Local talent takes riveting civil rights tale to big screen

by Brad Schmitt for the Tennessean
February 9, 2012

It started at a 40th high school reunion, though Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire is no ordinary high school. This private boarding school has churned out alumni like U.S. President Franklin Pierce, Ulysses S. Grant Jr. and famed novelist Booth Tarkington.

Pulitzer Prize-winning alumnus Mark Ethridge was the speaker at that reunion, talking about a novel he had written. The book, Grievances, was based on stories he wrote about a racially motivated killing in South Carolina while Ethridge was a reporter at The Charlotte Observer.

Nashville filmmaker and Exeter '67 classmate Curt Hahn listened to Ethridge, riveted.

After the speech, Hahn and Ethridge chatted, and Hahn mentioned he was a filmmaker, one who might be interested in turning Grievances into a movie. Ethridge said he was dubious at first.

"You're at a class reunion and you don't know what to believe," Ethridge said in a phone interview with The Tennessean. "But I checked it out, and Curt really did have a movie company."

And that was the beginning of a collaboration that resulted in the independent movie Deadline, which was shot in Nashville, financed in Nashville, cast in Nashville, and incorporates almost all Nashville people, in front of and behind the camera. Deadline is the story of how two investigative reporters shed light on a racially motivated murder in a small Southern town, one that was never investigated in the 19 years since it happened.

Hahn knew he had to be smart (read: thrifty) to make the movie.

His company, Film House, has had huge success with TV commercials and long-form corporate projects. But it has only two other full-length feature films among its accomplishments, and no major studio backer to generate the millions of dollars needed to make a big movie.

So Hahn said he started looking for local partnerships. He joined with Watkins College of Art, Design and Film, and Blue Lagoon editor Robert Gordon happens to be teaching at Watkins. So Hahn scored a world-class editor — and a bunch of student editors — without having to pay a world-class salary.

Hahn also used the power of the civil rights storyline to generate passion to finance it. After talking to his CEO roundtable about Deadline, Hahn secured Hunter Atkins, chairman of the Bank of Nashville, to be a 50-50 partner.

Hahn eventually cobbled together the money and the workers to make the movie.

"That's the kind of magic that has followed this project its entire life," Hahn recently told Nashville's downtown Rotary Club.

"And that's the only way I know to make movies in Music City, to have something you care about passionately and you won't let it die."

Newspapers help launch film

So Hahn coached Ethridge on screenwriting, and two years later, the two had a script.

"At first, I emailed him (a script), weeks would go by, and he'd email back, 'It's great, really great.' So I think we're done," Ethridge said. "Then I get a call from Curt. 'You have some time? I have some tweaks. It shouldn't take more than three or four hours.'"

Ethridge would send it back again, but the same thing would happen again — hours of going over the draft, and another rewrite.

"And we'd go through the same process again," Ethridge said, sighing.

"What I learned is, you're never done with Curt until he says, 'Perfect.' 'Good' is his way of saying, 'We're not there yet, pal.'"

Hahn held open casting calls in several cities nationwide, and he found actors Steve Talley and veteran Eric Roberts to play the leads, the reporters who crack the case.

Hahn reached out to locals for the rest of the cast, and that includes Nashville attorney Larry Woods and local TV news producer David Ditmore, who plays the newspaper publisher.

Hahn also used The Tennessean for the film's newspaper, "The Nashville Times."

Hahn also is using The Tennessean — and dozens of other city newspapers nationwide — to roll out the movie. Hahn, Ethridge and a few of the film's stars will board a bus and travel to more than 45 cities to host premieres there — with the help of each city's local newspaper.

The movie's world premiere happens Wednesday in Nashville, at Regal Green Hills 16. And The Tennessean is happy to host it.

"Deadline is about our core mission," said Bob Faricy, The Tennessean's vice president for market development.

"We are a business, which means being profitable, but serving the community with strong journalism is at the center of how we do that."

And later in the year, Hahn and Ethridge will host a screening at their 45-year class reunion at Phillips Exeter Academy.

"They're going to show the movie and have a panel discussion with me and Mark talking about why you should go to reunions," Hahn said.

Copyright (c) The Tennessean. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Gannett Co., Inc.

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