Nostalgic adventure marks Bolinas film

David Briggs
Ole Schell on his childhood 80cc Honda dirtbike at his family property in Bolinas.  

Speeding down Ocean Parkway on a motorcycle, discovering a pot grow hidden in the woods, calling your best friend over a walkie-talkie from a treehouse: such are the scenes of Ole Schell’s childhood in 1980s Bolinas. The filmmaker, son of photographer Ilka Hartman and Orville Schell III, who co-founded the Niman-Schell Ranch, set out to recreate the memory of his modern Huck Finn boyhood in a new short called “Ragman’s Cave.” Shot on location, with aerial footage of cattle roaming the ranch’s dramatic landscape, it stars local kids who have never acted before, but who bring plenty of native expertise to their roles.

Mr. Schell said he wanted local kids who would know how to ride motorcycles and had explored for themselves the elusive, sometimes risky magic of Bolinas. In one scene, the two boy leads, played by 12-year-old Logan Malvin and 13-year-old Marius Salone, discover the drainage tunnel at Agate Beach, which in the film leads to a beekeeper’s marijuana plants. “Every kid who grew up in Bolinas knows that tunnel,” Mr. Schell said during a Q&A after a screening in San Rafael last month. In another scene, one of the boys discovers two girls, 12-year-old Sadie Mann and 13-year-old Lana Glavis, perched on a large piece of driftwood at Bolinas Beach, singing and strumming ukuleles like two sirens in “The Odyssey.”

Funding for the film came with a harrowing deadline: one month to shoot and edit a fully realized 20-minute short. Placed under the wire by Vegas Pro, the company that created the editing software that Mr. Schell and his longtime producer, James Lefkowitz, use for their films, Mr. Schell hastily adapted a feature-length script he had written, assembled a crew of friends and locals, and started looking for actors. Many parents were reluctant to let their children participate.

“A couple of things pushed the limits,” Mr. Schell said, “but not too bad.” He performed some of the motorcycle stunts himself, saying it was “the most fun I’ve had in five years.”

In one climactic moment, a police officer chases the boys back to the treehouse in a vintage cop car. Mr. Schell hired a stunt driver, who came with his own collection of vintage patrol vehicles. They also rented the pot plants, for $500. 

“That was about one tenth of our total budget,” Mr. Schell told an audience of around 90 friends, family and neighbors at the screening last month.

Not the least of the difficulties was keeping children without any experience in film focused during the long pauses and tedium of a film shoot, especially between takes. “One of them would be a dingbat, and then they’d all be dingbats,” said Michael Chen, Marius’s stepfather who has a background in the film industry. But as soon as “action!” was called, he added, “the kids came alive” in their roles. The boys’ quiet, unaffected grit on camera is reminiscent of a young Brad Renfro. “That’s Marius’s Eazy-E poster” in the treehouse, Mr. Schell added.

The film’s rich colors are suggestive of the time period, a golden era for popular movies about the magic and angst of adolescence, like E.T. and The Goonies. Luke Harrington provided a glorious illustration for the retro poster art, with the boys in silhouette walking into a lurid orange and pink sunset. Jason Stinnett, who operates the Vintage Synthesizer Museum in Emeryville, contributed a soundtrack made up mostly of the warm, scrappy tones of period analog synthesizers like the Roland Juno-60.

Mr. Schell himself left Bolinas at age 14 for San Francisco. He attended New York University’s film school and made documentaries about the lives of fashion models, a hip-hop dancer, and a man who escaped war-torn Burundi only to return and establish a health clinic. About a year and a half ago, he convinced his father to allow him to return to the family property and restore the ranch house, which he envisioned as basecamp for a film about his own personal history. Mr. Schell saw the house as “the perfect place for a staging area, set, studio” for realizing his vision. As he began to renovate, he discovered that his father “knew every scrap of wood” in the house that he built himself 40 years ago.

Orville, a writer, activist and noted China expert, wrote a seminal book on the battle Bolinas residents waged against developers, “The Town That Fought to Save Itself,” that ensured the halcyon landscape would be preserved for today’s nostalgic re-enactments.

The short film’s first screening was held on a sunny Saturday afternoon at 32TEN Studios, and had the air of a festive family reunion. The nondescript building on a prosaic stretch of Kerner Boulevard was formerly occupied by Lucasfilm, which crafted many of the practical effects for films like “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” there. Mr. Schell and his team wanted the kids to see the final product on the big screen, especially one so aptly associated with the big-adventure movies of their childhoods. 

The plush screening room was the first designed to utilize the THX sound standard, with Art Deco touches that the filmmaker likened to a James Bond set. Outside, a table was set up for a potluck and chilled wine for the adults. The young actors shied from the attention and hubbub and ran off to explore the old studios, where vintage props from famous films are displayed in glass cases.

Mr. Schell sees the short as a proof of concept, a pilot he hopes to leverage into the feature-length film that he had originally envisioned. The longer script delves more deeply into his childhood in Bolinas, though Mr. Schell gives the caveat that “all the moments are real, even if the arc of the narrative is fictional.” 

The “Ragman” in the title is a reference to a local Bolinas character, an indigent man whom Schell compared to a Christ-like figure, with long hair and ragged dress and whose real name was believed to be Andy. As a kid, Mr. Schell was fascinated by Andy’s nearly wordless existence on the margins of town, living in a cave he eventually discovered in the woods. Years ago, he’d been told a legend: that Andy would regularly paddle out to a cargo freighter in San Francisco Bay to have a toothache looked after by the ship’s dentist. Others in the audience shared their own stories of Andy, such as the time he emerged from a grove covered in Monarch butterflies. One man revealed a surprise twist to his eventual disappearance from Bolinas, long a mystery among those who remembered him: he’d heard that Andy had been picked up by a sailboat and taken to Hawaii to live out the rest of his days. If true, it was a fitting way to slip out of Bolinas history.

When the screening ended, one member of the audience was vocal about the film’s cliffhanger ending, where the two boys are separated after the police chase. “What happened to them?” asked 7-year-old Scarlet Cavette, after raising her hand. 

“That’s the idea!” said Mr. Schell with boyish glee. 

The film’s young stars may be reluctant to a pursue a career in acting, but if nothing else, they’ll have a priceless document of their childhoods in Bolinas, which aren’t so different from Mr. Schell’s a generation ago. And other Bolinas kids may be inspired to help mine the relatively untapped narrative potential of West Marin.

“Can any more little kids be in the film?” Scarlet asked.

When the laughter and applause died down, Mr. Schell answered, “When we make the longer one, we’ll put you in it.”