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Director Doug Nichol’s California Typewriter a Passion Project for Everyone Involved

EVEN ACCOMPLISHED PEOPLE GROW RESTLESS. After graduating from film school at the University of Southern California, Doug Nichol began his career as a camera operator on high-profile music documentaries like U2: Rattle and Hum (1988), and Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991), for which he was also a director of photography. As a cinematographer he shot the TV documentary Billy Joel: Live in Leningrad (1987). Nichol won a Grammy Award for directing the 1993 video documentary Sting: Ten Summoners Tales.

He spent a decade directing music videos for artists like New Kids on the Block, Sting, Lenny Kravitz and Aerosmith, earning two other Grammy nominations along the way. He later directed hundreds of television commercials. But for Nichol, a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, something was missing. Music videos and commercials “were a way to support my family,” he tells Moresby Press, “but I felt there was an emptiness.”

And then a passion project came along that would change Nichol’s life and those of nearly everyone involved with it—the 2017 documentary California Typewriter, which he directed, photographed, edited and co-produced. Ostensibly about a struggling typewriter-repair shop—and the subculture still devoted to the analog machines that the rest of the world mostly considers obsolete in the digital age—the film is also about people following their passion, instead of following the herd.

“Nobody in the film is doing what they do for money,” Nichol says. “They are all doing it out of love. The whole project, top-to-bottom, was infused with that.”

The movie had its origins in 2011, when Nichol read an article in The New York Times about an East Village artist whose favorite possession was an Underwood No. 5 typewriter. Intrigued, Nichol found the same model on eBay for $6 (plus $60 to ship the heavy machine). He thought the antique would look nice on a desk in his office. But the broken typewriter called out to him to fix it.


Herb Permillion, owner of the California Typewriter shop

He Googled “typewriter shops” and found just one, California Typewriter in Berkeley, which was open for only a few hours a day, four days a week. He met the owner, Herbert L. Permillion, III; Herb’s daughters, Carmen and Candace, who also work in the shop; and master repairman Ken Alexander. The chance encounter led Nichol to make a three-minute short about the shop that later grew into the full-length documentary.

“The motivating force of this film came from when I walked into that typewriter shop and met the family and they repaired my typewriter,” he says. “They were struggling so much that I felt I had to finish this film for them. It was only through getting their story out there that people could meet them and they could have any hope of their business surviving.”

Nichol started hanging around the shop and filming the staff at work, and then made the short. A friend showed it to actor Tom Hanks, who collects typewriters and offered to appear in the longer film. As one introduction led to another, Nichol followed two paths: filming notable people who use typewriters—including Hanks, playwright/actor Sam Shepard, historian and author David McCullough, and musician John Mayer—and telling the stories of people he met at the shop. One of those narratives involved the artist Jeremy Mayer, who creates android sculptures out of discarded typewriter parts.

“When I met him, Jeremy was sleeping on the floor of a shipping container with not even twenty bucks to his name,” Nichol recalls. “But he was loving what he did, which was taking apart typewriters like erector sets and putting them together into these forms.”

A parallel began to emerge between the themes of the film and Nichol’s own experience of making it. In his self-funded passion project, he found himself gravitating toward people who were also motivated by love for what they were doing. 

“It was probably a subconscious thing that was taking me in that direction,” he says. “A lot of times I would be driven to shoot something and not know why. It just seemed interesting to me. I would then have to cut it together and wasn’t sure how it would fit. And then I started making connections between things I had shot. Something that I didn’t know why I had shot would fall into place as an important piece.”

Nichol had to learn film editing and sound to make the documentary. Other people involved also grew during the course of the filming, or because of it. Mayer now sells his sculptures to Silicon Valley executives, in some cases for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

 Repairman Ken Alexander

And since the film’s release in August, business has taken off for the California Typewriter shop. “I’m swamped with work now, a lot more than I’ve had in a long time,” Alexander tells Moresby Press. “It’s been very nice. Customers coming in have seen the film and tell us they’re glad we’re here. We were on the verge of closing at one point. We couldn’t be any more grateful for Doug’s film.”

For Nichol, making the documentary “was a way to connect to my original passion of why I went to film school,” he says. “It brought me so much joy to go out and create something, really for the love of doing it, and the adventure of not knowing where it would lead me. The film was a creative expression of something I felt. The process of making it made me realize that I just want to follow my passion now. I feel very happy and alive.”

Underdogs, Cast-Offs and Emerging Classics Form Our Best of 2017

BIG, SPLASHY RELEASES enjoy ample attention elsewhere, so our best-of list for 2017 honors overlooked artists who have worked hard, often against the odds, to bring their visions to the world.

One mainstream exception arrived in March, when FEUD: Bette and Joan, became our favorite TV show of the year. On the surface, the season-long FX series was about the rivalry between aging actresses Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, both of whose careers were declining, as they starred and sparred opposite each other in the black-and-white 1962 B-movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? But by the fourth episode a deeper theme emerged: Even outwardly successful people in Hollywood are brutalized by a power hierarchy that constantly reminds stars, directors and others of their place in the pecking order.

Susan Sarandon was terrific as Davis, but Jessica Lange stole the show with her portrayal of a haughty yet sympathetic Crawford. Excellent supporting parts included Stanley Tucci as reptilian studio head Jack Warner, and Alfred Molina as underappreciated Baby Jane director Robert Aldrich. FEUD: Bette and Joan further seduced us with gorgeous colors, sets and period detail—and a haunting title-sequence score by composer Mac Quayle.

Early 2017 also gave us our favorite song of the year, “Shine” by Mondo Cozmo. “My friends are so alone and it breaks my heart / My friends don’t understand we all are lost,” Josh Ostrander, aka Mondo Cozmo, sings in the moving single. Despite the sadness of those words, the tune is an anthem of hope with its chorus “Let ’em get high / Let ’em get stoned / Everything will be all right if you let it go.” The sentiment can be taken literally or as metaphor; either way, the song acknowledges our pain and then blasts it away through musical catharsis.

In June, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch burst forth as one of the strangest and most unique independent films of the year. The lead character, a young woman played by Suki Waterhouse, is branded and tossed into a fenced-off wasteland for society’s undesirables—and soon finds herself captured by bodybuilding cannibals who saw off her right arm and leg and roast the limbs for dinner. She manages to escape by rolling herself supine on a skateboard across the Texas desert flats, and then acquires a prosthetic leg and a revolver and goes back seeking revenge. But she winds up developing a Stockholm-Syndrome-style affection for the tattooed brute who nourished himself on her flesh.

In September, Moresby Press honored the passing of character actor Frank Vincent and the tenth anniversary of when he began filming his only starring role, in the gripping crime drama Chicago Overcoat. Vincent plays an aging hitman for the Chicago mob who hasn’t killed anyone for 20 years and never rose through the ranks, but is now looking for one last lucrative job so he can retire to Las Vegas, in this stylish movie from director Brian Caunter.

September also saw the release of our favorite documentary of the year, California Typewriter. The movie’s title refers to a typewriter-repair shop in Berkeley, Calif., where expert technicians struggle to keep the shop alive as demand for the machines has shrunk to just a small subculture of people who still love them. Far from a mere exercise in nostalgia, this beautiful film directed, photographed and edited by David Nichol will make you rethink the choices available for living your life.

Another fond look at a fading tradition arrived in November, with the publication of the sumptuously enjoyable coffee-table picture book Changing Chicago: A Portrait in Postcards and Photos (Chicago’s Books Press, $40). Authors Neal Samors, Steven Dahlman and Lawrence Okrent collected and reproduced more than 200 vintage Chicago postcards and juxtaposed those images with archival and new photographs to illustrate how the city has changed in the 146 years since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Seeing the old postcards next to recent pictures of Chicago reminds us of the elegance that its citizens and visitors—and the rest of the world—have lost.

 

Penny Postcards Picture Chicago History, Changes

“PICTURE POSTCARDS PRESENTED THE WONDERS OF THE WORLD in color at a time when black-and-white photography dominated print media and travel was a difficult and expensive proposition,” Lawrence Okrent writes in his foreword to the sumptuously enjoyable Changing Chicago: A Portrait in Postcards and Photos (Chicago’s Books Press, $40).

Okrent, one of the book’s three authors (along with editor/publisher Neal Samors and photographer Steven Dahlman), writes that in the days before widespread use of telephones, penny postcards were “the principal means of casual interpersonal communication.”

On the margin of one postcard showing the original Cook County Jail, someone, perhaps a mother, has written in a cursive hand: “This is where I will put you if you don’t behave.” People filled shoe boxes with postcards they’d received, bearing messages from friends and family on one side, and destination images on the other.

In this lavishly produced, 208-page coffee-table picture book printed on thick, smooth (and aromatic) paper, the authors have collected and reproduced more than 200 vintage Chicago postcards and juxtaposed those images with archival and new photographs to illustrate how the city has changed in the 146 years since the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Originally shot in black-and-white and then colorized by their publishers, such as Chicago printers Curt Teich & Co., the postcard photographs from the early to mid-20th century evoke a bustling, modern city whose energetic citizens also enjoyed plenty of leisure time at the beach or along the lakefront. That idealized, colorful evocation must have seemed dreamily exciting and appealing, and perhaps out-of-reach, to people in other parts of the country who received the postcards in the mail.

The book organizes its images into locations and aspects of this beautiful American city, many of which remain central to daily life in Chicago today: the river (once churning with commercial ships and lined with docks and warehouses, now home to promenades, cafes and restaurants, where people watch pleasure craft cruise past), Wacker Drive, and Michigan Avenue (including the Water Tower, Tribune Tower, Wrigley Building, Michigan Avenue Bridge, and Art Institute of Chicago).

Other entries are devoted to Chicago’s aerial views, its beaches, Board of Trade, Buckingham Fountain, churches, City Hall, Civic Opera Building, elevated trains, Lake Shore Drive, Gold Coast, Grant Park and Millennium Park.

We see the evolution of the city’s harbors, Navy Pier, Merchandise Mart, Museum of Science and Industry, and Field Museum. Across glossy spreads pop Chicago’s parks, sports arenas like Wrigley Field and the Chicago Stadium, State Street (including Marshall Field and Company—now Macy’s—and the Chicago Theatre), other Loop streets, and landmark hotels like The Drake, Palmer House, and Blackstone.

One thing that becomes apparent seeing the old postcards next to recent pictures of Chicago is the elegance its citizens and visitors—and the rest of the world—have lost. In vintage shots, ladies and gentlemen stroll in dresses and suits; in contemporary photos, slobs stumble in shorts and T-shirts.

Some postcards are arranged one or two per page, others four or six per page. A few cover two full pages of the book—such as one showing Navy Pier in the 1940s, and another of Adams and State streets at the dawn of the 20th century.

For Chicagoans, the book is a rare pleasure. Other readers might feel like the recipients of those postcards so long ago: They’ll wish they were here.

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