Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Amy Franklin-Willis's "The Lost Saints of Tennessee"

An eighth generation Southerner, Amy Franklin-Willis was born in Birmingham, Alabama. She received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2007 to complete The Lost Saints of Tennessee, a novel inspired by stories of her father’s childhood in rural Pocahontas, Tennessee. Atlantic Monthly Press published The Lost Saints of Tennessee in 2012. It is an “Indie Next” Pick and received glowing reviews in the New York Times, Boston Globe, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Atlanta Journal Constitution and others.

Here the author shares some suggestions for casting a big screen adaptation of her novel:
It would be a denial of epic proportions to say I’ve never considered who might play the lead characters in a film adaptation of The Lost Saints of Tennessee. Here’s the dream cast I think could make my story about three generations of a working-class Tennessee family come alive on the screen.

Ezekiel is our main character/anti-hero. When we meet him, he’s 42 and living in a converted shed behind his mother’s house in Clayton, Tennessee. After the loss of his twin brother in a mysterious drowning ten years before, grief and guilt have wrapped themselves around Zeke so tightly that he withdraws from life. My top pick to play Zeke is Matt Damon. This might seem an odd match since Lost Saints is a fair distance from Jason Bourne but I’ve seen Mr. Damon in “softer” movies of late like The Informant and We Bought a Zoo and he possesses the key element for Zeke—vulnerability. Damon also has a high likability factor and if the audience is going to go along for the ride on this redemption story/hero’s journey, they must like Zeke. His character will prove frustrating and the audience may want to throw things at the screen when he makes one of his dumb decisions but they must like him enough to want to see him triumph in the end. Women are drawn to Zeke’s handsome face and innate, though complicated, goodness and Damon is certainly easy on the eyes.

After Zeke, we have to cast his mother Lillian—who is in her early sixties and facing a life-threatening illness. Lillian exists in that pantheon of grand Southern mothers who can chain-smoke, dominate their families, and look fantastically tragic all at that same time. Casting requires making the choice to use a younger actress who can pull off the scenes that take place when Zeke is growing up and then aging her as the story moves through time or using two different actresses, a younger one and an older one. If we choose the two actresses route, my top picks for “older Lillian” would be Gena Rowlands, Helen Mirren (though I’m not sure how her Southern accent is!), or Jessica Lange. Each of these great actresses could convey Lillian’s combination of faded dreams, regret and beauty but also the passion and strength she possessed to weather the crises that come as she raises her family.

For “young Lillian,” Reese Witherspoon or Jessica Chastain would be divine. Witherspoon’s work in Walk the Line as June Carter proved that she has serious dramatic chops and I think she’d thrive tackling the complicated role of a flawed mother struggling to keep herself and her family together. Chastain appears to be the Meryl Streep of her generation and is stunning and perfect in every movie I’ve seen her appear.

Zeke maintains two romances over the course of the story—one through an affair with his ex-wife Jackie, who has re-married, and one with new love interest Elle, whom Zeke meets when he moves to his cousins’ farm in Virginia horse country. Robin Wright would be a perfect match for Jackie—Ms. Wright has such a powerful controlled presence on the screen. I loved her in The Conspirator and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. For the role of Elle, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone other than Charlize Theron as the gorgeous divorced riding instructor who captures Zeke’s heart. Elle had a disastrous first marriage and generally prefers the presence of horses to people.

For the secondary characters cast:

Zeke’s daughters. Fifteen-year old Honora: Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) or Dakota Fanning. Twelve year old Louisa: Joey King (Crazy, Stupid, Love). Zeke’s three sisters. Violet: oldest, sweet, quiet. Ellen Pompeo (Grey’s Anatomy). Daisy: bossy big sister always in everybody’s business. Amy Poehler. Rosie: only sibling to make it out of small town Clayton; successful country music manager. Parker Posey.
Learn more about the book and author at Amy Franklin-Willis's website, her Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

--Marshal Zeringue