Ed McClanahan’s The Congress of Wonders: Filmmaking in Lexington

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November 1994
BY BRAD BECKER

A crew pitched a carnival tent outside Lexington just over a year ago. My editor suggested I take advantage of a chance to get into the Kentucky countryside and meet some interesting people while looking into the story behind this strange scene.

I leapt at the chance to get away from the boxes I’d been unpacking after my recent move to the area. The author behind this event, I’d been told, was a notorious writer living down the street from the house I had just rented. He’d published a short story called “The Congress of Wonders” in Esquire, and it was being made into a film. I was researching this story at the public library when I first met one of his readers (“McClanafans,” I later learned), who was eager to turn me on to the author’s catalog: his novel, The Natural Man; a book of vignettes, Famous People I Have Known; and the short story I came to find.

Not having quite adjusted to the facts of my life or where my journey had landed me, confusion — curiously unlike any I’d had since my adolescence — held reign in my brain. Coincidentally, Ed McClanahan’s story happened to be about a twelve-year-old boy’s search for some answers and the unlikely places they could be found. The search took both of us to the Congress of Wonders.

It turns out that my first project in Kentucky was not going to be just about a local author getting famous, or an award-winning director coming to town. It was about a cast of talented people who stopped what they were doing, ventured into new worlds, and, in the prcess, learned about themselves and the crafts to which they had given their lives.

 

A Screen Door Opens and a Story Comes Out to Play

Some time ago, Universal Studios bought the film rights to McClanahan’s novel, The Natural Man, but it wasn’t until a story by his friend, Gurney Norman, was made into a film that he ever gave a thought to a similar treatment for a story of his own. The first thing he had to do was find someone who made movies. That someone turned out to be award-winning documentarian and Louisville native Paul Wagner.

In 1986, Wagner was working on an idea for a movie about a teenage garage band in the mid 50s. A friend who’d recently Famous People I Have Known could see that Ed McClanahan had an obvious affinity for old time rock and roll. (FP contains the famed piece about Little Enis first published in Playboy), and suggested that Wagner persuade him to write the script. McClanahan agreed, but after a year of sporadic work, he didn’t feel like he was making progress, so he and Wagner decided to put it away.

“I just couldn’t figure out how to advance the narrative with dialogue. I didn’t fnd the momentum. So I went back to this idea I had been working on, which was a one-act play called ‘The Congress of Wonders.’ A friend from Actors Theatre in Lousiville suggested I try to write this play about an incident in a carnival side-show. Many moons ago in Montana I had tried to write it, and it had failed for the same reasons: I couldn’t figure out how to make the thing move with dialogue, to drive the narrative in that way — which it obviously has to do in theater.”

“I finally decided that I was gonna take the damn thing — this one-act play — and turn it into a short story. That, I do know how to do. And then, I thought, maybe the short story will reveal to me some way that I can go back and make it into a play again, something that could be made into a movie. With that in mind, I tried to locate all the action in a tent, or just outside it, to keep it a one scene affair.”

“Ultimately, what made it possible to do the script for teh screenplay was that Paul did one first. Once he was through with it, the narrative was still there; but it was the skeleton. Dialogue was the flesh.”

In 1988, “The Congress of Wonders” (the story) was published in Esquire; two years later, Paul Wagner was back in town, and the two got together for dinner. McClanahan showed him the story, and asked Wagner if he would consider doing a short film based on it. A few months later, Wagner sent back a screenplay, and they decided to apply for an independent film production grant ($20,000, administered by KET).

Wagner got the idea that they ought to use the resources they had assembled to put together a pitch film to demonstrate their capacity to produce something dramatic. So they broke out and tinkered with the bagged writings of four years before, and created a seven-minute film called Crazy Man Crazy, which won them the grant money.

Taking a Dramatic Turn

Paul Wagner’s documentaries are not obscure. In 1985, he received an Oscar (best documentary) and an Emmy (best director of a documentary) for The Stone Carvers; he has also been awarded filmmaking grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. His most recent and grandest work, Out of Ireland, was finished between the filming and final edit of The Congress of Wonders.

While Crazy Man Crazy was Wagner’s first attempt at dramatic filmmaking, Congress was not hsi first experience with the mysteries of traveling shows. In the early 80s, the Smithsonian and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources sponsored a reunion of old campaigners on the patent-medicine sales circuits of 60 years ago, to be staged in Bailey, North Carolina. Wagner filmed the event, assembled out of the recollectionso f surviving medicine show musicians and entertainers. The resulting film, Free Show Tonight, is not only a poignant document of important American history, but also a testament to Wagner’s interest in what makes people gather for such events.

Since Wagner makes documentaries, I assumed that the genre shift — and certainly the process of writing a screenplay from a short story — would be daunting. He explained, though, that the writing process was nothing new, that most of what he’d done in the past entailed paring down material — stories, research, history, memories — into something filmable. His task would be the same for The Congress of Wonders.

“The story is conveniently written all in one location. This is because Ed originally wrote it as a one-act play…At the screenplay level, to give the story more reality and to establish the brothers’ relationship, we added only one other setting, which was the basketball scene in the barn.

“Any real trepidation I had at this stage was about how my friend Ed might deal with my manipulation of his material.

“Strangely enough, though, I was much more cautious with the story than Ed was. Many writers just refuse to have their work put to film, because they know they’ll be upset. Ed was elated to see the different spins people would put on the story — me, Gary [Grieg, director of photography], Pat [McNeese, production designer] and of course, the actors.

“There’s a comment I read about William Faulkner after he’d had some of his work filmed. An interviewer asked him if he was upset about what had been done to his novels. Faulkner looked over his shoulder at the shelf of his books and replied ‘They haven’t done anything with my novels.’ That seemed to be Ed’s spirit through this. We both agreed that there was no point in being slaves to the story.”

“I learned that what it takes, both from a directorial point of view and from the photographer’s standpoint, to maintain the perspectives of the characters. And then there’s the place of music in dramatic film, which is to cue or to punctuate emotional responses. I didn’t know how to do that. What Paul Christianson composed for this film is so graceful, not overwhelming, it’s very effective in this way.

Film Becomes a Painter.

Though his passions were for paint and piano, Patrick McNeese wrote and co-produced training videos for Clark Equipment after he finished his Fine Arts degree at UK. He also earned the independent film grant money in 1992 to produce a documentary about local jazz musician Duke Madison.

He met Ed McClanahan at Alfalfa’s restaurant in spring of 1993, and they talked about the film. McNeese sent his resume and a calling card — his Duke Madison video — to Wagner. By early summer, he was handed the production design job.

“Though I hadn’t done exactly this sort of thing before, The Congress of Wonders provided for me this great amalgam, which was a perfect dovetail for some of the things I have done before. Sometimes being really experienced and seasoned works against you. You lose your receptiveness. Newness usually creates a level of anxiety, because it puts you on a different footing and you’re more vulnerable. But it also has an uncanny way of opening up possibilities.”

McNeese’s task was to spend three months — and very little money — conceiving, collecting, and constructing the rope and canvas carnival world of 1944, where the lens would be focused most of the time.

“Any period piece is hard. If you miss a little, you miss a lot. In the end, there were precious few holes poked in the 1944 illusion. And though we weren’t blessed with a big budget, we were blessed with time — time to borrow and beg everything possible, time to talk about the world we wanted to create. I even found time to paint. (An accomplished artist, McNeese’s forays into music and video projects had kept him from his painting for five years. He painted the carnival posters which became the signatures of the film set.)

One of McNeese’s biggest challenges was scouting from Louisville to Cincinnati for the main set piece: a carnival tent. But once he finally found a tent he could borrow, he didn’t have any place to pitch it.

Until twelve days before the cameras arrived, the filming had been planned for Cynthiana, where there was plenty of open space, a tobacco barn into which they could move everything if it rained, and a water tower, which they’d decided was an important part of their set. But the owner of the property balked at the money they offered, and there was no time for dickering.

McNeese and Mike Brower, the line producer for the film, who’d set up his office at Video Editing Services as a sort of “Wonders Central,” drove out to explore a spot at Kentucky Horse Park which Brower had been considering.

“As I talked with Mike, it started to maek more and more sense that we look closer in to Lexington, with all the people we had working for free. But the Horse Park sites we had in mind turned out to be too pristine, too Bluegrassy. So we’re on our way out the drive, wondering where we’ll go next, and we see this big water tower at Spindletop, UK’s agriculture farm, on the horizon. The water tower had become for us an important set icon when we’d been planning on the Cynthiana site. We pulled into the driveway, still fixed on that water tower, and as we approached, we could also see this grassy knoll descending from there, and aside from this pie slice of incongruous space which was the Spindletop Estate tennis court, we knew this had everything we needed. There was even a tobacco barn.”

McNeese conferred with Wagner and McClanahan and all agreed that the new location was perfect. Subsequent serendiptous discoveries, not the least of which was the barn where the project could continue unitnterruped in the event of rain, further blessed the choice.

A couple of days before cast and crew were to show up, McNeese and a friend hauled the tent out to Spindletop, hoisted it up, staked it down, and reveled in their first glimpse of the film set. Then, Paul Wagner arrived.

“Paul looked at it and said in no uncertain terms that this tent just wouldn’t work, that it looked too good, too new, that either we’d have to rough it up somehow, or get another one. I called the guy who lent it, and he told me that if I got so much as a drop of paint on it, I’d buy it. Now, I’m sweating at this point, because I have to assume any tent this size is going to cost more money than we have. But I’ve got to ask him his price, because I’m out of time. I’m ready as I can be for this guy to tell me one or two thousand bucks; and he says, adamantly, ‘I’ll need two hundred dollars.’ ‘We’ll take it,’ I said, and within an hour after that call, we were rubbing it down with brown paint.”

Then there was rain, but there was a barn. McNeese rattled off a list of names of willing and gracious Lexingtonians who lent everything from costumes and cars to the Teslacoil device — who pounded nails and slopped paint, who put their jobs on hold to be a part of a new venture.

“It’s this kind of thing that makes me call this production ‘blessed.’ Somehow, problems seemed to work for us. In the close quarters of the barn, eating together, up late and half asleep, the group bonded. The Congress of Wonders was about the great things that happen when so much human spirit is being poured into something.”

***

Since it was raining, I wondered if anything would be going on that first night a year ago when I headed out to find The Congress of Wonders at Spindletop. A guy with a flashlight met me on the driveway below the water tower, said theyd moved everything into a barn, and offered me a lift out there.

What I saw first looked like a terrier, but I learned later it was “Little Big: World’s Smallest Midget Goat” — the available sub for Jo-Jo’s miniature donkey bed buddy. A guy with a penciled mustache was sitting there feeding it potato chips.

Bright light filled the tent. I moved closer to see what was going on in there. They were shooting a scene — an important one, the one where twelve-year-old Wade asks a bodiless head if his brother will make it through the war. WandaPearl had told him, not long before, that a “pickled punk show” was no place to look for the Truth. But she was wrong; and I know more than a few who will attest to it.

Now, a year later, The Congress of Wonders is back on the road. It was one of a select roster of short films (twenty-five minutes) shown at the Festival of American Film in Charlottesville, Virginia. On November 30, 199 it will make its Lexington, Kentucky debut, attended by Ed McClanahan, Paul Wagner, and the cast. A reception — and as many showings as requested — will follow.

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