By Kakie Urch
When Lexington filmmaker Bruce Barnett lived in California, people would ask him what he missed most about Kentucky.
“I would say ‘the Red River Gorge and the Kentucky Theatre, along with Ale-8 and beer cheese.’ So, when the time came for a making a movie, I knew two things: I wanted to feature the beauty of the Red River Gorge and I wanted to premiere it in the Kentucky Theater,” Barnett said.
On Thursday, June 20, Barnett’s feature film, Red River Moon, shot in the Red River Gorge and featuring Kentucky actors and musicians, will premiere at 7 p.m. at the Kentucky Theatre on Main Street.
The movie, from a script written by Barnett, who has been an arts and humanities teacher at Bryan Station Middle School for 18 years, is a coming of age drama, in which two young Kentuckians are lost in the wilderness in the Gorge. “I decided to have the story be about children for two reasons. Having taught school for 20 years, I felt I knew kids and their language pretty well. Secondly, even though I knew the chances for theatrical release are (narrow), I felt audiences would be more inclined to see an indie feature with unknown children versus unknown adult stars. So, I put two kids in the Appalachian wilderness.”
Barnett began the script in 2007 – over spring break. As he wrote the story, he said, “I could hear the voice of a well-known folk singer, Carla Gover, who was living in Berea at the time. I also heard the drumming of Tripp Bratton, another incredible area musician.”
And Barnett was able to get both Gover and Bratton, in addition to a host of other strong Kentucky players involved in the original soundtrack. “I thought that if I could get Carla and Tripp involved. . . that the movie could rise above a typical local low-budget movie,” Barnett, who financed the project himself, said.
Casting for the movie began in 2010, with auditions in Lexington and Whitesburg. “We auditioned a number of young boys for the younger sibling’s part (Max) in the movies. Nothing was working.Carla Gover was already involved in the project and her daughter Maizie Barrett was just like the Max character except she was a girl. So Maizie got the role.” Virginia Newsome was cast as Zoe. The role of Travis went to Nat Colten from Frankfort.
“We were very sensitive to stereotypes, playing against them not into them,” Barnett said, referencing Deliverance and all the Appalach-a-ploitation tropes that followed in film. In Red River Moon, the bad guy, Cecil, played by John Rose, is from somewhere in the North.
In addition to a talented cast, Barnett reached out to a top-notch crew. Ben Burke signed on to help produce. EKU film professor Chad Cogdill served as Director of Photography. Kiley Lane – an Arthur Rouse veteran – was assistant director. Kelsey Forren was production manager. George Nathan Noe was audio chief. Lucy Jones, now of the Lexington Film League and the Harry Dean Stanton Festival, was script supervisor. Tommy Paulson was assistant camera and Setphen Eidson was “super PA.”
And as in all good Southern stories, then came the bear.
After loading up cast and crew and shooting forest scenes for the first of four scheduled days, the group moved to a different part of the Gorge to shoot canoe scenes. But a bear attack had been reported about a mile from where they were shooting. “We were told we would be arrested if we got on the river.” The Gorge – and the entire movie production was shut down. The production juggled and shot cabin scenes. It was a week before the bear was spotted 19 miles away in Lee County and the Gorge reopened so they could shoot the canoe and water scenes.
And then the production got a little lost in the woods itself.
The production got four days of locations permits from the Daniel Boone National Forest, for specific sites, Barnett said. But in the middle of filming, a park ranger showed up. It seemed that the permit for the ridge to National Bridge State Park is regulated by the state and not the National Forest, Barnett said. Production shut down for about 45 minutes as Barnett called the Nationals. Ultimately, as the scene was nearly finished, they were given grace by the state park system. “We went to great lengths to try to locate the right spots on the topographical maps,” Barnett said.
Barnett came to filmmaking the long way. First hoping to go to film school in 1979, he visiting NYU’s campus and was told to go get broad liberal arts and film experience by finishing his undergrad at Kentucky, and to apply for their graduate program. He produced a full-length film, Moonchildren, as he completed an individual study major in film. The master was stolen from the back of a van outside the Taylor Education Building – with the miscreants stringing the tape from parking meter to parking meter along North Limestone from Kennedy’s Bookstore to Maxwell Street.
Devastated, Barnett took the incident as a sign. “I have since learned the real lesson is perseverance no matter what,” he said. Moving to California in 1984, he stayed for a time with Winchester native Stephanie Wiseman, a film editor whose current credits include Mission Impossible III and Waterworld.
In California, he worked on indie films, worked as a graphic artist and spent seven years making fused glass art and doing photography. After going back to school to become an educator, he taught fourth and fifth grades in Los Angeles for two years – just after the Rodney King riots shook the city.
A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s for his mother and a call from his Kentucky-based sister brought him back to the Bluegrass, where he took on the teaching job at Bryan Station Middle, practicing more videography. In 2006, the developments in HD video made high-quality, low-budget film possible and Barnett resolved to persevere on Red River Moon.
Barnett, who has been a partner in Natasha’s for the last five years, said that an after-party featuring music by most of the musicians who played on the film’s soundtrack score will follow the Kentucky screening on June 20 at the club on Esplanade. The two children who star in the film were 14 and 10 at the time of shooting, and are now 17 and 13. They, along with the rest of the cast and many of the musicians, will be at the Kentucky premiere, Barnett said.
In terms of the future of Red River Moon, Barnett said he is putting together “a list of mid-level festivals that are in the submission cycle right now,” and will see how the film fares. Next, he is “halfway through the first draft of a dark romantic comedy, which will be shot down at Natasha’s Café.”
It’s “Big Dreams coming full circle,” he said.
This article appears on page 11 of the June 13, 2013 print edition of Ace.
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