Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
In the summer of 2012, a 35-year-old part-time filmmaker from London named Simon Mercer flew from Los Angeles to Texas and then on to Little Rock, where he rented a car and drove south on U.S. Highway 167, deep into timberland. The highway was lined with dense pine forests that reminded him of the small town in Ontario, Dundas, where he'd grown up, and as he journeyed further south, he remembers watching as the auto-scan on his FM dial started losing traction and going in circles, finding nothing but static. He knew then that he must be close to his destination, a place called Locust Bayou.
At home, Mercer works an office job for the National Health Service, shoots music videos and ads on the side and spends much of his free time dreaming up ideas for short films and documentaries. "Other people look at me a bit strangely," he admits of his co-workers at the NHS. "They're friendly, but I don't think they totally get why I'm doing this."
His first completed documentary, a "no-budget" production, was a portrait of the cult filmmaker Len Cella, whose short comedy videos were a recurring feature on "The Tonight Show" in the early '80s. After finishing it, Mercer worried he'd never find another subject as perfect. Then one day his friend Ryan Smith, a former arts critic who now plays guitar with the indie rock band Caribou, told him about a filmmaker from rural Arkansas whom he'd interviewed years before. "What about Phil?" he asked, and Mercer promised to look into it.
He didn't expect what he found, nor could he have. The films of Phil Chambliss, the 59-year-old Arkansas native who worked as a night watchman for the Highway Department for three decades and during the day made wholly unique, indescribably odd movies starring his neighbors, seemed to Mercer like something out of a "real world John Waters or David Lynch universe."
Westerns, holiday epics and obscurely sinister dramas set in funeral homes, pencil stands and daycare centers for birds, the films proudly ignore most classical standards of editing, acting and coherent dialogue, and come complete with titles like "To Hell with Lead-Poison" and "Shadows of the Hatchet Man." Shot on Super 8mm and later videotape, the movies are filled with absurdist but earnest exchanges, and often seem to exist in a subgenre of their own invention. "I'm originally from a small town," Mercer said, "so there were certain bits that I understood very well and related to, but the rest of it was a completely alien world."
He recognized Chambliss right away as belonging to that category of creative personalities that he relates to most. "They're aiming for the top and they keep pursuing it, even if nothing ever pays off, not letting go of that spark that most people have when they're kids and then decide to tuck away. I love the guys who refuse to do that and just keep on with their magical little worlds." He was sold.
Contacting Chambliss was a challenge, as was convincing him to participate in the film Mercer wanted to make: a documentary about his work that would also stand alone as an interesting film in its own right. He eventually made a connection through Chambliss' daughter, who, unlike her father, uses email ("Phil doesn't enter the world of computers," Mercer said). He spent hours on the phone with him explaining his project and trying to earn the older man's trust.
"He likes keeping to himself in a lot of ways," Mercer said. "But I knew that he was the right subject when I started talking to him. I'm kind of Mr. Introvert and he was talking a mile a minute, and by the end of our first conversation I was laughing my head off at 10 different stories he'd told me."