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Small town tragedy
The film East of Nowhere offers a devastating portrait of small town despair
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
“In movies, small towns are sort of portrayed as ‘apple pie-in-the-windowsill,’ these safe havens,” says Matt McCrory, co-director of the movie East of Nowhere. “We wanted to portray small towns differently. Bad behavior spreads faster when there’s not a lot of people to spread it to.”
The un-named small town in East of Nowhere — an independent film shot and produced in and around Fort Wayne — is no place you’d want to live. Rural and isolated, it’s the kind of place where people get stuck, get bored, make bad choices and end up living with those choices because they just can’t see any better options. “Most of these characters do have avenues they can take, but often their own choices put them where they are, and they become complacent with the results of those choices,” McCrory says. “I think that’s relatable, because I think a lot of people have had opportunities they’ve failed at, or things they might have tried but never took that chance. That’s what these characters are; they make mistakes and have to live with them, and they’re sort of complacent with that situation.”
In East of Nowhere, Deacon (played by Kyle Kiningham) returns to his hometown after being away for five years, and stirs up a lot of unresolved conflict among his friends and family members. A tragedy among his group of friends was the impetus for Deacon leaving years before, and finds there’s some resentment towards him when he returns. His friends — now all in their 20s — seem aimless and lost, and Marlon (Doug Bolton), his best friend from childhood, has (in the words of the production notes) fallen deeper into a lifestyle filled with substance abuse and random acts of violence.
It’s not a happy story, or a pretty one. The characters pepper their speech with heavy doses of profanity and seem not to look forward to anything beyond the next house party, and without much enthusiasm. In fact, the word that pops up most often when talking about East of Nowhere is “bleak.” The film had its premier at a screening for cast, crew, friends and family at Cinema Center Tech in mid-November, and Catherine Lee, the Executive Director of Cinema Center, described it as “a hard pill to swallow.” She explains: “It’s a very harsh portrayal of a culture of lack of opportunity among young people.”
“It’s very well done in that it sort of telegraphs that something bad is going to happen,” Lee continues. “These characters aren’t trying to do anything really bad. They aren’t evil. They’re just bored and they have no opportunity and they have no particular grounding, and it fuels this story that’s pretty grim.” Lee adds that it’s not an unrealistic or exploitative portrayal. “These characters are just hanging on, and that works out or it doesn’t work out depending on a very skinny flip of the coin.”
But as bleak as East of Nowhere is, the people behind Knew Frame Productions thought it was a story worth telling. Directors McCrory and Nichole Root, screenwriter Kiowa Ackley, and partner Evangeline Figg all met while students at IPFW and worked on a number of smaller projects there.
McCrory says he read Ackley’s script about four years ago, when it was called Spiral, and was struck by how many aspects of the story rang true to his own experience. He had also grown up in a small town in Illinois, and spent time in Los Angeles and studied at the New York Film Academy before returning to the Midwest. McCrory wasn’t one of the characters in Ackerly’s story necessarily, but he knew people like them, and he got a similar reaction from other people who worked on the film once production got rolling. “It’s a personal story, but it seems to have an appeal to a lot of people,” he says.
Production began over a year ago. “We had the script, we wanted to tell the story, and we said, ‘if we don’t do this now, we may never do it,’,” says co-director Nichole Root on their decision to tackle such a big project. “We thought ‘either we move to where the work is, or we can do this here. We’ve got the capabilities, we’ve got the script…’ and we went for it.”
Root, who is currently a production assistant at WANE TV, oversaw the technical aspects of the shoot. “I did cinematography, shot design work, set up blocking,” she says. “Sometimes I had a different camera operator, some times I did it…”
McCrory usually worked with the actors. Those were the general guidelines they followed. But, as Root explains, this was an independent production. “You don’t always have all the hands you need, so everybody pulls more than their weight.”
And though work on various smaller projects had prepared Knew Frame Productions for many aspects of shooting a film, there were some things they couldn’t anticipate. They knew, for example, that whatever technical problems you can imagine happening will probably happen, but that was nothing they couldn’t handle. “This may seem a little obvious, but… you never anticipate the financial stuff,” Root says. “You don’t think ‘X dollars will have to go to this…’ In production, for example, you have to feed your people, run lights and electricity, rent whatever equipment you don’t have. Something might happen at the spur of the moment and you have to buy something…”
“We’ve had great results in getting some funding, but it’s a no-budget film,” Root continues. “We had to play the producer role and executive director role along with the writing and directing. Trying to juggle everything was a little unexpected, but it turned out for the better, I think, because we’re a little more knowledgeable than when we started.”
They also had a lot of support from cast and crew, and businesses where they did location shooting let them film there without charge — even though, as McCrory explained, the film would probably be rated “R” and wasn’t the most uplifting story.
McCrory adds that he was also grateful at how many people became involved and stuck with the production through a schedule that went on longer than expected because of re-shoots. “Everybody came back, still excited about it. I’ve worked on much shorter projects where people have lost interest. We appreciated having people working for free listen to us consistently when we were shouting things.”
Troy Koch composed the score. “He got a lot of people to do this amazing music,” McCrory says. “I thought we would need to have this ambient score, but Troy got some people from Moser Woods to do some stuff for the film.” Singer Marne contributed vocals and an original song. “She has this amazing voice which really added this tragic sort of lost feeling to the score that helped put the mood across.”
As we said, the movie was filmed in Fort Wayne and surrounding towns like Harlan, Garret, and Woodlan. But though the landscape and setting of East of Nowhere is very familiar to any resident of the area, the filmmakers are quick to point out that the small town portrayed in the movie is not Fort Wayne or any of the surrounding communities, or even a stand in for Fort Wayne or any of the surrounding communities. “The town (in East of Nowhere) isn’t named,” says McCrory. “It’s a much smaller town than Fort Wayne, obviously, but it’s not meant to be anywhere in particular. It’s a small, rural, isolated town in the Midwest.”
Indeed, East of Nowhere captures a real Midwest feel and mood very well. You can probably find characters like the ones in East of Nowhere in any similar environment anywhere in the country, but in the film, it comes across as distinctly Midwest. Though as McCrory says, the town in East of Nowhere “… isn’t a town you’d necessarily want to go to,” the place and the characters are recognizable. Nichole Root says: “I grew up here, Kiowa (Ackley) is from Wisconsin, Matt is from Illinois… we all understood what was going on in the story. A lot of the characters Kiowa wrote are based on his own experiences, and they were people we could identify with in our own history.”
Root says the next step with East of Nowhere is setting up more screenings — in Fort Wayne and other cities — and submitting the movie to different film festivals. The latter is another financial expense that Knew Frame Productions is learning how to handle: most film festivals require entry fees, which can be as little as $25, for example (some are much more), but that tend to add up. There’s also promotional materials, copies of the film, and travel expenses to take into account.
And while Root, McCrory and the other people involved in Knew Frame Productions and East of Nowhere say they are very proud of the movie, there seems to be, as you might expect, a little anxiety about letting the rest of the world take a look at it. As Root says, you ultimately do something like this for an audience, and the people involved were very encouraged by East of Nowhere’s reception at the premier in mid-November. Still, it’s not the easiest movie to watch. In terms of mood and feel, Root compares it to Requiem for a Dream (2000), the highly regarded but devastating Darren Aronofsky film about people trapped by various addictions. “Most people want to watch a movie because it’s an ‘escape’ experience,” Root says. “You want to get away from your reality. (East of Nowhere) doesn’t let you do that, because these characters can’t escape. They’re in this world that many of us have seen, and it’s tragic in a lot of ways.”
As of press time, Knew Frame Productions is working on scheduling another screening of East of Nowhere soon. For more information on the movie and Knew Frame Productions — including cast and crew bios and a trailer — visit eastofnowheremovie.com