Memphis filmmaker and University of Memphis professor Steven John Ross says that all movies, once you finish them, become home movies. "Once you get past the initial phase of looking at them critically, every time you screen them all you do is think about what happened while you were making it," he says. In 1984, Ross made quite an impressive home movie when he adapted and shot a version of the novelistic short story The Old Forest by Peter Taylor, the critically acclaimed author who'd grown up in Memphis, where the story was set. The film is screening Saturday, April 26th, at 5 p.m., at Malco's Studio on the Square as part of On Location: Memphis International Film & Music Fest. (See Greg Akers' review.) The Memphis Flyer talked to Ross about the film.
Memphis Flyer: Today, independent filmmaking is so common in Memphis it's probably more unusual to not know someone who's involved with some kind of film project. But in the 1980s what you were doing was pretty unusual. Would you reflect on what it was like to make an independent film in Memphis then compared to now?
Steven John Ross: It's really thrilling to see what's happened because so many of those people you see out there in the community making movies have come through our film and video program here at the U of M. It's great to see them fostering the film community here. Obviously, Craig Brewer had a lot to do with all of that when he made The Poor & Hungry, and I still think [the Brewer-created MTV series] $5 Cover doesn't get the credit it deserves for continuing to foster that film community.
But what about making The Old Forest in 1984, without any real precedent?
There are more than three dozen locations in that film. There are three dozen speaking roles. It was an absurdly ambitious thing for us to undertake. For starters, you were shooting on film, and film was much less light-sensitive than digital media is today. Today, when my students shoot their small narrative projects they basically use lighting to model. When we were shooting on film we had to get a base light to set the image and then start taking light away a little at a time create an expressive image with expressive lighting. To do this, we had to have a licensed electrician at the main power lines outside of our locations, otherwise we would've blown the circuits in every house and caused a lot of fires. It was a whole different kind of way of making a film, but somehow we managed to pull it off.
Most of your actors were locals. Was that by design?
We held a few auditions here but also went to Nashville. I don't think we cast anybody from there. We cast the film almost completely out of Memphis and were happy with the results. I'll tell you who's had a really good career: Shannon Cochran. She played one of who Peter Taylor called the "city girls." She's been on Scandal, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue and was in the movie The Ring. She can't come to the screening because she's playing lead role in Strindberg's Dance of Death in Chicago. She's not a household name, but as a working actress she's had a good solid career.
A lot of young actors and cinema artists cut their teeth on this film. Any special memories?
Larry McConkey came down to shoot [the film], and while he was here he lived with me, which is an unusual situation for a director and a cinematographer. Larry's a great cinematographer — with us working and living together it was amazing we didn't kill each other. Of course, he's the greatest steadicam operator there is. He's the go-to guy for Scorsese and Tarantino. He worked on Django Unchained. And you know that famous steadicam shot from Goodfellas at the Copacabana? That was him.
What attracted you to the story, and what it was like working with Peter Taylor?
It's a great story about that whole kind of paternalistic system that was endemic in Memphis for so long. And it's about how in the 1930s, working women started breaking away from that system. I only thought it was very Chekhovian because there's this upper class and they're the ones who were most trapped by this whole thing. The working girls are the ones breaking away. I worked very closely with Peter on different drafts of the screenplay. As I wrote them I would take changes to him in Charlottesville, and he would give me his comments. We were talking about the older [upper class] Nat is looking back on, and Taylor said to me, "Well, you know, Nat may be liberated when he's remembering all of this. But he ain't that liberated. He understands things about himself, but he hasn't really been able to extricate himself from the way in which he was brought up."
There are a lot of things happening in the film socially. It's set in the Great Depression, so the very rich are contrasted against everybody else. The aristocracy is attended by black servants. And then you have women breaking away from their prescribed roles. How did you choose which threads to highlight?
I think all of that was so endemic in the story if I could just find a way to dramatize it and be faithful to the material that was going to come through.
What were the big challenges?
The biggest problem was finding places that would look appropriate for 1937 Memphis. But one time I was on the phone with Peter Taylor telling him about some of the locations we'd found. There was one scene in the story where Nat's talking to police on a loading dock, and Peter goes into detail describing the late December light. Well, I was driving around with David Appleby, who was a producer with me, and we were looking for the right loading dock, when we found one on Tennessee Street right by the Tennessee Brewery. And it was already November and the light was perfect. So I started telling Peter about it and he asked, "Does that loading dock say Orgill Bros?" and I said "yeah," and he said, "Well that's what I had in mind when I wrote the scene." I said, "You know, you could've told me that there were specific places I could go looking."
How is the life of an independent film made today different than in the '80s?
Yeah, so we have this film, and it's finished. And, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, who cares? The immediate goal was trying to get it on public television. The second biggest was to get in the festivals. Everything was on a film print back then, and we paid a lot for each print. Ours was two 30-minute reels, and we had six prints to ship out. So we had to pick our festivals carefully because they could keep the prints for a couple of months before they even got around to viewing them. And then if they liked your film they kept it until the festival. So by submitting you tied up a print for a long time. It isn't like today where you can sometimes just submit a digital file.
So The Old Forest went on to have a pretty good life. What's next for it?
Remember when A&E really was the "Arts and Entertainment" network? When it actually lived up to its name? In the '80s, it was the basic cable cultural network, and they bought it and screened it a dozen times over several years. So yeah, the film did have very good life. It was first rented by many colleges and libraries, and then once videotape came in, they bought copies of it. I showed it in many universities and literary festivals. Often, Peter came as well and we had our dog and pony act. But by the new century, the film just didn't look as good. It had been transferred from videotape to videotape. Even the DVDs the company was selling were made from VHS copies. People have contacted me wanting to know how can they get their hands on a copy, and I was embarrassed by the way it looked. So last year I did a digital transfer. We couldn't go back to the original negative, but it looks so much better than it's looked in 20 years, and now we can get it out again. So this screening is an anniversary, a reunion, and a resurrection.
The Old Forest
Saturday, April 26th
Studio on the Square