cover_story (2006-24)

Scott Norwood and Crew: West Coast attitude in Knoxville ( www.fasttrackproductions.biz )

Jerry Eisinger and his crew attend the premiere of Stealing God, Eisinger’s first feature-length film ( www.stealinggod.com )

AMERICAN SCARY: A collection of horror, coast to coast.

John Hudgens put the Death Star, Darth Vader and a merry troupe of Stormtroopers onstage at the Tennessee Theatre. And he’s winning awards for it.

Dr. Gangrene asks, “How will they decide who gets access to these funds.”

To Make a Movie....

It ain’t sexy, but it’s worth it in the end

It’s a hot, bright, sunburn kind of Saturday. A group of about 50 people have gathered at a small park on Melton Hill Lake. It’s a pretty serene setting, almost too beautiful to hold any Hollywood big-budget dreams. The sun sparkles off of the lake. It’s 9 a.m. A few have gathered along the bank to watch a water snake pass by. On first glance there doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. A family has settled nearby in lawn chairs to fish. Mothers are watching their children play. “We got a full day ahead of us, people,” Kent Edens tells the crowd.

“Cell phones on stun!” someone yells. “Cell phones on stun!”

“OK, guys,” Edens says with all the self-confidence that any good director needs to exude. “We’re gonna walk through one.”

This is the beginning of an independent film. And a proposed $10 million film incentive package, recently approved by the state Legislature, could mean more movie magic for filmmakers statewide. Supporters say more films means a better economy, while critics argue that incentives are a slap in the face to all the production companies that have been in Tennessee for years.

The East Tennessee Independent Production and Talent Organization (TIPTOE) will host its annual 10-Hour Film Festival June 17. Competing teams will have 10 hours to shoot and edit a film, but the real kicker is that no one knows what the theme will be until the morning of the festival. Its motto: Think Globally, Shoot Locally!

The idea is that Knoxville can be as versatile a location as any other. “You got mountains over here, you got the plains [in Middle Tennessee], and you can drive to the ocean,” says Scott Norwood.

Knoxville’s been called a generic city. All you have to do is block out the Sunsphere and you’re left with Anywhere, USA. Although the residents of a generic Knoxville might not like the title, it’s a civic commodity that many filmmakers might find useful.

“You can shoot a lot of different things here,” Norwood continues, “and there are a lot of things that should’ve been shot here…. I liked Seattle because you had the mountains, the ocean and the desert all within a three-hour drive of each other. And that was great for filmmakers, because we could shoot an entire range of scenes in a weekend. Here in Knoxville, you can kinda do the same thing.”

Norwood has been in state off and on since ’95. He, along with his production company, Fast Track Productions, has been shooting just about anything he can get his hands on, from music videos to commercials to feature-length films. His current feature-length project, Glittering Secrets , is based on the novel by Nashvillian writer Taryn Simpson.

“Making films is a community process,” he says. “It takes a village to raise a child? Well, it takes a village to make a movie. You need people from all walks of life, and bringing a few studio productions here would be a great thing, especially if Tennessee implements a program like Canada where a set percentage of the crew has to be made up of Tennesseans. If that’s the case, then you got people around here who are going to get employed. They’re going to get on a set, and they’re going to get exposed to what it’s like to make a movie.”

That’s exactly what the state Legislature hopes to accomplish by passing the Visual Content Act, a piece of legislative framework that will, with any luck, make Tennessee more appealing to filmmakers, to both the independents and big studio productions alike.

In February, David Bennett, executive director of the Tennessee Film, Entertainment & Music Commission, completed a statewide study, hiring hot-shot Hollywood consultants to report the viability of a Visual Content Act, which they hoped would generate support for a bill that was, in its early stage, akin to what states like Louisiana and North Carolina already have in place.

In 2002, Louisiana started with a $20 million fund to attract big-studio filmmakers. And, in just three years, its initial investment had grown into a $350 million industry. Hollywood was hooked, almost instantaneously. Now, some Tennessean lawmakers want a piece of that market, too.

Perhaps the event that first got local politicians interested in Bennett’s study was the loss of Bell Witch: The Movie , whose producers opted to shoot in Louisiana because of its generous production incentives. Many Tennesseans complained that it should have been our film, because the Bell Witch saga is a homegrown, Nashville-area story. Shortly thereafter, adding insult to injury, Tennessee again missed out when the latest Steven Spielberg film, an Abraham Lincoln documentary that’s currently in pre-production, decided to film elsewhere. Backers of the Visual Content Act made the argument that Hollywood would never again come to Tennessee unless we could offer a competitive incentive package.

“We’ve already lost Steven Spielberg,” says Michael Barnes, executive director of the East Tennessee Television & Film Commission. “We have a film waiting to come here, a made-for-TV film called Second Chance Christmas , which won’t come unless we get adequate incentives.”

So with potential movie business opting to film in neighboring states, our Legislature embarked on a madcap race to pass the Visual Content Act, backed by East Tennessee’s Sen. Tim Burchett and Rep. Harry Tindell. It’s a story that feels a lot like a heartwarming Hollywood romance, or at least a Lifetime docu-drama:

“I saw these people walking around Capitol Hill,” Burchett says, “and I knew one of them, a girl whom I had dated long ago. And I asked her what they were doing down here, and she said they were working on a piece of legislation…. There was no quid pro quo . I try to make friends with all my ex-girlfriends, because they’re all voters, and so are their mommas.

“But,” he says with assurance, “that didn’t have anything to do with the legislation. I really did dig their idealism. I thought they had a good product.”

An early draft of the Visual Content Act, Senate Bill 3513/House Bill 3356, had clear stipulations governing how the money would be distributed. The bill would create a film investor tax credit, which could be divvied up to production companies producing state-certified productions. Here’s how the tax credits originally worked:

• Productions that spend half a million dollars or more qualify to receive a 17 percent transferable tax credit; • if the production employs a Tennessee crew, another 5 percent credit will follow; • and, finally, if the production uses Tennessee music, an additional 3 percent tax credit will be added.

It looked good. It passed the Senate with a vote of 28-0.

"Everybody I’ve talked to is excited about it,” says Jerry Eisinger, “but I don’t know how it stacks up.” Eisinger is a host for Jewelry Television, but his radio show, “The Green Room,” is what puts him face-to-face with filmmakers from across the state. “The incentive thing is great. I just wish people would see that the resources here are quite strong. We got some good soundstages, got some knowledgeable people. It’s a burgeoning community. But right now, it’s still in a lot of different pockets; it’s not a big movement yet, even in TIPTOE. It still needs to have a vision, and people need to come together, at least to articulate what they’re going to do.”

There’s quite a bit of gray area on both sides. There is much agreement that more films will be a good thing, but there’s also a concern that the legislation has been hastily thrown together and is in danger of losing its structure, especially when you consider the fact that, before the Visual Content Act was passed by both the Senate and the House, the bill underwent yet another revision, the result being a $10 million non-recurring fund, which should be ready for distribution in 2007. The original framework, however, had been completely dropped from the bill. Money was committed to fund the incentives, but there was no guiding structure. Like an amoeba, the money currently floats around in a state of uncertainty.

“We won the battle for the money,” Barnes says. “But we don’t know if the projections are true. We have to wait and see. The exact architecture—who will qualify, how they qualify—will be established in the next six months. But, no promises….”

The framework, which had been included in original versions of the bill, needs to be reestablished. Some fear that, as the bill gets caught up in more bureaucratic rigmarole, it will be in danger of being legislated out of existence.

“I don’t know,” Barnes says, “because, as of right now, we don’t know…. I think this is a process, and sometimes the process in a film can be painful. We have the support of the legislature, the community and the industry. It’s now in the hands of people way above my paycheck level.”

“We first had to pass a framework,” Burchett says, adding, “They restructured it in the final days. The structure, the legislation changed completely at the end.” Burchett explains that, inasmuch as he understands the bill, funds will be distributed as grants. Basically, any money that falls into the hands of future filmmakers will be distributed as Economic Community Development Grants (ECDG). “I was afraid that it could be used to fund pornography,” he says, “but these grants are generally very competitive.” The overriding idea behind ECDGs is that they will act as a filter, and only the most deserving and ambitious projects will receive funding.

“We’re not creating a welfare program for films,” Barnes says. “We’re looking for people to come in and spend money on crews, shooting scenes that will be recognized outside the state. It helps with tourism, business development, and promotion to help get businesses to move here. It helps with education, because dollars are coming in…. I want this to benefit Tennessee filmmakers and television productions. If we can get the allocation set up so that our people can develop their talents and their skills, that would be the ultimate use of this money. I don’t know how anyone could be against this.”

Nevertheless, it’s impossible to guess how the allocation framework will be finalized by 2007. It may be set up as an ECDG. But as Barnes reminds us, nothing is certain right now.

John Hudgens, senior promotion producer at East Tennessee’s WB, has an office that is cluttered with sundry sci-fi memorabilia. Darth Vader’s image is centered on a poster. It reads: Darth Vader’s Psychic Hotline . He says, “A lot of people think they ought to be judged, you know, like, ‘Oh! You’ve made a movie? Now we must heap praise on you!” Hudgens has become something of an underworld media lord for Star Wars überfans. His fan films, which can be found at atomfilms.com and starwars.com, have won several Lucas People’s Choice Awards.

Hudgens’ latest work, American Scary , is a full-length documentary that chronicles the history of late-night horror hosts, from the goth queen Vampira to Nashville’s Dr. Gangrene (a.k.a. Larry Underwood), one of the few horror hosts still in production today. But Hudgens has always given credit to his short, made-for-the-internet films for giving him enough geek-credibility to film projects completely on his own terms.

 “A lot of people use this stuff [short films] as steppingstones, as video calling cards, like what Sandy Collora did with Batman Dead End a couple of years ago,” Hudgens says. “They’re using it as a demonstration reel for themselves. People are amazed that you don’t have to be in L.A. to do this kind of stuff. You don’t have to go to film school. It helps. But you don’t have to be a part of the Hollywood system.”

When asked about the importance of incorporating local color in television, Dr. Gangrene wrote, via email: “If the program directors of these stations would only realize what an opportunity they are missing out on, they’d realize they’re fools for not capitalizing on local programming. Look at the show Tennessee Crossroads . It’s been on the air for something like 20 years and is an institution. It focuses on Tennesseans and is made right here in Tennessee. And it’s been a success through all these years.”

Dr. Gangrene is an example of what can be accomplished out of sheer gumption and a ne’er-say-die attitude. Gangrene’s show, Chiller Cinema , first aired on public access. Then he bought air time on the UPN. A year later he was picked up by Nashville’s WB. And in October, 2005, he had a two-hour time slot, which allowed him to host entire movies, with access to the WB’s film vault.

As always, the old maxim remains true: If the show’s good, people will surely watch. Some will go on to argue that television and film will be completely viable industries, with or without monetary incentives.

"I think government should be very careful. $10 million is a lot of money, especially in a state where our education system could really use it,” says Dee Haslam, CEO and executive producer at Rivr Media. “We’re cutting music, we’re cutting art. We’re cutting this, we’re cutting that. And then we give $10 million to Hollywood producers? I’m having a hard time with that…. I don’t believe we’ve lost any films because of no incentives. Spielberg looks at locations, to see whether it’s the right location. Incentives don’t matter. I can’t imagine that we lost it because of incentives. I just don’t believe that.”

This isn’t the first time a film incentive bill has been thrown around the state Legislature. Burchett remembers that about three years ago, a similar bill was brought up but never generated much enthusiasm, which may seem odd considering the early history of film and television production in Tennessee, particularly in Nashville.

The ’50s and ’60 saw the beginnings of a filmmaking community in Nashville. In its infancy, local productions didn’t go much beyond the creation of commercials. But, from ’58 to ’67, local radio personality Ken Bramming appeared on television every Saturday night at 10:30 to host a horror film show, donning the persona of Dr. Lucifer. It was quirky. And it was something that became synonymous with late-night Nashville.

The industry continued to grow, and during the ’70s, Hollywood began to take notice. Ever since Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), studio productions have been interested in the area. More recently, Middle Tennessee has welcomed Blue Valley Songbird (1999), The Green Mile (1999), The Last Dance (2000), The Last Castle (2001) and, most recently, The Furnace , an indie which was also shot in Nashville’s vacant maximum security prison where The Green Mile and The Last Castle were shot.

And we can’t forget the Ernest franchise, which showcased a peculiarly southern kind of slapstick.

CMT was on the rise in the ’80s, alongside The Nashville Network (TNN). But in the mid-’90s, there was a slight bump in the road. Nashville-based Gaylord entertainment sold CMT and TNN to CBS. TNN would become The National Network and, later, Spike TV.

Rep. Tindell says that Memphis is in an excellent position to land a “huge fish,” a television production company that may bring hundreds of millions of dollars to the state.

“There’s clearly an interest there,” Tindell says. “And now we have an incentive package to be competitive in moving that company to Memphis. This is not about bringing a movie to Tennessee, it’s about bringing an industry to Tennessee.”

Nevertheless, the details surrounding this “huge fish” aren’t easy to come by. Dawn Rutledge Jones, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, says, “We don’t talk about prospective projects until we can make an official announcement. We certainly believe that will help us to be more attractive to companies that want to work in Tennessee.” This is the kind of newspeak that is usually synonymous with, Yes. There is something in the works .

But here in Knoxville, much of the infrastructure is already in place, and has been for some time.

Ross Bagwell, during the ’50s, was working out in Oak Ridge to pay his way through UT. He would transfer to NYU and begin working for NBC, proving his worth on news shows, game shows and the iconic Howdy Doody show.

He came back to Knoxville and, in ’76, started Bagwell Communications, a company that would eventually grow into one of the largest independent production companies in the nation before it was sold to Scripps Network in ’94. They then started another independent production company, Rivr Media, with Bagwell’s daughter Dee Haslam at the helm.

In 1991, another powerhouse made its mark on Knoxville’s media landscape. Whittle Communications—originally operating under the moniker 13-30 Corp.—brought in top-tier communications specialists and injected our local economy with millions of dollars while launching a slew of national projects, which included magazines and television programs.

After its huge initial success, Whittle died a corporate death in ’95, leaving a veritable treasure-trove of communication specialists scattered around town, suddenly out of work.

Whittle’s castaways went on to involve themselves with HGTV, TVA, Moxley-Carmichael, Media South, Regal Cinemas and iPIX, not to mention Metro Pulse . Knoxville became an even greater hotbed of media activity. Bagwell now says that Knoxville is probably the fourth largest production center of cable television in the United States.

“We need to continue to grow this industry,” Barnes says. “We need to feed it. We’ve got 2,800 people employed in the television production industry, with close to $1.8 billion in revenues annually.”

By improving what we already have, Barnes argues that we can stop the “brain drain,” as he calls it, by enticing more of our communications and film school graduates to stay in Knoxville.

“I think that if you’re actually a filmmaker and are pretty good, you need to continue your education by working under someone, and that usually means working in L.A. or New York,” Haslam says in response. “I don’t think you should strive to keep them here, because they don’t get to experience the world.”

The infrastructure continues to grow, in spite of the complaints that our young, creative minds are leaving town. Everywhere you look, there seem to be new and interesting projects in the works, projects that go beyond television. Michael Samstag, who has worked on all three Harry Potter movies and Van Helsing , has made a name for himself with his documentary War and Truth and his podcasts, “Dinner for Two,” which focus on local culture and nightlife. Atmosphere Productions, with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s son, Ron Roddenberry, also came to town, producing Trek Nation , which examined the positive influences that the Star Trek series has had on people’s lives. Then, across state, there’s Craig Brewer, who won an Oscar for his Memphis rap-drama, Hustle and Flow . And his upcoming Black Snake Moan looks to be just as promising.

“We’ve got a possible future with Craig Brewer,” Barnes says. “I’m not going to say too much because it’s all incentive-dependent. Paramount Pictures told him that he can’t film anymore in the state if we don’t get the incentives. Do we want to chase that guy out? I don’t think so.”

Many argue that this is the perfect time for Tennessee to show off. Walk the Line , filmed in Smith, Overton, Fentress, Jackson and Putnam counties, was nominated for five Oscars. Chattanooga native Samuel L. Jackson has, once again, found the media spotlight, this time for the much-anticipated piece of kitsch dubbed Snakes on a Plane . This may be the right time for Tennessee to become a major competitor in the film industry. As Kent Edens says, “It’s about time…. East Tennessee has so many stories just waiting to be told.”

But has there ever really been an absence of our local stories on film? And have we always been passed over by filmmakers who’d rather shoot someplace else? The Great Locomotive Chase (1956) is set on the Chattanooga-Atlanta railways during the Civil War. The Yearling (1946), one of UT alum Clarence Brown’s classics, showcases several of Tennessee’s young actors. We stole October Sky (1999) from its rightful owner, West Virginia. There was Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett (1955), Wild River (1960), and All the Way Home (1963). Sissy Spacek made something of a career filming in Tennessee during the ’80s with Coal Miner’s Daughter , The River , and Marie . Yet the state has never been viewed as Hollywood-South. As movies come and go, television production, especially here in Knoxville, continues to grow, without large government incentive packages.

“What else do you want?” Bagwell asks. “A TV industry or a movie that comes to you maybe once a year? What about the incentives for the companies that are already here? They’re worried about bringing new companies in? What about those already here? Why should they have to pay taxes for somebody else to compete?”

The talk surrounding the possible implications of the Visual Content Act and its $10 million fund might read like a particularly convoluted session of British Parliament. What does this mean for Knoxville, they ask? Who is going to benefit? Will the act put more creative control in the hands of directors? Or, will this only feed Hollywood’s desire for ubiquitous commercial appeal, which only generates more flicks that strive for mass audiences while using zero creativity?

“My concern,” Dr. Gangrene explains, “is how will they decide who gets access to these funds? I mean, what are the odds of deserving filmmakers who want to make the kind of movies that I am a fan of—any chance something like that could get supported? I doubt it. Could something like American Scary [John Hudgens’ documentary] land one of these ‘grants’? Nice to think so—but I doubt it. Let’s hope there is a way to keep the process less subjective and more of a fair process.”

Bagwell paints a more dismal picture. “It’s like a circus,” he says. “You’ve got people who can help put up the tents and shovel the elephant manure, and then another circus comes in and pays your people good wages. So the competitors take your people who are shoveling your elephant manure. While they’re here, you lose money, and then the circus leaves. Like a movie company, they leave the crap on the floor, and it’s your problem to clean it up. And it really means nothing. Down at the end of the credits, it’ll say, ‘Thanks to the Film Commission of Tennessee.’”

Bagwell remembers the last time Knoxville fancied itself as a nascent moviemaking stronghold. The Fool Killer (1965) was filmed in Concord and premiered at the Tennessee Theatre. The film’s star, Anthony Perkins, was in attendance. A Walk in the Spring Rain (1970) was filmed at Cades Cove, Gatlinburg and Knoxville, with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn in starring roles. “John Duncan, the mayor at the time, said, ‘My God, we’re turning into a movie center, that’s two movies in a row,’” Bagwell says. “So, Knoxville built a movie studio.”

If you go to the rear of West High school, you’ll find the studio, now used primarily for band practices. There’s a plaque that reads: “James Agee Memorial Motion Picture Studio /John J. Duncan, Mayor ,” a forgotten monument to Knoxville’s first attempt to cater to Hollywood.

To Make a Movie.... It ain’t sexy, but it’s worth it in the end Back on location with Kent Edens, the day’s filming is coming along nicely.

“The general rule of thumb, at least for a major motion picture, goes something like this,” Edens explains, “one page typically equals about a minute of final screen time. If it’s an action sequence, sometimes it’s much shorter. So, the goal is to average one minute per day.”

Today, Edens and crew are working with a four-page scene. It will take about 10 hours to complete, and then they’ll have 40 minutes of recorded video that will, eventually, be edited down to a four-minute scene. “That’s a 10:1 ratio,” Edens says, cheerfully, “and that ain’t bad!”

The film is Rest Not in Peace , based on the screenplay Shady Creek , and the non-profit film organization, TIPTOE, has been toeing the line and working to gather support to make this film into a reality. “The full scene, along with behind the scenes footage, will be edited into a feature for a promo disk to go into a donation package,” Edens explains. “Potential donors can see what TIPTOE is doing, and help fund TIPTOE, Rest Not in Peace, and future productions that come down the line.”

Overhead, a model airplane merrily buzzes by. “Every time I come up here that little bastard is out flying his plane,” says a cameraman. “Probably lives out here.”

“And you said this would be fun?” a young girl chides her mother. “It’s boring right now.”

Fifty yards away, the cameras are ready, and the actors are in place. “Let’s get going,” says Chris Cavolo, who’s playing the part of Stuart Blair, the lead role. He’s hunched over the actress who’s playing the part of the dead body. “Either this body’s stinking or it’s me!”

When we see the magic that happens onscreen, it’s easy to forget all the months, all the tiresome man-hours that are necessary to make the magic happen. Sometimes a crew can spend years in production. Sometimes, the creative drive fizzles out before production comes to an end.

During the shoot, the crew experiences one of those moments that reminds them why they’ve sacrificed their Saturday to schlep equipment 30 miles outside of town. Cavolo, the lead actor Edens spent two years searching for, rises into the shot and becomes Stuart Blair for the first time. The character has finally jumped off of the page, giving Rest Not in Peace its first real breath. But the shoot must go on.

“Time goes so fast,” a production assistant says. “Einstein was right.” Everything needs to happen fast while shooting, or they’ll lose the early morning light, those cinematic magic hours that movie geeks are always raving about.

At times, there doesn’t seem to be anyone in charge; Edens will occasionally shout out a command. But things seem to fall into place, as if some unseen force orchestrates the whole affair. This production is organic, finding life as each small piece of the shoot comes together. They operate like an ant colony at first. Everyone has a job to do. The actors find a place to bark out some practice lines. The cameramen busy themselves with the equipment, constructing a boom camera to capture a smooth, swooping shot for the opening sequence.

“If you don’t know what you’re doing,” a cameraman says, not looking at anyone in particular, “you could force this bolt and strip the hell out of it. Then, you got to write the manufacturer, asking why their cheap-ass plastic connector wasn’t made out of metal, like it should’ve been in the first place.”

All voices blend together, like strange, inharmonious free jazz. — Hey, Kent, am I supposed to be talking to them, or am I just standing here? Just standing there. Like, shocked? Yeah, shocked. Kent, do I know the lady under the sheet? Is she my girlfriend? Your neighbor. Do I know his girlfriend? Intimately!

“The material has lived with me for 15 years,” Edens says. “This is the first time I’ve been able to see those characters I know so well, living and breathing in front of me.” ( K.C. )