Lady Sings the Blues

A Missouri director heads home

After making the rounds at South by Southwest, the Heartland Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival, Killer Diller — a blues-infused drama in which a guitar-toting car thief named Wesley (William Lee Scott) and autistic piano prodigy Vernon (Lucas Black) transform a band of halfway-house denizens into a white-hot blues outfit — opens in theaters across the Midwest this weekend.

Director and screenwriter Tricia Brock shot the film in four Missouri towns (Fayette, Columbia, Glasgow and Boonville) over five weeks in 2003. "It was a magical experience," the former Saturday Night Live producer and Twin Peaksscribe says of her feature-film directorial debut. "I was just held up by so much goodwill and enthusiasm on the shoot. Luckily, I had the experience of doing it when I was older, so I appreciated it. Every single day I felt lucky to be there."

Julie Seabaugh:How does it feel returning from LA to Missouri as a hometown hero?

Tricia Brock:Oh, it's been great! I grew up in southern Missouri, moved to Columbia for high school and then went to the University of Missouri. But I was the only person that lived in Fayette during the shoot; everybody else was based in Columbia. They were all going out and being crazy, but it was just too much for me. I couldn't deal with all the distractions, because I was shooting all day and writing all night and on the weekends. I needed to be in a very quiet, very small, very limited-scope-type place in order to do what I had to do.

Have you always wanted to film locally and then you found this story, or did you findKiller Diller first and feel it would be a perfect fit for Missouri?

It was just material that I loved, and I thought I could write it. I was going to shoot in North Carolina, because I wanted to do justice to the book and wanted the author [Clyde Edgerton] to trust me and think I was treating his material with due respect. Then my mother read the book, and she said, "Well, I don't know why you don't just shoot it right here in Fayette." I was sitting in LA and I thought, "You are on crack!" But I called the Missouri Film Commission, they sent me pictures, and there it was. There was the town. And everybody who subsequently saw it — even Clyde — said, "It's perfect." It's one of the great thrills of my life that he's so happy with the film. He spent a week with us in Fayette, and he actually played one of the board members onstage at the end. He loved it. He gave me a big hug and said, "Now I can die a happy man."

You co-wrote your first script with Mary Kay Place in the late '80s; she and Fred Willard appear in the film in serious roles instead of the comedic ones that moviegoers have come to expect from them.

Fred is funny in Killer Diller, but he's not doing a spoof. He's not doing satire like he does in Best in Show. To me his comedy in Killer Diller comes from him being earnest, so efficient. Like the way he wants them to sing their hymns, or when he comes out in the sweatpants. Fred wanted to know how I saw this character, and the only thing I said to him was, "Fred, this is a real person, and that's all there is to say about him." He was terrific.

The movie seems to agree with the truism that music soothes the savage beast.

The movie sees music as transforming. It really lifts these kids out of their quagmire and gives them a shot. It gives them their chance in the world.

Are you personally a fan of the blues?

I'm a huge blues fan, and I don't exactly know why. My parents listened to Mitch Miller, and I just connected with it. The music in the film makes a transformation, just like the characters. It starts out very stiff, and the characters are very stiff and uncomfortable. But it blooms from that into gospel, and they really start to rock. It mirrors the way the blues was born. It came out of gospel, from something very stiff, into something more rocking. It moves. It lets loose. And it's the same with the characters. They're soaring once they play the blues.

How did Keb' Mo' , who provided original music, and Taj Mahal come on board?

I must have been living right! [Laughs] I called Kevin [Moore, a.k.a. Keb' Mo']'s manager and basically begged. I said, "I'm doing this movie about the blues, and if someone like him doesn't help me, I'm probably going to screw it up." Then we met, and we became very good friends. Once when I was having lunch with him, I said, "OK, if I did get to make the movie...." And he says, "Tricia, when. When you make the movie." And for Taj Mahal to come out — to get Taj Mahal to fly from San Francisco out to Fayette, to Columbia? He was fabulous! The day that Taj came, when we pulled him in this little auditorium, the mood was incredible. It was the greatest day of filmmaking ever.

 
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