Author Archive for James

Twilight Angel Showing in Art Film Festival

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James Koskinas at Santa Fe Art Films showing of the Twilight Angel

(The following is a blog post originally written December 14th, 2015)

The Twilight Angel just showed at the Santa Fe Artist film festival at the Jean Cocteau Cinema for a two day run. Also showing, With My Back Against the Wall, a film about Agnes Martin, and Flowing Grasses, a film about artist Dean Howell. All films were about New Mexico artists and it was an honor to be in the festival with such notable other artists.

James_and_Dean

JK and DH by Dean Howell

We had an intimate turnout both nights that resulted in strong feedback for our film and engendered spirited questions and dialogue that went on for a good hour after the film ended. Both nights we had the director of the festival’s sponsor, the Christopher Foundation for Arts, in attendance. As was my, friend Dean Howell, and numerous local supporters. John Witham, our fellow Twilight Angel team member – cinematographer and editor – was present opening night to give his keen insights in the filming of the movie.

Comments ranged from “must see,” to “beautiful”, as well as “the film should be seen by every art student in the school system”, to very personal insights, “ the film helped me understand the creative process, the agony and ecstasy every artist goes through, including my own.” We received numerous glowing Facebook messages also from viewers that were exhilarating in their praises.

It was very encouraging to hear the audience comments and responses about the film. It was also extremely powerful for me to see it again after some time had passed. I felt strongly that we had made a beautiful piece of art and that the film was a great accomplishment, both visually and as a story.

The next step for the Twilight Angel, is onward to Arlington, Texas in January for a showing at the Arlington Museum, and then to Lubock , Texas at the Louise Underwood Hopkins Center for the Arts – where there will also be a two month art show of paintings from the Twilight Angel team of James and Julie.

Authenticity and Personal Marketing

Not forgetting the fact that Santa Fe is a small village and I know people as a result of my many art shows, and my one man play that ran here four summers ago, I take to the street armed with postcards to announce the movie premier of The Twilight Angel.

James Koskinas on Canyon Road, SF NM

James Koskinas on Canyon Road, SF NM

Necessity is the mother of invention. We have a limited budget for marketing, but bits of time. I quite like it, talking to people on the street. And I’ve also been spending a lot of time writing my Facebook friends personal notes and invitations to the film. A lot of them never post and consequently have never met me. I’m discovering them for the first time. The ones who do post know about the film already but I write them personal notes.

I want to let them know I’m thinking of them. The response from almost everyone, even the ones who I am just introducing myself to for the first time is mostly overwhelming. Yes there’s a segment that doesn’t respond but many do, and they respond with thank yous… I’m coming, or I’m out of town but good luck and please let me know when I can see the film again.

It’s very profound and I’m making lots of new friends in the process. A personal handcrafted message written to each person is very powerful, and I realize I’m on to something.

We all like to think we’re special. Wandering around the village of Santa Fe, handing out cards for the movie, I meet people I never would have met unless I had a film to announce, and never would have made so many personal contacts, gotten so much positive feedback.

I’m finding out how much people are interested in me first and then the film. Old friends who own restaurants are happy to see me. I say, “come to the film and bring your cards and advertise.” They seem more interested in how I’ve been. “Don’t be a stranger,” they say when I leave. “Good luck. I’m happy for you.”

I realize you can’t market anything more than who you are. Authenticity and knowing I care about them go a long way. That’s the joy of living in a village. It reminds me that everyone counts here. Our audience is really our family. Friends old and new want to help, to be part of The Twilight Angel. The film, not yet seen has drawn us closer together.

Somehow the process has made me a better person.

The Movie as Shamanic Ritual

The film being “done”, you’d think it was the end of the journey. The product was tied up, finished. A milestone, years of work. You rest from your labors. But the film was never created with those goals in mind. That’s where this idea of mine comes in: film-making as shamanism.

The vision quest is to know yourself truly and deeply in a different way than you have before.

A Place of Power

Koskinas finding a place of power

With the film now being finalized in the editing stage, and having seen it a few times, I started realizing its effect on me. Forget the work, the hours spent; that was great fun, I was like a child I was making something without realizing what I was getting into. Beginners mind, that’s a great place to be.

And then I realized people were going to see it, even if it was only five, they would see what I had made, see my paintings, hear what I had written. Mine and John’s work. But the words were mine and I realized I had to stand behind them and what they meant. I had to be very serious about this.

The film has forced me to get very clear about the person I am now and the kid I was when I went off to war. I had to go back through my memories, feel my way back and claim the purity of that kid.

When we first started making the film, Johnny Witham, my cohort, the D-O-P, sound, lighting, co director and fellow chief bottle washer told me, “we’ve got to trust our creativity.” We’d have to go with what was inside of us and trust it would come out they way it was supposed to. The film wasn’t going to be anymore, or less, than our own: his and mine.

We had found our place of power standing there in that moment, and that’s what we went with.

No amount of planning, organizing in the search of something perfect could have ever gotten me to take the first step. Nothing intellectual could have prepared me for something so vast, so daunting.

We had a script, to be sure, yet nothing was written in stone. The sets, the props, the lights, the staging, all lay out in that fog bank of creativity. We’d have to row over to it.

In a real sense the film is still becoming a shamanic ritual. When shooting it, I had to use my unseen instincts and talent for survival. I followed my bodily sensations around. What was coming up, I moved towards it.

The technical end of things: all in John’s hands – the lights,cameras, sound – manipulated and collaborated in this instinctive process. Machines have souls, or do they?

Throughout our creative process, a jazz-oriented call and response, all the elements seemed to be right there when we needed them, a meeting of linear and nonlinear points of view.

We left fear out of the equation, leaving him at the front door early on.

The set glowed with its own magical process, taking on its own life. At some point I realized that the fate of the film was always hanging in a precarious balance, just as was the character I was enacting.

Yet that was part of the excitement, the challenging act of balancing the unknown with what we trusted.

I clearly feel that the universe needs me to play this role. I may have been Cabeza de Vaca, a front man. Clearly Johnny was some force behind it all orchestrating, directing, repairing.

Now that it’s almost done, I feel the film is asking me: who am I really? Why say what I say? What are the motivations behind my intentions? And, finally, am I responsible for what I’ve made?

If it’s truly a real heart-felt, passionate film, and not a ploy for ego needs, I’ve got to revisit the process.

The film is a way to keep me informing myself about myself. Instead of an end, it’s an initiation for something new: a new me. That’s the point about shamanism, that’s the real power of making it. Nothing is separate from me.

I think the character in the film makes that turn into himself, dealing with the pain of uprooting his personal history, his bumps and warts. In speaking about the war he is actually reliving it, living his own fate. Precarious yes, but he keeps on painting, the only thing he can really do. I think it leads him out of the film and into himself. And we want to show that.

Taking the Squad Home

The walk home

The End of the Shooting.

John and I had been locked down for months in my studio shooting our film, rehearsing, building sets, painting scenes, setting up lights.  Shooting footage.  It was a process that literally became more than some grand idea of a movie.

Still from Scene 4

Koskinas on the set for scene 4

Actually a movie is a series of small events linked together over a period of time  -in our case a period of months.  We started off shooting scenes, I wrote and rewrote the script all the while we kept shooting footage, like a boxer training, practicing his footwork, feints.   All the extra footage was roadwork for what was to come.

It was much more than I imagined.  I had the script, John had to do the scenes, had to design the sound, the lighting, the way each scene looked.   How to operate two cameras with only himself.   I had to learn to trust that he was going to do all this.

Koskinas preparing for a line in Twilight Angel

Koskinas preparing for a line in Twilight Angel

I had my own burden in the middle of all this.  Namely I had to get myself out of the way, my ego, my fears, and deliver my lines.  We had a criteria for my performances if you want to call them that.   If they were believable, we bought into them.   We never called it acting, we just wanted something from me that was real.  Something that we both believed.

Shooting a medium close-up

Witham shooting Koskinas medium-close for Twilight Angel

Imagine, John is moving cameras all over, up and down, side to side, adjusting the light, the lights fail, the sound fails, a camera goes on the nod, a fuse, a bulb blows up, we’re in the darkness and somehow he gets it all back together.  I’ve been waiting and waiting for the moment, holding onto myself, trying to stay contained, centered, until John calls, “roll it.”

We’ve had over thirty takes for some scenes.   Late, cold, tired, we pressed on.  Trading quips, jokes, laughing, pushing the envelope. Pushing into the script.  I wanted to change the script, just wanted to let the cameras roll, see what came up.  John held onto the discipline, forcing us to go step by step inch by inch.

We both designed the sets, the art direction. He would have an idea for three scenes in a row, then I would. Inside the structure of the script, the organization, the schedule, we managed to stay flexible. You’d have to been there to experience it. It’s called film-making.

Arduous, long. Fun.

 

Big-Thunder and Beyond

 

James Koskinas in front of canvas

James Koskinas in front of canvas

I’m both a word guy and a painter. Both require imagination, yet painting requires no words. In fact it’s better if there aren’t any. They just get in the way. Painting’s vocabulary may come from the same place as words, but they aren’t necessary. I don’t think in words when I’m painting, only in color, images, the application of the paint, using my tools, brushes, and moving. Moving is very important, big movements, small movements joining together in a dance of sorts. Reacting to what is happening on the canvas is important. That red may lead me somewhere. Where?

That’s painting.

I’m a writer too. I wrote a play called “Even if the Mountains Burn.” I had so much time to tell so many stories. I had to choose my words carefully. They arrived and then they were rendered. Chosen after a board meeting of the intellect. Its takes a lot longer to choose a word than it does a color, a brush stroke. And the movements are small. Pushing the keys, moving the delete button. I can cover a whole huge painting in the time it takes to write what I just did. Time is different. The computer is clinical. About the only thing the same is you start off with a white page, a white canvas. Blankness starring at you. I wouldn’t call writing a sensual activity. Painting is however a sensual act. Moving the thick buttery paint around. Spreading it. Thick, oozing, it becomes bodily fluids. You decide.

I started the movie with words, a play really, very few of the scenes really had any visuals that were as concrete as the writing. It was a movie without equal visuals to go along the words. Its what I knew at the time. I’d already written my scenes for the soldier character because I’d told the story already as a play. Words were the medium then. I dragged them along, not that they weren’t important, but it was like a person with only one arm.

See it goes back to what I said in the beginning. Painters don’t need words, we don’t use them, they get in the way. So really I had no idea what my character the painter was thinking, because to be honest I’d never thought about it. For a guy who talks a lot and is expressive verbally, the irony is I’d spent almost my entire life working alone speaking to no one. Just simply working. But John always said the movie was about the painter, the soldier stories informed the artist, and the art.

The thing is, I wasn’t painting at all when we first started making the film way back in August. I thought I’d just put it off until the movie was done. Then we had these painting scenes and that’s when everything shifted. I had to paint the last big painting for the movie. I started painting, little paintings before John came in to set up equipment, then larger ones. Some were great, we put them in the film, I had to look at my paintings again. I’d forgotten them. Sorry.

But now that the character of the painter was let loose, ironically I wanted to let go of the words, the last of the stories. All I wanted was to paint on the floor and move and let John film the whole thing. Painting forever, the cameras rolling. Infinity. We’d get to the end of it someday. Painting does that to me. Now I’m explaining it. Better not. Those scenes will have to stand on their own. We’ve got the end of the movie to shoot. I’ll have to find my way to the words again. I wrote them, maybe it won’t be so hard.

Anyway, John will be there yelling, “Action!” and I’ll be bound to them.

Immediate and Familiar

Planning the shooting schedule at Counter Culture

Months of ideas, discussions, writing, and planning, building sets, setting up lights, now we’re actually shooting our film.

Going for a take of Scene 3

Immediately it becomes real, we see what we’ve done immediately, the scenes we just shot, right in front of our faces. I’m struck with how much this process feels like painting, or sculpting, or building. It’s immediate and therefore familiar. We’re hauling lights around, climbing around the set, moving tables, lights, art, sculpture. Finding a place for the art in the film.

Koskinas and friends

I’d forgotten old friends, my paintings, now they’re became part of the terrain, becoming references, characters. I see them with fresh eyes, beginners mind, they’re talking to me differently. I gravitate to certain ones. My hands want to touch my plaster heads. I remember building them, the feel of the plaster, wet, the quick setting up time, working quickly. A particular large one becomes a central figure in the next scene. Why not, we’re old friends. My sculpture teacher told me once, real art informs the artist along the way, revealing, teaching, leading the artist into a greater understanding of himself. It has to be, or it looks like, smells like art… but isn’t.

Koskinas and Witham designing the set dressing

To the greater end John says we are really having confidence in our creativity. I’m trusting John to be the art director on certain sets, he’s found way to link my paintings to these first scenes. If you look at the pieces they’re there for a reason. Like guests we might move them around, some in-laws get along better than others.

Making notes

The set is moving around too, certain pieces, say my easel, desires to move to another part of the floor. The point is, and it may seem like a cliche, the best way to make a painting is to get yourself out of the way and let it paint itself. In that sense I had the distinct feeling that our little film is taking on a life of its own. Don’t overwork myself on my days off, John says. Save something.

The creative process is a mystery, that’s really the fun of it. Trusting, balancing the fear of whether what you need will be there when you need it. We’ll go with that.

Testing the Script

The new script came quickly, I basically got myself out of the way and wrote furiously for a hard week and allowed it happen. This is how I had written my play. The characters started to speak and I followed. It was natural and felt right so I went with it. Plus I had a deadline. I had to read it to a select group, ten or so who had seen my play and had heard my readings around town for the last two years.

Koskinas-Witham at reading

Koskinas and Witham at reading, February 5, 2013

Julie, John and I decided to have the reading right on the set, the painter’s studio, John would film the reading and the reactions to it. We could gauge immediately how our audience would feel about it. Our Greek chorus so to speak. Julie and Linda Leslie brought food, wine, and one of of the essentials; Julie’s brownies – we have, Julie and I, literally scores of art shows, music events, play productions, readings, many times accompanied by those brownies.
I get nervous before any live performance. Even though I was reading from the script I was still unnerved. God knows you don’t want to be flat and just read it, you have to lean into it and the more you enjoy it, the better the performance. “Be embodied,” my old mantra from the monologue days.

Koskinas at reading of The Twilight Angel script

Koskinas at reading of The Twilight Angel script

I think it went well, I read a bit too fast to start and then slowed down following the natural cadence of the writing, and my voice. That’s the key for me, to allow my voice to find its own unique cadence of delivering the lines. The natural drawl.

 

Audience discussion at reading of The Twilight Angel script

Audience discussion at reading of The Twilight Angel script

At the end there was a lively discussion about the paradoxes of life, a main theme in the script, how beauty and horror are held in the same hand, how war affects us generationally, and how art saves us.

Discussion of the art of The Twilight Angel with patrons

Discussion of the art of The Twilight Angel with patrons

The brownies were consumed. A couple of hours later, I think the team had a pretty good feeling we were on to something great. We had crossed a bridge and now we had another one to cross. Namely shooting the thing.

Finding My Way to the Script

Imagine, I was in a field, the wind spinning me like a top and the more I spun, the more tethered I was to the wind. That’s how I felt about my film. Tethered to an idea, that was too big. I had a feeling for what I wanted but no more, nothing specific. There was in fact no beginning path to take.

scene in Mamasan’s Bar

I decided to see if my old director Tanya Taylor Rubinstein, with whom I had spent the better part of a year and a half, developing, and rehearsing my play, “Even if the Mountains Burn,” would come on board to help me. She had a cancellation in her schedule for December and said she would. We dug back into old material, back to the play itself. I told new stories, we recorded many of them. Since I hadn’t been on stage or rehearsed for a couple of years, I felt awkward at first and then comfortable with myself. I loosened into it.

The play became the shell, the structure. We choose scenes and restructured them, rehearsing them tightening them up, condensing them, forcing me to control and focus my energies. The big thing, the film became finite, manageable. I had a beginning. We shot some of these scenes with John at night,

While this was a tremendous way of getting the material and myself under control, after two weeks of shooting I began to realize I wanted more.

Witham and Koskinas after a take

I was not in fact wanting the whole movie, at least the scenes of most of my dialogue, shot with me sitting in a black box - me in tight close-ups, sitting, controlled and focused.

Once again I was in the field, spun by the wind. And then I had a vision of what I wanted the film to look like, it came to me as a painting… dissolve the black box, set me free inside the painter’s studio. Keep the same tight energy of the static shots but allow me to move, to laugh, cry, find my way to the scene. Due to scheduling conflicts, Tanya became busy with her regular work, Project Life Stories, and we parted company.

I was left at the head winds, bringing all that work we had done along with me. I had the skeleton of my character. I just needed to find a way to flesh him out.

Getting Brave

movie making with john, improving script, letting the camera roll for hours, me painting late in the night, tired before, more tired now, john feeding me advice, direction, moving around me like a cat with a camera luking in the shadows, starting and stopping me, jamie again, move into the light, and we proceed, and then suddenly i’m too tired to act, to recite and moving into just being in the moment, inspired, embodied and things are happening, i’m not rushing, not scared, the words and the paint just start to flow. its part of johns and my creative process, part of the performer in both of us, the longer we go the more tired i get the more real it gets. i call it a good way of getting brave. we’ll do it again and again, saving the footage, it keeps us honest and fresh

An Unexpected Vision

Speaking of magic, don’t know if I’ll use this in the film or not, but I’ve been rewriting this little episode of my life over and over. It was after the war, I’d wandered up the Florida coast sleeping on the beach, pulling driftwood out of the ocean, dancing to giant bonfires, abandoning bits and pieces of my uniform, equipment, a suit I’d never wear, books, pots and pans, dress shoes – all too heavy to pack up the beach – until I ended up with a tent and one white shirt with embroidery on it, a left over from the 60′s, even though now it was 1970. The year I left Vietnam. That shirt meant something I’d never gotten to be part of and maybe I thought I’d find it somewhere out there, the leftover from the 60′s, freedom, something good. I had no idea where I was going and it didn’t matter as long as it was warm I‘d survive.

St. Thomas was a little Caribbean island below Puerto Rico that I’d flew into by chance, pointing blindly at the map in the Miami airport, it had appeared there next to St. John and St. Croix. After arriving by plane and wandering the island for two days I ended up at Magens Bay, set up my tent in a grove of trees at the edge of a horseshoe shaped bay with a reef and tall cliffs opening to the Atlantic Ocean. The full moon at night fit perfectly between the two cliffs turning my beach into daylight. I hung a rope between two trees for a clothes line and pronounced myself at home.

The beach at Magens Bay became my home. I was there every day swimming in the ocean, exploring the rocks cliffs that lay to the north and snorkeling along the coast and when I got braver, swimming out into the deeper channel. One day when I was out there in the channel something strange happened. I’m still not sure what I saw. I was down about twenty feet, a couple of hundred yards off the beach when below me swimming toward the open sea and heading towards a small island a mile away were deer swimming underwater. It scared the hell out of me. At first my reaction was sharks, I knew they were out here somewhere, had heard a few native stories and when I saw the shapes I panicked, but looking again, there they were, deer and their legs furious. They were swimming strongly away from me. I swam as hard as I could to shore and sat there in amazement. It seemed impossible but I had seen it all right. Whenever I swam out there again I kept looking for swimming deer but it never happened again.