Dia de los Muertos—2004. Election day. I left home around 6 pm to march in the procession through the streets of San Francisco’s Mission District. Kerry was in the lead. I walked with poet Francisco Alarcon to the beat of the Aztec drums, following the cut-paper standards that Juan Pablo Gutierrez creates each year, We blessed the four directions as the Aztec dancers spun, and thousands of people carrying candles, dressed as skulls and skeletons or simply in black, paraded past fabulous altars.
Dia de los Muertos—the mix of ceremony and celebration, the Latino tradition that now draws in people of all races and religions and cultures—to me it’s the essence of the vibrant life of the city that inspired me to write The Fifth Sacred Thing many years ago. I wanted to imagine a world where the values that were most sacred to me—balance with nature, justice, respect for our human diversity, art and pleasure and love—were the basis of society. What would it look like, feel like? How would we live in that world? And how could we defend it against those who still put their trust in brute force and violence?
As I walked, I began to have a bad feeling, as if the tides of fate were shifting, and not in a good way. When I got home, Bush was in the lead. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach—not so much because of who was winning but because of what the whole nasty process with its lies and attacks and voter suppression, if not outright fraud, said about who we are and what our future was likely to be. And a little voice in my head said, “Maybe it would be a good political act to get your book made into a movie.”
I’d often thought of getting the book made into a movie—practically everyone who has ever read it has said, “This would be a great movie!” But selling books to the movies is a process fraught with dashed hopes and broken dreams. Most of the time, it means the writer sells the rights and loses all control. Rarely if ever does the writer of a novel write the screenplay—partly because it Is a whole different skill set.
I’d had a couple of options on the book at various times that never turned into a movie. But now I decided I wanted to write the screenplay myself. After all, I had spent a year in the graduate film department at UCLA, and won a major writing prize. Okay, that was in 1972, but still. Besides, I had that magic thing so many writers want and don’t have—an agent in Hollywood. Never mind that every time I sent him a draft of the screenplay he responded with, “It’s not working—but I’m no good at giving feedback, I can’t tell you why.” I got lots of helpful comments, mostly on the order of, “Have you thought of getting a real screenwriter to do it?” But I am nothing if not persistent. My mother used to tell me that when I was just learning to walk, she watched me one day trying to cross a threshold, tripping, falling, getting back up, tripping again, falling, over and over. Perfect preparation for writing the screenplay—although perhaps simply beating my head against the wall would have done it.
Just when I had about convinced myself the whole thing was an addictive obsession more than a creative project, my stepdaughter Juliana put me in touch with a friend of hers that she said had always dreamed of making the movie of The Fifth Sacred Thing. Philip Wood–known to his friends as Mouse–had been working in film and music production in the Bay Area for many years and was starting his own production company, Yerba Buena films. We met, and I liked his vision for the movie. He actually liked the screenplay. We talked, we negotiated, gradually we began to scheme, and over time and a few more drafts, somehow “He wants to make this movie” shifted to “We’re making this movie.” If I wanted to have some impact on how the movie turns out, I needed to be part of it, and Philip was willing to have me.
Then, in October, an old friend posted on my blog that he had finally read the book and was possessed by the need to make it into a movie. I knew Paradox Pollack as what I thought of as The Mysterious People in Black who would show up at 3 AM at our New Year’s Eve parties and do contact improv in the attic long after I went to bed. He’s an actor, circus performer and dancer who had moved from Bohemian San Francisco scene and been working in Hollywood doing movement choreography for big, feature films for the last six years, including Star Trek, I Am Legend, and Thor. (We call him The Guy Who Taught the Gods How to Move). <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7X98ZM_aQC0>. When he came on board, our pace revved up. Now, besides doing the dull and necessary things like getting legal and financial structures together, we started to get art, costume ideas, visuals to help shape the look of the future. And the movie has begun to generate its own magic—all kinds of amazing, creative, incredible people have said, “Yes, I want to be part of this!” “Use my art”, “Play my music”, “How can I help?”
For me, the contradictions inherent in this project are huge. I’m far more at home on the barricades protesting corporate greed than inside a meeting room trying to raise staggering amounts of money. The average cost of a big feature with special effects is something like 100 million dollars. I have to practice saying it without either laughing or flinching. How could I possibly get involved with the money forces on that scale and keep any shreds of integrity? How could we justify the amount of energy and resources it would take?
Well, what if all those resources could be used to help create pieces of that future we want to show in the movie? What if we applied permaculture principles to the making of the movie itself? I wrote up a Green Plan for the production, thinking of all the ways we could not only make the production itself set a whole new standard for ecological filmmaking, but also generate resources that could be left in the city afterwards and provide a platform that could inspire people to start building that beautiful world back in their own home towns. People loved the vision of Avatar so much that many of them dressed up in blue and went out to the woods to play Pandora. Well, The Fifth Sacred Thing is a bit like Avatar on Earth—and if people like the vision they’ll see, they can create it right here, and we can provide blueprints on the website! And the Green Plan, it turned out, was inspiring to some of the people who can help us make it happen—from Green Businesses to a fan of the book who now works in San Francisco’s Department of the Environment.
So, where are we now? We’ve got structures for the legal and financial stuff, although there’s always endlessly more of those to put in place. We’ve got artwork, character drawings, wonderful support from major artists who will allow us to use their work and images. We have that screenplay—finally down to the size it needs to be! We have a letter of interest from Olympia Dukakis, who is my dream choice to play Maya, the old woman/storyteller. Within the next couple of weeks, we’ll have our website up and already our Facebook Page is up. Please check it out and Like it if you can!
We’re just about to take that big leap, from the The Fifth Sacred Thing movie project being my Secret Dream to becoming a Big, Public Dream. Really scary—on so many levels. But as we say, “Where there’s fear, there’s power.” And it’s so, so exciting!
What we don’t have—yet—the major financing. But—we have a plan! To get together the full packet of legal and creative stuff that will allow us to go after the financing, we need seed money. So we’re going to start with a Kickstarter campaign—there will be updates here, on our Facebook page, and you can also go onto my website and sign onto my mailing list. Kickstarter is a website for crowd-funding creative projects. If we can raise at least $50,000, and hopefully more, on Kickstarter, that will get us a big step forward toward pulling together all the pieces we need to go after bigger funding. And equally important, it will show potential investors that there is big support and interest out there for this project. The more we can put together, the more likely we can attract financing from people who will be excited by our vision, and who will want to support it and augment it. (As opposed to what usually happens, where the financial people want to control the vision and generally change it.)
I feel so much responsibility to everyone who loves the book. It’s terrifying to think that we might disappoint people. We could fail to make the movie—most movie projects are stillborn before they ever get made. We could make a lousy movie! But I so strongly believe that the world needs a positive vision of the future right now. I can’t think of any movie that projects a positive vision of a future here on earth. How can we create it if we can’t envision it? A friend confessed to me the other day that she and everyone she knows thinks it’s already too late, that we’re past the point of no return. I don’t believe that. I believe that the earth is resilient and creative—and we are agents of that creative force called to reinvent our way of life right now. If we can give people some hope, some direction and some inspiration, it seems worth all the risks and the work!
Besides, I so want to see those Four Old Women tear up the streets!
You can order the book, and the prequel Walking to Mercury, on my website: