What was Godzilla doing in Atlanta?
Kathryn Tucker wonders the same thing.
As executive director and co-founder of the Arkansas Cinema Society with former high school classmate and acclaimed filmmaker Jeff Nichols, Tucker helps develop local talent and promote Arkansas as a go-to location for film and television productions.
“I feel like I’m secretly creating this organization that is everything I would ever want to learn about or anyone I would ever want to talk to,” she says.
A veteran of 40-plus film projects herself, Tucker is one of the forces behind Filmland, the ACS’ annual film festival scheduled for Oct. 1-4. Initially set for the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock, there are yet-to-be-announced contingencies in place for a more virtual festival, but the event will go on at least semi-virtually.
“We have some backup plans in place that we’re still trying to work out before I reveal what they are,” Tucker says. “But we’re trying to do something and be extremely careful about what it is we’re doing.”
Filmland is far from the society’s sole focus. Established in 2017, the ACS offers programs, seminars, panels and courses designed to teach the art of filmmaking and promote Arkansas film and filmmakers. Its pillars are the words “watch,” “learn” and “make,” but Tucker fears the society and similar organizations are teaching young people to learn and make, only to leave Arkansas in search of work.
“We become like a farm club,” she says. “We train all these young people to work on movies and then they have to leave to work on movies.”
Certain southern states have tax incentives to attract film companies that spend a predetermined amount locally. Which is why zombies lurch around the Atlanta area in “The Walking Dead” and scenes from 2014’s “Godzilla” were filmed in the city.
It isn’t lost on Tucker that a film titled “Arkansas” was made in Alabama.
“To me it makes absolute sense to invest in film as a community and as a local government,” she says.
A place called “The Natural State” would of course offer ideal locations for a film production, but Arkansas’ greatest film resource, Tucker says, is the pool of artists and craftsmen jumping at the chance to put their skills to work.
In New York or LA, film crews work all the time; in Arkansas there may be only a couple major projects a year. A $15 million film in Georgia will get a third- or fourth-tier crew, while in Arkansas it’s first string all the way, and every person cares, Tucker says.
“It’s a perfect industry for a community. It employs artists, it gives artists jobs. It’s economic development and it’s tourism.”
Not that Arkansas isn’t trying, Tucker says, noting the efforts of Christopher Crane, film commissioner with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, to establish economic incentives for film, but funding and red tape make the incentives less competitive with those of nearby states.
The ACS board has been working with lobbyists and legislators and there is hope legislation to beef up incentives will be introduced in the next session of the General Assembly.
“Everyone talks about building studios and all that,” she says. “We will need all those things, but not until we have a properly funded film incentive.”
Since North Little Rock’s Old Mill appeared in “Gone With the Wind” in 1939, Arkansas has turned out notable actors and filmmakers and been home to critically lauded productions like the third season of “True Detective” — which featured Conway’s Graham Gordy as a writer — and Nichols’ “Mud.”
Arkansas also has a number of established film festivals with big names attached, but it was the demise of one that led to the creation of the ACS.
When the Little Rock Film Festival was discontinued in 2015, Tucker and Nichols huddled up.
“Our mission was to kind of replace the hole the Little Rock Film Festival left when it closed,” Tucker says. “It was such an amazing film festival and they laid so much groundwork for us. We would never exist if they hadn’t closed.”
The ACS is modeled partially on Texas’ Austin Film Society begun by filmmaker Richard Linklater and featuring board members like Quentin Tarantino. The 30-year-old society has helped create a thriving film community full of mentors, donated gear, theaters, editing bays and sound stages, much of it in the hangars of a former airport provided by the city.
“We kind of put our heads together and Jeff especially said we should do something that’s not just a film festival, we should expand on that and do something community driven,” Tucker says.
The first press release went out in late March 2017 announcing the ACS, its first event and a board of directors that includes Oscar-winner and Arkansas native Mary Steenburgen and recent addition Christina Arquette, the Hope native and film producer married to actor David Arquette.
“She’s a tremendous asset to the state because she’s very aggressively wanting to make more films in Arkansas,” Tucker says.
Having Nichols in on the founding was also a good get for a fledgling film society, Tucker says of her Little Rock Central schoolmate.
“He’s the powerful connection to the industry that we needed to be able to draw the right attention,” she says. “He’s not really got anything to gain by doing this other than giving back, which is extremely important to him, and it’s very important to me, also.”
For the August 2017 premiere, actor and Nichols collaborator Adam Driver joined a guest lineup that included producer Noah Stahl and director/writer David Lowery. Driver hosted screenings of “The Force Awakens” and “Paterson” and Nichols conducted Q&As with guests.
The festival Filmland debuted in 2018 and was inspired in part by Ebertfest, critic Roger Ebert’s event held in Champaign, Illinois. The first Filmland lineup included “The Newton Boys,” “Antiquities” and “Dayveon,” with SNL alum Will Forte on hand for screenings of his television show “The Last Man on Earth” and his film “MacGruber.”
Tucker says Filmland strives for a mix of indie movies, LGBTQ+ themes and films for kids and adults. The first year the event screened five films, the second year 15, and half were Arkansas projects.
“One of the most important things to happen is for Arkansans to have a place to screen their films.”
Behind the Camera
After graduating Central High, Tucker packed up the Nikon FM2 camera her parents had given her and set off for Washington and Lee University in Virginia, followed by a transfer to the University of Pennsylvania.
UPenn was “guinea-pigging” its photography department in a big way, Tucker says, and as she sharpened her skills she set the double-headed goal of becoming an artist while making a living.
She marched around New York, resume in hand, visiting the studios of her favorite photographers. Tucker bumped into one, Timothy White, in a serendipitous moment in a hotel lobby. White shot movie posters with Miramax and recommended Tucker for a job there as a unit photographer and photo editor handling publicity shots.
She left Miramax in 2004 and in 2005 shot her first indy film, “Loggerheads,” in North Carolina. The film made that year’s Sundance Film Festival lineup, and after shooting another project in North Carolina, Tucker wanted to direct.
She worked as a production assistant on projects in North Carolina and New Orleans before she entered the Director’s Guild training program in Los Angeles. During the two-year program she worked on film and television productions like “Maid of Honor,” “Bones,” “Gilmore Girls,” “She’s Out of My League” and “Private Practice.”
As a second assistant director, Tucker worked on the pilot episode and first season of “Glee,” as well as the films “This is 40” with Paul Rudd, “Sex Tape” with Cameron Diaz and “Oblivion” with Tom Cruise and Morgan Freeman.
“Oblivion” took her from New Orleans to the top of the Empire State Building to the 2,000-foot peak of a mountain in Iceland, where a snafu involving the production’s helicopter pilot hours meant the Coast Guard had to send a chopper to “rescue” her.
Productions with Adam Sandler, she says, were almost like family affairs and included six weeks in Hawaii for “Just Go With It” and two weeks on a brand new Royal Caribbean liner for “Jack and Jill,” where whenever the cinematographer needed a different angle of the sun, “we just rotated the boat.”
In 2010, Tucker bought a house in Arkansas as “a place to come between movies” and satisfy her desire to see more of her home state. She met her cinematographer husband Gabe Mayhan and became more invested in the Arkansas film scene, finally ditching her LA apartment in 2013 and relocating full time.
She has two children, 4-year-old Tucker (Tucker Mayhan, she stresses, not Tucker Tucker) and Katherine, nearly 3, known affectionately as “Coco.” Thanks to her kids she is “fluent in Pixar” and was thrilled to welcome the studio’s voice actor, Andrew Stanton, to last year’s Filmland.
Asked to name her favorite Arkansas-centric film, Tucker can’t help mentioning “Mud” and “Shotgun Stories” before, after some internal debate, landing on Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade.” It’s the film that may have ignited her interest in filmmaking.
“It was really the first time I thought about it, like, ‘Oh, there’s a movie filming.’ It was probably a seed in my brain that was just enough to go, ‘I wonder what this is like?’”
The ACS may have been better poised to shift to a virtual presence than other organizations and businesses during the COVID-19 era. Film is a medium, after all, with the goal of creating something entertaining to watch on a screen.
“Our programming has been robust during this time,” Tucker says. “I like to point out that film, to me, is unique in this way in that it’s kind of bulletproof. Everyone is turning to TV and movies for entertainment at this time. With so many art organizations shuttering, I feel like we’ve been able to pinch-hit.”
Plans to coordinate events with some of the state’s film festivals are understandably on hold, but the ACS has still offered a busy lineup of programming. That includes the free Filmmaking Lab for Teen Girls, conducted via Zoom meetings in July, and the spring Shelter-in-Place Virtual Film Series featuring documentaries highlighting inequity.
The Filmmaking Lab for Teen Girls is a four-week master class for students ages 16-18. Girls from central Arkansas high schools hopped online for four hours daily to learn filmmaking skills and hear from industry experts.
“The girls are amazing,” Tucker says. “They’re girls in high school and they’re calling in on their summer breaks from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Zoom and they’re in it.”
The girls collaborated on a short film with one, 10-hour production day in the July heat, complete with protective masks, temperature checks and a critical care nurse on site.
“They’ll have a finished, short film they can use for college applications,” Tucker says.
The Shelter-in-Place series is a collaboration involving the ACS and arts and culture organizations across the state. The series features a weekly screening of an inspirational documentary followed by moderated Q&As on the online screening platform OVEE.
For the series, the ACS hosted “For Sama” which tells the story of filmmaker Waad al-Kateab’s life over five years in war-torn Syria, an experience that includes Waad’s marriage and the birth of her daughter. Waad called in from London for the screening.
“It’s one of the most moving films I’ve ever seen,” Tucker says.
There is much more in the year-long schedule of planned and established ACS screenings, projects and programs, weekend workshops and master classes, as well as the pandemic-inspired Zoom meetings, webinars and summits.
Even if the ACS can’t network in person as it has in previous years, it is still finding ways to get out into the state, promoting Arkansas film and filmmakers and educating young talent.
“It took me six or seven years to figure out what I wanted to do and even longer to get in the door,” Tucker says. “We’re trying to give a leg up to young people so they have an idea what to do.”
And the ACS will do what it can to see that the next wave of talent is consistently making movies in Arkansas.
“I’m not suggesting we become Atlanta,” Tucker says, “but I think we can create some sustainable filmmaking. Take a few movies off Atlanta’s hands every year.”