Quiet on the set.
The camera’s eye focuses on a man with slicked-back hair and tattooed forearms plucking razor-sharp twangs from an electric guitar as he sings, “It’s gonna rain, it’s gonna rain. Better get ready …” about Noah warning his people of the coming flood. The singer’s gritty voice rises above the metallic patter of raindrops upon a couple of window-unit air conditioners, inspiring a feeling that the tiny church may float arklike into surrounding fields if the rain doesn’t end soon. It’s almost too perfect—the rain breaking a month-long drought in the Arkansas Delta on the day Forrest City native Chris Hicky films a pivotal scene in the movie he’s come home to make. In the scene, ex-con Jake testifies about his coming to grace after traveling from California to Arkansas to confront his father. The rain provides a coincidental metaphor of renewal and restoration that fits the film’s themes but, thankfully, brings with it no threat of biblically proportioned devastation.
The downpour that began before dawn turned the churchyard into a bog, forcing Hicky to rearrange the shooting schedule so the crew could spend the day filming scenes within the church’s paneled walls, saving for the next day an exterior scene in which Jake helps the preacher paint the church. The crew members made the change easily, their synergy representative of everything Hicky had hoped for when he returned to Lee County to shoot The Grace of Jake, the feature-length film he dreamed of making for the past 10 years, which he spent in Los Angeles working his way up the industry ladder, from production assistant to director of commercials and music videos.
In bringing his passion project home to Arkansas, Hicky joins the ranks of other Arkansas filmmakers who left the state to create lives elsewhere but—inspired by nostalgia, personal experience and pride of place—have returned to make independent movies. For them, The Natural State isn’t just a backdrop but a fully realized character, sometimes breathtaking in its beauty, while at other times appearing timeworn, cantankerous and uncooperative. These filmmakers look through the twin lenses of heart and memory to see their home state as a character that is always alive and kicking, with a strong sense of self.
They also look for authenticity, which is what Hicky found here at Paradise Number Two Baptist Church, where the present imprints seamlessly upon the past. (Case in point: A wireless signal comes through strongly, although the church looks as if it’s still in the party-line years.) Authenticity comes from being able to use the building as it is, with all the indigenous details intact, like the faded red-velvet pew cushions and the peel-and-stick window film that gives the paned windows the appearance of stained glass. For church scenes in The Grace of Jake, the prop list includes only a ladder, paint, brushes, a guitar and case, a money clip and offering plates.
“I wrote the world I grew up in and around,” Hicky says. “I had a very real world in mind, not only as a reference but as an inspiration.” To cast the character of the Arkansas he imagined, he turned to Felicia Ester, a former classmate from Lee Academy; they’ve remained friends since graduating in 1992. When Hicky said he wanted a country gospel church, Ester took him to Paradise Number Two, her husband’s boyhood church. When Hicky wanted a beauty shop, she told him about Freddie’s in Forrest City, where her mother gets her hair done. Hicky asked for a cafe, so Ester took him to Williams Restaurant, known throughout the region for its soulful home cooking.
The Grace of Jake had to be set among the sprawling fields of cotton and soybeans in Lee County, where he grew up. “All of the flavor of the story came from the Arkansas Delta—the signs, sounds, tastes, character,” says Hicky. The Delta, with its gospel churches, crop-dusters swooping down out of the endless sky and pickup trucks kicking up dust on gravel back roads, is central to the story of Jake, an ex-con who finds love and a future in a small Arkansas town. The 123-year-old Paradise Number Two Baptist Church, an hour’s drive from Forrest City and accessible only by a gravel-strewn red-clay road the rain threatens to overtake, is just what Hicky envisioned—not the specific building, of course, but the emotions and images it evokes.
“I didn’t want it to be anywhere else,” Hicky says of his movie. “I wanted to make it on the same fields and gravel roads I grew up around.”
He knew that anything he needed for his film could be found in Arkansas, which he calls “God’s country.” Bundled in its 53,179 square miles are mountains, lowlands, rivers and farmland that meld for a certain something the people who love it sometimes have trouble conveying with words. They cast about and come up with descriptors like “diverse,” “quintessentially Southern,” “quirky,” “quaint”—all accurate but lacking in specificity. “The character of Arkansas is difficult to describe,” acknowledges Arkansas film commissioner Christopher Crane as he tries to do just that. “Arkansas has some of the richest scenery when we’re talking about topography. Traveling from tip to tip, the look and feel changes dramatically. You go from the foot of the Boston Mountains in northern Arkansas to the Delta, from rice fields to swamps. In a hour, you can go from urban to rural.”
Although the state’s certain something may be difficult to put into words, filmmakers have no trouble conveying it in pictures. They’re drawn back to Arkansas because of its lack of pretension and contrivance, which is why Hicky wasn’t the only native-son filmmaker to bring his movie project home in 2013. Little Rock native Kim Swink and Searcy native Joe Aaron also wrote stories set in Arkansas. Swink filmed her fish-out-of-water tale Valley Inn in Northwest Arkansas in July. Aaron plans to shoot Guttersnipes, about an unlikely friendship between a homeless teen and an autistic child, in Little Rock and the neighboring countryside as soon as he casts the lead.
In “casting” Arkansas for their films, Hicky, Aaron and Swink were drawn by the same qualities that attracted other Arkansas natives before them—Billy Bob Thornton (Slingblade, 1996), Joey Lauren Adams (Come Early Morning, 2006) and Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, 2007, and Mud, 2013). Each of those filmmakers has given witness to how the state’s landscapes, buildings and people imbued their movies with a natural realism, with Nichols saying that Mud couldn’t have been shot anywhere but Dumas, Stuttgart and the lower White River. “It’s beautiful. It’s strange. It feels like an old, ancient world that has all these modern things kind of shoved into it,” he told Movie City News in April.
But the attraction goes beyond this notion of authenticity and other incentives, like Arkansas’ 15-percent tax rebate for films shot in Arkansas. There’s also the generous spirit evidenced by community support for projects in which Arkansas is a key player—whether in the form of residents welcoming cast and crew into their homes, bestowing best wishes, donating goods or services, or even digging into their pocketbooks and wallets. Banking on their personal knowledge that Arkansans take care of their own, Swink, Hicky and Aaron all turned to crowd-funding websites to give Arkansans a chance to participate in funding their films. Swink raised $26,500 for Valley Inn on Indiegogo.com, while Aaron’s Guttersnipes project proposal on Kickstarter.com attracted 260 folks who pledged $75,218. For The Grace of Jake, 430 people—including Arkansans from all corners of the state—came through with donations of $135,681, exceeding Hicky’s goal of $125,000. “Some of our Kickstarter contributors came on board out of common love for the state and for creative things happening anywhere within Arkansas,” Hicky says.
Arkansans want fellow Arkansans to succeed. They’re proud of their state and like to show it off. Nothing does that quite like a movie shot by someone who believes in the state’s singularity and understands what Aaron calls the state’s “different vibe.” That vibe? An unwavering spirit, naturally.
“When you tell people in Arkansas you’re shooting in Arkansas, they get excited. I think when people invest their heart and soul in the movie, it shows up on the screen,” Aaron says. “That movie will grab you and move you more than one that’s just technically put together nicely.”
That heart and soul is obvious at Paradise Number Two Baptist Church, whose pews are filled with Lee County folks who jumped at the chance to be extras in The Grace of Jake, not only because making a movie is fun but because they support Hicky’s dream. Behind the pulpit, Hicky watches a monitor showing him what the camera sees, looking for nuances of gesture and expression, making sure everything appears honest and real. Using a single camera, the crew shoots the scene from the back of the room, the front and the side, zooming in on actors and locals clad in their Sunday best, clapping time to the music. Hicky taps the monitor, smiling.
He likes what he sees.