Little Rock Film Fest Wrapup, Part One

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photo by Byba Sepit

After his success at Cannes, Mud director Jeff Nichols returned home to Arkansas—where the story began and where the film was made.

In addition to being born and raised in Little Rock, one could say director Jeff Nichols’ film career was raised right alongside the city’s acclaimed film festival. In 2007, just before Nichols’ first film Shotgun Stories began receiving critical praise at numerous festival screenings, the Little Rock Film Festival (LRFF) was testing the waters with its inaugural event. Soon, Nichols was making appearances at the festival. In 2011, LRFF attendees were treated to an extended clip of Nichols’ then-unreleased Take Shelter, a film that would garner attention from the likes of Sundance, Cannes and the Independent Spirit Awards.

This year, just one week after his third film, Mud, debuted at Cannes—where it was nominated for the fest’s highest honor, the Palm D’Or—Nichols flew into Little Rock to accept LRFF’s highest honor, the Diamond Award. While Mud could not be screened because of possible distribution entanglements, Nichols did give a refreshingly open interview in front of an overflowing crowd of filmmakers and festival fans. We spoke about his “awe inspiring experience” at Cannes and about working with stars like Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey.

“Apparently, we got an 18-minute standing ovation,” said Nichols, clearly moved by the film’s first public screening. “This was the defining moment of my career.” A perhaps even greater defining moment is being discussed by more than a few Cannes critics who believe next year’s 85th Academy Awards should be on Nichols’ appointment calendar. Variety says Mud already “feels like a classic.” It’s a term Nichols doesn’t disagree with.

“It has a music montage in it. It has a shootout scene, a happy ending,” he said. “It’s designed to be, I don’t know, like a happy, classic American film. Some people’s palettes are ready for that, some people aren’t.”

Mud was filmed entirely in Arkansas, with much of the shooting taking place on either an island or while floating on the river. The Little Rock festival’s attending filmmakers listened with fascination to Nichols’ candid descriptions of the logistics of a complicated and remote film location.

“You’re working with teamsters, and S.A.G. [Screen Actors Guild] is on your back,” Nichols said. “There are things that I have to navigate, things that are kind of crappy, about having more money. And I’ve always been a person who likes to fly under the radar in terms of production, but here we are in Southeast Arkansas and people are on Reese Witherspoon watch. So you had to get used to that.”

Nichols also revealed that he had McConaughey in mind from the moment he wrote the script, although there was a time when it appeared the actor would never play the part.

“The first problem I had was just getting it to him.” Eventually, his agent took the script but would never say if McConaughey had ever read it. In addition, Nichols’ financiers weren’t that excited about using McConaughey. So they began to look at another actor (whose name Nichols diplomatically refused to reveal). “He was a nice guy, but it just didn’t work out. So, we had financing but we didn’t have an actor, and we were going to start shooting. So I said, ‘What about McConaughey again?’ At that point they didn’t have anything to lose. He read it and really loved it. He was great. He’s an exceptional guy. It was easy for me because I had written it for him. So I didn’t have to audition him. I didn’t have to worry about that.”

Apparently, the relationship has grown into something more than professional. “I’m lucky that he’s really, really proud of the film,” said Nichols with a sly grin. “And we’re friends now. Like…he’s my buddy.”

As per every year, LRFF presented an impressive group of films with many of the filmmakers in attendance. Here were a few notables:

Andrew Bird: Fever Year
In this documentary on Andrew Bird and the singer/songwriter’s sometimes tortuous pace of musical satisfaction, director Xan Aranda has created a well-edited film that provides a wonderful mix of Bird’s commentary and his remarkable performances. With insights ranging from Bird’s feeling of dissatisfaction with the studio recording process (“Microphones are the worst audience to have”) to the satisfaction of performing live (“It seems like a worthy thing to do with your life”), Aranda’s film captures the breadth of Bird’s creativity.

Gimme the Loot
With ambitions of pulling off one of the greatest graffiti coups of the century, Gimme the Loot’s graffiti artists Sofia and Malcolm find themselves taking on drug dealers and rival artists who sabotage their work. Yes, what they do is illegal, but these are basically good kids who have found a way to make their mark, so to speak. Although there’s nothing especially deep in the film, it’s a funny story that’s well told, with some bright performances and a simple but enjoyable ending.

The Dynamiter
In the vein of Jeff Nichols’ first feature, Shotgun Stories, director Matthew Gordon has made a southern film that at times feels like an homage to Nichols (although it doesn’t quite reach that bar). Like Shotgun Stories, The Dynamiter centers around a family of brothers whose lives are in flux. After being caught rifling through other students’ lockers, Robbie (William Ruffin) is required by the junior high principal to write an essay during the summer—about anything. Robbie, who lives with his elderly grandmother and his step-brother, has a lot to say. He has no father, and his mother is only heard from through an occasional postcard. Ostracized by his peers and looking at a bleak future, Robbie nonetheless maintains a positive attitude. He takes especially good care of his little brother, who behaves like a much-slower version of Bobby from King of the Hill. Robbie’s older, ex-football-hero, deadbeat brother shows up and proceeds to seduce the townswomen and lay on the couch all day while lecturing Robbie to go out and get a job. The tension and performances may not be as sharp, but like Nichols, Gordon has a feel for the experience of southern life.

First Winter
First Winter is a startling, stirring and beautiful first feature from Ben Dickinson. Real-life yoga instructor Paul Manza (Paul) totes his Brooklyn hipster yoga students to a barn in the middle of nowhere for a tranquilizing retreat that apparently equates to practice, meditation, drugs and sex. A snowstorm touches down, and power is lost for days due to an undisclosed reason, bringing with it the onset of an apocalyptic overtone. The retreat becomes an exercise in the survival of the fittest (with drastically unsuccessful outcomes for some). The opulent cinematography in First Winter is magnificent, namely during the outdoor scenes, which are true works of art.
—Caitlin Colford

Pilgrim Song
There’s a rich paradox at the heart of Pilgrim Song, the second feature film from writer-director Martha Stephens. The protagonist, James, must embark on a selfish journey—or pilgrimage—to discover a way of selflessness. Played with great honesty by Timothy Morton, James, a failed musician and newly unemployed teacher, decides to leave a life of potential commitment—a new job, his devoted girlfriend—to escape on a trail through the Appalachians. The journey, though somewhat predictable, introduces him to a plethora of interesting characters, including a pot-smoking park ranger and, eventually, a kooky father and his young son who become catalysts for his enlightenment. Stevens and cinematographer Alexander Sablow capture the journey marvelously, connecting the core and tone of the story to the visuals. The slow, grandiose shots of nature both give the film a meditative spirit and highlight James’ tininess amid the vast world around him. The final sequence may be troubling for some, but in light of a baptism and a brief proclamation of the gospel, it resonated with this viewer. While it takes losing nearly everything to get there, James rises to walk in newness of life—a life no longer centered on himself.
—David Roark

Eating Alabama
As an introduction to how drastically agriculture has changed in relation to the food we purchase, Eating Alabama excels as we follow a young couple who have decided to eat only locally grown, unprocessed food for one year. What would have been a simple exercise 50 years ago now turns into a study in patience and diligence as these two explorers meet that increasingly rare specimen: the farmer. In doing so, they discover the downside of having to create food in America for a living. As the media and our culture looks for healthier habits, this film’s message couldn’t be timelier.

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