It’s been a long journey, in experiences and miles, for FSU Senior Terry Beck, beginning in his hometown of Slinger, Wisconsin, and culminating in his senior year at the College of Motion Picture Arts at Florida State University, where he has just finished wrapping up his senior thesis film.
I first met Terry Beck during our freshman year at Florida State through mutual friends. He told me that he had been afraid of failing the interview for the College of Motion Picture Arts because he had panicked and told the panel that he wanted to make dinosaur movies. Since then he’s tackled everything from grief to dark comedy in his films. Now, nearly four years later, we meet to talk about his final project, “The Mysterious Life of Emmett Butler”; an exploration of southern art culture, gender roles, and human connection.
Spire Magazine: Without spoiling too much, could you give me a rundown of what your project is about? Give us your pitch.
Terry Beck: It is a 1960s period film about a young girl who, in an effort to try and prove herself to her superiors at her local newspaper, goes against her boss’s wishes and goes out of her way to interview a mysterious, reclusive old man who lives out in the woods. There’s a lot of rumors that surround him and people don’t have a sense of who he is – it’s all just word of mouth- no one has ever really tried to get to know him. She thinks there’s something else there and she goes out of her way to find out what his deal is and she uncovers the truth and realizes how wrong she was and how those misconceptions totally painted a different image of who he really is- sort of cliche like don’t judge a book by its cover kind of thing.
SM: It’s not a simple plot, but it leaves so much room for character development and growing room so to speak. When did you actually finish up filming?
TB: What day is it today? It’s the 21st, so 19th, 20th, no that’s wrong, that was a different movie that I’m currently working on… It was the 18th, 19th, and 20th of October that we were filming. So we actually finished about a week and a half ago. It feels like a month ago.
SM: How far ahead were you thinking of creating this piece?
TB: I didn’t have it in mind for very long. It started as the idea of a 1960s mystery, with this little kid who is trying to solve the mystery of this old guy who had treasure buried or something. That was back in June during the summer, and eventually I had to commit because I couldn’t keep flip-flopping. It evolved into more of a very intimate bonding experience between two characters that takes place in the 1960s. Yeah, it was in the works for a while, but it wasn’t anything that I was stewing over, or that I was very passionate about for a year.
SM: Did you want to do a period piece from the beginning? Or was that something that was just more convenient?
TB: It kind of just lent itself to the story. I wanted to do something at the next level for my thesis. One of the other ideas was a horror comedy thriller that took place in a boy scout retreat. There was gonna be stunts, it was gonna be crazy. That that was how I was going to push the envelope. Then I was going to do a film about a couple that are going through a relationship problems and their car breaks down in the middle of a harvest festival in this obscure town. If I did that, I was going to need a bunch of extras, just a shit ton of people to be in the production. That was just too big in scope.
So this movie originally started out as a contemporary piece, but then I thought it would be interesting if it was set in the 60s so that I had the opportunity to play around with concepts like feminism and female journalism, and the way it was presented in the 60s. Placing the movie in 1965 at the beginning of the counterculture movement seemed interesting to me. Firstly, it would get rid of any plot holes exacerbated by smartphones, laptops, or social media that could present a problem with my story. Secondly, the time period would help me with presenting those themes of progressive female character in those years.
SM: Can you tell us more about female journalism in the 1960s?
TB: Female journalism started way before the 60s. There were females who went to the front lines to cover World War II and the Civil War. But it wasn’t until the advent of television that there was a hierarchy between male and female anchors, and women were regulated to certain aspects of production. The 60s were around the time women in news media started to be accepted into higher roles such as news anchors and journalists. At the same time, they were combating sexism in that workplace, where men were getting the credit for reporting the news that the women compiled. That translated into the late 60s and early 70s with the hippie movement and the furthering of civil rights.
SM: Although it didn’t start as a period piece, it is a portrayal of the relationship between this female journalist and this misunderstood hermit. How did did it evolve once you wanted this relationship portrayed?
TB: I think with that story in particular I wanted to do a female journalist because, firstly, my previous film was a male cast primarily, and my two films before that were centered around females. I was trying to do something where there was a more balanced dynamic and ultimately, again, the puzzle pieces just sort of fit together. It made sense to make her female because the men just had so much more privilege than women did at that time, so there’s less conflict for a man trying to become a journalist in the 60s than for a female. He doesn’t have to overcome the same obstacles she does, and doesn’t have to deal with the same sexism or preconceived idea of where a female should be.
SM: What was it about this relationship that you wanted to portray? Was it something you needed to write about, something that you were inspired by, or something you’ve felt or experienced personally?
TB: It was a stylistic decision, inspired by Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Michael Caine and Robert Duval’s characters in Secondhand Lions. I sought to combine those personas with the art style of the American South that I grew up with in Mississippi, one that’s very private, and eclectic, typified in repurposed art, things like bottle trees and rusty junkyard sculptures.Finally, I combined it with the culture of the 60s, which is really interesting to me.
SM: Can you tell me about the southern art culture you mentioned? What do you mean by saying it’s private? Do you mean that it’s people who aren’t making art to market themselves?
TB: It’s people making art without bring it to market. It’s not people setting up etsy accounts. It was a big part of my family for a while. My grandfather who I was named after had a tradition for years called “weird gifts”. Every year we would get a “weird gift” and it was just a strange piece of artwork that he would find somewhere across the country, specifically Mississippi. Sometimes from elsewhere when he traveled. One year I got this tiny brass monkey that was holding a mirror and looking at itself in the mirror. Other times we got little frogs or snakes that were made out of bike chains all welded together. Frogs that were made out of metal or little wooden sculptures and pots, pieces of pottery in strange shapes. They were just things he liked, and he showed me pictures of places he found them.
It was all very cool, handmade stuff. It was all very humble, it wasn’t projecting itself. You could imagine the artist quietly making it for art’s sake. They don’t make that stuff to sell it- they make it out of some innate sense of creativity or express themselves but it’s like a little garden for themselves- it’s comfortable but it’s got a weirdness to it too and it’s very much what inspired what I wanted for this character. But he just makes this comfortable little oasis for himself with all these sculptures and he’s not doing it for anybody but himself. I feel like you can find that a lot in the south, perhaps more than anywhere else.
SM: Where did you end up finding pieces?
TB: The place we ended up getting stuff from was an “Ability Towing”, which is a salvage yard over on Lake Bradford. The woman who works there repurposes a lot of the junk there and makes sculptures out of it. She ended up lending us 10-15 pieces of her art. She really liked making little humanoid sculptures, like robots, out of rusty metal. One was a ballerina, one was a six foot-tall man, in addition to a bunch of other small ones. They let us borrow whatever we wanted, and they also let us take random pieces of junk.
My production designer Reid Lauff made a lot of props himself, as well. A lot of it is made specifically for the movie: they made little turtles out of pots and pans, they handpainted random objects, and they made wind chimes out of forks and spoons that were hanging from a gravy boat. Also, they made one beautiful piece that’s a round frame with strings, keys, and heads of spoons hanging off. You can see it in one of the shots. I’d say it was 50/50, half of it was and for the move and half was borrowed from the salvage shop. Also, we had a friend whose grandfather let us borrow a bunch of junk from his barn, and I borrowed some yard junk from my mom as well. It was really through the hospitality of the people of Tallahassee that we didn’t have to pay for too much. We had a $1,000 budget and operated mostly beneath it.
SM: Pragmatically, you must all film a lot locally. Have you noticed if Tallahassee is open to letting film students work with them?
TB: It’s always surprising how accommodating people can be. We would go door to door at people’s houses to ask if we can film at their house. And there are times when people are not very welcoming. There was a time in Wakulla when we were run off of someone’s property. Their dogs were going after my producer and they were screaming at us to leave and I had to like gun it out of there as my producer was jumping into my car.But there are also so many people that are always willing to help, like that salvage company. We also found an old, rusted, blue truck. A Ford or a Chevy, or something like that. We wanted to park next to the cabin that we were filming at so it the character would have a car. It didn’t run and it had obviously been sitting there for years. The salvage company towed it to our location for us, parked it where we wanted it, and then came and picked it up for us and never charged us a dime.
As for the location, the cabin that we were at is at a place called Jubilee Orchards, up on Miccosukee Road about a half hour north of here. It’s a blueberry orchard owned by the son and daughter in law of the late Governor Lawton Chiles, one of the most beloved governors in Florida history. That cabin was the cabin he grew up in, they moved it to have it on the property. There are memorials and a plaque inside to commemorate him and all he’d done. We called them and it turns out Governor Chiles’s son worked in the film industry and he had a huge respect for the industry and let us do whatever we wanted for the film. So we filmed a few shots on the porch. We filmed ten feet away from the concrete memorial where Governor Chiles and his wife are buried. They even let us go dig a hole in the ground next to where the graves so we could film a nearby scene. They didn’t charge us anything, they let us show up before sunrise, they were just too kind to us.
SM: Did you find them on accident?
TB: I didn’t know anything at all, actually. I posted on Craigslist asking for anyone who knew of any cabins or run down houses, and someone said Jubilee Orchard has a bunch of cabins on their property, so we called them up. The owner gave us a little tour, and we realized she was the daughter in law of former Florida Governor Lawton Chiles. She was so sweet, there was a dog running around, it was quiet, it was in the middle of the woods, it was a perfect location to shoot this kind of thing.
SM: Overall, are you happy with the film? And this is your last hurrah, sort of like your legacy at FSU’s College of Motion Picture Arts, did it live up to the lofty expectations?.
TB: Yeah definitely, I’m beyond pleased with what we ended up with. I remember in June I had a massive panic attack in front of my professor and went into her office, and pitched her an entirely different movie off of the top of my head. I made it up on the spot, only to convince her to let me make a different movie because I didn’t like this one. I was just really scared that I was going to be stuck making a movie I didn’t care about and wouldn’t enjoy my time.
Slowly, over time, she convinced me to stick with the premise and I started to bond with it more and enjoy the intimacy. I got to make it into something that I really appreciated. It wasn’t until we actually started making the movie that it came to life, and it felt like something real.
We ran into a lot of challenges. My actress had to drop out two days before filming so I had to find a new girl. Luckily, one of the other girls, Taylor-Kate Eubanks, who auditioned drove down from Atlanta and stayed with her grandparents here in town to help us out. Then there was the hurricane. There were a lot of concerns, but once we got onto set and I had all my extras sitting at desks with typewriters and it looked like a 1960s office, and then when we got to the cabin all the artwork was there all around it, it felt real. That’s when I knew that this was going to feel like a real movie.
If it weren’t for the people I worked with, it wouldn’t have turned out this well at all. I always hate when people say that, but if it wasn’t for my production designer being who he is, being my best friend, and being as committed as he was, I don’t think it would have sold. Same with my producer, Nathan Cohen. He solved so many problems that I had no idea how to solve, and if it weren’t for him, the movie wouldn’t look as good as it does. I’m very happy with it, and I think it’s going to be something really special.
SM: Do you know what the screening dates are yet?
TB: I don’t think the film school has finalized it yet. It’s the day of our graduation ceremony, though. Since our ceremony is separate from FSU’s big graduation ceremony-, it all takes place at the SLC, the ceremony is open to everybody, but the screening is ticketed. They can only fit so many people in the theater, and we only get so many tickets. We need some for the actors, location owners, anybody involved in the film. It’s more of a private screening, but it will be released online on vimeo so anyone that wants to see it can just reach out to a film student like me and ask for the final copy.
SM: One last, scary question. Do you know what’s next for you, where you want to go?
TB: Good question. I think I want to go to Atlanta, because there’s a lot of industry there right now and it’s really cheap to live there. I think it would be nice to go there and actually make some money, and not be living a terribly poor life while I start to pay off student loans a little. Marvel movies are filmed there all the time, and I have friends there who are working on Marvel movies right now. The show Atlanta is filmed there, and I’ve also got friends working on that. There’s some really cool opportunities there to not only get to work in the film industry, but to make money and live comfortably. Then I’ll figure out where to go from there, just take it day by day kind of thing
SM: Do you have a vision of what you want your career to be and the sorts of stories that you know you want to tell?
TB: I definitely love directing, writing, and producing. I just like working with people. If I could get paid to go and make friends that would be lovely. Meeting and working with people that love the same things that I do is really what I want to be involved in. I would love to be a director, but it’s hard for me to find inspiration sometimes, so working as like a creative producer, just helping make the movie happen from beginning to end, would be nice.
But in terms of what stories I want to tell, I’m really interested in weird, funny, creative, stuff that resonates. My go to example is Swiss Army Man, which is a weird movie, but it’s also touching. It gives me butterflies, and it’s great because it’s unexpected from a comedy. I want to end up making stuff that resonates and affects people, makes them see the world in a different way.
I never would have imagined six years ago that I would be here, so I’m not sure I can imagine where I’ll be six years from now but If I could imagine, that’s where I want to be, as the person I am now. But honestly, who knows.
The Mysterious Life of Emmett Butler may represent the peak of Terry Beck’s time at Florida State, but it is just the beginning of a career devoted to storytelling. Terry’s senior thesis film will premiere at the College of Motion Picture Arts Class of 2018 Graduation Ceremony and will then be available on Vimeo.