By Butch Weir, Editor, The Poplarville Democrat
The Picayune Item
After the local premiere of Frank Ladner’s mockumentary, “Hickory Never Bleeds,” and its more than favorable reception by the audiences Ladner has had a chance to reflect on his first major effort at film making.
“I was extremely nervous about it (the production). I just didn’t know what people were going to think … and they really liked it,” Ladner said.
The film explores, through the eyes of the residents, the response of a small town to reports of a human-like creature reportedly living in its area and the efforts of a small group of “monster hunters” to get to the bottom of the mystery. The tale is interwoven with the personal search of the main character, Leland, as he tries to understand his feelings for his sweetheart.
Originally Ladner envisioned something dramatic, a love story of sorts, even post-apocalyptic, by tying in the New Madrid seismic fault line with flooding of the coastal area following a cataclysmic earthquake. The 200 year anniversary of the seismic cycle which produced that major earthquake is approaching. The original storyline centered around pockets of survivors on islands, with a government conspiracy twist thrown in.
He abandoned that dramatic approach as being harder to manage.
“Post-production would have been a nightmare,” Ladner said. “So, I dropped it and came back to it as a “mockumentary” because I’m a fan of documentaries.”
This type of film still allows for realism from the actor’s characters and also allowed the actors to improvise more because he ended up with no set script, even though that was the original plan, he said. As a result some things in the film he credited to the actor’s inventiveness.
“Some of the characters would only be in the film a total of five or ten minutes but their total filming might have been an hour. The rest hit the editing room floor. The main characters of the defense team were shot in multiple shootings but others, such as Moody, were done in one day.
This process allowed the actors, some of whom he had known almost all of his life, to develop their character on their own.
“I sort of abandoned that (set script) and had just a basic outline … each character just had a really brief description …,” said Ladner.
Mark Forte, who plays Emil, was one example. After selecting Forte for the character, Ladner discovered Forte’s workshop and determined a retired engineer role would fit well into the developing storyline. Mary Etta Moody was another person he felt would work well in the film because of her theatrical, storytelling background.
“Just things like that really worked out well,” Ladner said. “I would try to think of little tidbits that they (the actors) could say that would fit who they are. For the most part the funniest stuff came out of things I hadn’t anticipated.”
He said Len Marshall’s character and the “kamikaze goats” is a prime example.
Ladner’s only instruction to Marshall, who does have some goats, was “that the team approached you and asked how you could help and what could he contribute to the effort.”
After about five minutes of reflection by Marshall, Ladner started the camera and the tale of the kamikaze goats was born.
“That has become one of the most quoted parts, and I never wrote that. That’s how the film played out,” Ladner said, “with each character talking about the small town and then working in the strange events, sightings and sounds they would experience.”
How the characters began meshing around the central theme was a primary comment thread picked up by the audience.
He said the town’s people who were not part of the Defense Team could keep their comments more general, but the team had to be aware of the story dynamics that were developing, the concern for Leland - Ladner’s character - and his reclusive nature.
The Defense Team characters were instructed to tell their actors they would need to talk about this or that in such a manner, particularly as they would approach Leland and his fear of falling in love with his girlfriend, played by Ladner’s wife Janna, and the fear of losing her as he had his father.
Ladner told them, “You (the defense team characters) know that but you can’t come out and say it,” which became one reason for the mockumentory style. “I didn’t want it to become too ham-fisted. So, I tried to rely on a lot of quirkiness.”
He has learned a few things from the film, one being the script, or lack of one. Having a script supervisor, someone to make sure Ladner was getting certain things included in the film’s production.
“In my mind I’m getting all this footage of them talking … I’m accomplishing a lot, but I would forget to get the establishing shot of them … but not nearly enough… Slow down.”
He also felt during shooting he was sometimes inconveniencing his actors by asking them to be in the film. Moody’s comment to him later eased that anxiety when she said letting her be in this film was “one of the best gifts anybody’s ever given her,” a sentiment he said Forte also echoed.
Ladner described this first major foray into film-making as something which taught him that people, his audience in particular, are “a lot more keen than you might would imagine … that people don’t need quite as many clues I don’t think as I anticipated.” He was worried people might find the film boring and as pleasantly surprised when they weren’t, from comments he received.
“I was extremely nervous about it (the production). I just didn’t know what people were going to think … and they really liked it. They seemed, for the most part, people seemed to understand it.”
Ladner believes that might change with an audience where no one knows the actors and what they are like in everyday life, such as a film festival. He plans to submit the film in some of those. “I’m hoping they will still … that they’ll still see ‘well these are - even though I don’t personally know Mark Forte” they know somebody like that.”
When asked if the positive reception of the film has altered his plans for the future, he said the reception of the film has tempted him to venture into film-making – and he admits he enjoys it — but also enjoys the wood-working as something to stay with as a vocation. He quoted an author who said, “Writing’s not nearly as fun when you’re life depends on it,” in describing how he feels about making films full-time.
He makes a living producing wooden bent-wood rings as jewelry, which he has been doing for three years, something he never expected to grow into a vocation. He started that just for fun, a thing to sell a few a month but now has a world-wide market.
“As long as I can be self-employed and do the wood-working, … making my own schedule, I think it’s a pretty comfortable deal there.” He says if he gets some commercial success with films that would just be a bonus.
His interest in film and cameras started at about when he was 12 with stop motion. “At the time it was fascinating that I could take and move something and take a shot and move it a little bit … play it back to my family and they were just amazed because there’s nothing moving this thing. It’s just an illusion.”
He eventually got his own camera and, combined with a computer, start doing his own VHS tapes. He graduated to more complicated things, but never thought of film-making as a vocation. He eventually got into computer programming as a vocation but never anything with film.
“Really, it (film) seemed unrealistic because I was aware of the fact that, like… if you want to play football it’s really a slim chance that you’re going to get to the NFL kind of thing.”
“The entire production was done for less than $1,000 and took only about eight months, filmed for six months on weekends, and then a few months for editing,” Ladner said.
The film, set in the fictional town of Farr, was mostly shot in Poplarville with some street scenes in Purvis and Hattiesburg. The name “Farr” on the water tower was photo-shopped onto the water tower in Poplarville.
He feels the positive reception to “Hickory Never Bleeds “ has altered his initial intention to not market the film.
“I never looked at it from the viewpoint of wanting to cash in, like I said, make money … it really wasn’t part of the plan. For the premiere I wanted it to be a nice … that’s why I premiered it locally ... I wanted it to be a memorable thing for them.”
“After the fact, everybody is just seems really eager to get a copy of this and so now I feel sort of an obligation to make it available, in a way,” he said.
He does hope a festival will accept it and has submitted it to a few.
“If there happens to be a distributor in the audience who sees it and likes it, makes me an offer on it, I’ll entertain that.”
If that doesn’t happen, he plans to get some copies made and make them available locally.