James Still has performed The Velocity of Gary (Not His Real Name), a solo piece about a young hustler with an affinity for strange people and strange situations, across the country. The screenplay for the story was made into a movie starring Ethan Hawke, Salma Hayek, Vince D'Onofrio and Thomas Jane and directed by Dan Ireland and was released in 1999. Following are excerpts from his journal as he participated in the process of watching his characters come alive on cinemascope.
Sept. 25, 1997. It's 2 a.m. and we just completed our first week of shooting. The first day driving to the set I kept telling myself that something would happen—an earthquake, a bad guy—and close it all down before we started. But I got there and a crew of 80 people were running around working and it looked like a Hollywood movie set. And then later in the morning the director, Dan Ireland, yelled "ACTION!" the first time and I burst out crying, broke down sobbing. Really. The second day I was still in shock. But by the third day it felt like the most natural thing in the world to be making this movie. and then it felt like dejavu—every day I was meeting the characters who have been in my head for so long now—and then I saw dailies for the first time and there they were larger than life in cinemascope.
Oct. 2, 1997. These six-day-a-week, 14-hour days are killers but it certainly keeps the intensity up. We've been on a night schedule all this week (and will continue into next week) so my internal clock is totally screwed up. We moved to downtown Los Angeles where an entire block had been transformed into a New York City street. Imagine the shock and strange pleasure I got from turning a corner and seeing the physical world of Velocity spread out before me. There was the porno movie theatre, real—but with the marquee now lit up with names of characters from my movie.
We shot most of Ethan Hawke's scenes this week. Last night we did a scene between Gary and Mary Carmen where Gary has stolen a bag full of vitamins and wants Mary Carmen to give Valentino pills—but she wants no part of it. Salma and Thom were great—it was interesting to watch them film the scene. First we did the master as a two-shot (with the drag queens visible eavesdropping through the windows). Then we did Salma's closeups. She was very subtle and her energy on camera was so different—like daring the camera to get close. Then we did the reverse closeup on screen—and she was completely different: bigger, louder, more annoying to give Thom more of what he needed for his close-ups. So both got what they needed and the editor can have a heyday. I'm exhausted from the size of personalities and the pressures of time. Last night I combined two scenes to save time and made a few snips in another. But for the most part, we're still shooting the script I wrote. Last night "Entertainment Tonight" came to the set and shot some of the "behind the scenes" of Velocity.
Oct. 7, 1997. Every night we're crunched for time. One night I suggested a cut in the dialogue that saved us some time and kept the action moving. But then I was tortured about it for the next 24 hours because I worried that I had cut something that we needed in order to plant something that happens later. This is what's so hard about filmmaking for me. I look in the script at what we have and haven't filmed, and I realize we're not going to get another chance at a scene we've already shot. It's done. I'm finding the process incredibly different from the theatre. And in some strange way the differences are refreshing and exciting. There's more pressure in the moment. But that's part of the energy.
Oct. 25, 1997. I found out on the last day of shooting in Los Angeles that the haunted hospital where we'd been shooting for a week was the same hospital used in "LA Confidential" and they also used the basement (where we filmed the phone sex scenes and laundromat flashback) for their police precinct. Their set is still there. As soon as we vacated the place, another film company moved in and changed the exterior signs on the place to a mental hospital. The last show in LA was shot in the middle of the night at an old movie theatre in downtown LA. And our permit ran out four minutes after we wrapped. I got home at 3 a.m. and nine hours later was on a plane to New York to shoot exteriors.
Filming on the streets of New York is a trip, especially in Latin neighborhoods with Salma Hayek as the star of the movie. She could have signed autographs the whole day. We spent most of the day in the Bronx and then we zipped back to Midtown for a sunset shot of Gary crossing into Grand Central for the first flashback when Gary and Mary Carmen meet the first time. The next day we shot in the morning at Port Authority—the scene where Kid Joey arrives in New York. We drew quite a crowd. Here we were at Port Authority filming away with a deaf transvestite who thinks Patsy Cline is living inside her body. Half the people walking by didn't even give Kid Joey a second look; then there was a guy who tried to get a date—he didn't know Kid Joey was actually an actor playing a girl—or maybe he did and that's his trip. Whatever.
When we wrapped in New York, everybody cheered, hugged, got in a van, and left. Later we went out to dinner in SoHo. The next day I flew back to LA. There's no way to write about the last night, or even now. I'm exhausted and depressed—just as I expected. And now I keep running over scenes in my mind—Did we get it? Should I have changed that? But there are no second chances. As someone so eloquently pointed out, never again can you have a first film. The Velocity of Gary is, as the say, in the can. It's nice to be able to say that.
Jan. 10, 1998. Last night I saw the latest cut of the movie (the fourth version I've seen) and the work the director (Dan Ireland) and editor (Luis Colina) have done and are doing is very moving. While one magazine called the movie "Boogie Nights meets Carrington," I'd call it "James Dean falls in love with Jules and Jim in a romantic John Cassavetes film." How's that for reducing everything to a formula? Seriously, the movie continues to become its strange and beautiful self. Next we'll be adding sound effects and a temporary soundtrack as the composer works on the music. And we'll be doing looping and off-camera dialogue with actors. What a process.
Feb. 21 1998. This week I saw the movie for the sixth time—in its sixth cut. For me, this part of the process has been terrifying and grueling. Obviously at this point anything that gets cut from the movie is going to be difficult for me. I say obviously because I have had to develop so much perspective at a time when I have none, juggling so many emotions against a backdrop of careers on the line. There have been some sleepless nights. But if I'm really honest with myself—and you—it's mostly that this crazy control freak has had to admit that he has no control! I've learned a thing or two about humility. The bigger news in all this is that the movie has an amazing—I hate to say it but it's true—velocity.
May 5, 1998. While some days I imagine myself treading Jello, it continues to amaze me that since that first day we started shooting the movie, not a day has gone by that someone hasn't been working on the film. Snip, snip, snip, stab, sweep, so long. Welcome to the world of movies. But during this time I've also continued to learn the real stuff about how movies get made. Shooting the movie (after working on the screenplay forever) turns out to be just another kind of beginning. I think you either have to develop a zen sense about the whole thing or give up on sanity as a treasured state of being.
In the theatre, the director often plays the central role during rehearsals, and then once the show opens it usually becomes "the actors' show." Often, the director will go on to other projects while the actors continue doing the play week after week. In film, it's almost the opposite. Filming depends on the actors and cinematographer and their unique talents and relationships they have with the camera-but once shooting wraps, the director and editor really take over. The actors go away and make other movies while the director and editor hole up and develop an intense love/hate intimacy with thousands of feet of film. And the composer comes along much later once the film is "locked" and adds his talent to the mix. One thing I've allowed myself: every time I meet someone who's working for the film, I think back to a long time ago when I had this feeling deep inside about a guy named Gary who wore a leather jacket—and from that long—ago feeling came a lot of JOBS. No one's getting rich-but they're working.
And I still haven't lost my sense of thrill that this is the movie. A few weeks ago I got a sweet package in the mail: my solo performance piece that the movie is based on is hot off the press from Dramatic Publishing. It looks great. When it was delivered to my house, I read through it and it was like reading a dream that was partly my dream, but partly someone else's dream too, like they were whispering in my ear. Deep memories with the characters and with all the audiences I ever played to, and at the same time an odd kind of "merge" with the movie and the actors and all of the stories that have grown out of trying to get Gary and Mary Carmen and Valentino's stories up on the screen. And there it was in People magazine...life truly is surreal.
In April I went to several of the sound mix sessions. The first night I went to the mix I intended to stay for an hour or two—and stayed all night. I was sucked right back into it. And guess what? I was very, very happy to be there. Another reason why the mix was exciting for me: I got to see the movie ON SCREEN! The editing process has been on video and finally watching it on film has been like watching it literally come to life: the colors, the composition, the depth. It was so beautifully shot—something I'd almost forgotten because I'd been seeing the movie on a video of a video...seeing it on film was a revelation. All of a sudden it felt vibrant again, intimate, heartbreaking.
June 16, 1998. I just saw the movie with 800 unsuspecting strangers in an old movie palace on a huge screen. It was a sneak preview in a "major American city." What a thrill! The audience laughed at the places I've been staking my life on for months now. I'm worn out from arguing about the abstract—and I admit it: I felt vindicated about how some of the tricky humor played. When an audience is still laughing at humor in the last scene that was set up earlier in the movie, you know somebody's listening. I'm not kidding myself—it ain't a comedy—but there's a lot of funny stuff in it and if the audience doesn't laugh enough to give them a release from the sadness in the story, then I know I'm in trouble. But they laughed—and early enough that I was able to relax and start to enjoy the movie for myself.
I'm happy, exhausted, thrilled, awed, and a little less scared—but not so arrogant to think we're home free or that it's going to be a piece of cake, or even that all audiences will love it like this first one did. When we went out to dinner afterward, we walked into the restaurant and Patsy Cline was singing. Those of you who know the play or movie get the beauty of that sign. Those of you who don't, trust me—there has to be a God.
I'm going to another screening this week in LA...the circle continues to get wider and wider. Each time, though, I'm not so starry-eyed that I don't catch a glimpse in my head—dreams of the first time these characters swarmed around my heart and promised to tell me their stories if I promised to tell others. Well, I'm still telling their stories. I'm sure they're watching. And who wouldn't want to have actors like Salma Hayek, Vince D'Onofrio and Thomas Jane play you in a movie?
Thanks for being part of this journey.
Editor's note: The film premiered at the San Sebastian International Film Festival in Spain, on Sept. 22, 1999.