In a few weeks, a rock star and a colorful Nashville club promoter will play a venue off the beaten path: the former Tennessee State Prison facilities. That’s where shooting begins Nov. 14 on A Letter From Death Row, an independent feature described as “a cross between Hitchcock, Sam Raimi and Natural Born Killers.”
A combination murder mystery and psychological thriller, the Ann Gillis production concerns a Death Row inmate who attempts to clear his name. The movie was written by Bret Michaels, lead singer of the platinum-selling heavy-metal band Poison, who also makes his starring debut in the lead role.
Several local actors, including Robecca Holden, Simon Elsworth, Rob Wilds, Tim Northern, Christy Gibson, Ken Jackson, musician Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, and deejay Phil Valentine, received substantial roles in the 45-character script. To fill the featured role of Danker, a sarcastic fellow convict, the filmmakers made an inspired choice: rambunctious longtime Nashville club fixture Tommy Smith, who ran such local clubs as Elliston Square and Club 1000. If anyone needs a new Bond villain, look no further.
“He’s a naturalhe just blew everybody away,” says director Marvin Baker, a maker of music videos helming his first feature. Baker and Michaels had met Smith on previous jaunts through town, and the director insisted that he read for the part. “Everybody wanted to know where we found him,” Baker reports.
A former Pennsylvania and Ohio resident who worked previously in L.A., Baker first came to Nashville several years ago at the request of a gospel label, which had seen his videos for the German metal group Accept (“Death Row”) and other bands. After five return visits, he decided four years ago to make Nashville his home. He joined after talking to Michaels’ management company, Michaels Entertainment Group, which developed the project.
Director of photography Bill Pivetta will shoot the movie in 35mm at the State Prison and various Sumner County locations. Local crew includes assistant director Susan McGuire, second AD Douglas Fontaine, gaffer Dave Sheppard, production assistant Gina Stewart, caterer Penny Holt, makeup artist Terry Groves, best boy Pat Sittnick, and key grip Jim Hunter. Editing should begin in December, with Baker supervising the cutting himself on two vintage Steenbeck editing decks.
If you still haven’t sent in your entry for the Tennessee National Screenplay Contest, you still have a few more weeks. The deadline for the contest has been extended to Dec. 1; according to Tennessee Screenwriting Association president Randy O’Brien, this gives entrants a little more time to polish their scripts after contest judge Joan Tewkesbury’s two seminars next week.
As the deadline has extended, the stakes have been raised as well. Thanks to a $600 grant from NationsBank, the first prize has been increased to $500 and a silver award commissioned by the bank. In addition, second- through fifth-place winners will receive a $100 prize.
So far, O’Brien says, the contest has attracted inquiries from Scotland, Germany, England, Canada, and screenwriters all across the country. To make their scripts more competitive, he suggests that entrants keep their scripts between 100 and 120 pages in length (the average for a feature) and comb them carefully for typographical errors and misspellings. For a full set of contest rules, as well as information about next week’s Tewkesbury seminars, contact O’Brien at 898-2800.
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