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Georgia on my screen

Ray McKinnon & the revival of the georgia film industry





In an OVERHEAD SHOT, we ZOOM IN on the farmland of Starrsville Plantation on a summer afternoon. We PAN past a barn and a century-old cemetery, then HOLD on the trucks and trailers of a motion picture location. We TRACK downhill, following stunt coordinators in Hawaiian shirts, makeup artists in Warhol prints and tattooed women carrying three-ring binders to a grassy glade surrounded by pine trees. Amid the massive lights, cameras, boom mics and director's chairs, we come in for a CLOSE-UP on a lanky, weary-looking man with a crooked grin.

On one of the most frenzied days of filming Randy and the Mob, director and lead actor Ray McKinnon has just about all the local color he can handle. Not that he doesn't possess a distinctly Southern backstory of his own.

Born and raised in Adel, Ga., a small town 45 miles shy of the Florida border, McKinnon's no Tinseltown fish out of water on this movie set on the outskirts of Covington. He's a Georgia boy -- you might find traces of red clay in his bloodstream. An established movie and TV character actor, as well as an Oscar-winning filmmaker, McKinnon currently calls the Hollywood Hills home. But he got there by cultivating his Southern roots, and ever since the inception of his new Southern comedy Randy and the Mob, McKinnon knew he wanted to film it in rural Georgia.

In an idyllic corner of Starrsville Plantation, in view of a serene pond, McKinnon rehearses and shoots the film's final confrontations, a series of slapstick brawls and character epiphanies. The sleepy country silence periodically explodes with the baying of a distant dog pack. "Could someone throw more kittens in the dog pen?" quips a member of Randy's 60-person crew.

"They only do one event a year on the plantation -- a big dove hunt -- and it's tomorrow," explains producer Dave Koplan. "When I realized that they were riling up the dogs, the reality of the hunt set in. There may be men with guns in these woods tomorrow."

McKinnon tries to set up a fight scene between his lead character, Randy Pearson, a would-be wheeler-dealer good-ol' boy, and the bullying sheriff played by Brent Briscoe. But when the dogs start up again, McKinnon periodically turns from his cohorts to bellow "SHU-UT UP!" to unseen hounds in the distance.

No one blames him for feeling a little frazzled. It's the next to the last day of the 23-day shoot and McKinnon has been intermittently nauseous, probably due to the sheer exhaustion of directing his own script while playing the film's central character -- or, rather, characters. McKinnon has the role of twin brothers, Randy and his gay sibling, Cecil.

McKinnon mostly maintains good humor; he's not wearing Cecil's teal pantsuit or hair curlers today, but he'll eagerly whip off a shoe and a sock to show a visitor that he's still wearing Cecil's nail polish on his toes. It's a sign of McKinnon's cinematic sensibility: Tough, husky sheriffs may be staples of Southern films, but not gay antique dealers.

With the daylight hours fading -- today's work will go well into the night -- and the shoot a day over schedule, one shot eludes McKinnon. "We've got to get the P.O.V. shot of kudzu. I've done three movies in the South -- we have to have kudzu in one of them! I don't live here anymore, so to me, kudzu is beautiful -- it's so green and flowing. But the schedule keeps pushing it back and back and back."

For all the queasy feelings, McKinnon is still thrilled to be making Randy and the Mob, his second feature film following the drama Chrystal, released earlier this year to a lukewarm reception, and his Academy Award-winning short film "The Accountant."

"It's a combination of exhilaration and 'Holy shit, are we gonna make our day?'" McKinnon says. "Because this could be the last movie we ever make. It's got to end sometime, this could be it!"

In the past several years, many members of Georgia's filmmaking community -- from actors to grips, directors to wardrobe mistresses, producers to extras -- have echoed the "This could be it!" sentiment. Once the third most popular state in the nation for motion picture locations, Georgia has seen its native filmmaking business undergo dramatic accelerations and reversals worthy of any car chase scene. Yet the work of McKinnon and other Southern filmmakers, as well state legislation passed in May, could signal a creative upswing in Southern film -- if not a cinematic renaissance.

The local film community gives more to Georgia than, say, the mere right to brag that My Cousin Vinny was filmed around here. Film productions add value to an area, and not just through short-term jobs. Movies have lasting powers on how outsiders perceive us, how posterity remembers us, even how we think about ourselves.

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