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.

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.

Good Shoot

We had a really good shoot last night. We did the first of James’ monologues and he put in a solid, tight performance. Tanya’s skill at preparing everyone for the scene and then directing on-set is invaluable. I am honored to be able to do my part in such a team. Thanks to everyone that is helping make it possible. You should be pleased by what we shot last night.

More to come!

The Movie Palace – the Coleman Theater

James wrote that “movies are magic” and spoke about going to the theater as a boy. That resonated with me. Here are some pictures of the recently restored movie palace in my home town, Miami Oklahoma. This is where I first encountered “Movie Magic.”

Coleman Theater, 103 North Main Street, Miami, OK

 Built in 1929, the Coleman Theater has reportedly never been dark.

Coleman Chandelier

 It’s style and beauty was breathtaking, as befitted the worlds that unfolded on it’s screen.

Coleman Theater, view from the stage

 Maybe we are so profoundly influence by such beauty and imagination that it shapes our lives.

Coleman Theater, wide angle view of the mezzanine and proscenium

 And the multimedia experience makes anything less … incomplete.

Coleman Theater Organ, multitimbral instrument of dreams

 I feel fortunate to know that this movie palace of my childhood has been respected, nurtured and restored by a loving community. More information, photos and my thanks to:

-john witham

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

Going for Picture

We are shooting tonight!

Thanks to the great support showing up for us on Indiegogo and anxious to see action to accompany the powerful Vietnam stories we’ve been recording , we’ve built part of the set (or, a “sub-set of the set,” as I like to say) and will do our first filming tonight.

I’m very excited to get this rolling and look forward to working with James and the material we’ve been evolving. Who knows how it will go?

I’m just very glad to get a chance to do what I do best for this project, …and to start doing that tonight.

Thanks to everyone who has had encouraging things to say to us in person or write in our comments here on the blog, on the campaign page or on Facebook. We are up against some steep challenges and it means a lot to hear those things from friends and supporters.

It means a lot too if you share this project or forward it to YOUR friends.

And to everyone who has helped fund the project: thanks for making this exciting moment possible. You will see what you’ve helped to do!


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.


Movies are Magic

Movies are magic, they have been since I was kid.  When I went to the theater – one of those big classic theaters of the past, vast like the inside of a cathedral – it was like going to the Ringling Brothers Circus.

In anticipation of the excitement I thought about it all week. Whatever was showing in my hometown that weekend was the grandest thing I could imagine. Whatever the film was, a western, a drama, a comedy, it  was OK  It was a movie and that told it all. That and the popcorn, the coke, the candy – it was all tied together. You had to have your candy, your coke. It made the whole thing come together. And then there was choosing the right seat, not too close, not too far back, on the aisle so you could make a quick trip to the bathroom just at the right time when the action lagged or when they kissed and then be back in time for something big, a payoff.

There was the long walk to the theater on Saturday morning along the railroad tracks behind the school, then across town, thirsty for my coke, getting amped up. Finally I arrived at the box office put my quarters down and went on inside the lobby. There was the carpet smell, the rich smell of the hot buttered popcorn, seeing kids from the neighborhood, and getting my stash of just the right candy – because it had to take you all the way through till the end, through the highs and lows and maybe some hard candy leftover for the long walk home: a time for reflection.

But before that there was the unbelievable anticipation for the moment, the moment the lights went down, and the giant enormous screen filled the whole world with this mighty event and instantly being transformed into another magical world of heroes and clowns, sounds and colors –  all the while glued to the screen. Being circumspect about your candy, balancing your coke, letting my child’s emotions run free to laugh and cry.

I laughed so hard during “The Russians are Coming” that the theater manager, a friend of my father, came down and told me to quiet down or I’d have to leave. I moved to the aisle stairs against the wall and kept howling. At the end of the movie, the lights coming up, a sense of immense loss and longing to stay here in the theater, in my seat, in this world. The effects of being in this magical world lasted all day.

After the movie I walked slowly heading for home, letting the whole experience wash over me, not wanting to go home, or to ever grow up but to stay here, in childhood for ever. If it was a summer day I lingered there on the railroad tracks walking on the rails, the sun splashing over me.

It was one of childhood’s great experiences.

My mother loved the opera and the theater and for some reason she took me on a Saturday to San Francisco to see Fellini’s “La Strada” when I was seven. It was a black-and-white, foreign film; moody, tragic – a curious and strange film for a seven year old.  Yet instead of repulsion, or worse boredom, I was fascinated. I loved the strangeness of it, the stark landscapes, the elfin waif, the brutish Anthony Quinn. Whatever my mother saw in me, wanted to expose me to remained a mystery.  Yet the film has moved me all these remaining years and continues to be significant and alluring. She was setting me up for something. I remember we didn’t speak all the way home. I sat looking at the landscape outside the car window.

That “La Strada” afternoon was one of those important memories of our relationship.

Making the Movie

James Koskinas

A new language to learn, thank god I have a master in Austin Texan John Witham, thirty odd years behind the camera and a performance artist to boot, an ex rock-and-roller. I’ve been hankering to get back on stage or performing again after my one man play a few years back.

JW is careful, methodical, professional. He balances my headstrong urges to rush in and shoot from the hip, it works with me being an action painter yet not in a long, detailed, arduous process like making a movie. And it’s not a short film either. We’re going for a full length feature. Daunting. But we’ve got stories, plenty of them, a backlog from the ones that didn’t make my one man play,” Even If the Mountains Burn.” Grist for the mill.


James, “shoot this part here.”

A film is like a giant moving painting with words. Oh, we’ll use my paintings as characters. In fact, JW has been lobbying for them from the beginning, and now I’ve moved away from the original movie idea which was to use most of my Vietnam stories again. I’m allowing the paintings to start telling their own stories, they are, in fact, how I ended up doing the play in the first place. That will be revealed in the film.

Every time I think something doesn’t really matter it comes back to show me that nothing is wasted. In art especially, there are no wrong turns or dead ends. So the new project is  up to date. JW says, it’s who I am now. The war stuff will inevitably reappear but I’m  thinking it may reveal all new stories. If you saw the play, this is another chapter, and if you didn’t you can catch part of it here on YouTube.

John Witham

Anyway this is whole new exploration of seeing that old character. Ways to show the experience I may never have thought about… a fresh take on it. The film is a mystery too – which the play wasn’t  In a strange way the war is an old friend, an old acquaintance at least. At this point I’m over the trauma of it, I went through that when I did my play. I think it will be more powerful. I’ve changed, written a lot since then, my artistic voice seems stronger, clearer. I’ve taken writing workshops with local author Robert Mayer,  lots of my own writing, out and about doing readings. Keeping it fresh.

Speaking of movies -how does one even start such a notion? …something so vast, so detailed and structured. Well the damn Texan got me into it really, he and all those people I kept seeing in the produce section at Trader Joe’s that kept asking, “when is the next play?” Carrots never tasted the same again. It wasn’t absolutely planned. I’d call it kismet. A slow dripping kismet, it snuck up on me.

JW is a quiet, still-waters-run-deep kind of a guy, humble, self effacing, but he’s got these iron arms. I was impressed with that. Quiet but substantial. He kept appearing in my life, here and there, around town, at parties, at readings, at Counter Culture, quiet but substantial. “I think we should work together, it will make us better men,” he kept repeating, quietly again. This sounds like a movie itself. Two gunfighters. Lets rob a bank, run a herd of cattle to California. Two wild guys that love samurai swords, that love to drive fast.



Hell, if you asked me straight up, let’s make a movie, let’s invest time and money in a potential public disaster, risk something so big, risk it all and trust in our own experiences, our own creativity, just what we’ve got now, whatever we’ve got inside us now, even if it’s 25 cents worth, I’d have said no.

But  here we are, I’m writing a new dialogue, a new script, we’re filming my paintings,  filming and recording stories, setting up lights, building our first sets and deciding on our first attack. I‘m not scared, but I will be.

Ironically, that’s when I’m most alive.