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."
Mercer booked his flights and secured a room via "literally the only Airbnb listing in the whole county." This was a leap of faith in itself. "The pictures were all sort of dimly lit," he said of the room, "so I didn't know if I was going into some sort of murder shack or a lovely hotel, I had no idea."
He had never been to Arkansas before, had never really heard anything about it. For that matter, he had understandable reservations about spending weeks in a tiny rural community in the company of a man who's been characterized as a recluse and an outsider artist. "I had some ideas in my head about what I'd find or what I'd want to find," he said, "and then I got there and it just changed immediately."
I called Phil Chambliss on a recent Thursday afternoon after getting his phone number from Mercer, who warned me that Chambliss' career as a night watchman had "messed up his internal clock for life," and that he keeps odd hours. "If he's there he's there, if he's not he's not," Mercer said. "There's no logic to it."
I got his answering machine, the recorded message of which consists of the man himself very slowly and insistently saying "Phil 'Mr. Blue' Chambliss," in his distinct South Arkansas drawl. I figured that would be the end of it, but several hours later he returned my phone call, immediately launching into a frantic story about a time he found himself in my shoes, calling someone whose films he admired, which in his case happened to be the actor Lee Van Cleef, best known for playing The Bad in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."
Chambliss had sent the actor some fan mail in his early 20s, which led to his receiving a phone call from Van Cleef, who couldn't read the return address on the letter but wanted to send him an autographed glossy. Later, Chambliss decided to call him back, assuming they were now on friendly terms. "Man, he chewed my ass out. He said, 'I don't usually accept calls like this.' I asked if I could I call him back, 'cause I just wanted to talk about his film work, and he said, 'I wouldn't advise it. Next time, I might not be so polite.' "
Well after our conversation, I realized that a version of this exchange occurs almost verbatim in a different context in one of Chambliss's films, "The Pastor and the Hobo." Did the story inspire the film, or did the film inspire the story? It's never entirely clear with Phil.
"I started in 1974," he said, when I asked about his first foray into directing. "I was a country boy, me and some people around our area still had what you call 'hog claims' in the woods. We marked the pigs and sold them when they got bigger. We done all this with horses and dogs and hog trap pens, and I just thought, man, I wish I could afford me a movie camera and just set it up and film some of this. That's kind of what got me started. And I was a big Western fan also, TV Westerns. I don't watch Westerns much anymore, but back then I was a fanatic about them."
"There's been quite a few write-ups about my films," he said, "and it hurts me that they always write the same thing — they always say I started making movies for my friends and my family. I never made films for my friends and my family ever. I made them for me, trying to be a filmmaker. I hate to read that. I hate to read an article where somebody refers to them as 'home movies.' I use professional equipment."
This is a particular concern of Chambliss', being taken seriously as a professional. "I've been paid not one time, but many times, several times," he says. "That's what a professional is. If you're singing birthday parties for free, you're an amateur, but as soon as they start paying you, you're a professional. And I consider myself a professional."
The thing is, he's right to insist on this point. Since receiving some wider exposure through the film festival circuit, reactions to his work have been complex, as is just about always the case with work judged to be "folk" or "outsider art." Even appreciative reviews often have a slightly patronizing tint, and he's well aware of this.
He recalls hearing from former Arkansas Film Commissioner Joe Glass that the actor Ray McKinnon, based in Little Rock, planned to make a movie about a famous, well-respected actor (to be played by himself) stuck in one of Chambliss' productions and trying desperately to escape it once he realizes what the films are like. "I think he was just mocking me, really," he said glumly.
Another time, a well-connected supporter, the producer Dub Cornett, had him convinced that Billy Bob Thornton was going to come to Locust Bayou and star in one of his movies. "We were really excited to get him down here to make a film," he said. "I didn't just write it and rewrite it, I kept on rewriting it." When the day came, Chambliss waited around on set for several hours before realizing the actor wasn't coming. He recast the role and made the film anyway.
His latest strategy for dealing with naysayers has been to flaunt his modest success. He proudly tells one story about a man in Locust Bayou who was making fun of his films behind his back. Chambliss ran off several photocopies of the checks he'd received from festivals showing his work and presented them to the man in public, "in front of all his friends," before stalking off in triumphant silence. "He was trying to make a joke out of me," he said, "but with this kind of money, they can make all the fun they want to."
It is this discomfort over the reception of his work, as well as his desire to be absolutely certain of a person's intentions, that led to his initial reluctance to take part in Mercer's film. "He tried to get in touch with me for months before I would talk to him," he said. "I said, 'I'm very flattered, but I just don't want to do that.' "
Mercer, after all, isn't the first to approach Chambliss about a documentary or collaboration. It's happened several times over the years, with one recent filmmaker based in Memphis even offering to pay him $2,000 for the privilege. Two weeks before we spoke, Chambliss said he was contacted by the creators of the Adult Swim series "The Heart She Holler," a kind of surrealist, Southern Gothic comedy starring Patton Oswalt. They claim to be fans of his films and have asked for the rights to use clips in the show for what seems like a fair price. So far, he's refused to speak to them. "They may be nice people for all I know," he said, "but I've had people do this to me before."
So what was different about Mercer? Chambliss really can't say. I asked Mercer what he thinks, and he said, "I think he's the type of person who gets a gut instinct about a person, and I think it was that kind of thing. He can sense when people aren't actually interested in the content of his films or what he's about. People love putting him on a pedestal, but he's not there to be a curiosity."
Of Mercer, the British introvert who would seem to have nothing in common with the voluble Arkansas eccentric, Chambliss said simply, "I greatly admire him. He'd be welcome in my house anytime."
Mercer stayed in Arkansas for a little over two weeks, collecting hours of footage of Chambliss, his instantly recognizable troupe of actors and the striking rural decay of their hometown. The resulting film, "Glass Eyes of Locust Bayou," is only 14 minutes long, and yet it's a perfect glimpse into the mind of Phil Chambliss, an affectionate, hilarious and utterly mysterious tribute to a unique Arkansas artist and his environment — from one professional outsider to another.
Just as Mercer himself was thrust into a strange context he couldn't possibly understand, the film declines to offer names or dates or any of the other structural cues typically used to help viewers navigate what they're seeing. "You just kind of wonder what you've just witnessed," Mercer said of his approach, "as opposed to me explaining or giving real commentary. I just sort of let you ponder it."
The film makes extensive use of clips from Chambliss' vast archive, all of which was shot in Locust Bayou, an enormous and casually executed anthropological feat. "Phil has been going around with a camera since the '70s just capturing little tidbits of people and places around that area," Mercer said. "That's what I think is incredible. He's documenting this whole chunk of Arkansas history and culture and society without even really thinking about it too consciously — better than probably a lot of people are."
Equally powerful is its presentation of Chambliss' natural gifts as a storyteller. "I wish I could have had them all," Mercer said of the stories, which include tales of hog hangings, attempted murders and an abandoned career as a pornographer. "There was sex and murder and intrigue and family feuds, every kind of story you could ever hope for. And you're always sort of straddling this line of not knowing when a story is getting blown out of proportion into fantasy territory, though not in bad way. Sometimes it's with a wink and a nudge, and other times it's just so wild I didn't know where the line was."
One story Chambliss tells, in particular, about being kidnapped by a group of Lakota Native Americans, struck me as both incredible and almost certainly, self-apparently not true. When I asked Chambliss about it, though, he seemed confused by my skepticism and stood by its total accuracy. Though Mercer originally doubted it, too, he said he isn't so sure anymore himself.
"It doesn't really matter," he said finally, and he's right. "That's just one of the stories Phil tells about his life."
"Glass Eyes of Locust Bayou" screens 5 p.m. Wednesday at The Rep and 3 p.m. Sunday at The Joint.