to fit together was still nebulous. "Editing happened in two stages," Kimball says. "We first picked the shot we wanted to use for everybody and then tried to put it in order, which was a thing I feared the whole time. Because putting 60 things in order in a way that made sense just seemed like a daunting task. And it is, it really, really is."
Kimball had worked out a few sequences, but the finished movie finally came together when he sat down and started organizing clips visually. Using the backs of old business cards he never used, he went through every writer's clip--from Blaster Al Ackerman to Leni Zumas (see the entire list at littleburnfilms.com)--and made rough sketches of the shot's composition and visual elements: the size and placement of somebody's head, the dominant color of the shot, any pictorial elements instantly gleaned.
Eventually, Kimball started noticing subtle visual and thematic echoes that could create links between the individual clips, to chain them together to create a flow. Jamie Gaughran-Perez reads in a beauty parlor (the Chop Shop on Harford Road), and he's followed by Kimball's wife Tita Chico reading about ideas of beauty that moves into a consideration of motherhood, followed by Jennifer Firestone standing in a produce aisle with two kids in a shopping cart. Between each segment is white text on black title card identifying the writer and the locale, but without these subtle interlocking threads 60 Writers wouldn't feel as holistically whole as it does.
"One of my favorite pieces is Kim Chinquee in the repair shop, which ends with the line 'I felt like a kid again' and then there's Colby Green, this 5-year-old boy," Kimball says. "And that was never planned in any way, but after watching the movie over and over and over I know all the lines now, and stuff like that gets stuck in your head in a way and you start seeing what works with what. So there's connections like that that got made that wouldn't have happened any other way."
It's a visual grammar that is very indebted to the way some novelists structures writing, in finding ways to move a "plot" forward that aren't explicitly causal effects between narrative elements. "I came up with a sort of group of writers who were language based in a particular way," Kimball says. "We're still doing story, we're still doing plot, but the way we get from one sentence to another has a lot more to do with the language in play. Not even particular words, but sounds. [For instance,] I know this sentence isn't right and I know that word has to change, and I have a long 'o' here at the beginning and maybe 'smoke' needs to be the word at the end. So now I have these two long 'o's that are balancing my sentence, and I wasn't thinking of fire or anything, and now I have this new thing happening because of the acoustics involved. And I just ended in 'smoke,' and I like the hard [k] sound, so maybe the next sentence begins with 'can.' And now, if you were saying those sentences verbally, there's no break in between--the sentences start to run together. There's all sorts of things you can do to make links."
It's a strategy that lends itself well to content subtly accruing an emotive force. "My own writing, the novels especially--Dear Everybody is a good example because they're small pieces that are, then, put together in a way they accumulate into something else," he continues. "So that was what we were trying to do with the film, too, so they're not just the pieces and the way the writer and the place where they're reading interact, but the way the pieces interact with each other, too. So trying to accumulate into something bigger, grander--we want it to feel like something. And I hope we got that."
Correction:Jennifer Firestone was misidentified as Tita Chico in a photo caption in the original version of this story. City Paper regrets the error.
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