So it’s no surprise the movie Bloodworth, based on William Gay’s novel Provinces of Night — all about getting out and coming home — was made by a couple of Kentuckians now in L.A.
Producer and director Shane Dax Taylor, originally of Louisville, and producer, actor and screenwriter W. Earl Brown, originally of Murray in Calloway County, have made the movie, which stars Kris Kristofferson, Dwight Yoakam, Val Kilmer, W. Earl Brown, Hilary Duff and newcomer from Canada Reece Thompson.
Taylor had directed exactly one feature film before this one. But was he intimidated by this raft of legendary talent?
“I’m so laid back that I knew exactly what I wanted. From my time at ESPN dealing with stress. Dealing with athletes is one thing and dealing with actors is…well, they are a lot the same. I wasn’t intimidated at all. I knew what I wanted and got to rehearse and having Earl there as well, he’s such an amazing actor. He and I were the two that got this film made.”
The movie, shot on location in North Carolina, and set in that part of Tennessee that could be part of the Commonwealth if you didn’t know your exact metes and bounds, opens May 20 at The Kentucky Theatre.
The engagement is one of 10 select markets, including Los Angeles, that will get a premiere screening of Bloodworth. The movie is an independent production (eight years in the making), picked up for distribution by Sony’s Samuel Goldwyn imprint following its opening at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival – and a 45-minute edit.
The five men are “them Bloodworths” the prodigal grandfather, the arrogant womanizing boozehound, the spellcasting, mama-protecting religious, the broken divorced dad, and the intellectual grandson. Sounds cliché, or maybe just like your actual Southern family?
Kristofferson’s character, E.F. Bloodworth has come home after abandoning his wife and sons 40 years earlier for a life on the road playing music. Thompson’s character, Fleming greets his grandfather openly, despite being surrounded by his father and uncles, harbinger birds of heredity.
Will the circle be unbroken? Good lord, young, bookish Fleming Bloodworth hopes not. He wants out and he is typing as fast as he can.
“Fleming Bloodworth is my Holden Caulfield,” said Earl Brown, whose bio says he comes from a long line of “bootleggers and used-car dealers” and who said in a phone interview from California that as a young man, he could not relate to the Catcher in the Rye protagonist all his friends raved about.
Brown and Taylor are an unlikely, but the likeliest of duos.
Shane Dax Taylor is the 35-year-old Kentuckian who directed and produced the film. Born in Henderson and raised in suburban Louisville, he’s always known he wanted to be a director, he said in an interview while home for Derby weekend.
Taylor attended Murray State University and Watkins Film School in Nashville, and interned with Vanderbilt Sports information before being hired at ESPN, working as a producer on live sporting events and documentaries.
Taylor also wrote and directed The Grey, a movie about the relationship between a Southern father and son set against the culture of cockfighting. That film was honored with the Achievement in Direction and Best American Film awards at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in the year it came out. (It also played at the Kentucky Theater.)
W. Earl Brown, a Kentucky native who graduated from Calloway County High School, took a theater degree at Murray State and an MFA in theater from DePaul, is perhaps best known for his role as Western henchman Dan Dority on HBO’s Deadwood.
But Brown, first hired on a Hollywood set to coach the actors in Backdraft in how to talk in a Chicago accent before his scores of major movie and TV roles, is more than an actor.
He has been a fulltime writer on Deadwood, working for the legendary David Milch. He has written this Bloodworth script, produced it and is working on two other “front-burner” film projects with Taylor – a “whitewater rafting thriller” and a Mantlefamily approved Mickey Mantle project.
Brown said that one of his favorite things about this film is “Having Kris (in it) and having what Kris is saying about the film.” Kristofferson has been quoted as saying the movie is the best he’s been in or at least close to the best, a list including his work with Sam Peckinpah and his role opposite Barbra Streisand in “A Star Is Born.”
“Kris is one of my heroes. In New York he was a poet, in Nashville he was a country music star, in LA, he was a movie star. And they all claimed him,” Brown said.
KENTUCKIAN DUO TEAMS UP
It was kismet, all the way, according to W. Earl Brown.
It was midair magazine kismet that he found this William Gay book, Kentucky kismet that he met Shane Dax Taylor and asskick kismet that he ad libbed a line on a David Milch set, causing Steve Earle to strongarm and shame him into becoming a regular writer on Deadwood.
And Earl Brown, he believes in kismet. Earl Brown’s wife, Carrie Brown, had interviewed William Gay for a collaborative book of photos and stories of people from the South she was working on with a colleague from Alabama. So he’d become aware of the Tennessee-based writer then and was a little jealous that he had an advance copy of Steve Earle’s Doghouse Roses. Heck, W. Earl Brown didn’t even KNOW Steve Earle yet.
“We were flying back, she was reading Nashville Living and I was reading SPIN. By this time, Earl Brown knew Steve Earle. He was in fact in his play Karla in Nashville at the time. “I looked over and there was a review of ‘Provinces of Night.’” That on its own was strange because the book was about two years old and they were just getting around to reviewing it?”
“Being a believer in kismet, I gave the book to Shane.”
Taylor’s conversion to the William Gay book was midair also. “I was on my way to work the 2002 MLB Allstar game for ESPN and I read the book on the plane. I called him and said …’We have to make this movie.’ “
Taylor said, his thought was “It has to be present-day and I want to focus on the grandson and trying to get him out of that world.”
That was 8 years, two titles, a 45-minute edit and several silent investors and North Carolina swamps ago.
William Gay doesn’t even have a phone. “You have to get in touch with his son and hope he’s seen him in the last week,” Taylor said. Taylor and Brown went to Tennessee to meet with Gay and spent a day hanging around with him. But it struck Taylor after a full day of interaction that they had not yet asked Gay about the rights to the book. “At breakfast, we asked,” Taylor said. He said ‘I like you guys. You can do it. You can have the rights and do whatever you want to with it. I’ve written that book. Once I’m finished with it, I move on. ‘
But why would a guy like W. Earl Brown, with lots of Hollywood credits and contacts choose Shane Dax Taylor to direct his screenplay? Kismet.
Brown said “When he made his first movie, he shot it in Murray. When I was back home late summer (all of our family lives there), there were two or three folks who said ‘they shot a movie here’….people from Hollywood. I was dismissive.”
“This kid, he was from ESPN, he had made it. Shot on HD.”
“I ran into Shane at The Big Apple Café….”
Taylor, when telling the story, remembers clearly that it was the first day Calloway County, formerly dry, was allowed to serve alcohol.
Brown said “He kept inviting me to screenings out here in LA and I wouldn’t go. I thought the movie’s not going to be any good and I don’t want to be put on the spot, because I liked him so much. But one day, he asked me what I was doing that afternoon like I thought he was going to ask me to play basketball. But he said ‘I got my movie, I’m going to stop by your house.’ It blew me away,” Brown said.
Kismet also came to call on the Deadwood set. “In the pilot episode, I pulled the biggest No-No you ever pull in a David Milch production in that I improvised a line,” Brown said, noting that Milch’s work is so perfect an actor simply follows the punctuation. And Milch likes it that way.
Milch came over to him and said “I guess I’m going to have to call the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and get an adjudication over who wrote this thing – me or you.” But then Milch had the script supervisor write in Brown’s ad lib, telling him, “If you ever tell anyone this happened, I’ll deny it.” (That’s a paraphrase; any interchange with Milch is filled with unprintable profanities.)
“That is what planted the seed,” Brown said. “I think this is one of those kismet moments”
Milch invited Brown to be a regular writer on Deadwood. Brown hemmed. And he hawed. “I was intimidated as hell,” he said.
Then Steve Earle intervened.
Brown said “I had introduced the two —Steve Earle and David Milch. Both have a mind like a shark, it just can’t stop swimming. And, for many years, both were voracious heroin junkies.”
Brown said Steve Earle told him straight: “That’s a writer’s writer, man. That’s a Townes Van Zandt and that’s a writer’s writer. You need to get off your high horse and you might learn something new.”
“And then because I was a writer on Deadwood, people took the Provinces of Night script seriously.”
And that is how midair kismet, Kentucky kismet and asskick kismet got William Gay’s book turned into a movie called Bloodworth.
Bloodworth the movie has a lot to do with “Bloodworth” the music. With a deal still in the works for a potential soundtrack, the filmmakers must be hushed about any particulars.
But both Taylor and Brown cite Kris Kristofferson and T Bone Burnett as crucial to the sound of the movie. And the band that Executive Music Producer T Bone Burnett was directing was in essence the Raging Sand Review band that toured with Robert Plant and Allison Krauss on their recent tour.
Kristofferson showed up on the set the first day of shooting with a song he had written particularly for the movie, Taylor said. The song “You Don’t Tell Me What To Do,” is heard in the trailer and has been on Kristofferson’s set list in recent live concerts.
There was music on and off the set during the shoot. Kris absolutely did play and sing on set. Taylor said “One day when I was working, an actor came on the set and said ‘Isn’t that nice, you are playing Kris Kristofferson?’ And it was the production director, I think who said, ‘No, that’s actually Kris Kristofferson playing.’ “
Brown is a music fanatic and a musician, playing guitar and singing lead in a band called the Sacred Cowboys, who have played at Stagecoach – the country music Coachella Fest held right after the massive alt music fest at the Indio, Calif. Polo Grounds.
“In between shots, you have Kris playing and showing Earl some things,” Taylor said.
And it continued every night, Brown said. “Our apartments were on the same floor. We literally hung out every night. We passed a guitar and a bottle back and forth and traded stories and songs.”
“You Don’t Tell Me What To Do” is the first song Kristofferson has specifically written for a film, Taylor said. “He showed up on set the first day. The one time that I maybe was intimidated was that time he walked up to me and said ‘I’ve written a song, what do you think?’”
“Well, here Kris Kristofferson is playing a song and asking me what I think of it.” Maybe a little intimidating, Taylor admitted.
GOD, COUNTRY, (RAYLAN), CATS
“I love Kentucky. I am a huge Kentucky Wildcat fan as well. I love the Wildcats. Both Earl and I do,” Taylor said, noting that they watch the team from Hollywood and Burbank. “I don’t miss a football game if it’s on TV. I’ve got the sports package for UK football and basketball.”
There is Wildcat country and then there is “Justified” set in Harlan County.
“When they first did it, I thought ‘Why didn’t I get a chance at this? I’m from Kentucky.’ I thought the pilot episode was absolutely extraordinary.”
Brown said he did indeed watch this year’s Final Four bid. “I was so disappointed in that round. We got further this year than we did last year with the great freshmen, though. It’s exciting as hell. Anytime that they are playing in Southern Cal, I go. Them and Murray State both. I watch my Kentucky Wildcats.”
Bloodworth, premieres later this month at the Kentucky Theatre. Shane Dax Taylor says he is coming home for it.
“Bloodworth,” a fi lm directed by Shane Dax Taylor, screenplay by W. Earl Brown, adapted from “Provinces of Night” by William Gay. Starring: Kris Kristofferson, Dwight Yoakam, Val Kilmer, W. Earl Brown, Hilary Duff, Frances Conroy, Reese Thompson will premiere at The Kentucky Theater, Friday, May 20.
Kakie Urch is an Asst. Professor of Multimedia in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky.
STILL A KENTUCKY BOY
By Jason Howard
Dwight Yoakam has not lived in Kentucky since he was a child, but he still speaks of his native state with pride, laughing as he quotes from the film version of Coal Miner’s Daughter and shares church stories.
Like many other families from the mountains, his parents moved to Columbus, Ohio, when he was a child in search of work, but they maintained their eastern Kentucky root by returning home each weekend, a trip he immortalized in his song “Readin’, Rightin’, Rt. 23.”
Yoakam says that during he one of those treks he had a vision for his future as a country song played on the radio. “I was in the backseat, and I remember listening and just watching those mountains and that world pass, and just having this epiphany that this was what I was going to be about outside of here. I didn’t know what it meant, and I wasn’t certain how this would come to fruition, but [I knew] for some reason I’m listening and driving and going in and out—back and forth—in this culture.”
In the years since, Yoakam has served as an unofficial Appalachian ambassador in his music and films with great relish. “My music, I hope, is an expression of the love I felt and the familial culture that I knew,” he recalls from his office overlooking Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood. “I think had I not moved so far away things wouldn’t have crystallized so acutely for me as a writer.”
Songs like “Bury Me,” “Miner’s Prayer” and “South of Cincinnati” convey his abiding love and respect for both the land and people of eastern Kentucky, which were put into perspective when he moved cross-country to Los Angeles at the age of 20.
“I was certainly able from this vantage point to write in a more specific way because I only had my thoughts to recall everything,” he says. “I had to pull elements that were so tactile—the shale rock. It’s through the whole region.” Yoakam recalls the excitement he felt as a child seeing that rock when crossing over the Ohio River into Kentucky— he knew he was home. And despite the years and miles, it still occupies a vast geography of his heart. “Appalachia is unique,” he says. “I was so grateful to have been touched by that culture.”
Jason Howard is the co-author of Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal, and the forthcoming One of Us, a book profiling contemporary Kentucky roots musicians including Yoakam, Joan Osborne, Naomi Judd, Jim James and Ben Sollee. His features, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Nation, Equal Justice Magazine, No Depression, Paste, and The Louisville Review, and his commentary has been featured on NPR.
MORE ‘CRAZY’ PLEASE
review by Raj Ranade
Like most advertisers, movie marketing departments tend not to have huge amounts of respect for you, the consumer. So take the poster and trailer for Bloodworth with a grain of salt. Yes, grizzled old Kris Kristofferson, contemplatively cradling a guitar on the poster, is meant to recall Jeff Bridges doing the same on the poster for 2009’s Crazy Heart. Yes, the trailer’s wizened coots, cryptically reminiscing about mysterious past tragedies in the Tennessee woods, are meant to recall Bill Murray and Robert Duvall jawing in last year’s Get Low. And indeed, it’s only when the teenage romance subplot begins to engulf the rest of the film that you begin to realize you may have been had.
Having assembled the kind of cast that can embody down-home grit and authenticity without saying a word (Kristofferson and fellow country legend Dwight Yoakam, Kentucky native and Deadwood veteran W. Earl Brown, plus a shockingly on-point Val Kilmer), Taylor unfortunately decided to focus on the duo of Hilary Duff and inexperienced young actor Reece Thompson (who, of course, does not have his name on the poster or any spoken dialogue in the trailer). Thompson plays a white sheep in a herd of black ones – earnest young Fleming Bloodworth, seeking to rise above the addictions and aggression that have laid the rest of his Faulknerian family low. That’s all well and good, but people don’t exactly read Faulkner because they’re interested in the functional members of a family. And Thompson simply isn’t charismatic enough as an actor to liven up his blandly decent central role.
Bloodworth’s sinners sizzle whenever their stroll towards damnation is allowed onto the screen. As the returning familypatriarch who left town without a word decades ago, Kristofferson effectively gets at the kind of regret that made songs like his “Sunday Morning Coming Down” so moving. The less restrained portrayals of the elder Bloodworth’s sons are even more fun, and, to his credit, Taylor doesn’t shy away from their over-the-top aspects. Kilmer puts his comic timing to great use as a rhinestone-bedecked whore-hound traveling with a willingly doped-up hooker; Brown gets his neck veins popping as an unbalanced preacher (whose idea of Christianity hews closer to voodoo than to Pentecostal); and Yoakam brings a brooding menace to his violent deadbeat stalking an ex-wife. But all these characters have irritatingly abbreviated arcs, while Thompson lingers on the screen courting Hilary Duff’s character (who even the filmmakers seem apologetic about – Duff’s first words detail how long she’s been practicing
to lose her Southern accent).
As it turns out, the problem with Bloodworth isn’t that its poster copied Crazy Heart – it’s that the movie itself didn’t.