BERMUDA – screenplay
By Laura P. Valtorta

Mildred is just like all of us.

Mildred, a large, muscular man-questioning poet, needs money to vacation in Bermuda with her two large daughters, Cassandra and Frances. Mildred wants the finer things in life, and she goes after them like a cow-puncher on a train.

She tries holding her disabled son hostage and stealing his VA benefits. She tries selling stolen guns on the streets of Toad Hollow. Nothing works.

Mildred’s attitude toward men softens when the gallant Robert, who is Cassandra’s boyfriend, pays for Mildred’s trip to Bermuda.

Mildred still hates marriage, however, and warns her daughter to avoid long-term relationships.

Bermuda will be a feature-length film about Mildred, a large, very bad poet who steals her son’s VA disability benefits and commits other crimes in order to vacation in Bermuda with her daughters.

Friends with Money
written and directed by Nicole Holofcener
Jennifers Aniston, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, and Frances McDormand

Il Posto
directed by Eramo Orli
Milan – a new job – farcical

My Life Without Me
directed by Isabel Coixet
Sarah Polley; Mark Ruffalo; Amanda Plummer

Run, Lola, Run
Directed by Twyker
Starring Franka Potente

Another Earth
Directed by Mike Cahill
Starring Brit Marling

De Rouille et d’Os
Directed by Jacques Aubard
Starring Marion Cotillard


Silver Linings Playbook
Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper.
Directed by David O. Russell

Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Jennifer Lawrence
And Robert de Niro

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
The book is also wonderful.

The Switch
Starring Jason Bateman
And Jennifer Aniston
2010, viewed Jan 2016

Directed by Jim Jarmusch
Starring Adam Driver
Viewed March 2017 with Marco

Camp X-Ray
Starring Kristen Stewart
Viewed April 2017

Valley of Love
Gerard Depardieu and Isabelle Huppert

Adult World
Directed by Scott Coffey
Released 2013 at Tribeca
Starring Emma Roberts and John Cusack
Filmed in Syracuse, NY
Music by Dan Boeckner and his bands Handsome Furs and
Divine Fits

Our Souls at Night
Starring Jane Fonda and Robert Redford
Excellent fogey film
Viewed on Netflix 11.02.17

A fllm in Yiddish

Lady Bird
A film by Greta Gerwig, starring Saorise Ronan

Women Who Kill
A film by Ingrid Jurgensen

Wonder Woman
Directed by Patty Jenkins 2017

Todos lo Saben
Directed by Asghar Farhadi
A film in Spanish, starring Penelope Cruz and Javier Barden

Owned: A Tale of Two Americas
A documentary about housing discrimination
directed by Giorgio Angelini
Includes some scenes with real Goobah Tables

The Big Sick
Starring Kumail Nanjiani
The true story of how he met his wife.

Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
2018 nomination for best foreign-language Oscar.

Le Tout Nouveau Testament
directed by Jaco Van Dormael.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Directed by Marielle Heller
starring Melissa McCarthy

Deconstructing Harry
By Woody Allen

His Girl Friday
Starring Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant

Starring Eddie Murphy

Keegan-Michael Key extravaganza:
Key & Peele (2012 – 2017); a revolutionary series; I love Jordan Peele and Keegan; I can’t stop watching this show.
Don’t Think Twice (2015) directed by Mike Birbiglia
His name is pronounced – beer-BEEL-yah, whether he likes it or not
Friends from College


Chapter One


A film needs spit on it to make it fly.
Before starting any artistic project, it’s important to have a goal or two in mind. This is essential. It would be ridiculous to begin an art project without a message, which might be as simple as “Kill that demon,” or “Get the man,” or “Explore the wonderful shade of green on that leaf in the sun.”
Professionals, such as doctors and lawyers are aware of this need for a clear objective through the nature of their everyday work. I’m a lawyer who usually begins a case in order to win some money for my client. Maybe the case will also send a message: people with full-blown AIDS cannot work a job; women should not be fired when they become pregnant: just the opposite. That’s when the job, and earning a living, becomes doubly important.
Lawyers solve weird problems every day. But the main goal of taking on a legal case is always to get money for the client. The message part is secondary, and harder to achieve.
With filmmaking, those goals are reversed. The message, and the mood of the art are all-important. Making money has to come second with independent filmmaking. If the money pours in, that’s an accolade. But a film that makes less money might ultimately be a better work of art. Look at Twelve Angry Men starring Henry Fonda. It was a flop at the box office. Can You Ever Forgive Me? starring Melissa McCarthy, was an artistic masterpiece, not a blockbuster.
A filmmaker must begin by choosing that message or that mood. Otherwise, who cares?
HOW MUCH MONEY? The amount of money at hand may determine the length and quality of the film. To get top-quality results, the filmmaker should begin by thinking in terms of $1,000 per minute of film. Or zero dollars. With a camera plus some willpower and exploration, a film can also be created out of nothing.
There are many ways to raise money through grant writing and donor websites such as Indiegogo. But fundraising is an uncertain enterprise. The best way to approach a project is to have the money in hand up front, and then use funding websites such as Kickstarter for advertising purposes.
The professional (doctor, lawyer, pharmacist) who wants to make artistic films on the weekend has a big advantage. Money in the bank. With cash, the field of willing collaborators becomes vast and talented. But the professional may also have to deal with more big-headed cinematographers who want to take over the project. Control the editing. Suggest friends for acting positions. Money attracts problems like flies.
There are basically three types of indie filmmakers: the broke ones, the ones who have a few thousand dollars, and the ones who have enough money in the bank. Frankly, all face problems with unruly cinematographers and scheduling.
But the filmmaker/director who starts with a STRONG IDEA and sees it though to the end will come up with a worthy film – one that people play over and over again on Amazon Prime Video. I had that kind of success with White Rock Boxing and with “The Art House.”
If less money is in the budget, the filmmaker needs to call in favors or think about running the camera and editing by herself (and this might be an advantage because it means absolute control). Look around for film students. Get friendly with some artistic teenagers.
CHOOSING A MESSAGE: The message has to slug the director in the gut.
Human resilience. This was the story I wanted to tell through film. How do normal people survive the horror around them and come up smiling? My goal was to highlight people who are not famous, but should be.
All around me in South Carolina I saw people rising up stronger after being mashed up and spit out by the vicissitudes of life, not least of which was the horrible way people treated one other. And yet after all that mashing, people – fathers, grandmothers, children, teachers, doctors, and lawyers – stood there tall, smiling and beautiful.
Americans, in general, are crazily creative.
“The Art House” shows how a widow saved herself through art and the love of her family. White Rock Boxing illustrates that South Carolina is anything but “the armpit of the nation,” as I heard it referred to once at an airport out west. With “Mehndi & Me,” we highlight the spicy flavor of Bangladesh flourishing in my law office through the art of henna. South Carolina is not a backwater!
When people are succeeding, I want to show how and why.
A documentary project can change direction like a Frank Stella painting or a snake In the grass. When we began shooting “The Art House,” I imagined it would be about how art rescued the artist. Possibly her husband had been killed as a young man. Was it the art in her house that saved her?
But Ginger did not want to talk about her husband. That subject was in the past for her. She decided to leave a positive message.
The focal point of the project veered from my original plan and became exactly what Ginger Westray desired – an ode to her life as an artist. She didn’t need anything to save her. She was succeeding by creating these beautiful walls and sculptures – that was the story.
Ginger told me – “I’m sick of being considered a black artist. I’m an artist!” That also gave me something to think about.
“The Art House” changed my life.
Before meeting Ginger, I congratulated myself on being an intellect, able to grasp the words and the math. Ginger was better. She could do the words, the math, and the emotion. The 9-minute film explains a lot about her spirit.
Documentary subjects tend to take over and control the outcome of the film. This is good news. If the interviewee doesn’t tell her own story, it isn’t a true documentary. The filmmaker is there to record, not interpret the message.
INSPIRATION Filmmakers come to the storyboard inspired from the get-go, not looking for inspiration. Their pants are already on fire.
Artistic inspiration comes to me from my weird friends, my motley legal clients, and my strange family. It also comes from other works of art, such as music, painting, and favorite films. Ideas spring up from nature.
My clients are amazing in their resilience. They have a lot of heart. As a disability attorney, I help people with serious illnesses, both physical and mental, obtain financial support and Medicaid or Medicare. As a filmmaker, I tell their stories. This is the main advantage of being a filmmaker who is also a working attorney.
Without my clients, we would not have the stage play and screenplay, Bermuda, which arose from an anonymous person I saw in court, who had (maybe) stolen her son’s VA disability benefits. Bermuda is also a tribute to how I would like to change society to make it better for me and my clients: more colorful families, more tolerance; more women in charge of society.
“You Feel Me?” is a television pilot about an attorney, bewitched by one of her clients, who begins turning into her other clients – with all their legal and substance abuse problems. Maybe with a better script, I could turn this into a series. All of the stories in this series would be real, except for the magic. One client did tell me her husband was a warlock and I’d better watch out.
THE DISEASE DETECTIVE SERIES. I began making a three-part series about chronic illnesses. My law practice at that time (and still to this day) was all about illness, and one of these maladies, prevalent in South Carolina, was particularly mysterious: Sarcoidosis – an inflammatory disorder that often affects the lungs but can appear anywhere in the body. For 25 years I had seen a steady stream of clients of all ages with this illness.
What is this disease?
Nobody (not even doctors) knew what caused it or triggered it, although it seemed to run in families. Diagnosis usually involved a biopsy. There was no cure; doctors could use prednisone to treat the symptoms which could include difficulty breathing, difficulty walking. Blindness.
At first, I thought the disease only affected black South Carolinians. Then I found out this wasn’t true. People of African, Asian, and European heritage often got the chronic illness. It has been prevalent in Sweden for a long time. In 2008 actor Bernie Mac died of the disease. Suddenly, Sarcoidosis was in the news.
I had many questions about Sarcoidosis. Why has research taken so long? What is the cause? Does the lag in research have anything to do with misconceptions about skin color?
The documentary could be 20 minutes long, or 30; an hour for a TV documentary; the first part of a series. I had to guess up front in order to plan.
At the edge of filming, lots of critical decisions were being made, such as who would be the cinematographer, what music would be used, which interviewees to approach, and what style to use in filming them. How to raise money was a big question, as always. So far, I’ve paid for my documentaries myself.
Finding a doctor to interview would be a hard nut to crack. Traditionally, doctors don’t like attorneys. Medical people hate thinking about the law because they make mistakes like everybody else, and they often get sued.
Lacy Jones agreed to be the cinematographer. She was working full-time for South Carolina Educational Television and taking on side projects like mine during her days off. Lacy and I usually worked with a skeleton crew (director (me), cinematographer (Lacy), and a sound engineer who could also do lighting and take production photos. Obviously this was a non-union set because we required the crew to perform multiple tasks.
Sometimes when we film, it’s just the two of us. I respect Lacy and enjoy her company because I feel we can be honest with one another. She gives her professional perspective. Plus, she listens to new ideas. She knows how to edit film to my specifications.
Music for this documentary had already been selected and secured. (More about that process later.) Music is the heart of any film. Lack of music can hold up completion and distribution of a film indefinitely. The producer/ director has to think long and hard about copyright problems associated with music. Good thing I’m an attorney.
Next I needed to decide on the approach and what kinds of shots to use. Talking heads are boring. I watch a lot of Wim Wenders and Woody Allen for style ideas. I worship Wim Wenders. I wanted to make my interviews as much like Wim’s as possible.
This would not be a documentary about victims, I decided. Overall we would focus on how a chronic disease – even one that blinds you or cripples you – can make a person stronger. The smaller focus would be to uncover the reasons behind the lack of research on Sarcoidosis. Or so I thought at the beginning.
I told myself that my mind needed to remain open. I was an attorney-filmmaker, not a doctor. My only knowledge about Sarcoidosis came from anecdotal encounters with clients and the internet.
I stuck my neck out with my own clients. I made bold statements. This was all in an effort to help, but I didn’t know the answers.
“My grandbaby has trouble breathing. We applied for Social Security disability for her,” a grandmother told me.
“Has she been tested for Sarcoidosis?” I asked.
“No, but her mother died of that disease.”
“Maybe you should have the baby tested.”
I once asked an expert in public health at the University of South Carolina, “Why isn’t there more Sarcoidosis research?”
“Sarcoidosis? What’s that?” she said. This was an individual with a Ph.D. in public health. She had never heard of the disease.
One of my neighbors, a native of South Carolina, exhibited the disease. Her husband told me she lost lots of weight and became very sick while searching for a diagnosis. Her search for a diagnosis took 18 months. My neighbor has white skin. I guess that some of the assumptions about the disease hurt her.
JANUARY. At this stage, I had pinpointed my initial questions about Sarcoidosis, secured some preliminary music for the project, and hired a cinematographer.
There was a deadline approaching on February 8th. It was for an ITVS grant, very rare and difficult to win, that offered production money and a home for the finished film on PBS. We’re talking Independent Lens! The immediate problem was that I had to show them some video. ITVS only funded projects that were currently in production. The cameras needed to be up and rolling.
I sat down for lunch with Lacy. We would need five or six shooting days, and I wanted to interview at least one doctor and several patients.
“Tell me exactly what you want, the angles, the B-roll.” As usual, Lacy was very demanding about getting specifics about camera angles.
“Don’t give me any of that traditional interview shit,” I told her. “You know, with the interviewee looking toward the center of the shot and white space on the other side. I don’t want that!”
Lacy nodded.
“You can center the interviewee or show him walking around. I don’t care. Just as long as it isn’t boring.”
We discussed how to twist the interview subject around and surround him with flowers and photographs that would give the shot some depth and pizzazz.
“How can we get B-roll?” Lacy was very insistent, and rightly so, on capturing many minutes of “secondary” footage – the interview subject walking, talking, working, cooking, running, his house, his car, his family photographs – to use as transition shots or to break up a stodgy interview. The more B-roll the better.
Now I needed to nail down people to interview.
None of the pulmonologists in Columbia were willing to talk. Their employers, the hospitals, nixed the idea. If I couldn’t find a loquacious pulmonologist, I could not make the documentary.
MARCH. Just as I was chasing down medical doctors, a new client entered my office. She told me she had Sarcoidosis – did I know about this disease?
“You bet!”
This client had a doctor in Charleston who treated her for free, or at least his clinic did. He was a pulmonologist, an expert in Sarcoidosis, young and good-looking. W. Ennis James, M.D., from Greenwood, South Carolina.
I began by emailing Dr. James directly and asking him for an interview. No response. I sent him a list of questions and described the project. Crickets.
Luckily he worked for the Medical University of South Carolina which had a button for donations on its website. I gave a hundred dollars to MUSC and asked that it go directly to the Sarcoidosis clinic. What followed was a barrage of emails and snail mailings that probably cost a lot of money. All of the messages asked me to respond to a particular person, giving a direct phone number and email address, and reveal why I had given money to MUSC. I was scared to call. What would happen when I told this charitable foundation that I expected them to do something for me?
After two weeks of nail-biting. I finally telephoned the head of charitable giving at MUSC, a woman named “Jane.” She was surprisingly gracious and easy to talk to. I don’t know why I was surprised. It was her job to extract money from people. What astonished me was her sincerity. She sounded real.
I explained my project. I admitted I had donated only one hundred dollars. Jane seemed interested in my film.
After that call, things snapped into action. I was given a contact, a young woman at the charitable giving office, who arranged the interview with Dr. W. Ennis James, and with the benefactor – Susan Pearlstine – who had given five million dollars to establish the Sarcoidosis clinic. We set up a date.
Surprise! Lacy was unable to work on that date because her father was hospitalized. At this point I was lucky to be able to call Genesis Studios and ask Cliff Springs to send me a cinematographer (Shae Winston). Genesis charged me what I would have paid Lacy for that one day. He also provided a car and an intern to help load and unload the equipment.
The trip to Charleston was successful and fun. Shae drove us down. The charitable giving office had reserved a parking space for us – no small feat in Charleston. Shae, the intern, and I ate lunch at a swanky place and then filmed the interview.
I was gratified at how much Dr. James was willing to say on camera. A young white man who grew up in Greenwood, South Carolina, he was very liberal about medical questions, about social justice, and health care reform. He gave us an excellent interview, and he argued for single-payer healthcare. Without his expertise and credibility, the film would not have been created.
I learned, once again, not to judge people. Just because Dr. James was a white Southerner did not mean he was conservative or uncaring. Not in the least.
Now we had our interviewees in a row. One doctor. Five glimmering patients. All of them anxious to talk on camera. Two of them provided us family members to interview, including two young children. A wife who was a pastor. The woman who donated five million dollars for the clinic in Charleston. We were ready to go.
To finish a film project – conceive of it, film it, and promote it for the following five years – the producer needs to be a little nuts. A film project must involve passion, or it will not succeed. At the same time, the director must keep her head on straight. As the producer/director I aim to be crazy, with a purpose.
MAY. I finished “The Disease Detective Looks at Sarcoidosis,” the first in my series about chronic illnesses. I spent about $12,000 to make it. I was pleased with the result. MUSC loves it. The Sarcoidosis Foundation of Chicago loves it. The Orlanda Film Festival accepted it immediately.
I never got the ITVS grant.
The second and third parts of the series would be about (2) my friend with Friedreich’s Ataxia who re-learned how to drive, and (3) the connection between addiction and mental illness. My aim was to obtain grant money, or sponsorship, for at least one part of this series. It could be $2,000 or $12,000.
The money was tempting. I needed to try for it. But lack of grant funding would not prevent me from making these films.
UNEXPECTED RESULTS Now that I have finished the second part of my series “The Disease Detective Looks at Friedreich’s Ataxia,” totally financed by myself, I can reflect on some lessons learned.
MONEY IS ONLY A MEANS TO AN END. In this case, the end is learning about disease, spreading knowledge about disease, and coming up with two excellent films. Those ends include connecting with my friend, Ginny Padgett. By filming the story of her life, I can see once again the quality of her life, and the importance of her friendship. It’s not just that neurology patients have extra resilience and extra sweetness: they do. But I can see that Ginny’s obstacles in moving around, and the patience that the Ataxia requires, make her live her life as a philosopher.
Taking time and reflecting are important qualities we all need to cultivate.
DOCTORS CAN BE AWESOME. Holly Hunter has this great line about doctors in The Big Sick. “They’re just winging it like the rest of us.” But I do have to give them credit for being there and attempting to help.
I learned that doctors are not the painful monsters I’d always imagined. Sometimes they enjoy their professions and they work hard. My goal is to make them look good in my Disease Detective series. Doctors who make mistakes go unnamed. Doctors who come up with solutions get crowned as heroes.
One of the best results of “The Disease Detective Looks at Sarcoidosis” is that It introduces doctors to each other and leads to consultations.
Maybe the film can help cure somebody. Maybe it can lead to answers.

Laura at St. Lawrence Film Festival 2015Pupo Siciliano

Cast photo Celese Arthur Cece 122017

We just finished shooting a television pilot. “You Feel Me?” It’s about an attorney who randomly turns into her clients.

The concept and the acting are good. Now I wonder how to get this to a producer.

This sort of show — highlighting the travails of a professional woman — should be more readily available on channels such as O and Lifetime. Lots of people are creating great content — thanks to the digital era. Now we need to see a clear way to market this content.

Everybody uses Film Freeway. It’s a fun and easy way to enter independent films into film festivals. Now maybe the television industry should create a gateway like Film Freeway especially for new series ideas. The site needs to be fun, competitive, and an easy place to submit content.

TV people, where are you?

Writing a Documentary
by Laura P. Valtorta

Whenever I watch a documentary film, the credit for writing takes me by surprise. How can anyone write a documentary, since it’s a recording of real life, and unscripted experiences?

While making my sixth documentary, “Mehndi & Me” (completed today, July 27, 2017 – Yahoo!) I finally figured it out. I was the writer, because I was piecing together the “script”: a list of film clips typed up in the order they should appear in the final product. With “Mehndi & Me,” a portion of the draft script, with inexact times, looks like this:

Mehndi & Me (short film)
Summer 2017

Version 1 – 07.08.2017 Laura P. Valtorta
Clip # Description Beginning and end of clip (dialogue) Music & special effects Beginning and end (seconds)
GoPro 168 Six bare hands in circle Laboni’s music, instrumental 0:00 to 0:07

(7 seconds)
GoPro 172 Hands in circle, painted Laboni’s music, instrumental 0:12 to 0:25

(13 seconds)
Laura’s shot, outside of law office Shaky shot proceeds from side of building to sign 9 seconds

MVI 134
Lynn’s shot Laura introduces theme “I’m just glad to be here in Columbia, SC; and I can get mehndi from a real artist from Bangladesh.” First time this is said, NOT repeat 0:16 to 0:27

(11 seconds)
MVI 130
Lynn’s shot Silent shot of Laboni Laboni’s music with singing 0:11 to 0:21

(10 seconds)
MVI 122
Lynn’s shot Dianne, Laboni, Laura, & Kimberly at table “I would love it if you got 2 designs…more balanced” No music 0:10 to 0:17

(7 seconds)

This is my personal version of a documentary script. Others might use a storyboard with pictures or drawings. Sometimes I begin with a storyboard after shooting and proceed to the written script. In any case, writing a script is the step taken before editing, when the film is actually cut.

Before putting together a script, the director must first shoot the film (the most joyous part of the process) and then review hours of clips, making a complete list of what’s going on in each clip. Reviewing the raw footage is tedious. The Editing Decision List (EDL) that results is a giant list of clips with times and descriptions. These are the ingredients used to assemble the script.

For a documentary, the middle process is something like this:

• Plan the shoots
• Shoot the film
• Review the film clips and prepare Editing Decision Lists (EDLs) ugh!;
• Choose elements from the EDLs to write a script;
• Edit the film and promos; add music

Before all this, after conceiving an idea for a documentary, I secure the music and music rights. Music must be available during the editing process.

For me, making a film is teamwork. I could not make any of my films without the help of either Genesis Studio (owned by Cliff Springs), or the indomitable Lynn Cornfoot, who works at South Carolina ETV.

Laura w pants & car cuba.jpg

By Laura P. Valtorta

The Los Angeles Times has an excellent preview of upcoming movies. I am sharing some with the MoOOOOvie GrooooP. Here are some of the films previewed, in the order from frantic to passive, that I want to see them.

Lady Bird
Catholic schoolgirl tries to escape. Starring Saoirse Ronan (she was great in Atonement, so-so in Brooklyn. The director is a woman (Greta Gerwig), and the film is described as having an Indie Spirit, so I’m in.

The Meyerowitz Stories
Brothers Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller suck up to artist father, played by Dustin Hoffman. I just love these three actors. And where has Adam Sandler been the past few years? He was one of the nuttiest in Mixed Nuts.

The Current War
Normally I would find a fight between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse a snooze, but this film is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. His first film, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was the best film of 2015 IMO.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
Okay, actor Annette Bening can come across as a bitch. But she redeemed herself in 20th Century Women, so I want to give this one a try.

Boston Marathon victim finds new strength. Star Jake Gyllenhaal made himself a person of interest when he starred in Brokeback Mountain, so I want to see this film, even though the premise is tired.

First They Killed My Father
A story about Cambodia. I enjoy watching director Angelina Jolie defy all stereotypes. She uses her stardom to find meaning.

Our Souls at Night
You can’t ignore Jane Fonda and Robert Redford, especially after Fonda starred in a wonderful HBO series with the great Lily Tomlin, called Grace and Frankie.

The Shape of Water
I don’t care for the actor Sally Hawkins, but some people in our group like her. This one is about a mute janitor. At least she won’t be talking.

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