For his graduate thesis project at Loyola Marymount University, Jeff Patterson kept a notebook filled with 275 ideas, one of which he hoped to turn into a student film. The idea he chose, however, wasn’t even in the notebook. “I was telling my ideas to a girl I was dating at the time,” recalls Patterson, a Nashville resident whose father, Dr. Warren Patterson, is a local plastic surgeon, “and she said, ‘I’d rather see a film on that cousin of yours.’ ”
“That cousin of yours” was Carole Patterson, a famous disability advocate who grew up in Knoxville. Robbed of the ability to walk at age 12 by muscular dystrophy, Carole became a ferocious activist, known for using her fearless nature, sharp wit, and media savvy to humble opponents into capitulating. At the University of Texas in Austin, she led a battle to get shuttle buses altered for disabled students, and Jeff recalls her threatening on one occasion to crawl across the Capitol steps before news cameras.
The more Jeff thought about his cousin, the more the idea intrigued him. “She can cuss like a sailor,” he says, “but she is also a very open and tender person.” When Carole announced that she was getting married in Austin to a non-disabled man, Brett Campbell, Jeff decided he had the topic for his film. The result, a 32-minute documentary called Independent Little Cuss, opened painful family memories and unearthed feelings the Pattersons would rather had remained hidden. It also won Jeff Patterson the highest honor available in student film, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Student Academy Award.
“It gave me the chance to make something brutally honest,” says Jeff, who accepted the award June 9 in Los Angeles from actor Kevin Spacey. “When the family all arrived in Austin for the wedding, I think they wanted a portrait of her strength. They didn’t want the more unfortunate side to come to light.”
Small wonder. From the start, the groom’s family staunchly opposed the wedding, partially because Carole could not bear children. There was also the question of Carole’s open bisexuality. Even among the Pattersons, some tensions remained between Carole and her sister Anne, who took care of her often as a child. Behind the festivities lay an even darker concernthat Carole might not live to enjoy her marriage.
“The film starts out with a story Carole was told by a doctor, who said that she would not live,” Jeff says. “So even heading up to the happiest moment of her life, she still had a lot of pressure.” He observes that his cousin has a non-progressive form of muscular dystrophy that might allow her to live a full life span, but this did nothing to assuage the Campbell’s misgivings.
Jeff told his family the kind of film he wanted to make, and he insisted on total candor. “This was not about putting kid gloves on,” he says. Taking a cue from Carole’s blunt outspokenness, the Pattersons gradually opened up on camera, talking about the fears, resentments, and struggles the family had faced.
And yet Jeff Patterson insists that “the overriding sense in the movie is of joy.” The wedding proceeded as planned, he reports, and Carole and Brett are completely happy. Today Carole works with the Oregon organization Mobility International, which trains students around the world to become disability advocates in their native countries.
Jeff’s own future seems bright. He completed the film over 15 months’ time with money from a student loan, and it has gone on to win several festival awards. In addition, the Student Academy Award almost guarantees Independent Little Cuss consideration for an Oscar nomination, and an agent in Los Angeles is drumming up interest for a fiction film based on Carole’s life. Even the Pattersons are pleased, Jeff saysalthough they “probably still begrudge me a little for putting their family troubles on screen.”
“Bittums Bites It,” a short film by writer-producer-director Jonathan Shockley, was voted best picture at the first screening of films produced by students at the downtown Watkins Film School. An audience of instructors, students, their families and friends, and viewers off the street filled the school’s third-floor screening room to overflowing on June 13; an audience ballot determined the winner of the best film award. Shockley’s film won almost unanimously, with James McGovern’s “Past Due,” a librarian’s revenge fantasy, and Karen Casey’s music video for “What I Like About You” also receiving votes.
Shockley’s short film, a well-acted, lightning-paced farce involving a Mormon, a bickering couple, and a dead cat, was by far the most polished, imaginative, and amusing of the bunch: Its escalation of comic catastrophes had some of the kick of this year’s Flirting With Disaster. (The short film is apparently a section of a longer script; if Shockley can maintain his comedic invention for the length of a movie, his future is worth watching.) Many of the other films shared flaws of static camerawork and story lines that hadn’t been completely worked out.
On the other hand, some of the filmsparticularly Ken Thompson and Karen Carlson’s filmed monologue “Last Call Home”were encouragingly ambitious, and even the weakest shorts had at least one standout performance. Above all, the Watkins students have an excitement and zeal about making movies that is inspiring to behold. Nashville film professionals worry that the students will become disillusioned when they see how scarce work is, but an exchange of some of this caution and some of the Watkins students’ boundless enthusiasm might zap Nashville’s slumbering giant of a film industry awake.
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