One Came Home, which closed the On Location: Memphis film festival a couple of weeks ago and now opens for a full run at Studio on the Square, is not your typical local debut feature. For starters, filmmaker Willy Bearden is not your typical fledgling filmmaker. Bearden is instead a veteran documentary filmmaker whose work — including films on Overton Park, the cotton industry, and the local garage-band scene of the 1960s — is ubiquitous on Memphis public television and at local museums. Further, One Came Home, Bearden's first try at fictional filmmaking, is both more ambitious and more stylistically classical than has been the local film-scene norm.
It's also an unusually polished local feature, staged and shot — by Bearden and director of photography Ryan Parker — with a confidence and command one might associate with a better-financed, more widely distributed film.
"When I was sitting in the little dark room editing my last documentary, I had interviewed [a dozen or so professors] and I kept thinking, Damn, would you just say what I need you to say?" Bearden remembers. That's when he decided to try a form of filmmaking that would give him total control over the story he wanted to tell.
One Came Home, which is about a family who has lost a loved one in World War II and is later visited by a man who claims to have served with the deceased, is rooted in Bearden's own family history.
"My grandmother would look in the back of the American Legion magazine every month after [her son] was killed because it had page after page of these listings," Bearden says, describing the attempts to link those left behind with soldiers who could supply information about perished family members.
Bearden's grandmother started a correspondence with a war buddy of her deceased son, and Bearden and writing partner David Tankersley took this scenario and fictionalized it into the story of a con man trying to take advantage of a grieving family.
Taking the lead role is Corey Parker, a professional actor and recent Memphis transplant whose credits include the film version of Biloxi Blues and recurring roles on the television series Thirtysomething and Will & Grace.
Parker's John Mazilli is a Brooklyn native who comes South to visit the Hodges family, matriarch Grace (Julia "Cookie" Ewing), her daughter Savannah (Savannah Bearden, the director's daughter), and daughter-in-law Hope (Hailey Giles). He claims to have served alongside Grace's son Murphy, who he says saved his life in the war. Mazilli presents a potential way out of the post-war stupor for all three Hodges women. But his story is more complicated than first appears.
Set in Mississippi just after the war, One Came Home was filmed last summer using Davies Manor Plantation in Bartlett as a primary location. Bearden also used locations in north Mississippi, including Phillips Grocery in Holly Springs.
"We kept saying, could we make it any harder on ourselves?" Bearden says about making his first narrative feature a period piece. But with the Davies Manor location, the loan of vintage cars from a friend, and a thorough collaboration with costume designer Merriwether Nichols, Bearden thinks he was able to recreate the '40s time period on a budget, an assertion the film's impressive trailer backs up.
Though One Came Home is Bearden's first feature film, he set steep goals for himself and feels good about the results.
"I wanted to see if we could create something that's just a simple story, told beautifully," Bearden says. "I think we all had the mindset that we aren't competing with anybody in Memphis. We wanted to create something that would look like a national feature."
One Came Home
Opens Friday, May 7th
Studio on the Square