Golden years

Okie-crafted alternate history festival darling Country Gold hits the big screen nationwide this month and screens in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

Troyal Brux has some friends in low places, and it won’t be the drinkin’ or her memory that kills newfound friend and fellow music legend George Jones, but his heart.

The two pair up for an unforgettably surreal encounter on the eve of Jones being cryogenically frozen in auteur Mickey Reece’s newest film, which was funded and produced by an all-Oklahoma cast and crew.

Country Gold is currently screening coast-to-coast from Los Angeles to New York City, with Reece appearing in person for the screening and a Q&A after the feature in select cities.

It screens March 30 at Rodeo Cinema, 2221 Exchange Ave., and at Circle Cinema in Tulsa March 31. Both showings will have Reece in attendance for a discussion after the movie. Additional showtimes for both theaters that week are forthcoming.

Country Gold will also be available to stream via indie film site Fandor on April 4. 

Golden years
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John Selvidge

Co-writer John Selvidge

The plot of “Country Gold,” with all its absurdist humor and cryogenics, might land firmly on the wacky side of weird, but if you ask co-writer John Selvidge, it’s actually one of the more straightforward stories he’s been involved in telling.

“This one had such a simple ‘journey’ narrative structure that there was less to organize up front and more room to explore as we wrote and let the characters do their thing,” he said.

Selvidge has been writing and creating stories since he was 11 years old, but it was actually some lucky acting gigs that introduced him to his Country Gold collaborators and put him on the path to being one of OKC’s biggest screenwriting successes.

Tackling a more simplified, character-driven tale is definitely a departure from some of the other locally produced films that he’s co-scripted, like the dense, horror-focused Agnes or Climate of the Hunter, but the result is obviously no less strange.

“Staying true-to-life was certainly out the window with the whole cryogenic angle,” Selvidge said. “Although we did want to stay true to the spirit.”

With a story concerning some majorly huge names from country music history — the legendarily troubled George Jones and “Troyal Brux,” a clear analogy for Oklahoma’s favorite son, Garth Brooks — Country Gold was bound to carry some sense of responsibility or respect for its real-life inspirations.

“Definitely respect, but not seriousness,” Selvidge said. “I skimmed through a couple of George Jones biographies so I could get into that character, and a few details from that made it into the script, but once we realized our movie had to take place in a dimension next door, we could go as wild as we wanted to.”

Taking that kind of alternate history approach ended up being the key to using these known names and outsized personalities to tell this odd, left-field story about the pitfalls of success and hero worship, even if the real musical world they come from was never meant to be the focus.

“If this movie has something important to say about country music specifically, I’m not aware of it,” Selvidge said. “But I know there’s something in there about maintaining integrity and a clear perspective when dealing with all the crazy ways people—creators included—look at even moderate artistic success or celebrity at whatever level. It can be like this awful funhouse mirror that threatens to gobble them up.”

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Photo provided
Kassie Gann

Producer Kassie Gann

Producer Kassie Gann is quite a bit newer to the filmmaking game, but no less invested in Country Gold and the big conceptual swings that it takes.

“I’ve produced three films at this point,” she said, “But Country Gold just has a special place in my heart because it’s about every artist, you know? It’s this struggling artist and another that’s rising to fame. There’s so much symbolism in the film of becoming someone in the spotlight and becoming ‘you’ as a performer or an artist.”

As a student of “screen theory” at Oklahoma State University, Gann learned all about digging into cinematic symbolism and movie meaning in that way, a perspective that’s made her uniquely suited to understanding the needs and nuances of a film as surprisingly thoughtful as this.

But it might have been her background in broadcasting and news that helped her roll with the particularly strange and unexpected elements, even if they remain a bit beyond understanding.

“When I read the script, I was like, ‘Wow, this actually has so much heart and so much love that comes completely out of left field,’” Gann said. “But I didn’t need to fully understand all of the writers’ intentions or points because it really just all comes down to trusting them.”

Trust is a big part of a producer’s job. Maybe the biggest.

Especially on a small-scale production like this one, the producer’s role isn’t to write checks and give script notes. It’s about hands-on skill and direct involvement with practically every element of the project and the various relationships between them all.

“A lot of it is just being an on-set therapist,” Gann said. “You’re basically there as a safety net. It’s a lot of deal making and problem solving and a lot of behind the scenes paperwork. You kind of just have to jump in wherever they need help. It’s just about collaborating and that collaborative effort.”

The ability — and even just the willingness — to collaborate and to be a part of a team seems to be key to Gann’s quick rise from intern to producer. She was originally hired for an unpaid support position on 2021’s Agnes and was invited back by the same team this time around with a producer credit.

“I was just like, ‘Alright,’” she said. “’If you trust me, and if I trust you, then I think we can do it.’”

Golden years
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Nicholas Poss

Composer Nicholas Poss

Nicholas Poss’s career as a film composer began with the kind of ground-level grit and tenacity you usually hear in stories of struggling actors.

“I went to deadCenter and was just eagerly handing out business cards to everyone,” he said. “At the time, I was still in school studying music composition, but I was just really interested in writing for film and I would go to a lot of film festivals and just try to meet people and figure out what they were working on.”

His eager glad-handing eventually paid off, with now over twenty film composition credits, including a continuing string of films with the crew behind Country Gold, such as Agnes, Climate of the Hunter, and Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart.

But even with an academically trained background and a full filmography under his belt, the music for Country Gold carried more weight than ever before.

“Country music is really important to me,” Poss said. “When I was in bands, that was the music that I enjoyed exploring the most. George Jones as an artist is really important to me and Garth Brooks is the reason why I started playing music, really. I’ve got a signed guitar from him.”

Being tasked with creating a musical accompaniment not only to these larger-than-life country music figures, but also to the film’s own oddball psychology was bound to be challenging, to say the least.

“I felt like it would be kind of cheap to just create like a pure country score for this world they’ve created,” Poss said. “For the majority of the score, what I wanted to do was to pull these different elements of country music. Like the acoustic guitar is probably the most identifiable element of country, really. But I wanted to make that unfamiliar and primitive, so the main themes are actually played on a bowed acoustic guitar with a violin bow.”

Even as the musical history of the characters on screen is likely clear and obvious to audiences, Poss never wanted to simply approximate their sounds or songwriting styles, focusing instead on using the score to develop the film’s tone and the otherworldly atmosphere throughout.

“As someone who’s written country songs, I really tried to avoid that,” he said. “I wanted it to sound more like session players working it out, or like how there’s this real underbelly in country music, too. Like this character of George Jones, where he’s so talented, but so ugly. That’s kind of how I tried to approach it.”

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Whit Kunschik

Actress Whit Kunschik: “Connie”

Actress Whit Kunschik came into Country Gold’s world of cautionary fame and celebrity satire, appropriately, right after returning home to Oklahoma City from Los Angeles.

“One of the producers reached out to me and sent me the script,” Kunschik said. “It’s a really special and beautifully made film.”

If making a movie is all about teamwork and shared experience, then producers found a perfect fit with Kunschik.

Like Selvidge, she discovered a love of film and storytelling at age 11. Like Gann, she has a background in broadcasting as well as film studies.

But perhaps more importantly for her portrayal of music-loving Connie, Kunschik shares the same lifelong, embedded affinity for country music.

“I grew up in a really small town outside of Oklahoma City called Cashion, and I think it’s safe to say that country music courses through the veins of every person who grew up there,” she said. “Garth Brooks was the soundtrack to my childhood, and that existing knowledge and respect for country music for sure helped in bringing integrity to the story.”

For Kunschik, no matter how surreal or absurd the story or world around her character is, the goal is always to aim for believability.

“With any character I play my approach is always how can I make this player feel as real and honest as possible,” she said. “You ask yourself, ‘Who am I? What are my circumstances? What are my relationships? What do I want? What is my obstacle? What do I do to get what I want?’ I did that with Connie. And once you memorize your lines and figure out the motivation behind them, you kind of just have to trust your preparation, scene partners, and director.”

Again, trust is always the key on a film set, especially when it’s so difficult to imagine the finished product or how audiences will react to it.

“Reading the script over and over, I knew that it felt very esoteric, but it really all clicked for once I showed up on set, and then just seeing it in a theater on a giant screen truly made it come together even more,” Kunschik said. “I’ll be in L.A. for a screening at Alamo Drafthouse, one of my favorite theaters in the city, so being there with the cast, my friends, and mentors is going to be very special.”

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Ben Hall

Actor Ben Hall: “George Jones”

It’s possible that Ben Hall had the most daunting job of anyone on Country Gold

His take on one of the most indelible and mythic figures in American music history, the great (and greatly troubled) George Jones, has to walk a fine line between capturing the real man’s charismatic, problematic allure and establishing that the man we’re seeing isn’t the real George Jones at all.

“This movie really isn’t about George Jones or at least not George Jones the real person,” Hall said. “It’s about the kind of legendary, very old generation celebrity that Jones represented and how somebody can misjudge what fame and celebrity mean from the outside or how someone can look at lyrics in a song and say, ‘Whoever wrote this, I know who they are,’ and just be completely wrong.”

As Hall’s version of Jones pulls the Troyal character deeper and deeper down his rabbit hole, the gap between true life and surrealist fiction begins to widen. But as the audience grows to understand and accept Troyal as a unique and original character merely inspired by Garth, the strangeness and charm surrounding Jones only serves to highlight the enigmatic spectacle of the real man and the difficult legacy he left behind.

“I knew that I needed to know something about this guy, because I didn’t want to do anything contradictory to his memory, his true memory that isn’t part of the satire,” Hall said. “But on the other hand, this is about someone who is so full of self loathing that he almost can’t breathe, and he’s decided that there is an escape hatch that, oddly enough, lets him come back out the other side.”

The opportunity to dig into a character so hungry for a second chance and a new start is something surely invaluable to Hall, who claims to have had a “colorful” past of his own and to have “had a couple different lifetimes.”

“I got to be 30 and I thought at that point, it was too late, that acting was something that just couldn’t happen,” he said. “But I went back to college to finish my degree at 35 or something, and there was no pressure. And it just opened a door where it was like, ‘Why not start now? Who says you can’t start late?’ And so I brought 35 years of experience to it, because in those first 35 years, I’d done some things that most people don’t do. I’ll leave it at that.”

Drawing on that kind of life experience for a character like this sad, broken version of Jones allowed Hall to dig into the meat of the story and the misguided sympathy and redemption that the character is hoping for.

“It’s this fantasy that you could just say, ‘I’ve screwed this up, but let me let me go away for a hundred years, and by the time I get back, nobody I know will be around. The history books will be dusty. I can be whoever I want.’ As if it’s just this long string of history that forces your day-to-day decisions, rather than just saying, ‘Hey, dude, just make these thousands of choices in your daily life differently to be a little bit better of a person, rather than the piece of shit that you are.”

Director, Co-writer, and Actor Mickey Reece: “Troyal Brux”

Oklahoma City native Mickey Reece is currently touring with the film and has begun pre-production on his 30th full-length feature, The Cool Tenor.

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