Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
When we talk about the cultural legacy of the Natural State, we talk about literature and we talk about music; we talk about art; but more often these days more of us talk about film. In the last decade or so, a handful of filmmakers have brought Arkansas recognition in national culture pages, as either hailing from this state or coming home to practice their craft, to give something back — to portray, in part, where it is they hail from. Ticking off this handful, we mention Billy Bob Thornton and Joey Lauren Adams; we mention Ray McKinnon and Lisa Blount and their prodigal commitment; lately we've been mentioning the thoroughbred talent of the Renaud Brothers, who, with gutsy documentaries about Iraq and Central High, reveal an upstart seriousness that balances all this dramatic intensity with weighty nonfiction.
From now on we'll also mention, and perhaps discuss at length, the films of Jeff Nichols, the 28-year-old Little Rock native whose first feature film, “Shotgun Stories,” was shot in Pulaski and Lonoke counties in 2005. Since then, Nichols has been dragged through the dark psychoemotional woods you'd expect of such an ambitious endeavor. But two years later, things seem to be falling into place, and Nichols finds himself in a less typical clearing of critical praise. The film was finished just in time for the 2007 festival season. It was rejected from Sundance, but then accepted at Berlin, where it caused a stir, and it has since been towing Nichols across the planet — to New York's Tribeca Film Festival, to Newport, Seattle, Paris and Sydney — and showing on its own at festivals in Athens, Vienna, Israel, London, gathering accolades and prizes along the way. He walked away with the grand prize at the Austin Film Festival, and recently scored a Cassavetes nomination at the Independent Spirit Awards. Save an Oscar nomination, there's no greater prize for a film produced for under half a million dollars.
The fact that few people in Little Rock have heard of “Shotgun Stories” is a small irony Nichols intends to put to rest when the film finally premieres at Market Street Cinema on Friday, Dec.14.
“I'm going to Paris for two weeks to do press interviews, and I'm much more anxious about how the film will do here,” he said. “I mean, I have no true accountability in France; they could either like it or not. But there's true accountability at home. People can call ‘bullshit' on you. They can call it on you immediately. And I'm sure some of them will.”
We were at his home in Austin, Texas, where he relocated in 2003 to live with his fiancee. It took some penciling across the calendar, dodging festival appearances, but we finally caught up on a Saturday, forgiveably warm for October. Tall, lanky, pensively slouched, Nichols was worn out from wedding preparations and other projects — he's working on his own next script, and has signed on to direct “GOAT,” the $3 million adaptation of Brad Land's best-selling memoir. After a glance at his workspace — the laundry room, a small one, with just a laptop and a bulletin board pinned with index cards with his next plotline — we settled in the backyard for a game of washers, with a six-pack of beer and a basset hound for company.
A little room should be given to the film's story, nearly Greek in its knotted antagonisms: Two sets of half-brothers, descended from the same man at different phases in his life (an early phase of vices, followed by a Christian phase and a new family), get to feuding after the old man's death. Son Hayes, the film's protagonist and eldest of the forsaken brothers, learns about his father's death secondhand, through his mother — “a hateful woman,” as he describes her. He crashes the funeral to set the record straight about who his father really was, and to hell with that Christian family's grieving. His curses set off an escalating cycle of retaliation, making the small town where all these brothers live suddenly much smaller, and dangerous. Ultimately, the tragedy lies in how readily these men are willing to avenge each other.