From the start, local artist James Koskinas’ movie, The Twilight Angel, establishes the crux of its dilemma. James Reddoor (Koskinas), a successful painter, is attempting to complete a series of portraits — 12 angels that represent people and events from his past — for the gallery that shows his work. Depression and post-traumatic stress stemming from Reddoor’s Vietnam War experiences derail the process, and his final painting, the angel in the film’s title, remains unfinished. Nearly all of the action takes place within a darkened room — the artist’s studio — where his creative process offers a way out of his inner darkness, allowing him to resume his work. The dark space around him mirrors his state of mind. The movie is a collaborative effort by three people: Koskinas, the film’s only cast member as well as its screenwriter and co-director; James Witham, Koskinas’ co-director, cinematographer, and editor; and Koskinas’ wife, artist and criminal defense attorney Julie Schumer, who served as the film’s producer and publicist. “We built a black box in here,” said Koskinas, who, along with Witham and Schumer, spoke to Pasatiempo at the studio where the film was shot. “We did it all in one contained space. We wanted to keep the pressure on.” The Twilight Angel won a Silver Remi Award at the WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival earlier this year, where it was screened only for the judges. Its premiere screening for the public is at the Jean Cocteau Cinema on Saturday, Nov. 15, at 3 p.m. After the screening, viewers are invited to a Q & A with the filmmakers at Zia Diner (326 S. Guadalupe St.), where ticket-stub holders receive a discount on food and drinks.
The project, which began in earnest in 2012, is loosely adapted from Koskinas’ stage performance, Even if the Mountains Burn, a one-man play in which each scene (the film uses the same dramatic device) takes place in a single room. In Even if the Mountains Burn, Koskinas interacts in a pub with door gunners tasked during the Vietnam War with firing and maintaining arms from helicopters. “In the play, the door gunners are coming and going, but when they go, you never see them again,” he said. “They’re dead.”
The film takes a less dramatic approach to Reddoor’s memory of his fallen comrades. As Reddoor, Koskinas speaks in his own distinctive drawl, surrounded by his painted portraits — the silent witnesses to his struggle. In that sense, the portraits become characters themselves, invested with all the painful and joyous memories of Reddoor’s life. “Painting is a death struggle,” Koskinas said. “It wears you out. And at some point in the process, you go through some crisis. Who’s going to like it? It’s terrible. What if I get really close to making something great, then make a couple of false moves and it’s gone? So there’s always that terror. But when it comes together, there’s that satisfaction and joy. So it’s a razor’s edge.” An exhibit of artwork created specifically for the film hangs in the cinema’s gallery through the weekend.
The Twilight Angel began as an outgrowth of public interest in Koskinas’ stage production, though it didn’t come together until years later. “People would come up to James in Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, and they would say, ‘I saw your play, and it was so great,’ ” Schumer said. “It still happens today. James wanted to do another play. I wasn’t game for that because it’s a whole lot of work and a lot of money for a limited audience. I said, ‘If we’re going to do something, let’s do a film that we can put out to the world.’ ” So Koskinas enlisted longtime friend Witham to develop the project. “John made a movie of me for my website, like a 10-minute art-process movie,” Schumer said. The couple knows Witham through Selby Fleetwood Gallery, where Koskinas and Schumer show their work and where Witham’s wife, artist Linda Leslie, has shown hers. “We knew John had the chops to do this,” said Schumer. “We immediately launched in, none of us knowing about the business end of it — the practical details. Everybody went beyond their assigned roles. It’s a complete collaboration.”
“We had delusions of grandeur in the beginning,” added Koskinas, “with me being in a helicopter and flying around. But it was like $3,500 an hour to rent the helicopter. We just couldn’t do it. So we just told the story inside here.”
Reddoor’s narrative strikes chords of truth. Though not entirely autobiographical, it contains elements from Koskinas’ life. “There’s some scenes in there, like when he finds the letters in the suitcase — those are actual letters I wrote to my parents when I was in Vietnam. And the one where I’m reading about how they’re trying to kill me in the gun tower. That’s a true story.”
On-screen, Reddoor reads from the letter: “To mother on her 57th birthday, love James. I was stuck in a gun tower for 13 hours, waiting for them to get me. But they didn’t. It’s a funny feeling, knowing that someone is trying to kill you.”
“That letter, I didn’t even discover until we shot the movie,” Koskinas said. “The events are rearranged to make a dramatic script. But emotionally, it’s true: how I felt about the war and my friends who died and how I felt about my own survivor’s guilt around that. I had PTSD I just couldn’t shake. My wife said, ‘James, you’ve been trying to tell this Vietnam story ever since I’ve known you. It’s become too big a story to hold inside yourself.’ ” Koskinas entered a writing workshop with actor Tanya Taylor Rubenstein, whose Project Life Stories program encourages participants to explore self-expression through monologues and solo performances. “I spent a year on the script. It was a big catharsis where I just spit it out.” Koskinas’ PTSD increased after doing this writing, and he entered therapy. “I got stalled. I didn’t paint for a while. I was depressed. Once I started moving forward again, it led right into the collaboration with John and Julie on the movie. I kind of think of myself as a lone wolf. I have that heroic sense of myself as an artist where you’re against the wind. I love the solitude of the studio, and I always thought of that as my place. But, at some point, it didn’t work anymore, especially when that PTSD came in.” Reddoor’s process of working through his turmoil by way of a creative endeavor is a reflection of Koskinas’ own recent struggles with mental illness. “Any true artist would probably say you’re not separate from your art. So you’re going through problems in your life — relationship problems, money problems — everything you’re going through shows up on your canvas.”
The shooting schedule lasted for three months, during which Koskinas’ task was to tone down the larger-than-life theatrical gestures and vocalizations he was accustomed to making as a live performer. “On-camera, in an intimate situation, big gestures and real exaggerated speech and body language seem contrived,” said Witham. “The challenge James rose to was how to be in a very intimate situation with the camera, as opposed to being onstage before an audience. We developed feedback mechanisms, where we did a lot of camera tests. Then we’d look at them and collaboratively decide if a different approach was necessary or if we had to completely lose a scene. Through that process, he developed a comfort with his on-camera role.”
“The first time we shot a scene, we did like 39 takes,” Koskinas said. “It took seven hours for like 30 seconds of movie. It was a big deal for me to get myself out of the way and tell a story.”
Meanwhile, it was Schumer’s job to make sure cast and crew stayed on-task. “I kept saying, ‘We have to be done by this date, or we’re going to run out of money.’ ” Witham added, “She was being a good producer.”
Because they had no crew to review dailies and do the rough edits, Witham kept a list of edits in his head during filming, deciding on a day-to-day basis which material he could work with. He launched into post-production work as soon as filming was complete. “It was a leap of faith that I had what we needed to make the film.” As if the multiple roles he took on during production weren’t enough, Witham also worked as the film’s sound mixer and created its score, along with local composers John Oliver and Rusty Kirkland. “They took me over to the studio, and John started calling out scenes, and I would re-create the scene from the movie,” Koskinas said. “They would play over me, then take out my voice. It all happened just like that: quick, spontaneous, and everyday.”
The filmmakers left room in their shooting script for the improvisational “authentic” moments, when Koskinas, as Reddoor, is deeply engaged in painting. “In those scenes, he was just on his own — in his world,” Witham said. “I think that comes through in the film, that’s he’s really painting. He’s in the zone.”
“In the scene where I’m just painting and painting and painting, I was completely gone,” added Koskinas. “It was a total immersion. It’s pretty significant too — because, after that, I said to John, ‘A painter has no language except a visual language.’ You’re not thinking of words when you’re painting. I almost wish we shot a movie with no language at all because it’s so powerful to be painting. Time stops. You don’t need the outside world. That was definitely the most real scene of the whole movie. We were both transfixed.” ◀