Cranky Hanke talks Southern film and more with Ray McKinnon

Randy and the Mob — a quirky southern comedy about a none-too-successful entrepreneur who gets in trouble with the mob over some loans and gets some offbeat help from his gay, identical twin brother and a strange mob “fixer” — is one of the hightlights of this year’s Asheville Film Festival. So when I had the chance to grab an interview with Ray McKinnon — who wrote and directed the film and plays the twin brothers — I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
McKinnon isn’t exactly a stranger to Asheville. His Oscar-winning short film The Accountant was screened here at a special showing a few years back at Asheville Pizza and Brewing, which later brought in his debut feature, Chrystal, starring Billy Bob Thornton.

Ken Hanke: I understand I’m catching you on your way to a film festival. Which one?

Ray McKinnon: Charlottesville, Virginia.

I don’t suppose you’re showing up here at the Asheville Film Festival?

No. Actually, I wish I could. I have a previous commitment in Jackson, Mississippi.

That’s unfortunate. I wish you could make it. I’m actually one of the feature judges — along with Don Mancini, who’s known for creating the Child’s Play franchise and Robby Benson, who’s known for being Robby Benson.

Robby Benson made one of my favorite movies when I was a kid — Jeremy. I loved that movie! It was like the love story of my generation.

All three of us loved Randy and the Mob.

That’s great to hear.

Well, at least two of us are from the South.

Then you get a lot of the undercurrents in the film.

Yes, and I’m not sure that non-southerners will get all of it.

They absolutely don’t.

I look at the film and I think, this is absurd, but yet it’s real. I know these people.

Absolutely.

How did you come up with this one?

Good question! First there was Chrystal where I’d decided I was just going to make the strangest, freakiest, darkest hillbilly art film that I could.

Hillbilly art film! I like that phrase.

Yes, it’s like nobody’s ever going to make this, I know, but then we kept pushing to see if it we could get it made, and obvious nobody did want to make it for the longest time. During that time I decided to write a comedy, and Lisa [Blount] had told me this anecdotal story of these twins she knew. That was part of the genesis of the story. I had this idea that I wanted to make a film that you knew from the very beginning that all was going to be well at the end of the day. Tonally, it’s like a Doris Day movie — no matter how much peril, everything’s going to be OK. Nobody’s going to get killed here.

I understand that. I appreciate that aspect of it.

Of course. We need lots of differences. All films shouldn’t be the same. You don’t always have to go dark and edgy because that in itself becomes predictable.

That’s long been one of my complaints about indie films. They have this “indie cred” thing going, but indie films have started to become very cookie-cutter in themselves.

Absolutely, yes.

You just replace one formula with another and keep sticking to it until it’s as formulaic as the biggest Hollywood movie. Going a different route with Randy and the Mob is very refreshing in that regard.

I appreciate that. You get it. Some people just don’t — they’re cookie-cutter themselves.

How do you feel about the way the South is usually depicted in Hollywood movies?

Well, it’s gotten better. I’ll say that, but it feels like to me that the South was kind of the last politically correct whipping boy — that you could be two-dimensional and caricaturish and there was nobody to speak out against it.

That’s pretty much true. I’d see these films and they were foreign to me and I wouldn’t want to be thought of as being like the characters in them. I wouldn’t mind so much being thought of in terms of the characters in Randy and the Mob.

They’re tolerant people and it’s a slice of Southern life that, though skewed to comedy, absolutely is real and is more real than the cliche. I was here in New York and I did a screening here at the Independent Film Project and this New Yorker said, “No gay guys would live down there like that,” and “no guy like Tino would show up there.” I said, “Have you ever been there?” Well, no. I said, “Part of the problem is that the only information you’re getting is from news clips, which are generally sensationalistic, and movies which are over-the-top caricatures.” One of the hopes for this movie was for people outside of the South to go, “Wow, these people are reasonable.”

But you’ve done it in a very funny manner, too. It’s a very funny movie. The film never feels preachy. It’s like you’ve just walked in on these people in this situation and you don’t feel like you’re being given a lesson — and I think if you’re from the South you don’t even think of it as a lesson. It’s just a story. But outside the South, Randy could be an eye-opener.

For thinking people. You know, Woody Allen movies were a way for me to get a view of a culture that I was not a part of in a way that impacted my view of that culture — and that was because it was authentic. It was authentic to him and his experience. I think it’s high time that other cultures did the same, especially the Southern culture.

Can you think of any filmmakers or any films that have captured the South as you know it?

I remember as a kid when I saw The Last Picture Show, and I think in hindsight that was real to a great extent because it was based on Larry McMurtry’s novel. That’s authentic. The same with films written by Horton Foote.

Interestingly, our Career Achievement Award winner this year is Tess Harper and we’re going to be showing Tender Mercies, which Foote wrote.

Right — there you go. There’s a great example of an authentic Southern film. And I remember seeing Rambling Rose. That one resonated with me. Now you’re talking about more Southern filmmakers coming up and not just adaptations. Most of those adaptations were by non-Southerners, and not all books are well adapted. They can become mighty baffling by the time they hit the screen, [like] Cold Mountain.

Well, there’s one, but you can go back. Have you ever seen the film adaptation of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary called The Story of Temple Drake?

No.

It completely subverts the whole book — right down to a grafted-on happy ending made by people who obviously had no clue what the book was about.

Absolutely. At least now they know that somebody’s looking over their shoulder somewhat. I think all this was a big motivator for me. Part of it was just the desire to tell the stories, but then the other part was just this indignation with stuff I was reading as an actor. I was going, “Are you kidding me? People are paying for this?” And I thought, I can at least write this badly. I’m sure of it.

That’s what I like — a man with convictions!

That right! Actually, I don’t think I’m smart enough to write that badly! You know, with Randy and the Mob there’s a subtleness to it, a sophistication to it and some people just miss it.

And so many of your great things are just throw-away bits — like “disposable thumbs” or the fact that you keep coming down on the amount you’ll take for the gas station, but each lower price is followed by the assertion that the price is “firm.”

Yes, yes, exactly. I’ve been at different screenings where there are people who absolutely know Randy or know a Randy. It gives them more empathy for him. They don’t think he’s just a complete dolt — though that’s a part of what he is — so I appreciate that.

He’s more than a dolt, but even if that was all he was, he’s ultimately a nice dolt. And that counts for a lot.

He’s just lost his way a little bit and I think he becomes better along the way. I think one thing Cecil [Randy’s gay twin brother] did for him, in thinking about them as children, was that he prevented some of Randy’s more impetuous, more doltish decisions. So now, having Cecil back in his life, he’s an adviser. At the end of the movie, I think Randy becomes more relaxed because he’s got his friend back — his smart friend, his wise friend.

What filmmakers or writers have influenced you?

Well, certainly Larry Brown as a modern writer, and some of the usual suspects in literature — Flannery O’Connor and Truman Capote, Tennesse Williams, Cormack McCarthy. Great writers. Tonally, Chrystal is more some of those things. For filmmakers — the Coen Brothers, Jim Jarmusch. There’s a dryness to some of their work that cracks me up.

There’s no one on earth who’s a drier speaker than Jarmusch! Even when it’s obvious that he’s excited about the subject, it’s all in this one Ned Sparks-like tone.

Yes, exactly.

When you go to the movies or pop in a DVD what do you watch? What are you looking for?

It’s anything that — whatever genre or whatever tone they’re dealing with — it does something authentic, something unique in that style. Where there are moments in a movie where I actually get excited. I guess it’s artistic excitement. So often you watch a movie and it’s movies by the numbers — and well done by the numbers. That’s not without some value, but occasionally something will go down another road and you’re like, “Oh my God, I don’t know what’s going to happen here.”

I think that’s true. Almost invariably, I’ll be keener on something that tries to do something different and may not entirely succeed than I will be on something that’s perfectly tooled, but unadventurous.

Yes, yes, absolutely, and that kind of effort some people just do not get it and they do not like it. But I agree with you. I did see that Into the Wild the other night — pretty fine flick. You know the movie that won best foreign language film last year — the German film?

The Lives of Others.

Yeah, I really liked that one. I didn’t know anything about it and I got a screener of it and thought, OK, I’ll read some subtitles — and then I just got caught up in this world. I thought Stranger Than Fiction went places that films don’t usually go.

An amazing film that just didn’t do as well as it should have done. I notice now that when they promote Marc Forster’s new film, The Kite Runner, they invoke Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, but never mention Stranger Than Fiction or Stay.

Of those — I didn’t see Stay — I thought Stranger Than Fiction was by far the best. It was just so smart — in some ways it’s an elitist film, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And it shows what a freak Will Ferrell is because he can do that kind of role — and he did it seamlessly. It was just amazing. It was savant-like.

The only thing I’d seen him in previously that was serious was the Woody Allen picture, Melinda and Melinda, and that didn’t really work because he’s too big and too white-bread American to be playing a Woody Allen-like character.

Right, yes, absolutely. Oh! I just went to see Steppenwolf’s production of August in Osage County, which is previewing on Broadway. It’s set in Oklahoma and I swear most of those guys sounded like they were from OklaChicago. They did a couple of dipthongs that they slid, but mostly it was pure Chicago. It’s like, damn, can’t I get away from bad accents somewhere?

Well, somebody has to take up the slack now that Laurence Olivier is dead.

(Laughing) Right! He was always watchable, though!

Oh, yes, but he’s got that one foreign accent and that one Southern accent and he’ll slip into them at the drop of a hat.

(Laughing) Yeah, he was always pretty broad. Now, I’m really curious about Asheville, but we’d promised to do the opening of Randy in Jackson — and there’s this group of ladies, the head lady is Jill Conner Browne, and she has like four New York Times best-sellers about this Southern girl who likes to have a margarita and good time. It’s tongue-in-cheek stuff. And she has 5,000 chapters of these Sweet Potato Queens around the world. I didn’t even know about them and we were looking for demographics for our movie and I came across these people and went, “Oh my God, they’re not even a cult now, they’re on their way to becoming a religion!” And she’s a big fan of the movie and has just bent over backwards to help us. And anyway we made this commitment months ago.

Well, maybe you can come next year.

Well, I know Asheville and I’ve heard from some folks there about the festival and I’d love to come there. When Lisa and I moved from Hollywood and were discussing places to live and on a list of five, Asheville was one of them.

Sometimes I realize that Asheville is a place I was looking for for years without knowing it. Someone from Pennsylvania told me the other day that they’d gone to see Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited and he was one of five people in the audience. And I thought I really like the fact that I live someplace where a movie that quirky and odd does good business.

That’s very, very cool. Absolutely.

It was funny here because we had Life Aquatic still playing to solid business when it had dwindled to being on only 50 screens in the entire country. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind played so long that the distributor called the theater to find out what was being done to promote it — and nothing was! It was just being shown!

That’s unbelievable! Gosh, now I’m really excited about Randy and the Mob playing there!

I’m sure it’s going to go down real well. I haven’t met anybody who’s seen it who didn’t love it.

Damn. I wish I was going to be there.

Well, there’s always next year and I hope you’ll make it then.

I hope so too! I’m very excited about being in the festival there.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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4 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke talks Southern film and more with Ray McKinnon

  1. Orbit DVD

    Ray is one of our favorite actor/filmmakers. Besides playing the preacher in DEADWOOD, he also made the great aforementioned CHRYSTAL and the best short film ever, THE ACCOUNTANT. I can’t wait to see this one.

    marc

  2. David Forbes

    Great interview, Ken. I especially liked his thoughts on indie movies and the South. I first ran into McKinnon’s acting work on Deadwood. I’m thrilled we’ve got Randy and the Mob in the festival this year.

  3. Justin Souther

    I’m glad to see that he mentioned Larry Brown, who’s one of my all-time favorite writers, and a guy who has never gotten enough credit. He was also a guy who wrote very Southern characters that weren’t caricatures, but people I always felt like — as a Southerner — I knew.

    And JOE, BIG BAD LOVE and FACING THE MUSIC are all great reads.

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