It's unusual for filmmakers shooting their first feature to already have garnered an Oscar, but the production team behind the new regional drama Chrystal—Ray McKinnon, his wife Lisa Blount, and their friend and fellow actor Walton Goggins—accomplished that rare feat. The group received the award for Best Short Film, Live Action at the 2002 Academy Awards for their film The Accountant, and it led to their attempting the current full-length feature. Re-cut since its premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the movie has been accepted by many other film festivals, including this week's AFI Los Angeles International Film Festival. It is now seeking a distributor.
Although the two films would seem on the surface to be dissimilar, they share a mixture of serious dramatic issues and humor. The Accountant, a largely humorous tale of a man's attempt to save his farm, is leavened by the realization that beneath the humor is the desperation of the untenable position of the modern American farmer. Chrystal, a mostly serious drama concerning a man's attempt at redemption upon his release from prison, features many moments of goofy levity.
Each film benefits from a rich sense of place: Accountant was made 40 miles to the east of Atlanta, Ga., and Chrystal was shot in northwest Arkansas, where Blount grew up. But the production experiences were very different.
"With The Accountant it was just three friends," says McKinnon, who wrote, directed, and acted in both films. "With Chrystal you had actors of some note [Billy Bob Thornton, Grace Zabriskie, Harry Dean Stanton] involved. That makes things different; now you've got managers and agents and unions involved. It just gets bureaucratically more complicated. In the essence of what we were doing—which was: 'Wow, this would be a great place to shoot this scene,'—that sense of play was very much similar."
"It was hugely different," adds actor/producer Blount, who plays the title role in Chrystal. "The first project was a handmade film. Every single aspect of the film was done by us. I was never in front of the camera, so I was able to just work like a dog, basically, both before and during production. Post was pretty easy, just time-consuming. The feature film was a different animal entirely; it was kind of surprising and a little scary. I had to turn a lot of my production duties over to other people who knew a whole lot more than I did. What I ended up focusing on was the look of the movie, all during prep. It was just the area I was most interested in and had the most influence in. And then Ray forced me to stop at a certain point, so I could really saturate myself in my character. He began to get concerned that the day would come and Chrystal wouldn't show up—Lisa the producer would, but Chrystal wouldn't. I moved by myself into a little house in the woods with a dirt road, and I tried to be her for the time I had. We had six producers, and every single person worked so hard."
Chrystal was shot in 35mm on a rented Panavision camera on Kodak film stock. "This movie needed to have an elegance to it that only 35mm could do, a timeless kind of quality," says McKinnon. The filmmakers purchased an older Avid for a decent price and hired an editor to cut the film. Technicolor was used as a post house and as a film developer. The filmmakers are keeping mum about the budget, at the request of their financier. One thing they are happy to pass on, however, is the need for negotiation at all levels of production.
"Everything's up for negotiation in this business," says McKinnon. "There's ways to make deals. Learn how to negotiate, learn what's reasonable to negotiate. [When we started], we didn't know that negotiation was such a big part of the business. Nobody pays retail. They wouldn't respect you if you paid retail."
Thinking of Artistic Things
"Ray and I both have acting backgrounds. [Blount is perhaps best known for her 1982 role in An Officer and a Gentleman.] There just came a point, frankly, where we felt a real artistic need," says Blount of the genesis of Chrystal. "He didn't really need to play another aging deputy. I had kind of quit the business, actually, because I didn't really like the roles I was getting. I didn't know what else to do with my life. But I knew Ray was a very good writer. With my determination, I was going to get some scripts out of this guy, you know? That's how it began. We couldn't get a feature off the ground. That's why we ended up doing a short. Thank God it worked out that way. Chrystal, to me, is a very complicated story. It operates on a number of levels, and it has a lot of surprises. Trying to get somebody to finance it was really difficult; I don't know why. People thought this was a very dangerous piece of material. I didn't see it that way."
Performance was crucial in this independent film, which focuses intensely on two life-damaged characters. The titular character is living with extreme emotional and physical pain, an acting challenge that Blount rises to and surpasses.
"I'm so proud of the physicality that I did in this movie," she says. "The truth of the matter is that, technically, it was such a simple thing to do. Sometimes I would forget, and our DP would say: 'You need to quit turning your head.' I couldn't be expressive with my hands; I really had to force myself to let it come out of my eyes. It would hurt, at the end of the day. I was in a lot of pain."
As to Chrystal's casting, McKinnon had some definite actors in mind when he began the process. "With Grace Zabriskie, we'd had her in mind forever," he says. "She'd read the script years ago, before we even made The Accountant. She'd ask from time to time if we'd forgotten about her, and we'd say: 'Are you kidding? We're glad to have you.' Harry Dean Stanton was always the one I'd considered for [Chrystal's relative] Pa Da. In fact, when I was writing it, I was seeing Harry play it, though he was not initially intrigued by the idea. It took a little wining and dining, but boy, were we glad to have him. I've seen a number of movies with bad Southern accents, to my ear. I knew that for Joe we needed somebody that I bought as an authentic person of that place. There's not very many that are that, and who could carry that role through a movie. There was no other choice [than Billy Bob], when I thought about it."
As writer/director/actor/producer on Chrystal, McKinnon thinks that he might not be quite such an ambitious hyphenate on upcoming projects. "I guess I would drop the producer next time around, because you can't pass that buck," he says wryly. "'Here, you take it—I'm going to go think of artistic things.' Whatever that is. The way we made the movies, it really was a group effort. There was not as much delineation between titles between Lisa, Walton, and I. At the end of the day we couldn't all disagree. If there wasn't a consensus, then I'd have to make the decision. It's not that complicated. You find a good story, you get good actors, you talk about the characters, and you go play pretend. I'm not saying it's easy to do, I'm just saying it's not [impossible]. I think we overcomplicate with titles: You only do this job, and don't cross over here. It gets too bureaucratic. I never thought in terms of those [job title] hyphenates. It's just about making a movie."
Getting Out There
"There's only a few people in Hollywood that buy and distribute movies," says McKinnon about the distribution issue. "Some of them had concerns with our movie, and the harder we sought them out, the less appealing [we seemed]. It's like trying to get a date. I thought, 'Look. I think this film has value. Let's go to some festivals and see if, by being a part of this celebration of film, that creates some kind of energy that moves forward and accomplishes our goals, which are generating good energy for the film. Maybe more and more people will see it, and it'll be picked up by a distributor, and it'll move forward.' It was more about going to where the 'yeses' were, as opposed to seeking out and finding the 'nos' again. These festivals wanted us to be a part of them. So far—Austin was wonderful, they're great people there—it's re-inspired us and reinvigorated us. You don't always have to seek a result by going to right where you think that result should be. You can go somewhere else, and it may lead you back to this place. That was the idea behind it."
McKinnon spent most of postproduction alternating between working on Chrystal and acting on HBO's Western series, Deadwood, and says it was a "creatively amazing year." Moreover, McKinnon and Blount found the process of working together complex yet wonderful.
"The great thing about Lisa is, she's got her aesthetic—her take on the world and on art is so inspiring to me," says McKinnon. "It truly is; this movie is a testament to that. My development as a director and a writer is a testament to her inspiration and her talent. At the end of the day, it's all good." BSW
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