‘I’m passionate about this state:’ Daniel Campbell on making movies in Arkansas

Daniel Campbell / Courtesy photo

Daniel Campbell’s initial foray into filmmaking, a modest, 14-minute movie titled “Antiquities,” won the Charles B. Pierce Award for the best film made in Arkansas at the Little Rock Film Festival in 2010 and racked up awards at other festivals around the country. His next two short films, “The Orderly” (2011) and “The Discontentment of Ed Tailfair” (2013), also won the top award at the Little Rock Film Festival those years.

Not bad for a young guy from small-town Arkansas who majored in business, never attended film school and never even aspired to be a filmmaker until he was well out of college.

If Campbell did not have filmmaking in his career sights while he was growing up in Haskell, outside of Benton, he was a committed film buff who claims to have seen the Coen Brothers’ “Raising Arizona” at least a hundred times before he graduated from Harmony Grove High School.

“I always loved film but never took it seriously as a career choice until after college,” he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in North Little Rock. “My film school was just watching movies.”

What:Fayetteville Film Festival
When: Sept. 20-22
Where: Downtown Fayetteville
Single Tickets: $7-$10
Film Lover Pass: $50-$60
VIP All Access: $80-$100
Info: Visit fayettevillefilmfest.org.

The turning point for Campbell came when his father, with whom he was very close and shared a love of movies, was killed in a car crash. That event sent Campbell on a 10-week, solo backpacking trip through eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and Australia. He returned with a new perspective on life and a new career goal: making movies.

Campbell was working, with very little success, in sales at a radio station in Little Rock in 2008 when he connected with Sarah Tackett, who also lived in Little Rock and did casting for major Hollywood movies. A series of interviews with her led to a job in the casting department of “Nothing But the Truth,” a political thriller shot in Memphis, starring Kate Beckinsale and Matt Damon. Campbell returned from the shooting fired up to write a script and direct a film of his own.

The result was “Antiquities,” a short film based on his childhood experiences spent going with his family to antique malls in Saline County. He made the film for just a few hundred dollars and shot it entirely in Arkansas.

“I wanted to set it in a weird, bizarre place and I wanted to show Arkansas in a positive light,” he said. “I wanted to show the quirky side of Arkansas and the charming side.”

It was at the 2010 Little Rock Film Festival that Campbell met writer, actor and fellow-Arkansan Graham Gordy. The two found they had a lot in common, including having lost their respective fathers at a young age, and formed Mortuus Pater Pictures together, along with Gary Newton, a former executive with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The first production of Mortuus Pater is “Antiquities,” loosely based on Campbell’s 2010 short and expanded to feature length. Campbell directed a script he wrote with Gordy, who also has a supporting role in the film. The story centers on Walt, who, after his father’s death, moves to his father’s hometown to learn more about who his father was. Walt takes a job in an antique mall and is introduced to a host of quirky characters who inhabited his father’s world. The film will be shown as part of the Fayetteville Film Festival on Friday, Sept. 21 at 8 p.m. at the Global Campus Theatre.

For his first feature film, Campbell got to work with a much bigger budget than usual ($625,000) and a cast of seasoned professionals, including Academy Award winner and Arkansas native Mary Steenburgen.

“She was unbelievably pleasant to work with,” Campbell says of directing Steenburgen. “I was so nervous about it because she’s done so much and she’s such a distinguished actress. We had a really good conversation in her trailer. She said she loves getting direction. When we got on the set, she was completely trusting. She had some amazing ideas. It was a true collaboration.”

Although he never went to film school, Campbell’s experience working as a production assistant on a number of films gave him the opportunity to watch movie directors at work, and he made the most of those experiences. In particular, he cites watching Jeff Nichols, yet another Arkansas native, directing “Mud,” which was shot in various locations in the Arkansas Delta and released in 2012. Seeing how Nichols, himself a very young director at the time, work with veteran actors like Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Ray McKinnon and Sam Shepard was a education in itself, especially when problems came up.

“I watched how he carried himself on the set and how he communicated,” Campbell said. “He’s very calm. I took a lot from that. I learned to keep my composure on the set from watching him.”

Like the earlier version, “Antiquities” was shot entirely in Arkansas — the exteriors in Eureka Springs and Hot Springs, and the interiors in Little Rock, Jacksonville and other locations. Campbell says he wanted to set a movie in Arkansas that wasn’t focused on ignorance, poverty and general backwardness.

“I’m passionate about this state and I just wanted to show it off,” he said. “We created this company [Mortuus Pater Pictures] with a shared passion for the state and for making films and wanting to make films in Arkansas. Unless a script calls for an ocean or a jungle, we want to make it here.”

For the next Mortuus Pater production, Campbell and his partners are mulling over some ideas, mindful that the follow-up to a successful movie is, in some ways, more important than the initial movie itself.

“We’re in the process of figuring out what the next film will be,” he said. “And figuring out how to shoot it in Arkansas.”

This article is sponsored by First Security Bank. For more great stories of Arkansas food, travel, sports, music and more, visit onlyinark.com.