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  • Zoe Elton

MY LIFE IN FILM: Zooming in Place with Thousand Pieces of Gold

If necessity is the mother of invention, creativity is the godmother of reinvention. And in mid-March, reinvention became essential for those of us running a business based on real-time gatherings—a cinema, film festivals, education programs. Our work is all about interaction with real people in physical space: at screenings, Q&As, workshops, events. We breathe the same air as each other. And then, there’s travel—my work at Mill Valley Film Festival includes bringing in a community of filmmakers from around the world. Facing the conundrum of how to reinvent all of this became as much a daily practice as sheltering in place and social distancing for my comrades and me at the California Film Institute.

But first up, we had to deal with our theater.

Within two weeks of having to close in March, the Rafael Film Center was showing films again. But now, online—streaming films, hosting virtual Q&As with filmmakers. Under non-pandemic circumstances, it would have taken us years to achieve this shift: meetings, research, data, fundraising, meetings, launch plan, marketing plan, meetings... I mean, if you have to reinvent the wheel, how do you decide what color it should be? But in the craziness of this time, the wheels and reels barely skipped a beat. We shifted into overdrive—and all of a sudden, Rafael@Home was born. And with it, in-person, on stage filmmaker Q&As moved into our living rooms. We were zooming in place.

So there I was, six weeks into lockdown, sitting on my sofa in Oakland (no commute—yay!) getting ready to do a Zoom Q&A about Thousand Pieces Of Gold. Revisiting this thirty year old film brings up a ton of memories of that time, including an encounter with Agnès Varda and remembering what a seminal moment that was in the film world. But I rein those thoughts in, and focus on the conversation at hand with director Nancy Kelly, her partner and editor Kenji Yamamoto, her actors Rosalind Chao and Chris Cooper.

It’s late afternoon in California and I’m barely out of my jammies. On the east coast, Chris’s wife sets up the computer and Chris joins with a glass of red wine in hand. Nancy and Kenji join, together on a single screen; Rosalind joins from southern California. Our tech team reviews the show with us: we go live at five, I count to three silently before starting so that participants have a moment to sign in. The Q&A tab is at the bottom of the screen, questions will roll on the right side. Different protocols from being on stage. The learning curve is acute.

And, for a Q&A where we are in each other’s company onscreen, not onstage, the dress code is —whatever. Sweats, casual. No heels and fancy frocks, no red carpet prelude to Awards season.

As we wait in our virtual green room, it’s obvious that for the film team this is like a reunion, a meeting of friends from way back. TPOG was released in 1990, the heyday of American Indie film. It was Chris’s first movie: before this, he was a theater actor. It was Rosalind’s first big role. And it was Nancy’s first feature, her first fiction film. That said: to date it’s her only fiction film. Needless to say, that is a topic unto itself, which Nancy recently addressed in IndieWire.

Five o’clock comes, I silently count to three, the Q&A begins.

Nancy recounted discovering the novel Thousand Pieces of Gold on a layover at the airport in Sun Valley, Idaho after a screening of her film Cowgirls. She remembers picking it up and thinking, "Wow. Chinese women in the West, what's that all about?" Within a couple of hours, she had read the book and knew she wanted to make it into a narrative feature. It had a special resonance for Kenji, too, in its story of immigration and outsiders, notably as his parents were interned during World War II and it resonated with his and his family's experiences with racism.

For Rosalind Chao, “It was like being handed a piece of gold. Honestly this is something that I had been very curious about, Asian Americans, the first Asians who came to America because when I was growing up, we didn't get to learn about Chinese in America other than one page in a history book. So I remember doing some research about it and being a little bit obsessed with the gold rush and Chinese coming over and helping to build the railroads. And so when this script came, it did seem like a godsend. It's a story of a strong woman, the first Asian American pioneer woman, and outsiders finding each other.”

It was one of Chris Cooper’s first films. He recounted having done 12, 15 years of theater before that, and that he recognized how good this script was. He researched the background of civil war history and imprisonment camps in developing the character of Charlie. Also that “the PTSD aspect of it that rolled over into his drinking habit and his gambling. And it just looked to me like a character I was eager to tackle.”

They filmed in Montana; Rosalind mentions seeing the dailies every night. Which made me wonder about what the film was shot on. Now, in the digital age, replay is instantaneous. But then? Nancy confirms that it was 35mm. But that means the film would have to be processed in a lab for dailies to be shown. There was no lab in Montana: they had to ship the dailies to Seattle every day—so, not true dailies. They called them the day-afters.

And more than that: Kenji continued, “the movie theater that was there in town was not operating. So there were no projectors. So, we actually had to ship a movie projector from San Francisco and Delta had to take off the door in order for the projector to get into the cargo area. Because they used a passenger airplane apparently.”

This is such a long way from the instant gratification of digital cinema.

But this also answered a lot of questions for me about the look and feel of the film—and also about the way Nancy composed her shots. When I saw it again last year, after its new digital restoration, Nancy and I had talked a bit about the way that the light and the crispness of the image had really been brought forward again. I’d had a similar conversation a few years ago with Julie Dash, when her seminal Daughters of the Dust was restored digitally. Both films are so beautifully shot, and benefit from that particular look that comes from the practical rigors of shooting on celluloid, as well as the richness that 35mm offers. It is like painting in oils, over acrylic. Also: both films really reminded me of what it was to be an American independent filmmaker 30 years ago. What it is now. And, being a woman director: and what that is now.

In revisiting TPOG, one of the things that really struck me was that now, American indie filmmakers rarely make period dramas. And if they do, they're not necessarily that successful. Exceptions of course would include Kelly Reichardt. And this brings me back to this pandemic moment. I was scheduled to do an in-person Q&A with Kelly about her newest film, First Cow back in March. As the coronavirus realities began to be understood, we initially rescheduled to do a Skype Q&A in tandem with a live screening. Then: neither Skype nor screening. The whole event was cancelled. And the next day, the theater closed down.

But back to Nancy’s film. It has an almost classic Western look, with both expansive landscapes and tight interiors that both seem like they were composed in a way that made the most of what was likely a small budget. It feels like she made savvy choices in the way she created a frame and in the way she used her budget. She cites influences ranging from Flemish paintings to McCabe and Mrs Miller. Bobby Bukowski, her director of photography, was creative in coming up with innovative solutions to challenges others had walked away from. Also, she acknowledges that she was advised that if she wanted to direct the film, she’d have to raise the money. So she did.

Nancy recalls “having this meeting with an independent distributor who shall remain nameless. And the producer there had read the script and invited me to come in and he said, ‘You know: this is girl-meets-boy. I could see it if it was boy-meets-girl.’ That's where it would have been... you know?”

I do know: agents of male actors are not fans of their clients playing back-up to a female lead. I recount a memory of showing The Wife, the film that garnered Glenn Close a 2019 Best Actress nomination, at the Rafael. During the Q&A with Glenn, the film’s writer Jane Anderson and director Björn L. Runge, the team recounted a similar experience when they took the script out to actors for the husband role. It was rejected, frequently, because agents did not want their actors playing the second fiddle to the wife. And, that's now.

From her Zoom square, Nancy agrees, “That has not changed in all these years.” And Chris Cooper affirms: “Mm-hm.”

So here we are in this pandemic moment, this new democracy, looking back at a film that was made three decades ago, a story of outsiders and race and love and inspiring women—one, a character on screen; another, the director, offscreen. A film that was digitally restored from its 35mm roots last year. It’s like a time capsule of the story of film. Some things have changed radically—others, not at all.

And for me, it’s like seeing life fast-forward in front of my eyes as all the touchstones and memories and connections race through my memory. But, that’s my story. My backstage-backstory.

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