Ok, I’ve really got to pick up the pace on this project now because I’m developing a backlog of movies. The library had The Conspirator ready for me sooner than I expected, Netflix got CBGB here faster than I expected, and I still haven’t watched my friend Nathanael’s copy of Forces of Nature after holding it hostage for 3 months. (Sorry, Nathanael!) Now I’ve got plans to watch CBGB on Tuesday with my movie-and-punk-music aficionado friend, Jim. If I don’t tear through this review of Savannah now, I’ll start getting details mixed up, like thinking Joey Ramone was a duck hunter or something. …God, that’s a fabulous image.
Savannah was filmed here in 2011 by Unclaimed Freight Productions, a very busy local studio which is also responsible for the afore-mentioned CBGB and a soon-to-be-made Gregg Allman biopic. It’s based on a book called Ward Allen: Savannah Market Hunter, by Jack Cay. It’s the true story of Ward Allen, a local aristocrat born and raised for the genteel lifestyle who told everyone to suck his decoys and became a duck hunter instead. He continually battled local bureaucracy for his right and the rights of other hunters to shoot and hunt along the Savannah River and sell their haul to local hotels and other businesses. Oh, and his best buddy was a black guy. In the Jim Crow south. If you’re interested, here are a couple of Savannah Morning News articles about the movie, one from February 2011 and the other after a screening in March of 2012.
I remember when they were filming this three years ago. I think every actor and extra in town was involved one way or another. I have to hand it to Unclaimed Freight- they pulled in some A-list talent for this low-budget flick about a guy hardly anyone in Savannah, and no one outside of Savannah, has ever heard of. Jim Caviezel (Jesus himself!) played Ward Allen. Jaimie Alexander, now famous for playing Sif in the Thor movies, portrayed his wife Lucy. I think the frosting on this celebrity cake, though, is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He plays Ward Allen’s hunting buddy Christmas Moultrie. Probably not a lot of people knew (or could pronounce) his name in 2011. But now that Ejiofor is bound to be carried out of the Academy Awards under a pile of glittering Oscars for his work in 12 Years a Slave, we can all be retroactively proud that he made a movie here first. There was also Hal Holbrook, looking like he had a great time playing a sympathetic judge. Holbrook, of course, is better than A-list- he’s legendary.
So, how do I think this low-budget period piece fared? And did it make good use of our fair city? Um… well… it certainly had its good points and its… not so good points. Let’s rip off the band-aid and go straight to one thing that did NOT work:
Oh, hey, an unexpected bonus: I learned that if I use the PrintScreen function while watching a movie on this computer, it will automatically save a screen capture to the Dropbox folder! Anyway, back to the point I intended to make here. OH DEAR GOD WHAT IS THAT? Movie making and theatre are both very dependent on illusion. You, Unclaimed Freight, were trying to create the illusion of a luxurious and well-funded period piece. While I admire your ambition and your general ingenuity on display throughout the film, this is a moment that makes your limits painfully, terrifyingly obvious. When the only old man makeup you can afford comes out of a jar labelled “Uncanny Valley Nightmare Cream,” you should have the good sense to avoid close ups. Shoot him from behind or in silhouette or hire an actual old guy to stand in for Chiwetel Ejiofor, anything but this!
Ok, now that’s out of the way, let’s move on to recognizable locations. First up, it’s
First Baptist Church pretending to be a courthouse! The church was built in the 1830s in the Greek Revival style, which was very typical at that time. I have had people on my tours comment that Christ Church, also from the same time period and of the same style, looks like a courthouse, so I’m not surprised the production team felt this one did too. I read in one of the newspaper articles about Savannah that they shot the interiors in an actual historic courthouse in Effingham County.
A lot of the in-town scenes were done around Chippewa Square for some reason. Here is Ward Allen’s eventual wife, Lucy, crouched in the square with his dog. You can see the pedestal of the Oglethorpe monument there just left of center.
Here is Ward Allen coming to deliver freshly shot fowl to Lucy’s house (romantic?) on Perry Street, which, again, is right alongside Chippewa Square.
I must pause to point out one little detail that drove me nuts. See that sort of small beige box on the door frame to the right of Ward Allen’s elbow? Yeah, I’m pretty sure this house actually has an intercom or something right there. I meant to go have a look myself, but never got around to it. It drives me crazy that the production team just, I don’t know, stuck a box over it? It doesn’t look like something that belongs there in 1918, it looks like something that’s being covered up. They couldn’t use a plant or swing the camera around and shoot from the other direction or something? Argh!
Also very close to Chippewa Square is the Harper-Fowlkes House (I’d recognize that back porch anywhere!), which served as the duck market (duck monger’s?). I must say, that is a very, very clean and sparsely populated open-air market. That was another small problem I had with this movie: it feels a little bit sterile and a little bit empty. I’m sure it’s because they could only afford to hire and costume so many extras and there’s a limit to how much dirt you can truck in to cover the street when you’ve only got a $1 million budget. Oh, speaking of dirt!
I often tell my tourists it’s so easy to shoot a period film here. You just get rid of the parking meters and cover the street in dirt and you’re in business! Unclaimed Freight clearly operates under the same philosophy. This is a shot of Christmas Moultrie with the camera pointing out from behind the columns of First Baptist Courthou- I mean Church. As is the norm, they hid the asphalt with a tractor load of soil and mulch. And how fortunate most of the sidewalks downtown are herringbone brick and not concrete. I am a little insulted, however. Savannah is not so backward that we were still putting up with dirt roads after WWI. The major streets at the very least, like Bull Street there, had already been paved in brick for a few decades. Hmph.
Aside from places, I was able to spot a few people I recognized as well. Here we have Savannah’s favorite ice cream man, Stratton Leopold!
Stratton Leopold is the owner of Leopold’s Ice Cream, which has been in business since 1919, never mind a three decade hiatus. He is also a successful movie producer, so seeing him in front of the camera took me by surprise. He only has a brief scene near the end in one of Christmas Moultrie’s flashbacks.
Then I got to see a much closer acquaintance of mine, or at least he is since I was in Our Town at Asbury Methodist in November:
It’s the Reverend Billy Hester! He runs Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church, which also has a killer theatre program. Performing in Our Town there was one of the things that distracted me through the fall and kept me from blogging for such a long time. Billy and his wife Cheri do, in fact, have professional acting resumes. Cheri was also in Our Town. I played Mrs. Gibbs and she played my neighbor Mrs. Webb. She told me a little bit about living in New York many years ago and how she used to be a hand model there for a little while. She said that was a really weird job. I think we got on that topic because I complimented her manicure. Anyway, later on she was telling some of us about Billy’s involvement in Savannah and that she was kind of annoyed he ended up in this costume here-
-without any on-screen explanation. So why is Billy wearing Wickham’s coat from Pride & Prejudice?
According to Cheri, poor Billy is the foolish-looking victim of the editing process. There was a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor in which a bunch of these guys are involved in some kind of historical reenactment. Probably Civil War something, but I can’t remember now. So, Billy’s just stuck there in his last scene looking like he raided his great grandpa’s steamer trunk long before Macklemore made that sort of thing trendy.
At this point, I have to give credit where it’s due and show you where, I think, most of the budget went.
I don’t know how much these wheeling aerial shots cost, but I’m guessing “nearly all of the money”. At first, seeing the camera swoop over the marsh every few minutes annoyed me because I thought it was gratuitous, if attractive, padding. Then I realized, “Oh, duh, Ward Allen is a duck hunter. This is the perspective of a bird in flight.” Once I got it, I really appreciated these moments for their cinematic beauty and atmospheric serenity. Also, the music was really good. Then the movie had to go and vaporize my good will with one of the very last shots:
Seriously?! You’ve been spoiling me for nearly two hours with graceful visuals and now you offend my eyeballs with this obvious and heinous green screen? Not even Jim Caviezel is pretty enough to make up for it!
Ok, so, I would not call Savannah a failure, but it had some pretty serious shortcomings. Most of the problems are with the writing, honestly. I applaud Unclaimed Freight for choosing to make a movie about a local hero in a small(ish) city embroiled in conflicts that hardly anyone alive now can appreciate. The thing about trying to turn an extremely localized story into a successful movie is you have to find some way to universalize it, even for Savannahians like me. I didn’t know a thing about Ward Allen or why he might be interesting. I still feel like I’m waiting for some kind of punchline. There were a lot of ways to tell Ward Allen’s story, but this movie felt like it was trying to tell it in all directions at once. There were many themes to choose from and I really wish the writer and director had chosen one, maybe two, and developed that more fully. Is this a love story between Ward Allen and Lucy? Is it a story of stalwart devotion between a black man and white man in the racist turn-of-the-century South? Is it about a man who eschews society’s expectations and chooses wildness over civility? Is it about a vanishing way of life? Sadly, Savannah tried to cover all these things, which left the finished product feeling rather shallow.
I had some problems with the structure too. Framing it as a flashback from Jack Cay’s perspective is kind of ok, since the movie is based on his book. The problem there is that Ward Allen was dead long before Jack Cay came along, so Cay’s recollections are actually stories that were told to him by Allen’s pal, Christmas Moultrie. That mean’s Cay’s flashbacks are actually someone else’s flashbacks. And then the characters experience flashbacks of their own within those flashbacks! It’s disorienting and, frankly, sloppy. If you are not Christopher Nolan, you probably should not be creating a world with that many levels. I understand the desire to make sure Jack Cay had some kind of presence in the film, but perhaps it would have been better from a storytelling perspective to streamline things and let Christmas Moultrie alone tell it from his perspective. At any rate, no more flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, ok? And certainly not from multiple points of view.
I’m a little undecided about the acting, particularly Jim Caviezel. I read a critic’s assertion somewhere that Caviezel was the only actor in Hollywood who could underplay while still overacting. It made me giggle and it may be correct. I enjoy watching him play Mr. Reese on Person of Interest, but I really watch that show for Michael Emerson. Seeing Caviezel in Savannah didn’t really sway me one way or another, though. Jaimie Alexander had little enough to do in this movie, really. Lucy is a character that comes in strong already and never really grows from there. I guess it’s forgivable since this movie wasn’t about her. I found Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Christmas Moultrie to be the most relatable and real person in the film, though there wasn’t nearly enough of him. Why would you put a talent like Ejiofor in your movie and then hardly give him anything to do? Part of the problem was that Ejiofor came across so easy and natural and it made everybody else look like they were acting. Also, there were the accents. I’ve gone over this already and yes, the dreaded Hollywood Southern was in full, ear-bleeding force here. Poor Jaimie Alexander came off especially bad. How can that be when she was born and raised in the South?! Then again, it’s happened before: see Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias. Chiwetel Ejiofor sounded most natural to me and he’s English! Same deal in 12 Years a Slave, which featured two other English actors as Southern plantation owners. Why are English actors so much better at this than American actors?
There you have my thoughts on Savannah. Worth watching? I guess if you’re a completest (like me). It’s fun picking out people and places I recognize. But if you don’t live here it may not stand up too well on its own merits. If you like watching Jim Caviezel pretend to be uproariously drunk a whole lot, though- go for it!