Thanks to tax breaks, a lot of movies these days are either set or shot in cities like Atlanta, New Orleans or Albuquerque. Arkansas doesn't offer those kinds of incentives, but that didn't stop rookie feature writer-director Devon Parks from transforming the town of Van Buren to the way it looked at the dawn of the 20th century.
Fayetteville-based Hannover House is releasing Parks' period thriller The Riot Act, which has just completed principal photography and is scheduled to open theatrically on July 6 throughout Arkansas and in New York, Philadelphia, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, Sacramento and Memphis.
That's a wide release for movie shot primarily in a town of 23,000, but the city has served as a location for the 1982 miniseries The Blue and the Gray and the 1995 James Gang drama Frank & Jesse, starring Rob Lowe and Bill Paxton.
It also doesn't hurt that Parks and the film's star and producer Lauren Sweetser (Winter's Bone, NCIS: Los Angeles) are both Arkansas natives.
When asked by phone last week about the difficulty in taking Van Buren back in time, Parks replied, "In any other town, it would be extremely difficult. I grew up in Van Buren. Over 23 years of my life I was able to build a lot of relationships and a lot of resources that during my early professional careers have proven to be reliable.
"I did a short several years ago (Step Into: The King Opera House) on the same main street. It was the first time that anyone had ever asked if anyone could block off some streets of the town. 'Can we cover it with dirt? Can we take down signs?' Believe it or not the officials of Van Buren as well as the merchants on the main street of the town that we did shut down, they take pride in the historical aspect of the town. (Executive Producer) Eric (Parkinson) and Hannover looked at what Lauren and I had done and said if we can do this in a short film, they can pave the way to do it on a larger scale."
Parks based his fictional story on a local mystery.
"There was a local doctor. He basically built the town," he says. "He was very wealthy. His daughter had fallen in love with a traveling stage actor that was coming through Van Buren at the time. She had plotted to flee town, and being a small town that it was, word got around to the doctor. The legend is that he intercepted them at the depot as they were ready to leave, and he murdered the actor she had fallen in love with."
The Riot Act stars Brett Cullen (Person of Interest, Narcos and Queen of the South) as Dr. Willard Pearrow, who finds that a new production at the now historic King Opera House may be offering more than entertainment. The cast also includes Connor Price (Being Human) and Micah Hauptman (Homeland).
Because of the period setting and the murder in the storyline, it's tempting to think of the film as either a Western or even a horror film. Parks says that his forthcoming film defied easy classification: "It doesn't fall into the conventional Western drama like a John Wayne movie or Tombstone or what everybody views as classic Westerns that are still very popular today. It's a thriller. It's no more a Western than The Prestige is a Western."
In the Natural State
If Parks and Sweetser, who collaborated on the Fort Smith-shot Step Into: Miss Laura's, lacked a large budget or tax breaks that attract filmmakers, their knowledge of the area and their friends and family connections more than compensated.
"We didn't have to spend time scouting locations," Parks says. "We didn't have to spend time going into these shops negotiating costs. Between Lauren and I, a lot of that groundwork was already in place."
That said, getting Van Buren, Fort Smith, Springdale and Paris to pass for their turn-of-the-20th-century selves took considerable effort, particularly for production designer Emily Parks, the director's wife.
"Half the work was done," Devon Parks says. "The original brick was in the walls. In the opera house, we had to put new flooring on the stage that matched the time period we were trying to shoot in. We wallpapered the entire theater differently from what it was. We had to bring in all the ornate curtains that would have been there."
Nonetheless, Arkansas' unique qualities helped make The Riot Act look less generic. When I interviewed cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner: 2049, et al. ), he politely apologized for passing off Texas as Fort Smith in the Coen Brothers' True Grit. Like most other natives, Parks noticed a difference between that movie and the real McCoy.
"It was beautifully shot, but it didn't look like Fort Smith. It looked like a traditional Western town," Parks says. "The result (of shooting in Van Buren) is undeniable, and it's much easier once the work is done to shoot from any angle that you need to and get a true authenticity of the town, as opposed to a dirt and brown-neutral Western town that you would find in a lot of backlots."
Sweetser says titles were somewhat informal during the shoot.
"Everyone wore 20 hats on this movie," she says. "It was interesting to go back and forth from being talent to being a producer. I think some of the actors were confused on certain days. I'd shoot scenes in the morning, and then I'd be more into producer mode. I'd go, 'Can I get you anything? Can I get you coffee or a blanket?,'" she said. "They said, 'This is weird. We just acted together, and now you're asking if you can get me anything?'"
Parks and Sweetser share producing credit. When I pointed out that she'd give a speech if the film picks up an award, she giggled and said, "We'd probably be fighting for it on the mic stand."
MovieStyle on 02/16/2018
Print Headline: Native Arkansan filmmakers put Van Buren in spotlight