Pillars of Portland was supposed to be the first Portlandia. Instead, it was a total mess.
Filmed in Portland based on Larry Colton's Willamette Week column of the same name, Pillars of Portland was intended as a tongue-in-cheek weekly soap opera chronicling the lives of characters with names like Wes Hills, Ethyl Lombard and—wait for it—Laurel Hurst as they navigated their Portlandy lives in 1983. It was a big deal: KOIN TV put up $50,000 to get Pillars made, and the production sold another $50,000 worth of advertising to local businesses that paid to have scenes shot on their premises.
But at the last minute, the series was recut into a 1-hour-40-minute TV movie for KOIN. And it didn't make a shred of sense.
Pillars is only nominally about Portland. References to 82nd Avenue and sportswear company "Sykee" (zing!) are shoehorned into vignettes of people in the least convincing romantic relationships you'll see on TV, with some dialogue consisting entirely of kissing and baby talk. Jokes fall nose-breakingly flat, with bizarre missteps in tone and content around every corner. A naked, man-boobed dad—Foster Powell—bathes his (noisy) infant son in the bathtub as he converses with a guy with a giant belt buckle about lumber.
And that's in the first three minutes.
Pillars was meant to center on a therapy group led by two doctors that would regularly bring all of the series' characters together. This plot point was abandoned late in editing, and it's almost impossible to follow the jumble of plot arcs that are wantonly left hanging before the story picks them up again several memory-wiping minutes later.
When it was released, WW's Bob Sitton panned Pillars: "Larry Colton's script is too fragmented to be made into a melodrama, and no amount of patching is likely to piece it together. In direction it is also weak. One wonders if [director] Tom Chamberlin was minding the store."
But Pillars of Portland has aged well. Every scene of Pillars is a master class in anti-humor, down to composer Jon Newton's horribly aged-to-perfection score heightens Pillars' irony-free, early-'80's aesthetic to eye-bleeding vividness.
Pillars was lost for decades until it was rediscovered in 2013 by WW. Last year, we screened it for the first time since its premiere, at the Clinton Street Theater, and spoke to Pillars cast members about making the film, with Colton describing it as "the worst-run project in the history of art." WW is bringing it back this Friday to NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, which will screen Pillars with director Tom Chamberlin and members of its crew. I spoke to Chamberlin to get his side of the story about what went wrong with Pillars, and the legacy of the film.
WW: How did Pillars of Portland get made?
Tom Chamberlin: We started out with Colton's premise—Wes Hills, Ethyl Lombard and the various characters coming together from each neighborhood in Portland, except that most of the stories that got written for the film were originals. When we got the go-ahead to do it, Larry got into writing it.
We were always behind. Writing would show up on location, actors would go over the lines, rehearse and we'd shoot it. It was day-to-day, and we were working early in the morning to late at night. We were all new. We'd worked together individually, but it was like 50 people all of a sudden creating a new organization.
What went wrong with editing Pillars?
We had an idea, but it was filled with problems. We shot the sequences without any particular idea of what was going to follow what. It got to the point where the date we had to show it was around the corner, and we didn't have an end written.
The original conception of Pillars was that it would be a half-hour weekly TV show. But partway through the process, KOIN was creating so much buzz about Pillars that they wanted to create a two-hour prime-time event. So we ended up sticking together everything we had.
We stuck Pillars together in a way that we felt worked. We had planned to use a therapy group concept to tie it together. But in the heat of the battle, and as we got down to the last days, it didn't get written.
How did you handle the negative response to Pillars?
It was a bomb, and the advertisers were unhappy. But by that time in my career, rejection was something I was familiar with. But, of course, it hit me very hard when no one liked it, and I left town.
Overall, people had ideas about what it would look like, and it didn't quite come out the way we had anticipated. Going back, I had never watched it after the premiere, but a year ago we found a copy and screened it. And I must say, I'm not dissatisfied with our work.
In terms of what it looks like today, Pillars was like a mockumentary of Portland in 1983. In a sweet way, it reflects that. It's more satire than a drama, and it has fun with Portland stereotypes, not unlike what Portlandia went on to do.
It was a joy to do, and the people we worked with were great. So in that sense, it's a success.
SEE IT: Pillars of Portland screens at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium at 7 pm Friday, Oct. 14. Director Tom Chamberlin and members of the crew will attend.