Devon Parks is a Van Buren native, past assistant to Oscar-winning director Ridley Scott, and current filmmaker at Mad Possum Pictures in Los Angeles. His passion for filmmaking first manifested in the award-winning short film “Step Into: The King Opera House” based on his hometown’s historical landmark. The film combines documentary and narrative storytelling styles to present a vivid depiction of the opera house from its opening day in 1880.
Joining with artistic partner Chuck King of Oklahoma City, Parks secured two Mid-America Emmy Awards from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for Best Overall Short-Format Program (King and Parks) and Best Director (Parks only). The film’s composer, Kevin Croxton, was nominated for a third Emmy on the project.
The film now plays free to visitors at the King Opera House and airs on Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN). Its regional success has allowed Parks the chance to do what he loves, and what he would really love to do next is part two in the series — “Step Into: Miss Laura’s” — but that’s where he’s running into problems. (See below a teaser trailer for “Step Into: Miss Laura’s”.)
“This is actually following the same method we used for the King Opera House film. It’s for the nonprofit branch of my production company,” Parks told Talk Business & Politics. “We wanted to use this to pay homage to historical areas of Van Buren and Fort Smith. (With King), the film was a success and was viewed as a contribution. It showed the history of the building with a narrative twist on it.”
Parks emphasized the nonprofit nature of the “Step Into” films and said they were a way to let “people with a tie to Arkansas and are working professionals in this industry, donate their time into making this.” However, “the key is finding the remaining money outside of paying our own fees.”
“We started (‘Miss Laura’s’) with an Indiegogo campaign that brought in about $11,000. This is where the process began. We then applied for an Arkansas Humanities Council grant that was tailor-made for our project.”
Area leaders had encouraged Parks to go for it based on the strength and reception of the first film, he said, and “it seemed like we were pretty much a shoo-in for the project. Well, we ended up not getting it.” Parks admitted he was at a loss as to why that is, and so far, there has been no official explanation from the AHC.
“The grant was voted on two weekends ago. The letters were supposed to be sent out immediately, but they weren’t.”
Parks said he had been working with AHC Senior Program Officer Jama Best, whom he described as “very helpful and accommodating” and that after placing a call to Best, she confirmed the letters were running behind, but acknowledged, “you didn’t receive the grant” and that there would be “a letter explaining why,” Parks said. He’s still waiting for the letter.
“She (Best) is whom I’ve dealt with on a lot of things, and she would get back to me and say, ‘Here are some things to take care of. I don’t want this to be the reason you get looked over.’ She communicated on those details. And we would use that as our guide.”
Talk Business & Politics reached out to Best for a response, and received one stating the notification letters “were mailed recently.”
“I don’t want to bash anyone. That’s not what I’m about. It is their money, and they can do what they wish with it, but I am just extremely curious as to why we didn’t get it, looking at past winners,” Parks said. “I don’t know if it’s that they value the PBS documentary style with pictures and voiceovers, and that we are full narrative. We cast the film through a major casting director here in Hollywood, and it is a fully narrative piece. I don’t know if that’s a deterrent, or if it’s the bordello itself.”
‘A CONTROVERSIAL HISTORY’
Parks understands Miss Laura’s has a controversial history, but what surprised him throughout the process was how many in Fort Smith still view it that way.
“We would walk into meetings through this process with people who would either laugh about it or people who would say, ‘How dare you objectify women trying to keep this idea alive,'” he said. “We’re highlighting a moment in history, and you can’t erase that. I do know there are people in Fort Smith who wouldn’t mind tearing that building down.”
Parks did not feel comfortable sharing specific names or groups and organizations that share this sentiment, but stood by the fact “there has been pushback.”
One unusual development from Parks’ perspective was the AHC grant itself. “The grant was for $25,000. We had been working on it (the film) for six months with that expectation, and then days before we submitted our application, the grant was reduced to $10,000.” He added: “It’s your money. Do what you want with it. But no notice?”
What Parks wants anyone concerned to understand about “Step Into: Miss Laura’s” is that “We’re not coming into this to objectify these women.”
“As much as some may hate it, this place existed with six other houses. It’s important to remember and recognize who we were at one time, what we accepted in the law by society at that time. In no way do we want people to watch this and think this film glorifies what prostitution was.”
The film is told from the perspective of Bertha Dean, played by Marlane Barnes, a University of Arkansas graduate known for her work in “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn” as well as TV credits on “Mad Men,” “Sons of Anarchy,” and “Ray Donovan.” Barnes plays Bertha Dean as the world-wise businesswoman she was in history, Parks notes.
“Bertha sold Miss Laura’s for $47,000 in the mid-1900s, and there was an aspect of business and wealth that came along with the house. What we’re attempting to do is to tell all sides of it through the image of four different girls who lived there, combining the facts we know, pieces from the house, and the arc of what prostitution was at that time.”
‘REPURPOSING OUR HISTORY’
In addition to the private funding — the production has $11,000 with a target goal of $35,000 — Parks has at least one vocal supporter in Claude Legris, director of the Fort Smith Convention & Visitors Bureau, which is now housed in the second floor of the surviving building. Legris was disappointed when he heard “Step Into: Miss Laura’s” failed to receive grant funding, but declined to speculate on the reasoning and felt the building today was “mostly understood and accepted among Fort Smith residents.”
Still, he remembers that “years ago, when we first moved the bureau over here, there was outright opposition, mostly from some area churches.”
“Today we’re very careful about how we portray the history of the house to visitors because some people might view it as representing the seedy side of life. But it was a fact of life, and this was not the only bordello on the road.”
The building was selected for the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and survived briefly as a steakhouse before the visitors’ center relocated there in 1992. In April 1996, detractors nearly got their wish for it to be torn down when a tornado ripped off the roof. Following further renovations, the visitors’ center resumed occupancy.
“It is a very unique type of visitors center, and we’ve had virtually no opposition from visitors, but when you want to hone in on its original purpose, it isn’t as politically correct as some would want to see it be,” Legris said.
He continued: “We don’t dwell on the past use much. We just find it to be another good example of repurposing the history of the city, and I respect what Devon and Chuck want to do here because of the King Opera House film. They have a unique way of displaying how both communities (Van Buren and Fort Smith) have repurposed their history, and I think that’s a positive. I believe they will tell the story in a realistic, tasteful, and professional manner.”
To go beyond words with that support, the CVB plans to open the house for Parks’ crew in December.
“We’ll be continuing to do all we can to support the film crew and effort,” Legris said. “We still have to conduct business between Christmas and New Year’s, but we’re assisting them with support space, finding people to put dirt down by Frisco Station because they need to shoot one scene near a railroad station. We’ll also help arrange lodging for actors and crew and just make the house available to them.”
“Step Into: Miss Laura’s” is slated for a five-day shooting schedule near the end of December with an estimated completion date of March 2017, contingent on funding.