"Gay love & Larry Flynt in Memphis"
By Linn Sitler//Special to The Commercial Appeal//October 27, 2016
This week, the Indie Memphis Film Festival will celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the 1996 releases of two made-in-Memphis films that are milestones in local movie history: Ira Sachs’ “The Delta” and Milos Forman’s “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”
In 1995, producers with both films contacted the tiny staff of the Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission and became official clients. the late Jeanette Blakeley, Sharon Fox O’Guin, and I immediately went to work helping with location research, contacts, production crew and vendor information and filming permits –- the usual film commission assistance.
However, these two films were by no means typical clients of the time. Although vastly different in budget, content, cast and size, they shared one factor in common: controversy. Both films dealt graphically with topics previously not explored by commission clients. “The Delta” offered a sometimes dark look at the gay experience while “The People vs. Larry Flynt” was set in the sleazy world of pornography, where Larry Flynt was king.
Memphis, still firmly part of the Bible Belt, already had hosted a string of big studio pictures. In 1989, “Great Balls of Fire!” had led the way. Starring Dennis Quaid, it was a PG-13-rated film about the X-rated life of Jerry Lee Lewis. It was followed by “The Firm” (1993) and “The Client” (1994). Memphians had come to expect that the movies filmed here would be movies they could watch with their mothers and teenage children.
“The Delta” aroused little attention while shooting. It had a small crew, an unknown cast, and a modest budget ($225,000). It shot largely in the gay and Vietnamese communities. Sachs’ production attracted little resistance, largely because mainstream Memphis did not know about it. “Nobody was watching me but Linn Sitler,” Ira Sachs told The Commercial Appeal's John Beifuss, when being interviewed about making “The Delta."
Twentysomething and very earnest, Sachs made an impressive presentation regarding “The Delta" when he first called for an appointment and appeared in my office.
I was more than pleased to have as a client this native Memphian with impressive credentials who possessed a list of secured investors. (Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg was one.)
It truly never entered my mind to worry about the project's gay theme.
Truly “under the radar,” Sachs’ film sailed through pre-production without a glitch. However, when writer-director Sachs and his producer, Margot Bridger, revealed that they wanted to shoot a sex scene on public property, Overton Park, I gave the Commission’s legal counsel, then-Assistant County Attorney John Ryder, the assignment of breaking the news to the Memphis Park Commission. (Ryder is now general counsel for the Republican National Committee.)
Explaining that “The Delta” had requested permission to shoot a “simulated” same-sex sex act in Overton Park, Ryder reminded Park Commission officials of the protections of the First Amendment. The shoot in Overton Park lasted 12 hours, starting at 6 p.m. August 29. The scene -- which became the first five minutes of “The Delta" -- made Memphis film history.
Not everybody was accommodating, however: The request to lease a boat from a prominent Memphian for use in the film was turned down in no uncertain terms because "the movie was about homosexuals.”
Another glitch occurred when Sachs and Bridger sought a place to hold the Memphis premiere of “The Delta.” Recently, Sachs recalled approaching the administration of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in 1997 with the request to have the premiere there.
According to Sachs, museum officials "were unwelcoming and turned me down, with no explanation." (For the record, today’s Brooks Museum screens many controversial films.) The Memphis premiere of “The Delta” took place instead in the basement of the Memphis College of Art. Unfortunately, the premiere is remembered largely for the sound problems of the projection.
The Memphis premiere of “The People vs. Larry Flynt” took place that same year, but at the Malco Stage Cinema. The late Circuit Court Judge D’Army Bailey, who had snared a role in the film, turned the premiere into primarily a benefit for his wife’s not-for-profit agency, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, Inc.
The hoopla and big ticket prices were appropriate for the local premiere of a big-budget Hollywood film, with star Woody Harrelson (who played "Hustler" magazine founder Larry Flynt) flown back to town to walk the red carpet. However, like the production itself, the premiere turned out to be controversial. One young actress was arrested at the theater for disturbing the peace, and Bailey raised the eyebrows of members of the Tennessee Bar Association for hosting a fundraising event.
I can safely say that Bailey, a long-time friend of mine, relished his association with “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” He would never have agreed with dedicated film commission supporter Dr. O’Farrell Shoemaker, who recently said: “If I had to do it again, I would not.”
Shoemaker and his wife, Melanie, had agreed to allow their Shelby Forest mansion and grounds to be the site of Larry Flynt’s Fourth of July party in the film. The problem was that Shoemaker did not know who Larry Flynt was when he agreed.
Shoemaker admits he did not ask the questions he should have because he had a long-standing relationship with the producer of the film, Michael Hausman. (Shoemaker had several years earlier leased his home to Hausman’s production of “The Firm.” It served as Tom Cruise’s posh living quarters while the actor was in Memphis.)
"When I later found out who Flynt was, I was upset but didn’t want to go back on my word, “ Shoemaker said. "My ‘Hallmark Moment’ that evening was created by Courtney Love," the unpredictable actress and widow of Kurt Cobain. "She had just completed the strip scene which ends the movie and had wandered from the set into our living room. She was completely naked. I just happened to enter the room right after her. My wife followed 60 seconds later." In what Shoemaker calls "an act of compassion," he immediately draped Love with a towel.
Continued Shoemaker: “When I lie awake at nights and think about the scenes I allowed to be shot in our home, I find comfort only in the fact that a lot of people benefited from the movie’s being shot here," including "lots of jobs" and $7 million spent in Tennessee.
Besides the memories, what is the legacy of these two films? Although some may regret their association with “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” the giant feature -- nominated for two major Academy Awards, Best Actor and Best Director -- did prove again that Memphis could support a big-budget studio production.
“The Delta,” which was in contention for the top prize at Sundance, the Grand Jury Prize, is regarded by Sachs himself as the real beginning of his career as a filmmaker. In 2005, he won the Grand Jury Prize for the second feature he made in Memphis, “Forty Shades of Blue.” He has since gone on to win multiple festival awards.
The Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission benefited tremendously. Both films proved to the community and to future clients that the commission, as the city-county official economic development agency for film and television, is ready to work with all filmmakers, regardless of budget size and potentially controversial content.
Finally, Sachs has proved to be an inspiration and role model for not only independent Memphis filmmakers but local gay filmmakers, in particular. Two such filmmakers, Morgan Jon Fox and Mark Jones, credit Sachs with their choice of career. They, too, have films showing in this year’s Indie Memphis Film Festival.
"The Delta" (with a post-movie Sachs Q&A) screens at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Malco Ridgeway Cinema Grill. "Little Men" (also with a Sachs Q&A) screens at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Halloran Centre. "The People vs. Larry Flynt" screens at 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, at the Malco Studio on the Square. Screenwriter Larry Karaszewski will participate in a Q&A after "Flynt" and also will take part in a public talk with Craig Brewer at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, at Playhouse on the Square. For tickets and more information, visit www.indiememphis.com.