Sundance in Memphis: Kentucker Audley Returns with Strawberry Mansion 

It's been 30 years since the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah, changed its name to the Sundance Film Festival. It has since become America's most prestigious festival, launching the careers of people such as Steven Soderbergh and Paul Thomas Anderson. In 2005, Memphis went to Sundance, when Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow won the Audience Award, and Ira Sachs' Forty Shades of Blue took home the Grand Jury Prize. This weekend, Sundance will come to Memphis for the first time.

The pandemic has forced film festivals to adapt to a world where traveling long distances and congregating indoors with strangers is a bad idea. Last fall, the Indie Memphis Film Festival held a hybrid online and in-person festival that featured socially distanced screenings at the Malco Summer Drive-In. Sundance adopted a similar hybrid model, but on a much larger scale, by partnering with regional film festivals all over the country. Sundance and Indie Memphis will host nightly screenings at the drive-in from Thursday, January 28th, to Tuesday, February 2nd.

click to enlarge Runnin’ down a dream — in Strawberry Mansion, director Kentucker Audley plays a dream auditor on a fantastical journey of discovery.
  • Runnin’ down a dream — in Strawberry Mansion, director Kentucker Audley plays a dream auditor on a fantastical journey of discovery.

Memphis' opening night film comes from a hometown filmmaker. Kentucker Audley's cinematic education began in the early 2000s at Memphis' Digital Media Co-Op. "Walking into that place out of the blue, knowing nothing about movies or anybody involved in moviemaking, changed my life very simply and very profoundly," says Audley. "For the next six years, I was there every day. It was just a really vital, exciting place to be. It opened my eyes to so many different things about moviemaking — and culturally. It was just sort of a worldview that I came into. Most of that was based around Morgan Jon Fox, who was probably my most profound influence coming of age in Memphis."

After winning a string of awards at Indie Memphis for films such as the autobiographical Open Five, Audley's brutally honest, no-frills filmmaking gained recognition as part of the mumblecore movement, alongside actors and directors such as Greta Gerwig and Josephine Decker. His film Open Five 2, which won Best Hometowner Feature at Indie Memphis in 2012, was partially about his decision to move to Brooklyn. "I had to win back my ex-girlfriend, who is now my wife," he says.

In Brooklyn, Audley started his own online indie film platform, NoBudge, and the ironically understated "MOVIES" merchandise brand, while pursuing an acting career. In 2017, he co-directed Sylvio — a comedy about an urbane gorilla who becomes a talk show host — with Albert Birney. They teamed up again for Strawberry Mansion. "Our story takes place in a world where the government records and taxes dreams," Audley says.

Audley plays a dream auditor who is assigned to examine the dreams of an 80-year-old woman (Penny Fuller) who is behind on her dream taxes. "He goes into her dreams and sees that they're wildly different than his dreams or anything he's ever seen," says Audley. "He stumbles upon this secret that unlocks the potential for him to become a higher form of himself."

Audley says Birney first sent him a draft of the script almost 10 years ago. "I didn't know him at the time, and the script was sort of beyond my understanding. I was in Memphis making these hyper-personal, naturalistic mumblecore movies, and this was very fantastical and surreal — playful and childlike in its innocence."

They continued to talk about the idea as they made Sylvio. "We collaborated for many years trying to figure out how we can make this thing feel like both of us. It's influenced by a lot of the movies from the 1980s we saw growing up." Audley says they wanted Strawberry Mansion to feel like "finding a random VHS and popping it in. You don't know what world you're being invited into. And then, you're not sure exactly what you watched, but it was exciting and strange."

Premiering your film at Sundance is always a big deal, even if this year it comes without the snowy crush of celebrities in the ski mecca of Park City. All the films in the festival's lineup will screen online, with different lineups available at all the satellite screens. Strawberry Mansion will debut simultaneously in Key West, New Orleans, and Tulsa, but it is Memphis that means the most to Audley. "When I heard Memphis was a part of the satellite screenings, I was completely thrilled. I just couldn't imagine a better scenario for the first screening of this movie. It's just sort of like coming full circle — especially screening at the Summer Drive-In! It's like a dream to have my movie screen there. It takes years to make a movie, and most of it is agonizing and so stressful. Then when something like this happens, it makes it all worth it."

Tickets for Strawberry Mansion and other Sundance films Jan. 28-Feb. 2 at the Malco Summer Drive-In are available at the Indie Memphis website.

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