Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Weavings of Another Kind: Braided Pulla and Love.

by Lorna Kerin Beall

In Model T Biscuits Mama, Step-daddy and six-year-old Lorna head cross country in their Model T picking apples along the way to stretch their meager nest egg until they can find a little farm of their own. Mama shows her sisu, the Finnish word for guts, determination, and ingenuity, when she’s faced with no oven in the apple-picking camp. She surprises Lorna and Step-Daddy by baking biscuits on the engine (actually the flat head) of the Model T.

Earlier in the story, Step-Daddy recalls Mumu's baking. He rubs his belly and says, "That house always smelled of fresh bread." 
Lorna answers, "Know how we made it? Know how Mumu and I got the bread so skinny? And made the outside so crispy? We rolled the dough out flat. Then poke, poke, poke, we poked holes in it. Then we baked it smack-dab! - on the bottom of the oven. Mumu even let me..."

While I was writing Model T Biscuits, I tried to weave some Finnish customs and language into the story. One way I did this was by including traditional Finnish food. My mama, as well as my Finnish Mumu who raised me up until this point, loved to bake heino leip√§: Finnish flat bread, pulla: Finnish cinnamon rolls, and other braided kinds of pullaMy Mumu’s little home in Buffalo, South Dakota, always smelled of fresh-baked pastry. And the kahvi pot was always on for neighbors or passers-by who were welcome to pop in. Tugging her little sled, my small cousin, Willo Boe and our Mumu delivered homemade bread to shut-ins and other friends. In my story, the family heads out West and Lorna frets that Mumu won’t be able to deliver bread without her, since the wheel on her wobbly little wagon is broken.

The smell of fresh baked goods brings back cherished memories of Mumu and Mama baking in our big black cast iron stove. All kinds of love was kneaded and braided into these Finnish delights.

Here are two recipes that I included in prologue of, “Model T Biscuits.”  



MODEL T DROP BISCUITS

(Kids, you’ll need your Mama’s or Mumu’s help.)

Start up the Model T engine. Let it warm up.

If you don’t have a Model T, heat oven to 450 degrees.

Model T directions: Grease tin cake pan
Bake covered.

Oven: Use a tin cake pan. Do not grease. Do not cover.

2 cups flour
l/2 tsp. salt
4 teaspoons baking powder
l/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
2 teaspoons sugar
l/2 cup of lard or shortening
¾ cup buttermilk (Used canned milk in the Picking Camp.)
Mix dry ingredients. Add the lard or shortening.
Then add milk. Stir gently till soft dough forms.

Model T: Drop by spoonfuls on a greased cake pan.

Oven: Drop by spoonfuls onto an ungreased cake pan..

Model T: Check frequently.

Oven: Bake for seven to nine minutes.

*Or buy canned biscuit dough from the supermarket.
Make and bake according to directions on the package.

Serve the biscuits hot with butter and honey.

IF POSSIBLE LOOK AT SUNRISE WHILE EATING.

MUMU’S THIN BREAD

(Kids, you’ll need Mama or Mumu’s help!)

l package or cake of yeast
l/4 cup lukewarm water
2 cups lukewarm milk
3 tablespoons sugar
l l/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons shortening
6 cups flour

Dissolve yeast in lukewarm water. Mix milk, sugar and half of
flour into the yeast mixture. Melt shortening and pour over the mixture.
Add the salt and the rest of the flour a little at a time kneading in to make a stiff dough.
Turn out onto a floured board. Knead again.

Flatten out dough with a rolling pin (roll-roll-roll) to about
l l/2 inch thickness. Punch holes with a fork (poke-poke-poke.)
And brush with milk.
Let rise only a short time.
Bake on greased cookie sheet at 425 degree oven about 30 to 40 minutes.

*Or buy frozen dough from store. Thaw. Put on floured board. Flatten with a rolling pin to about 1& ½ inches.
Punch holes with fork. And brush with milk.
Let rise only a short time.
Bake on greased cookie sheet at 425 degree oven 30 to 40 minutes.

 EAT THE THIN BREAD WITH YOUR LOVING FAMILY!
IN YOUR OMA TUPA! (YOUR OWN HOME.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Critiquing My Mommy

Jana Segal

After getting a crash course in critiquing from Brandeis, I watched a news program about a tugboat being sunk to create an artificial reef because the boaters destroyed the reefs where the sea creatures lived. I thought it would make a great picture book, so I shared it with my mom. This is when I started critiquing my mom's children's picture book manuscripts. It was a bit of a stretch since I hadn't read any kids books since I was little. Not really my thing. A little too cutesy for my taste. I was more into reading plays and screenplays. Tennessee Williams. Grad school made me into a hardened critquer, but my sweet mommie learned to take it – and like it. The other day I was critiquing a fellow filmmaker's script before I could get to hers and she was actually jealous.

I used to type up a few pages of  notes, but I found it easier to jot down the notes right onto the manuscript. I'd send the whole manuscript back in the mail.  Sometimes I gave her feedback when I came home for Christmas. After catching up on family gossip, we would sit on the couch, my mom sipping from a jar of green tea, and go through my notes. When the price of long distance came down, I read my comments over the phone as she followed along in the manuscript. But this can be a long, tedious process – especially if she starts defending her writing. Argh! I forgot about that.

At first I had a problem with the cutesy word play in her children's stories. I wrote all over her manuscript, “Too cutesy!” She liked to make up descriptive words like pew-mongous (big stink) and puffle snuffle (the sound of the tired tug.) I didn't know how much cutesy was acceptable for children's books. This was a little point of contention. Mom insisted that it was her style. But it drove me crazy! Mom had created a captain character who pulled on his nose when he was worried. There were two phrases in particular that bothered me, “Old Snozzy yanked on his nose like it was a clump of seaweed;” and, “Still he jerked on his nose like a piece of beef jerky.” (Now, really, how often do you yank on seaweed or jerk on beef jerky?) 

Not knowing much about children's writing, I often referred to dramatic concepts I learned in the theater. I encouraged her to strengthen the character's goal and motivation, add more action and conflict then build to a climax . My mom created her own unique style using her descriptive gifts to great effect in exciting action sequences. Her colorful, bouncy descriptions also added to the fun of the underwater see world. While working on the rhythm of some phrases, I started playing around with cutesy wording myself. It's fun! Recently, I read a rewrite and actually missed some of the “cutesy” words she had cut out!

When she finished her tugboat series, mom started on a new kind of book inspired by her family history called, Model T Biscuits. I was so excited about her story that I asked her if I could work on the screenplay adaptation. After critiquing rewrite after rewrite, I knew the story so well that it only took two weeks to write the 35 page script. That felt great! (Especially since it took me YEARS to write, Walking with Grace!)

When adapting the book for the screen, I tried to find ways to show the internal dialogue through actions and dialogue. (For you new screenwriters – nothing goes in the screenplay that we can't see or hear. The one exception is the one sentence description when you first introduce a character.) The book version includes little Lorna's jealous thoughts about the little rich girl in a white dress that her mom took care of in the city. I added a scene where Lorna sees a similar white dress in a store window and changes into it so her mother will love her too. I also worked on centering the story around the conflict of their financial difficulties during their cross-county trek. If they didn't have enough money, they wouldn't be able to get their little farm.

I was honored to do the adaptation so I could stay true to my mom's vision. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

PATCHWORK WRITING

by Lorna Kerin Beall

After Jana did the screenplay adaptation of Model T Biscuits she had several of her filmmaker friends critique it before sending it out to a contest. Some had the feeling that our protagonist, 8-year-old Lorna, was a little too whiny and needy and therefore not completely likable. A few of my writer friends had the same opinion. (While others loved her just as she was.) My opinion, Little Lorna was me! Now what was not likable about perfect little fictional me? Ha! Obviously I was too close to the situation to see clearly. Perhaps some of you may be able to relate to this problem when basing fiction on your own lives.


In Model T Biscuits,  little Lorna was overjoyed to be reunited with her Mama after being raised by her Finnish Mumu. She was also anxious that Mama might not stick around. So what was the problem? Lorna didn’t really want Mama and Step-Daddy (who were newlyweds) to hold hands, smooch or have privacy at bedtime. After getting her friends’ feedback, Jana suggested that I have the parents hang a sheet in the corner of the migrant apple-picking shack, and have Lorna come to accept it. This enabled me to have Step-Daddy duck under the sheet and to give Lorna her rag doll in order to show his love and tenderness early on. So honoring their feedback by patching up that issue inspired more creative ideas!

Besides working on the screenplay, I continued to tweak my children’s novel, Model T Biscuits, which the screenplay was based on. Advice from our writer friends was extremely helpful. We weighed each suggestion carefully, though we might not always take it. Later I joined a local critique group, which is invaluable, and have been privileged to work with my SCBWI mentor, Leslie Wyatt on my children’s novel, Wormy Bean Winter.

Patchwork quilts are sometimes stitched by a group of caring hands. I am grateful for the writers who have helped us stitch (or take out stitches) in our writing endeavors.

Monday, July 18, 2011

How to Grow a Thick Skin (or Getting Your Writing Critiqued)

by Jana Segal

I am a strong believer that getting good feedback is an indispensable part of the writer's craft. After adapting my mom's childhood story Model T Biscuits into a short screenplay,  I gave the script to five screenwriters/filmmakers to critique. They all said that the little girl was too whiny and needy. It made her unlikeable. (Hey! That's my mommy you're talkin' about!) But if five people agree, there must be something to it. We rewrote it, making her less needy and we won two screenwriting contests.


Now, I know from experience that it is hard to have someone tear apart your creation, your baby. But I have found, that as the writer, I am just too close to the material to know if I am getting the point across. Sometimes I'm too subtle or sometimes I think something is there, that just isn't. I guess my mind fills in the blanks.

I remember my first college playwriting professor, Doctor Louis saying, “It's not as coherent as you think it is.” Ouch! I thought, “What's not clear?” While digging through my college papers, I found a scrap of paper that read, “Writing is rewriting. Doc.” Truer words have never been said. (I still get a yearly Christmas poem from Doc.)

I got my first lessons in critiquing while attending Brandeis University. The playwriting program consisted mostly of a weekly script reading performed by third year actors and then feedback lead by a dramaturg. (one of my fellow, overly competitive playwrights) Finally, it was my turn. I had them read my beloved musical, “Seeker” a true story about a legally blind woman who dreamed of being a dancer. I left in tears because another playwright was laughing at my baby, my award winning musical! The playwright confessed that while she was reading it, all she could see was the Saturday Night Live skit where the blind dancers ran into each other and leaped off the stage. Needless to say, I didn't find her feedback very constructive. Seems kinda funny now.

I learned how to write screenplays by reading books and having my script, “Walking with Grace” workshopped (ie. critiqued) at the Frederick Douglas Creative Arts Center in New York. “Walking with Grace” was inspired by a true event in my life when I took care of sweet elderly couple who was dealing with the wife, Grace's, Alzheimers disease. It was really a love project, but I was too close to it to see it objectively. I had written it with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn in mind. In fact, I looked at a picture of Jessica while I wrote. I sent a query letter to Ms. Tandy through her agent. Mr. Cronyn sent me a handwritten response saying that they could never read my script because it was too depressing. His wife was going through the same thing. So, I needed to mellow out the harsh reality and show more of the love I had for Grace. At the FDCAC, they said that they couldn't believe that a 20 year old would stay in an abusive situation like that. So I had to make my character a granddaughter rather than a home health aide. I had to develop that character's backstory and write another draft that revolved around her as the main character. 

I had every draft critiqued.  I suppose at some point, every writer and filmmaker I knew had read my screenplay. For the price of some sweet and sour meatballs, a group of Tucson screen actors read my script aloud around my kitchen table and gave me some more feedback. It was touching to hear my words performed. It all paid off when a local Theater Company, Damesrocket, did a reading with a director and actors. It was very full-filling to see the audience's reaction to my work. (And a rare treat for a screenwriter.) A man came up to me crying. He said that the old man reminded him of his father. 

I highly recommend putting together a writers' group with people you trust to give you honest, constructive feedback. Feedback is an iffy thing. Sometimes it can hurt. You have to put on a thick skin and pick and choose what feedback is useful. Some people just wont get it. Sometimes they don't even like the genre. My rule of thumb is that if several people say the same thing, it's worth considering. But in the end, it is your writing.   

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Piecing Patchwork Memories for Wormy Bean Winter


 by Lorna Kerin Beall

    When Jana and I accepted our screenplay award for Model T Biscuits at Santa Clarita, and she’d given her articulate acceptance speech, I stammered a few nervous sentences. I managed to end by saying that it was my Finnish mom and her sisu, (the Finnish word for guts and determination) that inspired me to write Model T.
   
    Later, as I pondered my mother’s courage, I began to remember what I heard about her childhood as her family homesteaded on the South Dakota prairie. I didn’t have much to go on at first. I recalled that she’d told me that her younger sisters, Irene and Leona had slept in the same bed with her which kept them warmer in the bitter winter weather and caused them to roast like sticky marshmallows in the summer. We had a black and white snapshot of Mom, her brother Gus, and Irene and Leona playing with bits of broken crockery using snake holes in the side of a Butte for a cupboard! (Scary.)
                                                                                                                              
      Mom, Dad and I had a small farm in Prosser, Washington. Mom loved to work outside with cows, calves chicken and such. All of our cows and calves had names. I had a steer named Cocoa that I rode all over the farm. I only fell off one time, when he jumped over a little ditch.

    Mom told me several times that when she was a child she’d been stuck in their homestead shack doing inside chores while her sister, Irene, who would’ve loved changing places with her, got to work outside. There was enough outdoor work to go around since they had to haul water from way out by the barn, carry wood in and ashes out, and chop out a multitude of wounding cacti.  I know they all had to pitch hay from dawn to dusk at haying time.

Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo 

My grandmother ( Finnish Mumu) also inspired me. My Omaha cousin had written several inspirational articles about our mumu’s sisu. If I remember correctly these were published in some senior citizen magazines. As a child our mumu was once surrounded by a wolf pack and survived. And as an adult she’d encountered a different type of predator - the two legged kind - whom she met head-on with a pitchfork.  
                                                                                                                           
Hearing about these incidents and talking to my cousin, inspired me to begin writing a middle-grade, multi-cultural novel, Wormy Bean Winter. It would be loosely based on our family’s homesteading adventures on the prairie. Since it was to be a children’s novel, I made my mom the 12-years-old protagonist, always keeping in mind that all of her family members had a lot of faith and sisu.

  But where to start? I formulated a long list of questions, ranging from “How far did the family have to carry water?” to “Did you have a Christmas tree?” I even asked, “Were you hugged and kissed a lot by your parents?” I sent my questions to my cousin, Willo Boe, who lovingly and eagerly began to help and contacted other family members. In fact, she was inspired to write three wonderful non-fiction books of her own with amazing photos about our family. (These have been invaluable help in my writing.) In the first, she wrote in the acknowledgments, “Without my cousin, Lorna Beall’s curiosity regarding our grandparents’ lives, none of us would have considered the project.”

Our family heritage is a beautiful patchwork quilt pieced with both soft and more durable rag pieces.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

If the Dress Fits - the Making of a $99 Movie



by Jana Segal

After I recovered from the trauma of making a 17 minute Western in 18 hours, several people from my directing group suggested that it might be easier to make a really short short next. At that time, IFP Phoenix (then called the Phoenix Film Project) had a 24 hour film contest that allowed you $100 to shoot a three minute film. That was all the inspiration I needed! I started pre-production by reserving a mini DV camera and lighting equipment at Access Tucson http://accesstucson.org/ and writing a three page script called, “If the Dress Fits.”

The $100 budget rule was very freeing because when I approached merchants requesting donations, they couldn't haggle over the price. I enlisted the help of the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce president convincing her that my $100 video would be a great advertisement for the tourist town of Tombstone. Together we moseyed down Allen Street where she introduced me to several local merchants. Meanwhile, I was also making a documentary on the making of a $99 film, so there was a video camera aimed at the merchants while I hit them up for donations. This proved to be extremely helpful. I'll never forget the nervous smile on one dress shop owner's face when I explained I couldn't pay because of the $100 rule. (And I don't have to because I got it on tape! Hahaha!) But she came through by volunteering her shop for a location. (I have admit it was cool to shoot where one of Tombstone's notorious bad guys was shot.)

I don't know if it was the loaded camera aimed at them, but everyone in Tombstone was so nice and helpful. Whenever I'm in town, I still stop by to say, “hi” to the nice woman who let us shoot in her historic B & B. She had even recruited her whole family to work as extras in full period garb.


“If the Dress Fit.” is the story of a modern city gal who is dragged to Tombstone, Arizona to approve the "Wyatt Earp" suit her dorky fiancee wants to wear to their wedding. She tries on an antique dress that triggers memories of her past life in the 1880s. After reading my script, my directing group gave me some excellent feedback. They said it seemed like an awfully complicated story for a three minute film. I really should have listened, but I was dying to shoot my story in Tombstone. When I first visited Tombstone in 1996, I felt an instant connection. (Which is strange because I never really liked Westerns growing up.) I especially felt drawn to the Birdcage Theater which I visited every time I was in town. I loved hearing the history of this wild honky-tonk and the rumors that it was haunted. I can still point out all the bullets that riddle the walls. Eventually, the manager started letting me in free as honorary Tombstone resident.

Thrilled for any excuse to visit Tombstone, I went there to scout locations and do some casting. I was tickled to get the Tombstone Cowboys who performed my favorite stunt-show at the Heldorado stage. One of the stuntmen at the time was Chris Simcox (who later earned notoriety for starting Civil Home Defense to patrol the border with guns.) We recorded one rehearsal where I explained my convoluted story to him. He mugs into camera as if to say, “What the heck is this crazy lady talkin' about?”

I returned to Tombstone for a read-through with the cast. The Birdcage manager kindly let us use the backstage area for our rehearsal. I was so jazzed! I thought rehearsing there would help my actress get closer to her character (who had worked at the Birdcage in her past life.) But when we toured the theater, the actress started feeling nauseous and faint. I figured it must be allergies to the dust. She finally ran out of the room holding her stomach, “I have to get out of here!” Later, she explained that she had seen someone she knew from a past life up on catwalk. Spooky. I guess she was a little too close to the part.

The 24 hour rule worked to my advantage and disadvantage. The fact that it had to be shot in one day was a great selling point for my volunteer crew. I was lucky enough to get a professional DP (camera man) and experienced actors to agree to work for free for only one day. Of course, it would only take one delay to throw the whole schedule off. But what could go wrong?

Anyone who has ever worked on a movie set knows – anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. We were all set up to shoot the first scene, but one of the actors showed up late throwing off the whole schedule. When we finally got to the next location, all the extras for our crowd scene were long gone. When your DP brags that he can make two people look like a crowd, don't believe him. He cant. Without the crowd to show that it is a gunfight reenactment, the movie doesn't quite make sense.

So I learned two lessons from this: 1) Listen to your director friends when they tell you can't make a complicated story in three minutes. 2) Don't have more then one or two locations for a one day shoot. Unfortunately, we had four: the dress shop (exterior and interior), the stunt-show set, the bordello room. A shot of the Birdcage would have been nice too. Very nice.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

How I Came to Write "Model T Biscuits"


Lorna Kerin Beall

    I have a very poignant memory of one Sunday when I was 6-years-old. Recalling this incident is what inspired me to begin writing Model T Biscuits. Remembering the experience makes me feel like I am that little girl again.

    I was attending the Cave Hills Lutheran Church, near Buffalo, South Dakota, with my Mumu (my Finnish Grandma.) I clung to Mumu’s hand. Though all the folks, who seemed very big and old to me, were friendly, I had a lonesome feeling way down in my tummy. I missed my freckly, redheaded Mama. Unable to find work close by, she was away working in the big city of Chicago as a governess. I had trouble saying the word “governess,” and Mama had told me I could say, “nanny.” She sent me a postcard with lots of tall skinny buildings on it. They looked scary. But the XOXO’s she scribbled on the other side of the scary postcard made me feel all better.

    One time when she was home for a visit, she showed me a picture of the boy and girl she took care of, Charles and Jacqueline. They were standing as pretty-as-you-please in front of a big mansion. “Is that our house, Mama?” I’d asked. She shook her head, and reassured me that someday we’d have our oma tupa, our own home. I tried very hard to pronounce the girls name. “Jac – Jac…” Mama told me I could call the little rich girl Jackie. Jackie was dressed in a frilly white dress that was prettier than any I owned. And Charles had a white shirt and shorts on. Also suspenders. I wished I knew what color those suspenders were. Everything in the photograph was black and white. Even Mama’s red hair. She was in the picture, too, holding onto the children’s hands. I didn’t like that. She was my Mama.

    I knew my Mumu loved me. Our little stucco house always smelled for homemade thin bread. She called it a big Finnish word I couldn’t say, something -- leapa. Only she spelled that last part “l-e-i-p-√§.” Mumu and my Aunts loved to chatter away in those hard words that I couldn’t understand. I don’t think they wanted me know what they were saying. From the funny looks on their faces I knew they were telling secrets.

     Mama married my Step-Daddy, and they came to see us. They said they were going to Wash-ing-ton, State, to see his sister, Sill. They promised to take me too. But I didn’t believe them.  I always raised a big noisy fuss when Mama had to go back to Chicago after a trip home, so she’d sneak off in the middle of the night. I was afraid they’d sneak off without me.  So I hid away in he back seat of our
Model T.

    And that’s where and when Model T Biscuits begins.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Family and Family Heritage Inspire Writing


by Lorna Kerin Beall

Who would think that a little girl raised in a tiny farm house with only two books to her name, (“Heidi” and “Cherry Ames, Student Nurse”) would develop a life long love of reading and writing. I have been writing for over 50 years, publishing articles and short story manuscripts in magazines such as Guideposts. One was reprinted in a Hallmark book. These minor early successes encouraged me to persevere and develop my distinctive voice. During this time I was also progressing to children’s picture book manuscripts. Having raised six children and taught Sunday school for disabled children, I saw a need for more books that dealt with children's issues. So I wrote books that centered both on light-hearted issues, such as discovering the simple treasures in life, and more serious issues such as child abuse. Wanting to communicate to children, I volunteered to read my picture books in my own children’s classrooms. It meant so much when I saw the flicker in the kids’ eyes.

About 20 years ago, I attended my first SCBWI conference. Seeing all those people writing children's books opened up a whole new world to me. Since then I’ve completed quite a body of work, writing both picture books and children’s novel manuscripts. My middle-grade novel, “Model T Biscuits” is very dear to my heart because it is inspired by my experience of being reunited with my mother in 1948 after being raised for my first six years by my Finnish Mumu (Grandmother) in Buffalo, South Dakota. This became a family project when my oldest daughter, Jana Segal, worked with me on the screenplay adaptation further carrying on our family heritage. Our script won first place in the Santa Clarita International Family Film Festival as well as the Moondance International Film Festival short screenplay contests. At Santa Clarita, we had the pleasure of seeing our script read by actors from the Dee Wallace acting studio.

Some years back, I attended a family reunion in South Dakota and heard stories of how my Finnish grandparents survived the harsh prairie winters in their homestead shack. They really had what we Finns call sisu or guts and determination. These family stories inspired my historical fiction, middle-grade novel, “Wormy Bean Winter.” This past year, I was honored with a Missouri SCBWI mentorship to work on “Wormy Bean Winter” with children’s author, Leslie J. Wyatt. That experience was incredibly rewarding, and I know that my manuscript is much stronger thanks to Leslie.

I am grateful for my small town upbringing in Buffalo, South Dakota and Prosser, Washington that taught me the value of family and heritage that influences my writing today.

The Making of a Micro Budget Western, Desert Angel


Heidi Brozek and Milt PapaGeorge in "Desert Angel." 

by Jana Segal

While I was working on my Tombstone comedy script, I started to get the itch to make another short. I was doing a lot research on Tombstone in the 1880s trying to get into the mind set of that time period (the language, the customs, etc.) So I read a collection stories of the old West and found Charlotte Hall's 1880's story, "The Fruit of the Yucca Tree" about a pioneer couple lost in the desert on Christmas Eve. I thought this would be the perfect second project because I could keep my head in the same general time period that I was already researching. Also, it could be shot all on one set much like a play - so I could concentrate on adapting script and working with the actors. (It also didn't hurt that it was in the public domain.) Heidi Brozek, the actress I worked with at the directing workshop, had suggested that I write another short that we could produce together and that became, "Desert Angel." We decided to have the pioneer wife be of Polish descent so the wife could share one last Polish Christmas with her dying husband. We incorporated Heidi's Polish heritage by using Polish costumes and customs including paper cutout tree ornaments and the tradition of hiding hay under the place mat.  I think the Polish customs really make the film. We screened it for a Tucson Polish club. They were so moved by seeing their customs on film, that they passed a hat to help pay for the expenses.  

The thing I love best about filmmaking is working with talented artists of different disciplines - actors, costumers, cinematographers, photographers, set designers, writers, musicians, etc. I reconnected with my old Brandeis classmate Paul Sedgwick after finding him on his didgeridoo website.  Paul, who played the crusty banjo picking prospector, researched the music of the time and performs it on a vintage banjo accompanied by the West River Band.  Richard Tompkins wrote the touching song, "If I Could Only Fly" especially for the short.


DESERT ANGEL had it's premier screening at Scheffalin Hall in Tombstone, Arizona to an enthusiastic audience. Here is my post-screening speech. 

Once, I read in a low budget filmmaking book that the micro budget filmmaker should make a list of all the things he has free access to such as locations, vehicles, props, etc. I thought how easy it will be to put a wagon out in the desert and shoot it all on one set. We live in the desert and I see wagons all over town. It turned out to be REALLY hard. First, you need to find a wagon and get it to the desert. It is actually pretty hard to move those antique wagons. Then you need electricity for the lighting equipment. In our story, the pioneers are lost in the desert, so there probably wouldn't be any loud generators out there. And then you have to be able to legally have a camp fire. I researched different state parks and they required special licenses. That was more trouble than it was worth, so we ended up shooting in Old Tucson Studios where they had electricity and they let us have our fire. We paid a discounted rate of $500 to shoot for two days. (Their usual price is $1,600. a day.) And we also had to have $500 insurance. But that price included three costumes, moving the wagon, security guards and a horse. And everyone at Old Tucson was just so helpful. It was definitely worth it. (The entire cost the 17 minute video was $3000 which included an airline ticket for our banjo player, the props, costumes, a wig, an additional light set to supplement our free Access Tucson equipment, a propane tank to keep the campfire consistent, and yummy craft services.)

Unfortunately, there were record winds on the day we shot. So we had to shoot between gusts of winds. (And around the Park's stunt show schedule -- which we happily agreed to because they gave us such a swimming deal.) When the wind finally died down at 2 a.m. we heard AIRPLANES overhead! And cars -- in the middle of  the night! We shot for thirteen hours getting burned by the sun in the day and shivering at night. Despite wearing a protective hat and constantly reapplying the strongest sunscreen, my face was puffed up from being out there in the extreme elements so long. We pulled off a minor miracle shooting a 17 minute Western in 18 hours!  Needless to say, we didn't get up for our 4 a.m. sunrise shoot. But we were there when the park opened and heard the train ride conductor announce that we were shooting a movie on the High Chaparral set! (If you listen real carefully you can hear a train whistle in the last scene of our film. This is funny when you consider that our characters where supposed to be lost in the desert and they were within hearing distance of that train the whole time! Makes me chuckle anyway...) Still, what a thrill to shoot on the High Chaparral set and at the same studio where John Wayne shot many of his Westerns! 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Rocky, Twisted Road to Finding My True Passion


by Jana Segal

I spent my childhood dreaming of being a musical theater actress. There weren't many opportunities for acting in the small towns where we lived in the high desert and then rural Missouri. And there was no money for dance or singing lessons. Being a writer herself, my mom always supported my art and drove me to an nearby town to be in a couple of community theater productions. Mostly I checked out Broadway albums from the library and sang along with them. I had always had a gift for writing songs but I had never played an instrument, so I couldn't write them down. So I would sing my creations over and over until I learned them and then sing them into a tape recorder. One of my best memories of growing up was sitting on my mom's bed and singing her my latest song.



No one in our family had ever gone to college, but I put together an audition piece from the musical, "Chicago" and applied to Avila College. By the time I got to Avila on a performing arts scholarship, I was longing to act. But they didn't let Freshman perform in plays. My heart was set on doing musical theater, but I found that the other Performing Arts majors had years of dance classes and voice lessons. Anyway, it didn't help that I threw my knee out (trying to do the splits on the couch like my gymnast sister) right before taking my first ballet class. But I did my best to amuse the nursing majors in the dorm, practicing my clumsy pirouettes down the hall. One of my wiser ballet teachers said that I had the soul of a dancer (if not the body.) At this time I was also writing plays and songs, so I tried to learn to read music and sight sing. Unfortunately, there was a mean nun who would humiliate me in front of the class because she resented that I had never learned an instrument. Overwhelmed by voice lessons, piano lessons, dance lessons, scene production, and acting, I never did learn to sight sing. But encouraged by my playwriting professor, I wrote two musicals, “Magic Shoes” and “Seeker.” (A music major wrote down my melodies and arranged the accompaniment.) Boy did I show that nun when I won third place in the Missouri College Theater Fest for my musical, "Seeker."  I went on to get my MFA in Dramatic Writing from Brandeis University.

Since then, my passion has shifted to screenwriting. My professional career hasn't exactly taken off partially because I choose only to work on love projects instead of big budget, high concept scripts. But my screenplay, "Walking with Grace" was workshopped at the Frederick Douglas Creative Writing workshop in NY and received a staged reading by Damesrocket theater company in Tucson. I shopped it around Hollywood a bit, got nice comments from some producers, but they said that no one would ever buy a script about old people. (Of course, a few years later, "The Notebook" came out followed by "Away with Her" and "Savages." Oh, well.) At least I had the satisfaction of seeing it performed before it went into the shoe-box under my bed. 

I finally decided that if I wanted to see my work on the big screen, I would have to do it myself. Encouraged by my husband, I produced my short comedy called, "The Bath-a-holic" about a family conducting an intervention on their mother who is addicted to baths and showers. Despite some embarrassing technical problems (in a couple of shots there is too much light reflected on the mother's wet face) it was well received at the premiere and the screening at the Arizona International Film Festival. People laughed in all the right places! 



Meanwhile, I continued to write my love projects. I spent about a year helping my mom by critiquing several drafts of her children's chapter book based on her true story of being reunited with her mother, called, "Model T Biscuits." This story was so full of love that it inspired me to work with my mother on a short script adaptation that eventually won first place in two screenplay competitions. At the time, we were so excited that we started scouting locations in the little Arizona town of Wilcox. I even directed a scene from it at the Pasternak Directing workshop. (A workshop I organized as president of the Tucson filmmakers group AIVF.) Then I pitched the script to some production companies but the consensus was that they could do nothing with a short script. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to expand it without losing the endearing simplicity of the story. So I set it aside. Perhaps I was too close to it,  but I couldn't figure it out for years. Lately, I've been getting the itch to produce this cherished family story.