March 21, 2012 Edition

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Producer eyes WR for film

An independent film producer has set his sights on Walnut Ridge as the subject and, hopefully, the location for a movie. Tim Jackson says the weekend when the Beatles visited Walnut Ridge in 1964 is a story that deserves to be told on the silver screen.

"The Beatles' landing in Walnut Ridge provides the perfect backdrop to explore what was going on in small town America at that time," Jackson said. "It's a fun story and it's a poignant one. This is a story with a lot of heart and humor because of where it happened. So that's what we'll focus on."

Jackson, who lives in Little Rock, is a full-time filmmaker who has been producing movies through his own company for the last eight years. He is executive producer of director Harry Thomason's "The Last Ride," which will be released by Fox later this year. That film follows the last days of legendary country musician Hank Williams.

Henry Thomas, "E.T.'s" Eliot all grown up, stars as Hank Williams. The film also includes former "Law & Order" actor Fred Thompson and Kaley Couco from the current hit TV show, "Big Bang Theory." Benjy Gaither, son of gospel music's Bill and Gloria Gaither, composed the score and is one of the film's producers.

Jackson's company is known as Category One Entertainment, which is headquartered in Little Rock. The company recently issued a commitment letter to pursue a movie about The Beatles' stop at Walnut Ridge Airport in September of 1964.

He discovered the story of The Beatles' visit recently while listening to a popular radio talk show in Little Rock. Charles Snapp of Walnut Ridge and Jim Eubanks, a Walnut Ridge native, were on 103.7 Radio The Buzz talking about the weekend The Beatles came to town, and the tourism efforts it has sparked in the past two years.

"This is a perfect example of how Walnut Ridge is benefitting from so many people supporting the tourism efforts," said Snapp, a member of the Tourism Committee at the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce.

"Had it not been for WRHS graduate Jim Eubanks, we would not have been on that radio show in Little Rock, thus Tim may have never heard our story. The fact that we have a commitment letter from Category One Entertainment group is further proof of how the tourism efforts are working. Here we are, almost 48 years later, yet this is the first full-time movie producer that I've ever heard of contacting anyone," Snapp said.

Filmmaker inspired by town's efforts

Jackson affirms the impact of the recent tourism efforts on his interest in the film.

"Frankly, we were inspired by the town's efforts to do something bold, fun and entertaining," he said. "That's the same spirit that Category One Entertainment has so we thought, let's just get out there and put our heart on our sleeve and see if the town responds. It's been great so far and I'm sure it's only going to get better."

Jackson and some of his colleagues visited Walnut Ridge in February and met with several in the community, as well as looking over potential locations for shooting a film. He came away believing the area would be the ideal location for filming the movie.

"The story that drew my attention happened in Lawrence County and it should be told in Lawrence County," Jackson says. "I'm a big John Wayne fan and I loved his turn as Rooster Cogburn, but I'm like every other Arkansan who sees True Grit on television and thinks, 'What are the Rocky Mountains doing in Yell County?' So, I think to shoot it anywhere else would be a cheat and I'm not interested in that."

And the producer says there are other reasons for shooting the film locally.

"Besides the authenticity issue though, Walnut Ridge and Lawrence County are a great, unexplored and unspoiled setting for making a movie. When the time comes - and we're still a long way off from shooting - I think the town, the cast and crew will have a mutually good experience."

Jackson says his Arkansas roots give him sensitivity to the state and to small communities that would lead to a respectful portrayal of what took place in 1964.

"I love Arkansas," he said. "I live here by choice. I've spent a lot of time in every area of the state and in towns of all sizes. I've been in literally hundreds of churches, schools and businesses in Arkansas over the last 40 years. This state and its people are not cartoons to me - they're real, interesting, funny, wise and generous. That will be reflected in the work we do," he says.

Film in early, fragile stage

The producer is also candid about the difficulties of bringing a movie to the screen, adding the potential film in Walnut Ridge is still in a very early and fragile stage. He says there are five basic stages involved in getting a movie to the screen: development, pre-production, production, post production and distribution.

"We're in the first stage, development, and there's really no way to predict how long it will take," he said. "Right now our focus is on research and writing. And our goal is to produce the most compelling and exciting screenplay we can. Once we have a script that can attract the people and elements needed to make the film, then we'll move on to the phases that people are most familiar with and get excited about."

As an independent film producer, he makes movies without major studio backing. He says that is positive in some respects, including a lack of time constraints that he feels hurt the quality of some major motion pictures. However, it also leaves him with a fraction of the financial resources a large studio might have to work with.

"We can't just throw money at a project, so we have to depend on cooperating and collaborating with people who are as into a project as we are," he says. "Again, that's not a negative. It's a big positive. I'm expecting when this whole experience is over we'll all have some new, meaningful and lasting relationships."

The potential impact of the movie on Lawrence County is not lost on those who are developing tourism in the community.

As Snapp notes, "A major movie like this could bring worldwide attention to Walnut Ridge, leading to a significant increase in the number of visitors coming to town. But, if they shoot the movie here, then this area will benefit from the production crew and actors being here for a couple of months or so. Those people will be eating in area restaurants, buying fuel, shopping in area stores and utilizing area lodging. That's an immediate benefit to this part of the state."

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