Generally speaking, the last thing you want to see inside a convenience store is a thug with a gun demanding money.
The sight is less threatening once you notice the handwritten "Movie Shoot in Progress" sign on the door and learn the longhaired thug is actor Emmy Collins, cast as an ill-fated reprobate simply identified as "Suspicious Dude" in the script of "Cigarette Girl," the latest cult-movie-in-search-of-a-cult from the febrile mind of John Michael McCarthy, the godfather of Memphis independent cinema.
As usual, McCarthy is working with a small but loyal crew at breakneck speed, shooting 60 pages of script in 11 days for $10,000.
"This is like our comeback," said the Elvis-obsessed Midtown resident, who hasn't completed a feature-length drama since "SUPERSTARLET A.D." in 2000, in what might be called the under-the-radar, pre-Craig Brewer era of Memphis moviemaking.
Influenced by such pop-culture subsets as precode comic books, stag films, punk rock and monster magazines, McCarthy's films include "Damselvis, Daughter of Helvis" (1994), "Teenage Tupelo" (1995), "The Sore Losers" (1997), "SUPERSTARLET A.D." and the brilliant, surreal short "Elvis Meets the Beatles" (2000), produced by Brewer.
"I'm a populist who hates my audience," said McCarthy, 45, who keeps busy shooting commercials and music videos for acts like The Hives, The Willowz and Amy LaVere when he's not making his often self-distributed films. "I do a product with a thousand-year shelf life. I let the market catch up with me."
"Cigarette Girl" is set in the year 2035, 100 years after the birth of Elvis. (Almost all McCarthy's films reference the King of Rock and Roll.)
The title character is a glamorous-looking if much-abused rogue dealer who sells smokes at the bargain price of $50 a pack, undercutting the gangsters and "Clockwork Orange Mound" street hoodlums who control the illicit cigarette trade of the future.
When the mob tries to snuff her out, Cigarette Girl kicks butt, filter-tipped and otherwise. The project's tagline: "I Could Kill for a Cigarette."
In neophyte actress Cori Dials, McCarthy may at last have found his dream combination of notorious 1950s pinup girl Bettie Page and "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" glamazon Tura Satana. For most of "Cigarette Girl," Dials, 27, wears a 1940s-style cigarette-girl nightclub uniform that includes a lacy crinoline miniskirt, a corset, fishnet stockings and stiletto heels that raise her above her naturally striking 5-foot-9 stature. Cigarette Girl drives a black 1970 Cadillac DeVille and totes a gun and a tray loaded with nicotine. "My job hangs around my neck like a noose," she comments, in the film's noirish voiceover narration.
McCarthy's art may have benefited from his long break from feature production and from his life experience in the interim. (McCarthy now has two children, Hanna, age 9, and 4-year-old John Marvel, named for comic-book superhero Captain Marvel Jr.). "Cigarette Girl" seems poised to be the director's most disciplined and accessible project to date.
For a scene shot Friday at the Tempo Market at 496 N. Watkins, makeup effects supervisor H.G. Ray, 39, fixed a funnel filled with Karo and chocolate syrup, food coloring and oatmeal (for texture) to Collins back, near his shaggy head; a burst of air through the hidden funnel sent the contents flying, to represent the fatal results of a blast from Cigarette Girl's gun. Later, a similar device would be strapped to Circuit Court Judge D'Army Bailey, playing another victim of the Tempo Market shootout.
Some shoppers loitered in the store after encountering the film crew. "She looks like some kind of hooker gangster lady," Tamika Malone, 30, said of the Cigarette Girl.
"I can't wait to see this movie," said Markevius Quinn, 18, son of store owners LaShunda and Ahmed Ibourg. "It looks crazy, ridiculous."
McCarthy thinks his statuesque "starlet" should have the same effect onscreen as she does on the rubberneckers who happen upon the "Cigarette Girl" shoot. "Cori Dials slows people down from using the remote," he said. "She's my most economical special effect."
A self-styled exploitation auteur creating drive-in-ready movies for a postdrive-in culture, McCarthy -- or JMM, as he sometimes bills himself -- has been making eccentric, highly personal no-budget features in Memphis since the mid-1990s.
"He was a true guerrilla filmmaker -- and a fast-running guerrilla filmmaker," said Memphis and Shelby County Film Commissioner Linn Sitler. "We have a joke that he used to run away from me when he saw me coming because he didn't have his permits and his insurance." (JMM's Web site acknowledges the director's old by-any-means-necessary production philosophy: The address is guerrillamonsterfilms.com.)
Even so, the Film Commission proudly sponsored McCarthy's trip to the prestigious Sitges International Film Festival in Italy in 2001, when the Memphis filmmaker -- described as "el ultimo sexploitator" in the festival program -- was honored with a retrospective program of his work aimed at "lovers of the most diverse, radical tendencies in fantasy films."
Brewer credits McCarthy with inspiring him to shoot "The Poor & Hungry" -- the award-winning no-budget Memphis feature that jump-started Brewer's career, taking him to Hollywood and the Oscars. To return the favor, Brewer hired McCarthy to be script supervisor on "$5 Cover," the upcoming Web series the "Hustle & Flow" director recently shot for MTV. Brewer also hopes to produce "WarBride" for McCarthy, another tale of a vengeful, gun-toting beauty.
Like "$5 Cover," "Cigarette Girl" is constructed as a serial, with 12 episodes that can be viewed separately or edited into feature form. McCarthy plans to release these on the Internet, as "webisodes."
The serial's budget was covered by Nashville real estate agent Jay Nelson, an arts investor/patron who met McCarthy at this year's On Location: Memphis International Film Fest. "The real estate market is so bad right now, he thought a movie about a homicidal girl who sells cigarettes would be a good investment," joked McCarthy.