Filmmaker Keener happy where he is
by Ben Flanagan
Special to the Star
Aug 14, 2009 | 4905 views |  0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston filmmaker Jason LaRay Keener doesn't want to tell the same stories over and over. He wants to follow his dreams, quite literally, and try to record what he can faintly remember from his sleep. Making both fictional narratives and documentaries, Keener likes to experiment and give audiences stories that might not make a whole lot of sense on the surface. It's up to them to dig deeper and find whatever meaning they can in it.

He screened his DVD of short films, Catfish with Falcon Wings, last month at the Bottletree Café in Birmingham. He's also won a few awards at Sidewalk Film Festival Scramble contests with those films, so he's making an impression on someone in the Magic City.

As a movie fan, he tends to migrate toward Nashville and Atlanta to see movies on a big screen he can't see here in Calhoun County. If he could, he'd go live at the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville, but he's perfectly content making his movies in his hometown, a place he calls "marvelous" for filmmaking.

We talk to Keener about casting his family members in his movies, Blue Velvet, Cherokee County and his advice to young artists in this area.

What's the latest with Reining Nails (his film company)? Anything in the pipeline?

I'm organizing a documentary at the moment. Then in December, I'm scheduled to make my first feature film. Neither will be anything like my shorts, and that's all I'd say about either of them at this point.

What kind of stories do you want to tell now?

I'm not really interested in one type of story. If anything will be consistent in my work, I hope it's continuing to create interesting images, setting my films in the South and avoiding cliché storytelling gimmicks. I have absolute disdain for films or literature in which the viewer or reader can anticipate plot points. Life and dreams are unpredictable, and I call for a cinema that follows that example.

Do you write most of your films, or do you film what suddenly comes to you in a spur-of-the-moment sort of technique?

Whenever appropriate, both, especially regarding the shorts, and obviously documentaries. Any features I make will always be more carefully planned out because more money is on the line, but I'll always encourage improvisation and reinvention when it feels right. I believe in screenwriting, but I reserve the right to change my mind when the camera is in my hands. Sometimes I even edit things into a new context. I like to stay open minded until a project is finished.

How can using family members as actors in your films enhance the experience for the viewer and for the filmmaker?

I don't know if it can ever really enhance the experience for the viewer. For the filmmaker, the film can become a lot more personal and also have an additional function as a home video. It's good quality time, too.

What movies have you seen in theaters this summer that you've liked?

Last week, I rewatched Blue Velvet at the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, one of my favorite places on earth. I liked the first act of Up. When it turned into a series of gags about goofy talking dogs, I wanted to walk out. The only other film I've even seen in theaters this summer is Terminator: Salvation. I'd have felt a lot better if I'd lost my $8 being mugged instead.

As a filmmaker constantly searching for new inspiration through new feature films, does it bother you that Calhoun County might not bring as many independent or foreign releases to the AmStar 12? Do you drive out of town to see those movies?

Life is too short to be bothered by these kinds of things. I stay in Birmingham a lot these days, and that city is hardly any better. I mentioned the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta earlier; I go there when I can. I feel very comfortable there. Much further away is the Belcourt Theatre in Nashville. I would live in the Belcourt if they would let me. Both of those theaters proudly offer film prints of some of my favorite movies, which are usually older, and I appreciate them both for it.

I don't see a lot of new films anymore anyway. There are a handful of active living directors I keep up with, but it's rare that I know anything about the latest and greatest. I'm not pessimistic about modern cinema, I just honestly don't have the time to see everything I want to. Lately, my girlfriend and I have been studying specific directors and that consumes most of my time allotted for film viewing. I'm trying to learn and be more influenced by the masters I admire, like (Robert) Bresson, (Werner) Herzog and (Andrei) Tarkovsky. Even if Calhoun County started screening independent films, I can't be sure I'd bother. I'd rather spend my money in Nashville or Atlanta for their retrospectives.

And now I sound like a boring, pretentious snob. I promise I'm not!

How do you feel about the filmmaking community in Calhoun County? Have you noticed any sort of initiative on the part of local artists to utilize the area in making films?

I don't really know any local filmmakers, except for my friend, Annie Brunson, and I think she just does it for fun. As far as I'm concerned, Calhoun County is a marvelous place to make movies. There are so many visually interesting areas to exploit. There are beautiful natural locations and there are ugly commercial locations, and both can be utilized for the kind of cinema that I want to see.

Do you feel like you can accomplish your long-term filmmaking goals in a town like Anniston?

I don't think I'd limit myself to Anniston. There is much to be said for Cherokee County, where I was born. I've shot a lot in Gaylesville, Alabama. I do love that town, which I don't think is a very popular opinion for other non-outdoorsmen. It has a certain quality that I can't put my finger on; all I know is it feels correct when I'm shooting there.

What can Calhoun County do to improve as an environment for local artists?

That's a very serious question and I wouldn't pretend to be qualified to answer it in practical, realistic terms. I will say I've never felt it was Calhoun County's responsibility to improve for my sake as a local artist.

My personal advice to other artists living here would be that it's all right to create things here, but you should seek outlets outside of Calhoun County to get your work out there. Birmingham, Atlanta, Nashville are good starting points. Keep expanding; why limit yourself to exhibitions in Calhoun County?

Does Anniston give an aspiring or working filmmaker enough of a nurturing landscape and environment to succeed or just tell good stories?

As I said before, I think we have swell landscapes at our disposal. Too numerous to list, but if you open your eyes and stare very hard, perhaps you will see what I mean.


This story is the fourth in a series that will examine Calhoun County's arts and entertainment scene. The Anniston Star surveyed members of the community who play prominent roles in delivering residents with high-quality entertainment options about their craft and how they feel about the local entertainment scene. The series will feature local musicians, fine artists, filmmakers, arts educators and public figures who make entertainment decisions in the county. The mission of the series is to offer an introspective look at this area as a cultural attraction in Alabama and the Southeast. The Star takes a look at local entertainment's past, present and what it could and should be, seen through the eyes of the entertainers.

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Filmmaker Keener happy where he is by Ben Flanagan
Special to the Star

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