A surprise move by two of our region's most celebrated independent filmmakers and one of Knoxville's busiest cable-television producers will place a feature-film studio in Bearden, at least for a couple of years. Former Knoxvillian Paul Harrill and his wife Ashley Maynor, who have been teaching at Virginia Tech in recent years, have moved home, thanks to a deal with RIVR Media, with a contract to produce four feature-length films in Knoxville under the name Nest Features.
Run by Dee Haslam and Rob Lundgren, RIVR is known for national cable-TV reality shows like Great American Heroes with Trace Adkins, Fix This Kitchen, and Blog Cabin, as well as short-form jobs like commercials and interactive websites. For RIVR, funding fiction stories on a feature-length (usually roughly 90-minute) format marks a major new venture. Though not considered a division of RIVR Media, the two will collaborate, as Nest moves into studio space on RIVR's five-building campus at Troy Circle off Northshore in Bearden.
Farragut native Paul Harrill was hardly more than a student in 2001 when his film Gina, an Actress, Age 29 won the coveted Sundance Film Festival prize for short subjects. Since then, he's made a few more films, most of them in partnership with his wife, Ashley Maynor, originally from Joelton, a small community near Nashville. Some of their films have received national attention, including Quick Feet, Soft Hands, a short film about minor-league baseball starring Greta Gerwig, which got shown on selected public television stations nationwide. For Memories' Sake, a personal documentary about Maynor's complicated family, earned praise on the festival circuit.
Maynor, who just turned 30, is the youngest in the group, but her work in film has earned her a coveted distinction. Earlier this year, she was named a Sundance Creative Producing Fellow, joining a mentor program for aspiring producers. During the summer, she joined a producers' lab, where she met several experienced Hollywood producers, like Ron Yerxa, of Little Miss Sunshine, who will be available to offer her advice over the next five years.
It's been a big year for Maynor—a Sundance distinction to hang alongside her husband's, and now this sponsored opportunity to make feature films. "It's flattering, and terrifying," she says.
As a duo, Harrill and Maynor have been known as Self-Reliant Film, but they're calling this new project Nest Features. It's shorter, Maynor says—and they've found not everybody knows how to spell "Self-Reliant."
"It has a sense of home, a sense of place," Maynor says of the new name. "And telling a story is like building a bird's nest," a careful assembling of interdependent parts. They haven't fully occupied their new studio—Paul's still doing most of his editing work at a studio in New York—but the Nest logo is already on a door in RIVR's Building 3.
Their previous efforts have all been short subjects; making a feature-length film has always been a dream.
The Nest Features deal calls for them to produce four features over a period of two years, or, on average, one every six months. The first one's already in production. Something, Anything called for a fairly sophisticated shooting process, compared to their spare early efforts. It includes 58 locations, including a monastery and a public library. Nest recruited a few actors with Hollywood experience: Ashley Shelton; Bryce Johnson, a regular on the ABC Family series Pretty Little Liars; and Linds Edwards, who also appeared in the 2009 movie Get Low.
Already shot, it's being edited now. They're reluctant to talk much about it for the record. "It's a love story," Harrill says, "albeit an unconventional one—about a woman that becomes kind of a secular monk when her marriage falls apart."
Harrill says he and Ashley were already working on it when Haslam signed on as executive producer. "It was around that time that Dee [Haslam] had the idea of forming a company devoted to producing films independently in the South," he says.
It might seem an odd marriage—filmmakers whose work might be categorized as "art films," with a practical and profitable cable-TV business. "We tell stories, that's what we do," says Haslam. She's known Paul Harrill since he taught filmmaking at the University of Tennessee, several years ago.
"He approached film like we approach television," she says. "How can you put the most on the screen, how can you tell the best story possible?"
Haslam, who's married to Jim Haslam III, the former Pilot exec and new owner of the Cleveland Browns, is checking on her plane ticket this afternoon. Suddenly the first lady of a pro football team, the experienced media producer is visiting Cleveland almost weekly, but says she'll continue to spend at least half her time in Knoxville. "We travel so much anyway, my friends won't even notice the difference," she says.
She's a Haslam, but she's also the daughter of local producer Ross Bagwell Sr., whose work in television is often cited as the origin of Knoxville's reputation in the cable-TV industry. RIVR was a sort-of successor to Bagwell's juggernaut, Cinetel, which coalesced video production in Knoxville and is partly responsible for the modern-day presence of Scripps Networks Interactive.
As it happens, our quick look around the RIVR campus turns up the elder Bagwell, himself, holding court in his cottage in back, his large office bedecked with memorabilia not much like anyone else's. He points to photos of former associates like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, for whom Bagwell did TV work back in the '60s, and tells stories.
He has seen oceanic change in his business. He points to a photo of himself manhandling a large old movie camera. "That 450-pound camera was not as good as the one in my pocket," he says. Making feature-length films, he says, is "something I've always wanted to do, but I guess I was just too chicken to do it. It's a big risk. I'm 80 years old. If I'm ever going to do it, I need to do it now."
He thinks the jump to major features is not that big. "We've done ‘movies' for over 50 years. There's not that much difference," he says, admitting they won't be getting into the violent action scenes and special effects that make many modern films so expensive. "Show me a good story," he says. "You don't have to show all the gruesome stuff."
I-40 Paradise, launched in 1981 and sometimes described as the first made-for-cable sitcom, was the beginning of the Bagwells' interest in producing fiction-based film.
"It was scripted television," Haslam says, unlike most of what is produced in Knoxville today. "This is a natural evolution for us." She suggests the feature format does mark a major departure from what her family has been involved with in the past. "But Ross Senior and I believe the talent is here, and that they can get it done here." Between Harrill, Maynor, and their staff camera operators, "there's not anything they can't shoot." Harrill tends to gravitate to quiet, thoughtful stories about ordinary people in unexpected circumstances. Haslam describes Something, Anything as "a rich character piece."
A long-cherished project, a script "Ross Senior" wrote called Prison Break-in, is a likely early Nest Features project. Harrill and Maynor have also begun work on another later film of their own. It's called, a bit ironically, Joy of Living, a murder story concerning a piano teacher whose body is fished out of the river. It's set in Knoxville.
"They're real stories," says Haslam. "It'll be nothing fancy. We can't afford anything fancy."
Nest is a Screen Actors Guild signatory, meaning the company is allowed to do low-budget films with both SAG and non-SAG actors. One early project will offer speaking roles to SAG actors who've appeared in some major motion pictures, like Edwards. They'll also work with some local folks, like Amy Hubbard, the stage actor who played the title role in Harrill's Sundance honoree, Gina, an Actress.
Most Nest Features will be shot near here. "This is all basically about the South," Haslam says of the Nest venture. "We're really proud of where we live. This is the best place to live, by far," she says, then, laughing, interrupts herself. "Besides Cleveland! We like Cleveland. But in the South, people are colorful here. It's a good place to tell stories.
"We shoot here, hire people here. We don't want to bring people in to work. We're trying to grow organically from here, not trying to bring Hollywood here."
"Knoxville's a perfect place," says the elder Bagwell. "The talent pool has grown. Now we're the third-biggest producer of cable TV in the country."
"Well, third or fourth," interjects his daughter, with a smile for her enthusiastic dad.
"Knoxville's not New York or Los Angeles," says Harrill, who's still working in New York this month. "There are still some crew roles that are hard to fill, either because there simply aren't a lot of people that do this or that kind of work, or because the people working in that position haven't had experience on fictional films."
He adds, "Knoxville's got a strong crew base for a city its size, probably for a city double its size. And beyond the film community, there are so many people—business people, folks in government, everyday citizens—that are enthusiastic about supporting film in whatever way they can. Independent films are usually labors of love, so those are two huge strengths."
But there's more at work than pride. There's reason to believe Southern subjects are especially marketable. "Network executives say, ‘We want programs about the people in the red states, these flyover states,'" Haslam quotes, laughing. Nest may help supply that demand. Haslam says they intend to distribute the movies in any or all ways that seem appropriate. Many of them may not get nationwide release in the major cinema chains; some may find their markets through video sales, television, festivals, and showings through small and independent theaters.
Maynor says distribution's the biggest challenge. "People talk about the democratization of film," she says, referring to the fact that once-expensive and complicated cinema technology is more available than ever. "But distribution is one way in which it's not democratized at all. There are still very few players, very few markets." She says they'll be looking at all sorts of platforms for their work, including Internet-based options like Netflix and Hulu. "We're lucky Regal Cinemas is based here. They've been good to us, especially the Downtown West theater," which has offered screenings of some of their early films.
RIVR won't necessarily be "producer" of Nest Features, she says; Maynor bears that title in the first film. "We're a resource base for them. Nest is a venture outside of RIVR."
"Paul can make a great film that doesn't cost millions of dollars. It's rare that you find an artist like Paul who's also a business person. You can't make films unless you made money on your last one. We're building a business."
"These are good stories worth telling here," Harrill says, "and we feel a commitment to this community because it's our home."