11 Questions: James Gillies

interview by Brent Cole

There is, simply, no person outside of my family that means more to me than James Gillies. I was first introduced to him 12 years ago while he was a board member at the Pickford and I had just been hired to manage the theater. Before he even said hello, he told me how much he enjoyed and appreciated What’s Up! and what I was doing for the community. His kindness blew me away and we became close friends, even though he was old enough to be my father (literally).
Over the years I’ve spent hours with him and his wonderful wife Barbara, talking about life, family, film, music and everything else under the sun. But this isn’t just a story about someone dear to me.
James Gillies, without any fanfare, has been an integral part of the local arts community, from his time as a board member at the Whatcom Film Association, to his filmmaking and behind the scenes backing of local projects, venues, papers, what have you. And as a Vietnam veteran, he continues to do veteran outreach in the community, share stories, and help where needed.
Ladies and gentlemen, James Gillies.

Tell us a bit (or a lot) about yourself including what film projects you’re currently working on.
I have been a Whatcom County resident for the past 24 years. I am in my late 60’s and guess that you could say that I have retired here, for lack of a better word. I am from Saskatchewan, Canada and have been a resident of the States for the better part of 50 years. I went into the American army, along with 20,000 other Canadians, and was sent to fight in Vietnam. That experience altered my life and set me on a life-long mission of trying to figure out this great puzzle we call Planet Earth and all of its residents. I have lived, worked and visited 67 countries during my journey and I still have about 130 left to experience.
My time at war lead me to more wars, prison and to a generally chaotic life for which I consider myself fortunate indeed to have my peace with it all. After a few unsuccessful attempts at trying to regain my Humanity I finally found a direction and the souls who would take me to this lovely place in the Northwest. I finally found that the effects of my experiences had taken their toll on me and I finally found help in the veteran’s community up here and finally went to the VA mental facility to help me regain my bearings. I finally married well and brought two more beautiful souls to the planet. I learned that Life is about endurance and love. Both are unconditional and they take you at face value.
After finally retiring here I started becoming the person that I always imagined that I could be and this part of my journey has been the best yet. Over the years I did everything from being a Deener (autopsy assistant) to janitor to managing musical groups to becoming a heavy equipment operator to operating a bodacious art house theater to being an emergency accident responder to running a media desk at WWU with many other things between. I also was an efficient soldier and was good at running drugs. Not bad for a drop out.
I am now in a very reflective time of life and I am just trying to make peace with what has happened and with what is to come. I fervently believe in three things that I will die defending; the gaining of full equality for the female half of the planet, the environment, and forwarding the cause of Peace. While trying to figure out things I always try to be a help to this wonderful community in any way that I can. I believe that if someone here feels that they have a contribution to make to the common good I try to be there for them. Nuff said.!

What is your favorite thing about living in Bellingham?
It is hard to narrow a list of many things down to just one but I will try. I love this place for the obvious reasons like location, availability of opportunities to incorporate the natural beauty into my life. The quality of the people here and the levels of engagement possible are some of my favorite reasons. The one that I place at the top of the list though is the near absence of fear and hatred. It is a rare thing and one to be treasured.

You’ve been involved with the Bellingham film scene for years and years and years. Why did you become involved how do you think that it’s changed over the years?
After I retired in 1994,I still had a family to raise and I had the idea that perhaps my son Blake would be interested in becoming a filmmaker and that it was something that we could do together. He didn’t bite but I got bitten. Starting from scratch was a very enlightening experience and it has added lot to my life. I was also involved in the early stages of the Pickford – I came to the PFC a couple of years after it started as a Board member. I was even Board President for a few months when the previous Prez had to move on. I originally was involved with the construction of the Pickford (now the Limelight) with the guy who first conceived of making the theater. His name was Art and his efforts turned out to be star-crossed. When his efforts to have an art-house theater in Bellingham foundered I also moved on. Then when Alice and the crew picked up the pieces I came aboard again. I think that I was on the Board for 2 1/2 years. My signature contribution was helping to created the Film Festival known as Projections. Over the years the local film community has grown and matured to the point that many professional productions get done here throughout the year. One thing that hasn’t changed is the caring spirit of those involved in the scene. It is still a pleasure to be involved.

What was your favorite documentary feature (not local) released this year? What did you love about it?
By far and away, it had to be Gasland II. Documentaries are my favorite genre of film and we are lucky to live in a town that even has an annual film series of documentaries called Doctober at the Pickford Film Center. What I liked about the second chapter of Gasland was that it is done in a style that is accessible to all and that is so important when dealing with issues that effect us all. I consider it a must see!

Similar question – What is your all time favorite film? Why?
Wow, this shouldn’t be too difficult! To ask anyone for a “best anything” is akin to cutting the Gordian Knot.
I guess that I would have to say Oliver Stone’s Platoon. It is a film about war and it is also about the Human condition, power, politics, love, and living and dying, all things that we must pay more attention to. I watch it at least once a year.

Tell us something about yourself that would even surprise your closet friends (like me, for example).
I twerk! Not really. Perhaps my real thing I will tell you is lamer than even twirking. I have always envisioned an opportunity to stop the craziness that our World seems to be filled with by just talking about it. Short of mastering telepathy, I am still trying to figure out the best way to do this so that anybody who cared to could do so just by talking. Film and music are great venues for doing this so stay tuned.

What are your top five all time favorite records?
This will be a little easier than the last question. My top five, in no particular order are: Monster/Steppenwolf; Aqualung/Jethro Tull; Blonde on Blonde/Bob Dylan; Jailbreak/Thin Lizzy; and last but not least, Shoot Out The Lights/Linda and Richard Thompson.

You have told me some insanely wild stories – most of which aren’t suitable for print. Tell us a story about your past that we can actually have in these pages.
A lot of my stories come from an intense need to see and learn about the planet we live on. I know that I can’t jump off a bike ramp on Galbraith Mountain because I have used up all of my “crazy shit dangerous stuff” but I do know that I can drop into the middle of a totally alien, to me, culture and I will not only survive it, I will be better for it. Oh, and I accidently got bit on the butt by a horse, but that is a different story.

Along with your involvement in the local film scene, you do a trivia at Boundary Bay on Sunday nights. What about trivia keeps you involved going year after year?
I had no idea that I would ever get up on a stage in front of people every week and have such a positive experience. Don’t laugh but I am shy. I speak in front of students in their classes and I clown around on a stage in a beer garden expressly because it is hard for me to do it. Trivia helps me keep my aging mind a little sharper and it allows me to craft a quiz that gets people involved in the game and perhaps, more importantly, more involved in life when they learn something new each week. Because it is done in one of the more community-minded businesses in the area is a bonus. This town has more than it’s share of community oriented people and businesses.

If you could change one thing about Bellingham or Whatcom County (non-politically), what would it be?
I would love to find a way to make the community living here more responsive to what happens in our life. We had a terrible tragedy here years ago with a pipeline exploding and I was always mystified as to why so few of the community attended the memorials or the hearings arising from the incident. In a town of seventy something thousand one would think that more than just a few hundred folds even seemed to pay attention. I guess I want to find a way to bridge the gaps that exist here.

If you knew that you were going to die tomorrow, what would you eat for dinner today?
A fondue extravaganza! Veggies, meat, chocolate, cheese, fruit, bread, and a good bottle of wine. A sensuous and long-lasting meal with the ones that I love there.

You’ve been with your lovely wife Barbara for 37 years – what one quality of hers do you love more than anything else.
Her unflinching desire to want the best for everybody. She gives her love and her talents to all who ask for it and she always makes me see that life can be wonderful. She does that by making sure that we honor ourselves and our relationships. And she puts up with me! Sometimes it ain’t easy.

Of all the film projects you’ve ever been involved in, which is your favorite? Why?
Oops! I will have to give you two answers; best doc and best narrative! My favorite doc is called A Day in the Hype of America. It was a multiple city shoot on New Year’s Eve about the Y2K crisis. It was shot by T.J. Marin and Brian Quist of Seattle and I was honored to be able to work on the project with them. T.J. later went on to win the 2012 Oscar for best feature length documentary Undefeated. My favorite narrative project was
A Peter Rand film called Imagining Ellis, a feature-length film. It was a great cast, crew, and experience, all local.

Any last thoughts?
First of all, thanks for honoring me with this interview. My last thought is just to remind you that we all get approximately 888 full moons in our lives and that the measure of our worth is how we live the days in between moons.