Jeff Nichols never wanted to be an indie filmmaker. Even before he made “Shotgun Stories,” his first feature film, he talked aspirationally not of winning Sundance, but of future blockbusters. He’s always seen artistic independence and mass appeal as mutually achievable. So perhaps its not surprising that the lineup for the first event from the Arkansas Cinema Society, the ambitious new film nonprofit he and fellow Little Rock native and filmmaker Kathryn Tucker co-founded and announced in March, includes actors, directors and producers who’ve successfully made movies big and small while maintaining a distinct voice or sensibility.
The ACS’ “Premiere” runs Aug. 24-26 at the Ron Robinson Theater, with actor Adam Driver (Kylo Ren in the new “Star Wars” trilogy, Adam on HBO’s “Girls”) and director David Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) headlining.
At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the event kicks off with a screening of “Patti Cake$,” a 2017 Sundance hit that seems poised to crossover into the mainstream about a white female New Jersey rapper. Nichols will have an onstage conversation with producer Noah Stahl following the screening. At 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” screens. The critically acclaimed 2016 indie stars Driver as a bus driver and aspiring poet in Paterson, N.J. Following the film, Nichols will have an extended onstage conversation with Driver. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” plays at 7 p.m. on Friday, with Driver, who stars as the villain Kylo Ren, again talking about the film with Nichols. Both of the Driver films sold out quickly, though ACS organizers expected to release more tickets earlier this week. At 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, David Lowery’s 2016 reimagining of Disney’s “Pete’s Dragon” plays, followed by an extended conversation with Nichols. That night, at 7 p.m. Lowery’s new, well-received indie “A Ghost Story,” starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara screens, with Nichols again talking to Lowery about the film. Tickets, $35 per screening, are available via the ACS Facebook page. Admission to parties following each night’s screening is included in the ticket price.
The nighttime films will be followed by Q&As about that specific film, while the daytime screenings with Driver and Lowery will cover “the breadth of their work and the trajectory of their careers,” Nichols said. Some future Arkansas Cinema Society events may simply be screenings, he said. “But hopefully in most instances there will be a screening followed by a conversation, which is really where this stuff starts to become unique and special. I think it’s part of our core mission with the Cinema Society to extend the screenings into a deeper understanding of what the work is and how it actually got there.”
Though this is Nichols first time programming a film event, the lineup reflects the advantage of having someone of his stature (GQ recently grouped him in a roundtable feature of 10 of the magazines “favorite, freshest directors” called “The Directors Who Blew Up Hollywood). Driver, who Nichols calls “one of the greatest actors working today,” was the first commit. Nichols got to know him during the making of Nichols’ 2016 film “Midnight Special,” in which Driver plays an NSA analyst. Driver’s father also lives in Central Arkansas. Lowery, who grew up and still lives in the Dallas area, has known Nichols since early in their careers. They met through the actor Barlow Jacobs, who starred in Nichols’ “Shotgun Stories” and has a role in Lowery’s “A Ghost Story.” Dan Janvey, a producer for “Patti Cake$” and someone who Nichols knew of through producer Sarah Green offered to bring his film to the Arkansas Cinema Society after the website IndieWire first reported on the creation of the nonprofit.
Nichols likened the scheduling to a Rubik’s Cube. “We tried a lot of different combinations of things, and a lot of it just came down to people’s schedules. The cool thing is everyone that we’ve reached out to that couldn’t make it this time expressed interest about coming, so we’re really excited about you know the next 12 months.” Nichols and Tucker aren’t ready to drop names yet, but they might tease some of what they expect to be at least a monthly series of film events at Ron Robinson during “Premiere.”
One sign of their long-term commitment to the Central Arkansas Library System’s theater: Under the ACS’ direction, Ron Robinson last week installed a new perforated screen, which allows the theater’s center channel speakers to be placed behind the screen, a customary arrangement in modern theaters. The new setup will help the ACS draw more big-name filmmakers and films and, coupled with some technical adjustments to the projector, will make for a markedly better viewing experience, Nichols and Tucker say. CALS Director Nate Coulter, who’s also a member of the ACS board, was sufficiently convinced by that argument to put up $20,000 toward the new installation; the ACS will cover the balance, around $30,000. Coulter said he expects that the ACS will build up such a trust with the community that people will come every time there is an ACS film, regardless whether they know anything about it. That can only help the library’s theater, which has struggled to find its identity since opening in 2014.
New to the ACS team is Chris Robinson, a second year UA-Little Rock assistant professor, who’s serving as the ACS resident curator and programmer. Robinson had a varied career before entering academia, working in distribution for Cinecom Pictures, booking movies like “A Room with a View” and then later editing documentaries for HBO, ESPN and PBS. He also is a programmer for the Telluride Film Festival and the Turner Classic Movies’ Classic Film Festival.
“I remember having a conversation with Katherine early on and saying, ‘You know it would be great if there was just somebody in Arkansas that had the skill set in terms of programming and the ability to talk to distributors,’ ” Nichols said. “And sure enough you start getting the word out and [Robinson] is right down the street, and he’s a bad ass.”
Tucker said Robinson has provided crucial assistance in getting in touch with the studios that own the movies ACS is screening later this month. He also connected the ACS with Diana Caldwell, a Los Angeles-based film consultant who recently managed the assembly of special 70mm screens around the country for Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk.” Caldwell, who also worked at the Telluride Film Festival, will be the technical director for “Premiere,” ensuring that everything looks and sounds as it should.