California Typewriter: A love story that clacks

By Jim Slotek

For filmmaker Doug Nichol, the acclaimed documentary California Typewriter started with the impulse buy on eBay of a classic Underwood 5 typewriter. And that’s where it might have ended, if it hadn’t started talking to him.

“I bought the Underwood as an object of art in my office,” says Nichol. “And I swear, it was like it was calling to me. I would go over, push buttons, and it was, like, saying, ‘Fix me up!’”

“If I hadn’t decided to fix it up, this film would never have gotten made. That’s why, if you listen to those little voices that say, ‘Do this, do that,’ sometimes, it leads you to interesting places.

To say California Typewriter goes to interesting places (and times) is an understatement.

Tom Hanks, surrounded by some of his 250 love-objects

Tom Hanks, surrounded by some of his 250 love-objects

The title Berkeley establishment -  a typewriter repair shop run as a passion-project by an African-American family for more than 30 years - fascinated him enough to film a three-minute short about the Permillion family and the people who came and went through their doors.

By the time it was done, he’d devoted three years and interviewed dedicated typewriter users ranging from Tom Hanks (who owns more than 250), to guitarist John Mayer, to playwright Sam Shepherd to novelist David McCullough. He’d found obsessive collectors like Torontonian Martin Howard, and eccentrics like the Boston Typewriter Orchestra and conceptual artist Jeremy Mayer (who creates sculptures out of typewriter parts, and who went, during the course of filming,  from starving artist to the darling of Silicon Valley, with clients like Mark Zuckerberg and Oculus Rift designer Brendan Iribe).

He’d travelled back in time to the late 19th Century, and the importance of the typewriter to the first wave of women entering the workplace. And he went to Mumbai, India, where the typewriter still figures so strongly in the culture, there are storefront typists who’ll formalize your notes, letters, etc.

(In Mumbai, Jeremy Mayer is filmed creating a commissioned statue out of the last 100 typewriters to come out of a factory that was pivoting to digital products).

He’s interested to hear that my first job at a newspaper involved an Underwood, triplicate paper and a copy boy who’d run a copy of each completed page to an editor. “That must have been great!” he says. “The sound of all those typewriters moving.”

In fact, I tell him, journalists I’ve mentioned the movie to are anxious to watch it, but would never go back to the typewriter. Faster is better in our business.

John Mayer types a song

John Mayer types a song

“It’s interesting with journalists,” he says over the phone from his Bay Area office. “I wanted to find somebody who’d written on a typewriter. I found novelists and playwrights, but no reporters.

“Journalists are on deadlines and they need to make quick corrections. But when you look at Woodward and Bernstein and All the President's Men, there was great journalism done on typewriters. I guess the tools make life easier but don’t always make it better.”

“For me the film really is about the relationship between creativity and technology. It’s for me personally about how things change in life and how things disappear. There are some people who look forward, like Jeremy who’s looking to the future, while others look to the past, and the melancholy feeling of things disappearing.”

But more than anything, it was about his affection for the Permissions and key employee Ken Alexander, and his desire to do something to ensure California Typewriter’s continued existence.

“I make commercials,” says Nichol (who also, as a video director, worked with Sting and Lenny Kravitz and helped shape the look of New Kids On The Block). 

“And I started this really as a little thing for myself. It was going to be a little short and I didn’t have to pitch it to anyone. I didn’t have to write up a proposal and tell people what it was going to be. And it was also self-funding. I didn’t have anyone to answer to. It was such a liberating and fun experience to me, because I just made the film that I wanted to make.

“How it started was I had this short now, and a friend of mine was working with Tom Hanks’ wife on a script. And so I knew he was into typewriters. And through her and through Rita Wilson, Tom’s wife, we got Tom to agree to be in it.

“And once Tom’s interview’s done, it’s easier to get other notable people. David McCullough had been working with Tom Hanks on (the mini-series) John Adams. And Sam Shepard, I got through Sam’s agent, and a friend of mine was friends with his agent. And John Mayer I got through my production company because they had made videos for him. I went up to Montana to film him

“In India, I found this girl, Avani Rai, who is the daughter of a very famous photographer (Raghu Rai, founder of the photo agency Magnum Photos). She shot Jeremy as he worked in his studio and walked around India.

“There were so many weird, strange synchronicities that happened during this film. It did make me think there’s a kind of magic going on sometimes, if you’re really true to what you’re creating. I didn’t do this for money, I was driven to do it for the love of it.

“I just purely loved the people of the shop and the act of making it.”

Thanks to the film, and the Internet, the Permillions are busier than ever. Will the typewriter be reborn as a hipster-ish niche product like vinyl?

“I think it’s just a symbol of the analog world, like cameras that shoot film, or vinyl records or typewriters, tactile things. We had this stuff and the digital world came and now wer’e touching glass screens. But kids who’ve grown up just doing that, find it interesting to push a button, or put a needle on a record or to load a roll of 35 mm film.

“Whether it lasts or whether it’s just a phase, I don’t know. But I do know that people like tactile pleasures. If they pick up a paintbrush, they will want to paint.”


(Rating: A)

Yes, this is a movie about typewriters. But like any great documentary, California Typewriter is about much more than its subject matter.

With all its star-power (typewriter aficionados like Tom Hanks, John Mayer and the late Sam Shepard), there is a McLuhan-esque aspect to this very thoughtful film, a pondering of how “slow” analog media facilitates creativity that is different in nature from the instant gratification of digital.

There is a wide-eyed appreciation of simple engineering, with experts enthusing on the brilliant series of levers and buttons that facilitated this device that profoundly changed society (ushering women into the workplace, for example).

There is the angle of re-invention, with the likes of artist Jeremy Mayer and the Boston Typewriter Orchestra creating modern art out of the detritus of anachronism.

And there is the title establishment and the hard-working, indefatigable family that is at the movie’s heart, devoting their lives to a pursuit that would seem doomed. That they prevail, for now, is probably the purest joy in the film.

California Typewriter. Directed by Doug Nichol. Starring Tom Hanks, John Mayer, Ken Alexander. Opens Friday, October 27. Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

A Type-In with director Doug Nichol and Toronto typewriter collector Martin Howard will be held Saturday, October 28 at the Page One Café, 106 Mutual St. at 3:30 p.m.