On Monday, June 29th, an audience at the Malco Paradiso will get a sneak peek of the first two episodes of a new TV series made entirely in Memphis called Feral. A week later, the eight-episode first season will debut on tablets, iPhones, and the web via a new streaming network called Gaius.
Feral is significant, not only because of its beautiful cinematography, fluid editing, and passionate portrayal of young, gay people struggling to find love and meaning in a confusing world. It also represents the long-awaited return to the director's chair of one of the most vital figures of Memphis independent cinema: Morgan Jon Fox.
"I felt like we were making something important," Fox says. "I've never felt so proud of something I'd made."
Thirteen years ago, Fox co-founded the Memphis Digital Arts Cooperative (MeDiA Co-op) in the basement of First Congregational Church. Fox had graduated from White Station High School, but then dropped out of the University of Tennessee and a film school in Vermont. He returned determined to change his hometown — and the world — through movies.
From Lars Von Trier to Craig Brewer, digital video was beginning to democratize the medium. Fox, bursting with ambition and still feeling the pain of coming out as a gay teenager in the conservative South, gathered a group of amateurs and wannabes, studied the intuitive acting techniques of Sanford Meisner and learned how to use digital camcorders and Final Cut Pro on the fly while making a film called Blue Citrus Hearts. Its emotional realism and raw energy found an audience, first at the 2003 Indie Memphis Film Festival, where it won Best Hometowner Feature, and then at festivals around the country, where it garnered fans — some prominent — for the hot young director.
His subsequent features, 2005's Away (A)wake and 2007's OMG/HaHaHa, expanded his vision and technique while remaining emotionally grounded in the experience of queer and outcast folks creating their own communities in Midtown.
The MeDiA Co-op was meanwhile serving as an incubator for Memphis' burgeoning film scene, nurturing talent such as Kentucker Audley, Brett Hanover, Ben Siler, Alanna Stewart, and Katherine Dohan. If there is a "Memphis style" of filmmaking — emotional honesty, improvisational acting, graceful handheld camera work, and tight editing — it came from the Co-op.
In 2005, when teenager Zach Stark came out as homosexual to his parents and was locked away in a gay reparative therapy treatment program in Raleigh called Love in Action, Fox was brandishing his camera on the front lines of the protest movement that erupted on the sidewalks outside. During the six years Fox worked on a documentary about the incident, This Is What Love in Action Looks Like, the program was shut down, its head, John Smid, renounced his past and came out of the closet, and public opinion turned against the ex-gay movement.
The documentary's success brought Fox international acclaim. In 2009, he began a long association with Craig Brewer when he served as assistant director and editor on the groundbreaking web/TV series $5 Cover. "It was Morgan and I who put that show together," Brewer says. "We were learning about episodic entertainment at the same time. Morgan's one of the best editors I've ever come across. There's the technical part of editing, but then there's character and story and the choices you make to tell the best story and give characters life. That's where he's strongest."
Fox worked for Brewer and other directors, learning all aspects of filmcraft. "I essentially took six years off and went to film school," he says. "But going to film school is clearly not the answer to making a great film. I learned so much about production, and about managing production, and story-building. But I also became a more stable and happy human being. I was able to look back at the kid who made Blue Citrus Hearts and the passion I had then. I was so ready — after not having made a narrative feature for five years — to make a film with that kind of love and passion."
Fateful Phone Call
Last spring, Fox caught a break, in the form of a phone call from Derek Curl, a film executive whose company, TLA Releasing, distributes This Is What Love in Action Looks Like. "He said he was starting a new company that was going to be like a Netflix for LGBT content," Fox says. "He wanted to have some original shows, like Netflix has Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards."
Curl asked Fox to create the new network's flagship series. But there was a problem: Fox and his fiancé Declan Deely were leaving for an extended Ireland vacation in two days.
"He said, 'Welp, I guess you've got about 24 hours to come up with something,'" Fox recalls. "Luckily, I had some stories I wanted to tell. I just had to figure out how to put it together appropriately. So within 24 hours, I put together two separate pitches, and they took one of them: Feral.
"It's about this household of roommates in their early-to-mid-20s, trying to live together, trying to pay the rent, trying to be a part of an artistic queer community, and dealing with some really difficult emotional issues. It's a story about love and losing love and recovering from that. It's what I've always told stories about: sad queer kids trying to find hope."
Fox wanted to combine his hard-won knowledge of filmcraft with the improvisational Co-op style he helped pioneer. "What was super important to me was to make something naturalistic. Those are the stories that impact me the most. But I think there's a bad tendency nowadays, in shows like Girls and Looking. I love those shows, but they tend to be based on cynicism. There's a lot of cynical, self-absorbed people on those shows. Now, my characters are self-absorbed, too. But I did not want it to be based in cynicism. I wanted my characters to have very pure motives. I wanted their struggles to be pure and honest in a way that wasn't just, 'I'm a spoiled rich person without meaning in my life.'"
Feral centers on two best friends, Billy and Daniel, living together in a Midtown bungalow. The story begins when they are forced to kick out their third roommate, who has become addicted to heroin. "They're people who are left on their own, whether it's financially, whether it's identity, or whether their lovers are deceased. Whatever that is, they're left to their own devices to carve their own way. They're feral beings."
In his years as the go-to guy for Memphis film production, Fox established relationships with some of the city's best talents. "There's something about the Memphis scene," he says. "We work together, we earn each other's respect, so when we can develop a project that we're really passionate about, people come to your aid."
The first person he turned to was cinematographer Ryan Earl Parker. "He's always been great, but the last couple of years, he's just above the game," Fox says. "He's a master of light. I really respect him. And he's fun to work with. If I've ever seen him stressed on a set we worked on together, it was all about the integrity of the image, as he would put it."
Parker and Fox had worked together on a number of projects, including Mark Jones' 2012 feature Tennessee Queer and Melissa Anderson Sweazy's short The Department of Signs and Magical Intervention. "I knew he was just a brilliant filmmaker and a wonderful person," Parker says. So when Fox called, Parker says he told him, "I'm going to do whatever I have to do to sell you on me."
In designing the look of the series, Parker threw out the rule book. "How can we approach this differently? How can we throw away everything we know about lighting and filmmaking and start with a fresh set of eyes?"
Parker designed a camera setup that would allow them to shoot at "a ridiculously low light level." The lighting design was done using on-set lighting such as laptop screens and LED strips. The question was always: "How can we light this as if we're in the environment with them?"
The vast majority of the filming was done using handheld cameras. "[Fox] wants it to be very actor-centric, very mood-centric," Parker says. "By going handheld, it allows me to be as much of an informant of the action as the actors. I can find the shot I think is best. I can get into tight areas a lot better, and we can work a lot faster. If it had been too static, it wouldn't have had the same energy."
For the lead actors, Fox chose Seth Daniel Rabinowitz as Daniel and Jordan Nichols as Billy. As the son of Playhouse on the Square founder Jackie Nichols, Jordan Nichols was raised in the theater. But Nichols had never acted in film before. "I just told Morgan, if I'm ever giving you too much or not giving you enough, just let me know, so I can give you the product you want," Nichols recalls.
One of Feral's strengths is its portrayal of depression, most prominently in the character of Carl, played by Ryan Masson. "When we were first talking about it, he expressed that he wanted to show it in a way that had not really been in the storytelling world before," Masson says. "There's no real cure-all for it, there's no easy-button reasons for it. Sometimes, it's just an inescapable, reasonless place that someone is in."
Fox says the portrayal of a young man's downward spiral was carefully constructed. "I wanted to define this character by avoiding mistakes that are made when portraying mental health issues. Instead of pushing something, I always want someone to draw back into themselves. As opposed to acting upset, I would rather you not know how to act upset."
The New Car
"The first day [of shooting], I woke up late," Fox recalls. Used to being the assistant director, always the first one to the set and the last one to leave, he panicked. But for the first time in his career, he had a full crew working for him. "We started shooting at like 5 a.m. I came into my kitchen, and craft services was already set up. I thought I was a filmmaker, but this was the first time I felt like I had become an adult. Not in a boring way. I felt pumped. Now I have a car, and I'm driving it!"
Shooting Feral took about a month. "The way Morgan shoots, he's capturing honest moments from actual people, more so than an actor playing a character," says gaffer Jordan Danelz. "The militaristic machine of moviemaking can't apply to Morgan's style of directing. It would make everything too sterile."
Nichols says it was unlike anything else in his career. "Doing this series introduced me to a group of artistic people I didn't know before. On set, the whole atmosphere was very collaborative. It felt like we were in it together."
One of the best scenes happened between Nichols and Masson during a hazy dawn on the Greenline. "I lost track of the actors for a little while, and when they got back they had completely transformed into their characters," Fox says. "When they sat down and started improvising, it immediately turned into this incredibly intense moment. It felt like they had known each other for 20 years. It was magic. I have never on a set in my life — mine or someone else's — had an experience like that."
Parker says Fox is an expert at creating a mood. "If you can set the tone right, and it's married with great acting and great dialogue, that's when things start to happen. This project is one of the few examples I have of all of these things coming together in the right environment to work. Everybody got on board, because it was Morgan, and we all trusted him."
Growing Up Feral
Since the Digital Co-op days, Fox has always kept tight control of the editing. But Feral was a project of firsts, and he had help from editors Laura Jean Hocking and Ryan Azada. The ability to stretch out story lines and spend quality time with characters was a revelation in the post production process.
"I feel like episodic material plays to my strengths," Fox says. "It felt so much nicer to make little episodes that I could contain. You can celebrate little moments a lot easier. There's one episode where we take a break from the main narrative and just spend time with two characters. It lends depth to the story, but in a feature film, you probably couldn't take the time to do that."
Feral's musical lineup is headed by Memphis' Lucero and includes songs by Nots, the Echo Friendly, DJ Witnesse, DBraker, Jeff Hulett, and newcomers Julien Baker and James Sarkisian. True to the Co-op's DIY ethos, Sarkisian recorded his contributions on his iPhone in his college dorm room.
After months of editing and sound mixing, Fox says he couldn't be more pleased with the product. "It all perfectly jelled," he says. "The feedback has been really great. It makes me nervous."
"It's been a really long time since I've watched something I've worked on and had a real emotional reaction to it," Danelz says. "I cried twice when watching Feral. It touched something in my own life. I hope people can see the potential Morgan has if given more money, more opportunity, and more room to grow."
Nichols says Feral shows the city's great untapped potential. "I'm glad this opportunity arose for Morgan, for myself, for the Memphis film scene in general. It presents Memphis in a great light, and it shines a light on a part of this city and the people here that the rest of the country hasn't gotten a glimpse of."