Beware of gators (not!) at Knoxville Film Festival

Betsy PickleOur Town Arts

There has always been a strong “Made in Tennessee” component to the Knoxville Film Festival, but this year, even imaginary films are getting in on the act.

Buzz is strong for “Meth Gator: The Musical,” a film Jeff Snell hasn’t made and doesn’t intend to but has promoted on social media, with more than 50 auditions submitted – and that doesn’t even count the aspiring animal actors who are interested.

“Pusher” comes from Tennessee director Andi Morrow. (Photo submitted)

“It’s just a big hoax,” says Keith McDaniel, KFF executive director. “There’s no film.”

There’s no film, but there’s been a lot of fun as local filmmaker Snell has encouraged humans and animals to submit audition tapes.

It started when a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman warned that alligators are showing up in Tennessee and told people not to flush unwanted medications down the toilet or we’d end up with “meth gators.”

Snell, director of “Big Chicken” and “Jeff Shaves His Beard,” took that and ran with it.

“The result of that has been, it’s driven interest in the film festival,” says McDaniel. “He is the master of social media mayhem, he really is.”

“Meth Gator” may not screen at the 16th Knoxville Film Festival, but films with Tennessee pedigrees make up the bulk of the fare.

“Probably 70 percent of the films that I’m showing are made by Tennessee filmmakers,” says McDaniel. “Which kind of goes back to the whole purpose of why I started this, which was to promote and to focus on the local filmmaking community.”

This year’s fest runs Friday-Sunday, Sept. 13-15, at Regal Entertainment Group’s Downtown West Cinema 8. Advance tickets and passes are available online through 6 p.m. today. The festival box office at the theater opens at noon Friday.

The KFF started life as the Secret City Film Festival in Oak Ridge 16 years ago. Eight years ago, McDaniel got the opportunity to move it to Knoxville, where he rebranded it.

Each year, filmmakers from throughout the country and even overseas submit films for consideration.

“We also want to include people from outside so our local filmmakers can see what other people are doing,” McDaniel says. “That’s a very important component for the film festival as well.”

Six narrative feature films will play at the fest; half of them were made in Tennessee. There are 42 narrative short films, including one from Croatia.

“Love, Trails & Dinosaurs” is about a young man with autism who has hiked every trail in the Smokies. (Photo submitted)

Five documentary features and nine short documentaries are also on the lineup. McDaniel is excited about one feature-length documentary in particular.

One film “that I really hope people come out and see is the documentary feature ‘Dave Grusin: Not Enough Time,’” he says. “Dave Grusin’s one of my favorite composers of all time. He’s quite the musician and composer in the film, television and jazz world.”

Grusin’s film credits include “The Graduate,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “Reds,” “Heaven Can Wait,” “The Champ,” “The Fabulous Baker Boys,” “Havana,” “The Milagro Beanfield War” and “The Firm.”

McDaniel has a personal connection with a feature film that’s playing, “Christmas in July.”

“I’m actually in that,” he says. “I got cast just out of the blue. It’s what I call a ‘not insignificant supporting role.’

“I’ve got the director and writer and one of the actors from Los Angeles coming in and a bunch of people coming from Cleveland, where we shot it two years ago.

“From the title, some people think it might be a cheesy Hallmark thing. It’s really not. It’s well made, a good story. It is warm and fuzzy but it’s also a reflection of reality, with hard situations in life. I think people will really like it. I hope they do.”

Shorts are the bread and butter of the KFF, and festival-goers will have several blocks of them to view.

“An overwhelming number of Tennessee-made shorts were submitted,” McDaniel says, but he had to turn down many worthy ones. “I didn’t have time to show them all.”

Last year he showed 12 narrative shorts made by Tennessee filmmakers, and this year he’s showing 24, not including student films, films made during the 7-Day Shootout (a timed competition) and Tennessee 10 films, made by invited filmmakers.

Festival workshops have been moved this year from Saturday to Sunday, and they will take place at the Comfort Inn West.

“That allows us to start film screenings earlier on Saturday,” McDaniel says.

He has kept ticket and pass prices the same.

“I want to make sure that it’s accessible to anyone who would want to go, that it’s affordable,” he says.

Betsy Pickle is a veteran entertainment, features and news reporter best known as the longtime film critic for the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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