Last fall, I did something I’ve never done before—I made a short film. It’s a six-minute documentary based on my experience traveling cross-country by rail. The cross-country rail journey is also something I’ve never done before. I came home with a dozen video interviews and a lot of footage shot on my iPhone 6s. I made the film in roughly six weeks with the help of an incredibly talented editor Edward Radford and sound editor Jason Oberholtzer.
Writing the Rails
I was selected in July 2016 to participate in Amtrak’s Writer’s Residency program, a unique opportunity for writers to work on creative projects of their own choosing. I wrote about my adventure in real-time for the Amtrak blog and posted generously on social media, although I wasn’t required to do any of those things.
I embarked on my journey in early October 2016, traveling from New York to Chicago on the Lakeshore Limited, an overnight train where I experienced my first real sleeper experience and had my very own toilet and drop-down sink. I wouldn’t have those amenities in a sleeper compartment for the rest of the journey! (All amenities were shared).
During a layover in Chicago, I met a very nice group of Amish people who traveled with me to Montana, and with whom I later caught up to on a different route. We boarded the Empire Builder together in Chicago, a train that would take us through towns in Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and North Dakota before reaching Montana, quite possibly the most beautiful and desolate state I traveled through on the trip.
I got off the train in Whitefish, Montana, a picture postcard town that’s one of the gateways to Glacier National Park and also close to some ski resorts. I stayed in Kallispell, Montana, just a bit farther away, for a couple of days and toured the Park, met local people, had a few adventures, and experienced the power of nature as never before. Many of the details are in the blog posts, which also appear on my site. After a couple of days in Montana, I went on to Seattle, and then boarded the iconic Coast Starlight train which travels down the West Coast inland through Oregon and California, and then eventually travels down part of the California coast where I observed vast swaths of the Pacific Ocean. I’ve driven the Pacific Coast Highway starting at Big Sur and traveling north to southern Oregon, but hadn’t seen this part of the country from the train—an entirely different experience.
I traveled to San Jose on the Coast Starlight (my cousin was along for the ride from Seattle to San Jose). We disembarked and I stayed at his house near San Jose for a couple of days. I got back on the Coast Starlight and rode for 10 hours from San Jose to Los Angeles where I was lucky to spend some time with friends on a brief layover. In Los Angeles, I boarded the Southwest Chief which took me through Arizona and New Mexico and eventually back to Chicago which is an Amtrak hub. From Chicago, I traveled through upstate New York (got to see it during the daytime on the return trip), and got back to New York City by riding alongside the Hudson River, a route and landscape I know so well.
Making the Film
When I returned home, the presidential election was less than four weeks away. My thoughts were preoccupied with that, and also how I wanted to interpret my rail experience. Over the summer, I’d envisioned a different sort of project but preconceived notions often don’t pan out. When I returned from the trip, my head was in an entirely different place. I felt a strong visceral pull to a visual experience. I found myself, quite organically, creating what I came to describe as a “visual poem”.
I began reviewing video footage, piecing it together, viewing the interviews I’d conducted, transcribing them, and drafting bits of a script. I found myself telling a story in visuals and spare prose. The words tumbled out of me. I then found an excellent video editor and with his help, we set out to tell the story. I learned how to write the script. I recorded the voiceover in my coat closet with an app. Perhaps my Yeti mic would have been better, but I enjoyed using the app.
I’ve rarely had a story tell itself before. This one did. I’ve entered “Train People” into film festivals all over the world in the category of “Documentary Short Film” which is typically anything less than an hour and often less than 45 minutes. I’m at work on my next short—I love the form and the idea of a visual poem.
Here are the film festivals that are evaluating “Train People” in the category of “Documentary Short”:
The film is a Grand Jury Nominee in the London Independent Film Awards:
The film will be screened in the LIFA festival on April 29 in the fourth block.
Bronze winner in the Documentary Short category for the International Independent Film Awards, Winter 2017.
Best Shorts Competition:
Hollywood International Moving Pictures Film Festival:
Los Angeles Independent Film Festival Awards:
International Monthly Film Festival’s Official Selection: