Southern Gothic

For Miami filmmaker Tag Purvis, completing his first full-length movie wasn't just a matter of going home. He also had to stay alive.

Purvis had no previous experience working on a feature film. After leaving the University of Miami in 1992 (he was a few math credits short of graduating), he preferred to concentrate on his own work rather than train as an assistant on established filmmakers' productions. In addition to America the Beautiful, Purvis made two other short films, both shot in Meridian. Peas 'n Corn has the quality of a cheap science-fiction movie and takes place in a beauty shop. Sweet 'n Sour follows a housewife as she hangs clothes on a back yard wash line.

Paul Lazarus, a film producer and the director of UM's film program, is not surprised that Purvis immediately struck out on his own. "Tag's [student work] was singular," he says. "It was not the work of someone who thought, 'Isn't this great, I can clone what I see at the box office.' Tag had a voice at a comparatively early age. He just knew what he wanted to do."

The professor recalls a senior-class trip he led to Los Angeles. The group toured film studios, and Lazarus introduced the students to successful players in the Hollywood film industry. "Tag was one of the individuals who formed a pronounced opinion that that lifestyle and that kind of filmmaking were not for him," Lazarus recalls. "He came back to Miami and launched an independent career here, which God knows is not an easy thing to do."

Lazarus deplores the lack of grants and tax incentives available to independent filmmakers in South Florida, unlike other states, which encourage the growth of independent local productions with financial aid. "Tag Purvis is a kind of hero to me because he quickly understood what kind of film he wanted to make and chose to do it in South Florida," he notes, "with no help from governmental authorities to help get him under way."

The one person Purvis has counted on for help is his father, a prominent Meridian businessman who owns a chain of loan offices throughout Mississippi and Louisiana.

"I believe in Tag," says Guy Purvis, a robust 75-year-old with a warm manner and quick sense of humor he's passed on to his son. "It's just Tag and me in this." The elder Purvis originally committed to putting $100,000 into the film, but the budget quickly rose to $500,000, with the first-time director realizing he had only a vague idea of what it would take to make a movie.

"Suddenly there I was in all kinds of 'first' situations," Tag Purvis says. "And because it was my first film, it shouldn't be everyone else's first film. More than that, I needed people who knew how to make an independent film and would be aware of the kind of constraints we'd be under."

Through an ad he placed in the Hollywood Reporter, Purvis found Ted Cohen, a Los-Angeles-based cinematographer who earns a living making commercials, allowing him to take less lucrative jobs on independent films in his spare time. (His credits include Yellow and 35 Miles from Normal.) Cohen has bestowed Red Dirt with a dramatically lush, Neoromantic look. Much of the film was shot in golden afternoon light, and the rich visuals give it the appearance of a big-budget production.

The romantic look of the film originated with production designer Pablo Mirabal, a Miami advertising art director who is Purvis's live-in boyfriend. The Mississippi surroundings reminded Mirabal of nineteenth-century European landscape painting, and he wanted the film to have a similarly sublime quality. The interior scenes were shot at Merehope, a restored antebellum mansion in Meridian. For outdoor scenes on the farm of Purvis's brother David, Mirabal embellished the landscape by floating water lilies on a small fish pond and covering the driveway with red soil.

Mirabal recruited a professional make-up artist and costume designer, who like others on the crew, agreed to work for less than their usual fee. Cyril Bijaoui, a 22-year-old New York University business school graduate, called Purvis for a job after finding Red Dirt among Miami-Dade County's listings of movies in production. Bijaoui started as an intern and is now the film's producer. "I think that everyone's careers can really skyrocket from this film," he says hopefully.

Tsiotsias met Purvis one night several years ago outside Mac's Club Deuce in Miami Beach. He has worked as an assistant editor on made-in-Miami films such as Holy Man and Fair Game. Normally he earns union wages, but he lately has been working on Red Dirt for free as editing has continued several months over what Purvis naively anticipated, and money budgeted for the editor has run out.

Tsiotsias has been editing in the South Beach studio ten hours per day, six days per week. The editing table is his own; it would have cost Purvis up to $12,000 per week to rent a digital Avid system, which would have allowed him to edit faster than on Tsiotsias's manual flatbed table.

"You really have to put your ego aside," stresses Tsiotsias, who says the cooperative nature of Purvis's project is what drew him to it in the first place. "The only thing that matters is what's onscreen. Right now we're all wannabes until we sell the movie."

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