“No one would ever let me play that role otherwise,” Eddie Jemison tells me about his character Ditch in the dark comedy KING OF HERRINGS that Eddie wrote and co-produced, and which plays Phoenix Film Festival this weekend. A gritty journey through a David Mamet-like world of small-time con artists and gambling addicts, KING OF HERRINGS stars Jemison as Ditch, a vulgar asshole who owes his friend a mere $9 but refuses to pay. His friend, known to this poker-buddies as ‘The Professor’ (Joe Chrest), takes his revenge on Ditch by seducing his wife, who is played by Laura Lamson, sending Ditch into a violent downward spiral. “It was kinda fun to push her around a little bit,” Jemison says about playing opposite his wife.
However, unlike most writer/director/actor projects, which often begin out of vanity, KING OF HERRINGS was written for someone else entirely. Jemison explains: “I’ve been in a teacherless acting class in LA for about 10 years and a friend of mine needed a scene and I’m like ‘I’ll write you a scene, I’ll write you a scene.’ And I wanted him to say ‘cunt’ a lot, I just thought it would be funny, so I wrote that first scene of the two guys walking [literally the first scene in the film]and the class liked it so I kept on writing until it became a play really.” When the actor he had written Ditch for dropped out of the class, right in the middle of the project, Jemison thought “I’ll just do it myself.” But taking on Ditch was a large leap for the actor most known for playing mild-mannered push-overs like Ocean’s Eleven techwiz Livingston Dell or as Ronnie on the HBO show Hung, Anne Heche’s new husband. “Even in preproduction everyone was like you can’t play that role,” Sean Richardson reminds Jemison. Richardson served as the film’s co-director and Director of Photography. He came on board after seeing a reading of the play version in Louisiana and told Jemison he wanted to turn it into a film.
KING OF HERRINGS was shot mostly in New Orleans, with additional shooting in Baton Rouge, in sixteen days with a crew of four. The cast, other than Lamson, was drawn from Jemison’s LSU classmates from 25 years ago, so they had a great rapport with each other. The performances are fresh and nuanced, much like an ensemble at a great theatre like Steppenwolf in Chicago or something. This was by design: “the same summer the same exact cast was supposed to do a play version in an old church in Baton Rouge and then we were going to immediately follow that up by filming the film version,” Jemison admits, “the play never happened but the film did.” Despite their relationships or maybe because of it, the two weeks of rehearsal prior to shooting were “nothing but a headache because all those actors are so headstrong. With every detail, they argued with us.” Jemison continues, “and I called the first AD [who also plays Augie in the film]and I said ‘Dude, no one is listening to anything Sean and I are saying’ and he said ‘well, are they good?’ and we’re like ‘yeah’ and he goes ‘then just let’em alone.’” This approach serves the film well, as each of the six lead characters has such depth that it feels like there is a whole life of experiences backing up this moment in time. “I didn’t say much, they just did what they wanted,” acknowledges Jemison, not surprisingly, an actor’s director.
Richardson worked in much the same way. In discussing the lose, but fast moving handheld feel to the film, Richardson tells me “my film style has always been on the run, run and gun. We never really set any marks for the actors, I wanted the actors to feel free to move around with the scene however they felt fit.” This approach may not have been what Jemison had envisioned, but he gave Richardson the same trust he gave the actors. “I remember when we first started shooting, Eddie was kind of uncomfortable with me shooting handheld,” Richardson says, “after the first couple takes he was like ‘I don’t know, I don’t know’ and I was like ‘I’m gonna do it anyway.’ Especially with the limited amount of time we had to shoot it, crew of four, it was almost a necessity.”
The other strong stylistic choice, showing this world in black and white, was always part of the discussion, even in pre-production despite having a specific color palette of browns and skin tones designed. The decision was made, says Jemison, “the first day we looked at it.” Richardson did a precut of one of the scenes and put it in black and white and they knew that was the way the film had to look.
What they didn’t know, however, until showing it to two packed houses in its world premiere at the New Orleans Film Festival (where it won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature), was if KING OF HERRINGS was any good. “Before that experience I really thought it was pretty crummy,” Jemison confesses. After they finished editing it, Jemison and Richardson had a screening for cast and crew and were so disappointed, they even considered scrapping it. “The movie is so tricky because if you watch it with three people, it always comes off as much darker than it is,” says Jemison, “if you watch with an audience, almost invariably, people laugh ands that’s why I think we thought it was bad because we kept watching it with three people at a time and everyone would always go ‘wow, this is really dark.’”
The film is dark, but it is also funny. But mostly, it is a triumph of ensemble acting. The hands-off approach to the performances really brings out some of the more intense scenes I’ve seen lately in indie film, rough, full, and adult. So many films on the fest circuit focus on twenty-somethings who don’t know what to do with their lives, it is nice to see a film about mid-lifers who still don’t know. I asked Jemison if this film was a one-off for him, or he intended to write another. He is quick to respond “we’re gonna use the exact same cast, but cast them as middle class P.R. executives in New Orleans, it’s kinda an experiment.” I can already see where this is going, but I ask him why. He responds “to prove a point, I get sick of the way people are typecast, obviously, being an actor, so taking the same people and saying they can also do this as well, just that alone is worth it to me.”Eddie Jemison is a fantastic actor. If you have a chance to see his brilliant comic turn in COFFEE, KILL BOSS which I programmed to world premiere at Austin last year and is currently making its way around the fest circuit, do not miss it. He has one of the funniest minutes in the VERONICA MARS movie playing theatres right now. And he is a frightening raging bastard in KING OF HERRINGS. Just as he fights his own typecasting, he is creating opportunities for other actors to do the same.
KING OF HERRINGS screens this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Phoenix Film Festival.