Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer In This Together

By Chris Herrington

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  That’s all any of us want to do. That’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was 6 years old.”

Sean Plemmons is talking about filmmaking, and when he speaks you can see his 6-year old self, shrinking in his seat while watching Jaws, a film that works, his colleague Daniel Quinton points out, precisely because the shark is rarely shown.

Memphis’ filmmaking reputation is based mostly on the work of outsiders, on the films that have been shot here rather than the work of homegrown talent. With their first feature film project, Strange Cargo, nearing completion, Plemmons, Quinton, and the three other members of their filmmaking collective, Jeff Hassen, Jimmy Ross, and Jeff Bryant, are hoping to change that.

Strange Cargo, which wrapped up primary shooting just before Christmas, is a 16-millimeter, feature-length mystery/thriller about a young filmmaker (played by J.W. Williams) who, desperate for a break, joins the crew of underground filmmaker Johnny Cargo (Brent Shrewsbury), and finds himself drawn into a world that, in Plemmons words, “is not quite what it seems.”

“[Cargo and his crew] are willing to do whatever it takes to get a film made,” Quinton cryptically adds.

“The film starts out as a mystery,” Plemmons explains, “and when you finally find out what Johnny Cargo’s film is about, then the film takes a turn … turns into a whole new type of story. It’s definitely off-beat and strange, but we think it’s a pretty commercial story.”

The film was shot with a 100 percent local cast and crew and the film’s near-six-figure budget was financed through a mix of private investment and out of the group’s own pockets. Though all five members of the collective are interested in most aspects of filmmaking, they played to their respective strengths for Strange Cargo, according to Quinton. Plemmons co-directed the film with Ross, who shares a screenwriting credit with Hassen, who also served as the film’s director of photography. Quinton and Bryant co-produced, with Quinton also playing a small role as a character called “Argento,” named after Italian horror master Dario Argento. All five of the twentysomethings are involved in editing the film.

In many ways, Strange Cargo has been 10 years in the making. The group first formed in 1988 when, during the transition period between high school and college, they were all working at Malco’s Ridgeway Four. They formed a tight bond through shared cinephilia and the desire to make movies as well as talk about them. In the decade since, they’ve taken different routes toward pursuing their filmmaking dreams, but the notion of working together has been ever-present. Plemmons and Hassen are both graduates of the University of Memphis filmmaking program, where Ross wrote and Quinton produced Plemmons’ student film. Bryant, who currently works as a projectionist at Malco’s Wolfchase Galleria cinema, is currently studying film at the university. In addition, Hassen and Quinton have done seminar work in New York and Los Angeles, respectively.

Strange Cargo isn’t the first project the group has worked on. After deciding five years ago to try and make a film together, the group developed a screenplay for a four-part horror anthology called Dark Corners, in which each segment would be directed by a different member of the group. They also optioned the rights to a short story by horror writer Robert R. McCammon. But both projects proved too unwieldy and expensive for a first film, and Strange Cargo was developed out of the need for a more manageable project. To make work on the film easier, everyone in the group moved within a couple of blocks of each other.

“Some would say that’s a little too obsessive,” Bryant says, “but when you’re doing something like this, and it’s low-budget, you have to make it easy on yourself, and by us moving close together, that made things a lot easier.”

They’re shooting for having the final edit on Strange Cargo completed this summer and then taking it on the festival circuit to get it sold. A production notice in The Hollywood Reporter has drawn some preliminary interest from several distributers, including Fine Line, says Plemmons, but the film festivals are crucial to getting distribution. The group says that Malco has shown interest in having a local premiere for the film.

The filmmakers hope to find an audience for Strange Cargo, but to also use the film as a calling card for securing future work.

“Obviously we’d like to get some kind of limited theatrical release if we can, five, 10 major cities, and of course a video release,” says Plemmons.

“Our ultimate goal,” says Bryant, “is for somebody to say ‘Here’s some money to do another film [at a bigger budget].’”

Strange Cargo was shot over an eight-week period of weekend shooting –16 grueling 18-to-20 hour days. “After the first day we shot, I didn’t feel real good about our chances of finishing. We toughed it out, though,” says Plemmons.

Strange Cargo sounds like a visually ambitious project for a low-budget first film, with a mixture of color and black-and-white, and a mix of visual styles and flourishes, including the use of hand-held camera, crane shots, and a film within the film. The works the group cite as having direct influence on Strange Cargo offer an intriguing and promising indication of what form the film may take. The work of Brian De Palma, in particular, seems to be a guiding force.

“De Palma goes into pretty much everything Jimmy [Ross] and I have written together, because his is such a visual style and we try to write as visually as we can,” Hassen acknowledges.

Hassen also mentions independent auteur John Cassavetes and Haskell Wexler’s 1969 classic Medium Cool (a fiction film shot in the middle of the 1968 Chicago riots) as influences on Strange Cargo’s cinema-verite style. And Plemmons offers Chris Marker’s landmark 1964 experimental film La Jetee as a direct influence on Strange Cargo’s use of still frames.

Talking cinema with these guys, the depth of their movie lust and knowledge is impressive. Casual conversation draws enthusiastic commentary on likely subjects such as Coppola and Spielberg (“We’d be lying if we didn’t say Spielberg was obviously an influence on all of us,” Bryant admits), reveals a mildly surprising fixation on spaghetti western master Sergio Leone, and provokes references to more obscure masterworks like the 1927 documentary Berlin: Symphony of a City. But despite – or perhaps due to – their film obsessions, the collective behind Strange Cargo are reluctant to come up with a solid answer when asked the enduring “desert island” question. Except for Plemmons, who answers quickly:

“Probably Jaws for me, though if I were on a desert island I don’t know if I’d want that for my movie.”

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