News Column

Acclaimed filmmakers shooting movie in Memphis; locals sought for casting

December 10, 2013


Dec. 10--Described by its director as "an ecstatic tragedy," "Free In Deed" -- a movie inspired by the 2003 death of a child during what was supposed to be a miraculous Pentecostal healing service -- will be shot in Memphis starting in late January.

Developed in part through director and screenwriting labs at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, the low-budget feature will employ mostly local cast and crew members, except lead performers David Harewood, a British actor perhaps best-known for his role as ill-fated CIA agent David Estes on Showtime's "Homeland," and Edwina Findley, a regular on the HBO series "Treme" and "The Wire." Harewood plays an earnest minister, while Findley is the struggling single mother of an autistic child.

An open casting call for the film will be held Saturday at LeMoyne-Owen College, with sessions at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. Writer-director Jake Mahaffy said he hopes to cast most of the parts with Memphians. People who never have acted before are welcome.

"All of my experience to this point has been working with nonactors and getting really fantastic performances from people who have no experience at all," said the Ohio-born Mahaffy, 38, who now lives with his family in New Zealand, where he is a film professor at the University of Auckland.

Mahaffy is best known for "Wellness," a drama cast with nonprofessional actors that won the Best Narrative Feature award at the 2008 SXSW (South by Southwest) Film Festival.

Mahaffy and producer Mike Bowes -- whose credits include "Red Flag," a film by Alex Karpovsky ("Girls") that was partly shot in Memphis -- currently are in town scouting locations with the help of the Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission, and interviewing local people to fill out their 20-member crew and 40-person cast.

The film's other producer is Mike S. Ryan, a longtime Memphis supporter who has worked on such locally shot films as Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue," "21 Grams" with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, and the punk-rock comedy-drama "Losers Take All." "Forty Shades of Blue" won the Grand Jury Prize in drama at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival; the Memphis-born Sachs will premiere his latest film, "Love Is Strange," starring John Lithgow, Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei, at the 2014 Sundance festival in January.

Bowes said Memphis was chosen for its "robust religious community" and "indie tradition, with people who understand the scale of a smaller project and can still be passionate about it."

He said the movie was expected to shoot this summer in Detroit, but when the schedule was pushed to the winter, Ryan suggested the production move to Memphis. Bowes said he and Mahaffy have visited "15 to 20" churches here this week.

Bowes said the filmmakers hope to recruit Pentecostal church members for the cast. "Ecstatic prayer and worship is not the kind of thing you can get a group of actors to emulate convincingly."

Bowes said the budget was low enough that Tennessee's tax incentives for filmmakers will be helpful but were not a make-or-break consideration, unlike in the case of some larger productions.

The movie will not mention Memphis by name, but "this is a place that's known for soul, and that's what we need, is that soul," Mahaffy said.

Mahaffy's story is based on a 2003 tragedy at a strip-mall church in Milwaukee, where 8-year-old Terrance Cottrell, who was autistic, was smothered by a minister in what news accounts called an "exorcism death."

"It's a relentless, driving narrative," Mahaffy said of his story. "There's nothing casual about it, and yet the tone of the film is one of dignity, with worship services and prayer services of ecstatic transcendence. I don't want to create just a dark film, but to cover a spectrum of experience."

Casting for 'Free In Deed'

What: Movie to be shot in late January through February in Memphis.

When: Casting meetings at 1, 3 and 5 p.m. Saturday.

Where: LeMoyne-Owen College, 807 Walker, Gibson-Orgill Mathematics & Science Learning Center, Room 111.

Who: All ages and types welcome.

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