Oklahoma Today Magazine writer Ryan Lacroix recently had a few words about The Verdigris for their Jan/Feb 2012 Film Issue. The full text is below:
While Wittenberg is telling the story of a legendary music venue, Beau Jennings is making a documentary on a larger than life persona, Oklahoma’s favorite son Will Rogers.
The Verdigris: In Search of Will Rogers traces Rogers’ life through his beginnings in Oklahoma, his vaudeville career in New York, his movie career in Hollywood and his fateful trip to Alaska.
“It’s about exploring his influence on me,” Jennings says. “Especially someone from so long ago that in a lot of ways I have nothing to do with. Why does he strike such a chord with me? What does that say about who inspires us today?”
Rogers was certainly influential during his time – Okemah’s Woody Guthrie once said the men he admired most were Jesus and Will Rogers, even going as far as naming his first born son Will Rogers Guthrie.
“Will was so engrained in the fabric of early Americana,” Jennings says. “He’s almost too engrained that you don’t notice it, but if you look, his quotes are everywhere. A lot of time you don’t even know it’s his quote.”
That influence inspired Jennings to begin a concept album based on Rogers’ experiences. Wanting to make field recordings of original songs at the places of their inspiration, the album eventually turned into a full-blown documentary.
“I thought maybe we’ll let the environment, the ambiance of whatever strange environment pertains to that song – that could make the record,” Jennings says. “Essentially it was, if I’m going to travel, let’s film it.”
One song was recorded and filmed on a boat on Oologah Lake, which now fills in Rogers’ birthplace of Dog Iron Ranch. When the basin was dammed and flooded in 1974, the water rushed in from the Verdigris River, the physical link that connects Rogers’ hometown of Oologah to Jennings hometown of Inola.
Jennings relocated to Austin, Texas last year, where the film’s Director of Photography Bradley Beesley, a Moore native, also resides. The film experience of Beesley, as director of such Oklahoma documentaries as Okie Noodling, Fearless Freaks and Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, is crucial to the film.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if Bradley hadn’t offered to help,” Jennings says. “The quality of his filmmaking helps make it what it is.”
Filming and fundraising on both documentaries continues, with Wittenberg planning a fundraising push in March to coincide with the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The monies donated will be used in large party of pay music licensing fees.
“Due to the historical nature of the project, I want to use real music and film footage,” Wittenberg says. “We’re acquiring some pretty darn cool recordings, but it’s somewhat of a variable with music rights and licensing.”
Jennings says the support from Oklahomans and non-Oklahomans alike has been integral to his project.
“I’ve definitely felt a lot of warmth and support for it,” Jennings says. “I feel like folks around here have been very supportive, with financial support and just general enthusiasm.”
The homegrown support acts as a reminder of why they’re doing what they’re doing, hoping that viewers see unique stories of the state’s past and former residents catch a glimpse of their Oklahoma home.