Fifteen years ago, a little movie wowed audiences at Indie Memphis. Blue Citrus Hearts was Morgan Jon Fox's coming out party — both as a person and a filmmaker.
When Fox saw André Téchiné's 1994 film Wild Reeds, it struck a deep chord. "It was the first movie I had ever seen about people my age coming out on screen," he recalls. "There were no out kids at my school, that I knew of. There were no role models, like there are now, to look up to. There was no reflection of myself in TV or media. So when I finally saw Wild Reeds, it was the first time I saw somebody who reflected myself onscreen, or anywhere around me. It spoke so much truth to me in a private moment, that I felt like this was the most powerful thing, that I could sit down and watch this movie by myself and it would give me so much peace. It was like a huge sigh of relief."
He wrote Blue Citrus Hearts during his freshman year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "Then I dropped out, because I wanted to go to film school. This film was all that mattered to me. I was 19 at the time."
- Morgan Jon Fox
Fox returned to his hometown and co-founded the Memphis Digital Co-Op, a collective dedicated to using then-new digital video technology to create films for practically no money. "I was all about seeing someone who looked like a bit of a vagabond and pulling an Andy Warhol. Hey, you want to join our group of misfits and spend the next year making a movie?"
He made a series of experimental films until he found his lead actors, Joshua Laurenzi and Paul Foster. "It felt gutsy. I felt nervous while I was doing it. But it felt very empowering. Because there weren't films like this being made, and examples of young people who were out. You could feel that it was making a difference. It felt very exciting and invigorating."
With only his partner Suzi Crashcourse (now known as Elyza Touzeau) for crew, Fox shot for more than a year and a half on his days off from Otherlands. "I knew we did not have the money or the equipment to compete with Hollywood. The only real strength we had was story and acting ... A tiny crew with a small camera and a boom with a shotgun mic on it really allows for a lot of intimacy. It feels real. Looking back on it, I see scenes that feel rough, but the moments that count work. It feels like you shouldn't be there."
- Joshua Peter Laurenzi and Paul Foster in Morgan Jon Fox’s debut film, Blue Citrus Hearts.
The most incredible moment in the filming came on top of the abandoned Tennessee Brewery. As Laurenzi and Foster share their first kiss, a meteor lights up the night sky behind them. It was, Fox says, 100 percent real. "At the exact moment at the climax of the movie when these two characters kiss, a shooting star goes over their heads — and into the little pocket between their heads while they're kissing! If I had been a little higher, a little lower, a little to the left, I would have missed it completely."
Later, actor Lee Ann Roberts told Fox that the shooting star was a message from his late mother, telling him she approved of his choices. "Whatever it was, it was the most incredible thing I'll ever capture onscreen. How do you top that?"
The film was the hit of Indie Memphis, taking home the Best Hometowner trophy. Then, it was rejected from 30 festivals, until the Reeling LBGT Film Festival in Chicago chose it as their finale screening, and awarded Fox Best Narrative Feature. It went on to screen at more than 50 film festivals around the world. Blockbuster Video bought 2,000 copies of the DVD and distributed them nationwide. "I probably got a hundred emails from kids in places like Wisconsin and Ohio saying that they watched this movie, and they were in an unsafe home. They were trying to come out, but they couldn't come out. It was the exact reason I wanted to become a filmmaker, and it was the most rewarding and beautiful thing. I would cry every time I got one of those emails. It helped me understand that I was on the right path."
On Tuesday, August 28th at Studio on the Square, Indie Memphis will host a 15th anniversary screening of Blue Citrus Hearts, with Fox on hand. "I keep thinking about how naive I was about what I could accomplish. A lot of that is just being young, and having nothing to lose. I was working at Otherlands and living with four friends in a run-down Midtown house. I was biking around Midtown with blue hair. What else are you going to do? If that's not the time to be making art with unrealistic expectations, thinking you can conquer the world, then when are you ever going to feel that way?"