"I'm in a business I don't love," says Kirt Gunn, the Lovely By Surprise writer/director candidly explaining how his film began online as part of an unusual branding campaign for Lincoln-Mercury but evolved into a beautiful, strange, and bittersweet film about love, loss, and temporal distortion.
The business Gunn doesn't love is advertising, and he doesn't think most people like the kinds of marketing materials they're subjected to either. "People have respect for communications that are truthful," he says, allowing that the original online version of his Lovely By Surprise was created in the spirit of reciprocity that existed in the golden age of TV and radio, when brands were admired because of the shows they sponsored. When Lincoln-Mercury decided to discontinue the campaign, Gunn, a Memphian now living in Virginia, was then free to take the web footage and cut it into the film he'd always wanted to make.
Lovely By Surprise, which was shot in Memphis and which won a Special Jury Prize at the Seattle Film Festival, weaves together the stories of Marian (Carrie Preston), a blocked writer struggling with some difficult advice, and Bob (Reg Rogers), a profoundly sad and ineffectual car salesman whose daughter lost the ability to speak when her mother died. It also tells the story of Marian's fictional characters. Incomplete by design, they are represented by a pair of infantile adults who wear nothing but brightly colored underwear and live on a landlocked houseboat in the middle of a field.
"A lot of people have asked why I didn't make a more accessible first film," Gunn says. "The thing is, I don't know if I'd be interested in making another kind of film. Or that I even could. And I didn't know if I'd ever get a chance to make another film, so I had to make the kind of film I always wanted to make."
It's no accident that Gunn has written Bob as a salesman who keeps talking potential customers out of buying a car. Bob — beautifully acted by Rogers — shows his clients how the purchase is just a stand-in for something more meaningful that's missing in their life.
"That's about me," he says. Gunn, who majored in theater at U.T.-Knoxville and once ran the River City Shakespeare Festival out of Memphis' dilapidated Tennessee Brewery, describes Bob's compulsion to talk people out of buying as an "antithesis to Glengarry Glen Ross," David Mamet's brutal satire about real-estate salesmen in Chicago. Although it is usually compared to Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation, Lovely By Surprise — an unusually talky film — is much more of a theatrical endeavor. In its structure and its use of language, it owes a greater debt to playwrights like Mamet and Sam Shepard than it does to the work of any filmmaker, except perhaps David Lynch.
Lovely By Surprise — the closing-night feature at the Indie Memphis Film Festival — was also inspired by the gently off-kilter and often childlike music of Memphis keyboardist Shelby Bryant, whose songs appear throughout the film.