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.

The drive from Miami to Meridian, Mississippi, takes fourteen hours, but Tag Purvis doesn't mind. He likes to make the trip to his hometown behind the wheel of the baby-blue Lincoln he has on long-term loan from his father. When he passes the Alabama border into Mississippi, a place he describes as "so quiet it hurts your ears," he pops a Jimmie Rodgers cassette into the car stereo. The familiar yodel of the Meridian-born country bluesman makes a perfect soundtrack for a drive through the pastoral Southern landscape, where clapboard churches mark the miles, spectral kudzu vines drape wooded hills, and the earth showing between roadside train tracks is colored a rusty red.

Last summer Purvis directed his first feature film in Meridian. The making of the movie marked the culmination of an odyssey for the fledgling independent filmmaker, both because he actually got that far on a $500,000 budget and because it brought him home again. (He has lived in South Florida for a decade.) A cast and crew of 40, including sloe-eyed actress Karen Black and ten University of Miami motion-picture department interns, spent more than eight weeks on location. Most of them camped out at the home of Purvis's father, Guy Purvis. Outdoor scenes were shot on his brother David's farm. The catering was Southern home cooking supplied by two elderly women named Annie and Rose, who toted huge loads of fried chicken and butter beans to the set.

The movie was the first to be made in the industrial-era railroad town of 46,000 -- briefly the capital of Mississippi during the Civil War -- and it was big enough news to receive continuous coverage in the daily Meridian Star.

"This is a sleepy place. We're not used to so much excitement around here," confirms Johnny Booker, the obliging owner of a ramshackle antiques shop in neighboring Whynot. The sprawling store is stuffed with wood furniture, mismatched china, and Elvis albums, and is so dark that regular customers come prepared to shop with flashlights. Some scenes in the movie were filmed in a rundown cottage on Booker's property. "It was a hot summer," Booker drawls. "Having them here sure helped get me through it."

On a chilly Sunday afternoon in February, Tag Purvis is greeted familiarly by the half-dozen people drinking beer and playing pool at the Echo Lounge, a downtown Meridian bar. "How y'all doin'?" the bar's husband-and-wife owners ask Purvis.

Then they recognize the filmmaker and effusively beckon him to a seat at the bar. A soft-spoken 36-year-old with short brown hair, chiseled cheekbones, and a muscular physique, clad in baggy jeans and an old sweater, he exchanges pleasantries over a Budweiser and answers their insistent questions about the status of the film, which is in postproduction in Miami Beach and nearing completion. A stocky young man with a mullet haircut enters the bar. "Oh sure, I read about that movie," he says authoritatively, "Mississippi Mud."

Actually the name of the movie is Red Dirt. It is an intimate film, a character-driven family drama sure to draw comparisons to Tennessee Williams's Southern domestic tragedies. Purvis wrote the script, and he describes it as the story of "a young man's connection to a place and to his family, and his search to belong."

The film's Miami-based editor, Nikko Tsiotsias, who like Purvis studied at UM's film department, has come to think of Red Dirt as a cross between Kiss of the Spider Woman and The English Patient. "It's a classic love story," Tsiotsias explains. "Except it's two guys who kiss at the end."

Purvis is best known in Miami as the creator of a short film featuring two men kissing. Shot in sixteen-millimeter, America the Beautiful shows the couple locked in an embrace under soft light, accompanied by a recording of "God Bless America."

Purvis completed America the Beautiful over a few weeks in late 1994, and decided to project the film in the window of the storefront studio he rented at the time on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, across from the Van Dyke Cafe. The three-minute movie ran as a loop, showing the couple kissing over and over. Responding to complaints from some customers and citing the presence of young children, the restaurant's management demanded that he stop projecting the image. Purvis refused. To protest the affront to his freedom of expression, some of Purvis's friends organized a Friday-night "kiss-in" in front of the restaurant. The protest made the evening news and spawned a sidewalk debate about censorship among passersby on Lincoln Road. A wall of shrubbery appeared in front of the Van Dyke soon after, blocking the view to the filmmaker's studio.

A year and a half later, after Purvis won a prestigious South Florida Cultural Consortium grant, the film was included in an exhibition at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale. To the filmmaker's dismay museum officials hung black curtains around the portion of the wall where the film was projected and posted a sign outside warning of its "homoerotic imagery." In response Purvis distributed a pamphlet to museumgoers that included an essay on homophobia written by his older brother, Warren, a psychiatrist who lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

America the Beautiful gained a different kind of notoriety outside Miami. Purvis was invited to show it at more than 40 international film festivals. It was purchased by CANAL+, the cultural cable channel, and broadcast in Europe and Australia.

Today Purvis remains as surprised by the positive attention America the Beautiful received at the festivals as by the controversy it caused in Miami. "I was simply trying to put out some of the same images seen in heterosexual advertising, but with a gay couple," he says. "It was a comment on the media's representation of what's acceptable in society."

Subsequently Purvis explored young gay men and women's images of themselves in a film installation he showed locally at the Ambrosino Gallery in 1995. That piece featured excerpts from Purvis's interviews with students at Harvey Milk High School, a public school for gay teenagers in New York City, where he spent a week filming. "That was such a positive experience," he says admiringly. "They really are from another generation than mine."

Purvis's room in his family home in Meridian remains as it was when he was in high school. The walls are covered with bamboo mats; cheerful Chinese paper lanterns bob over the single bed; a fur throw covers a rattan chaise in one corner; a large box overflowing with rubber monster masks sits under a desk.

"I was always a bit different," Purvis acknowledges with a laugh. "I always felt I was on the outside, which wasn't to say I felt a lot of discrimination growing up. I was just queer, was what I was."

Rooting around in his old desk, Purvis discovers a junior high school diary and reads an entry about his first kiss, a dry account of playing spin-the-bottle with nine girls. Much more passionate is his description elsewhere of his best male friend, whom he worshipfully deems "a Seventies Fonz."

"I was silly, and gay, obviously," Purvis says, shaking his head and snapping the diary shut. "Somebody really should have told me."

Purvis was voted "most spirited" in high school. He excelled in creative writing and got involved in theater. When he graduated he went to Europe with Up With People, the inspirational performing troupe that promotes international harmony. While on tour he befriended another boy in the group who was also from the South. The two teens shared a room, and gradually their intense friendship grew into a romantic relationship. "I was immediately very comfortable with it," Purvis recalls. "I think my subconscious fear had been that I wouldn't be able to live with myself if that ever happened."

Purvis allows that Red Dirt contains at least a shadow of autobiography. The film centers around Griffith Burns, a young man who lives with his agoraphobic aunt Summer (Karen Black) in the fictional rural town of Pine Apple, Mississippi. Griffith, played by 29-year-old-actor Dan Montgomery, feels suffocated by the constraints of caring for his eccentric aunt and by the small town's isolation. Then a stranger arrives in Pine Apple, bringing light into Griffith's life and leading him to revelations about himself.

"The film explores the ambiguity people have in relationships," Purvis notes. "It's about defining and understanding what love is. The two guys in the film mirror relationships I had when I was growing up. I was very, very close with a few guys. There wasn't sex involved, but there was that line. What's the difference? If I care for this person as much as I care for anyone else, does that make this love or does the fact that Griffith has feelings for Lee make him gay?

"Red Dirt is about a guy's search to belong, more than about his sexuality," he continues. "I don't think of this as a gay story. The only important thing is to make a great film."

An editing table dominates Purvis's studio in an Art Center/South Florida building on Pennsylvania Avenue just off Lincoln Road. Nikko Tsiotsias sits peering at a small monitor, pushing buttons, cutting and splicing the 35-millimeter film, bobbing his head to music by Beck coming from a boom box in the corner. Boxes of Marlboro Lights are stacked on the monitor, and a bottle of sugary iced tea Purvis brought from home sits waiting on a table, near a green Schwinn bicycle and an old Radio Flyer red wagon parked haphazardly on one side of the sun-filled room. Heather Rafferty, an intern assisting with the postproduction, glides through the door on Rollerblades.

Purvis has worked in this studio for three years. Here he has created several art installations incorporating film for exhibitions at the Art Center, the Ambrosino Gallery, the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, and the prestigious alternative gallery Thread Waxing Space in New York City. But the space has been gradually transformed from a lone artist's studio into a busy film-production office, the headquarters of Purvis's film company, Sweet Tea Productions. Purvis wrote his script here, for months laying out the scenes on index cards on the floor. Last year the room was full of stacks of audition tapes from actors around the country.

For the past six months Tsiotsias and Purvis have been editing the film, which was shot entirely in Meridian. Rows of white boxes containing the 127,000 feet of film fill shelves along a wall. Returning from his daily workout at a gym up the street, Purvis plops down in a chair and fidgets while Tsiotsias works on a scene they discussed earlier. The director looks at the wall of film boxes and sighs. "I knew making a film would be hard, but I don't think I realized how much energy it would take," he says. "When you're making an independent film, you have to keep everyone inspired with the vision that what they're doing is important. And that it's worth doing for nothing, basically."

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."

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.

While Tag was touring with Up With People, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Purvis eventually left the organization and came home to a job with his father. "That was not going to work," Purvis recalls. "All my friends had left. Meridian's a place where people leave and come back to raise their families. In my case I didn't know what I would do there or who I would hang out with."

He stayed in Meridian for a year, taking classes at a community college. Then he went to Orlando to work at Disney World for a while, where he happily conducted the Jungle Cruise. He was 23 years old then, and had a steady boyfriend. Though he'd had only a few other relationships, he decided one day to go to the county health department in Orlando for an HIV test. "I just had a feeling," he says. "The lady told me to have a seat, then I knew." He was told he was HIV-positive and instructed to see a doctor and take care of himself, to try to keep healthy.

Purvis, like most everyone in the early days of AIDS, knew little about the disease. "I went out that night and bought tennis shoes," he recalls, smiling at his naivete. "I thought I should start running."

He soon moved to Providence to stay with his brother Warren, who helped him financially and, as a doctor, assisted him in seeking treatment. Tag took part in several test studies for AZT and other medicines as they became available. He maintained a healthy lifestyle and did not get sick.

"I always believed that if I could live for ten years, there would be significant changes in the treatment of AIDS," Purvis recalls. Although AIDS-related deaths were rising, and the devastation caused by the disease was increasingly in the news, he was optimistic. "There wasn't a part of my life when I chose to believe that I would die," he says. "But there was a period when I feared that I would."

He continued to take it one day at a time. "I remember thinking in terms of Thanksgivings," he says. "I used to go home for Thanksgiving and I just wanted to be well, which I was. I figured if I could just live for ten Thanksgivings, I'd be fine, there would be a new drug. You just do it in little goals."

He told only his boyfriend (who tested negative) and his psychiatrist brother Warren, who is also gay. He wanted to keep the news from his mother, who had come out of remission and was growing progressively ill as the cancer spread through her body. She died in 1989. Afterward Tag didn't have the heart to tell his grieving father, either.

"I didn't want to put him through anything else," Purvis explains. "But it got to the point where it wasn't fair to him and it wasn't fair to me. Keeping information like that from certain people who are very important to you is really draining and it's ultimately not right."

He finally told his father two years ago. He was totally supportive, as he had been when Tag talked to him about being gay a few years before. (He had not told his mother he was gay, but assumes she guessed.) "Every day you come closer to dying," Guy Purvis says. "Tag lives every day to the fullest, and that's the way our family has always been. Don't act like you're going to die tomorrow, but have a good time today."

Tag Purvis remained healthy, but as confronting the disease forced him to contemplate his life, it inspired him to think seriously about a career in film. He took some classes in Boston, then chose to come to Miami for its weather and diverse culture. "Frankly I needed a little cha-cha-cha," he laughs. He had never finished college in Mississippi and so he enrolled as an undergraduate in UM's motion-picture department.

After thirteen years of living with HIV, Purvis acknowledges he's a survivor. He estimates he's lost about fifteen friends to AIDS-related diseases. In 1995 alone his three best friends died. Devastated, he tried to come to terms with his pain through his art. He paid homage to his loved ones in a poignant installation at Art Center/South Florida's Ground Level Gallery that included film loops of his lost friends projected onto empty chairs.

"Now I try not to get ahead of myself in terms of what matters," explains Purvis, who maintains a daily medical regimen of various prescriptions. "Sometimes I fail miserably. The face of this disease has changed so much that it's easy to forget the lessons you've picked up along the way. I just don't want to speed through everything and forget that it's not about yesterday or tomorrow. It's about today."

Nikko Tsiotsias and Purvis are close to finishing the rough cut of the film, which is down to an hour and 46 minutes. Purvis has been told that distributors won't even look at anything much longer than an hour and a half. Alerted by notices in the trade press, representatives of several major companies, including Miramax and Sony, have already called asking to see it. But Purvis is waiting to screen Red Dirt at festivals. He hopes to debut it at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival in September.

Purvis doesn't expect Red Dirt will be a huge commercial success, but he hopes he can at least get it into theaters. "Ideally I'd like to be able to make the money back and carve out a place where I can make the next film, and just go on from there," he says. "For the past four years I've been living on thin ice. Now I either fall through or it gets more solid."

One of Purvis's concerns is the reaction to the movie in Meridian. He plans to screen it at the Temple movie house, a Moorish-style former vaudeville theater downtown. But he realizes Red Dirt is not likely to be the movie the citizens of Meridian are expecting. "That it's a small-town portrayal of a place the characters want to get out of won't bother them," he says. "What will bother them, if anything, is the relationship between the two guys. The kissing scene worries me a little because I am going to show it in Meridian, and the community there helped me so much."

For Purvis the film is ultimately a story about tolerance, and he hopes it will be seen that way. His father elaborates: "It's about the life of a boy in Mississippi who happens to be gay," Guy Purvis says. "I think most people here are open-minded. If they don't like it, they can go to -- they can go to New York."

Whatever the outcome Tag Purvis plans to make his second movie in Meridian as well. And more. Although he has no plans to abandon Miami, Meridian will always be home. "I sort of have a longing," he muses during the long drive back to South Florida. "I always have a dream that someday I'll return. I'm not sure if it's wanting to fit and the inability to do so that causes it.

"But there's more to it than that," he adds. "It's sort of a dream place for me. And I don't know if it exists anymore. Or if it's something that ever existed." Purvis turns up the volume on a Willie Nelson tune and hits cruise control. "Maybe it's just a place I've created in my head over the years.

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