A dive into independent film making in Memphis
Upon learning that he couldn’t receive financial aid, 19-year-old Morgan Jon Fox dropped out of film school in 1998 and returned to his hometown of Memphis, where he became determined to make movies. He got a job at Otherlands Coffee Bar, saving up enough money to buy a digital camera and a Macintosh computer.
Just on the cusp of the “digital revolution,” he taught himself how to make movies against the gritty backdrop of Memphis. His first attempt at film-making was a series of nonlinear, experimental films that he made with his friends. Without the million-dollar budgets of major motion pictures, Fox shot these with low-to-absolutely-no budget, and didn’t think they would ever find a home, until he submitted them to 2001’s Indie Memphis Film Festival and was accepted.
“Luckily, Indie Memphis showed a couple of my first films or we may have been discouraged from continuing to do it,” he says. “It was Indie Memphis that gave us the ability to have an audience at all.”
According to Fox, what separates Indie Memphis from other film festivals across the country is their dedication to giving first-time regional filmmakers a chance to display their work. They see independent film-making in the same way they view the city of Memphis and try to bring regional film-makers the recognition that they deserve.
While multimillion dollar films are advertised through television commercials and billboards, Indie Memphis aims to create a platform that puts low-budget filmmakers on that same level of importance while displaying regional areas such as Memphis to audiences who are accustomed to the Los Angeles and New York landscape of many large productions.
The festival planted its roots in Memphis in 1999 at The Memphis College of Art, with the intent of giving Southern, regional filmmakers (or “hometowners”) a pedestal to show their films. Over the years, the festival has screened films through venues such as The Brooks Museum of Art and the Old Daisy Theater on Beale Street, publicizing lower-budget films by filmmakers who would otherwise most likely not get any attention.
Now entering its 16th year, Indie Memphis serves as a shelter for regional filmmakers — not only from Memphis but from all over the country — to show their work.The festival has gained national recognition and spans from The Playhouse on the Square to four other venues around the city. This year, the festival ran from October 31 through November 3. Movie-goers hustled their way from screenings to panels, mingling and discussing which movies on the schedule were must-sees.
Theaters were often shoulder-to-shoulder-sell outs, and during Alexander Payne’s coming-of-age adventure drama “Nebraska,” unanimous laughter resonated through each and every seat. The Festival featured a slew of other national films, such as writer and director Ryan Moore’s slice-of-life horror film “Escape from Tomorrow,” which was shot surreptitiously in the Walt Disney World theme park and a highly anticipated kick off to the festival.
Maintaining its “home towner” roots, the festival also showed a series of films from regional filmmakers. When Fox premiered his experimental short films in 2001, the credits were met with mixed applause from the all-local audience that attended. But one man, Craig Brewer, whose Indie Memphis success led him to make “Hustle & Flow,” complimented his work, and a friendship was born.
“People applauded, but the only person who came up to me after was Craig,” Fox says. “I hadn’t met him yet and he told
me he was a huge fan of my films. That was kind of the beginning of what made me decide to keep making films.”
According to Brewer, artists in Memphis are unlike any other breed in the country. They create, not for the promise of revenue, but because they are driven by a passion for the arts that lingers through the air in our city. From Elvis Presley to punk rocker Jay Reatard, Brewer sees the Memphis arts scene not as a community, but as a family harboring a necessity to create unlike any other city in the country. Presley had Sun Studios; Reatard found liberation in Goner Records; and for the film community, Indie Memphis became their home.
“I think Memphis does this very thing better than anyone else,” Brewer says. “Filmmakers here, songwriters here — they know how to take things that are happening in their life and put it in their art.”
Erik Jambor, the executive director of Indie Memphis, has traveled throughout the country, organizing and establishing film festivals of his own. After settling in Memphis in 2008, he quickly came to realize that Brewer isn’t calling any bluffs about the city’s art community.
“Memphis has a little something special,” Jambor says. “The soul and creative energy here makes the city a unique place. You see it in a lot of different aspects in the city. From the art galleries to the film community — everybody comes out to support each other’s work. It resonates through the festival.”
At a time when the festival is larger than ever, Jambor aspires for Indie Memphis to become a place where regional and national filmmakers can reach out in a way that connects the Memphis film community with the rest of the film world. That sentiment hits home with Brewer, who is now on the board of directors for Indie Memphis, and comes from a time when it wasn’t so easy to premiere your films to an audience full of interested moviegoers.
“When the festival happened,” Brewer says. “It was a big deal for us. Up until then, we made our movies and we would invite each other over and play it on our TVs in our living rooms. There wasn’t a place. Malco wasn’t showing our movies. They were too independent for anything for Malco to really get behind at the time.”
There are major differences between independent and major film productions, and perhaps no one knows that better than Fox, with his self-taught method of filmmaking. According to Fox, the one positive aspect that came from his time spent in college was the writing of his first film, “Blue Citrus Hearts,” which premiered at Indie Memphis in 2003, while also winning the Best Feature award.
In 2009, his film “OMG/HaHaHa” won seven awards from Indie Memphis. After that, Fox was hired to work on his first large production as the assistant director to Brewer on MTV’s “$5 Cover,” a television show about the Memphis music scene. After working on larger sets with production crews of 30 or more people covering lighting to catering, Fox was reminded why he loved independent film-making.
“I was used to working with a four-person crew,” he says. “I would direct and shoot it while somebody else would run second camera and audio. I think we used lights in two scenes for ‘Blue Citrus Hearts.’ Part of it was that we never learned how to do all of that, but also that we had low-grade equipment and limited funds, and it was more important for me to get more naturalistic acting than making sure everything looked great.”
This year at Indie Memphis, Fox premiered a short documentary he filmed titled “Poor Man’s Process” about the making of Brewer’s first feature film “The Poor and Hungry,” which follows that story of a Memphis car thief who falls in love with one of his victims.
The film would come to be known as a “digiflik,” a self-coined term by Brewer that would drive the black-and-white visual aesthetics of his first homemade movie. Instead of shooting on film like the majority of people in the industry were doing at the time, he purchased a digital camera. With just a $20,000 budget, he set out to make his first film.
“We wanted to show what it is like to make a first-time movie,” Fox says.“People need to not have too high of expectations for their first film and not worry about having enough money for it. Craig had neither, but it was essentially a resume that was impressive enough to get him future work.”
It was while filming The Poor and Hungry that Brewer began to see his city through the lens that he would communicate his unique endearment for in his later films. It wasn’t the postcard painting of a setting sun over the bridge with the statuesque pyramid in the background that made his heart skip a beat for the Bluff City, but the seedy elements that presented themselves only in the crevices and cracks of the streets. He wasn’t attracted to what people may find “hot” about Memphis, but the backside of it.
Fox notes that it’s important for a filmmaker to start with what you know and where you live. According to him, there are plenty of films that feature the larger, coastal cities of the country — but people love vicariously stepping into the culture of our city because it isn’t projected on the screen as often.On a national level, filmmakers have trouble shooting here due to the low amount of funding given by the Tennessee Film, Entertainment, and Music Commission.
Films such as “The Blind Side” and Brewer’s remake of “Footloose” went elsewhere because they couldn’t cover the production costs of shooting in Memphis. In Fox’s opinion, regional filmmakers owe it to themselves to capture the life of Memphis.In a like-minded attempt, Emmanuel Amido, another homegrown Memphis filmmaker, decided to place a microscope over the Orange Mound neighborhood and bring life to an aging aspect of the city that he feels is a diamond in the rough.
This year, as a part of the “Hometowners showcase,” he debuted his first feature, a documentary named “Orange Mound, Tennessee: America’s Community,” which details nearly two years worth of time he spent digesting the neighborhood from behind his camera.
“Orange Mound is such a historical place,” he says. “It was the first community where African Americans were able to buy and own property. I think that is huge. I always thought of Orange Mound as this place where a bunch of young people lived. There are tons of families there —people that care about their homes and the community.”
Instead of turning his vision into fiction, Amido decided to bring the true stories of the Orange Mound community to life. With today’s technology, he is evidence that a film can be made with nothing more than determination and low-grade equipment. On a bare-bones budget, Amido shot, edited and submitted what would be his first entry into the Indie Memphis Film Festival.
“I’m literally just sticking my toe in the water,” Amido says. “But my experience with them has just been incredible. It boosted my confidence and made me want to submit to other festivals. It is one thing to be accepted, but it is a whole other thing to feel comfortable.”
According to Brewer, that level of comfort and support isn’t found at all film festivals. At Indie Memphis, if the filmmakers aren’t watching each other’s work, they are traveling from film to film, always watching together. One year, while watching Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia,” a science fiction film about a mysterious planet that threatens to collide with Earth, Brewer remembers the entire theater being electrified with an intensity of nerves that seemed to connect them together.
“The movie was one thing,” he says. “But the audience was even more interesting. I could really turn my chair around and just watch us. We were all as this unit, this family of festivalgoers. There are the films but what I really wish more people would understand is, it’s really that group, this community moving from film to film, that make it so incredible.”
When Brewer attempts to draw a comparison between Memphis’independent film community and Hollywood’s film industry, he oftentimes just explains it in the context of one of his favorite Coen Brothers films, “The Big Lebowski.” There are two Lebowskis; One has a trophy wife, solves things with money, and isn’t always too friendly unless he is getting something in return. Then there is the other Lebowski, “The Dude,” as they simply call him in the film.
For him, it’s not as much about the money. It’s about abiding by what he loves and finding fulfillment through that in his life. In many ways, Brewer sees his home as “The Dude” and he abides by Memphis.“Whenever I go out to Hollywood,” he says. “It’s a different type of vibe. They aren’t on a quest for identity. Hollywood is making movies for a mass audience that can be consumed, paid for and monetized. The same money going to Batman isn’t going to indie films. They want to make movies that are going to sell all around the world.
”Unlike Hollywood, Brewer says it’s the tight-knit family of the Memphis arts and film community that have driven festivals like Indie Memphis from the beginning. “It’s a mentality here,” he says. “It’s more of a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle rather than a jacket you can put on.”
– Story by Joshua Cannon; Photos by Casey Hilder, Click Magazine, December 2013