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's biggest coup was snagging Karen Black to play the part of Summer, a mentally unstable, faded beauty who is a prisoner of her own memories. After having seen the actress in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Nashville, and other films, Purvis thought she'd be perfect for the role. Because he was an unknown, the first-time director wasn't optimistic she would do it, but he decided to think big. He sent Black the script through her agent. To his surprise she responded immediately and said she was interested in the part.

"I thought he was so smart to think of me for the role," Black says from her Los Angeles home. "I'm a lightheaded spirit. I'm good at playing people who are fey or out of their mind, characters who carry around their own imagination.

"I really feel that Tag's writing capabilities are extraordinary," she adds. "His characterization has a real feeling and depth, and his themes are about friendship -- that's a very profound thing. He's an amazing guy."

Black, who is 56 years old, has taken roles in several other independent films this year, a solution to the dearth of good parts for women of a certain age in Hollywood productions. During the filming of Red Dirt, the actress stayed in a lakeside house owned by Guy Purvis, and frequently traipsed about town with the family. "There was a lot of silly camaraderie," she says. "There's so much love on a set like that."

After some negotiation Black agreed to play the part for less than her usual fee (like the other leads, she will also get a percentage of any profits). Although Black was the first actor to be cast, it proved much harder for Purvis to fill the other roles. He did learn, however, that there was no shortage of actors looking for work. After placing ads in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, he received an avalanche of videos, resumes, and head shots. Overwhelmed, he realized he needed a casting agent to help him sort through them, and found one through industry contacts in New York.

After several months of auditions and deliberations, he selected Dan Montgomery, best known for his appearance in a Levi's TV commercial, for the role of Griffith. Walton Goggins, who was featured in Robert Duvall's The Apostle, plays Lee Todd, the newcomer who changes Griffith's life. The other principal role is the teenage Emily, who comes from an abusive home and has sex with her cousin Griffith. The part is played by Aleksa Palladino, who was recently seen in The Adventures of Sebastian Cole at the Miami Film Festival.

Purvis says the members of his fictional dysfunctional family are composites of people he knew growing up in Meridian, including a "circus" of aunts, uncles, and cousins. "My immediate family is a very normal, loving environment," the director says, "but everything around it was another story. My uncles were drunks. When they'd come to visit and my father wasn't home, we'd all hide from them in the house because mother was susceptible."

Karen Black's character was loosely based on memories of Purvis's mother Toni. For the filmmaker, Summer's agoraphobia recalls his mother's own confinement indoors during much of a five-year struggle with cancer. She died at age 56, just after Purvis's 26th birthday. "I'm not saying the film's autobiographical," Purvis insists. "But I went somewhere I had to go with it. It was getting out what was inside of me."

Guy Purvis remembers his son's directorial debut as The Flip Flop from Outer Space, a sci-fi adventure starring a rubber beach sandal. It was one of countless Super8 movies Tag made when he was a kid.

"He always had a camera of some sort growing up," his father remembers. "He used to round up the neighborhood kids and show his movies at home."

The filmmaker cites his dad's own interests as the reason he got into film at an early age. "My father was always really into technology," he says. "My parents were the first ones around to have a color television, even though they lived in a trailer."

Guy and Toni Purvis came from Lakeland, Florida, both from large working-class families. "I was so poor I was born naked," Guy Purvis jokes. He recalls that his father used to find toys in the trash and bring them home for his ten children, inspiring Guy's boyhood dream of becoming a garbage collector. Instead, after serving in the elite Scouts and Raiders (predecessor to the Navy SEALs) during World War II, he married the seventeen-year-old Toni and went to work for his brother, who had a loan company in Georgia. They eventually settled in Meridian.

Tag was a late baby, born ten years after his brother David, who maintains various businesses in Meridian, including a restaurant. Warren, the eldest, is now 47. Christened Gregory, the youngest Purvis son soon became known to his brothers by the nickname Tag Along, thus Tag.

Toni Purvis lovingly spoiled her youngest son. When he was in elementary school, she brought him baskets of fried shrimp on Fridays, and threw after-school parties for Tag and herself. The family moved into the house where Guy still lives when Tag was five years old. It remains as Toni left it, decorated with classic country antiques, pictures of her sons, and her collection of Southern black-and-white rag dolls. She planted azalea bushes and created a Japanese rock garden in the back yard.

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