The Old Forest, the University of Memphis award-winning adaptation of Peter Taylor’s acclaimed short story set in 1937 Memphis, turns 30 this year. The On Location: MEMPHIS International Film & Music Fest is celebrating with an anniversary screening on Saturday, April 26, at 5 p.m. The screening is at Malco Studio on the Square in Overton Square.
Years before there was an independent film community in Memphis, a group of then-Memphis State University film professors dared to produce this elaborate and ambitious period piece featuring dozens of speaking roles, numerous classic automobiles, and over three dozen locations, all of which had to be historically correct and artistically evocative of Memphis in the 1930’s.
Steve Ross, the film’s director, says, “We just proceeded on youthful enthusiasm, admiration for Peter Taylor’s great story, and faith in the talent and commitment of a great group of students and community members.” Ross had just read the story when he arrived at the University, and found a collaborator in fellow film making faculty member David Appleby, who produced the film with Ross. Roxie Gee, also on the film faculty, came aboard as a very hands-on production manager.
“At the time Theatre and Communication were still one department, and we drew heavily on the creative resources of Theatre colleagues and students. The area heads of both Departments, Mike Osborne, John Bakke, and Keith Kennedy, all got behind the project, and our Dean, Richard Ranta, really helped introduce me to folks who might give us the money we would need to pull this off.”
Ross hastens to add that “the whole enterprise was only possible because Peter Taylor thought we had the right approach to his work and agreed to give us the rights.”
For their director of photography, Ross and Appleby turned to a friend from graduate school, Larry McConkey. “This was really a Memphis enterprise – the cast and crew were all from here. Larry was the one person we brought in from outside. I’d say we made a pretty good decision.” McConkey went on to become perhaps the most well known steadicam operator in the world – the man responsible for some of the most iconic steadicam shots in film history, the go-to person for Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino , and many other major directors.
McConkey took up residence in Ross’s back bedroom, and principal photography commenced the day after final exams in December, 1983, ending a day after classes started in mid January. “Larry and I shot the opening shots of the camera snaking through the woods in Overton Park that day, and I taught- not very well- my first class of the Spring semester that evening.”
McConkey went back home to New York. In February, Appleby and Ross shot some needed winter images of the forest in Overton Park, then the entire crew and several cast members gathered again in May for ten days of warm weather shooting. “By then, we all actually knew what we were doing, and the last part of the shoot went off without a hitch.”
A big premiere was held at U of M in 1984, but it took a lot of work to convince the outside world that a film made locally in Memphis by Memphians was worth looking at. However, after several successful screenings at film festivals in the United States and Europe, the film was taken seriously: favorable comment appeared in major national publications like Newsweek, Variety, and American Film. Soon the film had a distributor and The Arts and Entertainment Network showed it nationwide in prime time over a half dozen times.
The original film was made and released on 16mm film. This will be the first screening of a new High Definition digital transfer. Ross says this version is a big improvement over the video copies that had been circulating since the 1990’s. Members of the cast and crew, including the three lead actors – Peter White, Jane Wallace, and Beverly Moore – will be returning to Memphis for the screening. Ross and Appleby are excited: “Some of us have remained in Memphis, but most have spent the last three decades building careers in New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, Nashville, and other places. This will be a happy, long-overdue reunion.”
Tickets can be purchased beginning April 15 at www.onlocationmemphis.org.