Ray McKinnon in 'That Evening Sun.'
On the day his latest film, "That Evening Sun," kicks off the Little Rock Film Festival, Ray McKinnon talked to me about adding a third dimension to rural Southern characters, future projects and life in Little Rock. "That Evening Sun" screens at Riverdale at 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Wed., May 13 and 6 p.m., Saturday May 16.
Are you a William Gay fan? Did you bring the story to Scott Teems or the other way around?
It was the other way around. He actually read the short story and adapted it and won an award at the IFP
out of a couple thousand screenplays. Then, he was a fan of our movies, and he and Terrence Berry, who is his producer, approached me about us coming on board as producers and actors.
But the idea of working three years for no money on someone else’s script that probably wouldn’t get financed nor made and if it did it would not get distributed, at this point in my life, did not sound very appealing. Maybe if I was in my 20s again.
So I was kind of disinterested in the concept, but they continued to pursue me and wrote this really writer-ly letter that got my interest. Writing letters is really a lost art.
So I started reading the script, and I’m not a good script reader. I’d almost rather eat flour tortillas than read a script. I’ve read so many of them in my life, and most of them aren’t that compelling. But I started reading this one and really got hooked by page one and by page 10 I was really excited. And I read it in one setting. It was a rural story about an 83-year-old man that was a page turner (laughs). That’s how it began.
It seems, from the early praise, that all turned out well.
I’m glad I’m involved. I don’t know how many more of these I’m gonna make in my life, really. At the end of the day, it’s one I’m really proud of. I can’t predict if it’s gonna have a real film release or not. I think it should. It’s won all these audience awards and they have no personal stake in us. And the critics have been behind Hal Holbrook. It’s the first lead role in his life. It seems like something the zeitgeist could get behind. Like it does every year. I think it would be a good business decision for a distributor, but these are really challenging times. Everybody’s running scared in all businesses. So we’ll see. Right now, it’s about celebrating each time we get to show it. And Little Rock is probably the best of the celebrations.
Can you tell me about your character?
Often times these archetypes that I’m playing are very much ancillary characters, who, by nature of the size of their roles, are usually two dimensional characterizations and become broader stereotypes. What was interesting in this character, because it’s a larger role, is how it allows room to give three dimensionality to someone who’s not that great of guy. Generally, when guys aren’t great guys and they’re from the working class, rural South, they’re not given a third dimension. I was appreciative of that. But also, it was a challenge to make a guy who’s as extreme as he is into a full-blown person. It was a difficult character.
It was the biggest role that I’ve played in a movie outside of the one’s I’ve written for myself, so I felt a great responsibility to put the work in and do the best job I could. You’ve worn a lot of hats in the movie business—actor, director, producer, writer. If you had to pick one, what would it be?
I’d probably rebel against whoever was forcing me to do that. I’d probably do none of them. I’m not a good prisoner. (Laughs) Well, you hear a lot of directors and actors talk about the “one for me, one for them” strategy of navigating indies versus commercial projects. You know. one smaller, weighty pic followed by a more commercial one to pay the bills. You subscribe to any version of that line of thinking?
I’m not that smart. I’m not that pragmatic. I wish I could do that. I’m not in that much demand. I’m not against it. At this point, I need to figure ways to continue to have insurance. That’s more important than it was when I was in my 20s. I’m just continuing to make it up as I go.
Sort of out of the blue, I got offered this role in a bigger budget movie that John Lee Hancock is doing in Atlanta [“Blindside”] and it’s going to pay my insurance for this year and pay my mortgage for a few months. It was really a surprise. Sometimes I feel like I’m not really connected to Hollywood.You’ve been in a lot of Hollywood movies, though.
Not in a while. I’ve done about one movie a year in the last five years, and they’ve been low-budget, indie movies. I’m perfectly content to do my own thing, but there’s no money in that kind of delusion, but there’s certainly artistic contentment.
Last year, I was actually wondering if there was something else I could do. I didn’t want to go to Hollywood and no one was calling me, so I started looking at other options and my skill set and there weren’t really options or any skill set — other than making stories.
There was a story that’s been in my head for three years and I thought of it as a TV series, and I wondered, ‘Can I write this story? Would it exist on paper?’
So I wrote it out of the blue and before you know it, AMC bought
it and they’re contemplating doing a pilot on it. There wasn’t a master plan. It was just a story I had it in my head and I wondered if it would manifest itself on paper.When do you find out if you get to make that pilot?
That’s a good question. I’d say maybe in a month or so.
You know, if I get old, I wouldn’t mind making more experimental movies digitally. I have some more extreme tastes and maybe one day, I can retire and go make these other kinds of stories. It seems like the way movies are going now, you’re either going to make a $15 million to a $150,000 movie or a $250,000 movie. The day of $2 million movies doesn’t seem workable because of the shrinking theatrical market. People still want to see movies, they just want to see them at home.You alluded to “Blindside.” It’s a great story. Great book.
Yeah, it is a great story. I think it’s gonna be a big hit. Who do you play?
The high school coach. Hugh Freeze was his name in the book. He’s a great character. The script makes him more comical. It’s very much a family movie. It’ll be a whole different audience than “Chrystal.” It’ll be cool. Now that Arkansas’ got better film incentives in place, are you eyeing any projects here?
I’m not. I don’t know what the future is going to hold. If you’re asking investors to risk what to my mind is a lot of money, you have to look at the incentives and weigh against other states. Taking sentimentality aside, when it’s not your money, you have to be pragmatic. If by chance somebody lets me make something down the line, I will certainly look at Arkansas, but like my home state Georgia has a much larger incentive and a bigger crew base. Part of the difficulty that Arkansas and Little Rock has now is that they have a great first-team crew — we made a couple of commercials here and they were wonderful — but because they’re livelihood is commercials and industrial films, it’s hard for them to commit to a feature film. The building of a bigger crew base is another complication that Arkansas’s gotta work through. But I think it’s a great first step. How long have you been in Little Rock?
A little over three years.You still like it all right?
I do. I really love the people, the community, the quality of life.It’s got a nice pace.
Yeah, in L.A., literally if you go somewhere, to a meeting, you’re guaranteed an hour, minimum, in your car. You go to the grocery store, you’re guaranteed 40 minutes in your car. So when you think about your finite amount of time on the planet and you go see James McMurtry at Juanita’s and you leave your house at 7:45 and get to Juanita’s at 7:55 and there’s James getting ready to play, life is good.