Sunday, February 14, 2010

First three days with Frank the Rat

Thursday February 11th

We fully expect to be stranded at the airport after a 2nd snowstorm hits the East Coast, but the latest “snowpocalypse” is somewhat overrated by the various cable news outlets. The runways at Newark are clear, and we’re off without a hitch.

Arrival in Spartanburg SC after a day of air travel to find myself the “Guest of the Day” at the local Holiday Inn. It’s unrelated to the film tour, but nets Courtney and I a nice big suite for no extra charge. Very nice!

We have a late lunch at Papa’s Breakfast Nook, a 24-hour Spartanburg landmark populated with friendly and chatty local characters. I recall that below the Mason-Dixon line (or thereabouts) Iced Tea = Sweet Tea, and the glass is always bottomless. Courtney enjoys their signature French toast. My “day job” producing and directing TV docs hasn’t brought me down South for a couple of years. and it’s nice to be back.

At the venue, Marketing Director Steve Wong gives us a warm welcome and takes us on a guided tour of the impressive arts complex known as the Chapman Cultural Center.

We screen to a friendly and enthused group in a lovely state of the art theater. I’m pleasantly surprised that the standard def DVD playback looks as good as it does. People ask smart questions and are generous with their feedback. Afterwards, a group lingers to share that they were moved by the emotional line of the story, which, needless to say, always feels good.

After the event, Courtney and I head over to the uniquely named Cornbread To Caviar for dinner: fried oysters, fried chicken, sautéed (not fried!) spinach. “It’s a small world” item: we learn that, years ago, the restaurant’s chef and owner Bill designed the Cajun-themed menu at a restaurant just blocks from our home in Hoboken, NJ.

Dinner is interrupted by news that our flight to the next venue in Lakeland Florida tomorrow has been cancelled due to another winter storm brewing in Texas. Since we have little choice in the matter, we decide to worry about that tomorrow.

Friday February 12th

It becomes clear that we’re not going to get a flight down to Florida. After considering our options, we decide that the show must go on: we get a one-way rental car and drive the 575 miles to Lakeland.

I almost regret it when the interstate is pelted by heavy rain, and we slow down to a crawl due to seemingly endless road work and then a car crash. We're now way behind schedule and the nearly 10 hour drive climaxes with a white-knuckle finish to get to the theater in time to do the Q and A.

We pull into Lakeland 5 minutes before the end titles roll. The Polk Theatre is a classic movie palace, with an ornate interior design mimicking an Italian Renaissance town square, complete with twinkling “stars” and moving “clouds” overhead.

It's a more palatial version of the now defunct Varsity Theater in Evanston Illinois, where I spent hundreds of hours watching repertory cinema during my college years. Sadly, the Varsity was destroyed and converted into a chain drugstore, so it's great to see that the folks in Lakeland had the resources and good sense to preserve their film-going heritage.

Polk Theatre CEO Dale Anderson moderates a lively Q and A session. I’m impressed by the audience’s curiosity about the nuts and bolts of filmmaking, and the specificity of some of their questions. We discuss the casting process, car camera mounts, mic placement, and writing inspiration, among other things. I detail some of the production challenges we encountered, in particular shooting lengthy dialogue scenes in a moving car on an ultra low budget.

It brings back some great memories as well as others I’d rather forget! Most gratifying is hearing consistent praise for all of the actors in our film, particularly Derek Cecil and Fiona Dourif, our two leads.

Saturday February 13th

An early morning drive up I-75 brings us back over the border and into Fitzgerald, Georgia. It feels like we've entered the rural South for the first time on the Tour. The Grand Theatre is another impressive old movie theater with a storied history. According to Theater Manager Jon Durkovic, it serves as a live performance center for the three counties surrounding Fitzgerald, in addition to being the only movie house around for miles.

Jon is a storyteller, and after the matinee screening, he fills us in on some colorful local lore, including the origin of the wild chickens that stroll around town, and the legend of the three ghosts reputed to presently haunt the rafters of the old Grand Theatre.

We have an early supper at Peck's in the neighboring town of Ocilla. Everyone there knows each other; conversations and visits flow from one table to the next. It feels like having a meal is secondary to the sense of communal gathering. We sample the excellent ribs and blackened catfish, and then head back to our motel just in time to see speed skater Apolo Ohno win a silver medal.

After three days of screenings and many hundred of miles covered, we're looking forward to sleeping late tomorrow.