Beifuss at the movies
In "Sun Don't Shine," a micro-budgeted Florida crime spree movie that screens Thursday night at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, a lover-killer on the run tells his girlfriend why he drives back streets and side roads to escape authority and find freedom: "I gotta take a route that don't make sense."
Indeed. Like the runaway criminal he portrays, Memphis writer-director-producer-actor Kentucker Audley has followed an eccentric road map of his own devising. Naysayers scoffed, but Audley's route has proved as purposeful as it is unmarked, leading him in a few short years to a minor sort of fame as one of the most in-demand figures in the realm of extremely low-budget American independent cinema — a realm sometimes identified, often with disdain, as "mumblecore," in reference to the hesitant, inartfully expressed yearnings of some of the movies' young heroes.
Currently courted by one of the most influential talent agencies, Audley soon may be more than just busy: He could be on the verge of stardom, both in front of and behind the camera. This will surprise the skeptics unmoved by the deceptively casual realism of Audley's digital directorial efforts or by the withholding affect of his screen persona. (Reviewing Audley's made-in-Memphis 2010 film "Open Five," a Slant critic wrote: "It's more of a question than a movie, that question being 'Should we, like, make a movie?' ").
"I accept the hate and indifference, but I'm also willing to stand behind what I am making," Audley, 30, said in a phone interview from the Savannah, Ga., set of "The Sacrament," the latest low-budget shocker from indie horror auteur Ti West.
"I think it's incredibly valuable to make the most personal, small-scale movies the way I have been making them — to document personal dynamics and personal relationships in a very minuscule way," he continued. "As far as the general popularity of these things, I've never been motivated as a director to make a popular film in and of itself."
Audley's co-stars in "The Sacrament" are other leading lights of what might be dubbed the "mumblecorps," including the indefatigable Joe Swanberg, who shot "Open Five," and Amy Seimetz, director of "Sun Don't Shine." Other young actors and filmmakers who are part of this informal gang — a group that includes Audley's girlfriend, Memphian Caroline White — can be seen in several Indie Memphis Film Festival movies this weekend, including "Pilgrim Song," "Red Flag" and "Richard's Wedding." Still others have gone on to bigger things, including Lena Dunham (the creator of HBO's "Girls," who recently signed a $3.5 million book deal with Random House) and Greta Gerwig ("Arthur," Woody Allen's "To Rome with Love"), both of whom appeared in "Family Tree," a 2010 short by Audley.
Seimetz said Audley has an "alluring and peculiar presence." Audley's filmmaking idol and former obsession is the epitome of peculiar, Wes Anderson, director of "Bottle Rocket" and "Moonlight Kingdom." In high school, Audley made a pilgrimage from his hometown of Lexington, Ky., to meet Anderson, who was in Cincinnati promoting his second feature, "Rushmore" (1998).
"He's a neurotic Paul Newman," Seimetz said of Audley. "He's the strong, silent type, but when he speaks, he has a dry, strange and quick-witted sense of humor that is wonderful to weave into drama or horror or a thriller or love stories — all the genres I was playing with in 'Sun Don't Shine.'"
While Memphis' most celebrated resident filmmaker, Craig Brewer, may struggle for years to launch a multimillion-dollar project with a major studio, Audley has been involved in close to a dozen films in the past couple of years, three of which will screen at the Indie Memphis festival. These include "Sun Don't Shine"; "V/H/S," a horror anthology in which he acts; and the sequel "Open Five 2," shot in Memphis, Lexington, New Orleans and New York. Audley acts in the film, and also is its primary director.
Said Brewer, 40, of Audley: "He's got movie-star looks and has something unique about him. But he's at a very crucial time right now. He's courting the big time, and that's always when you've got to do some soul-searching. You want to be in movies that are commercial without moving away from yourself."
"Open Five 2" is Audley's most handsomely photographed and fully realized movie. Its elements — characters "acting" as themselves, re-creating or in fact living out real-life crises of pregnancy, breakup and reconciliation — are familiar, but it lacks the sometimes-scripted passive-aggressive comedy of Audley's deadpan feature debut, "Team Picture" (2007), or the contrived tourism premise of "Open Five."
Film critic Richard Brody, editor of the movie listings in The New Yorker, has emerged as one of Audley's most articulate champions, placing "Open Five" on his "25 Best Films of 2010" list.
"People think artists live more adventuresome lives than other people," said Brody, 54. "Sometimes they perceive adventure where other people don't, or they have the insight to see how to shape experience into drama. I think Kentucker is in that category."
Now, with an agent representing him (although he has yet to sign with this particular agency, which Audley chooses not to name), Audley (real name Andrew Nenninger) wants to turn his passion into a livelihood, after years of barely eking out a living and sharing expenses with such fellow Memphis filmmakers as Morgan Jon Fox.
"Sun Don't Shine," in particular, brought him to the attention of casting agents, who want him to audition for uncharacteristic roles.
"I do feel like I have brand new opportunities to be making a living as an actor — and I have been making a living doing that for the first time, for the past several months. ... I'm never going to deny my ideals of what I thought was important or significant, but I'd like to find a way to make movies that are equally artistically valid but with a new scope and commercial viability."