TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Frigid, drizzling rain danced across a pair of car headlights Monday night, as a crew of huddled masses assembled at dusk. It was the sixth time in a row this particular group had met, working until 3 or 4 a.m. each time before calling it a night.
Their words sending out billows of visible breath, the workers called out for items needed, settling in for another long one. Another cold one. Another wet one.
Suddenly, illumination shot across the otherwise dreary locale like a bullet from a gun. The dark road had quickly turned from a pedestrian means of travel to a film set. Steam danced across the specialized lighting put in place by the crew for “Driven,” a feature film being shot on location in Tupelo.
The spotlights focused on a single fixture, a 2017 Honda CRV - arguably as much a character in the film as the actors inside: Casey Dillard and Richard Speight Jr.
Dillard, who co-wrote the film, propped the vehicle’s driver’s side door open as she talked over an upcoming scene with director Glenn Payne.
The two filmmakers have achieved notoriety over recent years with their homegrown projects like “Earthrise” and “Stagrassle Paranormal.” But this one felt a little different, thanks in part to the person in the passenger seat.
Speight, known for his work in television programs like “Supernatural” and “Band of Brothers,” and films like “Ernest Goes to Camp” and “Independence Day,” wiped clean his fogged glasses, studying his lines as Payne described the next shot he wanted to capture.
They had to pick up where they left off the night before to get the continuity right from shot to shot, and as the rain began to roll in, Dillard shut her door as she and Speight started rehearsing their scene inside the vehicle.
In fact, all the scenes in the film are shot inside the vehicle.
“In what I would describe as the most misguided idea we’ve ever had, Glenn and I thought an entire movie that takes place inside a car would be really easy to make,” Dillard said of writing the script. “We were very wrong, and I want to make sure that any other filmmaker that has that idea knows that. It’s a beast.”
The full-length feature, a first for Dillard to pen, follows the night of an Uber-esque driver who picks up an out-of-towner on a mission.
Speight, an out-of-towner himself, has settled into the starring role nicely, as he and his character share the common trait.
“Roger is a wealthy fellow who’s arrived to end the multi-generational family curse begun by his great-great-grandfather,” Speight said.
There’s a paranormal element to the story, but Dillard said not a supernatural one - mostly because she didn’t want to draw any comparisons to “Supernatural,” the show for which Speight is probably best known. He’s played the character of the angel Gabriel on the long-running program in the past, in addition to directing several episodes lately.
But the role of Roger in “Driven” is a lot different than that of his trickster-self on “Supernatural,” Speight said. In fact, he’s never read anything like it.
“About six months ago, Glenn and Casey reached out and said they had a script that they would love for me to look at for the lead role,” Speight said. “I read it and it was super clever, fun and well-executed. The script is really clever and I haven’t read anything like it. I thought my character was really fun and very well flushed out and something I felt I could bring something to do. I’ll do an indie project, but I’m also not going to hinder the project if I’m not right for the role. I don’t want to do that to the filmmakers. I felt like this was a good match.”
Speight said after meeting Payne and Dillard several years ago at a film festival, he knew them to be people to get the job done.
“They’re prolific filmmakers that make a lot of stuff. I thought it was a great opportunity to collaborate, come down here and do something that I thought was really cool and had a lot of potential,” he said. “An indie project, people are making for the love of the game. Nobody is making a ton of money on this thing, right? You’re doing it because you love making films, and I’m the same. I like making my own projects. I’m a person who likes to generate product and create my own art and I like people who think that way and do the same. They are those people. The material is really good. I like Glenn and Casey, but if I didn’t like the script, I wouldn’t come down here to do it.”
Though he loved the story, admittedly, it doesn’t take much to get Speight to return to the South, a place he calls home as he’s originally from Nashville. While he lives and works in Los Angeles, his heart (and, arguably, stomach) is a Southerner.
“I’ve been in Tupelo for a week and the bummer is I’m doing night shoots,” he said. “I’m sleeping like a zombie all day. It throws off my ability to soak up the city. It’s been delightful. I love every opportunity to soak up the South … the people, food, vibe and culture.”
Speight returned to the vehicle to continue looking over his lines as Payne slumped down on a couch inside a North Green Street business, from where they were operating for the night. He rubbed his temples, admitting this is the longest he had sat still in several days.
“I thought it would be incredibly simple,” Payne said, possibly thinking aloud. “And then as Casey actually wrote the story, I realized the car had to be somewhere at all times. So, instead of one location, we ended up with around 20, which is the most locations I’ve ever had in filming. So we went from something that, I thought, would be very basic to something that’s been incredibly complex logistically.”
But regardless of frustration or weather, Payne has made the logistics work, accomplishing a vision Speight called “clear and wonderful.”
“(Payne) has a clear vision on how he wants this film to be shot and how he wants it to look visually,” Speight said. “I want them to be able to get this out and have an audience for it. Making films is awesome, showing films is better. Because you get to display the fruits of your labor. It’s a very relaxed, fun set … and a fun ride over all.”
The production has used the entire town and some vast resources to come to fruition over the past week, shutting down key streets at night to keep traffic away, thanks to cooperation from the city.
“One thing that we wanted to do with this movie is do our best to make a Tupelo production,” Payne said. “We’ve tried to get the town involved as much as we can. We’ve tried to make all the locations in Tupelo. Tons of people have been volunteering their time and resources to help, so it’s really helped host a camaraderie with the town. We want everyone in this area to feel like this film is a part of them as well.”
Payne believes bringing Speight into the fold for a local film will help as well, when the time comes.
“We really hope that it will help open doors that we couldn’t unlock ourselves,” Payne said. “You can make things for years and years and years, which we have, and feel pretty good about it. But it’s still easy to be overlooked on the grand scale. We hope this will open the tiniest door to the biggest, worldwide stage. Richard’s track record, work ethic and following will hopefully push the story in front of more people.”
With another week of shooting ahead, Payne headed back into the rain, knowing the journey of this film is far from over.
“Action,” he said.
Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, http://djournal.com
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