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Immersed in Movies: Talking Indie Drama ‘Savannah,’ Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and James Caviezel (TRAILER)

Immersed in Movies: Talking Indie Drama 'Savannah,' Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and James Caviezel (TRAILER)

“Savannah” is no “Fruitvale Station” or “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” but the modest indie opening today in 11 theaters from Ketchup Entertainment (and September 24 on DVD/VOD) is still a noteworthy entry in this year’s cycle of movies devoted to the African-American experience. 

Indeed, the post Civil War fact-based drama about legendary Aristocrat-turned-market hunter Ward Allen (a more gregarious James Caviezel than we’re used to) boasts a sensitive performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (who has a more prominent role in the Oscar-contending “12 Years a Slave”). He plays Allen’s life-long friend, business partner, and hunting companion, Christmas Moultrie, a freed slave and the last born on the plantation where the Cotton Gin was invented. In fact, “Savannah” revolves around Moultrie’s vivid remembrances as an aging raconteur sitting on his rocker in the 1950s.

It was this conceit that made the leisurely “Savannah” work, adapted from a collection of stories about Allen and Moultrie by John Cay (played by Bradley Whitford in the movie). “I saw this as a tone piece about capturing a place in time,” explains director Annette Haywood-Carter (who gave Angelina Jolie her breakout role in “Foxfire”). “But we had to figure out a thread and what made it relevant today. We realized that it’s a story about men passing values down to their sons and the narrative structure is this multi-generational piece where these values impact each person’s life within the context of the time they’re living in. Ultimately, Ward’s life gets tragic without an emotional anchor. But Christmas Moultrie understood what the river meant to Ward and that relationship to nature, and he passes this on to the next generation, young Jack, through his storytelling. 

“And in the South, that’s how values were passed down. For Jack, he understands that he has something to pass down to his son. For him, it’s about care taking. He’s looking after Christmas but has been neglecting his son. He needs to spend time with him on the river with a camera instead of a gun. But then he’s also coming to an understanding of these values in the context of the 1950s in Savannah and the race issues that prevail. He’s a loner in terms of his sense of what’s right with pressure to remove Christmas from the land.”

The director, a Mississippi native, who took a hiatus to raise her family in Savannah before returning to filmmaking, strove to get the accent right, especially Moultrie’s. “The African-American dialect depends in part on where the slaves originated from and then how isolated they were when they got into the community. For instance, in Savannah, the rice plantation slaves were not integrated with anyone beyond their slave family. And that’s where Gullah originated. We literally had a Gullah expert come in and rewrite Christmas Moultrie’s dialogue in Gullah. And he learned it in Gullah. And then we gradually stripped the Gullah out because you can’t understand it. By the time we started filming, the Gullah was basically all gone but the flavor and the intonations were still there. And that’s what made his accent work.”

“Savannah’s” ultimately about being trapped in time. Allen’s an eccentric, boastful, and drunken free-spirit, but also a passionate defender of his market hunting rights (supplying ducks to the local restaurants). There’s a bit of Emerson and Thoreau in him. He has a tempestuous relationship with his wife, Lucy Stubbs (“Thor’s” Jaimie Alexander), a free-spirit in her own right, who’s attracted to this charismatic bad boy that neglects her.

“Ward was adamantly resistant to change,” Haywood-Carter offers. “He was also wrong: He was fighting game laws that really needed to be passed. The birds in Ward’s time were being killed off in great numbers. There was a time when the sky would turn as black as night when these birds would fly through. But they disappeared in the tens of thousands from over hunting. It’s what happens to a person when the world that’s a reflection of their belief system disappears out from under them. In Ward’s case, he didn’t change, but there was something heroic in his insistence on prevailing as this man of a passing era. We romanticize that in America, and it is one of the things that makes the film ultimately appealing.”
In discussing the role with Caviezel, though, Haywood-Carter stressed how they should reveal the fun-loving side before displaying his more familiar solemnity. There’s a riveting scene when he takes Lucy (suffering from postpartum depression) to his cherished Savannah River for the first time and breaks down before admitting he should’ve let her into his world sooner. “Jim does it so well, but it’s not the Ward we’ve been living with for an hour. That kind of expression didn’t even occur to men.”
With only 21 days to shoot, Haywood-Carter obviously had to make certain adjustments, yet without the help of her friend, casting director Deborah Aquila, she wouldn’t have gotten the actors she wanted. Fortunately, Savannah is mostly stuck in time, so you’re looking at what’s there and avoiding the modern touches that don’t belong. The marsh is exquisitely powerful: like visiting another world. 
Cinematographer Mike Ozier (“Bottle Shock”) shot digitally with the Red two years ago, but Haywood-Carter wasn’t entirely pleased with the camera. “It does really well with interiors and night but not as well with daytime exteriors, so I did some VFX to put clouds in the sky. So much of the film is out on the river and is supposed to be magical and there were times when I was disappointed that I couldn’t get the sky or the reflections. But I needed multiple cameras and didn’t want to lose time reloading.
“It also took a lot of work in the editing room to weave another timeline in the movie as sparsely as we did. The camera has to pull you back away from these two individuals and then drop you into the next group with an emotional connection that’s subliminal. That was one of the great joys for me.”
But Haywood-Carter is hooked on indies after jump-starting her career: She’s living in New York and currently in pre-production on a romantic comedy with a group of young filmmakers that has her rejuvenated. She’s not about to be trapped in time like Allen.

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