There’s Memphis Movie, the working title of the film being made in the pages of Memphis Movie (Soft Skull Press), the new novel by Corey Mesler. And then there’s Memphis Movie, a hypothetical film version of Memphis Movie the book, and if such a film were made, its dream cast, according to Mesler, would read as follows:
Sandy Shoars, Memphis Movie’s seasoned screen writer: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Rebecca Pidgeon
Dan Yumont, 45-year-old lead actor and lech, who’s bedding a 16-year-old named Dudu: Brad Pitt, Viggo Mortensen
Sue Pine, a non-actress last seen in a commercial shot in Orlando, brought in to act opposite (and under) Dan Yumont: Jennifer Lawrence, Rebecca Hall
Mimsy Borogroves, bedmate of Eric Warberg: Amy Adams, Zoe Kazan
Luke Apenail, national film critic wise to the creative catastrophe that is the making (and unmaking) of Memphis Movie: Jack Huston, Chris Ellis
Camel Jeremy Eros, Midtown hippie burnout but a writer still, brought in to add some local mojo to the script for Memphis Movie: Peter Coyote, Donald Sutherland
Lorax, childlike bedmate of Eros: Juno Temple, Felicity Jones
Hope Davis, actress with understandable doubts about her starring role in Memphis Movie: Hope Davis herself, Amy Adams
And to direct Memphis Movie the novel: Paul Thomas Anderson, Noah Baumbach
A little confused? Director Eric Warberg is big-time confused in Memphis Movie. He admits to as much in an anti-pep talk to his cast and crew before production of Memphis Movie gets under way. “Lost, uninspired, fearful”: Warberg’s all that too. As he also tells his ready cast and crew: “It is with a heavy heart that I tell you that we are about to begin the long and arduous process of dragging this movie into the light.”
“Dragging” is right. As Warberg tells Mimsy: “I’m somnambulating through the damn thing. … This movie — there’s nothing there … There is no story! That’s the dirty secret.”
But there is a story, and Warberg knows it. But how to film it? That’s a hard one, because, in Warberg’s words: “The story is about cynicism. It’s about how irony only takes one so far and then you discover that you are tightrope walking without a net.”
“Memphis is like that. The city you can’t shake. The one you return to and nothing has changed. Though you’ve gone through massive changes, the city treats you the same, and you try to act like you’re the same. It’s a subtle form of torment.”
Torment wasn't the word when Mesler was writing Memphis Movie. The book (whose publication history was featured months ago in the Flyer) was in fact a joy for him to write. “Pure joy” is how Mesler described it in a recent interview.
“I hope that some of that joy shines through,” he said. “I think it’s a very funny book, and I think it’s my most plot-driven. I also got to talk about movies, which are manna to me, second only to books in my pantry of staples.”
But what is Memphis Movie about — the film titled Memphis Movie, which is being shot on sets inside the empty Pyramid in downtown Memphis?
Memphis Movie the novel isn’t so concerned about that question, and that was Mesler’s intention. “Yeah, I wanted to talk about how the sausage is made and not about the sausage itself” is how he put it. And no, Mesler didn’t go into this project as a first-hand witness to the daily trials and tribulations of movie-making. But it is a book partially inspired by the movie-making he's been on hand to see.
“I wrote this at a time when Craig Brewer and Ira Sachs were beginning to make waves and after many big star movies had been shot here. And I do remember thinking that no one had chronicled, yet, the burgeoning film scene in Memphis.
“I saw them film a bit of the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic in front of Sun one afternoon, but it quickly bored me. I saw Craig shoot a bit of his first film in the book store. But, mostly, I made stuff up. This is in keeping with my half-assed, no-research method of composition.”
With that in mind, “flummoxed” is how Mesler described his reaction to the attention that Memphis Movie is receiving, with good advance reaction from actor Peter Coyote and writer Ann Beattie.
“Inexplicably yes, this one is getting more attention,” Mesler said. “Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s about movie-making, and movie stars are our royalty. Perhaps it’s because I have been tossing around Peter Coyote’s name as if he invited me to live with him in California. Truthfully, I’m a little flummoxed by the heightened awareness for this, my eighth novel. It makes it harder for me to whine to my wife about being ignored, and, God knows, I relish my whining.”
No whining allowed on the evening of April 30th. That’s when Mesler will be at Burke’s Book Store, the store he co-owns with wife Cheryl, to sign and read from Memphis Movie, 5:30 to 7 p.m. The reading begins at 6 p.m. Mesler will also be signing his latest poetry collection, The Sky Needs More Work, and his latest short-story collection, As a Child. •