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Lawrence of Keo

Indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols puts an epic lens to the vast expanse of … Lonoke County?

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When we talk about the cultural legacy of the Natural State, we talk about literature and we talk about music; we talk about art; but more often these days more of us talk about film. In the last decade or so, a handful of filmmakers have brought Arkansas recognition in national culture pages, as either hailing from this state or coming home to practice their craft, to give something back — to portray, in part, where it is they hail from. Ticking off this handful, we mention Billy Bob Thornton and Joey Lauren Adams; we mention Ray McKinnon and Lisa Blount and their prodigal commitment; lately we've been mentioning the thoroughbred talent of the Renaud Brothers, who, with gutsy documentaries about Iraq and Central High, reveal an upstart seriousness that balances all this dramatic intensity with weighty nonfiction.

From now on we'll also mention, and perhaps discuss at length, the films of Jeff Nichols, the 28-year-old Little Rock native whose first feature film, “Shotgun Stories,” was shot in Pulaski and Lonoke counties in 2005. Since then, Nichols has been dragged through the dark psychoemotional woods you'd expect of such an ambitious endeavor. But two years later, things seem to be falling into place, and Nichols finds himself in a less typical clearing of critical praise. The film was finished just in time for the 2007 festival season. It was rejected from Sundance, but then accepted at Berlin, where it caused a stir, and it has since been towing Nichols across the planet — to New York's Tribeca Film Festival, to Newport, Seattle, Paris and Sydney — and showing on its own at festivals in Athens, Vienna, Israel, London, gathering accolades and prizes along the way. He walked away with the grand prize at the Austin Film Festival, and recently scored a Cassavetes nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards. Save an Oscar nomination, there's no greater prize for a film produced for under half a million dollars.

The fact that few people in Little Rock have heard of “Shotgun Stories” is a small irony Nichols intends to put to rest when the film finally premieres at Market Street Cinema on Friday, Dec.14.

“I'm going to Paris for two weeks to do press interviews, and I'm much more anxious about how the film will do here,” he said. “I mean, I have no true accountability in France; they could either like it or not. But there's true accountability at home. People can call ‘bullshit' on you. They can call it on you immediately. And I'm sure some of them will.”

We were at his home in Austin, Texas, where he relocated in 2003 to live with his fiancee. It took some penciling across the calendar, dodging festival appearances, but we finally caught up on a Saturday, forgiveably warm for October. Tall, lanky, pensively slouched, Nichols was worn out from wedding preparations and other projects — he's working on his own next script, and has signed on to direct “GOAT,” the $3 million adaptation of Brad Land's best-selling memoir. After a glance at his workspace — the laundry room, a small one, with just a laptop and a bulletin board pinned with index cards with his next plotline — we settled in the backyard for a game of washers, with a six-pack of beer and a basset hound for company.

A little room should be given to the film's story, nearly Greek in its knotted antagonisms: Two sets of half-brothers, descended from the same man at different phases in his life (an early phase of vices, followed by a Christian phase and a new family), get to feuding after the old man's death. Son Hayes, the film's protagonist and eldest of the forsaken brothers, learns about his father's death secondhand, through his mother — “a hateful woman,” as he describes her. He crashes the funeral to set the record straight about who his father really was, and to hell with that Christian family's grieving. His curses set off an escalating cycle of retaliation, making the small town where all these brothers live suddenly much smaller, and dangerous. Ultimately, the tragedy lies in how readily these men are willing to avenge each other.

Though the film looks and feels much bigger than its $300,000 budget — slim by industry standards — it was still money Nichols had to chase doggedly. His parents put up a good portion of the shooting budget, to which Jeff added nearly all of a recent inheritance. Filming lasted 21 days, and involved a cast and crew of about 15, comprising friends volunteering and pros working well below scale. Crew members from out of town slept on floors and couches and in spare rooms; Jeff's parents fed the crew, breakfast to dinner. A small room in the back of the family furniture store served as the production office. It was very much a guerilla operation, a guerilla spirit, with all these boys and a fancy camera landing in towns like Keo, England and Scott, and living as minimalistically as possible. Even the props had to be borrowed. Everyone had to improvise, live and think lean, and deliver.

There was an advantage to such a small budget. “Businesses didn't close for us,” Jeff said. “For instance, the first car wash scene, that car wash didn't shut down. People were driving up, and you can see them in the background, and it's because they just didn't care. That anonymity bought us a level of production value that a bigger film would've had to pay for and try and replicate. We wouldn't have had the dude in the pickup pulling up to wash the mud off his tires, we would've have had to pay some guy a hundred dollars to do it. If anything, it would have been more stilted.”

After the shoot, the Nicholses were tapped, and for six months the film sat in the back of Nichols Furniture while Jeff chased money to transfer the movie from film to digital, so he could edit, which required several thousand dollars more than what he'd already spent. He glad-handed and pitched and wooed whomever might possibly be interested in the project — more friends, family, third parties. “I was constantly looking for money,” Jeff said. “Looking everywhere.” Meanwhile, the film was deteriorating, since once a film is developed, the chemical process never actually stops. Finally, Jeff asked Mike Freeze, co-owner of the Keo Fish Farm, where several scenes were shot, to help finance the transfer of the film. Freeze and his partner, Martha Melkovitz, came through on a promise to help him if he reached any impasse, and Jeff finally began editing, then showing the film to potential producers. A year and a half later, Upload Films agreed to finish production, and after another six months, “Shotgun Stories” was ready to show.

Roger Ebert gushed over “Shotgun Stories” at the Chicago Film Festival; another critic called it a “searing… sobering exploration of primal injuries”; another described it as “elegiac and exquisitely lensed”; one excited fellow invoked it as a metaphor for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding that it was a “fresh blossom in the wilting American indie film scene”; if that weren't enough, Nichols could lean on his film being described as a “point-blank buckshot blast of inarticulate American rage” filmed with a “primitive elegance.”

Heady stuff. But they're on point: “Shotgun Stories” is indelible in all the ways Nichols intended. It's a remarkable manipulation of violence and the revenge-movie formula; it's poetic, smart and aesthetically lavish, so beautifully shot that the landscape — the hardscrabble and lush, the impoverished and sylvan, the muddy and the sun-dappled, with the highway never out of sight or earshot — rises to the mythic level of the story itself.

Actor Michael Shannon — whose credits include “Jesus' Son,” “8 Mile,” “Bug” (with co-star Ashley Judd) and the upcoming Sam Mendes picture “Revolutionary Road” — plays Son Hayes, the lead in “Shotgun,” and carries the film. He's a strangely riveting actor, who plays Son with a slow burn, with lots of mean smoke beneath his speech, and with a face that, between rage and tenderness, never quite loses its hint of menace.

Nichols discovered Shannon while finishing up film school at the North Carolina School for the Arts, in Winston-Salem. Writer/director Gary Hawkins, who was Nichols' mentor and teacher at NSCA, had just returned from a filmmakers' workshop at Sundance Labs. “I thought he was incredible,” Nichols said. “He was intimidating, interesting to look at, had an amazing voice. When I sat down to write ‘Shotgun Stories,' I wrote the part of Son Hayes with him in mind, with no connection to him other than what I'd seen of him in other films. He was just kind of the size and sound and look of the character I wanted.”

When it was time to cast, Hawkins put the two in touch. “I called Mike up and said, ‘You don't know me. I'm a kid from Arkansas, I'm a friend of Hawkins, and I wrote a script for you.' I think he laughed.” But after some convincing, Shannon agreed to read the script. Impressed, he called back to figure out the rest. Not a lot of money, but room and board. And if Hawkins had recommended him, that was pretty good for Shannon. He arrived in Little Rock a week ahead of schedule so he could spend time at the Keo Fish Farm to learn the trade of his character.

It should be emphasized: Ending up at the North Carolina School for the Arts was, for Nichols, a very lucky fluke. In his senior year at Central High he aspired to study film, but couldn't afford the big-ticket programs. NSCA was an off-hand suggestion of his father's Carolina colleagues, and it turned out to be the ideal environment for someone who wanted to get dirty right away. “You got in, you started making movies,” Nichols said. “It was all about production, without a ton of coursework weighted down with film theory. Their goal was, once we graduated, to be able to walk onto a film set and get a job. NYU and USC, that's not their mission. They're more about making auteurs.”

But the graduating classes at NSCA haven't been grunts, either. Under Hawkins' influence, an uncanny number of those students have been putting a lot of muscle into independent film. The alumni list, though still up-and-coming, is impressive: Jody Hill and Danny McBride have a forthcoming sitcom on HBO; actor Paul Schneider's stock is rising with roles in such films as “Elizabethtown” and “The Assassination of Jesse James”; Craig Zobel's indie film “Great World of Sound” is sparking buzz at festivals. Then there's David Gordon Green, who agreed to produce “Shotgun Stories,” and whose films, “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls,” kicked the table over in independent film. Green's next film, the big-budget Judd Apatow-produced picture “Pineapple Express,” is slated for release in August.

NSCA graduates have stuck together, practically lending their respective talents to one another out of solidarity. And while they don't apply a manifesto to their work, as Southern films go, their integrity provides a healthy reckoning, a good measure for what future films about the South should rise to. “A big part of it for me was coming into a creative awakening as an individual at a film school based in the South,” Nichols said. “Had I tried to develop in New York or Los Angeles — or even Florida, for that matter — I don't know what would have come out the other end. We were all smack-dab in the middle of North Carolina.”

There has been, of course, a peer influence. Comparisons have been made between Green's “George Washington” and “Shotgun Stories”; they share a tonal quality, and both are deeply Southern films. But their strongest similarity is a technical one, which Nichols proudly admits. Like Green, Nichols shot his film in 35-millimeter anamorphic, which is the same lens used to shoot “Lawrence of Arabia.” The end result is an attempt to shoot Lonoke County with the same grandeur with which David Lean shot the Jordanian desert, the same romantic sweep. “I'm passionate about the landscape you see in this film. I'm passionate about Arkansas. I really am. Every holiday, every summer, whenever we'd go visit my grandparents in Altheimer, I would sit and look out the window, and all the locations in the movie are along that exact same path on those highways. That was a no-brainer for me. It's just a beautiful place. I knew all I had to do was show up with a nice camera and shoot it the right way.”

The risk, of course, is that simply using an anamorphic lens doesn't necessarily make a great film.

“That's where you have to get into Larry Brown,” Nichols said. “The way the South is observed in ‘Shotgun Stories' is all Larry Brown. Hawkins introduced me to him when he was making his documentary ‘The Rough South of Larry Brown.' He threw ‘Big Bad Love' into my lap, and it was the first collection of short stories I read that had it all there. There wasn't a distance between me and his writing. There's a distance there when I read William Faulkner's stories, between his stories and my life, just as there's a distance between my life and John Ford's films. They're amazing, and well-crafted and beautiful, but there's just a distance. With Larry's stories, I feel like it's something that I could do. And whether I can or not, it's a very well-done example of what I'm trying to do.”

And there you have the nexis of influence. He has that big humanities breakthrough, reads an author whose South makes sense — as opposed to all the crappy ways in which he'd seen it done — and meanwhile, in that window of perfect impressionability, under the guidance of the right mentor, sees “Badlands” for the first time, sees “The Thin Red Line” and “The Hustler,” sees “Hud” on the big screen, and it all comes together.

I admitted I'd never heard of Altheimer.

“You wouldn't have,” he said, and sounded upset about it. “It's dying. England is a town; Altheimer is a place that used to be a town.”

Sure, another irony is that Nichols belongs to Little Rock, to the suburbs. And his romantically pedestrian, agro-industrial, awkward blue-collar mood in “Shotgun Stories” isn't the best example of the writer's maxim, “Write what you know.” Then again, “Know what you write” might serve a writer better.

“I'm not from Keo,” Jeff said, “and I'd probably have a totally different take on it if I was. It's not reality. Reality is guys sitting around listening to Korn, and I'd be lying if I said these characters haven't been stylized, that they haven't been touched by sentiments I have about this place. But I also knew full well what the formula for a revenge story was: Kill somebody early, spend the rest of the film exacting revenge. And I wanted to push it. The question will be, ‘Is it still honest?' Did I get something that remains honest telling it the way I wanted to tell it? Some will argue that I did, some that I didn't.”

By now we'd abandoned the game and were sitting on a couple of patio chairs, finishing off the beers. Jeff's hound had wandered off with one of the washers, and there really wasn't much you could do about it, or wanted to, given the easy mood of the evening.

“I remember someone saying that this film revealed a love affair with Arkansas,” he said, gazing at the dog. “I think that's pretty accurate.”

The Arkansas Times presents the Little Rock premiere of "Shotgun Stories."

Screening: 7 p.m., Market Street Cinema

After party: 10 p.m., featuring Ben Nichols of Lucero and Smoke Up Johnny at Sticky Fingerz.

Price: $20 for premiere and after part.

Tickets available at the Arkansas Times, Market Street Cinema and Sticky Fingerz. For more information, call 501.375.2985. 

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