Scenes from the budding Memphis independent film scene.
By Mark Jordan
MAY 1, 2000:
FADE IN.INT. A MIDTOWN BUNGALOW. DAY
On a tranquil dead-end lane in a modest Midtown enclave, Craig Brewer has erected a peep show booth in his already-cramped living room. It is, even by peep show booth standards, pretty shoddy: a plywood platform covered with a strip of old carpet and supported by 2x4s, plywood boards erected on two sides and draped form the walls while a sheet of Plexiglass on a third side gives the peep show booth its peep, the fourth "wall" remains exposed. It doesn't matter if the booth is incomplete, however, since it was built for only one patron.
John Still, a veteran Memphis actor probably best recognized by his voice -- a slow, deep, husky staple of area commercial voiceovers -- pretends to pop in his token and pretends that the nonexistent curtains part. His wrinkled middle-aged eyes, shielded behind prop glasses, barely react when he first notices the blond with the unconnected phone on the other side of the glass.
She is Kelly Ball, an actress who appears in two upcoming, locally produced films and is now working on her third. Smacking her gum loudly, Ball rolls around on the carpeted platform in her old-school stripper's outfit -- the kind of black, frilly bra-and-panties outfit Blaze Starr might have worn -- with cheap seductiveness. Still's expression changes a little more when she pops off her top.
"Oh no," he stammers. "I just want to talk."
"You want to talk?" Ball says bewildered. "Look mister, I don't think you understand what goes on here."
"That's good, but more," interrupts Brewer, standing behind Still with a video camera, taking in the whole scene. "Really work the cord and smile. 'You want to talk?'"
Brewer says this last sentence with a girlish titter that stands out in stark contrast to his appearance: 6-foot and burly with a full salt-and-pepper beard and a buzz cut that negates his receding hairline. A 28-year-old theater veteran from California, Brewer moved here in 1994, lured to his parents' hometown by the death of his grandfather and charmed into staying by downtown and the P&H Cafe.
Almost as soon as he moved here, Brewer began the unlikely pursuit of making movies in Memphis. With his wife, Jodie, brother-in-law Seth Green, and sister-in-law Erin Haggee, he established BR2 productions in his house. Their first effort, Melody Surviving, still sits incomplete in his backyard shed, just within sight of his editing room in the rear of the house. His follow-up, the feature-length The Poor & Hungry, a strikingly photographed drama set against the backdrop of a car-theft ring, is set to debut May 16th at the Malco Ridgeway Four. In the meantime, with The Poor & Hungry still stuck inside his computer awaiting a final edit, Brewer has already started work on this next project, Clean Up in Booth B, here in his living room.
Clean Up in Booth B has been conceived as a 20-minute film, the story of the relationship between a man and a fantasy-booth girl. But despite the tawdry trappings, the movie is about life choices and redemption, not sex.
"I've always been interested in good people who do perfectly bad things," says Brewer. "This film is about what happens when two such people meet, and one of them is looking for a kind of redemption that he can't find anywhere else. He's lost his faith, his family. So the only person he has to talk to is this girl in the booth."
Clean Up in Booth B is also about Brewer learning the craft of filmmaking. He knocked out the script on a plane trip to California and now plans to shoot the whole thing in a single day using various locations around the city. Brewer hopes the shoot will help him get over the mystique of shooting and allow him to develop skills for telling a story within a confined space.
This rapid, almost guerilla-style filmmaking -- "We share the same motto as the new NASA: Faster, Cheaper, Better," says Brewer. "But I think we've had more luck with it." -- is directly inspired by (if it does not follow the exact rules of) Dogme95, a codified Danish film movement resembling Italian neo-realism.
But the natural look does not come without effort. Brewer has erected this fantasy booth in his living room so he can go over the material with the actors, work out the lighting he wants, and experiment with camera angles and coverage.
The fact that Brewer is making movies in Memphis is itself nothing unique. The city has been before the camera before.
In 1969, director Mark Rydell's The Reivers starring Steve McQueen was partially shot here. Jim Jaramusch's 1989 film Mystery Train is generally considered to have best captured the spirit of the city. And, of course, there are all those John Grisham adaptations, starting with The Firm in 1993. That film first brought producer Michael Hausman here and led to his films A Family Thing and The People vs. Larry Flynt being partially made here. And even now the crew of Castaway, a big-budget Hollywood production reteaming Tom Hanks with his Forest Gump director Robert Zemekis, is in town now preparing for a spring shoot.
Through the years, Memphis has even produced filmmakers of its own -- University of Memphis graduate Jay Russell (1987's End of the Line, My Dog Skip) and Ira Sachs (The Delta). However, few have made the city their base, the only notable example being Steve Ross, a film professor at the University of Memphis whose films include documentaries on the '68 sanitation strike, the Missouri sharecroppers strike, and the Memphis Red Sox Negro Baseball League team as well as fiction short films adapted from stories by Pulitzer-prize winners Peter Taylor and Richard Wilbur.
But in just the past few years a bona fide independent film community seems to have sprouted up in Memphis, one that is apparently thriving far away from the lights of Hollywood. Already this year, local filmmakers have debuted four independent local productions -- Working Man Production's thriller Intersections, John Michael McCarthy's satirical short Elvis Meets the Beatles, Fine Grind Films' short Central Garden, and MCO Pictures' Deal With the Devil. And at least three more are set to premiere just in the next few weeks, including Brewer's The Poor & Hungry, McCarthy's latest exploitation epic Superstarlet A.D., and Strange Cargo. That's seven films in almost as many months, practically more than have come out in the past seven years.
All of these filmmakers are young (most are still in their 20s) and share a burning desire to make movies -- now, not after working 10 years in Hollywood as a production assistant fetching doughnuts and batteries. Circumstances in the film world right now make it possible for them to pursue their visions without having to sacrifice too much to commerce.
"Movies have become like garage rock; they're a way for young people to express themselves," says Greg Gray, a White Station graduate who quit his job of 10 years at Promus to become one-third of Working Man Productions. Gray is about to begin work on McCarthy's next project, Cadavre, and hopes to begin filming his own sci-fi feature in the summer. In the meantime, he busies himself writing an e-mail newsletter on the film scene in Memphis.
"I think this city has a lot to offer filmmakers," he says. "It's cheap, very photogenic. People are always willing to lend you their building or home for a shoot. And the filmmaking community is small enough and tight-knit enough too. And there's the culture which provides us with so many untapped stories."
INT. THE BUNGALOW. DAY.
While Brewer shoots his test scenes, John Michael McCarthy is in BR2's editing suite at the back of Brewer's house working on Superstarlet A.D. The film is set to debut in Jackson, Mississippi, in just over 24 hours, and JMM (his preferred nom de guarre) and Haggee are planning on working late to finish the final tweaking of the soundtrack. At least once, while JMM slips out to run an errand, his boses at The Pyramid, where he runs the arena's in-house video operation, calls looking for him. He is apparently playing hookie.
"If the movie were a paper airplane, it would be about two creases away from taking off -- a Flyer reference," he says.
At the tender age of 31, JMM is the unlikely grand dame of Memphis independent film. A sometime comic book artist from Tupelo, Mississippi, he moved here in 1984 to attend the Memphis College of Art. He made his first film, Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis, in 1993. His subsequent efforts --Teenage Tupelo (1994), The Sore Losers (1997), the documentary Shine on Sweet Starlet (1998), and Elvis Meets the Beatles (2000) -- have established JMM as a cult auteur and helped him develop a signature style.
Many of the films being made by young males typically revolve around sex and the act of filmmaking -- those being two things twentysomething male filmmakers feel most passionate about. But JMM takes it to a different level, rejecting artiness and reveling in decadence. A self-described exploitation filmmaker, a typical JMM production -- Elvis being the lone exception -- is populated by busty, scantilly-clad, garishly made up women existing in some kind of weird Russ Meyer-directs-Invasion of the Body Snatchers, world where Elvis rules supreme. Superstarlet A.D. debuts May 5th -- 6th at the Last Place on Earth. It is, according to McCarthy's Web site (www.bigbroad.com), about "beauty cults with machine guns in search of ancient stag films hunt cavemen at the end of the world."
"Pretty much Elvis' lifespan from 1935 to 1977 encompasses everything that is important to me about popular culture," he says. "Sex and violence is an easy tag to put on it. My films are about comic books, rock-and-roll, and drive-in movies. I'm a man without a drive-in."
Love him or hate him -- and many, if not most, seem to hate him -- the other filmmakers on the Memphis scene undoubtedly respect JMM.
"Mike takes exploitation to a new, different level," says Brewer, who co-produced Elvis with JMM. "It's not just exploitation. It's so original and visually creative, it goes beyond just scantily clad women."
Says Fine Grind's Maniscalco, "McCarthy has really been an inspiration to us -- that we can live and work in Memphis and make our own movies our way."
Though JMM has provided a model for achieving that kind of artistic freedom, it is by no mean easy to obtain. The cost of making an independent feature in Memphis routinely reaches the $15,000-$20,000 range. That may not seem like much, but when you consider it may take as much as a year or longer to have a completed film, and then even longer to get a distribution deal (which may or may not make money), the investment seems like a losing one.
Filmmakers like JMM depend on money from investors to get their movies made, but it takes a certain kind of investor to put his or her money into an independent film.
"Old money, flakes, former drug addicts, interesting people," says JMM of some of his investors. "I can tell if someone's going to give me money within the first five minutes that I meet them. I can also tell a blowhard who just wants to hang around half-naked girls. I call them pervestors."
But rapid advances in technology are making it cheaper to make movies and at the same time giving filmmakers more creative power. Anyone acquainted with the old clunky method of reel-to-reel film editing would be surprised to see JMM and Haggee editing Superstarlet A.D. on a computer.
Once the film was shot on 16mm film, it was transferred to digital video tape and downloaded onto the computer's hard drive, where the pair use a program called Adobe Premier (similar programs include Edit TV and Apple's Final Cut) to assemble the pieces into a single, gloriously exploitive whole. The final version of the movie can then be transferred to a videotape or back to film.
Or you can eliminate film all together. Brewer's The Poor & Hungry and Clean Up in Booth B were shot with new digital video cameras, which, while still short of the film mark, have dramatically improved image quality that makes them broadcast quality. And by applying some filtering effects in the computer, Brewer has even managed to give The Poor & Hungry a decidedly filmic look.
But for some the advances have not come far enough.
"Film is infinitely more expensive and harder to work with than video, but the look is still there," says Fine Grind's Kaleo Quenzer, who has shot both his films, The Big Muddy and Central Garden, on 16mm film. "Artistically I think video is pretty specific. The lighting is harsh and everything comes across very flat. I just don't like it. With film you get depth, shadows, and texture. It's just much more inviting."
JMM finishes Superstarlet A.D. and rushes off to Jackson the next day for the showing, a seemingly happy ending. The next day he's fired from The Pyramid for being four hours late for work.
INT. THE NEW DAISY THEATER ON BEALE STREET. DAY.
The $700 video exhibition package Fine Grind Films rented from Memphis Communications Corporation is turning out to be less than a bargain. The four individuals who make up this Memphis independent film company -- Lisa Maniscalco, Kaleo Quenzer, Michael Cruickshank, and Sallie Sabbatini -- have six hours to convert the New Daisy into what it once was -- a movie theater.
Unfortunately, their portable screen is not cooperating. After they've already erected it, a corner of the screen comes loose and one of the the black drapes framing it starts to fall. In addition the skirt MCC gave Fine Grind to run across the bottom edge of the screen is nowhere near long enough. Sabbatini has to run out and buy some black fabric so they can fashion their own.
It's been almost a year since, the crew from Fine Grind was here last. Then it was for the premier of debut production, the romantic comedy The Big Muddy.
This year's bill includes the group's newest production, Central Garden, a short fiction film about an ill-fated romance between Korean girl and a Japanese boy, Short Timers, a documentary about the making of The Big Muddy, as well as three trailers -- for The Poor & Hungry, Intersections, and Strange Cargo.
"We're showing more things, but there is lot less stress this time around," says Quenzer.
Fine Grind formed four years ago when attorney and part-time production assistant Maniscalco met pals Cruickshank and Quenzer while working on the set of The Rainmaker, the film version of the Grisham novel filmed here by Francis Ford Coppola. The trio soon teamed with Sabbatini and absent Fine Grinders Rick Venable and Will O'Laughlen with the mission of making movies in Memphis.
"I thought for a second about going to California," says Maniscalco, "but I don't want to do that. I don't think any of us have a desire to do that. I like the idea of being based here and going wherever we have to go to make our movies but just being a Memphis-based film company."
The company's first effort, The Big Muddy, was a ostensibly a home run, winning an award at the No Dance independent film festival held in Sundance, Colorado. As Small Timers shows, however, the group's first effort at making their own movie was fraught with mishap and doubt; at one point the documentary shows how the filmmakers took to begging for money at the corner of Poplar and Highland to raise money. And the film failed to get a distribution deal, which effectively made it a money loser.
But the group persevered and made Central Garden, like The Big Muddy written and directed by Quenzer with Maniscalco serving as producer, Sabbatini as assistant producer, and Cruickshank as director of photography. Like its processor, Central Garden cost about $18,000 to make. But the new film is a good hour shorter, a difference Cruickshank says is made up for in production value.
"I think Central Garden is a better looking movie," he says.
Central Garden is also different because it already has a distribution deal through, Atom (CQ) Films, which also distributes this year's Academy Award winner for best short film, My Mother Dreams the Satan's Disciples in New York. The deal means Central Garden will be released on home video and have a shot at making on cable networks, such as Sundance and the Independent Film Channel. In other words, the film has a chance at making money.
For independent filmmakers the last and in some ways still the hardest hurdle to jump is getting their movie seen. Home video and cable have given filmmakers more venues to show their work and consequently has produced demand for a greater variety of movie experiences and voices. But there is also more competition than ever before.
The traditional outlets for indies have been film festivals such as Sundance. And in just the past few years Memphis has gone from having no film festivals to having three. Last month, Michael Harwood Independent Film Forum held its inaugural Memphis International Film Festival, which featured showings of films by expatriate Memphian Sachs. Earlier this month the African-American focused Southern Film Festival debuted director Carlos Sagadia's new local feature, Deal With the Devil. And on June 16th -- 17th the Independent Memphis Film Festival will mark its third year with showing of regional films at the Memphis College of Art and Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
"I see the [Independent Film Forum] as bringing in what is hot elsewhere here, where we want to focus on what's going on here locally and getting it exposure nationally," says Natalie Gildea, one of the organizers of the Independent Memphis Film Festival. "The South has this amazing literary and musical tradition, and we now see that extending to film. It's amazing at the output local filmmakers are achieving. We were almost afraid we tapped out the market last year. We even expanded the reach to the whole region to make sure we had enough entries. But it does seem like the local filmmakers are stepping up with all new stuff."
Soon though, local filmmakers may not have to even depend on festivals to get their films shown in town. On May 5th, Malco at last opens its five-screen Studio on the Square art-house movie theater in Overton Square, returning movies to Midtown for the first time since the closing of the old Memphian and Evergreen theaters almost 20 years ago.
"We're really hoping that this place becomes the center for thinking and talking about movies in Memphis, and that extends to the local filmmakers as well," says Malco marketing director Julie Kellyman, who in her '20s shares the young filmmakers' enthusiasm for films."
Over the past few years Malco has slowly expanded its commitment to indie film with the Independent Film Showcase at the Bartlett 10 and by hosting screenings for Memphis International Film Festival.
Almost from the beginning of planning for Studio on the Square, Malco reached out to local filmmakers to see how the new facility could accommodate them. As a result the new theater is being outfitted with video and 16mm projectors, the most common exhibition format for small, independent films. And though Malco probably won't schedule a regular run of a local film unless it has distribution first, the two 150-seat theaters and three 100-seat theaters will be available for rent.
"We're trying to give these local filmmakers a place to show their films in the kind of place they were meant to be seen," says Kellyman. "As the success of The Blair Witch Project shows, people are really tired of seeing the formula, event movies that come out of Hollywood. I mean, they're fun every once in a while, but you also want to see movies that make you feel and think."
Of course, the horror hit The Blair Witch Project was made for about $15,000 (CQ) and has made more than $100,000,000. Back at the New Daisy, where Fine Grind finally got their theater finished in time for a 7:30 p.m. showing, they are not doing those kind of numbers. A couple of hundred people show up -- mostly friends, family, cast, and crew.
But there is an enthusiasm in the air. In a corner of the room, Gray is signing up people for his newsletter. Brewer and McCarthy are both in the audience, taking a break before they have rush back home and work on their projects. And in front of the screen, the Fine Grind team is basking in the congratulations. They've already made their fortune. They made their film and showed it before an audience. And, God willing, it looks like they'll get to make another one.
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