It is a scorching Saturday afternoon when I arrive at the Coffeehouse on Cherry Street to meet David Wagoner and Elvis Ripley. I only have a vague sense of what we'll talk about, based on a sizzle reel I'd watched for their in-production documentary about the history of Tulsa music, Green Country Red Dirt, and I know next to nothing about them (though Elvis' surname made me reasonably sure that he was the son of Tulsa legend Steve Ripley). One thing I am sure of: No hot coffee.
In the several, mostly cooler, months since my first dip into the local film pool (See "Lights, Camera, Where's the Action?" in the April 8-14 issue of Urban Tulsa Weekly), Ryan Dunlap completed Greyscale, had two Tulsa screenings at the Riverwalk and AMC theaters, and is now merrily working away at selling it -- though, sadly, the economic winds have taken his ship to Nashville. He now has security as a film director, but the decision to leave, he told me, was one of the hardest of his life.
Other things to note: the locally produced Rock and Roll Dreams of Duncan Christopher had a hometown premiere recently at the Tulsa United Film Festival and Tim Blake Nelson gave special screening of his Oklahoma-centric Leaves of Grass at The Circle Cinema with the man himself in attendance. Script 2 Screen and Bare Bones keep chugging along while Joel Hueltt began the new and ambitious Oklahoma Horror Film festival, at which he's working diligently to make an ongoing and influential Tulsa event. Not to mention the myriad, socially-spun webs of people and projects and events, thus far overlooked, still toiling away at carving out a space in one of the most underrated cultural centers in the country.
But theater actors still don't get paid, talent struggles until it has to look elsewhere for success, filmmakers still have no clue how to market themselves outside of their built-in audience (should they be lucky enough to have one). Texas and Louisiana -- where Nelson's Leaves of Grass was shot -- still outpace us at attracting major productions while Dfest died taking any hopes of a big, nationally recognized film festival with it. Oh, and the Admiral Twin burned to the damn ground.
Making movies is never wine and roses (unless they wrap or if they make money) and, regardless of quality, they take people with a certain set of tools. Talent and imagination are a must, but brains, business savvy, pragmatism, ambition, perseverance and balls don't come standard or cheap. Some may do it for fun and some may do it for glory (I'm pretty sure no one sane starts doing it for money), but unless you have the right set of tools -- and a dose of good fortune -- the odds of completing a film people want to see, one that is steeped in quality that snowballs into distribution and new opportunities for the filmmakers, and that realigns perceptions of the landscape from which it came are about as far from favorable as they can get in our sometimes culturally amnesiac burg.
So after talking to Wagoner and Ripley that afternoon (where I'm reminded of my own cultural amnesia: The Crystal Method is from Broken Arrow. I had no clue. Did I realize The Flaming Lips wrote the official rock song of the state? I did. Could I name it? Umm...), my first impression was that they make it all look so easy (it's totally not).
It's not as though they hold themselves to a high standard or an ambitious endgame or anything, either. Wagoner merely brings up modern masters like Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky as their template for the level of quality of any first feature they aim toward (and a reason for others not to bother unless they are aiming for it, too). Their possible first may derive from a graphic novel he is creating with fellow artist Derik Hefner that Wagoner blithely describes as "Reservoir Dogs meets Lord of the Rings" to which Elvis skeptically qualifies, "The scale of that might be too big to start out on." (More on that later.) In addition, Ripley succinctly divulges the Shepherd-like goal of their fledgling studio, Sunday Town Productions: "We're trying to make a Tulsa that makes movies."
So they made some connections out West. So far out West, in fact, they became the Far East.
Nope. Nothing ambitious about them.
Working on Sundays
As a production house, Sunday Town already has one film (and a good one) out under its banner, the Jeremy Lamberton-directed documentary about local egomaniacal enigma, Frank P. DeLarzalere, better known to his detractors as Biker Fox. Ripley, co-produced, co-edited, second unit directed, camera operated, digitally effected, and maybe even found time to get a couple of hours sleep on Biker Fox, and the film has been getting great reviews as it makes the festival rounds including playing at Slamdance, the Park City, Utah indie fest that runs concurrently to The Sundance Film Festival.
The film, partially shot and produced by Biker Fox himself, chronicles the day to day of DeLarzalere as he antagonizes the customers of his used muscle car parts business (which apparently has still made him millions), hand feeds swarms of raccoons that flock to his backyard -- in a truly surreal night scene -- and preaches a mantra of good health, good food, and good exercise as his not-so-alter ego, Biker Fox.
Clad in retina-traumatizing colors of spandex that cruelly leave nothing to the imagination, Biker Fox rides the lanes, inspiring (and sometimes inciting) the anger and derision of motorist and Tulsa cop alike. The film paints a funny and somewhat sad portrait of DeLarzalere as he deals with police harassment that results in crushingly excessive legal costs and random people that want to kick his ass due to his flamboyantly obnoxious demeanor. Manic depressively flipping between states of heroic good will to in-your-face fits of aggression that sometimes devolve into uncontrolled anger (often within a matter of moments), DeLarzalere is nothing if not interesting. I imagine he's what Richard Simmons is like when the cameras aren't on.
DeLarzalere is such a mass of contradictions, a man who is sometimes possessed of insightful comments on human (if not animal) nature that, despite what one thinks on him, the film itself can't help but be fascinating. That's only aided by Lamberton's lucid direction and adept editing on Ripley's part as they performed the Herculean task of sifting through 800 hours of footage.
"It's an autobiographical exploration." Ripley says.
It must have been a hell of trip; one I'm kind of grateful that they took for me.
And it's the best locally made film I've seen; a loaded statement since I've seen so few, but the thing is I had expectations for Biker Fox that were well met. The reason I had expectations at all, aside from an understandable curiosity about DeLarzalere, was due to the fifteen minute sizzle reel for the film Wagoner and Ripley are currently producing which, if their clear talents fulfill their ambition, might be the most important documentary on the history and influence of the Tulsa music scene ever made. That would be Green Country Red Dirt.
For Wagoner and Ripley, the well was so untapped (and ambitious) it was a no-brainer.
"Why don't we just do the musical history of Oklahoma?" Wagoner recalls, "Steve (Ripley) is Elvis's dad, so the musical history is there. We have access to those people and those historical archives so (Elvis has) got hours and hours of research already done. People get $80,000 research grants to do documentary films and we could just skip that step."
The visually compelling reel is their mission statement for the film, their stylistic proof of concept, and it's already created a snowball effect of talent being attracted to the project -- including The Flaming Lips. Their involvement, along with their manager Scott Booker (who also recently launched the Academy of Contemporary Music at the University of Central Oklahoma) may open the doors to even more giants for the two filmmakers -- though David stays mum on who, perhaps in an effort not to jinx anything, "I wasn't even talking." he says of their last meeting.
It features interview footage with Steve Ripley, Ben Kilgore and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, as they expound on the influence of Tulsa artists on the world stage, what Tulsa means to them as a musical community and the heritage and connections that were made here to produce our legendarily rich and diverse musical culture -- a thus far ill-defined nebulae -- that has birthed many stars.
Co-directed and produced by Wagoner and Ripley (with Ripley Sr., Dustin Taylor and Meg Sutherland also producing) Green Country Red Dirt aims to fill that gap.
Tulsa's musical legends are an almost oral tradition in this town and the stories, exploits and hierarchies most often get passed along when a novice gets a chance to hear a legend or some masters play live at some place like The Colony and asks, "Who the hell was that?" -- which makes it an aural tradition once the music has begged the question. Catching Steve Pryor on a good night will make you wonder why he isn't world famous and richer than Clapton (the aural tradition). Then the stories you hear, when you ask, tell you why (the oral tradition).
No one has sought to encapsulate this multilayered and vibrant history in one form until now, and many of the answers it seeks to illuminate paint a picture that is much larger than any one artist.
"We have access to Hanson and Leon Russell without having to go through all the hoops you'd have to go through to get direct access to those people." Wagoner continued, "It seemed like such a simple idea that it was a foregone conclusion. Why hasn't this been done?"
That sizzle reel for Green Country Red Dirt perfectly captured the sense of peeling back the pages of an ancient text that traces a family tree that begins here and ends all over the world. It clearly aims to chart a lattice work narrative, from the true nature of Tulsa's influence internationally, the reasons it's artistically friendly ("The key to being an artist is all about low overhead," said JFJO's Jeff Harshbarger), to the oft held lament that prophets get ignored in their homeland. (Wagoner tells me the story of a friend, perhaps Elvis', backpacking in Europe who stayed at an artist collective in Germany run by a Russian who would become irate if anyone sang along with the communal radio when Yale, Oklahoma native Chet Baker was on. "Do not fuck with the Chet Baker!" Wagoner mimics in a half-assed Russian accent.)
Then there are the philosophical notions that comprise a dark canopy in Green Country Red Dirt of what was lost that still reverberates musically, culturally and financially, after the firebombing of North Tulsa in 1921 -- an event which they endeavor to make into a film of its own.
The reel was compelling, so much so that I wanted to see the whole movie more or less right then and there.
"We've not just had so many influential artists; we've had trail blazers, people who are icons." Wagoner says, "So the premise is like, 'What was Leon Russell's end game and what was Elton John's? What led Elton John to Leon Russell?'"
So it's no surprise that Wagoner and Ripley are enjoying great interest and an exciting amount of success at laying the brick work for what looks to be a lovingly shot, totally epic and completely absorbing piece of documentary filmmaking. Green Country Red Dirt is a film that should do a lot to put Wagoner and Ripley (and Sunday Town) in the spotlight.
But it doesn't exist yet. Not completely. They interview The Flaming Lips in October, as well as Megan Mullally -- of Will and Grace fame -- whose OKC based band, The Supreme Music Program includes Greg Kuehn, who has worked with acts ranging from TSOL to Bob Dylan, and who is also scoring Green Country Red Dirt. If what we say is true about snowballs, Butterfly Effects, and critical mass, then Green Country Red Dirt's nascence will become an avalanche of reality.
"Once it seems real then everyone likes to do real stuff and it's not just a couple of guys with camera." Ripley says, unknowingly echoing Ryan Dunlap's words many months ago. "It's actually a real movie once you've done a few (interviews) and then everybody just kind of agrees to it because they don't want to be left out."
Yet while Green Country Red Dirt is still coalescing like a funnel cloud over the plains, Wagoner and Ripley have a couple of other projects in the pipeline. One such film just as likely to achieve success and get them noticed is actually almost upon us.
But, then, that's where the Far East comes in.
Dowry of the Meek
A couple of weeks after meeting at the coffee house, I'm invited to Wagoner and Ripley's studio located in a non-descript building hooked like a subway car to the back of a non-descript house. It's a large room, bathed in subdued theater lighting, with a workstation set dead center -- consisting of a hi-def monitor and a Power Mac with a sleek display -- while before it are two rows of couches (the front two of which apparently formerly belonged to Leon Russell) that act as seating for their screening area. The blank wall that stands before them, which Elvis tells me he wants to repaint, acts as the screen, flanked by two large speakers of the surround sound system.
At first, we talk about the comic they'd like to base their first feature on (though they have reservations about that, due to its scope) called The Lost Chronicles of Efran Gray. Wagoner says it is based on the legend of the Wandering Jew, a Golgothan shopkeeper who taunts Christ as he's limping toward his crucifixion, and whom Christ curses with eternal life. Over the eons Gray leaves journals of his often-supernatural adventures in libraries around the world, marking a secret allegorical history within history. The story is epic and complex, tinged with elements of horror and sci-fi, drawing from many immortality legends and religious texts and is, to say the least, fitting of its "Reservoir Dogs meets Lord of the Rings" description.
But talk soon turns to the documentary David has been working on for more than a year, which is on the verge of completion; the heart breaking and rather astonishing, The Dowry of the Meek.
Set in Vietnam it spins the tale of Hua Stone. Orphaned during the Vietnam War, Stone was born with polio and was thus paralyzed and when the war ended he was to be a part of Operation Babylift, President Ford's then controversial program that relocated Vietnamese orphans to the US and other friendly nations. Stone missed his flight to the U.S. -- "He was literally pulling up as it pulled away," Wagoner said -- a flight which was hit by a surface-to-air missile, killing all 250 people on board. Instead, Stone wound up in a sort of interim adoption in Australia, with the family of Brian Stone and his wife, Cath (where he picked up his Anglo surname).
At age 13, Stone lost his only friend his adopted brother. Disillusioned with expat life in a foreign land, where no one looked or sounded like him (during that era there was an anti-immigrant wave against Vietnamese in particular, somewhat chronicled in the 1992 Russell Crowe film Romper Stomper) he ran away to live on the streets of Perth and began to deal heroin. By the time he was 17 he was making $10,000 a day (and nursing a thousand dollar a day habit) but is life in shambles. Alienated and with only heroin providing him solace, he decided to take a "hot dose" and end it all.
On the night of his planned death he called out in prayer to God, not believing he was being heard, but doing so from a pit of despair. Instead of killing himself, he fell asleep. When he woke up the next day he didn't get high. In fact, he never got high again.
"Two weeks goes by and a friend of (Stone's) comes by and goes 'What's up?'" David says, "And (Stone) is like 'What do you mean' and the friend is like 'You haven't shot up in two weeks. You were doing a thousand dollars a day for the past couple of years. You should be dead. Tons of withdrawls, in the hospital, something'. He hasn't even noticed that he hasn't done it, chalks it up to a miracle and turns his life around."
Wagoner's parents run a non-profit and did humanitarian work which is how he came in contact with Stone ten years ago after Stone had returned to Vietnam to start his own orphanage/school called The Company of Grace. Wagoner stayed with him there for a couple of weeks with a small, contraband, HD camera which he used to chronicle Stone's return the orphanage that housed him as a child.
"The same people he was friends with there with still lived there," Wagoner said. "There was a blind kid who used to lead him around because (Stone) couldn't walk so the blind kid would carry him around like in a wheel barrow race ... I was in there (a make-shift living-kitchen) filming Hua and kind of wrapping it up and this guy sort of ran into the camera...and it was the blind guy (who ferried Hua). He didn't really look at me, and he went to the sink, it was dark in there and in Vietnamese it's written on a chalkboard 'Our existence is shit' and he was just sitting there in this dark kitchen washing dishes, kids screaming in the background."
Our existence is shit. For those who are stuck in that moribund caste what Stone is doing represents the only hope for a meaningful life that they have.
"In Vietnam if you are an orphan or disabled, it's a communist county, so you're infirmed for the rest of your life. There's no hope," Wagoner said. "Part of this is to get the message out and raise awareness of what he's doing and what his orphanage is doing, teaching disabled people trades, such as IT stuff, being mechanics, whatever it is so they can actually be viable members of the society they live in. No one else is doing that, at least in (Vietnam)."
The whole endeavor represents a risk for Stone as his clear religious conversion, which is vaguely described in the footage, could get him booted out of the country, destroying all he's worked for, or worse. Wagoner, who is directing, went back to L.A. to score what he'd shot with Greg Kuehn (on a very effective broken accordion) while Ripley, once again, handles the editing duties. Upon completion, 10% of the films profits will go back to Vietnam to support Stone's work.
And it looks to be on track to make a difference, with a very real shot at television distribution, as it has been picked up by Dolphin Bay Films, producers of Sterlin Harjo's Sundance winning drama, Barking Water, who are starting their own distribution arm, Black Mesa.
But, amazingly, it's not just a comprehensive musical history of Oklahoma or the soul-stirring story of Hua Stone that Wagoner and Ripley have simmering on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of front-burners. There's still the matter of their shooting Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey live performing Jacob Fred-ized re-workings of Beethoven's Third and Sixth Symphonies with a 50-piece orchestra.
Nope. Nothing ambitious about them.
If anything, that is selling Ludwig--and JFJO--short. The culmination of two years work, rearranging the symphonies into vibrant re-imaginings that in its current lineup incorporates Brain Haas' mellifluous piano, Jeff Harshbarger's adept stand up bass, Chris Combs virtuoso slide guitar and Josh Raymer's concussive percussion has been a labor of love for the Tulsa legends, and their co-arranger and orchestrator, Noam Faingold.
Co-directed by Wagoner and Ripley, Ludwig will be something more than capturing one performance, as the endgame for the group is to take the show to different orchestras around the world as David and Elvis document the performances, and chronicle the behind the scenes.
The footage that exists was shot with the Bartlesville Symphony Orchestra and Wagoner and Ripley's desire to establish a trademark visual brand is evident. Shot with multiple dSRL cameras (prosumer grade digital cams that shoot 1080p video, Canon 5d and 7d for you tech geeks), the ability to attach lenses that impart a shallow depth of field gives the footage a distinctly cinematic look which Ripley cuts together beautifully and which sounds amazing.
Once again, they are using the tease to expand the scope of the work.
"The goal always was to use this, even though we are going to make a full documentary, as a promotional piece to get this (to happen) in other cities and travel around with it," Ripley said. "They're travelling musicians, and they would like to hitting some big venues."
Brian Haas was involved with the mix for the footage, working with Ripley to perfect the sound, which was recorded with a state of the art mobile recording studio ("It's like a converted airport shuttle," Wagoner said). The finished product will consist of the best of the performance footage interleaved with interviews with Faingold and the band, while showing the rehearsal process, as well; to create a final record that also chronicles project's development.
"It's sort of a thing for them to take to these classical music conferences," Wagoner continues, "so they can take what they did in Bartlesville and do it again in Los Angles or Chicago. They want to get the other big orchestra to be a part of it because they want to do it again in numerous cities around the world, which we're going to be a part of that with them."
While fortune seems to smile on them there's no question that David Wagoner and Elvis Ripley, under their Sunday Town banner, are poised to make inroads into the consciousness of Tulsa film and music fans, if by no other means than sheer force of will alone. Essentially, they are blowing the glass to make their own fishbowl and fill it with their brand of water so to populate it with their own exotically unique fish. The results will benefit, entertain and enlighten film lovers, music aficionados, and aspiring filmmakers alike.
Make a Tulsa that makes movies, indeed.
Share this article: