Fans of the musical “Funny Girl” will instantly recognize the song lyric “I’m the greatest star…I am by far, but no one knows it!” This line, intended to describe a pre-stardom Fanny Brice, could just as easily apply to North Carolina-based filmmaker Dorne Pentes. The 37-year-old Pentes is this writer’s candidate for the best filmmaker in the business…but, as the song laments, no one else seems to acknowledge this yet.
Film Threat devotees will clearly recognize Pentes’ output. His 1992 short “Confessions of a Southern Punk” was named to the Top 25 Underground Films of All Time list by the [ Film Threat Video Guide ] , and his 1996 “The Closest Thing to Heaven” was championed earlier this year as one of the Ten Best Films of the 1990s Which You Never Saw. His films have won awards and applause on the festival circuit, albeit primarily at happenings within southern states…but north of the Mason-Dixon line and west of the Mississippi, Pentes’ films are often viewed with less enthusiasm.
Pentes, whose family roots can be traced back to pre-Civil War North Carolina, describes his films as “ethereal, character-driven and loads of fun”…and for once, this is a slice of self-praise which is totally on-target. Focusing on contemporary Southern culture, Pentes happily kicks away the encrusted cinematic Dixie stereotypes to present a raw, hilarious dissection of a region rich with acute individualism and mind-boggling solutions for solving life’s simplest and deepest problems.
“Confessions of Southern Punk” offers a visceral sub-culture clash with a teenage punk couple whose decision to abort an unwanted pregnancy raises the ire of right-wing nutcases who torment them into prison and revenge. “The Closest Thing to Heaven” offers a sublime quintet of interconnecting stories following denizens of Charlotte, North Carolina, on the single worst days of their respective lives. Pentes’ films aim mercilessly at subjects of sexual, political, racial and economic fissures within today’s South, and his current production, “Lullaby” (described by the filmmaker as a “Dixie Dogma flick”) continues this tradition with a meek small town girl who discovers a surprising new personality and a very different new place in the world after giving birth out of wedlock. Anyone looking for Miss Daisy, Tennessee Williams’ operatic neurotics or the “Steel Magnolias” beauty parlor set in Pentes’ films will be in for a wonderfully rude surprise.
Pentes took a break from the post-production of “Lullaby” to share his frank views on his place within the film industry and the burning spotlight of industry praise which has yet to fully shine down on him.
[ What is the state of the indigenous North Carolina film industry? And how does it feel to work so far removed from the New York-Los Angeles cinema axis? ] ^ I love working far removed from New York and LA– the scenes there are so intense, so product- and profit-driven, that it’s amazing to me how anyone can think straight. I love living in my little neighborhood in my mid-sized town where I can’t throw a hundred rocks and hit another film director.
The state of the indigenous North Carolina film industry is fractured but growing. We had a flurry of activity in the mid 90s which seems to have died down a bit. Wilmington’s lost a lot of MOW and feature work to Canada and, as a result, the scene has slowed down a bit. However, Sam Froelich in High Point has funded a number of independent productions lately and seems committed to making a lot of indie work. I don’t know him personally, but what I hear through the grapevine indicates he’s committed to making films in the state. Occasionally folks will get it together to make a flick in Wilmington or somewhere else, and there’s a good number of very good shorts and docs making the rounds.
The statewide PBS network (The North Carolina Center for Public Television) has a show every season called ‘North Carolina Visions’ which consists of nothing but films made by North Carolina Indies, and that has helped raise everyone’s profile.
[ Your visceral image of the contemporary Southern culture in “Confessions of a Southern Punk” is invigorating in its undiluted anger–and it stands in very sharp contrast to the Hollywood concept of today’s South. Why won’t the Hollywood productions serve up a contemporary South with your bite and fury? ] ^ You’ll have to ask Hollywood why they portray the South in such cliched, stereotypical terms. Part of the reason I began making ‘Southern’ films was that I wanted to give the world a version of the South it had never seen before: the truth of it, at least through my eyes. Hollywood (and it’s fascistic multicultural spin-off, IndieWood) has, as it does with all indigenous culture, stereotyped, dumbed-down, and caricaturized the South. And as a Southerner it truly makes me very sad and angry to see the South so misrepresented. Hollywood simply does not have will nor the expertise to make decent Southern films, period. (With the exception of Billy Bob Thornton of course–but he’s a true, real Southerner).
There also seems to be a very large, pervasive, anti-Southern bias in LA and NY- and if films are made that don’t conform to stereotypes, such as “Confessions of a Southern Punk” or “The Closest Thing to Heaven,” then they’re vilified. We couldn’t get a decent review in LA for “The Closest Thing to Heaven,” and all of the reviews we did get were politically tinged against the South. It’s as if the reviewers feel some hip, 60s liberal multicultural bullshit responsibility to trash Southern films as their own personal revenge against all the sins the South has committed. If a film doesn’t criticize, stereotype or vilify the South, then it must be bad.
[ What was the genesis of “The Closest Thing to Heaven”? And can you share some aspects of its production history? ] ^ “Heaven” came about after a script of mine (“Lullaby”) had been rejected, for the nth time, by the Sundance Writer/Director Program. I had, like all eager young filmmakers in the mid-90s, submitted a copy of a screenplay on which I had worked very hard to the program, and was called by Sundance staffers throughout the selection who told me my script was very close to being accepted. Finally, of course, since I had no real connections or agents pushing for me, the script was rejected and I was very, very heartbroken and upset. For about ten minutes. I felt as if the script was a failure and almost threw it away. But all of that pent-up desire to create and be accepted (and, ultimately, anger), poured itself out in “Heaven.” I poured out the first draft in about two weeks and held a quick reading with a bunch of actor friends, and at that reading, based on the reactions of the actors and a small audience, I knew I had a great script on my hands. It took us a year to raise the money, and we began shooting in June of 1995.
[ Perhaps the most extraordinary story in “The Closest Thing to Heaven” was the emotional but strangely humorous depiction of George, the elderly Greek diner owner whose dementia and his longing for a vanished heritage and loved ones creates serious problems for the family business and emotions. How were you able to tell this difficult story without dripping into bathos or mucking it up with cheap humor? ] ^ George’s story actually is a composite of a number of stories I had grown up with. My grandfather was indeed a Greek immigrant who ran a number of restaurants across the South, though he was unhappily married to my grandmother, a Southern belle in the finest Tennessee Williams tradition. My grandfather died when I was very young, but my father told me many, many stories about his life, how he came to America with nothing, and made something of himself–plus how he drank, womanized, and was generally an ornery, a*s-whippin’ cuss of a dude. My grandmother actually lived much longer, into my late 20s, and she had Alzheimer’s and dementia which I experienced first hand and up close for a long time. There were times when I visited her when she would tell me that General Lee had just been by to visit. I loved her dearly, though she blew my mind. So I had a deep, personal, specific connection to George’s character and troubles–it was a pretty easy character to write.
[ Perhaps the most bizarre sequence was cut from “The Closest Thing to Heaven” involved Renelvis, an overweight Philippine-American Elvis impersonator singing while the Confederate flag burns. How in the world did he get into the film and why did you decide to cut his sequence out? And do you plan to bring him back into any future films you may create? ] ^ Renelvis got into the film because….um….hell, I can’t remember- well, yeah–I had seen him perform around town, knew I needed to get him into the film as a part of local lore, and wrote the sequence for him. I cut his sequence out during a bizarre episode of utter stupidity, but only on a few video copies, not in the 35mm print or negative. The sequence has been restored and will appear in all copies from this day forward. I have no plans to have Renelvis return, though I suppose he always could.
[ You’ve stated previously that your work is “disparaged north of Virginia and West of the Mississippi, usually by overeducated, culturally elite critics who think the only good Southerner is an emasculated Southerner.” Can you please be a bit more specific on this comment? ] ^ I spent a number of years in New York City in and around the indie film world, and spent many years reading the columns of and getting to know film critics in both New York and LA. While most of these folks have good hearts, they generally are quite educated, from upper-middle or upper-class backgrounds and are usually quite liberal in their political and cultural viewpoints. I know I’m generalizing here, but if you’ll read the reviews of some of these folks over a long period of time, you’ll find they’re generally extremely PC in their viewpoints, to the extent of being almost fascistic. These folks, as members of the press, carry the torch for the downtrodden, the poor, women, and minorities, and to some extent I think it’s necessary that they do so. I’m sick of a world being run by white men as much as everybody else. But these critics take it as their cause to attack, repress, and disparage anything that doesn’t fit their view of what is either politically correct or that fits their vision of a culture.
The South has a not-unjustly-deserved reputation as being full of drunk, stupid rednecks who want to repress every woman and minority they can. And when a film like ours comes along that presents these folks in a positive light, I’m afraid it pisses the critics off–it doesn’t fit their stereotyped view of the South. In fact, it celebrates of the country for which they have nothing but contempt. So they attack it, because it doesn’t fit their world view. I had it said to me on a number of occasions that my film, since it did not fit certain stereotypes folks had of the South, that it didn’t get into certain festivals. And I believe that.
[ Several distributors and exhibitors declined to present “The Closest Thing to Heaven,” claiming it was a very good film but without commercial potential. What does this kind of commentary tell you about the state of film exhibition? ] ^ Well, we all know the state of film exhibition in this country is just like the state of, say, hamburger sales: you’ve got three or four big companies that run everything, and everybody else picks up the scraps. When you can find a real hamburger stand it’s a treat and you jump on it. The consolidation of film exhibition makes me very sad, because I’ve seen people coming out of “Heaven” elated, joyful, tearful, but MOVED…..It’s so rare to see a film that moves you these days -I wish that more people could have that experience.
[ What lessons did you learn from the production and distribution of “The Closest Thing to Heaven” and how have you applied them to the creation of your new film “Lullaby”? ] ^ With “Heaven,” production-wise, I’d say the biggest thing I learned was the need for shot consolidation. I over-covered a number of scenes that I could have covered in one or two shots, and I made up for that on “Lullaby,” where we shot a good number of single-shot scenes, with maybe a small cutaway to save us if it’s needed.
As far as distribution, I’ve learned to never, ever, ever trust a distributor. I’m so thankful for the web, mini-dv, and the technology that puts distribution in the hands of the filmmaker. We worked with a distributor for a while, a one-man shop basically, he had some good filmmakers in house (including, very briefly, Dan Mirvish), but he simply f****d up the distribution of our film. He waited forever to release it, never took it to sell-through, in fact it’s still listed on Amazon at the wholesale price of $79.00. He’s a very nice man but a horrible distributor. And I’ve heard so many stories like mine that it makes me sick. It’s always the artist who gets screwed.
[ You’ve described “Lullaby” as a “Dixie Dogma flick.” What was it like shooting a film in the no-frills “Dogma” style? ] ^ We loved shooting ‘Lullaby’ (which we plan to release in the fall) in ‘Dixie Dogma’ style. I say ‘Dixie Dogma’ because we didn’t follow all the big-time Dogma rules; we did it in our own, inimitable Southern fashion. We had some lights, we had some props, we had a sound guy–but we shot incredibly quickly, with a whole bunch of good friends who had a big blast all the way through. It was wonderful to be able to shoot so quickly–we were shooting probably 10-12 pages a day instead of the usual four or five, and it was an incredible burst of energy and a challenge because the dp, the actors, and myself were pretty much shooting all day long. We busted our a***s–very little down time waiting for lighting or art department, so it forced us all to think on our feet, go with our guts, and, amazingly experiment, because it was tape and we could afford to shoot, shoot, shoot. We did, however, stick pretty much to a 12 hour shooting day–and we made our days.
Probably the closest we came to true ‘Dogma’ style shooting was a dirt racetrack scene, in which we convinced the owner of a racetrack to allow us to shoot during a regular Saturday night at the races. We had access to a car, a race team, and pretty much the entire track–and since we were handheld with two cameras we weren’t in anyone’s way. We had only a specific amount of time to shoot (about six hours, half of that in daylight), and we had to bust a*s. But the actors had an incredible blast, they were the stars at the track that night, and the race fans had fun, too. It was the most fun I’ve ever, ever had on any shoot.
[ Beyond “Lullaby,” what other projects are on your horizon? ] ^ I’ll be taking a bit of a rest for the present moment. My wife and I just had out first child, Elias, who is now eight months old. We’ll concentrate very hard on promoting “Lullaby” via some sort of web site and hitting the festival circuit. (“Lullaby” Liza Weil of “Whatever” fame and Sean Bridgers of “Paradise Falls,” and has appearances by Michæl Mattison and Tim Parati from “The Closest Thing to Heaven”).
I’m laying low on any new projects for a while….don’t want to force anything out the door until we’ve had a run with “Lullaby”. I am writing, though, for a small LA company called GoMo Entertainment. And I’ve got a story about a religious man from a small town who, after losing his job and his home, walks a hundred miles to become part of a big religious community headed by a charismatic preacher– however, when he gets there, he discovers the preacher’s in jail and the community is abandoned. It’s about his spiritual journey across the landscape of a rapidly changing Southern landscape.
Dorne Pentes can be reached online at [ DorneBob@aol.com ] . “The Closest Thing to Heaven” is available on video courtesy of World Artists Home Video.
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