Saturday, August 22, 2009

Memphis filmmaker Willy Bearden mines family history for first full-length feature film

By John Beifuss

Saturday, August 22, 2009

As a filmmaker, Willy Bearden is best known for his popular "Memphis Memoirs" programs about local history.

"Overton Park: A Century of Change," "Elmwood: Reflections of Memphis" and "Playing for a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage Bands in Memphis" continue to draw viewers (and pledges) whenever they air on public television.

For his first feature film, Bearden is keeping the focus on the past, but he has moved from community to personal history and from documentary to drama.

Inspired by a family story he first heard from his mother, Bearden recently finished shooting "One Came Home," an ambitious period piece set in Mississippi just after World War II that he hopes to debut in theaters early next year.

"This thing has been like grabbing a passing freight train and hanging on for dear life, it's so different from what I've done before," said Bearden, who was feted on set with champagne and cake on his 59th birthday on Aug. 14, near the end of the project's monthlong production.

"We bit off more than we could chew, but we swallowed it," said Bearden, in a follow-up metaphor. Even so, making a movie apparently is as good as a crash diet: Bearden said he lost 15 pounds while shooting.

Most of "One Came Home" was shot at the Davies Manor Plantation in Bartlett, Shelby County's oldest open-to-the-public log cabin home, with buildings on the grounds that date back to at least 1830. The historic setting added production value that was way beyond what the filmmakers otherwise could have afforded. Other scenes were shot in Tupelo and Holly Springs.

"We're trying to make a million-dollar film on a $30,000 budget," said director of photography Ryan Parker, a local-film veteran who shot "One Came Home" with the increasingly popular Red One high-resolution digital camera, known for its film-like images.

"We're tying to give the impression that you're walking into 1946 with the sets and costumes and production detail," Parker said. "We don't want to just add a sepia tone and say it's the past."

Rachel Boulden, 24, the movie's art director, said her challenge on "One Came Home" was atypical: She had to make Davies Manor look newer, rather than older, for the camera: "We're actually kind of giving it a face lift, so it will look like 1946 instead of the 19th century."

Nancy McDonough, executive director of Davies Manor, said "One Came Home" was the first movie to be shot at the historic location. (Bearden agreed to do a marketing film for Davies Manor in exchange for the use of the location.)

"I don't think we knew what we were in for, but it was really a great experience," she said. "Most of our visitors are from out of town, so we can't just shut down. We put a sign on the door that said right now we're not an 1850s log cabin, we're a 1940s movie set, but people were thrilled -- they seemed to really enjoy it."

Written by Bearden and Memphis writer David Tankersley, "One Came Home" is the story of a con artist who takes advantage of a proper Mississippi family by pretending to be the wartime buddy of the family's son, who was killed in combat in Europe.

In fact, Bearden said, his mother's brother, Murphy Wright, was shot and killed in the Netherlands on March 24, 1945, less than two months before V-E Day. He was buried overseas.

A soldier friend did write the family saying he knew Wright. The idea that the man was a con artist, however, comes from Bearden's imagination.

Bearden said he found some old letters about his late uncle, and they told "a heartbreaking story of a kid from rural Mississippi who was just afraid."

Said Bearden of his family: "They weren't poor people, they owned the store and had tenants on the farm, but they were country people. They were used to sitting up with their dead and, of course, they didn't get to do this. So it left a big hole."

The inspiration isn't the only family aspect to "One Came Home." The director's daughter, Savannah Bearden, 28, a member of the Emerald Theatre Company at TheatreWorks, stars as a character based on Bearden's mother.

The director's other children also are involved. Matt Bearden, 21, is a dolly grip, while Maggie Bearden, also 21, is a hair and makeup artist.

The con artist is played by Corey Parker, 44, a professional actor who recently moved to Memphis (his wife, Angela, is a native Memphian) after years in New York and Los Angeles, appearing in such movies and TV shows as "Biloxi Blues," "Will & Grace" and "thirtysomething."

Bearden said he only recently became interested in the idea of directing a narrative film.

"At my core, I'm a storyteller, and I've used that to tell the story of Memphis over the past 10, 15 years. So I don't know what really clicked in me, but maybe it was sitting in a dark room for a couple hundred hours trying to edit a documentary and get the people to say what you want them to say."

"One Came Home" was produced with what Bearden called a "core" crew of about 25 people. Some scenes -- including a church service and a traditional Southern outdoor party -- required 30 to 40 extras.

A longtime filmmaker and event producer, Bearden makes a living creating commercials, corporate and educational films (for the Elvis Presley Birthplace Museum in Tupelo and the Cotton Museum in Downtown Memphis, among other clients), and by staging such productions as the annual Blues Music Awards.

"I've always said my job is to make sure I have a balance between art and technology," he said. "The craft of filmmaking is leading your viewers to exactly what you want them to see, and, hopefully, to what you want them to feel."

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