Director Nancy Kelly has been at her craft long enough to see her only feature film, Thousand Pieces of Gold (1990), come to life not once, but twice. It concerns Lalu (Rosalind Chao), a Chinese girl sold by her parents and taken to the Old West, followed by her escape and a romance with a sensitive Westerner (Chris Cooper). In a new 4k restoration, the film will play at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 6 and at Century Larkspur Oct. 8 before opening at the Smith Rafael Film Center on Nov. 8. The restoration happened thanks to Sandra Schulberg’s Independent Film Project, which saves indie films whose original masters are starting to deteriorate with age. The quality of the 4k restoration left Kelly in tears. “I’ll be struck dead by the film guys for saying this,” she says, “but it looks better than it did originally.”
Kelly and her husband Kenji Yamamoto, who produced and edited, made A Thousand Pieces of Gold on a slim budget. “We raised money but didn’t raise all the money we actually needed,” she says. “We had to find a gold rush town that wasn’t a tourist trap, and we couldn’t afford to take out the parking meters and billboards.”
Kelly heard about Nevada City, Montana. “It’s where they shot Little Big Man. This fanatical collector lived there. Whenever a mining town building was coming down, he’d number all the logs or boards, and transport them and put them back together there. The place had a Chinatown and we needed a Chinatown—as long as we were out of there by Memorial Day we could rent it for an affordable price.”
Debuting at the SF International Film Festival, Thousand Pieces of Gold played all over the world.
“We were hoping to have a theatrical release, but we left Cannes without a deal,” she says. “After a year we got a small distributor, Graycat Films, and it aired on American Playhouse. Every cable channel ran it when cable was a big deal. When VHS was the latest thing, we sold it to Hemdale. We didn’t have a choice.” The infamous Hemdale Home Video organization siphoned off the money, but happily, Yamamoto and Kelly still own their film.
“When I look back on it, I realize that at every point where it got good distribution, things would evaporate,” she says. “Then you wait for the next big thing. We were lucky we had an agent who was honest and kept up with this stuff.”
She and Yamamoto headed to L.A. to further their careers, subletting an apartment and getting jobs teaching at UCLA.
Kelly recalled, “I went to a lot of meetings, and they’d ask me, ‘what do you want to do?’ And I’d tell them, and their eyes would glaze over. I didn’t have a sense of what would sell. Back then, it wasn’t female-driven films that would sell, and it also wasn’t women directors. The press says that what sells now are stories of immigration, stories of women! Things might have changed. But L.A. wasn’t a good home for indies; this is really where we belong.”
Kelly is from the working part of the Berkshires. She’s from North Adams, Massachusetts, on the silicon strip of Highway 128, a tech corridor that turned into a rust belt when globalization hit. Kelly later made a film Downside Up, about the beginnings of MassMOCA, the art museum built into the vacant Sprague Electric factory building where her father once worked. Documentaries about art are a specialty of Kelly + Yamamoto; they’ve done short pieces for KQED’s eclectic Spark and a profile of Rene di Rosa of the di Rosa preserve.
“I got a degree in public health education, and so I was hired to do five short, dramatic films to teach UMASS Amherst students to drink responsibly,” she says. “I personally did not drink my way to college.”
Kelly’s collaborator on the project was the filmmaker Gwendolyn Clancy, currently of Reno. Clancy headed west to Modoc County, and Kelly joined her. The two lived on a ranch for several years. Without film production equipment, much less electricity, it was hard to work. Coming down to San Francisco, Nancy met the SFAI-educated, experimental filmmaker Yamamoto and married him.
Recently, Kelly and Yamamoto made a documentary about something that surprised her as a new arrival here. Kelly was in Point Reyes, riding the horse she brought down from Modoc. How could San Francisco be so jam-packed with people and still have all that unspoiled terrain just across the bridge?
Nancy Dobbs of KRCB—founder of Sonoma’s only public tv station, who just retired this week—co-produced Kelly and Yamamoto’s Rebels With A Cause. It played Mill Valley in 2012. John Hart’s San Francisco’s Wilderness Next Door and L. Martin Griffin’s Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast were Kelly’s guides to how a mix of local activism and federal action kept this heavenly domain from becoming a golf-course-covered purgatory. Kelly hired Frances McDormand, a sometimes-resident of Bolinas, to do the narration.
Since Thousand Pieces of Gold, Kelly and Yamamoto developed three feature films; one got as far as the casting stage before the keystone financer felt out. This didn’t stop Kelly, who is developing a new film, provisionally titled When We Were Cowgirls.
Regarding her 40-year collaboration with her husband, Kelly notes, “We get along pretty well. Whoever is the director on a project has the last word. Kenji is this happy, cheerful optimistic person, and we fight to have the best first joke of the day. Sometimes I do, sometimes he does.”
A word to the young filmmaker? “Oh, God. I think what Kenji said to me when I was ready to give up: nothing in the arts makes any sense. Go in one direction, and you just keep going. Keep getting ideas and doing them. I hope the parents of these young people don’t read that and start crying.”