The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Indie Memphis Film Festival - By John Bei­fuss

ORIG­I­NAL, SUR­PRIS­ING AND, yes, lovely to look at, “Lovely by Sur­prise” is the for­got­ten Mem­phis movie — the one that got away, even though it was shot in early 2006, when in­ter­est in lo­cal moviemak­ing re­mained at an un­prece­dented high, thanks to the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val vic­to­ries of Ira Sachs’ “Forty Shades of Blue” and Craig Brewer’s “Hus­tle & Flow.”

A sort of de­ranged com­edy about a trou­bled au­thor (Car­rie Pre­ston, now a reg­u­lar on HBO’s “True Blood”) whose fic­tional char­ac­ters seem to break into the “real” world, where they in­ter­act with a griev­ing used-car sales­man (a truly Os­car-wor­thy Reg Rogers) and a smarmy col­lege pro­fes­sor (vet­eran

char­ac­ter ac­tor Austin Pendle­ton), the movie was writ­ten and di­rected by Mem­phis-born Kirt Gunn, and shot on lo­ca­tion in Mem­phis and Arkansas.

“Lovely by Sur­prise” won a spe­cial jury prize at the 2007 Seat­tle In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val, where it made its world pre­miere, and played later that year at the Ed­in­burgh In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. Yet its screen­ings at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. Thurs­day, on the clos­ing night of the 12th an­nual In­die Mem­phis Film Fes­ti­val, rep­re­sent the movie’s pub­lic de­but in the home­town of its cre­ator.

“It’s sort of a strange story,” said Gunn, 42, who will be at the Malco Stu­dio on the Square for both screen­ings, to in­tro­duce and an­swer ques­tions about his film.

“We were in­vited to both of the Mem­phis film fes­ti­vals (In­die Mem­phis and On Lo­ca­tion: Mem­phis) a cou­ple of years in a row, and weren’t able to do it.

“But it was al­ways im­por­tant to me that the film have life and recog­ni­tion as a Mem­phis film. For a long time, I fought for it to be shot in Mem­phis, even though the fi­nanc­ing and pro­duc­ing sides of the film had dif­fer­ent ideas.”

A 1985 grad­u­ate of Col­lierville High School, Gunn was ac­tive in the lo­cal arts scene in the 1990s, as leader of the pop­u­lar drag trash rock band, the Delta Queens, and as di­rec­tor of the River City Shake­speare Fes­ti­val, which made use of “found” lo­ca­tions. (A 1995 pro­duc­tion of “Othello” was staged at the Ten­nessee Brew­ery.)

By the time of “Lovely by Sur­prise,” how­ever, Gunn was in New York, where the would-be play­wright was a hit in ad­ver­tis­ing, help­ing to cre­ate in­no­va­tive “We­bisodic” con­tent for the early on­line sites of such clients as Lin­coln-Mer­cury.

A made-in-Mem­phis Web se­ries ti­tled “Meet the Lucky Ones,” writ­ten by Gunn and di­rected by Derek Cian­france, was such a suc­cess that Mer­cury rep­re­sen­ta­tives asked Gunn if “there was any­thing I wanted to do that I hadn’t got­ten to do. I said, ‘I’ve al­ways wanted to make a fea­ture film,’ al­most jok­ingly, and they said, ‘OK.’ ”

Mer­cury funded the $600,000 shoot­ing cost of “Lovely by Sur­prise,” an amount that also cov­ered the pro­duc­tion of Web con­tent for the au­tomaker fea­tur­ing char­ac­ters from the film.

De­spite the fund­ing source, “Lovely by Sur­prise” is a bold and un­com­pro­mised project; in ret­ro­spect, the idea that a cor­po­ra­tion thought it would be ben­e­fi­cial to be as­so­ci­ated with such an odd movie is fairly as­ton­ish­ing.

So is the movie’s suc­cess. Re­leased on DVD in July, the movie has been a word-of-mouth hit on Ama­zon and Net­flix, Gunn said.

“This was the first time I had ever di­rected any­thing on film,” said Gunn, who shot on 35-mil­lime­ter with a cast of mostly

Pho­tos by Trey Clark

Au­thor (Car­rie Pre­ston) and pro­fes­sor (Austin Pendle­ton) in­ter­act in ‘‘Lovely By Sur­prise,’’ fi­nally get­ting its de­but in the home­town of its writer-di­rec­tor.

‘‘Lovely’’ leaps from the merely mys­te­ri­ous to the meta­phys­i­cal when Humkin (Michael Ch­er­nus), a seem­ing fig­ment of the au­thor’s imagination, in­vades the win­try world of Mem­phis.

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