Meet Morgan Jon Fox an exciting young filmmaking who has directed four feature films with a distinctive style that captures the southern queer voice. Much of his work has been informed by coming out as gay in the south. He has been named one of the originators of the "Memphis Style" of filmmaking known for authentic performances, improvised scripts and tight editing. Even Filmmaker Magazine has named him one of the "25 New Faces of Independent Film."
"Feral" an original series to debut on Dekkoo October 6th is Fox's next project to be released. It's a drama that embraces gay life and love in the Bible Belt, Memphis Tennessee. The storyline revolves around roommates/best friends, Billy and Daniel and begins when they discover their third roommate has an addiction to heroin.
Fox tells us what committed him to writing a story about queer youth in the south. He guides us through this his style of character development, how he avoids gay cliches and what makes Memphis such a magical place. We can't wait for the premiere of "Feral" and find it refreshing to see more than one vision of queer culture on scene.
How did you come up with the “Feral” story? Is this a story you already had in mind and wanted to tell, perhaps for a new film? Is it autobiographical?
The loose concept of a group of 20-somethings living, loving, and figuring out how to pay the rent in Memphis was a world I lived in and had wanted to explore in an episodic way for awhile. I’m a big fan of shows like Looking and Girls and for me this was essentially the Memphis version of those worlds. The show isn’t autobiographical in the sense of any one of the characters representing me or other real people, however there’s certainly a celebration and reflection of Memphis that I’ve committed to with the show. That’s always been important to me and what I’ve been drawn to as a creator: putting a microscope over the small things that I find truly special about a city like Memphis, my home.
In a 2015 article, the Wall Street Journal said “that the top markets offering the right live/work/play environment for millennial were Nashville, Brooklyn, Portland, and Memphis.” What is it that you love about Memphis that you hope to get across in “Feral”?
It’s sometimes hard to explain what is so special about Memphis to people who don’t live here. The city has it’s problems no doubt, but there’s something here I’ve never found anywhere else. It’s got soul. I don’t use that word lightly. Community and family are very important here. Magic seeps from the cracks in the concrete. We don’t have a huge queer scene here; there is no abundance of well-funded resources for the disenfranchised. It’s created a sense that we are each other’s resources; we are each other’s community support group, and foundation. We don’t have a queer arts community in Memphis; we just have an arts community. We don’t have a queer film scene; we just have a film scene.
My expressly queer films have been nurtured and embraced here in the place in the middle of the Bible Belt since the early 2000’s. Now, in the last few years there’s been something like 5 billion dollars in development in the city, which is great, it’s growing up and becoming cool for millennials, but I didn’t need any of that to proudly call this place my home.
In “Feral”, one might assume that the karaoke scene in the Cove Bar in Episode 1 is a “gay bar”, but it’s not. And we didn’t bring a bunch of gay folks in there to film our scene, that’s just a night at the Cove, a cool hipster bar in Midtown where a decent cross-section of Memphis comes together and has a damn good time. That’s Memphis to me.
The characters interact so naturally, “Feral” almost feels like a documentary? How did you achieve this?
I have a distinct way that I create my films and this project was no exception. My “scripts” are generally about 60% detailed description and 40% actual scripted dialogue. I always cast based upon someone’s ability to relate to the character on a primal level to some degree and then spend a couple of weeks in pre-production just digging into character with the actors. I use an improv-based acting technique called Meisner to get the actors connecting with one another. Meisner is a really intense repetition and observation exercise that forces actors to feed off of each other’s impulses and go deeper.
You see actual examples of Meisner in the opening scene of the Show where the characters Carl and Billy are sitting face to face making observations and repeating back to one another. There’s another example in episode 2 where Billy, rehearsing for a film of his own, is having his actors Emily, and Jason do a Meisner exercise.
I’ve always thought that if you cast appropriately, and prepare the actors so that they understand the breadth of their characters, it’s often better to allow them to make discoveries and be in the moment. Sure there’s plenty of scenes where it’s absolutely necessary to be spot on and I’ll give them dialogue, but even then I often allow room for a lot of freedom to explore the words I’ve given them and make them their own. I just don’t ever want to have bad performances in my work. That means more than anything to me because of the type of content that I want to produce is really only effective if you buy into its authenticity.
You avoided the cliché characters reliably present in nearly every gay drama. “Feral” centers on a small community of millennial artists, you could have easily gone hipster. And despite their issues, everyone is nice. No one’s a bitch. What this on purpose or just a refreshing does of real life vs. TV drama?
This is mostly just because this is how I live my life: These are what my friends are like; this is what the scene I grew up in is like. As much as I often love watching shows with cliché characters, I ultimately just don’t have an interest in telling those stories. I will say that one thing I’m a little disappointed about is a greater lack of diversity in the show, which is mainly on account of everything coming together so quickly and not having more time to cast. I plan to spend more thoughtful time casting any new roles in future seasons to include more people of color, more women, and transgender characters. This is very important to me and I accept full responsibility for my own shortcomings having not presented more diversity in this first season.
How have your life experiences, particularly as a queer man, influenced or been reflected in your work in general and in “Feral” specifically? I wrote my first script, “Blue Citrus Hearts” as an 18-year old closeted gay man attended UT (University of Tennessee) Knoxville. I had no other way to come out at the time and so I decided I wanted to make a move about coming out. Kind of insane when I think back on it, but that script essentially saved my life. It gave me purpose and drive; it was my best friend, therapy and eventually a vehicle to having the strength to live as an out gay human being.
With each project I’ve made since I’ve slowly moved away from the strictly personal or autobiographical but that’s somewhat impossible. I’m an observer, I love taking in life and being witness to amazing people and the things that people create. I soak it all in and it’s reflected in my work for sure. In “Feral”, I think it’s the biggest step away from being autobiographical, but my experience as a queer person living in the south, living in this wonderful community in Memphis is 100% apart of it no question.
Though the budget was only $50,000, it would have allowed you to use actors and crew from outside of Memphis–professionals from New York or Los Angeles–but you purposefully chose to go with a local cast and crew. Why was this important to you?
Having come from a DIY school of filmmaking and working with low budgets, I’ve always figured that the best plan of action is to focus on what you can control. I obviously cannot have incredible sets, special effects, large crews, or work with name actors. So if I go head-to-head with Hollywood productions I’m going to lose there’s no question.
However, what I can do that they cannot is make truly authentic, regional stories in a raw way that people who aren’t from the coastal cities can relate to on a different level. So I always start with making 100% certain that I can work with actors that I’m comfortable with, who get it, and who have the excitement and time to commit to really aligning themselves with that goal. Why cast an actor from LA when I can have the real deal right here in my city, someone who gets it and is gong to give it there all and really be apart of the experience. I truly couldn’t be happier with the cast of “Feral”. These aren’t the Memphis-versions of the cast members, these are the absolute best people for these parts and it never crossed my mind to go any other direction.
If, for example in season two there’s a character who, as a plot device is an out-of-towner who has just moved to Memphis or someone traveling through, then I’ll cast that person from NYC or LA because in that situation it would totally make sense.
The same goes with crew. We have an amazing tight-knit crew base here in Memphis. And again, these aren’t people I settled on as the Memphis versions of the best Director of Photography, or Gaffer I could find, these are simply the people I wanted to work with. I got really lucky in that everyone that was on my dream list for cast and crew, I was able to get for the production. I could’ve had a 2 million dollar budget and I still would’ve immediately gone to Memphis DP Ryan Parker, and Gaffer Jordan Danelz. It blows my mind when big productions or TV shows shoot in Memphis and they aren’t using these folks as their lead crew. They are the best in the business at what they do.
You feature art by Homo Riot on the walls in the house. What’s your relationship with Homo Riot?
I first became aware of the LA Street Artist Homo Riot on a trip to LA with my friend Craig Brewer, and I was instantly in love. He was initially a Banksy-type figure to me, an elusive street artist whose raw and in your face wheat pasted images were all over Los Angeles. His images of two male wrestlers kissing, or a large, hairy well-endowed naked man pissing on “Prop 8” were so awesome and exciting to me that I dreamed of meeting him and collaborating in some degree, somehow. When a meeting was finally arranged we were initially discussing a possible film collaboration. As projects go, this has been on the back burner for quite some time. When “Feral” was in prep I was in LA for a few days and went to his studio and purchased a good deal of his artwork to use in set design. During production he actually came to Memphis and made a cameo appearance in the show, but you’ll have to figure out who he is : )
Will there be a second season of “Feral”?
I’ve already got it outlined. I’m ready, the people will decide.
Is that your house in the film?
The house that Billy and Daniel live in was the house that me and my fiancé Declan Deely lived in at the time. That’s another thing about micro-budget productions, you really have no other option than to use what’s right in front of you. Pretty much all of the locations are places that are owned by people I’m friends with, places I regularly hang out at, etc. Memphis is an extremely film-friendly city and luckily people were very supportive of us.
Did you marry your true love Declan yet?
I proposed to my Declan nearly 5 years ago now, it appears that we are forever-engaged. At first we resisted a wedding because it wasn’t legal here in Tennessee, and currently we aren’t really in a huge