King Of Herrings Part 2: Sharing The Herring
I have to be honest here. This (Part 2) is the hardest thing I’ve ever written. Writing about Paul Osborne’s FAVOR was tough because I didn’t want to mention any spoilers. Writing about Gary King’s HOW DO YOU WRITE A JOE SCHERMANN SONG was an absolute challenge, as it was presented as a round-table piece when no one was in the same room (or even country). But this… KING OF HERRINGS… was something else altogether.
It’s a simpler piece, if that even matters, but that’s what makes it harder. There’s nothing to say, apart from the brilliance of the film itself, and the outstanding generosity of the incredible cast and crew for giving me such access to the making of this gem of cinema.
I’ve always prided myself on writing about films that you may not have known were out there, but I knew you would love them if you did. I have nothing to do with these films. No affiliation whatsoever. I just love them, and I’m lucky enough that the people behind these films are willing to talk to me. But by the time I’m writing these articles I just FEEL like part of it, even though I have no right to. It’s like joining a new family and being welcomed with open arms.
I think the reason Part 2 of this article was so hard to write was that there was no angle. It’s not a crime thriller with twists, it’s not a musical, it’s just a fucking great film. About people. Flawed people, dishonest people, honest people, vulnerable people. It’s people you know, and maybe you’re one of them. And it’s told in an impeccable way. But I’d rather let the people behind it tell you themselves…
IAN: What was the genesis? The moment you decided, be it over breakfast or an improv class, to expand this idea into a truly remarkable piece of cinema?
EDDIE JEMISION: It’s a boring story, Ian. But it shows how desperate actors can be to just do something. (John) Mese and I were doing these “diner scenes” I wrote for a teacher-less acting class in L.A when he suggested I email them to our friends (David) Jensen and Joe (Chrest) in Baton Rouge. Those guys sometimes sneak into our old theatre on the LSU campus to act out scenes for fun. They liked them and over Christmas, Jensen arranged a read-through. On a hunch he invited a young film-maker, Sean (Richardson), to just check it out.
DAVID JENSEN: The genesis for me was we we’re initially going to “Cloud Talk” aka KOH as a play, getting our teacher John Dennis to direct it in Baton Rouge. After the read-through and a short rehearsal at a local Methodist church it was evident he wasn’t up to it physically so I suggested to Eddie that he should shoot it.
I felt it would be a good exercise knowing that Eddie was going to continue to write, and I still feel the best is yet to come out of him. I had no idea how much he would have to work to get KOH to where it is to date.
EDDIE JEMISON: We all played entirely different characters in the reading, by the way, than we wound up playing in the film. After the reading this guy, Sean, very politely but firmly said “I want to shoot this”. I think that was the turning point.
DAVID JENSEN: I met Sean Richardson through a mutual friend and thought he had a good energy and would work well with Eddie. In fact, Sean was at the first read-through.
IAN: What locations did you use? Being a small/no-budget film it must have been hard to secure places to film around the schedules everyone had?
JOHN MESE: Eddie is magic when it comes to charming people. He literally walked into Anita’s Grill with his daughter and asked to speak with the owner. He didn’t know him, or anyone connected to the place, he just saw it and thought it was perfect. After a small conversation with the owner… we had our major location. The guy just gave Eddie the keys to his business and let us shoot there every night for a week, for free. How does that happen? Eddie Jemison, that’s how!
EDDIE JEMISON: All the actors were busy with jobs and auditions so we had to shoot two weeks quick. Unfortunately it had to be in late August in New Orleans in places with no air conditioning. But I think the sweat is a plus when you see it.
The main location was the diner. It had to have a long counter and booths, you know. There are many in New Orleans, but all of them wanted to charge large fees. I walked into Anita’s Diner and immediately the owner said “You can shoot after we’re closed”, hands me the key and says “I’m not gonna charge you”. I think his manager, Miss Duwana, buttered him up for me. She was a force. We showed up at 4pm every day as they closed, ate Miss Duwana’s red beans and rice, then shot all night. We still visit Miss Duwana when we’re in town.
DAVID JENSEN: The number one location was Eddie’s mother’s parents house in Metairie and it was picture ready with a few exceptions. This was Ditch and Mary’s apartment, and played as The Professor’s kitchen when Leon comes round after the fight in Anita’s bathroom. The bathroom sequence was shot in an old dormitory in the LSU football stadium.
EDDIE JEMISON: The second location was the bathroom where the shakedown happens. We wanted something worn and gritty. Jensen and Joe talked about bathrooms in the old LSU football stadium, it used to double as a student dorm in the 30’s. We snuck in and it was perfect. One of the students let us in and no one told any of the teachers so we were good for a day or two.
JOHN MESE: The bathroom scene was filmed at a bathroom in Tiger Stadium at Louisiana State University, that David Jensen knew of and secured by talking to an artist he knew that painted in this odd little area of the HUGE stadium. It was all just kind of “Sure, I’ll let y’all in”. So we tried not to make a big deal of being there, and kind of snuck in and shot the scene all day.
DAVID JENSEN: The quiet kitchen scene was shot at my kitchen in Baton Rouge. It has a 40’s look which lent to the timeless feel of the relationships.
EDDIE JEMISON: Last was Ditch and Mary’s apartment. We shot those scenes in the double shotgun house that my grandfather built. My Aunt Weasie lived in that apartment. It was the classic New Orleans, wooden-floored shotgun double. I got the furniture, the old Catholic art and sewing stuff from my Mom and all my Aunts. It was great being back in the home of my childhood, and all was well until Mese broke the bed.
JOHN MESE: Mary and Ditch’s apartment was another Eddie Jemison bit of brilliance. That’s his Aunt and Uncle’s house, and just luckily it was empty at the time. Eddie asked if he could use it, then proceeded to beg and borrow just the right furniture to fill it out for the movie. I walked into it the first day and couldn’t believe Eddie had done it all himself. It looked like Ditch and Mary actually lived there.
EDDIE JEMISON: The wedding dress was the dress that Andrea wore at her first wedding. She was kind enough to let us rip it to shreds.
IAN: The decision to use monochrome as opposed to colour was a bold, artistic choice, and one that I’m personally always pleased to see. I can’t imagine that in this day and age shooting on black and white saves money on colour correction, so was it always the plan artistically?
EDDIE JEMISON: Sean actually spent a LOT of time getting those blacks just right.
JOHN MESE: Eddie always had it in his mind for it to be Black and White. He had discussions with Sean about it and took some great measure in designing the sets and costumes so it would work well in Black and White. Of course it looked really cool in colour as well… but the story goes that the first scene Sean converted to Black and White sold them both on the idea of not using colour. “It’s just looked dirtier” is how Eddie put it. I saw the Black and White scene and told him “Perfect”.
EDDIE JEMISON: I had asked Sean to watch some black and white films weeks before we shot, especially THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and STRANGER THAN PARADISE but I don’t think he ever did. We couldn’t decide… so all the costumes and furniture were all carefully done in beige to give the film a somewhat antique, timeless feel. After the first day of shooting though, Sean colour-corrected it for black and white and we knew we were doomed. It had to be black and white. It just looked so… stark.
IAN: What music scores or sound designs were influences? It almost has a blues-noir feel to it that at times is totally against the tension of the scenes, which then makes it all the more threatening when the tone of the music changes.
CHRIS WALDEN: There weren’t really any specific music influences, we didn’t model the score after an existing score. When Eddie and I first got together to discuss the score he had the idea of the score being jazzy and performed only with 2 or 3 instruments. Sparse instrumentation but yet still emotional. This was an artistic as well as a budget decision.
EDDIE JEMISON: On our first meeting Chris asked me to toss out a score I liked and I mentioned IN COLD BLOOD. Not only did Chris know the film, he knew the score and its composer, Quincy Jones, and he told me that the musicians recorded the score while watching IN COLD BLOOD and improvising on Jones’ themes in real-time as the film played. All news to me.
CHRIS WALDEN: With the rather vague description of a musical direction I had the freedom to write a score that I felt reflected the roughness of the male characters, the tender emotions of Mary and Evie, and also create a sound that fits the film noir feel of the picture.
JOHN MESE: Eddie had the idea of using minimal instruments and spoke with the genius Chris Walden who was immediately excited by the idea. Eddie and Chris just worked so well together in creating all of the music. Again, magic happened.
EDDIE JEMISON: Because it was set in New Orleans, Chris wanted to add a touch of traditional jazz to the score, which was a great idea. It was Chris who insisted all the instruments be acoustic (no sampling) and in some cases, very old. The celeste, for example, that Chris played was at least a hundred years old and had to be pumped by hand. And Chris plays all the trumpet on the film himself.
His score is a rarity in that it’s both evocative and moody but unapologetically melodic. Moody as it is, the score is filled with melodic themes that state themselves, repeat and transform themselves. I hear all kinds of things in this score, not just jazz. There’s old timey folk in there and even touches of gospel. There’s bebop and swing. Even classical elements, especially in the female scenes. There’s even a dirge-like marching brass band sound in the heavier scenes at the end of the film. This score has touches of everything, but the strong sense of melody is what unifies it. That, and it has a very light, tasteful touch.
CHRIS WALDEN: While recording the score, Eddie was very hands on and guided us musicians to fine tune the musical expressions to fulfill his cinematic vision.
IAN: Let’s discuss Ditch. A truly unpleasant person, or simply a coward taking out his under-achievements on others?
EDDIE JEMISON: He’s both. An unpleasant person and a coward… And a braggart… And selfish… And a liar, prone to self-aggrandizement. But what he is not, is a cheater. He would never cheat on Mary, no matter how he claims he would. In fact, Ditch never does any of the things he claims he would. He’s too busy talking to actually do anything. He’s a liar but not a cheater. Mary, on the other hand, the “good person” of the film, does in fact cheat. As hard to stomach as Ditch is, he never means to hurt anyone.
IAN: The opening card game scene is a revelation. In less than 4 minutes you’re told all you need to know about these characters (at least at that early point in the story). But the chemistry was so effortless that I’m assuming you guys have been friends for a long while.
EDDIE JEMISON: Mese, Joe, Wayne and I (and Andrea too) all went to LSU and studied theatre under John Dennis. We all went to the first MFA program there as well. Mese and Joe graduated. Jensen and I dropped out. So that must be where the natural chemistry comes from. That, and the fact that we were so tired. Because we had to start shooting in the bar after closing time. Fatigue really does make for better acting.
JOHN MESE: The actors in that first scene have all known each other for over 25 years, so yeah, it just happened. Eddie wrote the scene at the suggestion of a friend who had seen an early cut and thought it needed something to see all of the characters together at the beginning in perhaps happier times. We waited until the REAL BAR emptied out around 2 or 3am in the morning… set up and shot until daylight. Easy peasy.
IAN: Another revelation (and maybe my favourite scene) is the “Silent Breakfast” Scene. Hardly a word is spoken but the scene itself speaks volumes.
EDDIE JEMISON: This scene was added a year later, after principal photography. A pal of mine wanted to see Mary and Ditch living a little together before they begin to fall apart. There was so much talking in the piece, I thought wouldn’t it be nice if someone at some point never said a word. Couples so often don’t need to talk anyway, so… it worked out nicely. I love the way Sean shot this scene. And that is Jensen’s kitchen. We wanted it because he has that really old stove and it just looks like it could have happened a long, long time ago. Or yesterday.
DAVID JENSEN: It’s still interesting to me that each of us thought our character was the true heart of the piece, but it wasn’t until I saw it projected that Mary is the hero and the heart, no doubt. And her performance is what makes the whole thing work. I think Eddie wrote KOH for Laura and I’m so thankful he did.
IAN: How the hell did you guys get a camera above a ceiling fan???
EDDIE JEMISON: Sean set up a little Go-Pro above the fan and turned the fan blades with his hand.
JOHN MESE: We had all kinds of grand plans to plant a small camera mounted on the ceiling but in the end Sean stood up on a kitchen chair and held his camera just over the fan blades enough to get the shot.
DAVID JENSEN: I love shots through a fan. Certainly gives the viewer a “fly on the wall” voyeur feeling.
IAN: Now, we’re pretty okay with swearing here in the UK, especially on indie films, but I doubt even we’d have managed to get that many “C-Bombs” past the censors!
EDDIE JEMISON: I always like the Sex Pistols’ use of the word “cunt”. John Lydon said he and his friends were the first guys in London to call other men cunts. I like language that binds people together and separates them from the rest of us. Plus, there’s this musician pal of mine who used to say “Hey! When are we gonna make a movie where we shoot guns and call each other cunts?!”. Always loved that. Just left out the guns.
There were times, during the festival screenings for nice audiences that I wish I had never included all those swear words. In my defence, only the guys call each other cunts. The women are very nice to each other.
IAN: Please tell me what the $9 debt was for?
EDDIE JEMISON: The Professor lends Ditch $9 for a “certain wager” Ditch needed to make. I always thought they were at the track or something and Ditch wanted to make a bet on a horse but was broke so he hit The Professor up for nine bucks. And you know, Ditch probably never pays anyone back. It’s not about the nine bucks, of course, it’s about everything else. Pride mostly.
IAN: Is Leon essentially the voice of reason between these friends? And the irony of that question isn’t lost on me. But in later scenes he almost becomes dangerous, like the harmless friend you can tell secrets to but he harbours them.
EDDIE JEMISON: I wanted Leon to be the peace maker, the most sensitive, the most poetic, the only one with anything “nice” to say. So to have Leon not be able to speak seemed like the best way to go. Like the guy with the most wisdom, has the smallest voice. I guess Leon’s “dangerous” because he’s the only one of the gang who sees, who knows. Truth, not volume, being his only power.
IAN: Is the “Wedding Dress Scene” the first real sign that Mary’s entrapment has skewered her reality due to Ditch’s treatment of her? And then later a further symbol of her mind – undone and in tatters to start with, then pristine and beautiful after Evie and The Professor’s visits. Is this Mary coming alive through the dress?
EDDIE JEMISON: That’s a love way of putting it, Ian. Mary is frozen at the beginning of the film, she has no purpose and no love, and so the dress only lives in her mind. But once The Professor gives her attention and she has hope, she pours all of herself into the dress.
IAN: Speaking of The Professor’s visit, could that be the most menacing seduction scene ever committed to film?
EDDIE JEMISON: Ha! That makes me very happy that you say that. The Professor is a strange man. Joe Chrest said that, when he first visited Mary, he doesn’t necessarily want to sleep with her, he just wants to leave the smell of his cologne around the apartment. To get Mary dreaming. And to drive Ditch crazy.
A big question that came up during the festivals was does The Professor really care for Mary or is he just using her? In my mind, it’s a complicated tangle of both. He may even feel in the end that he is not worthy of her, but I hate to speculate.
IAN: Without spoilers, the “Look At Me” scene must have been hard to film.
EDDIE JEMISON: Thanks for saying that, Ian. But like Laura said, it had to be one of the easiest.
Once Sean, Mese, Laura and I worked out the physical movement of the scene – we kinda do a circle around the room during the fight – everything fell into place. It’s because unlike most scenes, Mary and Ditch finally say exactly what they’re thinking. So much of what couples say is in code, but during fights, people just blurt out what they mean, so in some ways those scenes are the easiest to do.
JOHN MESE: Well honestly, Laura and Eddie just did it. Perhaps they had worked on it a little together, but I am betting not. Laura is fucking intuitive and natural in everything she does. I mean, look, they’re married in real life, and they are both brilliant actors. Sean seemed AGAIN to know exactly where to put the camera… We rolled and Eddie and Laura just nailed it every time.
What Eddie, Sean and the whole cast/crew have managed to do with this film is create a slice of life that everyone can relate to. It may not always be a comfortable slice of life to watch, but is yours? There’s no heroes here, no real villains. It’s just people’s lives. And isn’t the purpose of cinema to be a mirror? To show you what you may be or what you could become? And, by the way, it’s incredibly funny as well. Just like life.
KING OF HERRINGS is released JANUARY 20TH on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon and Vimeo.