By Jennifer Barnett Reed
We’re standing outside the Forge, a squat cinder-block bunker of a bar on Pike Avenue that’s been passed down like a prized heirloom in Joey Lauren Adams’ family.
Inside, Adams is behind a huge Panavision camera, directing actress Ashley Judd in the lulls between the trains that rumble by every hour or so just 20 feet away from the Forge’s back wall.
Out here, there’s a handful of extras gathered behind the building, waiting for their scene — a couple of guys who frequent the Forge in real life, and one who was drafted after he stopped to watch filming a few days earlier at a vet clinic on JFK Boulevard. They’re not made-up, dressed up or coiffed. No one’s aiming a fake missile at the Capitol dome. It’s a long, long way from Hollywood, but it’s as real as make-believe is likely to get, and that’s exactly what Adams is shooting for.
To be honest, I didn’t know Joey Lauren Adams from, well, Adam when the rumors started circulating several years ago that she was planning to come back to her home state to film a movie.
I’d seen “Big Daddy,” in which she starred as Adam Sandler’s girlfriend, and “Dazed and Confused,” where she played a bitchy high school senior, but didn’t register or remember who she was. Google her, and you’ll find she’s most famous for her star turn in “Chasing Amy,” where she plays the ultimate male fantasy — a hot lesbian converted back to straighthood by the sheer studliness of Ben Affleck, but not before he gets to watch her make out with another woman — and for her voice, a love-it-or-hate-it, kitten-purr-on-helium confection that has the potential to hypnotize.
Adams grew up the youngest of three children in the middle-class Overbrook neighborhood in North Little Rock, went to Northeast High School, attended Park Hill Baptist Church. She announced her intention to run off to join the movies not long after she came back from an exchange-student year in Australia and graduated from high school, Class of 1986. No one who knew her was surprised.
“She was always trying to be the center of attention and taking drama,” says her older sister Kelly, who left her job at a restaurant in Austin to come work as Joey’s assistant during the five-week film shoot. “It wasn’t odd to me. I just accepted it as matter-of-fact.”
Adams’ mother, Karen Bonner, agreed to let her go, but on the condition that she move to San Diego first, instead of Hollywood, and live with a family friend there until she got established. Kelly Adams doesn’t remember their father, Lyle, having anything to say one way or the other.
Joey had been gone long enough by 1991 that Trey Lange, who’d known her growing up from church and from the neighborhood, had pretty much forgotten about her.
“You just don’t hear about someone for awhile when they go out there,” said Lange, a 12-year veteran of film-crew work himself who made sure he got a job on “Come Early Morning” when he heard Adams was coming back to Arkansas.
“I remember the first time I saw her on TV,” Lange said. “I was watching ‘Married with Children.’ They all went to Booger County, or wherever Peg was from, and she bounced across the screen.”
That was 1991. Adams’ first film role as an adult wouldn’t come for another two years (as a child she had a small role in “Exorcist II: The Heretic”), but since then she’s had a slow but steady rise, working mostly in independent films. She’s played the girlfriend of Vince Vaughn, John Favreau, Ben Affleck and Adam Sandler. She’s been Minnie Driver’s best friend.
But “steady” work in movies actually means periods of fevered activity followed by periods of absolute idleness, Adams said.
“As an actress, you’re either working crazy hours nonstop or not working at all,” she said. “On my downtimes I found myself getting really frustrated trying to fill my day. I was also feeling creative, and I wasn’t being satisfied creatively.”
“Come Early Morning” is the product of that frustration. It’s her first script, and her first venture behind the camera. Adams describes it as a coming-of-age story whose heroine is a 35-year-old woman named Lucy — played by Judd — who, like Adams, has never been married, never had children, and is still trying to figure things out.
The plot itself isn’t autobiographical, Adams said — instead, “I just sort of came up with the story and inserted my family members.” She’d throw the characters into a situation, “and then I’d think, ‘What would Granny say here?’ ”
It’s day three of the five-week shoot, a Wednesday afternoon in late April, and the crew — including Lange, one of only a handful of non-intern crew members who was hired locally — is busy wrestling a 12-foot-square screen into place among the tombstones on top of a hill in the Edgewood cemetery in Levy. It’s an overcast day, so they angle the screen’s white side to reflect all the available sunlight into the faces of Ashley Judd and Candyce Hinkle, the Little Rock actress and kindergarten teacher who landed the role of Lucy’s grandmother, Doll. In the scene, they’re visiting the grave of Doll’s husband, Lucy’s grandfather.
Judd’s not actually here yet, of course. She’s back down the hill in one of the trailers, awaiting word that all the prep work’s done before someone drives her up in a black Cadillac SUV.
There’s a cluster of personalized director’s chairs set up near an equipment trailer, but the only times Adams sits down when she’s not behind the camera, it’s on the bare grass. I’ve seen enough “stars without make-up” photos on tabloid covers that I’m surprised how pretty Adams is, dressed in jeans and a warm-up jacket, hair loose, a huge smile her default facial expression.
Someone on the crew occasionally asks us to move here or there, but for the most part, at least until Judd comes on the set with her personal bouncer in tow, we’re left to roam and observe as we please.
There’s an old, beat-up pea-green Ford pick-up truck parked on one of the cemetery roads, and while some crew members are setting up the shot at a nearby tombstone, others tackle the difficult job of loading an enormous Wurlitzer jukebox into the truck’s bed.
The whole thing looks too good to be true — the kind of confluence of perfect details that never happens in real life. But then a crew member who climbs in to move the truck can’t get the front door to stay shut. Over and over he slams it, and every time it bounces right back open. The pea-green paint may have been added for effect, but the beating this truck has taken in the last 30-odd years is the real thing.
Kelly’s told me there’s no way Joey will have time to talk with me today, but after an hour or so, up she walks, hand out, smile wide, ready to give me five minutes.
We talk about making the transition from acting to directing — “Right now I’m enjoying it, but I’m three days in, so let’s do another interview after it’s over” — and how often she gets back to North Little Rock (three or four times a year) and what she was like in high school.
“I was in the drama department,” she confirms. “But I couldn’t sing, so I didn’t get big parts. I was in the background.”
But people she’s kept in touch with over the years — including her father, grandmother, aunt and uncle, who still live in North Little Rock — aren’t surprised that she’s now in charge of her own movie.
“I’ve had a very slow climb,” she said. “I’ve been doing this 15 years.”
The promised five minutes stretches into 10, then 15, but if she notices, she doesn’t seem to mind.
We talk about how she originally wrote “Come Early Morning” with the intention of playing Lucy herself. But then she couldn’t bring herself to let other people cast actors for the other roles, and she couldn’t stomach the idea of a non-Southern director turning her honest, complicated, warm, authentic Southern characters into caricatures.
“I was terrified of another director coming on board and telling me something like, ‘Say one of those funny country sayings.’ ”
Even as a native who still loves her home town and state, it’s not easy getting the South right on film, she said.
“It’s a hard line, it really is,” she said. “I worry every day about crossing it.”
It took Adams five years from the time she finished the script of “Come Early Morning” to find someone willing to front the $2 million to $3 million it would take to film it in Arkansas. That part was non-negotiable, Adams said, even though she could have filmed it earlier and more cheaply in a state like Louisiana that has a more extensive system of state tax incentives than Arkansas.
Filming started in late April, but Adams, her sister, and a couple of other crew members came to Little Rock a few weeks earlier to look for locations, hire local actors and crew members, and finalize a shooting schedule.
Candyce Hinkle, a veteran of local commercials and Arkansas Repertory Theatre productions, landed probably the highest-profile acting role, playing Ashley Judd’s grandmother, a woman named Doll who remains loyal to her dead husband even though he was an alcoholic who treated her badly. She’s in four scenes.
“It’s kind of like getting invited to a party or making the cheerleading squad,” she said. Actually making the movie — she was on the set for two days — was a lot of hurry up and wait, but Hinkle said she was prepared for it.”I’ve had good training from doing commercials,” she said. “I at least knew to shut up and sit down.”
There have been plenty of other locals involved in the film, though — from a few crew members like Lange to interns from UCA and UALR to any number of Adams’ family and friends who’ve shown up to be extras or just hang out and watch.
Filming ended Saturday, but it will be months at least before anyone in Arkansas gets a chance to judge whether Adams succeeded in capturing the real South in her movie. She said she wants to have it finished in time to debut at the Sundance Film Festival early next year, but after that, its future depends on whether a national distribution company buys it. If so, it’ll get to at least some theaters, and it’s hard to imagine Little Rock not being among them. If not, though, it could end up going straight to video or cable, or it could just sit on the shelf indefinitely.
Adams said she has to think positively, and after seeing what I have of Adams herself and how she’s gone about filming the movie, it’s hard not to follow her lead. I have no clue whether Adams has a decent ear for dialogue — and in a movie this stripped down, there aren’t any car chases or explosions or special effects to mask bad writing — but with such a limited budget, she can’t afford to be fake.
The movie shot at 19 locations around Central Arkansas, from the bright-orange metal building Victory Fellowship North church to Mike’s Grocery and Deli, a two-story frame building on Asher Avenue that’s been in dire need of a coat of paint for what looks like decades, to her own grandmother’s Lakewood house.
With the exception of the house, these are gritty locations — working class, without pretense, frequented by people who aren’t necessarily pretty to look at, but who Adams arranges in the background of her shots expressly because she’d rather document this world than recreate it.
“That’s who Joey is,” her sister Kelly says. “She’s just real.”
I do get to talk with Adams again, three days before the end of the shoot, as the crew sets up an outside shot in front of the Forge. This time she’s wearing a bright blue tank top, long khaki shorts and tennis shoes. Her hair’s in a ponytail, and she’s noticeably more tan than she was a month ago.
The smile is still there, and it’s probably at least in part because of where she’s shooting. The Forge was her father’s regular bar — he was celebrating there on the New Year’s Eve nearly 40 years ago when Kelly Adams was born — and it’s where Adams comes to hang out every time she comes home to visit.
She’s still enjoying being a director, she says, but in a different way.
“In the beginning it was more the excitement of actually doing it,” she says. “Now, it’s more that I’ve learned a lot.”
It’s easy to learn a lot about movie-making just by hanging back and watching, but it’s illusion-killing knowledge. Beyond and behind the camera’s peripheral vision — the limit of what you’ll ever see on screen — there’s a small town’s worth of activity going on all the time. Scrungily dressed people with gadgets hanging off toolbelts arrange everything from the enormous spotlights that shine through the Forge’s windows to light up the interior down to applying the perfect amount of dirt to the nametag patch on the workshirt of an extra. It’s a mind-numbing level of detail.
The outdoor scene actually occurs in the movie before the cemetery scene filmed weeks ago. Judd pulls into the Forge’s gravel parking lot in the green Ford, right next to where a guy is strapping down the Wurlitzer jukebox to a flatbed truck with “Delta Amusement” on the side. She gives the jukebox a hard stare, then disappears around the corner and into the bar.
What happens next, we don’t get to see. While the crew sets up the inside shots, I get a glimpse of the Forge’s interior — it’s small, with a red-vinyl padded bar in the center and a few tables on either side. Shelves along one wall hold a jumble of trophies. And the place stinks — a smell of decades of stale beer and cigarette smoke covered by cheap incense, so strong it wafts out the door and around back where the bar-patron extras wait their turn and crew members lay coins on the railroad tracks for the next train to flatten.
We’ve been timidly shooed back here by Emily Peresta, a 21-year-old UCA film student wearing a headset.
“I’m a production assistant — the very lowest you can get,” she jokes. “Actually, I’m an intern, so even the P.A.’s are above me.”
Ashley Judd’s assistant/bouncer, a burly man with gray hair, corrals her dog, a cocker spaniel named Buttermilk who has the run of the set, when it’s time to start shooting.
Out back, Ron Coakley, a plumber in real life, stands around with a few other extras. It’s almost 8 p.m., and they’ve been here since 4, doing very little.
“I just happened to be here one night and the bartender asked me if I wanted to be in the movie,” Coakley said. So he turned in an application, showed up today in his own clothes, and is getting paid minimum wage to spend a few minutes pretending to do what he does most days after work anyway: sit in the Forge and have a beer.
He is as real as it gets, and why Adams held out for years to bring her movie home.
By Jennifer Barnett Reed