Filmmakers Ira Sachs and Kentucker Audley may be the men of the hour at the 15th Indie Memphis Film Festival, which begins Thursday and runs through Sunday at four venues in and around Overton Square.
Sachs, who grew up in Memphis but has made his home in New York since the 1980s, has been best known for his Memphis-shot indie drama Forty Shades of Blue, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Sachs returns home for the local premiere of his new feature, the ambitious, autobiographical relationship drama Keep the Lights On, which won the "Teddy Award" for best gay-themed feature at the Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year and has garnered the strongest buzz of Sachs' career. Keep the Lights On will screen at Indie Memphis in a program with each of Sachs' three previous features — 1997's Memphis-filmed coming-of-age story The Delta, Forty Shades of Blue, and 2007's star-driven Married Life.
Audley, who was born Andrew Nenninger and adopted the filmmaking moniker "Kentucker" partly in tribute to his home state, moved to Memphis during college and emerged here in the past decade as a key figure in a loosely connected micro-budget indie scene, getting tabbed as an important "new face" in independent film by Filmmaker after his debut feature, 2007's Team Picture, and becoming a familiar face on the festival circuit. Audley will be hustling back from a couple of current acting jobs — one in Georgia and one in Texas — for the official hometown premiere of his latest feature, the cheekily titled Open Five 2, which will be screening at Indie Memphis along with two other films Audley appears in as an actor, the road movie Sun Don't Shine and the horror anthology V/H/S.
What Sachs and Audley share, in addition to Memphis roots and indie-film accolades, is a provocative degree of autobiography in their work, an element more profound and more fully realized in their latest films than ever before.
Sachs' Keep the Lights On tracks the troubled, decade-long romance between a couple of New Yorkers: filmmaker Erik (Thure Lindhardt, recently nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award for best breakthrough actor) and Paul (Zachary Booth), an initially closeted lawyer who is also hiding a serious drug addiction. It's an unflinching, almost diaristic film in which Sachs digs into his own recent romantic history.
"On some level, the events depicted in the film are when a relationship that I was in exploded," Sachs says. "It became very visible. At that point, there was no possibility of hiding what was going on. And I found it very scary but liberating to be in a place where I wasn't trying to control what other people thought of me. I think the result was a new approach to filmmaking in which I want to be transparent. It doesn't mean that I always have to be autobiographical. But I don't want to try to manipulate people's impressions of me."
This transparency manifests itself in some extremely frank material involving drugs and sex, but these scenes make the impact they do in part because, like everything in Keep the Lights On, they're grounded in feelings of love and longing, with a palpable emotional intimacy and with a heft that's somewhat new for Sachs, whose previous films have depicted smaller stories in tighter time frames.
"I set out to talk in a way about how one's private relationship can actually be epic," Sachs says. "This was a relationship that, in a certain way, took over my life. I think there's an image toward the end of the film, where the couple is saying goodbye in the middle of the street and New York surrounds them. I think that's something people related to. These stories just disappear. But when you live them, they're so large and they're so significant to us individually."
Keep the Lights On has been called a "landmark" film in terms of gay cinema, and part of that might be the film's thrilling combination of frankness and lack of self-consciousness about how "gay" plays in a straight world. Also fresh is the way in which Sachs weaves elements of gay culture — the artwork of Sachs' husband, Boris Torres; a soundtrack of songs from late New York musician Arthur Russell; a dive into gay film history via Erik's documentary on lost filmmaker Avery Willard — seamlessly into his love story.
"I came out when I was 16, as a senior at Central High School," Sachs says. "That's a long time ago. That's 30 years ago. I think the issues of public identity — how I appear as a gay man — are not ones that are a struggle for me. I think this film talks about coming out as something you do but as not something that necessarily transforms you instantly."
If Keep the Lights On is at times a harrowing film, it's not necessarily a dark one. The film's characters, and Sachs himself, end the journey in a better place, and Sachs will return home this week with the best film of his career so far, a husband, and nine-month-old twins, Viva and Felix, in tow.
"The film is a reflection on certain things that were true in my life," Sachs says. "I think it's a very hopeful film, to be honest. It's about people coming to accept and like themselves enough to let go."
Kentucker Audley won multiple awards at Indie Memphis in 2010 with Open Five, a quasi-documentary portrait of Audley and collaborator Jake Rabinbach (then of the Memphis band Jump Back Jake, now of the Brooklyn/Memphis unit Echo Friendly) taking two visitors on a Memphis tour. These twentysomething lives played out against a backdrop that included such locations as Wild Bill's juke joint and Graceland's Candlelight Vigil.
No one could have expected Audley to follow that film up with something called Open Five 2.
"I definitely want to play into the expectations of what a sequel is and what film warrants a sequel," Audley says. "The idea of calling it Open Five 2 was totally tongue-in-cheek, every step of the way, a way of calling attention to the fact that no movies like this have sequels. But it's very clear that it's the same world we're presenting, and I didn't want to move past that world. So I didn't want to pretend that it's a different environment."
Most of Audley's films have him portraying a slightly fictionalized version of himself. In his debut feature, Team Picture, Audley presents a version of himself set a few years earlier. But, over time, the temporal distance between what's on screen and Audley's real life has grown shorter, while the situations depicted have become less fictionalized.
In Open Five 2, which follows Audley and Rabinbach during the period of post-production on Open Five, you can feel the time lag collapse and the fictions dissolve.
"The idea is to get it as close to a collapse as possible," Audley says. "As far as recreating the scenes, most of it is totally autobiographical and in fact literal recreations of life situations that I and everybody else in the cast have been through. We started out recreating the scenes that happened two months ago, then it became one month ago, and two weeks ago, and it got to the point where it folded in over itself. The idea is to create the environment where it folds in on itself as much as it can so it's the freshest. The end sequence with [then-girlfriend] Caroline [White] and me in Memphis: That's what the movie became, and that's what our relationship became, concurrently."
As Audley's films have narrowed the distinction between documentary and fiction, they've also become more artful. Open Five 2 has the intimacy of a home movie, but its moments feel astutely crafted rather than randomly captured.
If Open Five chronicled a certain strain of twentysomething existence, its sequel pushes this notion further in realms more mobile, more uncertain, and more marked by career/artistic goals and anxieties. But, more than anything, it's a powerful glimpse into Audley's relationship with White (a Memphis actress who also appears in two other titles on this year's Indie Memphis slate, Red Flag and Pilgrim Song), with the film bookended by first tense then tentatively comforting interactions between the two. ("We're not together. We're not apart. We don't really know," Audley says of the pair's current status.)
Some similar filmmakers who pre-date Audley in his corner of the indie movie scene, most notably Indie Memphis alumni such as Chicago's Joe Swanberg and Seattle's Lynn Shelton, have recently "graduated" to more commercial projects featuring more professional actors. Audley says he would welcome something like that if the opportunity arises but is also content to make the kind of small, personal films he's been making.
"I don't have a real stake in the popularity of these films. It's never been my concern," Audley says. "Basically, I feel like I'm making personal films for myself and for my small subculture of friends." But he admits to a complication in these films, especially in pulling so many people into his orbit into work so personal.
"It could be considered a real problem of mine that it seems like everything that happens in my life, I'm filtering it through how I could construct a film around it," Audley says.
For now, Audley's biggest advance into a wider film world has been as an actor, where he's become a ubiquitous presence in a certain strain of indie film, including two other features at this year's festival. Audley co-stars in Sun Don't Shine, the directorial debut of actress Amy Seimetz, a Florida-set couples-on-the-lam movie that pushes Audley's low-key indie style into genre-film territory. Audley also has a smaller role in the more high-profile horror omnibus V/H/S, in which he appears in the film's framing device as part of a hired group of criminals that breaks into a house in search of a videotape.
Audley estimates that acting now takes up about 80 percent of his film focus, with his own directing work taking a backseat at times.
In the weeks leading up to Indie Memphis, Audley has been on the set of two projects that could raise his acting profile. One is the rural Texas outlaw story Ain't Them Bodies Saints, directed by David Lowery, who had been part of the crew that shot Open Five. Audley has a small role in a film whose lead cast includes Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, and Keith Carradine. The other is The Sacrament, a recently announced film from indie horror auteur Ti West (House of the Devil), which has been shooting in Georgia and features Audley among its ensemble cast.
"A lot of this is financial, realizing that I've never made any money off my own films and that I can only make one every two years," Audley says. "With acting, I can hop from one to the next, and I can make a decent paycheck each time. It's a more sustainable trajectory to be able work in film and have creative input but not have to be the driving force behind each project. I didn't know I would ever be interested in acting, but now I'm very engaged with it. I have a lot of ideas as an actor that I'm not having as a director."
Among the scores of films showing at this year's Indie Memphis Film Festival are a handful of screenings that look into Memphis' own art-scene back pages.
At the forefront of these screenings are a couple of titles that will serve as high-profile "gala" screenings on the first two nights of the festival.
Making its official Memphis debut after a work-in-progress Recording Academy screening back in July is Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me (Thursday, 6:30 p.m., Playhouse on the Square and Sunday, 8 p.m., Circuit Playhouse), a documentary feature about the legendary Memphis band of the '70s that helped relaunch the career of Alex Chilton and launch, a decade later, a whole generation of alternative-rock and post-punk bands.
Produced by New York-based filmmakers Drew DeNicola, Olivia Mori, and Danielle McCarthy with ample cooperation from Ardent Studios, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me is an impressive work, especially considering the total absence of full performance footage. The doc does an excellent job weaving what archival material there is (including brief, provocative silent bits of in-studio footage) with talking-head interview segments to tell a compelling story of the constantly evolving band and the scene that surrounded it.
The film makes a strong case for Big Star as a "Memphis band" rather than as a band that stood apart from the city's style and uses the evolution of Alex Chilton to tell a musical story that stretches from mid-Sixties pop to late-Seventies punk. Though there are plenty of testimonials from people deeply affected by the band, the film is nicely modulated, making its case without ever slipping into hagiography.
Antenna (Friday, 6:30 p.m., Playhouse on the Square), a years-in-the-making Memphis alt/punk-scene portrait from local filmmakers C. Scott McCoy and Laura Jean Hocking, picks up where Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me leaves off — almost literally. An infamous Memphis television appearance by Tav Falco's Panther Burns, with Chilton on guitar, comes late in the Big Star film, depicted as a kind of landing point for Chilton as power-pop evolved into punk and alt-rock. The same clip is used at the beginning of Antenna as the local-punk Big Bang.
Antenna tells the story of the titular rock club, once located at the corner of Madison and Avalon in Midtown, where so many culturally left-of-center Memphians in the '80s and '90s found their voices and each other. Along the way, we get glimpses of early alternative/punk/new wave acts such as the Panther Burns, the Modifiers, and Calculated X and see the rise of the city's signature '90s bands, the Grifters and Oblivians.
The doc situates the Antenna as a key part of a growing national indie-rock network via interviews with major figures such as R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, Minutemen's Mike Watt, and Black Flag's Greg Ginn. And it takes a great detour into the all-ages hardcore scene that grew up around the club in the late '80s and early '90s.
As a tour of an essential local subculture, Antenna compares well to the recent pro-wrestling doc Memphis Heat. After this local premiere, look for Antenna to return with a longer theatrical run next spring.
Less high-profile but perhaps equally compelling are a couple of programs that dive into Indie Memphis' own history. "Craig Brewer's Indie Origins" (Thursday, 9:30 p.m., Playhouse on the Square) will be a guided tour of early Indie Memphis shorts, including Brewer's own Clean Up in Booth B.
This program will also include the debut of a recently found teen-era short film from local filmmaker Morgan Jon Fox, which co-stars a young Ginnifer Goodwin, the Memphis-bred actress turned Hollywood star. Getting an encore screening is the romantic comedy What Goes Around ... (Saturday, 1:45 p.m., Circuit Playhouse), a 2006 Indie Memphis award winner and lone completed feature from late Memphis filmmaker Rod Pitts, who passed away last year. — CH
Thursday, November 1st – Sunday, November 4th
Playhouse on the Square, Circuit Playhouse, Studio on the Square, Brooks Museum of Art
Full schedule and ticketing information can be found at indiememphis.com.
For additional coverage, see our film section in this issue, on page 47, and check the Flyer's pop culture blog, Sing All Kinds, at memphisflyer.com/blogs/singallkinds.
Ira Sachs at
Forty Shades of Blue
Friday, 6:45 p.m., Studio on the Square
Ira Sachs Shorts
Saturday, 11 a.m., Circuit Playhouse
Saturday, 2 p.m., Brooks Museum of Art
Keep the Lights On
Saturday, 7 p.m., Playhouse on the Square
Sunday, 7 p.m., Studio on the Square
Kentucker Audley at Indie Memphis:
Sun Don't Shine
Thursday, 7 p.m., Circuit Playhouse
Saturday, 11:45 p.m., Studio on the Square
Open Five 2
Sunday, 5:45 p.m., Circuit Playhouse