With the Memphis-bred Forty Shades of Blue and Hustle & Flow taking home the big prizes and big bucks, respectively, from the Sundance Film Festival, it's a heady time for local filmmaking. But Hustle's Craig Brewer and Blue's Ira Sachs aren't the only Memphis-connected filmmakers making waves right now.
After winning the Hometowner Award for best local feature at the 2003 IndieMemphis Film Festival, Morgan Jon Fox's coming-out drama Blue Citrus Hearts has been perhaps the most unlikely recent success story in local film. The no-budget, homemade movie has appeared at more than 25 (and counting) film festivals across the U.S. and overseas. Recently, Ariztical Entertainment purchased the video rights to the film, a transaction that Fox says puts the movie in roughly 3,000 Blockbuster Video stores across the country (but not, as far as Fox knows, at Blockbusters in Memphis).
This week, Fox follows up Blue Citrus Hearts with a new feature, away (a)wake.1, which premieres Friday, February 4th, at Studio on the Square for a week-long run.
Created in full collaboration with writing and directing partner Suzie Crashcourse (dubbed Suzie Cyanide in the Blue Citrus Hearts credits), away (a)wake.1 marks a significant departure for Fox and his crew in terms of production style.
"Blue Citrus Hearts was something we spent about a year shooting," Fox says. "We never had a shooting schedule or anything planned out more than a week in advance for one or two shoots. And every set was me and Suzie and the actors. That was it. We never had rehearsals. We'd just show up and shoot it."
By contrast, initial shooting on away (a)wake.1 was done on a tight 16-day schedule with a crew sometimes four times the size of the bare-bones squad that shot Hearts. Preproduction included two months in acting workshops where participants worked through some of the general themes and situations that would be depicted in the film.
If you're wondering about the ".1" part of the title, it is indeed an indicator that the film is the first part of a two-part film, which wasn't the original intent.
"Originally, the film was about 12 characters," Fox says. "We cut something together with all 12 characters and all their stories. It was about a two-hour rough cut that we screened for 15 people just to get some general feedback, and we realized that it was way too busy. We decided to break it in half. The kinds of stories we tell already have a looseness to them, rather than being tightly plotted, so that allows us to make changes like that."
What emerged as part one of the now two-part film follows four characters, two adults dealing with loss and two younger characters dealing with family tension and questions about their sexuality.
Using generation-spanning pairs of protagonists wasn't entirely intentional, but Fox admits he is attempting to stretch beyond Hearts' high school milieu.
"The original script was fashioned in a way that would cover pretty much every age group, just to create that diversity of experiences," Fox says. "It's perceived that people find themselves in their youth and that once you age, you're set. We were trying to show people discovering things and liberating themselves [throughout life]."
But even the young characters in away (a)wake.1 are a departure from those in Blue Citrus Hearts. Much like the protagonist of Hearts, away (a)wake.1's Larsen (played by then-White Station junior Saki Nosurname) is a high school kid confronting his sexuality. But where Hearts was a relatively tortured look at the coming-out process, Larsen is positively defiant about it.
"Blue Citrus Hearts was dealing with the struggle of coming out," Fox says. "Here I wanted to show characters more confident with themselves. I like the idea of having Larsen's character be superficially 'normal' but also be active and conscious -- putting up flyers, protesting."
Whether away (a)wake.1 can match the unexpected success of Blue Citrus Hearts remains to be seen. (Fox says he hopes to premiere the second, wilder, installment this summer.) It's a more polished film visually, but due in part to its wider canvas, less immediately gripping. Hearts had a piercing tenderness that cut through its rough patches; away (a)wake.1 might take longer to settle in.
But Fox is hopeful that the success of Hearts will help his new film get seen. "I'll be able to use contacts I already have," he says of away (a)wake.1's future. "Basically, you get in one big festival and then all the other festivals start contacting you. So, hopefully, I won't have to spend a $1,000 on entry fees the way I did on Blue Citrus Hearts."
away (a)wake.1 is showing Friday, February 4th, through Thursday, February 10th, at Studio on the Square.