The Writing Life: reflections by a working writer. The Writing Life

Reflections of a working writer, a university screenwriting professor, and the editor of Oregon Literary Review.

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Charles Deemer

Oregon Literary Review

MFA, Playwriting, University of Oregon

Writing faculty, Portland State University (part-time)

Retired playwright and screenwriter.
Active novelist, librettist and teacher.

Email: cdeemer(at)yahoo(dot)com

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scribble, scribble, scribble
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Bow. James Bow.
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It Beats Working 9-5
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Stealing Heaven From The Lips Of God
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Robert Peake
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The Writing Life...
"An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's."
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A friend over beer, Berkeley, winter, 1959

"And it came to pass that all the stars in the firmament had ceased to shine. But how was anyone to know?"
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The Writing Life II

(Posts archived here are from 01/10/03 - 10/31/06)

Thursday, May 29, 2003  
Tom Shaw
[from a memoir in progress, which began on 4/13/03]
Tom Shaw has never gotten his due in Portland, Oregon. From the late 1970s through the 1980s, Shaw was a kind of Godfather to a fringe film community through which later film artists passed, including future director Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), future cinematographer Eric Edwards (My Own Private Idaho), future filmmaker and writer Penny Allen (Property), myself, and many others, especially actors. Shaw loaned out his film equipment to budding filmmakers, let budding scriptwriters use his office copy machine and laser printer, gave budding actors movie roles, and filled up anybody who stopped by to talk film with great quantities of free booze and food.

Tom himself was a frustrated director. He threw money around like he was a Hollywood bigshot, which of course he wasn’t. He’d made his money in the pornography industry, first as the inventor of the machinery that let coin machines loop their girlie flicks, later as the owner of a number of porno stores throughout the Pacific Northwest. His occasional attempt to produce and direct a porno movie himself always turned into a comedy of errors. An acquaintance who used to work for Shaw as a cameraman is working on a screenplay about one such adventure, and if he does it right, it will be a very funny movie.

By trade Shaw was a machinist and sometimes inventor. Most of his movie ideas were excuses to build and use one of his inventions. For example, the kid flick that I was hired to work on became Brats on the Mountain. The story line was simple: a group of kids run across two robbers on the run in a mountain cabin and torment them. In the end, they tie them down on a roller bed and send them on a wild ride down the mountain highway. Designing and building this bed, figuring out how to pull it down the highway without endangering the actors, as well as how to film it so it looked like a roller bed on the loose – these were the problems that Shaw liked to solve. Unfortunately, he was a man who, for all his generosity, could not delegate power or responsibility on his own projects, so he ended up doing things for which he had little talent, such as rewriting scripts and directing actors.

Tom was a big drinker, which is another reason we got along. Off and on, I worked for him for ten years as a writer, gofer, bookkeeper, gofer, drinking companion, gofer, driver, gofer, production assistant, gofer, acting coach, gofer, script reader, gofer, script consultant, gofer, secretary, gofter, bartender, gofer, janitor, gofer, party planner, gofer, and traveling companion when Shaw needed someone to accompany him when he flew his Cessna to Seattle to a film conference or to Montana to check on his porno stores. He was generous to a fault. He was stubborn to a fault. I’ve never met anyone quite like him.

Tom got emphysema and died, I’m told, by unplugging himself from his oxygen tank one night. He deserved a big write up in the paper about his support of Portland’s fledgling film industry but he didn’t get it. Earlier the alternative weekly newspaper in town had profiled him but Tom didn’t like the story because the reporter dug too deeply into his porno business. He longed to be accepted as a legitimate producer and director.

When I left Maryland, I traveled light, bringing clothes, a few books, and boxes of manuscripts. Most of what I owned was my writing. What I couldn’t carry onto the plane, I’d shipped to Crooks’ ranch in Oregon.

Coming to Portland to begin work for Shaw, I traveled even lighter. Crooks let me store my many boxes of manuscripts until I got settled. He gave me a ride to Portland, and I brought only my sleeping bag, portable typewriter, clothes and toiletries.

Since I didn’t have a place to stay, Shaw let me crash in his new “movie studio.” He’d purchased a small building near his home, the kind of place that might have been an auto parts store, and was in the process of turning it into the home of Tom Shaw Productions, complete with a front reception area, his own plush office, a work area filled with computers and copy machines, an editing room and a large basement where he could build sets and film interiors. I slept on the floor of the studio for my first several months in Portland.

My first task was to rewrite the script. While I was doing this, Tom began auditions for half-a-dozen child actors and two adult actors. I was learning many new skills on the job, such as using a computer and a video camera. One day a week, Tom and I drove to Mt. Hood and started scouting locations, the most important being a mountain cabin where much of the story would take place. We found a perfect A-frame but the owners wouldn’t rent it to us. We settled for a smaller log cabin, which Tom secured for six consecutive weekends. We had twelve shooting days in which to make our movie.

My job during the shoot turned out to be a nightmare. The kids were scattered all over the Portland metropolitan area, and it was my job the round them up in Tom’s car each Saturday and Sunday morning. In order to get everybody to the studio in time for everyone to leave in Tom’s van and get to the mountain to begin work by eight in the morning, I had to start my pickup service before five in the morning. This was the easy part. The hard part was driving the kids home after a day of stressful shooting. I usually didn’t finish up until around nine at night. Then I’d treat myself to a steak dinner and a few martinis and crash in my sleeping bag at the studio, with an alarm clock set Saturday night so I could get up at four-thirty and start the routine over again.

The shoot itself was usually chaotic. Only Eric Edwards, the cinematographer and cameraman, had any real experience. Tom, a Rhode Island Yankee of few words, most of which sounded like a grunt, was not good with kids in the best of circumstances, which trying to get them to act natural in a movie was not. Each scene had many, many takes with Tom getting more frustrated by the minute. Sometimes he would blame everything on the screenwriter, who now was yours truly. Some nights he had me revising script pages at night after I got back to the studio from returning the kids.

But I was mostly enjoying myself because so much was new to me. The movie actually got made, and we began an even longer process of post-production.

During my stay at the studio, there were nights when I got lonely and horny enough to phone the only woman I felt involved with at the time, who was Faye in Maryland. Usually it would be so late on the east coast I’d wake her up. I figured out it was a better idea to call her early in the morning my time, catching her in a better mood as she got ready to go to classes. I made the Shaw movie sound like a bigger deal than it was, and Faye was impressed that I already was “making movies” way out in Oregon. She’d never been west of D.C. before. I suggested she come out for a visit after she graduated. Oregon was God’s country, I told her.

5/29/2003 06:29:00 AM | 0 comments

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