Check the Gate is our recurring column where we go one-on-one with directors to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Mickey Reece about Country Gold and his celebrity obsession.
We all spend a little too much time imagining what’s going on inside celebrity noggins. They live on our screens, and we bond with them as everyday figures, but it’s a one-way connection. They think about us not at all. Rather than acknowledge this awkward relationship, we double down, projecting our thoughts into their heads, concocting little stories about what they’re up to and where they want to be in their journey.
Mickey Reece doesn’t hold the reverence for these figures that some of us might. However, he deeply enjoys probing the absurdity of their cultural station. A few years ago, he explored the awkward romance between Elvis and Priscilla Presley in Alien. Now, he’s back, digging deep into hillbilly music lore with Country Gold.
In the film, Reece plays country music superstar Troyal Brux, a stand-in for Garth Brooks. One day, Brux receives communication that the legendary George Jones (played by Ben Hall) would like to meet with him. Before he cryogenically freezes his brain, the icon wants to witness where the new generation is taking his beloved music. What proceeds is an absurd encounter filled with alcohol, women, and stumbling, one-sided fanboying.
“The logline came first,” says Reece. “George Jones invites Garth Brooks out on the town in Nashville the night before he’s to be cryogenically frozen. Once that was there, then it’s like, ‘All right. Well, I’m going to write the whole script around that.”
Casting himself as Garth Brooks – sorry, as Troyal Brux was an easy decision too. The iconography around the character was so strong he didn’t have to worry about his actual look matching the real person. The accouterments would do the trick.
“You can make anybody look like Elvis,” he continues, “and put them in black-and-white, and everyone’s going to know who that is. The actor doesn’t even necessarily have to look like him. You know who that is. Felt the same way with Garth, where you put him in the white and black shirt and a black cowboy hat, and you’re going to know who that is.”
Making Country Gold caused the director to reflect on his Alien experience. The freedom he found on the set of his latest movie exposed the flaws of the previous endeavor. If he were to tackle Elvis and Priscilla today, the new Alien would be much different than the old one.
“With the Elvis movie,” says Reece, “it was quite a bit different, because there’s actually a lot of factual stuff in that movie. The factual stuff was just so absurd; it was very easy to incorporate. Honestly, though, after making Country Gold, looking back at Elivs, I’m like, ‘I fucked up in a couple of places there.’ It does get too accurate, and it seems like we’re trying to force some information on the audience that is completely unnecessary.”
With Country Gold, Mickey Reece saw Garth Brooks and George Jones as shorthand to reach other conclusions. His George Jones sounds like George Jones, kinda looks like George Jones, but he is not George Jones. Pretending otherwise is a lie, and he resents other movies that strive for reality despite their total fiction.
“I think being specific with it,” he continues, “that’s just a normal biopic. Do you know what I mean? That’s just Walk the Line or Ray. To further capitalize on that, even in those movies, they are still coming up with conversations that we have no idea if any of that was said. So, they’re still taking all this creative license over it. I’m like, ‘Why not just make the whole thing up?'”
Shooting Country Gold in crisp black-and-white was never in question, either. Mickey Reece’s favorite films travel in a monochromatic world, and he wanted his Garth Brooks to walk the same plane. His characters are larger than life; if he’s not chasing reality, he must chase the symbolic.
“Doing these black-and-white movies,” says Reece, “they capture this kind of American iconography. We wanted to make Country Gold look exactly like the movies that I love that are in black-and-white. Paper Moon, The Last Picture Show, Raging Bull. Let’s do the best we can to recreate that aesthetic because those are classic films. Those are iconic films. It goes with the iconography that we’re trying to portray in the first place.”
Reece found faith in other contemporary films that have achieved a similar adoration. One Alexander Payne film, in particular, encouraged him and cinematographer Samuel Calvin that their dream frame was possible. If they only followed in that film’s footsteps, their film would come out looking just as they imagined it.
“Had we shot Country Gold in color,” he says, “it would have replicated 1994. That’s when the movie is set, but that’s not the movie I want to see. We thought about movies like Nebraska, which were shot on the same camera, shot on an ALEXA, digitally, the way we’re shooting our movie. It’s like, ‘Well, it’s been done. We’ve seen it. We’ve seen that it can be done with Nebraska, so let’s try to recreate that.”
Does pursuing the aesthetics of older, unarguably classic movies give Reece pause? Absolutely not. Recently, the director stood before a film class. The students asked him a similar question. They argued over the replication ethics, and Reece dismissed their worries outright.
“Rip it off the beast you can,” he says. “No matter how far you go, no matter how much you rip it off, there’s no way you can recreate what they were trying to do. It’s a different actor. It’s a different camera. You can watch the movie and know that, ‘Okay, they’re trying to do something like The Last Picture Show, or something like that, like make an image like that, but never does it look exactly right. It doesn’t look like we just straight-up ripped something off, because we couldn’t possibly. There’s no way in hell. Someone can’t just go remake Citizen Kane.”
You become yourself in the process of wanting to be someone else. Watching Country Gold, maybe you’ll get a flash of The Last Picture Show, but you won’t be thinking about the Peter Bogdanovich classic for very long. Country Gold is very much its own weird thing. Mickey Reece is playing with satire, bromance, and celebrity infatuation. Also, there’s a fetus puppet. Nebraska never had that.
Country Gold is now streaming on Fandor.