DEF CON 4 at the Daisy
"So, you did that Black Snake movie, right? What else did you do?"
Filmmaker Craig Brewer may be one of Memphis' greatest recent homegrown success stories, but 11-year-old Keller Lambert didn't get the memo.
It's a Friday night at the New Daisy Theatre on Beale Street, the first night of shooting on $5 Cover, Brewer's new web-based MTV series about Memphis music. The filmmaker is eyeing the monitors as three cameramen shoot a scene onstage involving local rapper/marijuana spokesman Muck Sticky and actress Claire Grant. It's 20 minutes before doors are set to open, and the line outside is already down the block, but Brewer and his crew need to get some takes done before the crowd swallows the room.
This is what Brewer labels a "DEF CON 4" shoot, unlike the more manageable conversation scenes he'll direct at Midtown coffee shop Java Cabana and on the downtown trolley a few days later. And Brewer already has company.
A towheaded grade-schooler in an oversized Muck Sticky T-shirt and "Muck Family Tribe" laminate, Keller stands beside Brewer, studying the action on the monitors. They're both enthusiastic about each take, bobbing their heads and rolling their shoulders in unison to the music, like they've been working on their routine. When Brewer starts waving his arms and shaking his hands as part of the choreography he'll walk the crowd through later, Keller takes note and mimics the movements. Still, this kid's not here for the filming. He's down with the Muck. About his new friend, Craig, he isn't so sure.
"I did Hustle & Flow and another movie a long time ago you probably didn't see, called The Poor & Hungry," Brewer says to Keller.
Onstage, cast and crew are scurrying to get ready for another take. Assistant director Morgan Jon Fox confers with script supervisor Mike McCarthy. Cameraman Brent Shrewsbury gets set. And Grant is keeping costume designer Meriwether Nichols busy. Grant is wearing Nichols' most flamboyant $5 Cover design for this scene: a pink, gingham baby-doll dress rigged with Velcro to be removed in one, sudden motion, revealing a lace-and-leather/bra-and-panties dominatrix get-up.
Back behind the monitors, Brewer catches the kid eyeing the girl and tries to relate.
"When I was your age," Brewer says, "HBO and Showtime were just getting started."
"Don't forgot Cinemax," I say, standing behind Brewer and trying to keep out of the way.
Keller looks at us both and nods matter-of-factly.
"Skinemax," he says. "If someone says they haven't seen stuff like that, they're lying."
There have been a couple of problems on the set. One take was aborted when Grant lost timing with the song. On another, one of her props malfunctioned, but she soldiered through it. This last take was a keeper, though. Watching the monitors, Brewer jumps up and down like a kid whose favorite team just won the pennant. "Oh my God, did you see that?" he says about a particularly good angle captured by one camera.
"Cut! Excellent! So good. So fucking good," Brewer shouts to everyone involved.
Keller is somewhat less impressed and is looking to fill out his new pal's bio a little bit.
"Are you also the guy giving us all of this VitaminWater and stuff?" he asks Brewer.
Brewer smiles. "Naw, man. I wish I was. That guy's kind of a pimp."
Memphis belongs to us
Brewer and his all-local crew will shoot $5 Cover at locations across the city through August 22nd, then begin post-production on a project Brewer has to complete and deliver to MTV New Media on a relatively tight budget of $300,000 to $350,000. The series of 15 "webisodes" — roughly 8 minutes per — will each focus on a local musician playing a slightly fictionalized version of him or herself, and each episode will be built around one of the artist's songs. In addition to Muck Sticky, performers slated to appear include rapper Al Kapone, roots star Amy LaVere, Lucero front man Ben Nichols, and garage-rock fixture Jack Yarber.
But, from a local perspective, the process is perhaps as interesting as the content.
"There are these stories that we're telling," Brewer says, "but there's also this filmmaking story as well."
Brewer's crew for $5 Cover is built on Memphis film-scene luminaries and longtime friends. There are no pros flying in from New York or Los Angeles for this shoot.
Brewer has been mulling over the $5 Cover concept — originally called Bluff City Chronicles — for years and attempted to do it last year before the Hollywood writers' strike threw everything for a loop. Brewer put renewed emphasis on the project last fall while directing an episode of the FX television series The Shield. It started with Brewer's wife, Jodi, and sister-in-law and longtime assistant, Erin Hagee, putting together a hard copy and digital pitch book for Brewer to use when shopping the concept around.
When Brewer finally struck a deal with MTV New Media to produce the project, he tabbed Hagee to take on a bigger role.
"The first person is Erin," Brewer says of the crew he assembled. "She probably knows my mind better than anyone else. And, more so, she was very passionate about this project. It meant a lot to her because she also goes out and sees a lot of these musicians. So I told her if I'm really going to do this on this local level, that's going to mean you being the hands-on line producer and production manager.
"It's a very hard job," Brewer says, "but Erin has been my assistant during these [feature-film] productions, and that doesn't mean getting me a Diet Coke every once in a while. It's serious work — up before I am and down after I am. Even knowing it's something that she'd never done before, she said yes and said the first person we needed to get together with was Les Edwards."
Edwards, an accountant by trade, had a relationship with Brewer and Hagee via his stewardship of the Indie Memphis Film Festival. With $5 Cover operating on a tight budget, he was brought in to help keep an eye on expenditures.
With regular Brewer collaborator Scott Bomar back on board as music supervisor, $5 Cover's bare-bones early team was completed this spring by bringing in Morgan Jon Fox, a local filmmaker perhaps best known for his Indie Memphis-winning feature Blue Citrus Hearts, to be assistant director.
"The important one for me was Morgan," Brewer says. "We'd been talking about working together for a couple of years. I don't think he anticipated me coming to him for help, but I did."
That skeleton crew prepped the project — putting together a budget and a cast and working on a shooting schedule. Then, about a month ago, Brewer started filling in the rest of the crew. Nathan Black, of Unbreakable Productions, came on board as director of photography. Eileen Meyer, fresh off the A&E network series The First 48, was added as second assistant director, taking some of the scheduling duties and freeing Fox to get more involved with rehearsals. And longtime Brewer friend and collaborator Mike McCarthy — who helped launch the modern Memphis film scene with "exploitation" movies such as Teenage Tupelo and The Sore Losers — joined as script supervisor.
"I feel that I'm somewhat a student of Michael McCarthy," Brewer says, referencing how McCarthy's films helped him discover both Memphis' film and music scenes after moving to the city full time in the mid-'90s.
Fox remembers the first time he met Brewer and McCarthy as a 20-year-old aspiring filmmaker. It was the grand opening of Malco's Midtown Studio on the Square theater, and Brewer was there handing out flyers for The Poor & Hungry, which was premiering at Ridgeway Four. McCarthy was with him.
"I walked up to introduce myself. I'd just made a short film or something," Fox says. "They asked what I did, and I said that I was about to go to film school. Mike asked what I was spending, and I said about $7,000 a year. He said, 'Give me that money. I'll make 20 films with it.'"
Fox was never able to get together the money for film school and instead began to make his own way, as McCarthy and Brewer had.
"Ever since then, Craig has been a mentor — for a lot of people, really," Fox says. "And he has the least reason to care about spending time nurturing people, in the sense that he could be in Los Angeles working. But he's always been authentic in his generosity and interest."
Once the $5 Cover project began, Fox says he and Hagee were so submerged in new challenges it wasn't clear how job duties matched up with crew titles, but they got together to make it work.
"We started early on making contacts with all of the actors and working with some film production software to coordinate schedules, locations, actors, scenes, props — everything that goes into making the film," Fox says. "It's been a huge challenge, because we're dealing with a lot of musicians who go on tour."
Managing cast and crew members who are balancing film work with other jobs and pursuits is something Fox is used to doing on his own low-budget indie films.
"Compared to Craig's last two projects, this is more of my type of filmmaking," Fox says. "It's more run and gun, get several scenes shot in a day. Handheld camera. Lots of improvisation. It blends the line between fiction and nonfiction, which is a style I really love. So I feel right at home. That's probably one of the reasons Craig wanted me to be involved."
"I'm probably more influenced by Morgan's work than my own on this project," Brewer acknowledges. "Part of his gift is to get a bunch of people working, get a bunch of people comfortable, and roll cameras and see what happens. I need that in this movie. I was in a very technically precise universe in the last two movies."
For Brewer, working on $5 Cover has been somewhat of a return to his guerrilla filmmaking days of doing The Poor & Hungry on the cheap.
"I really would like to return, just for one summer, to a touch of what I had before this madness began," he says. "Which was get a couple of guys with video cameras, get some friends, and you try to make something."
You could see that spirit Friday at the New Daisy, where Edwards sat in the lobby with a laptop while Hagee bounced between Edwards and the shooting area at the front of the club. Earlier, Brewer was hands-on, taping down props. Later, he confers with Bomar stage left while Fox huddles with crew members backstage, preparing them for the shoot. McCarthy keeps a sharp eye on everything, taking time to laugh at his title as script supervisor. "I'm really more of an improv supervisor," he says.
"The crew and myself went through a really extreme crash course that whole week," Brewer says a couple of days later, back at his South Main production office, preparing for a rehearsal. "There was a tremendous amount of anxiety going into Friday night. The set's being built. Contracts are being made. Everyone's now doing things they've never done before — and we're surviving."
Expectation, Backlash, and Music Sweet Music
The end product of $5 Cover, of course, won't be as much about the local filmmakers behind the camera as the musicians in front of the camera and the music bursting from the soundtrack. In that way, the project is the culmination of a love affair with Memphis music culture that has animated most of Brewer's work.
Brewer has built his storylines around both the songs being used and the real stories and background of his artists, hoping that the project's fictional scenarios can illuminate truths about the artists and their music — Snowglobe's Brad Postlethwaite juggling medical school with recording sessions; Al Kapone imparting hard-earned wisdom to his teenage son; Two Way Radio's Kate Crowder working up the gumption to take her homemade pop public.
One of the biggest inspirations was Amy LaVere, who acted for Brewer in his last film, Black Snake Moan.
"She's gotten some great success lately," Brewer says. "But I knew Amy when she was living on top of what is now Last Chance Records. She was a tour guide at Sun, but I'd hear her talking about the album she was making. That's the struggle I'm most moved by. That's really what Hustle & Flow's about as well. I think there's an intense nobility in musicians who are struggling."
As Brewer and crew embark on the month-long shoot for $5 Cover, the filmmaker finds himself managing expectations and fending off the inevitable backlash.
"I think the most difficult thing for me to communicate to my cast and crew, and maybe to my audience, is expectations. I want this to be good. But we're also doing something that's for the web. This is not a major motion picture."
There's been talk of MTV exploiting local talent, but for an untested, web-based product about relatively little-known musicians, the network has no guarantee of recouping its investment. And, contrary to some assertions, people are getting paid. Brewer says the entire budget for the series is being spent locally. One crew member at the Daisy shoot had no complaints. "Yeah, as well as my other jobs," he says, when asked if he's been paid. "And [unlike other gigs], they're prompt."
"There are some algebraic certainties," Brewer says of the experimental project. "There's going to be a drop-off with the second episode. We know that full well, and we're doing it anyway. And we don't know yet how advertisers will respond. That's one of the reasons I'm so glad MTV New Media is taking it out of their budget and rolling the dice on whether anyone is going to want to put an ad in front of this. That's something that no one really talks about."
Of complaints about the artists being used — or not used — on the project, Brewer can only shrug.
"I think there's a certain burden that's going to be placed on this project because it's so local," he says. "Once it was announced who was going to be cast and what songs were going to be used, there were a lot of comments, even to me personally, which I've always encouraged.
"A lot of people have come up and said there are so many more artists in Memphis. Why are you choosing these? And the reason why it's these artists is because I do know them. Because I have worked with them, or, in some cases, I'm just a fan."
Fox echoes this personal connection to Memphis music.
"The reason I've always used local musicians on my soundtrack — Snowglobe, Valerie June, a lot of people involved in this project — is not because I needed to have rights to music and I couldn't get what I really wanted," Fox says.
"That's the music I listen to every day and that's the music I love. It's an honor that these are people in the artistic community here that I can call friends. It feels better that way. It's authentic. I feel the same way about Craig. None of us feels like we have to do things for Memphis. It's just about feeling connected and really appreciating this city. The soul of it. This is our home."
For more news and notes on the local film scene, see the "Film Clips" round-up on page 49.