(To the right, independent filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox talks about challenges to directors at a recent gathering of film lovers in Memphis)
OXFORD, Miss. – The scene might have come out of a Nicholas Ray movie. The famous Hollywood director, his best work, “Rebel Without A Cause”, “In A Lonely Place”, “Johnny Guitar”, years behind him, sits alone in his Madrid bar at midnight, a half-empty bottle in front of him, eyeing the half that’s left.
Maybe he’s thinking of that conversation with the great, low-budget filmmaker Luis Buñuel a couple years back. “You’re the only (director) who does what he wants,” Ray told him. “What is your secret?”
“I ask for less than fifty thousand dollars per film,” Buñuel responded, suggesting Ray try the same. “You’re a famous director. Why not try an experiment? … See for yourself how much freer you are.”
Nicholas Ray’s “glorious failure” to break free of Hollywood’s chains of gold and become “the avant-garde, independent moviemaker” he always wanted to be—eloquently described in Patrick McGilligan’s 2011 biography—provides a glimpse into Hollywood today, where the typical movie costs from $20 million to $80 million to make, while high-end pictures reach $300 million or more.
No wonder studios and directors are looking beyond Hollywood to places like Mississippi and Louisiana to make movies. And even more important than in Nicholas Ray’s day is the role of independent filmmakers in preserving movies as an art form, not simply an industry H.L. Mencken once blasted as “too rich to have any room for genuine artists (and) too much under the heel of the … gorillas who own them.”
Folks in Jackson, Miss., got a chance to enjoy the art of independent filmmaking March 31-April 3 at the Crossroads Film Festival. It’s one of at least 15 film festivals that take place in the state throughout the year.
I got my own chance in February here at the Oxford Film Festival, where I feasted on narrative shorts like “Three Fingers”, the account of a female war veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and full-length pictures like “Texas Heart”, the cast of which included Mississippi actors Johnny McPhail, Susan McPhail, and Clarksdale, Miss., Mayor Bill Luckett.
This coming November, the “Indie Memphis” film festival in Memphis, Tenn., kicks into gear. John Beifuss of the Memphis Commercial Appeal calls it “arguably the region’s top film festival.”
Like neighboring Louisiana, Mississippi is increasingly a place where films are made and talent is sought. From the feature film “Gentleman from Mississippi” in 1914 to 1950s classics “Baby Doll”, “Raintree County”, and “This Property is Condemned” to more recent films such as “Ghosts of Mississippi” and “Black Snake Moan”, the state has always had a cinematic lure.
Actor, producer, writer and director Johnny Remo, whose 2016 movie “Saved by Grace” was filmed in Canton, said filming in Mississippi beats filming in California. “I cannot say enough how amazing the people were. Everybody waves. … In California once, we were filming and the guy next door started mowing his lawn. It took $500 to get him to stop.”
(From left to right, director Johnny Remo and Ward Emling and Nina Parikh, both of the Mississippi Film Office)
Ward Emling of the Mississippi Film Office agreed. “The communities of Mississippi are unbelievable. They make my job easy. A movie anywhere in Mississippi is going to be well-liked, treated fairly.”
Mississippi and its local communities benefit when the cameras roll here, whether they’re big studio Hollywood cameras or those of independent filmmakers.
“Forty nine cents on a dollar is what the state spends on film,” Luckett said during a panel discussion in Oxford on “Producing Films in Mississippi”. “We’re the best in the country as to what that dollar spent brings back.”
Emling said the 2001 hit film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” was filmed in 11 counties in central Mississippi. “We’re competing on locations” as well as with other incentives to filmmakers, he said.
At a recent “Shoot & Splice” event at the Crosstown Arts Center in Memphis, independent filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox talked about the challenge to the director in making a film that does indeed qualify as art. It’s important, he said, to be “a student of life. You need to understand what’s important and a priority. … We need to see humanity on the screen conveying honesty.”
The reason is “people can detect dishonesty like this,” the Memphis-based director said with a snap of his fingers. “What is the emotional spine? A drive that is not easily changed?”
Craig Brewer, a Memphis native and noted director of successful films such as “Hustle & Flow” and “Black Snake Moan”, was in the audience and added that the director should ask of characters, “Where are they in their lives?”
(To the right, "Hustle & Flow" director Craig Brewer in Memphis)
Later in an interview, Brewer told me that big budget films can be art just like smaller budget films. “What’s important (is) to have a solid point of view.”
During a trip to Hollywood some years back, I made a stop at one of my favorite restaurants, the Musso & Frank Grill, which has been serving dishes like corned beef and cabbage, homemade chicken pot pie, and potato pancakes to its movie star clientele since 1919. My waiter pointed out the table where Mississippi writer William Faulkner liked to dine.
Tales of Faulkner in Hollywood are some of that city’s best. He left Yoknapatawpha to make some money in Tinsel Town in the 1940s, and he had some notable successes. The hard-boiled novelist and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides tells of rooming with Faulkner, his heavy-duty drinking, his impenetrable silences, Hollywood’s cavalier attitude toward the great author.
Movie mogul Jack Warner once “boasted that he had the best writer in the world for `peanuts’,” Bezzerides recalled. Faulkner “had contempt” for movie work, and when Bezzerides once pressed him to get busier on a screenplay, responded, “`Shucks, Buzz, it ain’t nuthin’ but a movin’ picture.’”
The old man might have a better attitude if he were alive today. I can see him now at Rowan Oak, his home in Oxford, banging away at his script, having a helluva time, and making some real art in the process.