Southern-set Desperation Road and The Fighter get a chance at the big screen.
Lots of books make it all the way to Hollywood, with screen adaptations and big names attached to their stories. But not all of them have the author at the helm and actors and actresses who’ve actually read the book. This may be why Mississippi writer Michael Farris’ Smith‘s two recent screen adaptations will please both readers and viewers.
“Desperation Road” released in select theaters and On Demand October 6, and “Rumble Through the Dark” (based on Smith’s 2018 novel The Fighter) released November 3 in theaters and November 10 On Demand. Smith served as screenwriter for both projects and spent time on set to ensure his words were depicted with the same sense of humanity and respect for the South that his novels have become known for.
“When I was first asked to do it [write the scripts], I said yes without having any idea how to do it at all, but I wanted to try it,” says Smith. “I felt like me writing the script was my best chance at keeping my hands on the project and being involved in the project.”
He enjoyed the collaborative process of screenwriting as compared to the solitary one of writing a novel—and embraced the challenge head-on. “You’re taking a 300-page novel and you’re putting it into a 100-page script and there are so many choices to be made,” Smith explains. “You want it to have the guts and the heart and the emotion of the original story., but you’re going to have to lose a lot of those little moments that make a novel compelling.”
Based on his 2017 novel, “Desperation Road” is a thriller set in a rough-and-tumble Mississippi town where a mother and her young daughter are caught in the crossfire when whiskey, guns and revenge violently intersect. Produced by Cassian Elwes (“The Butler” and “Mudbound”) and directed by Nadine Crocker, it stars Garrett Hedlund as recently released convict Russell, Willa Fitzgerald as single mom Maben and Mel Gibson as Mitchell, Russell’s supportive father.
Although set in Mississippi, “Desperation Road” was actually shot in Louisville, Kentucky, which translates to the screen seamlessly. “We ended up shooting it in the fall, and I just love the colors in the background, the changing colors of the leaves on the trees and the skies,” says Smith.
“Rumble Through the Dark” was also produced by Elwes and directed by the brothers Graham and Parker Phillips. It stars Aaron Eckhart as fighter Jack Boucher, Bella Thorne as carnival worker Annette and Academy Award nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Jack’s bookie Big Momma Sweet. Filmed in Natchez, Mississippi, this film depicts the dark landscape of the Mississippi Delta, as a bare-knuckle cage fighter seeks to repay his debts in a final, desperate attempt to salvage the family home of his dying foster mother.
Smith can honestly say that both films are faithful adaptations of his novels. He was on set during the whole process for each and spent a lot of time talking to the actors. “The actors in both films, I think the first thing all of them did after reading the script was turn right around and read the novel,” he says. “I think the novel was great source material for them.”
He also couldn’t be happier with the casting of both films. “When Willa walked into the room, I was like that’s Maben. That’s who I’ve seen in my mind for seven years now,” he says. And then there’s getting a call from Mel Gibson. He was nervous that the award-winning actor would want to change some things about his character, but “I got on the phone with him, and he just wanted to talk about how much he loved the script and how much he liked that role.”
Smith’s brush with Hollywood continued with meeting Aaron Eckhart, who went all in on the role of Jack Boucher. “He came and he lived in the Delta in a cabin for about a month before we started shooting,” Smith says. “He wanted to watch and listen to people and kind of grow into Jack Boucher’s life. He came down to Natchez several weeks ahead of time also. He was totally invested.”
The two had dinner one night in Natchez and over the course of the evening, Smith saw the actor transform into the character he’d written. “I watched him beginning to talk like jack Boucher. He showed me what he was thinking for how Jack would stand, how he would hold his head. It was fascinating to watch.”
Now that both films are out in the world in some capacity, the reviews are starting to roll in, but that’s not what Smith cares about. It’s personal stories like the email he got recently that let him know the challenge was all worth it.
“I got a message last night, and it was from this woman,” he says. “She said she and her husband had just finished watching the movie [“Desperation Road”] and how moved they were by it. Her husband was raised by a single dad and the impact of the single parent and the child had touched him so greatly, as soon as the movie was over, he picked up the phone and called his dad and they talked for an hour. Things like that are way more important to me than some review.”
Of course, there’s also the fact that Mel Gibson now has his phone number, and two more of his books have been optioned for film. Stay tuned for more news about Blackwood (in pre-production from the Philips brothers) and Rivers (under development for TV) coming to the screen.
Feature photo of Michael Farris Smith by Philippe Matsas.