Tuesday, May 31, 2011

CALVET: Dominic Allan

Never Believe You've Played Your Last Hand ....

In March 2010, I interviewed French artist Jean Marc Calvet.  In that Aberration Nation post, Jean Marc wrote,

"I spent a large part of my life wondering why I was born, why I was here! When I turned 36 everything started. I was painting on the walls, the ground, the ceiling with all sorts of things such as paint, tomato sauce, chocolate, mud, etc. I didn't think I was making art. For me it was a way to keep my sanity, and it still is today. The main difference between yesterday and today is that today I know why I was born--and that changed many things!" 

Now Jean Marc's phenomenal story is brilliantly captured in a new feature film directed and produced by today's guest, Dominic Allan. 

CALVET premiers this month at two major European film festivals, the Sheffield Documentary Festival (8 - 12 June), and the Edinburgh International Film Festival (15 - 26 June).

During his mid-thirties, Jean Marc's overwhelming aberrations miraculously collided with an outpouring of creativity.  Jean Marc Calvet could very well reign as King of the Aberration Nation.  In a world where millions dream of becoming recognized artists, and the art world isn't adequately celebrated, Jean Marc shining creative spirit emerged despite all the suck life threw his way, and all the suck he created for himself.  CALVET is about the redemptive power of art.

Perhaps art can't possibly redeem and/or save everyone, but there seems to be a more basic point at play.  Maybe the message found in CALVET is that when you believe there's absolutely nothing left to lose, there's still something to find.  In the end, (despite circumstance) destruction, hopelessness, fear, and misery don't choose us; we choose them.  And sometimes the answers that offer redemption make themselves known ... but we must have the courage to embrace them.

The powerful, tortured paintings of French artist Jean Marc Calvet sell from $20,000 a piece, he has major solo exhibitions in New York, yet until 7 years ago he had never touched a paintbrush. In fact, art was the last thing on his mind when, aged 38, he was on the run in Central America with a large sum of stolen money. There, haunted by his past, Calvet decided that death was his only way out.

This is one man’s extraordinary story of redemption as he embarks on a journey to make peace with his past. A man who lived a dark and violent life, who via a terrifying trip to hell and back was given a second chance.

Calvet spent his life on a course of self-destruction, more often than not trashing anything and anyone in his path – including his own 6 year old son whom in 1996 in France, he abandoned without a word. He neither saw nor spoke to him again.

“See you next Saturday” were the last words Calvet said to his son before he disappeared. “See you next Saturday” – words that have haunted him every day for over a decade. Clues as to how he could do such a cruel and cowardly thing to the person he loved most in the world lie in his deeply troubled past.

Abused street kid, Foreign Legionnaire, vice cop, professional bodyguard, underground thug – Calvet is a cat with many lives, all harrowing and disturbing. Then in 2002 in Costa Rica, he arrived at the end of the road. Lost and damned, besieged by shame and self-hatred, he bought the last house at the end of a cul-de-sac, shut himself in and refused all contact with the outside world. Fuelled by obscene quantities of crack and alcohol, he believed the end would arrive quickly.

It didn't.

After meeting Jean Marc and hearing about the upcoming film based on his life through our shared connection with Monkdogz Urban Art (NYC), I also became curious about Dominic Allan, a man so touched by Jean Marc's story that he's now sharing it with the world through film. Dominic is an award winning filmmaker who happened to stumble into Jean Marc's world while traveling in Nicaragua in 2004. Dominic shares the fascinating story of how the two men met, and the subsequent evolution of CALVET on the Director's Note page of the film's website.

Dominic is a fascinating man as well.  I'm quite certain that his own creativity has enabled Jean Marc's story to result in the outstanding film, CALVET. As Dominic points out in his interview below, the story is one fantastic thing, and the storytelling is another. The charismatic, relevant, and fateful marriage of these two components make CALVET shine.

Congratulations to both Jean Marc and Dominic for making us believe there's always another hand to play.

How did you get into filmmaking and why does it appeal to you?

I come from the rural southwest of England. Lived and worked out of London from the age of 18, then traveled a great deal. Lived in France, US, South America and many other pit-stops along the way. I now live in Spain, north of Barcelona. I'd always imagined I'd end up in the English countryside with loads of kids and it ended up being quite different so far!

Film ... well, soon after leaving school, I thought of all the things I loved and if I might be able to make a living with any of them. There two things on the short list - filmmaking and horse breeding. Filmmaking won quite easily! I have always been a film fanatic--addicted to that spell an extraordinary film can cast on you when you walk out of a cinema, especially when it lingers for days afterwards. I wanted to make films that achieve that. How I got into it and how I arrived here is perhaps not that interesting--though for all the adventures, the places I've seen, the people I've met and the things I've learned--I am incredibly grateful.

You recently completed a powerful documentary feature film focusing on artist Jean Marc Calvet. What about Calvet inspired you to make the film, and why should viewers be interested in this particular story?

I'd never heard a story like it. Quite early I latched onto what I saw as the film's message. It's never too late--never believe you've played your last hand. No matter who or where you are, no matter what your perception of your life situation, no matter how lost you think you are ... things can change is ways you don't yet comprehend. And a moment of real crisis may turn out to be the catalyst for total metamorphosis. From there, a new life is ahead of you. It was the notion that you can start again fresh with renewed integrity, and set out to right some wrongs.

Jean Marc is cat with many lives, many of them harrowing, wild, dark and violent. My own story doesn't remotely resemble his, yet I identified with something in him and his story--and it took much of the time making the film to work out what that was. Possibly this, that perhaps most of us carry a sense that we've done something that we need to atone for. We may not know what that is and for many it may be totally irrational, yet still this sense endures that we need to forgive ourselves for something. For most of us, release from that is the stuff of fiction, of well-designed movies through which we live vicariously. Here you have it for real--and it's a movie. too. I wanted to make this film in a way that would grip and carry you like a (fiction) feature film, yet at every turn you know it's real, it's documentary. I think this notion of personal emancipation and making good is a very strong universal theme with which many of us can identify. Despite the extreme nature of Jean Marc's story--it speaks to us loud and clear. It is very exciting, very powerful to believe that we have the capacity deep within us to transform and bloom, to manifest the beauty within and shine as we were born to.

With regard to the film, CALVET, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

In 2006, when I started to interview him for my research, he said something to me that I never forgot. It was a key (one of many) to unraveling the Calvet psyche. He said (and it's irrelevant which era of his life he was talking about at the time), "All I wanted was a family. The person I turned myself into didn't need one, didn't want one."

Each novel I write seems to change my life or create a shift in my thinking or perception in some way. Did making the Calvet film change your life in any way?

Well, the film was a big step away from making commissioned films for TV as a director for hire and starting to make films of my own that make a difference in some way. So a big surface change. Films should inspire people--at least for me. And sincerely, I think this job is a privilege in that I get to explore other people's lives and study the human condition--in my protagonists, and inevitably in myself too. After all, what hooks and fires me to spend (a long) time making a film about someone or something--is a gravitational pull to find an answer--and hopefully the film will suggest one! I always learn and grow through my films--that's the stuff of it. As I said, I'm working while exploring who we are. It's a fascinating journey and fathomless--often with sudden realizations that occur along the way.

Did I dodge the question? Yes, I am absolutely sure it has changed my life in some way--though we might have to do this again in a few years for me to tell you how!

How does creativity factor into making a successful documentary? As with nonfiction writing, some folks may struggle with understanding why and how creativity factors into the delicate mix of relaying real life information in a powerful way.

Ohhff, that's a hard one to talk about. Rather there are many answers The short answer is that it's all creative--from idea to research though production to completion, it's a creative process, period. The obvious stuff--looking for answers, how you visualize the film - content, style and so on. Then of course all the details - what shot, what sound, what kind of music to use or not, what tone, what pace etc ... all of it. What are you trying to say in any scene and how can you best achieve that. Documentary is very like making any other film in many ways, the dramatic story structure has to work or you've lost your audience. But you have to be flexible as an unpredictable real life situation unfolds in front of you and be true to what's happening and what's being said. Your mind dances as you work--piecing it together, what you're getting, what you're not getting, what you need. Then in the edit suite the dance changes as you craft the story with the material you have. Some of the original ideas are still there, many have gone to be replaced by new ones, hopefully better ones!

In any case, creativity is everything. Any real life situation retold by someone will be filtered through their perception and creative interpretation--unconsciously. It's not intentional, but even the person who's telling me the story is giving me their memory and perception of events. We all do this every day in every aspect of our lives. Once a moment has gone.. only memory and perception remain. So what's real and what's true? I'm not going down that rabbit hole! But for what we take as real and true--Calvet's story is as real and true as it gets. Shockingly so.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so? Did those experiences help you to identify with Calvet in any way?

Oh god yes--the first definitely! Has it helped me deal with life's aberrations? I really don't know--maybe, maybe not, probably not. I've probably also helped create a few! My connection with Jean Marc of course has much to do with how we identify with each other and where are sensibilities collide.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

All the time! Though more so before, less now. I think we live in a world where any creative pursuit is tough, being a creative personality is challenging--challenging to fit in and legitimize particularly in a material world where the values we are taught revolve a great deal around financial success, which as we know doesn't always mean creative success. It's a delicate business to evict compromise for an integrity that sells or combine the two well. As far as human relationships are concerned--it's perhaps both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward. Looking back, I've certainly learned and of course continue to learn how to express myself more effectively, more calmly and more compassionately. It's about how to turn a battle into a wonderful adventure--for everyone.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your filmmaking goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role of discipline and organization?

That's too big! I have endless systems I guess, some from experience, others spontaneous depending on what's in front of me. Planning, asking myself questions, finding answers, and being honest. Problem solving, persistence and faith--even when the road is loooooonnngg. I was always a bit of a perfectionist which can be both painful and rewarding--though these days I know perfection doesn't exist, only the pursuit of excellence, or rather an instinct that you've arrived where you wanted with something that you're working on--there's deep satisfaction there. But most important--one step at a time, and you'll arrive. Thinking about too much and trying to focus on it all can be overwhelming. It dilutes the step you're in and reduces the quality of anything you do. One step at a time ...

What's next for Dominic Allan?

Not sure yet ... I have a feature film in incubation and there are plenty of fires inside waiting to be lit!

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

"Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have."  -Eckhart Tolle

The older I get, the more I realize how little I know. But if there's one thing of which I'm sure, it's that. Moving into the present moment is always the answer--for real peace that is often illusive or at best temporary as we move in and out of the mental noise. As the man says, pretend there's no past nor future--there isn't, everything that happened or will happen, was or will be in the present moment. Easier said than done, don't we know ...

CALVET on Facebook.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Imperfect Endings: Zoe Fitzgerald Carter

Imperfect Endings: A Daughter's Tale of Life and Death"Just because you are driven to write and passionate about your craft, doesn’t mean you don’t want to be a critical and commercial success."

What is your writing story (in a nutshell)?

I started out as a journalist, writing for newspapers in Cambridge, MA, right out of college. I then moved to New York City in my mid-twenties to go to Columbia Journalism School and began writing for various national magazines. Imperfect Endings is my first published book. I also have an unpublished mystery and am currently working on a novel. I still write for magazines and newspapers.

Was there someone in particular who inspired you to love books and/or take an interest in writing?

I like to say that I come from a long line of failed writers, although that is not entirely fair. My maternal grandfather was a journalist and novelis,t and my grandmother was an aspiring playwright. My mother was also a writer, although she never published. She did, however, spend hours every day holed up in her study writing. She really modeled for me what it meant to live a “writer’s life.” She used to help me write my school papers when I was growing up and was hugely supportive of my creative writing. Another gift from both parents was their decision to never own a television. Reading was always my escape and entertainment.

Where do most of your creative ideas come from?

This may sound strange, but my best creative ideas almost always happen when I am in the shower or out on my bike. I think these are the places where I can stop “thinking” and just let my mind drift. I’ll be daydreaming and suddenly have a really great idea for a new project or have some huge insight into something I am writing. In fact, sometimes the ideas come so fast and furious when I am out on my bike that I have to either pull over and write them down or – if I don’t have a pen and paper – memorize them so I don’t forget. Then as soon as I get home, I write them down.

As to where these ideas come from, I think they emerge from the psychic soup that exits on the right side of my brain somewhere. This is the place where experience, memory and emotion all intersect and where the raw materials of creativity are manufactured.

With regard to your new memoir, Imperfect Endings, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about? When did you realize that you wanted or needed to write about your mother's wish to die?

To be honest, I kind of backed blindly into my ah-ha moment. I initially had an idea for an autobiographical novel that involved three sisters, as I was interested in exploring my experience growing up as the youngest of three girls with two very intense older sisters who fought over my soul from the moment I was born. I thought it would be interesting to have my three “characters” face a crisis in their adult lives that would stir up all the old childhood animosities and alliances.

My mother had recently taken her own life after struggling with Parkinson’s for many years and there had been a great deal of strife between the three of us, so I made this event my “crisis.” I wrote about 50 pages of the novel and my agent at the time suggested I make it a memoir and write about what really happened. After some initial hesitation, I switched to nonfiction and almost immediately, the voice, tone and structure of the book fell into place.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both? How so?

For me, part of being a creative person involves spending a lot of time alone. It allows me to enter into that dreamy, freeform state of mind that fuels my writing. This way of working does not really jibe with the current model of productivity in our culture, which is very results-oriented. And there are times, especially when I doubt that whatever I am working on will ever see the light of the day, that I start to wish I had an actual job where it was someone else’s responsibility to tell me what to do all day.

I have also struggled over the years with the competing demands of being a mother and a writer. Especially when my kids were small, it was sometimes hard to justify taking time away from them in order to write. But I had the memory of my mother doing this to bolster me, and my intuitive sense that it would be better for all of us in the end if I made time for my creative life.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

There have been times when my chronic under-earning has been a source of tension in my marriage. The truth is, most artists don’t make much money unless they are in that elite group who -- through exceptional talent, perseverance, or luck -- hit the financial jackpot. But having finally published a book and done pretty well with it, the tension has eased and my husband is more proud of my book than anyone else!

Overall he has been incredibly supportive of my life as a writer, both financially and emotionally. As for the other people in my life, most or them are under-earning creative people as well and we all “get” each other perfectly, even when we work in different mediums.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your writing goals? If so, can you tell us about it, and also share any thoughts you may have on the role the discipline and organization play in reaching creative goals?

I still find myself setting new goals in terms of how I work. Three hours of writing every day, for example. Or, three pages a day. Or doing my writing first thing in the morning. But then I always end up abandoning these protocols.  Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the evenings when my daughter is doing her homework and my husband is catching up on emails. And I’ve come to realize that I am actually more of an intermittent marathoner than an everyday kind of steady as she goes person and I have come to accept this process, as chaotic as it can sometimes feel. I always feel incredibly envious and inadequate when I read about writer’s intensely disciplined lives. That is not me.

How has writing Imperfect Endings and dealing with the issues described in the memoir changed you and your ideas about life and death?

I think the actual experience of talking about and planning my mother’s death with her – and being there when she took her own life -- changed my ideas about life and death. For example, I no longer fear dying the way I once did. I have been through it with my both my parents in such an intimate way and there is a kind of beauty and logic to death. While we all want as much time as we can get, especially if we are healthy and enjoying our lives, the actual physical process of dying does not frighten me.
But I do think that writing the book allowed me to understand the events I describe in a new and deeper way. I really struggled with what it meant to be a “good daughter.” How should you respond when your parent says they want to kill themselves? Talk them out of it -- or help them do it? Writing the book allowed me to wrestle with that question and see where I landed and I hope that readers will want to take that journey with me.

I often think about the difference between writers who seem to attack it from a business perspective (i.e., James Patterson, Mary Higgins Clark, etc.), versus those who seem to be simply driven from a deep need to write regardless of business concerns (i.e., J.D. Salinger, Pat Conroy, etc.). How would you describe the differences between these types of writers? Where do you fit in?

I think all writers, including Salinger and Conroy care how their books are received. In fact, I think Salinger was so crushed by the negative reviews of Catcher in the Rye, it’s one of the reasons he became a hermit and stopped publishing! I think we need to be careful not to romanticize the “pure” writers who don’t care about publishing, money and success. Just because you are driven to write and passionate about your craft, doesn’t mean you don’t want to be a critical and commercial success.

That said, I agree that there are very successful commercial writers like Clark and Patterson who write to a certain formula because it sells and these writers tend to be less literary. But these writers succeed because there are a lot of readers out there who like what they write – readers who might not read otherwise – and so power to them.

I see myself as someone who writes because it is the only thing I have found to do, besides play music, that really makes me happy but yes – absolutely -- I want to be successful at it!

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

Enjoy all the good moments along the way. They are the best life has to offer. Don’t postpone happiness as you wait for a big payoff--the raise, the house, the car, the proposal, the perfect weight, the perfect dress--because even if it happens, it will turn out to be just be another good moment along the way. Embrace all of life’s small pleasures and be open to the humor and beauty in the daily parade.
If I had to express my philosophy on how to get the most out of one’s life, this would be it.