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Feeling Blue

Filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox gets personal with Blue Citrus Hearts.

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Though there have certainly been more accomplished and straightforwardly entertaining films to emerge from the local film scene in recent years (The Poor & Hungry, Eli Parker is Getting Married?, which will be broadcast on WKNO-Channel 10 next month), the high-school coming-out story Blue Citrus Hearts may well be the most tender and most heartfelt. The film also represents a significant leap forward for its makers, young writer/director/jack-of-all-trades Morgan Jon Fox, 23, and his cohorts in the filmmaking collective Sawed-Off Collaboratory.

Fox and Co. taught themselves the art of filmmaking via a series of experimental short films and one previous, almost accidental, feature, Three Minutes Based on the Revolution of the Sun, which paired Fox with Blue Citrus Hearts' on-screen lead Joshua Peter Laurenzi, now 20.

Fox and Laurenzi (also an assistant director on Hearts, along with Suzie Cyanide) both describe the extremely personal Three Minutes as a learning process that set the stage for Blue Citrus Hearts, a way to master such filmmaking basics as deploying the proper sound equipment. "We really just learned how to be competent," Fox admits.

But the Collaboratory made a point of putting their improved technique to the service of crafting a more audience-friendly film this time around, something they thought the subject matter demanded. "If we'd made this movie the way we did things in the past, it may have been a little more experimental," Laurenzi says. "But I think the purpose of the film -- the purpose of Morgan's script -- was to be able to speak to a lot of people, and I think it does that."

Though Blue Citrus Hearts deals openly and honestly with issues of sexual identity and family communication that are common to young people, and though it was partially shot at White Station High School with actors either the same age or only slightly older than the characters they play (the filmmakers received approval from White Station, where both Fox and Laurenzi are alumni, and had any students appearing in the film sign release forms), one wonders whether the final product -- with its sexual situations, depictions of drug and alcohol use, and realistic language -- would be deemed screenable in the schools.

"I wanted to make it where anyone could watch it and it wouldn't be censored," Fox says, "where the only reason anyone would censor it would be because of homophobia, that that would be the only excuse. But at the same time, I wanted to be honest. The kids talk that way in the movie because kids talk that way, not because it's in my script and I told them to."

Blue Citrus Hearts follows the blossoming and evolving friendship of two high-school students who come from very different family backgrounds -- Sam (Laurenzi), a product of a harsh nuclear family headed by his aggressive, homophobic father, and Julian (Paul Foster), a product of a warm, loving single-parent household. With an excellent soundtrack driven by music from one-time Memphis-based indie rockers Loggia and a feel for mood and incident that supersedes plot, the film captures the romantic tumult of adolescence with perhaps unexpected aplomb.

A good deal of this success stems from the effectiveness of its leads: Laurenzi and Foster (18 at the time of filming, according to Fox) are striking presences --pale, rail-thin, yet distinct. Together they manage to communicate all the inchoate emotional messiness of their characters without at all striving for effect, a result made more remarkable by the revelation that both are novice actors who had never met prior to the filming.

Foster, actually the fifth actor cast as Julian, was spotted by Fox at Cooper-Young coffeehouse Java Cabana. "When we knew we were going to shoot some of the more intense stuff, Paul and I would spend the day together," Laurenzi says, "just to hang out and get comfortable around each other. Sometimes we'd talk about the movie itself and how things were gonna go, and sometimes we wouldn't."

Fox says he wasn't at all concerned with acting experience when casting the film. "We start with people we know because we want to use actors that we trust," he says. "We're not as concerned with having people who are 'good actors' as with having people who are honest and open, because anyone can be a good actor if they can just be themselves and use their emotions."

This philosophy informs the entire film, and comes in part from Fox and Co.'s affinity for the cheap, raw filmmaking style of "Dogme" directors such as Lars von Trier, Thomas Vinterberg, and Harmony Korine, a philosophy that's about "utilizing resources on a very minimal level and allowing actors to produce something real," Fox explains. "It's almost like the actors aren't there for your film, but you're there to document them. Sure, as a filmmaker you've organized everything, but when everything is set up, it's the actors' time. That seems more real to me, and that's important."

Blue Citrus Hearts, based on a script Fox wrote in 1997 as a first-year college student, is inspired in part by his own high-school experiences ("I wanted [the film] to have a positive ending, and I can't say that I had that experience in high school," Fox says), but when it came time to film, Fox condensed the script to 15 pages of scenarios and encouraged his actors to improvise from that. The film's hand-held cinematography was also improvisational, the camera operators (either Fox or Cyanide) responding to the actors.

Though production on the film began before the formation of the Memphis Digital Arts Co-operative (MeDiA Co-op), of which Fox and Laurenzi are both founding members, Blue Citrus Hearts can be said to be the first narrative feature to emerge from the enterprise, with much of the crew assembled from the Co-op and all post-production work done at the organization's offices at Cooper-Young's First Congregational Church. Group screenings with Co-op members provided feedback which shaped the final product.

As for the future of the film after this week's spate of local screenings, Fox is hopeful that he can raise enough money to take the film on tour and has recently applied for a grant to do just that. "I want to take the film city to city and work with organizations so that every showing has a larger significance than 'I'm just seeing a movie and now I'll go back to my normal life.' That's really my hope -- to turn the screenings into community events," Fox says. "I don't want to sound conceited, but I don't want to become a big-time filmmaker. That's not my goal. But I will not feel okay about this if it just gets screened in Memphis and ends up on the shelf [at local video stores]."

The community outreach aspect of Blue Citrus Hearts will begin at home, with representatives from Memphis Area Gay and Lesbian Youth at each screening. "When people pay, I think we're just going to give them a pamphlet, because kids would probably be nervous about going over to pick up information. I know when I was in high school there was no support system," Fox says.

Blue Citrus Hearts is in many ways its own support system, a film equivalent of a Bright Eyes or Cure song perhaps, though more hopeful and less overwrought. It's likely to appeal to any teenager or anyone thoughtful enough to remember being one and empathize -- gay, straight, or somewhere on the vast continuum in between. The expansive, supportive tone of the film is perfectly captured in a hand-scrawled, closing-credits scroll that begins, "This is for the boys who love boys. For the girls who love girls. This is for the parent who loves their child regardless " and then opens up to embrace the whole of the world.

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