Memphis Film Prize Draws Bluff City Talent 

The first annual competition offers $10,000 for best locally produced short.

Gregory Kallenberg wanted to create a different sort of film festival when he founded the Louisiana Film Prize in 2012. After filming in Shreveport, he fell in love with the town and relocated from Austin, Texas, and brought a more competitive model to the festival world — along with a $50,000 prize.

After three successful years, the prize is branching out to create a feeder system of regional competitions, and Memphis was at the top of the list. They partnered with On Location: Memphis, and this weekend, the top 10 films from more than 50 local entries will screen at Studio on the Square. The winning film will receive $10,000 and a chance at the $50,000 Louisiana prize in September. I spoke with three of the nominated directors.

click to enlarge Ricky D. Smith in director Kevin Brooks’ street drama “Marcus”
  • Ricky D. Smith in director Kevin Brooks’ street drama “Marcus”

"Marcus"

Dir. Kevin Brooks

Last year, the young filmmaker's short, "Heat Vision," earned him a slot in the Sundance Ignite program and a trip to Park City, where he was mentored by Nate Parker, director of the Grand Jury and Audience Award-winning Birth of a Nation. "I came back with a huge burst of energy!" he says. "I made 'Marcus' especially for the Film Prize."

The film stars Ricky D. Smith, whom Brooks met while they attended University of Memphis together. "The movie tells the story of a young man who is struggling with the consequences of karma," Brooks says. "It's derived from the decisions he made to survive. I wanted to make it really realistic, and I wanted to talk to the issues that people of color face in these urban settings."

Brooks' goal, he says, is to return to the big leagues in Park City with a film of his own. "I have to stay focused and keep moving forward, because I want to be there someday."

"Calls From the Unknown"

Dir. Edward Valibus

Edward Valibus, noted for his gonzo comedies with Corduroy Wednesday, wanted to tackle something a little more serious with "Calls From the Unknown." "Our main character is a young woman. She's a film student doing the usual documentary 101: interviewing her dad and hearing stories she's never heard before," he says.

His inspiration came from his experiences with his own father's terminal illness. "I've been doing absurdist humor for so long, people who watch it have been calling it a dark comedy. People laugh, then they gasp, then they cry."

Lead actress Lara Johnson directed the documentary "Geekland," but Valibus says her comedic student films convinced him she could excel in the role. "A big philosophy behind doing this film was giving people chances to do something new."

Jordan Danelz, normally a gaffer, was the cinematographer, and musician Michael Jasud, of Dead Soldiers, makes his acting debut. "All my gambles really paid off," Valibus says.

The one sure thing was Mark Pergolizzi as Johnson's father. "He's my favorite actor to work with," Valibus says. "I went through the entire thing with Mark, what I wanted out of her and what I wanted out of him. Then I sent them off together to work it out. I was trying to create a father-daughter bond. It worked out amazingly well; I just let the camera roll."

"Teeth"

Dir. Melissa Anderson Sweazy

"Like a lot of my ideas, it came about through casual conversation with my daughter," director Melissa Anderson Sweazy says. "She heard about the tooth fairy, and she was like, 'Why? There's a person coming to my house to get my teeth? Who is this person, and what are they doing with all those teeth?'"

Sweazy, whose previous works include the Indie Memphis-winning "John's Farm" and "The Department of Signs and Magical Interventions" loves to work in fantastic realms. "I'm definitely drawn to stories about magic, either about the absence of magic in the world or the proof that it is there in reality. I like the world to look normal, except for a magical element at play."

"Teeth" stars newcomer Gabriella Goble as the young child who wants to investigate the tooth fairy's motives. Her father, Ryan, was the director of photography. "It was kind of a miraculous find. My day job is at a production company, so my entire crew was made up of co-workers who donated their time."

Lindsey Roberts portrays the tooth fairy. "It's going to be a take on the tooth fairy that you have never considered."


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