ON FILM: Civil War film has potential for greatness if it gets made

— At the recent Little Rock Film Festival there were shorts produced by high school kids, budgetless documentaries, independently financed features and a special screening of the latest major motion from the Judd Apatow laugh factory, Get Him to the Greek. One of the reasons to go to a film festival is to sample the varieties - to realize that movies are not simply the entertainment machines that Hollywood installs in our cineplexes.

Also at the festival was a 10-minute clip of a movie that may never get made, a proposed film called Arkansas Traveler. Screenwriter director-actor Sean Bridgers describes it as a “Faustian Western,” and the story could be described as a classic American road movie, a naturalistic tale that in some respects evokes Huckleberry Finn - although Bridgers cites a more recent source, “The Outlaw Josey Wales, one of the greatest movies ever made.”

Arkansas Traveler is about a Confederate solider, Wayland McGlawhorn, an Arkansas farmer from Crawford County riding with Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is captured by Union forces and sent to the Rock Island prison camp in Illinois. In the waning days of the war, Wayland, encouraged by the spectral John Bones, escapes from the camp and, dressed in the clothes of a man whose suicide he witnesses, begins to make his way down the Mississippi toward home.

Bridgers, best known for his portrayal of the simple “box herder” Johnny Burns on HBO’s Deadwood series, has been working on this movie for a decade. It started in his head, while he was a struggling actor crashing in his friend Michael “Ffish” Hemschoot’s house in Burbank.

Now with Hemschoot (a visual effects artist who has worked on The Matrix, Master and Commander, Cast Away and Minority Report), with whom he directed the short film A Nightat the Zoo, which screened at the 2009 Little Rock Film Festival, Bridgers is ready to start to realize Arkansas Traveler. They have prospective lead actors - Garret Dillahunt and Angela Bettis - and have enlisted the aid of a Kansas City, Mo.-based production company, Wide Awake Productions, which heretofore has specialized in making documentaries about Civil War battles (including the Emmy-winning Bad Blood: The Border War That Triggered the Civil War).

And they also have Bridgers’ script, a document that has, in some quarters, acquired a remarkable reputation. I know I heard about it several years ago, when Ray McKinnon, the Little Rock-based actor-directorproducer who’d worked with Bridgers on the first season of Deadwood, told me it was one of the best screenplays he’d ever read.

“Arkansas Traveler is one of the best un-produced scripts I have read in the last decade,” McKinnon said. “It’s not just the complex, larger narrative of the end of the Civil War and the amazing backdrop of the protagonist’s travels, but Arkansas Traveler offers the continual smaller surprises of behavior and plot - of man’s inhumanity to man [and woman and child and beast] and his infinite humanity. It’s universal and timeless and must get made.”

The script is what led Dillahunt and Bettis to work for free to make the teaser; Dillahunt says his only regret is that he’s not a big enough star to guarantee that the movie would be made.

“I would be very happy to play Wayland,” Dillahunt says, “but I don’t have to play Wayland. I could take another part, or it could work out that I might not be able to be in it at all.”

Similarly, while Bridgers plays Bones in the teaser footage, he says he might not appear in the finished film. He means to once again co-direct along with Hemschoot.

“What’s important is that the film gets made,” Dillahunt says.

And made the right way. Wide Awake producers Shane Seley and Ed Leydecker say no one involved in the film wants to take the idea to a Hollywood studio because of the inevitable compromises that would entail. The plan is to shoot the film as a guerrilla production, using a lot of authentic locations and employing serious Civil War reenactors as extras, in part, Seley says, because they can supply their own costumes and equipment.

And the footage shown at the LRFF looks great; shot on a lightweight Viper Filmstream ultra-high-def digital camera that allows shooting in low light situations (eliminating the need for expensive Hollywood-style lighting), it has a rich, detailed but somehow still antique feel

And Bridgers, the son of a novelist, can talk intelligently about the psychology of his characters, about the 1860s version of post-traumatic stress syndrome, the reasons underpinning what we perceive as a higher degree of thoughtfulness in 19th-century characters and the unforeseen consequences of the Industrial Revolution in regard to warfare.

“Nobody realized what was happening,” he says, talking about the implications of the improved technology. “They just ended up butchering each other.”

Anyone who has ever examined the process knows the only way any movie - however well planned and intentioned - ever gets made is through luck. Schedules have to work out, funding has to be found, hearts have to stay constant.

But this a movie I’d like to see. If you think you can help, I can put you in touch with the filmmakers.



MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 06/11/2010

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