'Deadline' Premiere Features Homegrown Ground-Breaking Film
By Evans Donnell for NashvilleArts
Films have been shot in and near Nashville before using local talent on both sides of the camera. Red-carpet premieres of those movies are nothing new here either. But the process of making Deadline and its world premiere next Wednesday are ground-breaking for the Music City.
The feature, made under the Transcendent banner by Film House founder Curt Hahn and his collaborators, was shot in Middle Tennessee last year. Among the locations were the 1100 Broadway offices of The Tennessean (called The Nashville Times in the film), the RippaVilla Plantation in Spring Hill and the Giles County Courthouse in Pulaski.
Steve Talley - who along with a recurring role in the American Pie franchise has TV appearances on NCIS, Criminal Minds and Love Bites on his list of credits - plays ambitious young reporter Matt Harper. Academy Award nominee Eric Roberts (Runaway Train, Star 80 and The Coca-Cola Kid among many on-camera credits) co-stars as hard-nosed veteran journalist Ronnie Bullock.
Sound like other projects that have shot here? Well, it isn't, because virtually everyone else involved in filming Deadline (http://www.deadlinefilm.com/), from actors and crewmembers to producers and investors, hails from our state.
A Firm Foundation
Deadline has its origins in Mark Ethridge's 2006 book "Grievances." It was inspired by a real-life case in South Carolina and drew on a mix of autobiographical experiences, observations of others and imagination, according to Ethridge.
"Grievances" drew praise for the first-time novelist from no less a literary figure than Pat Conroy ("The Prince of Tides," "The Great Santini"): "Mark Ethridge has captured the South in a way that is every bit as evocative as "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" and he has told a story as riveting as the best Grisham courtroom thriller. But "Grievances" is no mere thriller. It is a story of the heart that will resonate with readers long after they have turned the final page."
"That's a high point, there's no question about that," Ethridge, a publisher and former managing editor of Pulitzer Prize-winning The Charlotte Observer whose grandfather and father were also prominent journalists, says. "Pat Conroy is the writer so many of us Southern writers aspire to be because of his gift of language and his insights into people."
There was some interest from Hollywood, but Ethridge soon became interested in working on a film adaptation with his fellow Phillips Exeter Academy alumnus. "What was so cool about this to me was that Curt gave me the opportunity to write the script," he notes. "I've had friends who wrote books that were made into movies, and several of them were very disappointed with how it turned out. Their whole attitude had been, 'Once you sell your book to the movies, kiss it goodbye. It's not your story anymore, it's someone else's.'
"I took up fiction writing late in life, and here was a chance to write a screenplay at the hands of somebody who had done it. So it was two things: being able to have some control, but it was also like going to graduate school to get a master's degree in screenwriting. One of the things I learned from Curt is that if you have to tell an actor how to say a line that means you haven't written well enough."
"It was magical. We were both on the same page for where we wanted to go," Hahn says. "It was one of the most satisfying professional collaborations that I've ever had."
Over 18 months the script went through 14 drafts. The changes included combining characters and changing locations - in the book, the newspaper is in North Carolina and the murder case is in South Carolina; in the film those places are now in Tennessee and Alabama. And the gender of the person who tells Matt Harper about the murder is male in the book and female in the movie.
"It was so interesting when we made that change because when I told my (book) editor his attitude was, 'Darn, I wish we'd thought of that!'" Ethridge says, laughing.
The plot of Ethridge's tale centers on the reporters' investigation of the 1993 racially-motivated killing of Wallace Sampson (Romonte Hamer) in Amos, Ala. The fight for social justice and the need for a strong free press are certainly prominent in the film, but the filmmakers say there are other story strands in Deadline that enrich it as well.
"This is a story about fathers and sons in some ways," Ethridge notes, "about Matt and his father (Lucas, played by J.D. Souther), Wallace and his father...we look at relationships quite a bit in this film" - including a rocky romance between Harper and his fiancé Delana Calhoun (Anna Felix).
"In some ways it's become more of a buddy movie with the relationship these two reporters have with one another," Hahn says. "Their partnership is a very strained one at the beginning - we made it even more strained in the movie than it was in the book...but then gradually there's this grudging respect that comes as they learn to appreciate each other's talents."
Pulitzer Prize-winner Hank Klibanoff ("The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation"), a journalism professor and managing editor of The Civil Rights Cold Case Project (http://coldcases.org/), noted the film's multiple strands at an advance screening, according to Hahn. "He said, 'You put a lot of ships out to sail there, and then you brought them all home to port at the end.'"
A True Commitment
Hahn and Bank of Nashville chairman Hunter Atkins are 50-50 partners in the financing of the film. They've known each other for some time, and decided to work together on this project after interacting at meetings of a CEO roundtable group.
"Curt has great business sense," says Atkins, who is also an executive producer of the movie. "I was more drawn to his business acumen than anything else at the start.
"If you've got someone with experience like Curt, someone with good business sense like Curt, and he's your co-investor...and you can contain your costs, we felt like this is the time when an independent film of this quality could get traction."
"He was so committed to this process," producer-director Hahn says. "I didn't think he'd be a passive investor, but I thought I'd see him perhaps come by the set occasionally and watch what we were doing, then later come by the editing room from time to time to see how things were going.
"But he was on the set everyday...if the call was 5:30 a.m., he'd be there at 5:25, and he'd stay all day until we wrapped. He was a sponge soaking up all he could learn about making a movie."
And Atkins was part of the production in other ways too, from making suggestions about the storyline to stepping in front of the camera to play a mechanic named Ray.
"When I read the screenplay, my first knee-jerk reaction was, 'We need to know Wallace. I don't know who Wallace is from reading this.' So we inserted at my suggestion an opening scene to introduce us to the murder victim so that the audience can understand what a valuable member of society was lost with this tragic incident," Atkins says.
After Deadline was shot it was time to prepare and screen assemblages of the film for feedback purposes. One of the steps taken in that post-production journey was an August screening in Marietta, Ga. that produced 350 surveys from an audience recruited to represent a national cross-section of people, according to Atkins.
Out of many months of such endeavors has come a final cut that Atkins believes is very strong. "We've got something that we think will resonate with audiences and be successful in theaters across the country," he says. "We're proud of this film. It was shot in Tennessee, and I think it shows the quality we have here."
That high quality is why Tennessee-based actors like Jenny Littleton, Clay Brocker, David Dwyer, Darryl Van Leer and Jessejames Locorriere dominate the cast. Take for example the selections of Nashville's Jeremy Childs (Country Strong, The Last Castle) and Jackie Welch (Pure Country 2: The Gift, Country Strong, the Ernest films) for prominent roles.
"The thing about the local talent...was that we had auditions in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, New York and Nashville, and Jeremy Childs was just the best man for the job (of playing editor Walker Burns), period," Hahn says. "Jackie Welch was the first person I cast. I can't say she beat out other people who auditioned for the part of Mary Pell Sampson because I didn't even bother to audition anybody else for the part of Mary Pell because I knew Jackie was Mary Pell.
"We had auditions for the other roles as we went around and the Tennesseans were the most believable."
"There's a huge, huge talent pool here acting-wise and on the other side of the camera," Welch says. "It's great to see Curt and others working to put Nashville on the film map."
Both enjoyed working with Hahn. "It's pretty exciting. Curt was probably one of first people to hire me as an actor for on-camera work...so it's a really meaningful project for me to be called on," Welch notes. "He gave me the freedom to explore Mary Pell. ... There's something about the strength of her character and the weight of her burden that was intriguing to me."
"He works the way I like to work with a director," says Childs. "Everybody's got their preferences - I'm not saying there's a right or wrong, just that I know what works for me. And what works for me is when I have a good script I have 90 percent of what I need to know. It's then my job as an actor to delve into that script and make sure my choices are appropriate.
"... I really appreciate the way Curt worked with me, the way he respected me as an actor. He was always there to work with me, to lead me in the right direction."
"As a director if you have a clear vision you're not afraid to let actors experiment because that's when magical things happen," Hahn says. "Sometimes it's your job when that happens with an actor to sit there and say, 'Wow, that's not how I saw this at all. It's much better than what I saw.' Other times, you know it doesn't work because it doesn't fit in the overall context of what we're doing."
Innovative Indie Marketing
Atkins and Hahn knew they didn't have $30 million to spend on marketing the way a major studio might. They also knew that trusting to film festivals and fate wouldn't get it done.
"It's been amazing to me in such a creative industry that so many people see the goal line as the completion of the film, like finishing a painting that's going to hang in a gallery," Atkins says. "However, so little time is spent when we get to that goal line in terms of 'How do we market this?' and 'How do we get our money back?'"
Transcendent is rolling the movie out with an innovative 42-city premiere tour that kicks off on Wednesday at Nashville's Regal Green Hills Stadium 16. Each tour stop will be hosted by a major daily newspaper in that city; in addition to The Tennessean here newspapers that have already signed up as sponsors include such publications as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
"I'm not aware of any movie in the past that's had 42 premieres...but we're having a premiere in all these cities because we're being hosted by the daily newspaper in those cities," Hahn says. "And because it's a premiere event we're selling tickets at a premium price and raising money from charity." With a week to go before the Nashville event around 600 tickets had been sold by this past Wednesday for the screening benefitting Family and Children's Service, according to the producer-director.
"What it does for us is generate buzz and publicity for us as we come into each city...so we get the word out that we exist," Hahn notes.
Deadline has found highly receptive audiences at an advance screening for Associated Press editors and a recent Congressional Screening hosted by Rep. Jim Cooper, D-TN at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. That event featured an introduction by First Amendment Center founder and longtime journalist John Seigenthaler and attracted an audience of more than 500.
Among the favorable reactions is what Klibanoff has written: "I cannot wait to see Deadline again. It's been so much on my mind since the screening that I am hungry to see, hear, learn more about it. It's a wonderful movie, full of great stories and beautifully executed."
Dr. Linda Seger, a script consultant on over 2,000 scripts and author of "Making a Good Script Great" wrote that "Deadline is an important, terrific movie, with the kind of compelling story and fascinating characters that made The Help so engaging. It's beautifully acted and directed."