Rehabilitating The South In Cinema With Jason Shirley

Writer/director Jason Shirley makes his feature-length directorial debut at the Sarasota Film Festival with the world premiere of the family dramedy Elbow Grease, about a southern couple dealing with their own marital issues as one of their brothers moves in and only makes things worse. Featuring Burt Reynolds as the family patriarch and named after a common Shirley household refrain, Elbow Grease stands as Shirley’s love letter to the South and its quizzical but charming pace.

“We wanted to break away from the ridiculous commercial structure of cinema to do movies about small moments,” says Elbow Grease producer Paul Papadeas, who has been involved on and off with the project since Shirley wrote the script in 1997, when the two attended film school together in North Carolina. For Shirley, still a South Carolina boy at 43, it was a more personal opportunity to illuminate a culture typically relegated to the butt of the joke. “Because you don’t see that in movies,” says Shirley. “A lot of people make fun of the South, but being from the South these are my people and I don’t see them represented in film.”

Set in South Carolina in the 1990s, audiences will still be treated to a few Southern particulars and rustic scenes, with sequences ranging from wrestling on the train tracks to painting watertowers and meandering bike rides. Like life, it’s a blend of quietude and a sudden chokeslam from the ties to the gravel.

With a cast of largely southerners, Shirley could be assured of a shared belief in his vision. “They didn’t have to fake the ‘southern-ness,’” he says, but adding Reynolds – “the Marlon Brando of the South,” Papadeas says – was an unexpected boon. Unsure who to cast, Papadeas was watching a Smokey and the Bandit marathon on AMC when it hit him, and they sent a script to Reynolds. “The script reminds me of my parents,” Reynolds reportedly said. “That’s why I want to do it.” But Reynolds has already had some iconic roles in the south, some considerably less flattering of the region than others, jokes Shirley. “I think he actually did this one to make up for some of that.”

A project near a decade in the making, Elbow Grease world premieres tomorrow, April 4, at the Sarasota Film Festival at 9:30pm, with a second showing the following day at 2:15pm. “It’s been my dream for a long time,” says Shirley. “It’s pretty awesome and I’m taking it in.”

Pictured: Paul Papadeas and Jason Shirley. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

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