Waking life

Larry Benner looks tired. He takes a deep pull from his hand-rolled cigarette, and stares thoughtfully at the ice in his soda. He’s like a clutch caught between gears, alternating gleeful relief with nervous anxiety.

It’s not surprising: The premiere of his second feature film, The Nudger, is only days away — and it’s still not finished.

“It’s been really tense for the last three weeks,” he says finally. “It was only last week that we got the final sound mix. We’re doing some of the final cutting today, and fixing some color issues. But, our list [of final details] is very short.”

For nearly two years, The Nudger has been at the very center of Benner’s life. Out of an avalanche of disjointed ideas, untrained talents and overwhelming production problems, Benner and his crew have created a surprisingly compelling story about love, death and redemption. That’s not bad for a man who frequently describes his directorial style as “wishy-washy.”

Benner got the idea for the film from an offhand remark made by a friend who was visiting his house late one night after work. “She had to get up for some early appointment, but it was already about 5 a.m. at that point. She said, ‘I wish someone would just come to my house and wake me up.’ I thought it would be a cool idea if there was somebody who would do that.”

And thus bloomed The Nudger — the story of Leila (Metta Pry), a young woman who wakes people up for a living, and her strange relationship with Nick (Chad Oliphant), a self-destructive man whom she finds washed up on a river bank. It’s also the story of the strange world Nick and Leila live in, a frequently hellish place filled with bar fights, sadistic slave masters, sassy boytoys, blowfish zombie powder and dark alleys crawling with lowlifes, coincidences and secrets. It makes for a unique, if occasionally bewildering, work of cinema.

“Not to get too esoteric about it, but I like forcing relationships between images, and divining meaning in retrospect,” Benner says of writing the film. (He also admits this approach ” … makes the film more meandering … there are definite plot holes because things aren’t really explained.”)

The Nudger was made for $15,000 by an all-volunteer cast and crew. Benner agrees it was a down-and-dirty kind of filmmaking, but also says the production was a vast improvement over his first film, Ether, which saw local release in 2002. Instead of relying on a loose assortment of friends, Benner and editor/director of photography Dougal Bailey formed a company, Buried Pictures, to make The Nudger.

Still, the film’s small budget required almost every element to be constructed from local talent and resources. Refreshingly, its practical limitations have also become its strength. Rarely has downtown Asheville looked more foreboding than it does in The Nudger, with well-known locations twisted into something darker and decidedly more sinister. The raw, inexperienced charm of the actors (many of whom work in the downtown service industry) makes for the occasional explosion of on-screen chemistry. Even the soundtrack, featuring songs by a variety of local bands, gives the film a specificity of time and place that’s both familiar and alien.

Of course, the filming had its share of challenges. In fact, Benner allows that making The Nudger was an “agonizing odyssey.” He recalls the erratic, rushed shooting schedule caused by Oliphant’s legal battle over a drug charge (for which he ultimately served 10 months in jail), and how the lack of a fight coach led to people actually getting hurt, and to some uncomfortable confrontations between actors.

Other problems came in post-production, like when a plan to get additional shots of Pry waking people had to be scrapped because the actress was pregnant and had changed her hairstyle. Then there was the eerie death of actress/musician Ashley Gupton, who appears in The Nudger, briefly and prophetically, as a mourner at a funeral.

Not least of the film’s woes was the massive personal debt Benner incurred to finish it. And yet, he is visibly pleased with the results. Even while confessing its myriad imperfections, he makes no apologies for it, noting that his next film will be better. Even his expectations for The Nudger‘s debut are surprisingly straightforward.

“All I really want is for it to play well,” he says. “If the sound is good and the DVD doesn’t skip, I’ll be going to the bar afterwards to celebrate.”

[Steve Shanafelt writes Xpress‘ weekly column “Culture Watch.”]

The Nudger premieres at the Fine Arts Theatre (36 Biltmore Ave.) on Thursday, April 20 at 9:30 p.m. $5. 232-1536.


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