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People & Arts: Documentaries

California Typewriter movie poster


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

Bored with making TV commercials, Grammy-winning
former director of music videos found inspiration in story of struggling typewriter-repair shop and the subculture of people who still love the clack of the machines’ keys

By Greg Beaubien

By GREG BEAUBIEN     Dec. 13, 2017


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 Sting, New Kids on the Block, 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 for him to fix it.

Doug Nichol, filmmaker, director of documentary 'California Typewriter'

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.”

‘Nobody in the film is doing what they do for money,’ Doug Nichol says. ‘They are all doing it out of love.’

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.”

Herb Permillion, owner of California Typewriter shop, in scene from documentary film 'California Typewriter'

Herb Permillion, owner of the California Typewriter shop

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.

Kenneth Alexander in the documentary film California Typewriter

Typewriter 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.”

California Typewriter is available on Amazon and Apple iTunes.


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In his own words

California Typewriter Director Doug Nichol on Independent Documentary Filmmaking

TO GET A FILM OUT INTO THE WORLD so that audiences can see it, you need to get other people involved, and other companies. It isn’t financially smart to make your own film; it’s better to find somebody who wants to fund the film. But then you lose control.

The key is finding people who understand what you want to do and are supportive of the thing you’re trying to make, and you’re all going in the same direction. The problem is when people aren’t clear at the beginning, and have different goals. That’s when trouble starts.

There are certain times when everybody is focused on the same end goal. And then it’s a really great experience to collaborate with people who all have the same desire for the film.

I’ve always wanted to do things that interest me. I’ve never been into just milking something for a living. I’ve always tried to move into new things that interest and challenge me—like making this film, for instance. I had to learn how to edit. I also had to learn how to be a sound man. I learned these different crafts because they interest me, just as I had learned by moving from genre to genre in different types of work.

I shot the movie on a Canon 5D digital single-lens reflex camera. It’s a $3,000 camera. I bought a couple of them and owned all my own equipment, my sound equipment, lights, cameras. That’s what was great about the film. Anytime I wanted to shoot something I could just pick up and start. I didn’t have to hire equipment or call people to come help me.

The Canon 5D is a great camera, but you have no latitude. There’s only one stop. So if you don’t expose the film properly, it’s not going to look good. With my background as a cinematographer I knew how to shoot it properly. But I spent a lot of time grading the film after I shot it. It looks great when it’s projected on the big screen.

People like to pigeon-hole you, to put you in little categories, whatever you do. They say, “Oh, I understand that person—he does that.” It’s happened to cameramen I know. They direct their first little film, and then they never get camera work again.

But in San Francisco there’s a great community of eclectic filmmakers and really talented people. There’s a lot of support: You can watch each other’s cuts or talk about your script ideas. I really love being up here.

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