My script, Wave That Flag, details my Deadhead days back in the ’80s. Quite simply, it’s just another coming-of-age, I-can’t-believe-I-did-that, Don’t-do-what-I-do-or-maybe-do-I-don’t-care, Those-were-the-days movie. It’s all about me, a plea for attention. Me. Aren’t you amazed by the things I did? Wasn’t I crazy? No one does it like me. That’s right. Look at me.
But that’s why it works. The big theme is chasing down the music. At its essence, it is about a sound, a path as it were, and I was on it, and I went in a direction that could be so clearly understood, that everyone can understand, and it was an incredible place to be. I was astonished that I was on it, just there in the middle of magical fantastical place, through the woods and fire, where nothing but amazing things happened.
It was a communal thing of splendor and everything was ahead. It could never end. That was the certainty. This eternity, the whole thing laid wide open, it would go on forever.
And then it didn’t. And so, it’s really about losing that, never having it, or remembering what it was like when I didn’t know what I know now, if I know anything. So, yes, nostalgia.
Davis leaves behind his easy-going university lifestyle to journey into the Canadian wilderness and a summer job of planting trees.
The learning curve is painful; the mosquitoes and black flies are a constant plague, the weather is by turns baking hot and miserably wet, and the specter of snakes, bears and cougars lurk at every turn. Davis is barely able to make $5 a day at the outset, while his pot-smoking pal Max concedes immediate defeat, hiding in his tent. The sole respite to the torturous work is the communal hot tub where everyone strips naked to drink, pontificate and listen to killer music, all the while dreaming of a better day.
Davis toils on, slowly discovering an inner strength. The repetitive routine of planting trees puts him into a meditative state where he can consider his place in the world, made all the more poignant as he surveys the stripped and burned hillside juxtaposed against the stunning beauty of the surrounding mountains. The crew finally gets a day off and celebrates their brief freedom in town with drunken antics, after which things take a number of turns for the worse, including Davis’ van getting wrecked. Davis grinds through his angst and exhaustion and, after a late-night rendezvous with the foreman’s girlfriend, goes back to town and gets into a conflict with a group of locals who accuse him of stealing their jobs. Elmer, a mysterious and spiritual planter Davis had only seen from afar, comes to the rescue by defeating their burly leader in an arm-wrestling duel.
Davis returns to work, relentlessly planting, breaking the camp’s record, shortly after which a forest fire appears on the horizon. The foreman insists that the crew stay to make as much money as possible, but Davis and his friends escape this madness by driving directly through the smoke and onto a music festival.
I had a glimmer of light on my screenplay, The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg, in 1996, when I piqued an agent’s interest by making reference in my cover letter to the assumed “teetering piles” of submissions on her desk. She liked the image and called. “Before you come down to chat, I would like you to address the title. The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg doesn’t work, does it? You need something that will catch the audience’s attention.” I was most pliant; I arrived the next day with my newly christened Manitou island. “What does that mean?”
“The Manitou are the Ojibwa spirits.”
“Spirits? That’s a start.” She scanned through the first pages. “Okay, and this. I’m not sure about these names. What’s this one? Asawsny?”
“Asawasanay. He’s the spiritual leader.” I pointed out the name to follow. “And Pamequonaishcung is an elder. They’re Ojibwa.”“Pamakon? Oh.” She turned the pages. “I’m not sure that’s going to work.”
“That’s what the story is about. It’s their spiritual return to the land.”
“Oh.” The meeting deteriorated from there, and there was no follow-up. I understood her point about making the story accessible, and changes of course could be made, but her approach was facile, like she expected an explosion of light. I was supposed to amaze and astound, to make the sale, so that she could sell another. I balked. Eleven books later, I’m still struggling with that. (And, yes, I changed the title back to The Life and Home of Gerbi Norberg.)