Larsen Jay is already, at 35, a downtown institution: one of the partners who fixed up the Church Avenue townhouse known as the Ely Building, backer of the holiday skating rink on Market Square, and the guy who launched an offbeat flower-delivery charity.
He's also a filmmaker whose work has been known mostly locally until just now. The feature film of which he is executive producer, That Evening Sun, is premiering at Regal Downtown West this Friday (there'll be a Q&A with producers after the 7:20 p.m. showing). Jay hopes it will do well in theaters nationwide in the weeks to come, but it's already the highest-profile movie ever actually produced in Knoxville. Its star is respected actor Hal Holbrook. Also in the cast is Barry Corbin, recognizable for his role in Northern Exposure, and a few others you might recognize, like Carrie Preston, who plays the naive Tennessean in Duplicity. And the youngest cast member, Mia Wasikowska, will dependably be on magazine covers later this year, as the star of what's likely to be a major Hollywood blockbuster.
That Evening Sun has already earned a dozen awards at regional festivals, and mostly positive reviews from, so far, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter, some of them even implying it has Oscar potential. It might not have happened if, about two-and-a-half years ago, Larsen Jay hadn't fallen off a ladder in North Knoxville.
Originally from Syracuse, N.Y., Jay was interested in live theater, mainly behind-the-scenes aspects of it, when he first came to Knoxville about 15 years ago, attracted to the University of Tennessee's theater program. Graduating in 1998, Jay moved to Los Angeles, where immediately he found support-staff work in a variety of films across the aesthetic spectrum. He worked on other projects, and made a short film of his own called Pinmonkeys, which made some festival shows, like Knoxville's lamented Valleyfest.
"I loved what I was doing," he says. "I didn't love living in L.A.
"I never appreciated or understood Knoxville until I left," he adds, over a scrambled-egg breakfast in a window booth at Pete's Coffee Shop, where the waitress knows him by name.
He returned to work in TV production for RIVR Media, the local company then best-known for Trading Spaces. About eight years ago, he was one of the first to move into the Sterchi Building. The idea that an affluent professional would willingly live in a renovated downtown furniture-store building was news in those days, and WATE sent a reporter to interview him. In a plot so unlikely that Nora Ephron might have rejected it, he and the reporter, Adrian McLean, hit it off—and, just a few months later, married.
After three years at RIVR Media, he says, "I wanted to do more storytelling." In 2005 he started DoubleJay Creative, and with a partner bought the old Ely Building, a rare surviving townhouse on Church Avenue. Originally derived from his own name, J. Larsen Jay, the monicker DoubleJay took on another Jay when wife Adrian, after a stint as a producer at Jewelry TV, joined the cause.
DoubleJay began as an all-purpose media company that worked in Web design and other PR services, but shifted more and more to filmmaking. In a typical year, DoubleJay, which employs nine full time, makes TV commercials, short documentaries, and music-performance films.
In the summer of '07, Jay was fixing the roof on the North Knoxville workshop he calls his Dude Oasis, when the ladder collapsed under him. He plummeted and broke multiple bones, and was confined to a wheelchair for three months. "You get a lot of time to think," he says. "Life is short. I know that all too well now." He has endured nine operations to fix his skeleton, and there will be more to come.
He startled some friends when he launched a charity called Random Acts of Flowers, which delivers bouquets to people who need them.
He also returned with some urgency to his passion, storytelling, and wanted to make a feature film. With his wife and an old Hollywood colleague, Raul Celaya, who had worked closely with Jay on Pinmonkeys, he founded a all-movie group called Dogwood Entertainment, a nod to his adoptive home.
About two years ago, Jay was walking to the office early one foggy morning via a favorite alleyway, when he had a brainstorm. He wanted to make a movie using Knoxville's own scenes, its interesting courtrooms and alleys, and called Celaya to see if he had ideas about something plausibly Knoxvillian.
He didn't, but after talking with producer Laura Smith, he did find one script, based on a story by William Gay, a writer often compared to Cormac McCarthy. The source material, "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down," was the title story in Gay's 2002 short-story collection. Scott Teems, who adapted it as a screenplay, was a long-haired, long-bearded Georgia-born maverick who had directed the only other film made from a William Gay story, a 2007 indie short called A Death in the Woods. (Like Sun, it starred Barry Corbin.)
"Stop what you're doing," Celaya said. "Read this right now." The story concerned an elderly man escaping from a small-town nursing home and trying to return to his old homestead even as a rough-edged young family is living in it. "I read it and never put it down," Jay says. "It's a story so strong, so compelling, so interesting—it's a real story about real people in the real South."
The script already had some buzz. While living off corporate work in L.A., Teems had won an award for Evening Sun and had been trying to market the script, which eventually attracted Hal Holbrook. Known for more than 50 years for his Mark Twain shows, which he still performs to sold-out auditoriums (including, recently, the Tennessee Theatre), Holbrook has appeared in strong supporting roles, like Deep Throat in All the President's Men. Recently, his role in Into the Wild netted him an Oscar nomination—his first, at age 82. Despite his acclaim, Holbrook has never attained a leading role in a feature film, and few characters he's ever played are as multi-dimensional as defiant, wistful, violent, arrogant, stubborn, reckless Abner Meecham.
But even with Holbrook's name attached, That Evening Sun wasn't getting funding through Hollywood's usual action-adventure-sex-comedy machine.
"A movie about an 80-year-old farmer—shockingly, no one thought it would be a commercially viable endeavor," says Teems from his home in Los Angeles. He's grateful that Dogwood Entertainment came along to finance and organize it. And for Dogwood, it was an unusual opportunity to break into a famously tough business. It came with one catch: It would have to be done right away. There was talk of a Screen Actors Guild strike in the summer of '08, and Holbrook was scheduled for a part in a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg that fall.
"We had a two-week window to consider, ‘Are we gonna do this, or not?'" They started Evening Sun LLC, began making calls and raising money. In the space of two months, they assembled a crew of 80-odd professionals, about half of them from Knoxville.
By May, Teems was here scouting locations. He was getting discouraged when they found an old farmhouse off the far end of Martin Mill Pike, just across the Blount County line in what's known as Tarklin Valley. A disused part of Rockford (you can see the word on a wall in one scene) stands in for the fictional town of Ackerman's Field. Shanndondale subbed for a small-town nursing home. Most of the scenes are rural, but Knoxville's old Main Street post office appears for several seconds as a backdrop for actor Walton Goggins (playing Abner's son) making a cellphone call in an unnamed city.
They began shooting that July 7 with Teems at the helm.
Gay's original story is set in the vicinity of Perry County, near his own home southwest of Nashville. "In an ideal world, I would have shot it there," Teems admits. "There are differences in topography between East and Middle Tennessee." However, author Gay appeared one day and declared the Blount County homestead was "exactly as I pictured it."
The producers had been determined to enlist mainly Southern actors. One remarkable exception is Wasikowska, the Australian. She prepped for the tryout by studying Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner's Daughter. Teems had to be convinced she would work; he was. After three days of filming, word came that Wasikowska—the then-little-known teenager playing the rebellious Choat daughter—had landed the title role of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, starring Johnny Depp. It's due out in six weeks. Concerning this East Tennessee indie film's visibility, that connection won't hurt.
Teems was especially keen to render the antagonist, Lonzo Choat, a fully developed character, and not just another "ignorant redneck." Georgia-born Ray McKinnon's nuanced portrayal subtly conveys the man's vulnerability and self-doubt.
Holbrook's from Ohio, but has come to know Tennessee well since his 1984 marriage to well-known TV actrss Dixie Carter, who plays a silent role in the film, in flashbacks as Abner's dead wife. It's the first time Holbrook and his wife have appeared on screen together. Holbrook has said his portrayal of Abner is partly based on his Tennessee father-in-law. Jay was awed to work with Holbrook, whom he called a "craftsman."
Shooting wrapped in just 22 days. That was okay with Raul Celaya, who claimed to be unnerved by Knoxville. "Everybody's too damn nice," he told Jay. "Why is everybody smiling? This is just too weird. I gotta get back to L.A. where it's rough and raw and everybody's pissed off all the time."
Teems, though, says, "I fell in love with Knoxville. I was quite charmed by it. It has a really great downtown, and the university's right there. I was glad to spend three months there." He remembers fondly their end-of-the-day refuge, the Crown and Goose pub. He hopes to work with Dogwood Entertainment again. "They were experienced, knowledgable, talented—they know what they're doing. That's a rare thing to find outside of Hollywood and New York."
Four "producers" are listed in the credits, among them McKinnon and Goggins. The Jays and Celaya are all listed as "executive producers." Asked what the difference between producers and executive producers is, Larsen Jay answers without a pause, "Executive producers don't sleep." Much of the post-shooting production of the film took place at Dogwood Entertainment headquarters, in the Ely building on Church Avenue.
"Someday I'll tell you exactly what it was," Jay says of the film's cost. He does say it was a "low-budget film," which is usually defined as one that costs less than $5 million. Rarely is a feature-length film ever made so fast. From the idea to the completion of filming was only about five months. "In retrospect, it was better that we were pushed," Jay says. "We do our best work at the zero hour."
The director and the film's producers and executive producers are young, mostly under 40, which seems remarkable, considering that it's a film in which the protagonist is 80. Jay shrugs. "It's real life," he says. "It's about respect and dignity and humility and pride and passion." He adds, "Life is tough. This story makes you think. My number-one criterion is that we have to do things that make you think."
In thanks to Shannondale's cooperation, Dogwood offered 250 residents of that nursing home a sneak preview. The executive producer who hosted this screening of a film that raises questions about quality of life in nursing homes was a little nervous. An elderly man approached him afterward, and demanded, "What is the purpose of this film?"
Jay answered, "It opens a dialogue. It makes people think, makes people talk about things they don't want to talk about." The answer seemed to satisfy the inquirer.
That Evening Sun has been finished for months, but is beginning a multi-stage release to theaters across middle America: Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, Kansas City, and several other markets. More will follow.
The film may launch a career of a director and a production company. Meanwhile, Jay is moving his company from the quaint Ely to larger quarters at Volunteer Landing, a space he says will be more suitable for some "big" projects on Dogwood Entertainment's agenda, including more feature films. He's not ready to talk about them yet.
For now, Jay seems pleased that the film has already had an unusual result of That Evening Sun. The family whose apparent abandonment of their farmhouse made a perfect setting possible seemed inspired to return to their old home. Jay says they've fixed up the house and property nicely enough to suit Abner Meecham.
Corrected: the names of Rockford and Tarklin Valley