Glenwood native Clark Duke’s directorial debut, “Arkansas,” comes out on streaming platforms today. Based on a 2008 novel by John Brandon and written by Duke and Andrew Boonkrong, the film follows two drug runners, Kyle (played by Liam Hemsworth) and Swin (played by Duke), and paints a picture of organized crime in the South with deadpan dialogue and quiet absurdity, borrowing many of its brushstrokes from the likes of Charles Portis, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. It is, in Duke’s words, “definitely a bummer” that the film — with all its Southern noir sensibilities — never got a chance to ring across a receptive room at its corona-canceled SXSW debut, but its release on streaming platforms means, at least, that it has a fighting chance of finding that audience anyway, even without a red carpet rollout.
We talked with Duke about the film’s unconventional release, about his time filming in Arkansas and Alabama with his brother Chandler, and about the serendipitous marriage of The Flaming Lips to the film’s soundtrack.
Appropriately for a film named “Arkansas,” there’s a quote from Charles Portis — the “escape velocity” quote — at the beginning of the film. Is there some Portis in the movie, intentionally?
Oh, yeah. One hundred percent. Big Charles Portis fan. For sure, there’s a big influence. The Coen Brothers were a big influence on me as well. You can tell that they share and love that same kind of wry, funny, dry tone that Portis had.
There’s some of that in Kyle and Swin’s dynamic, right? The sort of pair where, for every word one of them says, the other one has said 25?
Yeah. I always kind of described them as — to me, they kind of make one complete person if you combine the two of them. Like, one competent person. They fill in each other’s holes, which I thought was a cool dynamic. Like a “Butch and Sundance” kind of vibe. Or like “Once Upon A Time in the West.” That was a movie we referenced a lot on set — visually, and with the score and everything, too.
I want to ask you about the score. There’s this Wayne Coyne version of “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” for one, that definitely belongs at a VFW in Arkansas. What kind of hand did you have in the music?
Well, I had all hands in the music. I picked all the songs. It was very important to me. The filmmakers that I love, like Scorsese, like Tarantino, music is such a big part of those movies. I wanted it to be that way with this one. It’s tricky when you don’t have a big budget. So, The Flaming Lips actually covered all the songs in the film, and that was not my original plan, because I didn’t think that kind of thing was possible, in my wildest dreams. But Liam [Hemsworth] is friends with Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips, and he put us in touch, and within a few days of talking to him over the phone for the first time, they were in downtown Hot Springs at 10 in the morning.
Yeah. Drove all night from Oklahoma. So that was pretty surreal. And that scene where he plays “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” that was always in the script, with the band playing it live, so I knew whoever the band was in that scene would be covering that song, but then once I heard that, I just loved what they did with it so much. It was so cool. It kind of gives the song a weird tension. So after that, I just asked him, like, “You wanna cover all these songs?” Wildly enough, they said yes.
And then the score — you know, not the pop song covers, but the score underneath the film — was done by Devendra Banhart, who’s a really incredible musician, too, who I’ve been friends with for a long, long time. With him, I wanted to do what we called “jailhouse Morricone,” like do the “Once Upon A Time in the West” sort of spaghetti western score.
So, there are definitely some Easter eggs in the film for Arkansans — I know I spotted Centerfold, I think, in Hot Springs.
Yup! Yup. [Laughs.]
And really enjoyed the line of dialogue that accompanied it. I know you shot there at the Arlington Hotel, Maxine’s, and the Fordyce Bathhouse. How much of the movie was made in Arkansas, and what was the scouting process like?
I think you pretty much got all of them, the downtown area, Maxine’s and the Bathhouse. I tried to shoot the whole movie in Arkansas, and was literally there scouting and the state called and told us that they couldn’t give us the tax credit. For a small, independent film, that tax credit can be, you know, a third or a fourth of your budget. So we ended up moving most of the movie to Alabama, with just the stuff that you mentioned getting shot in Arkansas. But I did try!
The film commission was great, and have been lovely and supportive the whole time, but I think what happened with us is that they’ve got a certain amount of money to use toward that film tax credit every year, and “True Detective” had basically used all the money up.
Were there things you had to do to make it feel like Arkansas?
Yeah, you know, I grew up in and around Hot Springs, so to be honest, the pictures in my head didn’t really look that much like Little Rock. Most of it is set in the more rural parts of the state, and I really kind of feel like a lot of the locations we found in Alabama kind of look more like what I had in my head. And so much of the movie is interior. It’s about the people talking. It’s not, like, a Terrence Malick movie, with like, these sweeping vista shots of Arkansas. Alabama was close enough that it still felt like the world I had in my head.
Do you still have family in this part of the state?
Oh, yeah. Yeah. My brother lives out here in L.A. with me, but everybody else is back in Arkansas. I mean, I slept at my mom’s house when we were shooting in Arkansas. It was great. Everybody else stayed at the Arlington, and I just went home.
What sort of things do you hit up when you’re home?
I’m gonna eat at McClard’s. That’s my first stop. Barbecue might be the thing I miss most, to be honest. L.A. has so much great food, but you don’t find much good barbecue, and it’s just not the same.
Yeah. It doesn’t come with, like, a slab of white bread. Or a tamale.
They don’t even know about the white bread.
So I’m curious, because you’re from Arkansas, whether you were sort of the authority on the set, as far as what rings true for making the film seem like it takes place in this area?
I guess so. But, I mean, also, being the director, that’s already your job, anyway. But yeah, and my brother is in the movie and was on set the whole time, so he was there to kind of bounce stuff off of, too.
How different does this movie launch look for you than your original SXSW plans?
It’s definitely a bummer. Being Southern, South By was kind of the festival I wanted to premiere at, and I was so excited that we got in, and we had such an awesome time slot. As a filmmaker, to get to debut your first movie there is such an honor. It seems like we skipped all the fun stuff, like South By and the premiere. I love going to theaters, and I wanted to see the movie in a theater, and never got to, because they closed all the theaters.
So yeah, it’s been rough. At the same time, I don’t think I can complain too much. These are such luxury problems. There are people who are sick and dying, and everybody’s in the same boat, kind of locked in a house just like I am.
But it’s shitty. I’ve been trying to get this movie made for, like, 10 years, which is something you’ve worked on for a third of your life, and worked on every day for the past two or three years. But as long as people find the movie and watch the movie, that’s all that really matters. Lionsgate has been great, and made a huge push to get it out there in a big way. It’s such a changing landscape right now with the way VOD is working. The way people are watching stuff, maybe more people will see it, ‘cause everybody’s trapped at home.