I’ve never met an artist who wasn't selfish with his time. Harry Crews warned me up front: "There's one thing a writer requires above all else, bud,and it's not money.... " That's why, when I made The Rough South of Harry Crews, I held my contact time to six hours, total. I'd intended to keep my contact with Larry Brown just as brief, but it worked out differently. Larry, you see, placed a high premium on friendship, on hanging out with his friends, and I got to be his friend—in a single night, actually. He swung through Carrboro, North Carolina, in the late '80s, pushing his new novel, Dirty Work, and ended up crashing at my place, but only after drinking me under the table, one C&C after another, then insisting that I run him to a reading at Quail Ridge Books, way the hell on the other side of Raleigh, something only a friend would do. Total time that night, twelve hours.
A few years later we began our collaboration on The Rough South of Larry Brown, a film I envisioned as a hybrid of three short films based on three short stories, glued together by author commentary. I modeled my approach on the hearsay docs of Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fogo/War). He sits his subjects down, and in the manner of a private detective asks them to explain themselves. What they explain has already happened, and that's how Morris saves money. He's not required to shoot miles of footage like Ross McElwee (Sherman's March, Time Indefinite), gambling that he'll have his camera running when something does happen. And neither would we. We'd shoot the fiction back home: "Samaritans," "Boy and Dog," and "Sleep" (later I switched "Sleep" for "Wild Thing"), then I'd make one trip to Mississippi to interview Larry, and Larry would tell me on camera everything I needed to hear and more.
Instead I made three trips to Larry's house over the next three years, meeting three different Larry Browns, each afflicted with an outsized need for both companionship and solitude, and each dealing with these paradoxical needs in different ways.
The first time I visited Larry, l drove fourteen hours to his home in a rural community named Yocona, timing my visit to arrive a day before the film crew (to break the ice if necessary). I left the interstate in Memphis and meandered down the back roads, through communities with names like Walnut and Etta and Poolville, until I caught 334 in Dogtown and turned west toward Oxford. I drove past Larry's mailbox a few times, finally found it nestled in the weeds, turned in a gravel drive, and climbed a gentle slope to a brick house sitting on the edge of a sixty-acre field. I cut my engine and stepped out. Quiet, I thought. Secluded. A good place to write.
When I knocked, his wife, Mary Annie, answered. She led me straight to a smoky kitchen, where Larry was lifting fried chicken from a skillet of crackling grease.
"Come on in, bro. Hope you're hungry."
The homemade biscuits were already on the table, next to the mashed taters, gravy, green beans, pie, and iced tea. I'd just driven all this way and here I was, sitting down for a meal at my grandmother's house. I'd met Road Larry, Book Tour Larry, and I'd heard the stories out of Oxford: Petulant Larry, who once drank an entire mini-bar; Wild Larry, who silenced a group of Yankees in a four-star restaurant by leaping on their table and kicking their entrees into their laps; Heroic Larry, who pulled children from burning houses; and Genius Larry, who stood before an audience at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and spoke—that's spoke, not read—a twenty-page short story, missing but three words. But here was an unforeseen Larry, at least by me. Larry, the family man, Larry Knows Best, all but absent from the Oxford grapevine and nowhere on the page. "Boozy misfits," someone tagged his protagonists. Loners, alcoholics, nocturnal types. No, I didn't expect this. I didn't know what to expect, but I didn't expect this.
After dinner I bummed my first cigarette off Larry, a Marlboro. Here I'd gone years without a cigarette and suddenly I wanted one. We smoked and talked, no real ice to break, and in the course of the evening I grew to appreciate his excellent repartee with Mary Annie, M.A., who struck me as more quick-witted and mercurial than her husband. She's keeping him on his toes, I thought. I met in passing their oldest son, Billy Ray, a rugged redhead who lived with his grandmother just across the drive, then their teenage daughter, LeAnne—feisty like her mother, but more dangerous with her teased-up hair and her fast car. Only a few days earlier, LeAnne had decked one of Larry's admirers, an amorous lush who'd cornered him outside a restaurant and was trying to sit in his lap, standing up.
"LeAnne put her on her back," M.A. gloated, "and stood over her, shaking her fist."
Larry winked at me: "They're like a couple of lionesses, man." Then the three of them started in with the stories, the hearsay—"this just happened ... " and "just last week ... " and "you shoulda seen... " until I realized that I'd missed everything. Arguably, I had missed everything. The Larry I met in Carrboro was already prominent. The dark days, sending off stories, piling up rejection slips, wondering where the next meal's coming from, all that was long gone. They've raked out a sane space for my visit, I thought. Larry has stopped writing, just for this occasion, and stopped drinking, too, and with those two major commitments pushed aside I'm seeing what's left, a pleasant if not misleading glimpse of a happy home life. I bummed another cigarette, and this time he gave me a Merit. (Later I learned that Larry carried two brands on him, Marlboros for himself and Merits for his nonsmoking friends.)
Around midnight they put me in Billy Ray's old room. I found a Playboy under the bed, smoked another Merit, and fell asleep to the sound of clothes tumbling in the dryer across the hall. For some reason, the windows were blacked out, so I slept till noon.
The next afternoon, my two-man crew arrived, Jason Dowdle on 16mm camera and Chad Benton on sound. We set up the camera in Larry's pasture for the first interview. Larry poured himself a beer in a clear, blue glass, and we settled in to start. I coached Larry to speak in complete, stand-alone sentences, explaining that my presence would only be felt in this film—that my voice would not be heard and my image would not be seen. Just then, a panicked young deer came sprinting across the field, pursued by a pack of coyotes.
"There's the bastards that killed my dog!" Larry yelled, and ran inside for his rifle. Stunned to see that something was actually happening, I dashed to my car for my super-8. Jason took the cue, snatched the 16mm off the tripod and slapped on a battery. Meanwhile, the deer, attempting to duck under a fence, got his head caught in the wiring. Larry bolted from the house with his rifle and I trained my super-8 on him. Empty. Jason got the 16mm running and took aim, then Larry ran into the field and took aim, but too late. The deer had wrestled free and disappeared.
"Bastards," Larry muttered.
After that up-tempo opening we settled in for a lengthy discussion of writing and talent and one's calling to write. I was reading James Hillman's The Soul’s Code at the time, and·I'd bought partway into the Platonic myth of the daemon—the notion that all of us come into this life with a Calling, and along with it a daemon, or guardian angel, that keeps us on the right path by making us miserable when we stray.
Larry would have none of it. "Aw, naw, man, I was just looking for a way to make some extra money. I was doing all these shit jobs, putting up chain-link fences for Sears, baggin' groceries, running a country store. I thought, Ain't there something better I could do?" He went on to say that writing was merely a craft, and that anyone could learn to write if he or she was willing to hurt enough.
I didn't buy this at all, but I couldn't say so and still abide by my own rules. And that's the key limitation to the Morris method. It requires that you disagree off-camera—disagree by making a point the viewers will never hear. Maybe, if you're lucky, you'll coax the subject into contradicting himself. But you can't come right out and say what I'm saying now—that I didn't buy the bit about his just making money. Larry Brown was called to write. It's in his DNA. His mother once read every book in the Lafayette County Public Library; his siblings are voracious readers; he recited a twenty-page short story from memory. That's not normal!
The following afternoon we drove to the rural, rundown community of Tula for the second round of interviews. Larry owned eight acres there, including a nice pond you could fish in.
Framed against a wall of winter trees, we discussed his firefighting days, and how his career as a fire captain informed "Boy and Dog." Most of the anecdotes I'd already read in On Fire, and I must admit his autobiographical writing had struck me as aloof, maybe even half-hearted. An hour or so later I guessed the reasons. First, Larry was a modest man. He wasn't about to hold forth with tales of his heroics, on the page or in person. Second, firefighting was his job, not his obsession. Writing was his obsession. When he sat down to write about his job, he didn't seem all that interested. Third, Larry's spare writing style didn't mesh with the over-the-top content. He is routinely grouped with his homey, Faulkner, but no one who has actually read their stories would confuse the two. Larry's style is more O'Connor than Faulkner, and more Raymond Carver than either. Stylistically,Larry is minimal. Emotionally, he has compared himself to a vehicle avoiding the twin ditches of hard-heartedness and sentimentality. "Just lay it out there straight," he advises, "and let the reader make up his or her own mind." Laying it out there straight means endless revisions, endless subtracting, and that's how he handled the page. But in person that afternoon, with the low winter sun in his face, and with no opportunity to revisit his words, he slipped deep into the sentimental ditch: "The thing that got me the most was the children," he said with his face all scrunched up, "the children involved.... "
Months later, when I pieced it all together, my narrative felt a little flat. The hearsay, the glue, the advice to writers—it didn't add up to much. So I raised more money, and a year or so later returned to Yocona. There was no fried-chicken dinner waiting for me this time, no happy family. Just cold weather and a very serious author, obsessed with Fay, a novel he had failed to deliver.
I arrived around sundown, and though I'm sure I said hello to Mary Annie, I don't remember it. "Conspicuously absent" comes to mind. Jason arrived around midnight, dead tired, due to a mix-up in his itinerary. Because we were already behind schedule, I suggested we set up at Larry's desk for a quick interview. Larry was writing all night now, from 7 P.M. to 7 A.M., and his day was just beginning.
"I've wasted so much damn time sitting on a barstool," Larry confessed. "God, that's what kept me from working. I mean, I should've been finished with this book a long time ago, but I just . . . I can't do both of them at the same time."
I've caught him at a bad time, I thought, but then, Harry Crews warned me of this. And who kicked him off that barstool? His daemon? His wife?
"If you only write one page a day," Larry continued, "in one year you've got a three-hundred-sixty-five-page novel. One page a day is nothing. Anybody can write one page a day. I try to do about five, normal workday. But I've been on some rolls here lately, where I've done as many as seventeen, eighteen pages a night. That's the amount of time I've been putting in here lately since I haven't been drinking."
That's when I realized something had gotten him off-track, something recent. Something had happened, and I'd missed it (again), and now he'd cleaned up his act and gone back to work. I tried to coax it out of him, using up five rolls of film, but everything kept leading back to Fay.
I retired to Billy Ray's room, found the same Playboy, and drifted off to the sound of Larry typing in the dining room. The next morning I drove to the store and bought Larry a carton of Marlboros (those Merits weren't doing it for me). When the crew assembled the next afternoon Larry was still dead asleep. Mary Annie returned from wherever she'd been and made a few passive-aggressive gestures—dropping things, leaving the room in the middle of a conversation, that kind of thing. I cut to the nitty gritty: "You don't want us down here, do you?"
And finally she came out with it: "You think this writing thing is so glamorous. Well let me tell you, it's not."
I told Jason to set up the camera. Mary Annie took a seat on a barstool in the kitchen and we aimed our camera at her and let me just interrupt my flow here with some advice for novice nonfictioners: a refrigerator makes a lot of noise and you'll probably want to cut it off. Put your car keys in the refrigerator so you'll remember to cut it back on before you leave. I thawed out four pounds of venison that day and M.A. was none too happy about it.
On camera Mary Annie spoke calmly, confidently, explaining her marriage this way: "I'm at home saying, 'Larry, you got to take the garbage out,' 'Larry, the sink needs fixing,' 'Larry we've got to pay this or that bill.' I'm bringing him back to reality, he goes uptown and everybody's stroking his ego, telling him how great he is." When I told her how bummed Larry seemed over wasting time on a barstool she told me he'd been wasting time in the county lock-up, too. Only a few nights earlier Larry had been charged with a DWI and thrown in jail (missed that, too). But she didn't feel comfortable talking about it, not with Larry absent, so she moved on to more philosophical matters.
That's when she spoke the eventual theme of the film—or, if not the theme, the central paradox we built the film around. She delivered it in two parts: First she said, "When Larry started writing we never saw him." Two rolls later, she said, "When Larry writes, that's when he's the happiest. And when he's not writing, that's when he's so depressed you can't stand to be around him."
Wait a minute. The only time you can stand to be around him is when he's not around? And that's when I glimpsed the whole show, including the contributions of the short stories, how Mary Annie would figure into the narrative, and how we'd revisit at each step the conflict between this man's calling to write and his duty to his family. The film became, in a way, a response to a question I posed to myself the night I drove Larry to Quail Ridge—"What's it like to be married to this guy?"
When Larry trudged into the living room and found his wife on camera, his jaw dropped. I'd gone Oprah on his ass.
"What're y'all doin'?"
"Just talking. You can go on in there if you want to."
He just looked at me. Turn your back two seconds and look what happens.
"I wouldn't want to interrupt anything," he said.
Reluctantly, Larry joined M.A. in the kitchen, and we rolled camera. Almost immediately they settled into an odd, one-act play—a half-performance staged by nonfactors only half-aware of the camera.
Putting them on camera together proved therapeutic, lifted the mood somewhat, but thematically we weren't getting anywhere, so I cut camera. That's the downside of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking. You can shoot forever before something happens. We tore down the equipment and made plans to shoot uptown that evening.
Before we took off, though, Larry took me for a tour of his "cool pad," his new writing space, a refurbished utility room on the other side of the carport. He didn't have it fully up and running, but he'd cleaned it out, brought in a desk, a chair, a disco light, and his new Fender. I looked around the room—cramped, but plenty big for his purposes—to live apart from his family while remaining under the same roof.
I don’t have a word for the Larry Brown I met on my third visit. Unselfish Larry? Larry the Good Man? He had finished Fay and fallen off the wagon, then he'd crawled back on and fallen back off several more times. Just before my summertime visit, though, Larry had really cleaned up his act, squeaky clean, and the mood around the house reflected it. Shane (the second son) was in from school, LeAnne had graduated, Billy Ray had gotten engaged, and M.A. was thinking grandchildren. For a while she, like the wife in "Wild Thing," was "glowing,'' and it all seemed to hinge on Larry's big turnaround.
When your nonfiction doesn't involve a contest (Pumping Iron, Spellbound), it rarely builds to a natural conclusion. Your only choice is to end it somewhere, so either you juggle facts to fit your own conclusions or you attempt to do it Larry's way: Just put it out there straight and let people make up their own minds about it. I tried laying it out there straight, but I'd grown so fond of this family, I just had to end the show on a hopefulnote: "I think deep down he knew he had to turn it around," M.A. told me. "That it was not the way he needed to go. That it was a life he didn't want to lead. And he finally got his priorities in order. And now he seems happier than he's ever seemed in his life. And if it changes tomorrow, or tonight,then I've had the most wonderful last year I've had in my life."
But what about solitude? And by solitude I don't mean time at the desk, because a real writer will tell you that the page gets just as cluttered and noisy as the so-called real world.
We found it while we were shooting B-roll. A-roll is footage of the speaker, and B-roll is what he's talking about. B-roll enhances the voice-over, deepens the sense of place, and provides the editor with "visual Band-Aids"—something to cut to when the dialogue needs cleaning up. (Larry peppered his speech with so many coughs and "you knows," the Band-Aids were critical.) In the previous two trips we'd covered Larry's ritual ofwalking down the long, gravel drive to his mailbox to see if he'd sold anything. We'd photographed his dogs, Hallie and George, wallowing in the yard, we'd filmed exteriors of bars, Larry driving the back roads, Larry writing, Larry picking okra with his mother, but we needed more, and here it was, Larry's latest project: a miniature house almost hidden in the woods at Tula. He called it the Shack.
When I first saw it I was rocked back on my heels. Not that there's anything unusual about a house in the woods. A miniature house is odder, and aman working on this house in the middle of the night is odder still. But seen in its context, as one man's need to get away from his loving family sohe can get some work done, to lengthen his yoke, the image is arresting. This was a step toward total solitude. We filmed Larry cranking thegenerator, climbing the scaffold, and nailing shingles. When he took a cigarette break, Scott called me over, and I looked through the lens at Larry and said, "Do it." Scott squeezed off the shot, a long one, and that image, that metaphor pointing to the mystery of the man, now opens the show.
My shooting ratio was roughly 30:1. That's thirty hours of source material for every hour that made it to the screen. RSB runs eighty-five minutes.For the most part, film clips earn their way into the final cut. The best stuff makes it in and the not-so-great stuff falls to the cutting-room floor. Sometimes though, a cool clip just doesn't make it. I regret that I couldn't include the following clip for technical reasons. I think it says a lot about these two—how into each other they were, how easily they could get into each other's heads, and how truly interesting their marriage must have been. Larry and Mary Annie are seated together on their back porch and I'm asking the questions. It's dark and a storm is brewing in the distance.
GH: Have you ever seen him waste his time? (In a rare, demure moment, Mary Annie refuses to speak.)
LB: You can say whatever you want to, it's up to you. I'm not gonna help you.
MA: I'll just put it this way. I thought he wasted a lot of hours. Now, he might not have thought so, but he did. And he wasted a lot of mine.
LB: Lot of what, now?
MA: Lot of mine.
LB: Lot of yours. She's probably referring to sitting in City Grocery, waiting for me to go home.
MA: Not that I have anything against City Grocery.
LB: Wouldn't matter where I was.
MA: Wouldn't matter. Just waiting for one more. Just one more.
LB: Just one more.
MA: Just one more. Just one more and we'll go home, okay? Okay.
LB: She said if she ever wrote a book, that's what she's gonna call it.
MA: Just One More.
LB: She's gonna write a book about me.
MA: After he's dead. If I outlive him. Just One More.
GH: Why couldn't you have just one more at home?
LB: I would have one more when I got home.
MA: He did, that's true.
On my final visit to Yocona we laid Larry Brown to rest. Two days earlier, around daybreak, Mary Annie rolled over to say good morning to her husband and thought, That's odd, he always sleeps with his back to me. Then she saw his eyes were open, and that he was trying to tell her something. That's when she ran screaming into her yard for Billy Ray. By the time the emergency unit arrived, Larry was gone.
I received news of Larry's death the day before Thanksgiving. By Friday night I was standing in the receiving line in Oxford. After the visitation, a cold front swept through Mississippi, forcing the Oxford nightlife off the sidewalks and into the crowded bars. An Ole Miss home game was scheduled for the following day, and alumni were pouring in from all over, some from as far away as New York City. Everyone seemed to be gravitating toward City Grocery, hobnobbing, paying tribute, some just drinking. When I told an Ole Miss alum we were in town for a funeral, he said, "Yeah, so are we." I ordered a C&C, my first one since that night in Carrboro, then I bumped into the mayor, Richard Howorth, who ordered me a second one. I couldn't help noticing, by the way, that when the mayor ordered my C&C it came with twice the whiskey.
The next day we buried Larry in the rain. I tried to film the proceedings and the result was borderline disastrous. A battery malfunction killed the power to my l6 mm camera, and I couldn't risk the digital in the deluge, but I did manage to pick up a few arresting shots with my handheld super-8, including the long procession of umbrellas sweeping off the main road and down through the field to Larry's grave. Before the casket closed for the last time the family took turns saying goodbye, and when it came Mary Annie's turn I thought she was going to crawl in. I didn't dare lower the camera, that shield that abstracts even the coarsest grief. If I lowered it, I'd never get it back up, so I held it to my eye and framed the drenched gathering, listened to the hymns, and then I saw, slightly out of focus, just over the umbrellas and across the pond, the roof of the Shack. I thought, This death came out of the blue, like wild coyotes. I figured he'd keep writing for a while, just one more book, just one more, until he'd written himself out.