The Old New Dark Ages
Rick Schmidt’s Apocalyptic Christmas Movie Emerald Cities
By Keith Phipps
Reading time 28 Minutes
“Sometimes an idea for a feature film comes to you in one line”
“Sometimes an idea for a feature film comes to you in one line, or in a single flash of inspiration,” Rick Schmidt writes in his 1988 book Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices. “My film Emerald Cities began with the single thought: What would it be like to watch the events of the modern world in 1984 on TV from a shack in the middle of the desert? Then it occurred to me that maybe the TV would be an early color console in disrepair, that could only transmit green images.”
There’s a lot to unpack there, both concerning the quote and its source. First published in 1988, Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices offers a step-by-step guide to making films on the cheap. The very cheap. This made the book, and later its 2004 follow-up Extreme DV at Used-Car Prices, a must-read for a generation of indie auteurs, earning praise from Vin Diesel (“changed my life”), Kevin Smith (“an indispensable tool for the nascent filmmaker”) and others. Schmidt fills the book with practical advice about lighting, shooting on location, maintaining continuity — much of it still useful despite the changes in the film industry.
The book also remains clear-eyed about the realities of making a movie, particularly shooting one with little money. On storyboarding, for instance, he writes, “I’m sure that some filmmakers swear by the process of knowing every shot down to its exact composition” before concluding “the obvious fact is that without any real budget the filmmaker can’t control all the facets of filming and must be able to take advantage of unexpected moments and events while filming.”
Reading Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices, it’s easy to get the impression that Schmidt, storyboards aside, plans his films down to the most minute detail. But the films themselves suggest a different sort of auteur, an id-driven improviser who makes it up as he goes along and then pieces it all together later, someone for whom a single flash of inspiration could provide enough reason to make a movie, even one that stood little chance of turning enough of a profit to pay off the debt accrued in making it (an oft-referenced problem in Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices).
The truth could be somewhere in between those extremes, or it could be this: Schmidt, whose filmmaking career began with three experimental features that shared common cast members that he now refers to as a “trilogy,” uses his knowledge and meticulous planning skills to craft chaotic visions of worlds on the brink of falling apart – be it the fragile bonds of lovers, the show business aspirations of a dying man, or, in Emerald Cities, society itself as it enters what the film’s subtitle refers to as the “new dark ages” of the Reagan ‘80s, a moment when mushroom clouds always seemed to be just over the next horizon.
Rick Schmidt came to filmmaking, by his own description, by accident. After dropping out of an engineering program at the University of Arizona and taking a job as a fast food fry cook, he moved to the Bay Area to attend the California College of Arts and Crafts (since renamed California College of the Arts) at the suggestion of his wife, who thought he might be good at industrial design. From there Schmidt drifted into filmmaking, making a solo short inspired by the title of a story in True Confessions magazine called “What Flirting Cost Me.” He then collaborated with his friend and future roommate Wayne Wang on a short called “1944,” which would win first place in the Ann Arbor Film Festival, an important outlet for Schmidt’s early features.
Schmidt and Wang went on to co-direct the first of Schmidt’s trilogy, the 1975 film A Man, a Woman, and a Killer. (Wang is credited with directing the actors on location while Schmidt gets credit for both photographing the film and an unusual “footage interpreted and edited by” credit.) The action revolves around the three characters of the title, though who plays what role can be a little shifty. Dick Richardson, who co-wrote the film with Schmidt and Wang, plays a thirtysomething man seemingly in the first blush of an affair with a woman named Z (Carolyn Zaremba). Their passions run high, and in one memorable scene things seem to be on the verge of turning violent. Then, as it will do over and over, A Man, a Woman, and a Killer pulls back to reveal itself as a film about the making of a film, and about how films work, and the ways they fall apart. Richardson and Zaremba are just acting the part of an angry couple, at least at this moment. The sixtysomething Ed Nylund, a librarian friend of Schmidt’s, rounds out the cast as the killer. Or maybe he’s not the killer. Maybe he’s just someone mistaken for a killer, or an actor pretending to be a character playing to be a killer. In one scene, Nylund waxes erotic about a woman’s body only to comment that these are obviously the heated thoughts of a much younger man.
It’s the sort of film made by creators under the deep influence of the French New Wave, and if A Man, a Woman, and a Killer doesn’t exactly push that tradition in new directions, it at least stays true to its spirit. The film even had a five-day run at New Yorke’s Bleecker Street Cinema and landed a review in the New York Times, albeit one that called it an “at best, an only mildly interesting series of soul-searchings.” But at least it was something. And with that film under his belt, Schmidt was onto the next one, originally titled Showboat 1988.
This time Nylund stars as a man who wants to remake the classic musical Show Boat as “a musical comedy with the stench of death.” To this end, he holds extensive auditions in San Francisco, an event that attracts all manner of performers – from a ventriloquist to a woman whose act involves dressing up in a nun’s habit, dancing with a dog then stripping to the music of disco star Sylvester. The auditions take up much of the film, playing like a counterculture take on The Gong Show, which they essentially were in real life. Schmidt staged them by renting San Francisco’s California Hall and filming whoever showed up to perform — a task that involved shooting 45 rolls of film. The film works as a fascinating time capsule made even odder by some last-minute changes. At the insistence of MGM, all references to Show Boat had to go, leading Schmidt to censor them out in the most intrusive ways possible, usually via honking bleeps. (“Old man [BLEEP],” etc.) And so the already puzzlingly titled Showboat 1988 became the even more puzzlingly titled 1988: The Remake.
From there it was off to the desert, at least for a while
From there it was off to the desert, at least for a while, to complete the trilogy with Emerald Cities. The 1983 film opens with a short interview with a San Francisco woman in a Santa hat who cheerily states, “I believe that by 1984, things will be similar to George Orwell’s book.” Most of the first act takes place in Trona, an unincorporated community located next to a dry lake bed. A place where no grass grows, Trona turned into a boomtown during the heyday of a nearby borax-mining operation. But as anyone who’s driven through the barren, oppressively hot place on their way to nearby Death Valley can attest, that boom ended a long time ago. Trona now looks like the last place on Earth anyone would live by choice.
In Emerald Cities it’s home to a woman named Z (another woman named Z, that is, played as in A Man, a Woman, and a Killer by Carolyn Zaremba) and to her father, a man who “likes to be called Ed” (Nylund again) who spends 363 days a year drinking outside a ruined-looking but apparently still functional gas station. The other two days a year Z works to keep him sober since it’s then that Ed plays Santa for the residents of Trona.
Most years, at least. This year threatens to upend that tradition. Speaking to the camera as the film opens, Z seems to have grown disenchanted with Trona life and with her father, saying of Ed, “He prides himself on the fact that he raised me all by himself. But I know that I was raised by TV.” Then she turns to face a small color set whose images have faded to green and starts to soak in the media of the day, which includes images of Reagan, talk of nuclear war, footage of mushroom clouds, more San Francisco interviews about Santa Claus, cowboys, a hypnotist, and one man’s memories of Christmas (actually Schmidt narrating family photos).
It’s TV that’s shaped her, but Z wants more; at the least she wants another TV. But Ed sees things differently, launching into a drunken, but kind of beautiful monologue, inspired by his failing set. “You look at that and you’re seeing the Emerald Cities of America, and of the world,” he tells her. “You get up there and you’re up in the… and you’re an astronaut, you know, and you’re looking down at this stuff. And you see all these Emerald Cities spread out. That’s the American dream. And that’s what we’re going for. There’s a certain amount of hope involved.”
But Ed seems to be the only character in the movie who finds hope in what he sees on television, one tinted emerald or otherwise. To watch Schmidt’s film is to revisit an especially dread-filled moment in a seemingly escalating Cold War, one in which talk of MX missiles filled the nightly news and the apocalypse always seemed one push of the button away. And if the end was near, we knew we’d first learn about it while watching TV.
The apocalypse was heavy in the cultural zeitgeist then, be it the fireball visions of the landmark TV movie The Day After, the post-nuclear wasteland of The Road Warrior or the songs on the radio. Apocalypse pop was practically a New Wave sub-genre. In 1983, Men At Work scored a top 10 hit with “It’s A Mistake,” whose widely played video ends with a soldier starting World War III by pressing the button while attempting to stub out a cigarette. That same year, the German band Nena would release “99 Luftballoons,” which imagined a similar scenario set into motion by peaceful protestors sending balloons in the sky. It became an English-language hit in 1984, the same year Ultravox released “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” whose lyric describes a couple embracing as they await a nuclear explosion. The song’s video, released years before Memento, plays the events in reverse chronological order, a device that makes the events seem sealed by fate. The ending has already been written long ago. It’s just a matter of when we’ll get there.
If pop took the end of the world as a dreadful possibility, a certain strand of punk embraced it as an inevitability. And it’s from that strand, and the feeling that created it, that Emerald Cities draws particular inspiration. The Mutants’ “New Dark Ages,” a song filled with images of TV parents and clones, plays over the opening credits. Along with Flipper, The Mutants are one of two Bay Area punk bands to make appearances in the film, and it’s to the San Francisco punk scene that Z disappears, escorted by no less than Flipper guitarist Ted Falconi himself, who agrees to take her with him after stopping at Ed’s gas station to fill up his tank. This does not sit well with Ed who, clad as Santa, starts to make his unhinged way to San Francisco to find her.
Emerald Cities features, relatively speaking, a more coherent plot than its predecessors or at least a more coherent structure. Ed drunkenly performs as Santa in front of a giant prop Bible then searches for Z. The Mutants and Flipper play songs in front of cardboard Santa cut-outs, including Flipper’s sludgy “Love Canal,” which draws on a recent toxic waste spill to imagine a future filled with monstrous children. Schmidt interrupts with more childhood memories. The TV talk continues to focus on missiles and Santa Claus, as if Christmas and doomsday were all wrapped up together.
Eventually, Dick Richardson shows up as an ex-con who feeds Ed magic mushrooms tucked into a bologna and cheese sandwich. This does not go well, pushing Emerald Cities toward a tragic end. Or at least what passes for a tragic end in film that wants nothing more to blow some well-placed raspberries before the bombs start falling — an impulse that extends to an epilogue in which Z, who disappears from the film fairly early on, makes her return in a form best not spoiled, but which brings Schmidt all the way back to his roots making movies that are at least partially about making movies.
And what better way to pass the time in the last days, when the end seems near for all and whatever “certain amount of hope” suggested by the blurry, greening images on television seems to be slipping away, when the barren streets of Trona look like a vision of the blasted world to come? When professional success seems elusive and even your leading lady runs off, why not make a movie that wants to tear apart the seams holding it together?
The bombs didn’t fall, of course, and the world didn’t end, at least not then and at least not by fire. And Schmidt, in spite of being driven deeper into debt by the project, didn’t dead-end either. In addition to writing an influential filmmaking guide based largely on his experience making that first trilogy, he’s since made movie after movie, including the well-liked 1989 indie Morgan’s Cake and 2001’s Chetzemoka’s Curse, the second American film to receive a Dogme 95 certification.
But in that moment, when the new dark ages seemed just around the corner, when the talk turned to fallout and half-lives and the promise of the Emerald Cities of America seemed like an artifact of the past at best and a cruel joke at best, he must have felt like he was rolling film on the end of the world.
RICK SCHMIDT INTERVIEW
“I Was Trying to Script Something I Really Couldn't Control”
A Conversation With
Director Rick Schmidt
By Keith Phipps
The nuclear apocalypse foreseen in Emerald Cities never arrived so Schmidt did what he’d always done: he kept making movies, and helping others to make them via film workshops and instructional books. To shed some more light on Emerald Cities, his early days, and his approach to filmmaking, byNWR spoke to Schmidt by phone.
I was really struck by your choice to shoot in Trona. Do you remember the first time you went to Trona?
One of my teachers at the California College of Arts and Crafts, now called California College of the Arts, Phil Makanna, was shooting a movie down there called Shoot the Whale and I kind of tagged along. It went through Trona, into Death Valley, to a little ghost town called Schwab. That was kind of my first taste of Death Valley, and of the desert getting under my skin.
Trona, of course, gives off fumes. It’s a little stinky, so you wouldn't really want to spend time there. There was a mill there, and when I was shooting Emerald Cities, I realized I needed a shot of a mill. I needed to have my main actor, Ed [Nylund], sort of act like he worked there in the past and as he was wandering around being the local yearly Santa, it seemed like a very strange place and a fun comic place for him to interact with people. That's where we shot the scene in the church with the two people. [They] allowed me to be in the church to set up Ed’s rehearsal for the Christmas pageant in Trona.
How much did you actually base those scenes on life in Trona and how much did you interact with the locals before you shot there?
Well, because the budget, was so tight, there was no advanced location scouting whatsoever for Emerald Cities. So, as we went along, it was just completely stream-of-consciousness ideas that were sort of either jumping to mind while I was trying to script something I really couldn't control and effectively being on location and just trying to take advantage of every good thing that crossed my path. So, after I did the scene with Ed and my friend, actor Kelly Bowen, I thought, well it would be great if we could do a Christmas pageant rehearsal. Maybe we could do it in that church I spotted over there. Being much more forward than usual, because I'm shooting a movie, I knocked on the door. This couple answers and I convince them to be the audience for Ed doing his, whatever it was going to be that he did. I mean, I did not know what he was going to do. All I knew was he had a Santa Claus costume and he'd kind of envisioned his own character. So many, many things that happened in Emerald Cities are that sort of thing, a total improv flow.
So really no one in the room knew what was going to happen?
No, nobody. I mean, maybe Ed had… He had been working on his character without even telling me. I didn't know what was going on in his mind. Also, he was drinking heavily, which he normally always did in every shoot he was ever in. He was very talented. He was a talented musician who had attended the Manhattan School of Music, he had done some cutting edge conceptual art piece that I saw before I got him into my movies and before there was conceptual art. He did a performance that was mind boggling so I had no idea what he was going to do.
I met him through the teacher Phil Makanna, who is also a noted sculptor in the San Francisco scene. Ed did a performance piece where he basically was acting like a teacher in front of a fairly large audience of even and women and children, everyone, and as he acted talking about Kierkegaard and all these philosophers, he was stripping his clothes off and throwing them at a bullseye on the blackboard. And nobody knew what the hell was going on because he seemed like an older, mature adult. He got down to a fig leaf and I heard – I was shooting a video for Phil, I guess – and I heard these children and their mothers next to me saying, "What is he doing? What’s happening?” You know, this is way early in the late 60's. And then he stripped off his fig leaf, completely nude and somebody called the cops. That was the end of that whole thing. It was very crazed thing. It was my first introduction to Ed.
Thank God I used him in my movies, that's all I can say. I mean he was in A Man, Woman and a Killer and he brought a great deal to that movie and that was the first movie I did, with my then-roommate, Wayne Wang. Then I did 1988: The Remake and that was sort of Ed's movie, to my mind. Ed was the star. He had fantasies of being a famous musician. I had him run the auditions. Emerald Cities was the third of the trilogy and that was starring Z [Carolyn Zaremba], the actress, who was also in the other two movies. It was going to be about her. That was the starting point. Except I had no money.
I owed the lab from 1988, and I had been stalled out for two years, and that's when I made the sacrifice of selling my 1939 Dodge Pickup that I bought for $25 during the hippie era. Once I got the $1200 for the truck, I realized I still didn't have any money. Why did I even bother to sell my beautiful truck? The sale of that truck ended up creating the title for my film book, Feature Filmmaking at Used-Car Prices. I was doing a show and this woman, Linda Blackaby, who became the director of the San Francisco Film Festival, said if you want to earn an extra hundred bucks, give me the title of a workshop and I'll give you the extra money. I said “Oh, I'll call you back in five minutes, I don't have any idea of what I should call it.” And that's when that title just jumped solidly into my head, because I just sold the truck.
That led directly to funding Emerald Cities then, correct?
I shot the Death Valley stuff in 1979, in December...
Oh, wow, I didn't know it was that early.
And somehow by the end, within a week or two, I heard from my friend Joe Rees, of Target Video, and Ted Falconi, the Flipper band member, and the Mutants, who were also friends from art school. Fritz Fox, who was the lead singer, they all were ready to perform their whole song list for me, for my movie. I had a couple rolls left of the stock because I only had eight rolls that I thought was barely enough, but I had two rolls left when I came home. It wasn't even something I carefully planned for months in advance, it was, “Rick, the bands are going to be there, bring your equipment.” They knew me and knew my other movie and wanted to be in my movie. So, they were at their very, very best. They're really at the top of their form.
And now you have probably one of the most important documents of that scene, too.
I didn't know the content, the dialogue, the lyrics of the songs would be so much of a part of the story I was telling. I ended up subtitling because a lot of it you couldn't hear, and the guys gave me their sound lyric printouts and I had that gift of working with the lyrics and making it punch up the story all the fears I had of 1984. Because when I started in '79, I thought, ‘It's going to be 1980, that's the future. And 1984 is going to be coming very damn soon.’ So, that was what propelled me to be even a little looser. The music was so powerful that I started to try to figure out how to keep that in the movie.
Later, I can't remember, it might have been '82 or something a little later when I decided to do the interviews on the street about Santa. Santa being shot. And that was when Reagan had opened up all the Napa Valley insane asylum, or whatever you want to call it. [The Napa State Mental Hospital, also site of a famous performance by The Cramps and the Mutants. –ed.] All those people were people who had been let out of institutions and had nowhere to live or whatever.
I didn't quite know that at the time, I just knew that the material we were getting was incredibly fascinating and even the guy that kept repeating in a musical way, "Santa got shot, shot with a gun, Santa got…” He was doing almost poetry of some sort, but when Willie Boy Walker, another actor in many of my movies, in seven of my features, was interviewing this guy, he couldn't hear a thing the guy ever said. So, once again, these people came out of the woodwork. The guy who says, next they're going to get Easter on you and the woman who said I believe that by 1984, things will be similar to George Orwell's book. That was a huge gift to anybody who's trying to cut a movie.
You made Emerald Cities around the same time your old collaborator Wayne Wang started to pursue a more mainstream path, did you ever consider doing that yourself?
Well, I think my style may not be equipped for that given my personality. You probably don’t know, I did the final cut on Chan is Missing for Wang for about a month. I mean my skills were good, especially in difficult editing, because I had been stuck in edit rooms for ten years before his movie came along. I had synced it up for him, then I didn't see him for about six months or maybe even a year before he wanted me to, I guess, try a cut. He couldn't figure it out. So, part of my skill set is really that, if I shoot a movie and I sync it up, all those parts keep… I don't know, my brain is editing when I don't know it.
Had I lifted off of the edit of Chan is Missing and got some kind of publicity or whatever, I might have ended up falling into, I’ll call it now, the “trap” of editing other people's movies. I would probably be happy about the money and not too happy about the content, or what’s happening to my life as an artist. Had I started, I probably would've kept going because we all need a money flow and I've never really had a decent one.
There were little things that happened. In the middle of editing Emerald Cities I got an NEA grant for $7,500 so that allowed me to finish the movie and bail out everything. For American Orpheus I won $25,000 from the NEA and the movie even cost more than that a little bit. But, the timing of things kept me working. Morgan's Cake, the movie that kind of got more notoriety through the [New York Film Festival’s] New Directors/New Films [in 1989] and a good Janet Maslin review and all that, I was asked to meet with an agent at CAA in L.A. and I did. And the guy was so insane he was like the crazed agent as the guy in The Big Picture.
It was stranger and crazier than that. He was on his earphone like a phone operator with a little speaker thing in the front of his mouth, his mouthpiece, talking to someone else and on the table there was like ten scripts by Robert Towne and, he threw off a title, ‘Do you want to do this movie?’ ‘Well, maybe. I don’t know.’ He just didn't land me, force me to sign a contract and put me on a set where I'm supposed to direct something that's already scripted, not my script. […] That whole lifestyle thing bypassed me. Wayne was very well suited, I think, obviously, for taking that track. I guess I should say I have no regrets.
This interview has been condensed from a longer conversation and edited for clarity.
Editor’s Note: In another bit of surreal history to add to Emerald Cities’ already epic story, while the byNWR team was finalizing the restoration of the film, two back-to-back earthquakes, the largest to hit Southern California in decades, struck almost directly underneath the city of Trona. The town suffered severe damage.
Keith Phipps writes about movies, TV, and other aspects of pop culture. You can find his work at Vulture, The Ringer, The Verge, TV Guide, Slate, and other publications. Keith also co-hosts the podcast The Next Picture Show.