production stills

images from the making of “Twilight Angel”

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


As we close in on the finishing stages of the editing process I find myself lingering a bit on watching the raw footage on either side of the take. It’s one of my ways to get refreshed for the next stage of this long process.

There is a thing that happens invariably just before a good take. I’ve come to enjoy seeing these moments – the camera is rolling, James has been bantering with me or working himself into the state required for the particular scene. Then there is this briefest of pauses before he goes into action and delivers the next line. As an editor now, that is my cue, “oh, this is going to be a good one.”

Koskinas-In the Dark Place

James Koskinas is in the dark place

It is like the energy of the wave he has summoned slides up the beach and when it reaches its furthest extent, rests in a moment of stillness before plunging back into the ocean.

When I see that, I know to mark it “in,” to start now. We will not see that moment in the finished film, just the result – James diving back into the story. It is one of the pleasures I’ve had being so immersed in making this film. I get to see moments like that, see him work, feel that moment of still energy poised at the edge of creation.

OK, two more scenes to go…

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.


It’s a Wrap!

After 6 months of pre-production: camera tests, trial scenes, script re-writes, readings, set-building and (of course) fund raising – then another 3 months of actual production – we now have all the principal photography completed for the Twilight Angel.

Witham Preps Camera at the Dunes

Witham preps the 5D rig at the dunes

Fittingly enough, some of the last scenes we shot were the rare exterior scenes of the film and they were done in locations that are quite amazing. After weeks of shooing “noir” in our little studio, the expansive dunes in southern New Mexico created the most striking contrast.


Koskinas on location for Twilight Angel

Koskinas on location for Twilight Angel

The space and the light were perfect for the reverie of the scene we called “AWOL.” I won’t divulge the details of that part of the film, but I’m sure you can get it’s essence.



Linda Leslie and Julie Schumer scouting locations

Linda Leslie and Julie Schumer scouting locations

We had timed the shoot to follow a trip to Tucson for a gallery opening of Linda Leslie’s paintings at Jane Hamilton Fine Art. Our Exec. Producer Julie Schumer’s paintings are also at that gallery, so it was a natural field trip for the core crew.

It felt like a celebration of the completion of this phase of the movie. Day-in and day-out James has done a tremendous job of performing this heart-felt story. We’ve worked hard to capture that narrative in a way that we all feel is visually appealing and does justice to the subject and the art.


The Artist

The Artist

Of course, the art is the subject… because it is inseparable from the story of the artist – and vice-versa.

Keeping that in mind, we go into post-production: the editing, animation and sound design that glues it all together. I love this part as much as the photography… maybe even more so. For me editing IS storytelling. It is an artform unto itself.

As I ardently prepare for many hours at the editing workstation assembling and shaping this film, I’ll remember the openness, the space, the light of the dunes and how for me that symbolized the freedom to create this movie, to put something beautifully true into the world, to hope that it touches somebody and that it resonates something in them.

Witham captures the last light