As the film supervisor for NATIVE, I’m always proud to feature my talented peers in Nashville film. It’s an exciting time for Nashville filmmakers, and this year is an especially big year for me personally. I have two films making their premieres at the Nashville Film Festival. I was an actor in The Unbeliever, a short film written and directed by NATIVE contributor Will Morgan Holland and shot by David Ogle. The short takes place in a rural Tennessee landscape where a cult lives off of the land and its leadership treats disobedience with beatings and live burials. The other movie is SOUL, a psychological thriller that I wrote, produced, and starred in. My partner, James King, who helmed the camera and directed SOUL, is one of the top cinematographers in the region. SOUL, based in East Nashville, addresses our city’s complicated issues of gentrification, race, and mental health, told through the perspective of an artist seeking revenge for his girlfriend’s rape and murder. For my Contributor Spotlight, I’m sharing some of James King’s still photography from , as well as a little bit of personal perspective on being an actor and making an independent film in Nashville.
ON ACTING IN SOUL:
Being an actor has not been an entirely sexy path. Rejection. That is my world. It is all actors’ worlds. For sensitive people, the world of rejection can be a volatile place. Why do it? Hear me out. I grew up in a Pentecostal home. I do not run from it. The pulpit is in my heritage. For me, the Bible and hellfire and brimstone sermons ignited my imagination rather than faith at times. I still to this day struggle with the book of Revelation and fear. I was a dreamer. I do not mean I had goals of being a surgeon or the president. My dreams were vivid and often traumatizing for a young kid. I’d wake in the night swearing I saw things (I still do). I’d think about the biblical rapture constantly and what it was going to be like for those people left behind. I was fascinated with this stuff! In a sense, demons, angels, and hellfire and brimstone messages were my movies. My brain was unstoppable. I mention this because this period of my life was when my imagination controlled me. I have now accepted who I am and still find it challenging to walk with my patterns of thought daily. My closest friends intimidate me. It’s difficult for me to admit that I struggle with social anxiety. With acting, I’m able to funnel my imagination. If I am given a character to play other than myself, I am my most confident self. I am obsessed with creating alter egos (you’ll see this a bit in SOUL). I would rather film a scene naked than speak in public. For the film I had to take on the physicality of a man willing to allow himself to go insane. The no sleep part was a cinch, but pushing myself to a place where the rabbit hole became home was a different issue. My character does not have a lot of dialogue, but when he speaks, it is with purpose. His hallucinations and acts of violence lead him to a place of total numbness. In fact, there is a line in the film that states, “It’s this place that feeds you.”
ON WRITING SOUL:
SOUL deals with mental health issues, racial profiling, gentrification, violence, drugs, and revenge. I wrote SOUL based off of a personal experience. SOUL’s main character, Chase, also an artist, deals with letting his imagination run away with him, just the way I do. But more specifically, I started writing SOUL because about five years ago, my ex-girlfriend and I were robbed at gunpoint by two black males in front of my home on Russell Street in East Nashville. Things really escalated. By an act of God, a police car drove by right at a time when I didn’t know what would happen next. My initial reaction was quite simply an eye-opener to my neighborhood. Here I was, living on a quiet, beautiful street, biking and walking home from the bars every weekend, while only one street over was crime and danger. I was also angry, and my imagination went wild thinking about what “could have” happened to my girlfriend and me. I started writing SOUL out of this anger and the realization about my neighborhood being drenched in privilege. But as the initial words began pouring out, I knew there was so much more to address. As a “starving artist,” making just as little income as the people one street over, I started asking myself, Why do I get to live with a safety net and my black peers don’t? (Keep in mind, even five years ago starving artists could afford to live on Russell Street.) My anger moved toward Nashville’s segregation issues as a whole. SOUL isn’t politically correct. It’s white people against black people. Even the cinematography has a ’70s vibe, and you may wonder if this movie was made this decade. But I hope that by the end you may be asking some bigger questions also.
ON PRODUCING SOUL:
Producing an independent film is equally as humbling as acting. To make this film financially possible, I left Nashville for a year to take a “real” job in Arizona that would enable me to pay for the film out of my own pocket. When I got back, I met with James King, his (now) wife, Miranda, and their young son Canyon at the Donut Den. It was then that we all decided to have a child together, SOUL. The initial shoot was three and a half weeks long, and we got our asses handed to us. Almost all of our shoots were at night, but during the day, the core crew was constantly running odd jobs: from practicing lines and securing locations to painting walls, picking up pizza, or shopping at Goodwill for wardrobe. Joel Hartz, our co-producer and unit production manager, wasn’t beneath doing makeup when we had those tight money days or being an extra in a couple of scenes. Rob Bennett tackled nearly every angle of crew himself, and Jon Chema lent us his camera op skills as well as his camera package night after night. I remember waking up one night during a rare break in between shoots. We had about three hours to kill before we had call times at 3 a.m. at 3 Crow Bar. I don’t know how I fell asleep, but I woke up and needed to get outside for some cold air. A crew member bumped into me and asked if I was okay. He made a gut decision and quickly took me to the ER. I ended up learning that I had a resting heart rate of 151 bpm (my average is usually around 50) and was told I needed two weeks of bed rest. That was impossible seeing that we were due at 3 Crow Bar within the hour for that night’s shoot. The doc ended up giving me enough Xanax to sedate a bull, and I was on my way.
I had worked myself up so much spending my savings, producing, acting, and everything else on this film that my body reacted without my mind’s permission . . . again, some real-life allusions to what happens in SOUL.
We broke for Christmas and reconvened six months later to edit what we had and see where the actual story was sitting on-screen. It turned out we needed a lot more money to complete the film and more “story” to write in as well. Hell, we had barely shot any scenes with me in them, and I was the main character. With the financial backing of our executive producer (as well as friend and partner), Nate Griffin, we were able to make SOUL into what it is now. The making of SOUL was a commitment like no other I have experienced before. This film aged me and made me physically sick at times. But as Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of The Revenant, said at this year’s Oscars, “Pain is temporary, film lasts forever.”
A FEW OTHER STORIES YOU CAN ASK ME ABOUT IN PERSON:
- Rebuilding my entire apartment (where we originally shot) in the basement of The Crying Wolf
- Buying panty hose to put over my dick for a sex scene (we didn’t have the fancy Hollywood things) #penisburglar
- Knocking on some random guy’s door to rent his car, off and on, for three years
- We were heckled by some bar patrons one night while shooting in the street. James and I finished shooting, went into the bar, bought a bucket of beer for their table, walked up, and asked if they were ready to celebrate their ass whoopings
- Nearly getting tazed by the real police as we were shooting a fight scene in Five Points
- Having my face slammed in dog shit over and over again for our climactic crime scene
- Introducing an editing assistant to Fernet-Branca—that night he spoke in tongues and came up with a better name for a phone charger: The Cremder