ONE THAT GOT AWAY GETS DUE
LAUDED LOCALLY FILMED COMEDY BELATEDLY DEBUTS IN MEMPHIS
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
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.